With AMD and Intel seemingly trying to squash the netbook category by enabling larger thin-and-lights with long battery life, the flood of netbooks has waned to a trickle in 2010. The newest to cross our desks in a while comes from the progenitor of netbooks, Asus, and does everything it can to offer more value while still technically falling into the netbook category.
The Eee PC 1201N is a 12-inch netbook, unusually powered by Nvidia's Ion technology. We say unusually, as Ion in Australia has typically been given short shrift. Those models that eventually did arrive here seemingly disappearing quickly into the woodwork after release. We're not entirely sure why, and people look uncomfortable and shuffle their feet when we ask — perhaps in the price-sensitive netbook field consumers simply don't want to pay more for better graphics, or don't understand what Ion is.
In short, it enables better 3D performance and movie-watching capability on a netbook. The Atom CPU, of course, limits exactly what the Ion can do in games, just as the typically sub-HD resolution of the in-built screens limits the HD movie capability, so it's fortunate that the 1201N's 12.1-inch, LED backlit screen has a usable resolution of 1366x768 and an HDMI-out port to make the most of the chip.
The Atom processor has been given a bump inside as well, offering two 1.6GHz cores in the form of the Atom 330.
Unlike most netbooks that are saddled with the appallingly limited Windows 7 Starter Edition, the 1201N comes with Home Premium, albeit the 32-bit version. Asus sells the 1201N with 2GB RAM, so it's unlikely you'll feel the effects of running 32-bit. However, if you're the tweaking type, it's dead easy to get into the 1201N's RAM compartment and swap out the dual DIMMs for larger capacity chips. If this is the case, you'll need to bring your own 64-bit Windows if you intend to exceed 4GB.
Expansion is well looked after — unlike the recent MacBook Air, the 1201N has the height to include much more, offering three USB ports, HDMI and VGA ports, headphone and microphone jacks, an MMC/SD card reader, and a 100Mb Ethernet port. We'd have preferred gigabit, but the included 5400rpm 500GB drive probably wouldn't keep up anyway.
Beneath the generously sized keyboard is a multi-touch touch pad, but as usual everything but two-finger scroll is horrifically inaccurate and unreliable, and we suggest you turn these features off.
Asus, like everyone but Apple, bundles in third-party crapware, and there's quite a bit here. On a netbook, which has limited resources, this is particularly annoying. An annoying dock sits at the top with mostly pointless links that we couldn't wait to get rid of. The usual Microsoft Office trial is there, as is Trend Micro for internet security. Skype is here too, as is Microsoft Works, TotalMedia Theatre 3 and Cyberlink's YouCam. Asus' SRS tool does help to slightly improve the tiny, tinny netbook speakers' sound, but nothing short of plugging in external speakers or headphones will do anything to raise the quality above abysmal. Sadly, this is pretty much the standard for all laptops. Other useless software that will have you reaching for the uninstall button is Asus Vibe, GamePark and the Asus AP Bank, which are all nothing but upsells, advertising and poor interfaces.
All of this leads to a machine that can do a little more than the standard netbook, but at the sacrifice of battery life. While we wouldn't play games on the 1201N, a 3DMark06 score of 1529 means it's capable of basic 3D. A PCMark05 score of 1914 means it has modest capability when it comes to office and production work too. But all this power has cut Asus' usual five- to six-hour battery life down substantially. Turning up the screen brightness and volume to maximum, turning off all power-saving features and playing back an XviD file, the Eee PC 1201N lasted three hours and seven minutes.
Is this extra power worth it? To some, it will be, and they know who they are. We like the 1201N, but at a price of AU$789, it sits in an uncomfortable spot between a full-sized budget laptop and a smaller netbook with integrated graphics. The former is infinitely more capable, but with significantly less battery life and poor portability; the latter is smaller, slower, but cheaper and offers considerably greater battery life. Then there's its thinness and lights, which although cost more offer the perfect mix between weight, size and performance that make them perfect travel laptops. Ultimately, it all comes down to needs — if you must have a netbook, this is the highest performing one you'll get. Just be aware there are other options out there.