|Model||Eee PC 1015PN|
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 $600the 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 netbooksand 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 omissionI’m sure nobody really expects a netbook to work as a full-featured HTPCbut 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 (1024×600) 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
|Communications||802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi via Broadcom controller
|Input devices||Chiclet keyboard
Elan capacitive touchpad
|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 1024×600 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 backpackas 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?
The display and the controls
On many netbooks, the diminutive sizes of the keyboard and touchpad in particular can impede usability, making the system feel awkward and uncomfortable to operate. If you’re blowing over 400 bucks on a netbook, though, you’d hope such kinks would be absent.
Asus has selected a relatively nice LCD panel for this machine. The display does have the same 1024×600 resolution as every other netbook screen, but it’s bright, colorful, and non-glossy. Those are especially important characteristics for a netbook screen, which is likely to be used outside or in busy, brightly lit locations like coffee shops. The anti-reflective coating on this Eee does add some noise to the picture, but that’s a common trade-off, even on high-end desktop monitors.
Strangely, switching from the Nvidia GPU to the integrated Intel graphics noticeably reduces the display’s brightness. Keep that in mind if you’re going to be using this netbook unpluggedalthough if that’s the case, I’d expect you’d want to lower the brightness to conserve battery life, anyway.
One last thing before we look at the lower half of the notebook: the webcam. See that little switch above the lens? It actually slides a little reflective cover in front of the camera, blocking out light and ensuring privacy if you happen to be sitting around in your birthday suit on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Most notebooks have an LED that switches on if the camera is active, but a hardware cover seems just that much more trustworthy, at least from a subjective standpoint.
The keyboard doesn’t really depart from the netbook status quo. The chiclet keys are small, the middle of the keyboard flexes, and the backplate is glossy. Unless you live in a factory clean-room and have sterile robot fingers, the keys will be surrounded by smudges and dust before you can say “C-3PO.” Just how small are the 1015PN’s keys? See the table below, which compares them with our full-sized reference:
|Total keyboard area||Alpha keys|
|Size||250 mm||91 mm||22,750 mm²||153 mm||46 mm||7,038 mm²|
|Versus full size||87%||83%||72%||89%||81%||72%|
Yeah, if the 1024×600 display resolution doesn’t bug you, the keyboard’s cramped dimensions may well do so. Much to my surprise, however, I found this keyboard still allowed me to hit 108 words per minute with 99% accuracy in TypingTest.com’s “Tigers in the wild” test. I suppose the problem here isn’t so much usability as comfort. The palm rest, while completely sufficient for short bursts of typing, is a little too narrow for lengthy writing sessions. The keysespecially non-alpha onesdon’t seem to fall under your fingers where they should, especially if you’re more used to a desktop, a full-sized notebook, or even a decent ultraportable. That’s more of a problem with netbooks in general than with this Eee PC in particular, though.
Then there’s the touchpad. Asus got a lot of things right here. The area is comfortably large, the surface feels smooth enough, multi-touch gestures are supported, and the rocker button allows simultaneous left- and right-clicking with ease, in case you ever need to do that. I’d almost be willing to overlook the button being too far from the front edge or the tracking area not being recessed, if it weren’t for one unfortunate issue.
You see, the touchpad seems to stop tracking when your finger gets within a quarter inch or so of the button. At times, you may think enough tracking area remains to finish your journey toward an icon or a link, but you’ll be mistaken. The cursor will abruptly stop while your finger keeps moving down. As the photo above shows, there’s absolutely no hint of vertical demarcation to define the tracking area. “Unfortunate” really is the right adjective for this problem, because otherwise, the 1015PN’s touchpad is a cut above the competition.
Connectivity and expansion
Like most netbooks, the Eee PC 1015PN doesn’t pile on frivolous connectivity, but it provides enough ports, slots, and bays to keep most users happy. On the right side of the machine, you’ll find a card reader, 3.5-mm headphone and mic ports, a pair of USB ports, a Kensington lock slot, and a 10/100 Ethernet port. That Ethernet port has a sort of elastic jaw that retracts when not in use, keeping the side of the system nice and curved.
The left side is home to the power connector, the display outputs (VGA and HDMI), and a third USB 2.0 port. That HDMI port will only work if the Nvidia graphics are enabledswitch to the Intel integrated graphics to save power, and VGA will be your only option.
That included power plug is tiny, by the way. It has about the same diameter as a pencil core, and it snaps into the socket with an unsettling click. I know I’ve complained about overly large power connectors in the past, but this isn’t quite the alternative I had in mind.
Flipping the system on its back grants access to… not a whole lot, really. You can take out the battery, obviously, and Asus provides access to the machine’s memory through a removable panel. At least, I think it’s supposed to be removable. To open it, you’ll first need to pop off the screw cover with a flathead screwdriver, and then bust out your Philips-head to undo the screw under it. Keep your flathead handy, because the next step is to pry off the plastic cover itselfand on this sample system, that task involved a lot of pulling, bending, sweating, and hoping I wouldn’t have to mail back a damaged Eee PC.
All that work grants you access to a single SO-DIMM slot already populated with a 1GB module. Upgrading to 2GB, which I’d consider almost necessary to ward off annoying slowdowns, will involve buying a 2GB module and either tossing its 1GB predecessor or turning it into a keychain. I’m left wondering why Asus didn’t just include 2GB to begin with. (For reference, DRAMeXchange quotes contract pricing of around $32 for 2GB DDR3 SO-DIMMs right now. That’s not exactly an arm and a leg.)
Windows 7 Starter
We’ve already explained that the Eee PC 1015PN ships with Windows 7 Starter, but what does that mean, really?
Although it’s nowhere to be seen among ultraportables and full-sized notebooks, Win7 Starter has become a staple in the netbook world. You can think of it as a cheaper version of Windows 7 lacking many of the bells and whistles of it brethren, yet still built off the same foundation. Microsoft offers it only to big PC vendors, so you won’t find it at Best Buy next to boxed versions of Windows 7 Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate.
Windows XP Home Edition used to dominate netbooks before Win7 Starter came along. XP’s looser hardware requirements made it a great fit for netbooks with limited performance and memory, at least compared to Vista. Unfortunately, XP also lacked many of the improvements that have accompanied the latest two Windows releases, namely better security, built-in instant search, better security, improved wireless networking, and… better security. To make matters worse, Microsoft stopped providing free technical support for Windows XP in April 2009 on account of its age.
Looking around Microsoft’s website hints that Windows 7 Starter is the least feature-packed version of Windows, but the company is careful to leave Starter out of its edition comparison table. Finding out the full extent of Starter’s limitations therefore requires some digging. Paul Thurrott helped break it down last year, explaining that this edition lacks Aero Glass, Windows Media Center, Home Group network creation capabilities, Windows Mobility Center, DVD playback, touch support, and live thumbnail previews. Further digging reveals Starter only supports up to 2GB of system memory. According to Wikipedia, other missing features include multi-monitor support, fast user switching, network printing, and the ability to change the desktop background.
Aside from those caveats, Windows 7 Starter still looks and behaves much like other versions of Windows 7, and it’ll happily run the same software. There was talk early on about only giving Starter the ability to run three applications at a time, but happily, that limitation didn’t make it into the final release.
Should you happen to long for some of the missing features, Microsoft provides a way to step up from Windows 7 Starter to Home Premium without getting into the pesky business of buying a new license and reinstalling the operating system from scratch. Dubbed Windows Anytime Upgrade, this scheme is available right from the Control Panel:
Although going this route is cheaper than buying a full license, it still ain’t free. Stepping up to Windows 7 Home Premium costs $79.95, while Professional is a $119.95 upgrade, and Ultimate will set you back $169.95. For reference, Home Premium OEM licenses sell for about $96 at Newegg right now.
Not even netbooks are immune to the curse of semi-unnecessary bundled software and trialware. The Eee PC 1015PN is no exception. Here’s what the Windows 7 desktop looks like out of the box:
The widget with the arrow at the top of the screen opens up to reveal four menusaccess, sharing, experience, and toolsall of which lead to pre-installed services and utilities. Those include CyberLink YouCam app, Asus’ WebStorage online backup service, Syncable’s Desktop SE cross-computer synchronization tool, and Asus’ LiveUpdate utility, among others.
Opening up Windows 7 Starter’s “Uninstall a program” control panel sheds more light on the 1015PN’s trialware infestation:
In total, I count 13 Asus-specific utilities and applications, 10 or so driver-related uninstallers, and a remainder of miscellaneous apps, including the New York Times Reader, Game Park Console, and Chicken Invaders 2, whatever that is.
Compared to some of the notebooks and ultraportables we’ve reviewed recently, like Toshiba’s Satellite T235D and Asus’ own N82Jv, this isn’t so bad. Remember, though, that this diminutive netbook only has a gig of RAM, so any pre-loaded software that launches at startup will steal precious system memory away from anything you might want to run. I’m looking at you, Eee Docking utility, Trend Micro Titanium, and Boingo Wi-Fi.
Our testing methods
This is our second review to use TR’s new notebook testing suite, so we were only able to include results from a small number of other systems as reference points. We have two full-sized Optimus notebooks, the Asus N82Jv and 833Jc, as well as two consumer ultraportables, the Acer Aspire 1810TZ and Toshiba Satellite T235D.
We ran two batches of tests with the Eee PC 1015PN. One batch was run with the discrete Nvidia graphics processor enabled and Asus’ Super Hybrid Engine system tray control set to “Super Performance Mode,” which overlcocked the CPU by 25MHz. A second batch was run using the SHE “Power Saving Mode,” which limits the CPU to about 1GHz, and with the Nvidia GPU disabled. In both cases, we set the Windows power-saving profile to “Balanced.” (Curiously, the Super Hybrid Engine settings are separate from the Windows Power Options control panel.)
The Eee PC N82Jv, U33Jc, and T235D were also tested using special “battery-saving” profiles, and the N82Jv and U33Jc were run in “high-performance” mode, as well. With the N82Jv, we recorded our battery-saving results with Asus’ Super Hybrid Engine on, which dropped the CPU clock speed from 2.4GHz to 0.9-1GHz depending on the load. The U33Jc also has a Super Hybrid Engine mode, but we didn’t enable it for testing. On the U33Jc, the high-performance profile included by Asus raises the maximum CPU clock speed from 2.4 to 2.57GHz. On the N82Jv, the same profile leaves the CPU running at default speeds, i.e. up to 2.66GHz when Turbo Boost kicks in.
With the exception of battery life, all tests were run at least three times, and we reported the median of those runs.
|System||Acer Aspire 1810TZ||Asus Eee PC 1015PN||Asus N82Jv||Asus U33Jc||Toshiba Satellite T235D-S1435|
|Processor||Intel Pentium SU4100 1.2GHz||Intel Atom N550 1.5GHz||Intel Core i5-450M 2.4GHz||Intel Core i3-370M 2.4GHz||AMD Turion II Neo K625 1.5GHz|
|North bridge||Intel GS45 Express||Intel NM10||Intel HM55 Express||Intel HM55 Express||AMD M880G|
|South bridge||Intel ICH9||AMD SB820|
|Memory size||3GB (2 DIMMs)||1GB (1 DIMM)||4GB (2 DIMMs)||4GB (2 DIMMs)||4GB (2 DIMMs)|
|Memory type||DDR2 SDRAM at 667MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 667MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1066MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1066MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 800MHz|
|Audio||Realtek codec with 184.108.40.2069 drivers||Realtek codec with 220.127.116.1186 drivers||Realtek codec with 18.104.22.16824 drivers||Realtek codec with 22.214.171.12429 drivers||Realtek codec with 126.96.36.19972 drivers|
|Graphics||Intel GMA 4500MHD with 188.8.131.522 drivers||Intel GMA 3150 with 184.108.40.2067 drivers
Nvidia Ion with 220.127.116.1112 drivers
|Intel HD Graphics with 18.104.22.1689 drivers
Nvidia GeForce 335M with 22.214.171.12496 drivers
|Intel HD Graphics with 126.96.36.1999 drivers
Nvidia GeForce 310M with 188.8.131.5221 drivers
|AMD Mobility Radeon HD 4225 with 8.723.2.1000 drivers|
|Hard drive||Western Digital Scorpio Blue 500GB 5,400-RPM||Western Digital Scorpio Blue 500GB 5,400-RPM||Seagate Momentus 7200.4 500GB 7,200-RPM||Seagate Momentus 5400.6 500GB 5,400-RPM||Toshiba MK3265GSX 320GB 5,400 RPM|
|Operating system||Windows 7 Home Premium x64||Windows 7 Starter x86||Windows 7 Home Premium x64||Windows 7 Home Premium x64||Windows 7 Home Premium x64|
We used the following versions of our test applications:
- Firefox 3.6.9
- Adobe Flash 10.1.82.76
- x264 HD Benchmark 3.19
- 7-Zip 4.65 x64
- TrueCrypt 7.0a
- Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare 1.7
- Far Cry 2 1.03
All the tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.
Odds are, anyone with a computer will need to compress or decompress some files every one in a while. To see how our four laptops handle that task, we ran 7-Zip’s built-in benchmark and jotted down the results for both compression and decompression.
The Eee PC does much better here, especially in the decompression test. At least in this task, stepping up to an ultraportable won’t get you much extra oomph.
Next up: file encryption. Because who wants any two-bit thief to have access to his sensitive data? We ran TrueCrypt’s built-in benchmark and averaged the results for all of the different encryption schemes.
x264 video encoding
Last, but not least, we took our notebooks through the x264 high-definition video encoding benchmark.
With more CPU-intensive tasks, the 1015PN falls behind the competition once again. I would think few users would want to encode video on their netbooks, though.
Startup and wake times
Fresh from our application performance comparisons, we busted out a stopwatch and timed how long our notebooks took to boot up and wake from hibernation. For the startup test, we started timing as soon as the power button was hit and stopped when the Windows 7 hourglass cursor went away. For the wake-up test, we measured the time it took to bring up the log-in screen after hitting the power button.
I don’t know if it’s Windows 7 Starter’s more streamlined feature set or the more limited amount of trialware, but the Eee PC actually boots up rather quicklymore so than our full-sized notebooks, in fact. Waking from hibernation is even quicker.
To gauge the Eee’s subjective web browsing performance, I put it side by side with an Acer Aspire 1810TZ, installed the latest version of Google Chrome, and browsed around, loading up my TR e-mail, Facebook, CNN, and other sites I frequent on a regular basis. Funnily enough, Gmail felt about equally responsive on the Aspire and the Eee. I got a similar impression in Google Calendar, although files and pages in Google Documents opened up noticeably quicker on the Aspire.
Facebook pages are chock-full of information, widgets and images, and the 1015PN visibly struggled to load some of them, like the TR Facebook page, as promptly as the 1810TZ. Less interactive but still image-heavy sites, like TR and CNN.com, also took visibly longer to load on the Eee. Overall, I’d say the experience isn’t dissimilar from using an outdated web browser on your primary desktop or notebooknothing is painfully slow, but extra snappiness wouldn’t hurt.
Performance was very much a secondary concern for me when surfing on the Eee PC 1015PN, however. The 1024×600 screen resolution was far more of a handicap. Just look at the amount of screen real estate the Eee gives you (on the left) versus what’s offered by the Aspire’s 1366×768 screen (on the right):
1024×600 just feels very cramped, especially if you happen to use a browser with bigger toolbars, like Firefox 3.6. It’s a good thing the Eee PC has multi-touch scrolling, because you’ll be doing a lot of scrolling just to read your average website. I found that looking at large photos or graphics often involved panning up and down. I wouldn’t call it a particularly pleasant experienceand don’t get me started about the pains of multitasking on a display that tiny. On the flip side, the Eee is definitely lighter and more compact than the Aspire 1810TZ.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Infinity Ward’s first Modern Warfare title is growing somewhat long in the tooth, but it still has a strong following in multiplayer circles. More importantly, it’s a good representative of the type of game you might want to play on a notebook that lacks limitless GPU horsepower: not too old, but not too new, either. We tested Call of Duty 4 by running a custom timedemo, first at 800×600 with the lowest detail options, then again at 1366×768 with everything cranked up except for v-sync, antialiasing, and anisotropic filtering, which were all left disabled. (With the Eee PC, we opted for the 1024×600 native resolution instead of 1366×768.)
Oh boy. The Eee’s Nvidia graphics barely outperform the Aspire 1810TZ’s Intel IGP in Call of Duty 4 at 800×600. The Eee PC does markedly better at 1366×768 with the detail cranked up, but I wouldn’t exactly call 7.6 FPS playablenot that 20.8 FPS is really a whole lot better. If you’re wondering about the “Power Saving” scores, the game just wouldn’t run on the Eee PC’s Intel IGP.
Far Cry 2
Ubisoft’s safari-themed shooter has much more demanding graphics than CoD4, so it should really make our notebooks sweat. We selected the “Action” scene from the game’s built-in benchmark and ran it in two configurations; first at 1366×768 in DirectX 10 mode with detail cranked up, then at that same resolution in DX9 mode with the lowest detail preset. Vsync and antialiasing were left disabled in both cases. (Again, the Eee PC was run at 1024×600, since that’s the highest resolution its display supports.)
Things only get worse for the Eee PC in this more demanding title. Neither detail setting allowed the system to crank out playable frame rates at 1024×600. Clearly, if you’re planning to do any gaming on the 1015PN, you’ll have to stick to oldies and casual titles. Speaking of which…
Off the beaten path
Scientific benchmarks or not, we like to install different games on our laptops and manually tweak the options to see how well they run. A little subjective testing never hurt anybody, right?
Being based on the ten-year-old Quake III: Arena, id Software’s Quake Live is more forgiving with low-end hardware. At 800×600 (the game didn’t support 1024×600), the Eee PC 1015PN was able to hit 40-50 FPS on q3dm17, a.k.a. The Longest Yard. The game was smooth and playable, although I still got my butt railgunned out of the sky more times than I could count.
Next up was TrackMania United, a delightful arcade-style racing game with its own track editor. The 1015PN cranked out anywhere from 21 to 75 FPS at 1024×600 with the detail level set to “Medium.” The “Low” preset was definitely smoother in bits with a lot of dust on-screen, but it looked awful, and the “Medium” mode was playable enough.
I gave Darwinia a shot, too, not wanting to break the tradition of including this indie real-time strategy game in our netbook and nettop reviews. The Eee PC handled Darwinia reasonably well at 1024×600 with the detail cranked up and the “Pixel effect” setting disabled, averaging about 20-30 FPS. Enabling “Pixel effect” caused frame rates to drop as low as 12 FPS, at which point playability suffered.
We tested video decoding performance by playing the Iron Man 2 trailer in a variety of formats. Windows Media Player was used in full-screen mode for the H.264 QuickTime clips, while Firefox was used for the windowed YouTube test. In each case, we used Windows 7’s Performance Monitor to record minimum and maximum CPU utilization for the duration of the trailer.
We tested video playback performance first in the Eee PC 1015PN’s “Super Performance” mode, with the Nvidia GPU enabled…
|Iron Man 2 H.264 480p||5-29%||Perfect|
|Iron Man 2 H.264 720p||5-26%||Perfect|
|Iron Man 2 H.264 1080p||6-30%||Perfect|
|Iron Man 2 YouTube 720p windowed||9-20%||Choppy|
…then in the “Power Saving” mode, with only the Intel integrated graphics assisting the CPU:
|Iron Man 2 H.264 480p||22-66%||Perfect|
|Iron Man 2 H.264 720p||33-93%||Smooth, some dropped frames
|Iron Man 2 H.264 1080p||48-99%||Choppy|
|Iron Man 2 YouTube 720p windowed||61-96%||Very choppy|
We can draw two conclusions from the numbers above. One, the Ion graphics chip does a fine job of decoding H.264 video content. Two, Flash performance, even with the hardware-accelerated 10.1 plug-in and the Ion GPU, leaves much to be desired. Smoothness did improve when in full-screen mode, but generally speaking, I would advise against venturing beyond YouTube’s 480p setting on this computer.
Out of sheer curiosity, I whipped out an HDMI cable and plugged the Eee PC into one of my 24″ desktop displays, to see if it could handle 1080p video playback on a panel actually capable of displaying that many pixels. The 1080p Iron Man 2 trailer looked clear and smooth at the monitor’s native 1920×1200 resolution, with CPU utilization hovering between 8% and 35% or so. Not bad for a little netbook. Too bad Windows 7 Starter doesn’t allow you to extend your desktop onto a secondary display.
We took our laptops through two battery life testsbut not before taking care to condition the battery by cycling it two times. For the web browsing test, we used TR Browserbench 1.0, which consists of a static version of the TR home page that cycles through different text content, Flash ads, and images, all the while refreshing every 45 seconds. Then, we tested video playback in Windows Media Player by looping an episode of CSI: New York encoded with H.264 at 480p resolution (straight from an HTPC).
We attempted to keep the display brightness consistent across all four systems, choosing levels correspond to a readable brightness in indoor lighting. A 40% brightness setting was used on the Acer 1810TZ, Toshiba Satellite T235D, Asus N82Jv, and Eee PC 1015PN in its “Super Performance” mode. We used a 50% setting on the Eee PC 1015PN in “Battery Saving” mode, since disabling the Nvidia GPU seemed to reduce brightness, as well as on the U33Jc.
The Eee PC 1015PN has great battery life, just as one might expect from a netbook. More than seven hours of web surfing ought to satisfy even hard-core road warriors. The real question here, however, is whether the 1015PN also has better battery life than consumer ultraportables. The answer looks to be no.
With the Nvidia GPU disabled, and the processor underclocked, the Eee PC roughly keeps up with our Acer Aspire 1810TZ. With the Nvidia GPU switched on, it falls in line with the Toshiba Satellite T235D, which also has rather decent graphics capabilities. Both the Toshiba and the Acer have considerably better CPU performance than the Eee, too, not to mention bigger, higher-resolution displays and larger keyboards.
How hot to the touch does this Eee PC get during an average surfing session? We let the run TR browserbench 1.0 for about an hour before measuring surface temperatures using our IR thermometer from 1″ away. The system was set to its “Super Performance” preset with the Nvidia GPU enabled.
The Eee PC 1015PN hardly heats up during regular use, although its fan did run pretty much constantly throughout this test. Good thing the fan noise is nice and airy, which makes it easy to tune out.
After spending these past few days picking and probing at the Eee PC 1015PN, I’m left with a mixed impression. On the one hand, this is arguably the nicest netbook on the market right now, and it represents a new high-water mark for the category. While conserving the traditional netbook form factor and keeping battery life at a largely competitive level, this Eee PC ramps up both CPU and graphics performance. It features great overall build quality, as well. This may well be the first of a new breed. One would think the arrival of Intel’s Atom N550 processor will usher in more supercharged netbooks like the 1015PN, and by all rights, that’s a good thing.
I only wish Asus had thrown in an extra gig of RAM and Windows 7 Home Premium. Those are upgrades the user can take care of himself, but they’re not particularly cheap. Stepping up to the better OS via Windows Anytime Upgrade costs about $80, and a 2GB DDR3 SO-DIMM should set you back roughly $40 at Newegg.
On the other hand, you can head to Dell.com right now and purchase an Inspiron M101z ultraportable for the exact same price as the Eee PC 1015PN. The Inspiron is a little larger and half a pound heavier, but it comes right out of the box with 2GB of RAM and Windows 7 Home Premium, not to mention an 11.6″ 1366×768 display, Mobility Radeon HD 4200-series integrated graphics, and a similar, 56 Wh battery. Based on what we’ve seen from the Toshiba T235D, I would expect the M101z’s battery life to be comparable to that of the 1015PN running in Super-Performance mode.
Therein lies the 1015PN’s greatest pitfall. At $429.99, it’s too close to consumer ultraportables like the Inspiron M101z for comfort right nowespecially with that stingy memory capacity and absent Optimus support.
Now, I wouldn’t be surprised if Asus brought that price tag down. Dell’s profit margin on that Inspiron M101z probably doesn’t amount to much, but the 1015PN’s bill of materials is likely lower. With an asking price of, say, $350, one could definitely make the case for itspend an extra 50 bucks over the price of a regular netbook, get something nicer and more powerful. That would make the Eee PC 1015PN a nice middle ground for users too broke to afford a consumer ultraportable but too discerning to settle with a mediocre bargain-bin netbook. At its current price, though, I just can’t bring myself to recommend it.