Hands on with the Asustek N10 netbook

Asustek's N10 netbook looks like it was built to rival Hewlett-Packard's Mini-Note

Asustek Computer, designer of the Eee PC netbook that started the craze in mini-laptops, will have the N10 series in Taipei stores by Friday and I had a chance to try one out ahead of the launch here.

The N10 looks like it was built to rival Hewlett-Packard's Mini-Note, complete with a metal-like case and with a comparable price tag. It should be pointed out that the Mini-Note is covered by a true aluminum casing, while the hard case of the N10 is simply "metal-like," according to an Asustek representative.

[ For more on products in the hot mini-notebook category, check out our hands-on looks at Asus' Eee PC 901 and 1000, the Cloudbook Max netbook, Elitegroup's G10IL mini-laptop, MSI's Wind low-cost laptop, Giga-byte's M912X mini-laptop, HP's Mini-Note netbook, and Acer's Aspire one. ]

The standard N10 sells for NT$23,900 ($724.21), though consumers will have choices to adjust the price up or down with different software, storage, and DRAM configurations. The N10 started hitting world markets in October, but the rollout has been slow.

The N10 that I was able to try out carried a three-cell battery, a 160GB HDD (hard disk drive), 1GB of DRAM and was running Microsoft Windows XP Home software. It had built-in Bluetooth wireless, and connected to the Internet either through an Ethernet cable port or wirelessly via Wi-Fi 802.11b/g. Asus offers versions of the N10 with 802.11b/g/n.

What stood out most about the N10, aside from its stylish casing and hefty price tag, was its larger keyboard, which includes a nice-sized trackpad with left- and right-click buttons at the bottom of the pad.

That's different from most netbooks, which have trackpads about half the size of the N10's and left-/right-click buttons at the sides of the trackpad instead of below.

The N10 also has some space to rest your palms below the keyboard, a key reason there's so much space for the nice trackpad. There is about 7 centimeters (nearly 3 inches) of space below the keyboard to rest your palms on while you're typing. Few rival netbooks offer such generous dimensions.

The N10 is 27.6 centimeters by 19.5cm and between 2.99cm to 3.71cm thick, depending on the battery. It weighs 1.4 kilograms with a three-cell battery.

The keyboard itself is also a major improvement over the Eee PC and other netbooks that use smaller keyboards. The N10's is smaller than the average notebook PC, but not by much. I was able to type comfortably and without missing keystrokes.

Another nice feature on the N10 is a magnifying software for people who want to enlarge text on the screen. You simply tap a button above the keyboard and a magnifier that covers about a fourth of the screen comes on. Tap the button for two, three, then four times zoom (four times magnification made the text big and blurry, though).

You can move the magnifier with the trackpad. The feature is similar to one on Micro-Star International's Wind netbook.

Boot-up time on the N10 was not very good at about 42 seconds for Windows XP, though Asustek plans to install its Linux-embedded OS, Express Gate, on the devices to give them a startup screen that opens in about 8 seconds.

Express Gate is similar to other startup screens companies are developing to improve boot-up times. On Acer's Aspire One netbook, for example, boot up takes about 2 seconds due to the Linpus Linux Lite OS.

Asustek is offering the N10 with Windows Vista Home Basic, Home Premium, Business or Ultimate as well, though I'm not sure I'd try Vista in the device. The Mini-Note I tried ran on Vista and it took over 60 seconds to boot-up, the slowest I've seen.

Having said that, perhaps the premium N10, with 2GB of DRAM, would handle Vista better.

The N10 comes with a range of configurations that can add or subtract a few hundred U.S. dollars from the average price.

Asustek is offering three-, six-, or nine-cell batteries on the netbook, with around two and a half hours of power for the three-cell battery, five to six hours with the six-cell, and eight hours with the nine-cell, Asustek representatives said.

You can also go for bigger hard drives. The company is offering a 250GB HDD or a 320GB HDD in addition to the 160GB one I tried.

The top-of-the-line N10 will also come with discrete VGA graphics by Nvidia, while less expensive models will rely on integrated graphics in Intel's chipsets.

Overall, I liked the N10 even more than some of the premium Eee PCs that Asustek markets. It will be a good competitor to premium netbooks that fetch higher prices.

There must be a market somewhere for such devices, what with small-sized laptops more than double the price. The Sony Viao TT series, for example, which boasts 11-inch screens, start at $2,094.99, according to Sony USA's Web site.

On the other side, less expensive netbooks with 8.9-inch screens and even rival 10-inch screens cost $300 to $500 for a lot of the same capability as the N10.

For anyone looking for a netbook with a 10-inch screen and a very nice typing pad, the N10 may be the one for them, though HP's Mini-Note may serve just as well since they're in the same price range and HP adds the benefit of excellent after-sales service.

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