Business netbooks: IT revolution or contradiction in terms?

InfoWorld sifts the wheat from the chaff in the current crop of enterprise-oriented netbooks

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Asus N10Jc

The Asus N10Jc is the latest in a burgeoning line of quasi-netbook PCs from the company that created the netbook market just 18 short months ago with the launch of the original Eee PC. As anyone who follows technology for a living will tell you, a lot can change in a year and a half.

For starters, your novel idea of a cheap, ultrasmall mini-notebook running Linux can be co-opted by some of the biggest names in the PC industry and transformed into the new hot trend in hardware design. Meanwhile, your once pioneering lead in an otherwise wide-open emerging market can quickly vanish as the major players catch scent of the money trail you blazed and start rushing competing solutions to market, often at price points you can't touch.

But just because you're feeling squeezed out doesn't mean you have to roll over. In Asus' case, the company is fighting back by cramming more and better technology into its designs in an effort to regain mind share among netbook buyers, all of which is having the unforeseen effect of blurring the distinction between these underpowered -- yet superconvenient -- mobile PCs and their more robust notebook cousins.

[ InfoWorld editors designed a laptop with the cutting-edge features we'd like to see. Then readers responded with their own suggestions. See "The best laptop money can't buy." ]

After all, netbooks aren't supposed to have fingerprint readers or discrete graphics processors, nor should they sport HDMI outputs or base configurations that feature Windows Vista and 2GB of RAM. Yet these are the very real specifications that make the Asus N10Jc stand out from the crowd (at least on paper). In fact, if it weren't for the underpowered Atom CPU and cramped screen and keyboard, you'd be hard-pressed to distinguish the N10Jc from any number of thin-and-light notebooks. For a netbook, its specifications are quite unusual.

But first, the basics: The Asus N10Jc is an Atom N270-based netbook with both integrated Intel GMA (Graphics Media Accelerator) 950 and discrete Nvidia 9300M GS graphics. This switchable graphics option (there's a slider control on the left side of the chassis) is supposed to be one of the major selling points for the N10Jc. However, benchmark testing under OfficeBench showed the unit lagging behind the HP Mini 2140 even with the more powerful Nvidia adapter selected.

Switching to the integrated GMA 950 adapter caused the N10Jc to fall even further behind the HP Mini, prompting me to repeat the tests several times to confirm the original results. No matter how I tweaked it, the N10Jc was simply slower than the competition, which was all the more surprising since the unit I tested sported 2GB of RAM. The 320GB hard disk seems out of place in a netbook form factor; most have a 160GB or smaller disk. Likewise, the N10Jc's fingerprint reader, though a welcome addition and one that security-conscious IT shops will no doubt appreciate, was unexpected on an entry-level system. But then again, nothing about the N10Jc's marketing pitch feels low end. In fact, Asus seems to have gone out of its way to distinguish the corporate N10 series from its more consumer-focused Eee PC lineup.

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