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Asus' Eee PC 1015PN netbook

This is your netbook on steroids

Manufacturer Asus
Model Eee PC 1015PN
Price (Street)
Availability Soon

This is a tough time for netbooks. Cursed with stagnating hardware, and under pressure from slates on one side and cheap consumer ultraportables from another, these little 10-inch machines are retreating to ever-lower price points. Just over two years ago, the first Atom-based Eee PCs were generating buzz for their surprisingly capable innards and $400-600 price tags. Our mobile section used to be filled with fresh netbook reviews, and our editors could be seen toting those same systems at trade shows and press events.

That didn't last, though. Largely due to online high-def video, web surfing began requiring an increasing amount of processing power. At the same time, systems based on Intel's Consumer Ultra-Low Voltage processors began to show up, offering grown-up performance at netbook-like prices, with competitive battery life and portability. It was like a perfect storm. Today, netbooks usually sell for less than $300, and we largely shun them in favor of Intel CULV- or AMD Nile-based ultraportables, which can be priced anywhere from $400 to $600—the old netbook proving grounds.

Introducing a supercharged netbook in this day and age is therefore a bold move. Asus has done exactly that with the Eee PC 1015PN, which is among the very first systems to incorporate Intel's Atom N550, a dual-core version of the ubiquitous N450. The 1015PN treads further into uncharted waters by adding Nvidia's next-generation Ion graphics processor to the mix. It's no surprise, then, to see the system listed on Amazon with the lofty asking price of $429.99.

The question is: can an extra Atom core and discrete Nvidia graphics spice up the netbook formula enough to make it worth that kind of dough? Folks shopping for a new laptop this holiday season will likely wonder if this lightweight 10-inch contraption can give consumer ultraportables a run for their money. We wouldn't necessarily expect equivalent performance, but certainly, the blend of adequate CPU performance, solid graphics performance, and long battery life could be a strong selling point for this netbook on steroids.

Join us as we put the Eee PC 1015PN through its paces and see how it stacks up against Intel and AMD ultraportables. We'll throw in some full-sized notebooks, too, just for comparison's sake.

First, let's talk a little more about what makes this new Eee PC unique. Intel's Atom N550, which came out in late August, is one of the ingredients in the 1015PN special sauce. The N550 has dual Atom cores on a single piece of silicon, with twice the core and thread count of the Atom N450 with a slightly lower clock speed (1.5GHz instead of 1.66GHz) and a larger thermal envelope (8.5W instead of 5.5W). We've seen dual-core, four-thread Atom processors before, of course, but this is the first such product explicitly aimed at netbooks—and with a thermal envelope to match.

Another ingredient is Nvidia's next-generation Ion graphics processor, which has already appeared in other recipes, like Zotac's HD-ID11. You can think of this part as a discrete GeForce graphics chip, because that's basically what it is. The new Ion is based on the exact same GT218 silicon as the GeForce 310, and it has all the same trappings: dedicated memory, high-definition video decoding logic, and in theory, support for Optimus switchable graphics technology. We'll get to the Optimus part in a minute.

The next-gen Ion flavor inside this Eee PC is actually scaled back from what we saw in the HD-ID11, presumably in order to keep power consumption at a more netbook-friendly level. GPU-Z reports eight stream processors, a 500MHz GPU clock speed, 512MB of 700MHz DDR3 memory, and a 64-bit memory interface for total memory bandwidth of 11.2GB/s. Eight SPs is admittedly anemic for gaming, but I don't think Asus designed this machine to double as an on-the-go Xbox 360 substitute. Being able to run casual or older PC titles would be a nice improvement over the built-in Intel graphics.

Speaking of improvements, the next-gen Ion has allowed Asus to outfit the Eee PC 1015PN with an HDMI output. Combined with the GPU's PureVideo HD decoding logic, that port should allow high-definition content to be piped from the 1015PN to the nearest HDTV.

Unfortunately, the Ion's capabilities are held back somewhat by Asus' choice of operating system. Windows 7 Starter doesn't support Optimus switchable graphics (as Asus' website explains) and lacks Windows Media Center. I don't have any problems with the second omission—I'm sure nobody really expects a netbook to work as a full-featured HTPC—but the lack of Optimus capabilities is much harder to forgive.

The appeal of Optimus is the ability to combine the performance advantages of a discrete GPU (mainly for video playback and 3D gaming) with the low power consumption (and thus longer battery life) of integrated graphics. Properly implemented, Optimus' operation is largely seamless and transparent to the user. Yet the Eee PC 1015PN provides none of the convenient, on-the-fly switching, instead forcing the user to toggle manually between integrated Intel and discrete Nvidia graphics. Each such switch requires a reboot. Windows 7 Starter might suffice for $300 netbooks, but it looks a wee bit out of place here.

Here are the rest of the Eee PC 1015PN's specifications, condensed in a handy chart:

Processor Intel Atom N550 1.5GHz
Memory 1GB DDR3-667 (1 DIMM)
Chipset Intel NM10 Express
Graphics Nvidia Next-generation Ion with 512MB DDR3
Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 3150
Display 10.1" TFT with WSVGA (1024x600) resolution and LED backlight
Storage Western Digital Scorpio Blue 250GB 2.5" 5,400 RPM hard drive
Audio Stereo HD audio via Realtek codec
Ports 3 USB 2.0
1 RJ45 10/100 Ethernet via Atheros AR8132
1 analog headphone output
1 analog microphone input
Expansion slots
Communications 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi via Broadcom controller
Bluetooth 3.0
Input devices Chiclet keyboard
Elan capacitive touchpad
Internal microphone
Camera 0.3-megapixel webcam
Dimensions 10.3" x 7.0" x 0.9-1.4" (262 x 178 x 23.6-36.4 mm)
Weight 2.86 lbs (1.3 kg)
Battery 6-cell Li-ion 5200 mAh, 56 Wh

Graphics and CPU aside, the Eee PC 1015PN doesn't stray far from the netbook fold. There's the 10" display with its standard 1024x600 resolution, 1GB of system memory, a 250GB mechanical hard drive, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and relatively spartan connectivity. According to our postal scale, the 1015PN weighs in at just under 2.9 lbs, which is pretty much in line with cheaper and less well-endowed netbooks, as well. (Adding the power adapter and cord brings that up to 3.4 lbs.)

Keeping this netbook thin, light, and compact is an honorable achievement, but I think some folks will take issue with the amount of RAM included. Offering a $430 computer with only a single gigabyte of RAM would probably have passed a couple years ago, when netbooks were still shipping with Windows XP, but it seems downright stingy today. Coupled with the puzzling inclusion of Windows 7 Starter as opposed to Home Premium, the small amount of RAM may make it harder for the 1015PN to steer shoppers away from sub-$500 consumer ultraportables.

Externally, Asus has happily steered clear of some of the usual netbook pitfalls, namely excessive glossiness and impractically narrow palm rests. The only glossy surfaces here are the keyboard backplate and the display bezel. Even the display itself has a matte finish, as do the palm rest and the display lid.

The smooth, plain-looking exterior makes the Eee PC 1015PN feel sort of rugged, like it's designed to be tossed around and thrown in a backpack—as opposed to, you know, sitting on a store shelf looking shiny. At the same time, that matte lid and palm rest have a slight sheen that looks very slick. I've got to commend Asus for making this netbook both tasteful and functional. Are the 1015PN's ergonomics equally worthy of praise?