Since the advent of Intel's Atom processor, the netbook market has exploded with entrants from nearly every major notebook player (and even a few minor ones). It's easy to see why; in a tiny package with a low power envelope and even lower price, the Atom offers adequate performance for the sort of basic needs the original Eee PC was conceived to meet. However, while the processor is quick enough for web surfing, word processing, and other simple tasks, it's saddled with an Intel 945GSE chipset that includes an antiquated GMA 950 graphics processor. The GMA 950 handles basic 2D desktop applications just fine, but it can't lend a hand in decoding high-definition video. Like every other Intel graphics processor we've seen, the GMA 950 is also a lousy gamer, plagued not only by poor performance, but spotty compatibility, as well. That's why when I reviewed Asus' Eee Box, I suggested that pairing the Atom with a better GPU might solve some of the platform's performance issues.
Asus seems to have heard my cries. The company's new N10J netbook line augments the Atom processor with a dedicated GeForce 9300M GS graphics processor impressively squeezed into a shell that's only a little bigger than that of the Eee PC 1000 series. More intriguingly, the N10J still has a GMA 950, allowing us easily to see whether a dedicated GPU can shore up the Atom's weaknesses. Read on to see if Asus has created an entirely new class of gaming system: the gaming netbook.
The N10Jc-A1 at first glance
Despite its discrete graphics chip, Asus bills the N10J series as a line of "corporate netbooks." You know, because the one thing corporate customers always ask for in a portable system is better 3D graphics performance. The N10Jc-A1 model we have on hand today is the only one in the line that comes with Windows XP and 1GB of memory; its other, more expensive cousins are equipped with Windows Vista, 2GB of memory, and either 160GB or 320GB hard drives.
|Processor||Intel Atom N270 1.6GHz|
|Memory||1GB DDR2-533 (1 SO-DIMM)|
|North bridge||Intel 945GSE|
|South bridge||Intel ICH7M|
|Graphics||Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950
NVIDIA GeForce 9300M GS 256MB DDR2 (switchable)
|Display||10.2" TFT with WSVGA+ (1024x600) resolution and LED backlight|
|Storage||5,400-RPM 160GB Seagate Momentus SATA|
|Audio||Realtek ALC662 HD audio|
|Ports||3 USB 2.0
1 analog headphone output
1 analog microphone input
|Expansion slots||1 8-in-1 card reader
1 ExpressCard 34 slot
|Communications||802.11b/g Wi-Fi via Atheros AR5007EG
10/100/1000 LAN via Realtek RTL8168C
|Input devices|| 91% horizontal/86% vertical keyboard
|Camera||1.3 megapixel webcam|
|Dimensions||10.8" x 7.6" x 1.2-1.4" (274mm x 193mm x 30-36mm)|
|Weight||3.5lbs (1.6kg) with battery|
|Battery||6-cell Li-Ion, 4800mAh|
|Warranty||Two years, one-year accidental damage replacement coverage|
The N10J series is based on the basic Atom platform that we've come to expect from netbooks. Intel's 945GSE chipset can be found under the hood, hooked up to the ICH7M south bridge and a single channel of DDR2 memory. The processor is a 1.6GHz Atom N270, which supports Hyper-Threading but lacks a true second core like the newer Atom 330 that has made its way into nettops recently. Given the N10J's gaming potential, one has to wonder how much including the dual-core Atom might have improved things.
Curiously, Asus also opted to forgo Intel's wireless hardware in favor of an Atheros card that only supports 802.11b/gno 802.11n here. The more astute reader will also note the absence of Bluetooth connectivity, which is available on many less expensive competitors. Bluetooth is available from the N10Jc-A1's more expensive kin, but it's sorely missed in this model. At least you get Gigabit Ethernet (something corporate types might actually appreciate) provided here by a Realtek RTL8168C GigE controller.
Things get more interesting on the graphics front, where Asus has included Nvidia's GeForce 9300M GS GPU alongside the Intel chipset's integrated graphics processor. The 9300M GS is a 16-shader chip with a 64-bit memory interface that in the N10J is connected to 256MB of DDR2 memory. That memory is clocked at an effective 800MHz, with the GPU core running at 580MHz and the shaders clocked at 1.4GHz. The 9300M GS also includes Nvidia's VP3 video processing engine, which is capable of more or less fully accelerating HD video playback. With two graphics options to choose from, users can switch between the GMA 950 and the GeForce 9300M via a switch on the left side of the system, tuning for better battery life or superior graphics performance. Switching does require a reboot before changes take effect, though.