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Asus Ion-Powered Eee PC 1201N Review
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Date: Dec 16, 2009
Section:Mobile
Author: Shawn Oliver
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Introduction and Specifications


The proliferation of NVIDIA's Ion GPU has been a long time coming. We've been talking about its merits for the better part of this year, but only recently has it been able to find its way into more than a handful of mainstream, shipping netbooks. We recently had a look at HP's Mini 311 with Windows 7 Home Premium, and while the Ion definitely enabled smooth HD playback where it was previously impossible with a paltry 1.6GHz Atom N270 and Intel IGP, the CPU bottleneck held back the entire system. Today, however, we're taking a look at a much more powerful system.



Asus has come a long way since the launch of its original Eee PC. 7" and 8" netbooks are no longer the norm, and the availability of 12" netbooks is on the rise. The newest member of the stylish Seashell lineup is the Eee PC 1201N, which easily bests any other netbook we've tested in terms of specifications. It's also one of the larger netbooks out, blurring the line between the netbooks of old and the ultraportables of today. Featuring a 12.1" HD display, dual-core Atom 330 CPU, 2GB of DDR2 RAM, Windows 7 Home Premium, an HDMI output and NVIDIA's Ion GPU technology, there's not much to dislike about the newest Eee PC based on its build sheet.


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Asus Eee PC 1201N Netbook
Specifications and Features (as tested)
  • Intel Atom 330 CPU (1.6GHz; Dual-Core)
  • 2GB of DDR2 RAM 
  • 12.1" LCD (1366x768 resolution)
  • NVIDIA Ion Graphics (Based on NVIDIA GeForce 9400M)
  • 250GB (5400RPM) Hitachi Travelstar 5K500.B Hard Drive
  • 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR
  • No Optical Drive
  • 0.3 Megapixel Webcam
  • VGA and HDMI Outputs
  • USB 2.0 x 3
  • RJ-45 (Ethernet 10/100)
  • Headphone / Mic Input Jacks
  • SD / MMC / SDHC Multimedia Card Reader
  • Stereo Speakers
  • Full-Size 'Chiclet' Keyboard
  • Gesture-Enabled Multi-Touch Trackpad
  • 3.22 Pounds (with 6-cell battery installed)
  • Removable 6-Cell Li-ion Battery
  • 5 Hours Claimed Battery Life
  • 296mm (W) x 208mm (D) x 27.3~ 33.3mm (H) (Dimensions)
  • Windows 7 Home Premium (32-bit)
     
  • Price (MSRP): $499.99


Slapping together a good list of components and actually producing a system that performs well in the real world and is enjoyable to use are separate things entirely though, so join us as we review the latest Ion-powered netbook (and what's likely to be one of the more highly anticipated netbooks of 2009) in the pages to come.
 
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Design and Build Quality


There have been two major changes to the Eee PC netbook line since its original inception. The first was the phasing out of the original 7" and 9" netbooks designs, and the second was the introduction of the Seashell line up. Most of the company's latest netbooks have fallen into that Seashell line, with a distinct enclosure that tapers down in thickness towards the front of the machine.


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The Eee PC 1201N is a lot like the Eee PC 1005HA in terms of design. In fact, we'd say that if you've seen the 1005HA in person, you've seen the 1201N. There is very little in terms of sheer design that has changed since the 1005HA was released, with the additional screen real estate (12.1" on the 1201N versus 10.1" on the 1005HA), HDMI socket and the full-size keyboard being the most notable.


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That's not to say we're disappointed with the 1201N. Asus has clearly found a sweet spot with styling, and they are apparently not looking to mix that formula up anytime soon. The size of the 1201N is just about perfect in our eyes; the 12.1" form factor gives you no extra pixels compared to the 11.6" Mini 311 (which also boasts a 1366x768 resolution), but the extra real estate enables a full-size keyboard to be planted and it also enables more surface area for heat to disperse--in turn, keeping the machine exceptionally cool even under intense load.

    
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The dimpled multi-touch trackpad is here, along with the polarizing silver bar beneath it. We appreciate the addition of multi-touch, but as with older Eee PCs, we're still not fans of the dimples and we're really unimpressed with the solid silver click bar that allows for left / right pushes to account for left / right clicks.


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Even the LCD hinge is the same as before, and the glossy black paint job is everywhere. The LCD bezel is dipped in glossy, the palm rests are glossed and even the top lid is glossed. The underside is the only bit of matte on the whole machine, so we hope you're ready to clean off a great deal of fingerprints.

    
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At 3.22lbs., this machine basically weighs exactly the same as the 11.6" Ion-powered Mini 311 from HP. As you'll recall from that review, the 1.6GHz Atom N270 turned out to really hamper overall system performance. For the same weight, you can get a more spacious machine here with more power under the hood.


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As for overall build quality, Asus has once again delivered. This machine feels like a $500 machine through and through; the LCD hinge is rock solid, the screen and body are both rigid, and keyboard flex is kept to a minimum. It's definitely more robust than Asus' lower-end Eee PC netbook models, but considering the premium price, that's to be expected.

    
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Software and Accessories

 
We genuinely hope you aren't in the mood for accessories, because unlike some of Asus' other Eee PCs, this one comes with absolutely no physical extras. No case, no mouse, nothing. Within the admittedly compact box, you'll find the machine itself, an AC adapter, a power cable, a system CD and a barebones user guide. If you were hoping for more, you'll be let down.


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On the software side of things, you'll get Windows 7 Home Premium at the helm. We've said it before, but we'll say it again: netbooks are so much more enjoyable with Windows 7. Aside from the general basics that come loaded on the OS, Asus also tosses in Skype, a 60-day trial of Microsoft Office, ArcSoft TotalMedia Theatre 3 for multimedia playback (which makes better use of Ion), Microsoft Works, a suite of Asus software, NVIDIA's Ion Control Panel and Trend Micro's Internet Security software. That latter piece is a real annoyance, as it continues to pop up and insists that you activate the full version.


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As for the specific Asus software installed, you'll find Asus Vibe, Asus WebStorage, Eee Docking (that pull down panel atop the screen that provides easy access to other Asus applications), Eee Splendid, FontResizer and a LiveUpdate app. You'll also get CyberLink's YouCam for interfacing with your webcam, and of course Skype will allow you to video chat with fellow Skype members. Overall, the software offering is better than average, but we generally felt that the Asus-branded inclusions were a bit fluffy. They definitely fall into the "take them or leave them" category, though some may appreciate the extras more than others.


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User Experience


As with other Eee PCs, the 1201N also arrives with the Eee Super Hybrid Engine, which enables users to switch between Power Saving, High Performance and Super Performance modes by simply selecting a line of text through a taskbar icon. It's a simple inclusion, but it's one we've come to greatly appreciate, particularly on a netbook with an Ion GPU. Put simply, there are many times when users could find themselves needing to conserve energy one moment, then need peal performance the next. For instance, if you were running low on battery life at an airport, and then an AC outlet opened up in the row behind you; having the ability to quickly switch these modes enables you to better control the user experience based on your current scenario.


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Upon first booting the machine up, we were underwhelmed by the overall responsiveness of the machine. It was quite baffling, really. It honestly felt slower than the Atom N270-based Mini 311 that we had just finished reviewing. Turns out that the "Power Saving Mode" was active (we were computing on battery, not AC power), and as soon as we toggled the "Super Performance Mode" the responsiveness of the machine was excellent. The dual-core Atom 330 may still only be clocked at 1.6GHz, but it's astounding how much faster it feels in real-world use compared to the single-core Atom N270.


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Like the Mini 311, this one was also equipped with 2GB of RAM, which also goes a long way in improving the overall experience. Bootup was prompt, and while initial application load times were a bit sluggish, switching between them and multitasking was never an issue thanks to the extra breathing room enabled by having 2GB of RAM instead of the 1GB commonly included with other netbooks.


Eee PC 1201N Windows 7 Experience Rating

We will say, however, that despite a decent WEI rating, we weren't too keen on the performance of the hard drive. Even at 5400RPM, it felt a bit sluggish. It's very possible that we just expected more based on our lingering memories of using an SSD-based netbook, but still, it seems like every other aspect of this machine oozes quality. It was noisy to boot, and even though it's roomy at 250GB, we would've preferred a smaller SSD to accompany the relatively quick CPU and GPU.


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We will confess to missing an optical drive, and with a 12.1" frame, we're confident that Asus could've squeezed one in here if they wanted to. Sure, the resulting machine would've been a bit thicker and heavier, but considering how well this thing handled multimedia, we certainly found ourself wanting to try out a DVD or Blu-ray disc.


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Speaking of multimedia, this netbook handles video better than any other we've ever tested, bar none. We were impressed when we saw the Mini 311 play back 720p and 1080p material thanks to having NVIDIA's Ion onboard, but the 1201N managed to do so without even breaking a sweat. Even with 1080p movie trailers playing, the CPU never peaked above 50% utilization, which--on a netbook--is great. We could even multitask while a 1080p clip was playing, which has so far been impossible on netbooks (without making the video stutter, anyway).


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This was also the first netbook we've ever used where decent gaming was a real possibility. Even at 1280x720, Enemy Territory: Quake Wars was relatively playable with the details adjusted down a bit, and we're certain that some older/less demanding 3D titles could play on here just fine if you're okay with toning down the details and resolution. Don't expect to play Crysis (or any other leading edge game really) at native resolution with details maxed, but remember, this is a netbook. Typically, netbooks and gaming don't mix well, so we'd considering this a huge win for Asus.


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Gaming Benchmark (ET: Quake Wars)

HotHardware's Test Systems
Covering the bases

Asus Eee PC 1201N
Atom 330, 1.6GHz, FSB 533MHz
2GB DDR2
NVIDIA Ion
On-Board Ethernet
On-Board Audio
250GB Hitachi HD
5400 RPM SATA

Windows 7

HP Mini 311
Atom N270, 1.6GHz, FSB 533MHz
2GB DDR2-800
NVIDIA Ion
On-Board Ethernet
On-Board Audio
250GB Seagate HD
5400 RPM SATA

Windows 7


Asus EeeTop ES2002
Atom 330, 1.6GHz, FSB 533MHz
2GB DDR3-1066
NVIDIA Ion
On-Board Ethernet
On-Board Audio
250GB Seagate HD
5400 RPM SATA

Windows 7

Zotac MAG HD-ND01
Intel Atom 330
NVIDIA ION board
2GB DDR2-800
NVIDIA ION
160GB Toshiba HDD (5400 RPM, 8MB cache)
Windows 7

Acer Aspire Revo
I
ntel Atom 230
NVIDIA ION board
2GB DDR2-800
NVIDIA ION
160GB Toshiba HDD (5400 RPM, 8MB cache)
Windows Vista

 

Enemy Territory: Quake Wars
OpenGL Gaming Performance


Enemy Territory:
Quake Wars

Enemy Territory: Quake Wars is Based on an enhanced version of id's Doom 3 engine and viewed by many as Battlefield 2 meets the Strogg, and then some. ET: Quake Wars also marks the introduction of John Carmack's "Megatexture" technology that employs large environment and terrain textures that cover vast areas of maps without the need to repeat and tile many smaller textures. The beauty of megatexture technology is that each unit only takes up a maximum of 8MB of frame buffer memory. Add to that HDR-like bloom lighting and leading edge shadowing effects and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars looks great, plays well and works high end graphics cards vigorously.





So few netbooks have shipped with 2GB of RAM and an Ion GPU that we're forced to compare the Eee PC 1201N to a handful of Atom-based nettops that we've seen in the past along with the Ion-based Mini 311. Amazingly, the 1201N matches up quite well to even the nettops in the bunch, and it even beats the Aspire Revo. 17FPS may not seem like much (and it's not in the grand scheme of things), but it's just enough to make the game playable. If you were to strip the details down to "low" (they were all set at "medium/normal"), you'd get even better performance. The bottom line is this: the 1201N can handle some of yesteryear's 3D titles, albeit at lower resolutions and with details cranked down. For a netbook, that's pretty good.
 
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Futuremark PCMark Vantage & 3DMark06

We ran the Eee PC 1201N through Futuremark‚Äôs latest system performance metric PCMark Vantage. This benchmark suite creates a host of different usage scenarios to simulate different types of workloads including High Definition TV and movie playback and manipulation, gaming, image editing and manipulation, music compression, communications, and productivity. We like the fact that most of the tests are multi-threaded as well, in order to exploit the additional resources offered by multi-core processors.



The Eee PC 1201N performs well here. As we said earlier, most netbooks can't even handle this test. We have high hopes that Intel's next round of Atom CPUs will be more powerful, though we do appreciate the benefits of the Ion GPU. Though we can't help but wonder just how much better these scores would be if an SSD was used.


Full PCMark Vantage Report - Click To Enlarge



We've just started to run 3DMark06 on netbooks, and are still compiling a new database of 3DMark 06 scores from Atom-based netbooks. Until that happens, we'll give you a look at what kind of score the Eee PC 1201N is capable of compared to the Mini 311 (1.6GHz Atom N270 + NVIDIA Ion).



You'll notice that these results are significantly lower than even modern CULV systems, but it's easy to spot just how beneficial a dual-core CPU is here. For all intents and purposes, that's the only significant difference (hardware wise) between these two systems.


Asus Eee PC 1201N 3DMark 06 CPU Score; Click To Enlarge

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SiSoftware Sandra & Multimedia Benchmarks


Testing with SiSoft SANDRA 2009
Synthetic Benchmarks

We continued our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA 2009, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant.  We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests (CPU Arithmetic, Multimedia, Memory Bandwidth, Physical Disks).

 
CPU Arithmetic Test; Click To Enlarge


CPU Multimedia Test; Click To Enlarge


Memory Bandwidth Test; Click To Enlarge


Physical Disc Test; Click To Enlarge

You'll notice that the Atom 330 CPU stomps the single-core options that it is tested against, and it certainly felt that much faster in use. Granted, a full-fledged Core 2 Duo makes it look shameful, but remember that we're talking about a sub-$500 netbook here. Memory Bandwidth and the HDD test both showed some weaknesses, and we agree with the numbers; booting up applications did indeed feel a touch slow.



To test multimedia capabilities, we attempt to play back a 720p WMVHD clip, a 720p H.264 clip and a 1080p clip. We've also included two screengrabs of the 1080p clip from prior test rigs to give you a better idea of CPU utilization from rival systems.


Click To Enlarge; 720 H.264


Click To Enlarge; 720p WMVHD


Click To Enlarge; 1080p on Asus Eee PC 1201N w/ Ion


Click To Enlarge; 1080p on HP Mini 311 w/ Ion


Click To Enlarge; 1080p on Lenovo S10, Atom + 945GME

The Mini 311 that we reviewed earlier this month could handle both 720p and 1080p content, but it was definitely being taxed. The CPU was severely loaded during playback, and multitasking was all but impossible. The 1201N, however, makes multimedia playback seem like child's play. Both 720p and 1080p movie clips played back without issue, and in most cases, the CPU utilization hovered at or near 20%. A few intense scenes pushed that up to around 50%, but never did the clip stutter or pause. We even had a few things going on in the background, and never once did the video stall. We're crediting the Ion for the playback ability, and the dual-core CPU for that extra multitasking headroom. No matter how you slice it, it's a winning combination.

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Battery Performance

In the past, we've had some ups and downs with regard to Asus battery life claims. Mainly, the gaming laptops have underwhelmed us, while the netbooks have surprised us. Thankfully, the Eee PC 1201N continues the netbook trend, as its battery life was right on par with what we expected--and amazingly, it wasn't too far off from the company's claims. Asus tells us that the 6-cell battery here is good for up to 5 hours of usage when fully charged. That's of course an optimal figure, so you can realistically expect between 3-4 hours of actual use when really using your machine away from the AC outlet.



As you'll see in the chart above, we notched 3 hours and 23 minutes of life with the screen on 50% brightness, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth flipped on with BatteryEater Pro running in the background in order to mimic "real-world" work going on. This test has proven accurate in actually simulating a reasonably heavy workload in order for us to give you a figure that you can bank on when using your rig on the go.


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Around 3.5 hours on a dual-core machine with an Ion GPU isn't too bad, particularly when this was being "used" constantly by BEP. You could easily stretch that to 4-5 hours if you killed the wireless options or put it to Sleep every now and then while you took a break. Asus' 5 hour battery life figure is actually attainable on the Eee PC 1201N. Kudos!
 
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Summary and Conclusion

Performance Summary: In our SiSoftware Sandra tests, the Eee PC 1201N did well in comparison to the reference systems in the CPU benchmarks, and it matched up well against rival components in other areas too. There was a significant difference in overall speed when using "Power Saving Mode" and "Super Performance Mode," but in the latter, the system was very responsive. We would have liked to have seen a faster hard drive or an SSD in the system over the 5400rpm drive that is included, but we understand the need to keep costs down. The decision to insert 2GB of RAM (compared to 1GB in most netbooks) really helped out, as switching between applications was far easier on this system compared to netbooks we tested just a few weeks ago. We were impressed with this unit's ability to handle our more advanced benchmarks, thanks to its Ion GPU, and this is the first netbook we've tested that could actually play older 3D titles respectably. You won't get Crysis running on here, but older titles can be played back nicely if you tone the details down and lower the resolution. It played back 720p and 1080p content without stuttering, and the dual-core CPU allowed enough headroom to multitask while videos were playing. The 6-cell battery lasted just under 3.5 hours in our "real world" test simulation, which is definitely respectable given the dual-core CPU, larger screen, Ion GPU and 5 hour estimate from Asus under ideal conditions.




We suspect the Eee PC 1201N could be one of the more highly anticipated netbooks given that the Ion-based IdeaPad S12 was delayed to the point where the buzz had died down. A dual-core CPU paired with an Ion GPU is a recipe for success, and this is easily the most potent netbook we've seen to date. You get a roomy 12.1" display, full-size keyboard, 6-cell battery (that can last 3.5 hours even under pressure), an Ion GPU and a dual-core CPU for under $500. Asus expects these units to start hitting retail shelves soon, and if you're in need of a netbook for Christmas, this is the one to get. Sure, it's more expensive than those bottom-feeder netbooks, but this thing is worth the additional investment.


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We're expecting Intel to announce new Atom CPUs at CES in just a few weeks, but who knows how long it'll take for those to ship in a machine as well rounded as the Eee PC 1201N. If you need a netbook now, there's no better one on the market today in our opinion. The Eee PC 1201N strikes the perfect balance of speed, battery life and size, and the stylish Seashell design doesn't hurt matters either. The only thing that left us wanting more was the noisy/slow hard drive and the lackluster right/left click bar, but if you pair up a Bluetooth mouse you can get around the latter. Otherwise, this is an outstanding machine from top to bottom. The build quality is top-notch, it's fast for a netbook, it's the one of the few netbook we've seen with some gaming prowess, and it handles up HD content with aplomb. Considering that the Mini 311 is currently selling for around $530, the $499.99 retail price on the Eee PC 1201N seems all the more attractive. If you don't want to spring for a CULV thin-and-light, this is the netbook to buy.

     
  • NVIDIA Ion
  • Gaming Is Possible!
  • Spacious 12.1" Display
  • Three USB 2.0 Ports + HDMI
  • Windows 7 Onboard
  • Stays Cool
  • Dual-Core CPU Is Quick

 

  • Glossy Casing Attracts Fingerprints
  • 5400RPM HDD Is Sluggish
  • Preinstalled Bloatware
  • Lackluster Trackpad

 



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