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+ (1024×600) 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.
A closer look
Asus decks the N10J line out with a pleasing bronze, silver, and black color scheme. The bronze is a subtle shade that gives the lid a light hue, and it’s a nice change of pace from the traditional black, white, or silver schemes that seem so common on modern notebooks.
That accent continues to the panel surrounding the keyboard, bridged by a silver-colored hinge and control panel above the keyboard. The bezel surrounding the screen has a glossy black sheen. As has become common among modern laptops, Asus employs blue LEDs for the power and toggle lights. The keyboard itself is a traditional black plastic, and the bottom of the shell is that same black plastic we’ve become accustomed to seeing on the bottoms of laptops not called Macs.
The build quality of the shell and keyboard is sturdy and largely flex-free, but an old friend of mine reared his ugly head: loose hinges. I’ve seen these on Asus notebooks before, and while they were absent in the G50V-A1 we reviewed recently, they seem to have made a stunning return in the N10J. Screen wobble isn’t the only problem here; depending on what surface you have the unit resting on and how rough a typist you are (I’m particularly vicious), the screen can actually tilt back on its own. The screen on a solidly-built notebook or netbook will at worst wobble a little if you pick up the unit and lightly shake it, but here you can actually shake the lid all the way open. Hinges like these are inexcusable and can severely hamper even basic operation. It’s such a shame Asus let this slip, because the rest of the N10J appears to be well built.
Moving on from the quality to the quantity, we see here in the presence of The Judge that the N10J series is pretty sizable by netbook standards. At 10.8 inches wide, 7.6 inches deep, and up to 1.4 inches tall, the N10Jc is a full half-inch wider and deeper than the MSI Wind and a touch larger overall than its cousin, the Eee PC 1000. At roughly the size of four DVDs stacked two-and-two, the N10Jc is fairly dainty, but it’s still one of the largest netbooks on the market. Mercifully, the unit remains light, weighing only 3.5 pounds with the battery installed. While scaling a cardiac-inducing hill on the University of California, San Diego campus, I barely noticed the N10J’s presence; the bag I was carrying it in seemed bulkier and heavier than the netbook inside. This was a nice change of pace from my 14.1″ laptop, which makes its presence dearly known every day on the way up to class.
Flipping over the N10J reveals that the 6-cell battery juts out roughly half an inch from the back of the unit. This bulge is a non-issue that in no way affects the N10J’s usability or portability, and it shouldn’t be too unfamiliar to users of larger corporate laptops, especially ThinkPads. Unlike the screen, the battery is locked in securely with no wiggle to speak of.
Popping off the bottom panel reveals the system’s hard drive, memory slot, and wireless card. Having all of these componentsthe ones typically user-upgradeable in laptopseasily accessible under the same small panel is welcome, and I particularly like having access to the Wi-Fi card. The panel itself is also very easy to remove, retained with just three screws. That said, it’s a shame we don’t get a view of the system’s GeForce graphics chip.
Interfacing with the N10Jc
Wobbly hinge aside, the N10J’s screen measures 10.2 inches and features a glossy finish and LED backlight. The screen is remarkably bright, sporting excellent viewing angles and very even backlighting. I found that in typical use inside the classroom, I only needed about two steps (out of 16) above the screen’s minimum brightness for text to remain easily legible. At full brightness, the screen may actually be too much, but that’s a welcome problem to have, all things considered.
Like most netbooks, the N10J’s screen has a native resolution of 1024×600, which seems like an odd choice for a system with corporate aspirations. With a suggested retail price of $649, the N10Jc-A1 should really be pushing a higher resolution like HP’s Mini-Note 2133 or Gigabyte’s new M192V. With just 600 vertical pixels, I found even Firefox to be too thick at the top of the window to be useful and wound up electing to use Google Chrome just to get more browsing real estate. The use of a glossy screen also feels superfluous given that the ample backlighting already produces a vivid picture. Asus says the gloss is scratch-resistant, which is nice, but when was the last time you touched your laptop’s screen? I tend not to like glossy displays because reflectivity can be a problem under certain lighting conditions. Your own mileage and tastes may vary, of course.
The N10j’s keyboard is an absolute delight. Netbooks don’t always have good keyboards, but Asus has been rather clever with this one, employing a unique key surface that I found remarkably easy to type on. Instead of the traditional beveling on three or four sides, the N10J’s keys have only their left and bottom sides beveled. In practice, the typing surface feels larger and easier to use while still offering a strong tactile sense of the separation of the keys. As for the key layout, there are no real points of contention. Asus has wisely and efficiently used the space available, with the only real compromise being a smaller right shift key that’s still in the correct place. Given the size of the keyboard, I can’t imagine a better arrangement for the keys. I’m sure certain TR editors with Eee PC 1000s are probably wondering why this more logical layout didn’t appear on their netbooks.
The keyboard itself is identical in size to that of the Eee PC 1000 series, with a horizontal span 91% of full size between the A and L keys and a vertical span 86% of full size between the T and B keys.
Below the keyboard sits a touchpad that sports a fingerprint scanner between the left and right buttons. The touchpad’s surface is easy to use and quite comfortable, but the mouse buttons may prove to be too noisy for some. They have an almost alarmingly loud click and are sure to draw attention in a classroom or business meeting. To my ears, they actually sound substantially louder than the keyboard itself. Of course, you can just tap the surface of the touchpad instead.
The left and right sides of the N10J house all its ports and switches. Switches are on the left, including a Wi-Fi toggle and a switch that flips between the GMA 950 (dubbed “Power Saver” mode) and NVIDIA GeForce 9300M GS (dubbed “Speed” mode). The switches themselves are a bit stiff, and I found I had to wedge my fingernail in to move them. Whether or not this bothers you is going to be a matter of taste, but at least you won’t be accidentally switching either. Also over on the left side is the system’s HDMI output, which is tied to the GeForce.
Expansion slots are rarely found on netbooks, but the N10J features an ExpressCard/34 slot on the right side of the system. It also has an 8-in-1 media card reader along the front edge of the case and Altec-Lansing-branded speakers that sound surprisingly good.
Software and bloatware
One thing that does recommend the N10Jc-A1 over its more expensive kin is the inclusion of Windows XP Home Edition with Service Pack 2 instead of the more resource-hungry Windows Vista. Why Asus doesn’t include the latest Service Pack 3 is a bit of a head-scratcher, though. The N10J is also saddled with the now-ancient Internet Explorer 6, which is the sort of thing you punish your children with, not install on a $650 netbook.
As usual, Asus throws its own batch of software into the mix, including a Power4Gear power management tool and Splendid color management software. You’ll also find software tied to the fingerprint scanner and a “Personal Safe,” which is an encrypted partition on the hard drive that is password-protected and can be configured to authenticate using the fingerprint scanner. Rounding things out is an Atheros wireless utility that has the kind of obtuse interface that makes less experienced users run screaming for the hills of Cupertino. Most users will probably prefer to have Windows manage their wireless connections instead.
Perhaps the most curious component of the N10J’s software bundle is a suite of DVD reading and writing apps, including Asus-branded version of PowerDVD dubbed “AsusDVD” and Lightscribe software that sits in the system tray. Gosh Beav, this is real swell and all, but weren’t we just looking at all the ports and stuff on the N10, and didn’t we notice something missing that might come in handy? Oh yeah, an optical drive. One could argue that AsusDVD is available as a courtesy for users who might connect an external optical drive, but the inclusion of the Lightscribe software just makes my head hurt.
Asus made another peculiar choice in formatting the N10J’s hard drive partitions as FAT32 volumes instead of NTFS. A batch file located on the desktop will convert the drives to NTFS, but it should have been the default configuration. NTFS is generally a bit faster than FAT32, so it seems unusual that Asus would elect to leave any performance on the table given that the low-powered Atom processor needs all the help it can get.
Of course, if you can’t be bothered with Windows at all, the N10J also includes an ExpressGate instant-on operating system. The functionality of this alternative OS is limited at best, but it’ll do in a pinch.
What’s in the box
While the software installed on the N10Jc-A1 will possibly make your brain hurt, the contents of the box it arrives in may ease your suffering a bit.
Asus doesn’t include a full-on carrying case with the N10Jc, instead opting for a fitted sleeve. The usual assortment of software CDs, a recovery CD, and a microfiber cloth for cleaning smudges can also be found in the box.
The six-cell battery is roughly the size you’d expect, and the power adapter appears to be identical to the one Asus ships with its latest Eee PCs. An L-shaped connector on the power adapter is especially welcome given the placement of the N10J’s power plug. The actual power cable is a little short, but more perplexing is the use of a three-pronged lead. This kind of connection feels unnecessary for something that draws as little power as the N10Jc-A1. I’m sure most users will seldom come across antiquated outlets that lack ground lines, but you might find a few in the older lecture halls that some netbook-toting students are sure to frequent. Mercifully, the AC adapter as a whole is incredibly light.
Although you can’t touch it, perhaps the most valuable extra that comes with the N10J is an excellent warranty. Asus covers the unit with a two-year warranty coupled with a year of accidental damage coverage and a 30-day zero-bright-dot policy. Other manufacturers would be happy to charge as much as $199 for this kind of protection, so it’s great to see Asus offer it as standard.
The N10Jc-A1’s performance is pretty much par for the course with common desktop apps, which is to be expected given that it shares the same Atom processor as other netbooks. Switching between the GMA 950 and the GeForce 9300M GS didn’t do much to change the Windows experience, either. We already know that the Atom is basically powerful enough to do just so much (or so little), but keep in mind that this is not a multi-tasking processor. Those used to doing twelve different things on their computers at the same time will have to limit their multitasking, but if you’re just surfing the web, checking email, and chatting online, the Atom is just quick enough. So the big question here, then, is what does the 9300M GS bring to the table? Two things, really: a video processing engine and a capable 3D graphics core.
Though the display resolution of the N10J is too limited to play back even 720p content at full resolution, the HDMI output allows the system to power higher-resolution displays and big-screen TVs. There are some caveats associated with HD playback, though. First and foremost is the fact that you can only use the HDMI output via the GeForce 9300M. If you want to play back H.264 content, you’ll need to download your own software, too; the version of AsusDVD bundled with the N10J won’t play files encoded with H.264, although it does support PureVideo hardware acceleration. I also had some problems getting my LG L246WP monitor working properly with the N10J’s HDMI output. At both 1920×1200 (the panel’s native resolution) and at 1080p, the display’s image was squished and shifted off-center to the left when powered by the GeForce 9300M.
Fortunately, the N10J’s actual video playback performance was more impressive. Using the latest version of PowerDVD 8 with PureVideo acceleration enabled and the N10J’s HDMI output, I managed to get Microsoft’s 1080p, VC-1-encoded Coral Reef Adventure playing back smoothly with about 60% CPU utilization. A 1080p MPEG2 clip from one of my own movies played back with only about 25% CPU utilization. H.264 proved more demanding, with a 1080p trailer for The Bourne Ultimatum spiking CPU utilization at 85%, although the clip still played back stutter-free. Curious to see whether the Intel integrated graphics would fare much worse, I tested the same videos on both the GeForce and the GMA 950, swapping HDMI output for the N10J’s own display. Surprisingly, there was little difference in playback performance between the two graphics options. The GMA’s CPU utilization was about 5% higher with my MPEG2 clip, but otherwise CPU utilization was unchanged from the previous round of testing. There was also no difference in CPU utilization between the GeForce and GMA when playing back standard-definition DivX content, which pegged the CPU at roughly 15%.
While the N10J’s ability to play back 1080p content is impressive, its gaming performance leaves something to be desired. The GeForce is certainly powerful enough to run modern games at low settings, but when paired with the underpowered Atom N270, most modern games are rendered largely unplayable. I tried a variety of titles, including Team Fortress 2, Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, Call of Duty 4, and even Guild Wars. All of these were met with varying degrees of failure. Team Fortress 2 in particular ran horribly, even at its lowest detail settings. The biggest disappointment may well have been Guild Wars, though. Guild Wars has very similar performance characteristics to World of Warcraft, and I was hoping the N10J would at least be able to handle a little MMO action. Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be; Guild Wars stuttered painfully no matter what detail levels I used.
Regular readers will remember that we covered a YouTube video showing the N10J playing Call of Duty 4 a few months ago. I’ve heard rumors that the video in question was a hoax, and having played Call of Duty 4 on the N10Jc, I’m inclined to agree. Even at 640×480 with the lowest in-game detail levels, the N10J just wasn’t able to maintain a steady frame rate. Running a quick timedemo gave me an average frame rate of 25 FPS, which sounds good. However, the minimum frame rate for the demo was just two frames per second. In later missions in the game, where all hell breaks loose, Call of Duty 4 simply isn’t playable. When you see the games the N10J will run smoothly, you’ll likely understand why this netbook just isn’t cut out for modern titles.
Far Cry is a good candidate for the N10J. Shifting most of the grunt work to the 9300M GS, I was able to run the game pretty happily at 1024×600 with high in-game detail levels. Massive vistas like the one pictured above are going to make the frame rate chug (as you can see in the screenshot), but overall the game is quite playable.
Given my failure to get a decent frame rate in Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, I popped open Doom 3 and decided to use it as a starting point for this engine. The game’s performance was actually pretty good, although the opening scene pictured above is quite demanding. I was able to run Doom 3 at the N10J’s native resolution with medium detail levels, which is good enough for the odd demon-blasting session.
If you believe that Unreal Tournament 2004 is still the pinnacle of its series, you’re in luck. Apart from the Plunge map, which has historically been hard on the CPU, Unreal Tournament 2004 is very playable with maxed-out detail levels at the N10J’s native resolution.
I elected to save a bucket of disappointment for last. Knowing that Team Fortress 2 chugged mercilessly, I figured I’d follow the Source engine back to its roots. Source-based games have historically been pretty lenient on even the most middling of hardware, so I figured if the N10J can’t handle the original Half-Life 2, then there’s a real problem. Well, we have a real problem. Even after tinkering with graphics detail settings, a steady frame rate remained elusive in Half-Life 2. It’s clear that the 9300M isn’t what’s holding the N10J back here, the Atom processor simply can’t handle this engine.
This brings us to the real problem with gaming on the N10J: limited CPU horsepower. We’re used to games pushing our graphics cards as hard as humanly possible, and as a result, you can build a pretty swanky gaming system with even a modest dual-core CPU. Games haven’t been CPU-limited for a long time, but on the N10J, the Atom just can’t keep up. When I ran Unreal Tournament 2004 and watched the N10J chug on Plungea map that used to bring my old Athlon Thunderbird 1.4GHz to its knees before I upgraded to a 1.83GHz Athlon XP 2500+it was like plunging into a time warp. A very depressing time warp. You can see the telltale signs of the GeForce 9300M being mercilessly smothered by the Atom in any game you play. Frame rates stutter madly, and the instant any action takes place, they takes a swan dive off the Cliffs of Playability and into the Rivers of Slideshow. I know for a fact this GeForce is capable of better performance than we’re seeing here, and I’m amazed that I actually have to say that the 9300M GS is too much GPU for the N10J.
Heat, noise, and power
When pushing the N10J to peak at those fifteen frames per second in Half-Life 2, you may note the fan spinning up to a quiet but high-pitched whine. You aren’t likely to hear the fan if you’re in a room with any real white or background noise, but if the room is dead quiet, the fan noise may disturb you. Mercifully, it doesn’t kick in that often; when idling, the unit is actually silent.
As far as heat goes, the N10J is only a little on the toasty side. Though it runs warm in general, it never feels outright hot. These thermal readings were taken with the 9300M enabled; idle temperatures are in yellow, and load readings are in orange. These temperatures are actually pretty comfortable on my lap, so for men planning on raising a family, rest assured the N10J won’t be a hindrance. What’s interesting here is that some of our load temperatures are actually a little lower than those at idle. I double- and triple-checked my readings, but they remained the same. With the fan exhausting heat out of the system, the N10J simply runs cooler. It even feels cooler to the touch when running our combined load of wPrime and the rthdribl HDR lighting demo.
Asus advertises about six hours of battery life for the N10Jc-A1, which is pretty accurate. In regular, aggressive use, switching back and forth between graphics options and keeping the wireless networking enabled, I found the system’s useful battery life to be roughly five hours with the screen dimmed to about two or three steps above the minimum. This brightness level is very readable even for my poor eyes, so if you stick with just the GMA 950, you should be able to hit the six-hour mark.
Asus’ bid to create a “corporate netbook” with the N10J series does a heck of a lot right, even if there’s little evidence to suggest that corporate types need an ultraportable with discrete graphics. The N10J as a whole has nicely understated styling. Although the screen is glossy and has a lower resolution than one might expect given the system’s price, it’s still very attractive and pleasant to use, showing off nicely the benefits of LED backlighting. The keyboard and touchpad are also absolutely stellar, flirting with best-in-class status. The N10J’s heat management is pretty solid, too, and the five-plus hours of battery life is competitive with other 6-cell netbooks.
Unfortunately, not all is right with the world of the N10J. The N10Jc-A1 model we’ve been looking at is the cheapest in the line at $649, but that’s quite expensive for a system with an Atom processor. And it’s that anemic CPU that effectively hamstrings the N10J’s potential crown jewel: its GeForce 9300M GS graphics chip. While the GeForce’s video decoding hardware certainly has merit (provided you’re powering an external display, since the screen’s native resolution is too low for even 720p content), recent games are largely unplayable on the N10J due to the Atom’s lack of horsepower. We found that some games will run smoothly, but Far Cry, Unreal Tournament 2004 and Doom 3 are hardly recent titles, and games based on the Steam engine appear to be a total bust, Half-Life 2 included.
The N10J’s loose screen hinges are a disappointment, too, which is a shame for a system that appears to have great build quality elsewhere. Bumping up to more expensive models in the N10J line doesn’t look all that appealing, either. All they add is Bluetooth support, additional memory, and Windows Vista, which will consume most of that extra memory anyway.
I enjoyed using the N10Jc-A1, and the keyboard is choice. However, the price premium is just too much for what you getnamely, a GeForce graphics chip largely hampered by inadequate CPU power. The N10J comes maddeningly close to being a useful gaming machine, but the Atom just doesn’t have the grunt to handle recent titles, making the system more of an odd chimera than an attractive ultraportable. If you’re just looking for a basic netbook, or even one for the corporate crowd, Asus’ own Eee PC 1000 series offers nearly everything you get in the N10J for much less.