Best-performing netbooks

These top 10 netbooks offer users a range of choices in screen quality, battery life, speed -- and price

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ASUS Eee PC 1201N
Eee PC 1201N Review, by Loyd Case March 17, 2010

Rating:

rating_icon_4_stars.gif

Pros:
Better video performane due to the Ion chipset
Big, high res screen for a netbook

Cons:
2GB max memory limits usefulness
Much more expensive than most netbooks

Bottom Line: The Eee PC 1201n offers better video performance and a bigger screen than most netbooks, but at a cringe-worthy price.

REVIEW:
Would you spend almost $500 for a netbook--even a top-of-the-line one, like the Asus Eee PC 1201n? At first blush, the 1201n physically resembles more conventional thin-and-light laptops based on low-voltage (CULV) mainstream CPUs. It's certainly priced in that ballpark, at $480 to $499--and it has both a crisp 12-inch, 1366-by-768-resolution display and one of the more usable keyboards I've seen on a netbook; but it also has a 1.6GHz Intel Atom 330 processor, albeit one hosted by the capable nVidia Ion chipset (the first-generation version).

It's the Ion that's really the secret sauce for the 1201n, and it is the Ion's video performance that Asus is betting will bring buyers to the table with their 500 bucks. Video performance and image quality on the 12-inch LCD screen was definitely a cut above that of Atom CPUs using the stock Intel chipset. 3D gaming performance was also better, but with the caveat that "better" here means "sucks less." This is not a gaming system.

The bigger display means slightly larger overall dimensions than many netbooks have, which is a positive. The keyboard is also larger, so it offers a more usable layout than many netbooks with a 10-inch screen. If you've ever used a netbook with the more conventional 1024-by-600-pixel screen, you'll quickly see that the larger display with its higher pixel count makes for a more robust user experience. You spend less time scrolling and more time reading Web pages and documents. The larger keyboard is also a welcome addition. It offers a more functional layout than earlier Eee PCs I've used, and most of the keys are full size or nearly so.

Port configuration is pretty typical for a netbook: three USB ports (two on the right, one on the left), an HDMI digital video port, and a VGA analog graphics connector on the left. An ethernet jack is built into the right side, as are analog audio in/out and a multiformat flash memory reader.

This Eee PC ships with SRS audio, plus the full Realtek HD audio suite, allowing you to set specific equalization settings and to spread out the sound field a bit. However, I found that enabling these features also muddied the sound quality, so I usually left the settings on standard stereo. Audio quality in general won't make you cringe, but you'll have a better sound experience with headphones.

The LCD display offers better than adequate image quality, but it's also very sensitive to viewing angles. This makes casual video viewing when you're kicking back on your couch a little frustrating, as you have to either stay in the same position or constantly adjust the screen to just the right viewing angle every time you shift your body.

The nVidia Ion chipset delivers robust video quality, including smooth performance and down-scaling with 1080p WMV files. We also attached an external DVD player, and DVD scaling looked quite nice.

In another departure from most netbooks, Asus ships the unit with Windows 7 Home Premium instead of the more typical Windows 7 Starter Edition or Windows XP. Home Premium does consume a little more memory than Starter, but offers more customization choices--something welcome in a product that positions itself at the high end of its category.

Bundled software includes Microsoft Works and Microsoft Office trialware. Also included is Asus Webstorage, an online file backup and sync service with 1GB of free storage, but if you want more storage, there's an added cost. However, it's impossible to figure out the cost unless you actually sign up. It's also more cumbersome to use than a dedicated service like Dropbox.

Performance is excellent for a netbook, with a high WorldBench 6 score for systems in its class. I installed Firefox 2.6 and Microsoft Office, and then proceeded to open 28 tabs, pop up Tweetdeck, and edit a Word document. The system did bog down a bit, but I was still able to type and edit text usably. As for battery life, at 4 hours, 17 minutes in our testing, it seems a tad short for current-generation netbooks.

The real problem with the 1201n is its cost: nearly $500. That's encroaching on the price of systems with CULV (ultralow voltage) mainstream processors, such as Lenovo's ThinkPad Edge and Dell's Vostro V13. While you get a bigger display and a more usable keyboard, this Eee PC is likely to be outperformed by CULV models. Battery life doesn't quite live up to that of other netbooks, either.

In the end, there's a lot to like with the Asus Eee PC 1201n. The better keyboard and larger display in a package that's still thin and sleek are attractive, but I'd really like to see the price drop by about $100.

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