|Introduction and Specifications|
It's been said for years by industry veterans: a lot can happen in a very short window of time when you're dealing with technology. As soon as one piece of cutting-edge tech makes it to market, the next big thing is just days, weeks or months away. In the netbook realm, that hasn't applied as much. Netbooks haven't evolved nearly as quickly as desktop and standard notebooks are evolving these days, largely because of just how difficult it is to create chips that have low power consumption and reasonable thermal characteristics, coupled with improved performance. There's also the issue of cost: netbooks are priced at rock-bottom, leaving little room for chip makers to innovate or integrate, while still turning a profit. People have demanded machines that cost next to nothing, and the cost of that demand can slow innovation somewhat.
We've watched netbooks from the launch of the very first Eee PC, and while they have evolved, the changes are certainly minimal. Most still use Atom processors that top out at 1.66GHz, most still only ship with 1 or 2GB of RAM, most still use integrated graphics and most still have no optical drive nor USB 3.0. To put it bluntly, you could buy a netbook that was produced 8 months ago, and it would probably be 90% as good as a netbook produced yesterday. But we have to give credit where credit is due: Asus is largely considered the company that ushered in the "netbook" form factor as we know it. The original Eee PC started a revolution that continues today. The netbook craze is far from over and for good reason; people still want hyper-portable computing devices that reach beyond the bounds of a smartphone footprint.
Eee PC 1201N. It was one of the first netbooks to integrate a revolutionary graphics chip known as the NVIDIA Ion, which promised to both keep power draw and costs low, yet beef-up the netbook form factor for something it had been lacking: 3D graphics and HD video playback support. It was a lofty promise and goal, but it delivered. Now, here we are in the second half of 2010, and we're looking at what is essentially "Part II" of the 1201N legacy. The Eee PC 1201PN retains many of the same features and nearly the exact same form factor as the original, but it utilizes the next-generation of Ion (we'll call it Ion 2 throughout), which is based around a discrete NVIDIA GeForce 210M GPU.
This netbook is obviously one of the more expensive on the market today. Priced at $499.99, it's double the price of some other rivals, but it borders on being a substitute for an ultraportable. It has a 12" LCD display (far larger than most netbooks that use 10" panels), a much larger keyboard for comfort, a discrete GPU and one of Intel's fastest Atom chips. But have the minor hardware upgrades and the Ion 2 chip made this machine powerful enough to warrant an upgrade if you purchased an older netbook with Atom and the first generation Ion under its hood? Or is this yet another marginal upgrade that is probably worth skipping over? Join us in the pages to come as we take an in-depth look and answer those very questions.
|Design and Build Quality|
As you would expect any successive machine to be, the Eee PC 1201PN isn't drastically different in terms of design and build quality from the original Eee PC 1201N. Only 7 months separates their launch, which hasn't given Asus enough time to revamp their Eee PC line. The original machine utilized the "Seashell" form factor that was introduced in March of 2009, and this new 1201PN does as well. Both machines utilize a 12" LCD panel, a chiclet keyboard and a rather standard array of ports. We say all of that to say that, from the exterior, you'd have an extremely difficult time differentiating between the 1201N and the 1201PN.
We've always liked the "Seashell" design, with a few caveats. The entire machine, inside an out, uses a glossy finish, which is highly prone to attracting fingerprints. Our review unit was glossy black through and through, though a few other color options will be available (silver, blue and red). The system's dimensions, right down to the weight with a 6-cell battery installed, remain the same as the original.
The panel itself is glossy too and the native 1366x768 resolution remains. On the outside, you'll notice a few status indicator LEDs along the front edge, a VGA output, AC input socket, USB 2.0 port and HDMI socket along the left edge.
On the right edge, there's an SD/SDHC/MMC card slot, two USB 2.0 ports separated by audio in/out ports, an Ethernet jack, and a Kensington lock slot. No other sockets are located along the front or rear. The hinge design for the LCD remains the same, allowing it to recline a healthy distance, but definitely not fully flat.
The keyboard is the chiclet variety, which has become extremely popular over the past few months. There's also the typical "bumped" trackpad, which supports multi-gestures. The single silver click button isn't our favorite; you have to mash one side or the other for left/right clicks, but there's no separating line between. As expected, Asus has splashed the palm rest with a shocking number of stickers. This really ruins the classy look inside, but we don't suspect they'll be taking our advice to remove them anytime soon. Of course users can take matters into their own hands anyway.
The build quality is about what we expected. It's a machine that relies heavily on plastic, and while we wouldn't want to drop it on concrete from any distance, it should hold up well under normal travel circumstances. There's minimal keyboard and LCD flex, and the LCD hinge itself holds quite well once situated. The trackpad itself is needlessly small, and there's no middle trackpoint controller either. It's certainly thin and light enough for our tastes, but considering that Asus has made no improvements on these aspects over the past seven months, we'd say that the next generation will need to be a touch thinner and more solid in our opinion. We're about at the point where keeping the same shell and just slightly tweaking the inside isn't going to cut it in the eye of the demanding consumer.
|Software and Accessories|
If the design is similar to the Eee PC 1201N, surely the software and accessories bundle will be as well, right? Turns out, that's exactly the case. The Eee PC 1201PN also ships with a 32-bit version of Windows 7 Home Premium, and included extras are few and far between. Included in the box is the machine itself, an AC power brick, an AC power cable (connects from the brick to the netbook), two user guides, and nothing more. No sleeve or anything like that. It's par for the course these days, but we think a $500 netbook deserves a little something extra.
On the software front, there aren't too many extras. A 60-day trial of the Microsoft Office is included, as is ArcSoft TotalMedia Theatre 3, which actually has an easier time playing back DivX files compared to Windows Media Player. CyberLink's YouCam software is included, along with a number of specific Asus applications (a few games, a direct portal to your online Asus EeeStorage) that we honestly don't find too useful nor compelling. You also get Skype pre-installed and Microsoft Works but other than that, you're on your own. The good news is that bloatware really has been kept to a minimum, with the Eee Dock that sits atop the panel being the only thing we were anxious to remove. Sorry, but we just didn't want to waste pixels and system resources on a pull-down to Asus apps that we have little to no use for. For others, this may be a positive rather than a negative, but for anyone just looking to get work done, it'll probably be more of a nuisance.
We hate to break out the "broken record" comparison already, but in many ways, using the Eee PC 1201PN is exactly like using the Eee PC 1201N. In one sense, we suppose that's natural. There's no difference in the design, so the look and feel of the machine is identical. Let us repeat: this is the same shell, right down to the port arrangement, keyboard and trackpad, as found on the Eee PC 1201N. So if you were looking for differences in terms of typing feel, trackpad feel, etc., you can move along.
We'll mostly mirror our impressions of the Eee PC 1201N when it comes to non-performance related aspects. The chiclet keyboard is surprisingly large for a netbook, and we didn't have too much time adjusting to it from our standard 15" notebook keyboard. The keys are a tiny bit on the small side, so you can expect a typo or two from time to time, but we still maintain that the keyboard on a 12" netbook is far more able to handle lengthy typing sessions than those cramped keyboards found on 10" netbooks. If you type a great deal, and you need a netbook, a 12" one is the only way to go in our opinion.
We still wish the trackpad was a touch larger, and we wish Asus would ditch the dimples and go with a surface that's easier to use for long periods of time. A glossy pad of dimples is just strange feeling coming from practically any other standard trackpad. It's not all bad news, though; the multi-gesture support is fantastic and it definitely enhances productivity. Also, some of the editors on our team actually like the feel and this area is obviously rather subjective. Some may not mind the dimples, though we suspect most everyone will feel that the single silver trackpad button is too shallow (in terms of depression travel) and really could use a separating line. Moreover, it just needs to be larger. You shouldn't have to look at your trackpad, you should be able to just feel for it and know you're in the right place.
As far as system responsiveness is concerned, we honestly didn't notice a huge difference between the Eee PC 1201PN and the older 1201N. What's interesting is just how little has changed in terms of hardware. The 1201N had a 1.6GHz Atom 330, while the 1201PN only steps to 1.66GHz with an Atom N450. Hardly a revolutionary leap, and in real-world use, you simply cannot tell the difference. There's also 2GB of RAM (no upgrade from the original), a 250GB 5400RPM hard drive (again, no upgrade) and an Ion 2. That's the only real difference. The original 1201N had an original Ion chip, while the GeForce 201M GPU is here. We also suspect that the Ion 2 is responsible for the excess heat; we heard the fans on this machine more frequently than we ever heard the fans on the 1201N, and it definitely got a little toasty even after an hour of casual Web surfing with music streaming in the background.
But is that really a game-changer? In our opinion, it's not. What should have made the 1201PN a monumental leap over the original is the inclusion of Optimus, a feature that's destined for future Ion 2 machines but not the first wave of them. Of course, the 1201PN is in that first wave. Asus has apparently chosen to be first to the punch with an Ion 2 machine, but without graphics switching capabilities (which could switch off the discrete GPU and use an IGP in order to save power when you aren't gaming or watching HD video), there's not a lot here that's new. Ion 2 provides very minor improvements in frames per second when gaming, but it doesn't really affect too much on the video side.
The original Ion was plenty capable of handling HD video. So is the Ion 2. But why upgrade? Ion 2 tends to load up videos a touch quicker and it's better with Flash 10.1, but those are both relatively minor. Nice improvements for the new netbook buyer, sure, but not worth touting for those who already own the 1201N. We were actually shocked at how little the Ion 2 improved performance. This entire evaluation would likely have a different tone if this incarnation of Ion 2 included Optimus and if we were able to switch off the discrete GPU and save battery life. That essentially makes for an entirely new netbook experience. As it stands, the 1201PN is the 1201N in far too many ways.
Boot up took around 75 - 90 seconds before we could actually start using the machine (allowing for bloatware to load), and launching standard desktop applications took about the exact amount of time as on the 1201N. Firefox? 5-10 seconds. Steam? About the same. Loading a map in Quake Wars: Enemy Territory took around a minute. All in all, we found the hardware arrangement capable of delivering perfect normal netbook experiences; sluggish at times, but it gets the job done. The main thing to point out here is that there's been no real improvement in user experience since the 1201N, but we certainly felt the 1201N was one of the more capable netbooks of its time. In fact, the 1201N is still selling for around $470 online, making it only around $10-$20 cheaper than the 1201PN. That speaks volumes for how great the 1201N was in December of 2009, but it also tells you that the 1201PN isn't out to completely dethrone it.
|Futuremark 3DMark 06 & PCMark Vantage|
The Futuremark 3DMark06 CPU benchmark consists of tests that use the CPU to render 3D scenes, rather than the GPU. It runs several threads simultaneously and is designed to utilize multiple processor cores.
While we stated that you can't really feel any real-world differences between the new setup and the Eee PC 1201N, there are slight gains here in the benchmarks that at least keep us from thinking that we're crazy. And by crazy, we mean, thinking that we've actually been shipped a 1201N by mistake. You'll notice higher (barely) scores in 3 or the 4 3DMark 06 benchmarks when comparing the 1201PN to the 1201N, but none are so far ahead that you'll actually feel it in use.
Asus Eee PC 1201PN 3DMark 06 CPU Score; Click To Enlarge
We ran the Eee PC 1201PN through Futuremark’s 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.
We ran the test three times to make sure, but the scores shown here are correct. The Eee PC 1201PN actually fell somewhat short of the marks set by the Eee PC 1201N. The primary reason? In our estimation, it's the CPU. The 1201N shipped with a dual-core Atom 330. (Just for some perspective; in the Windows 7 Rating for the 1201N, the CPU scored a 3.3, while the CPU score on this 1201PN was 2.3.) This dual core chip is more robust than the single core Atom N450 which resides in the 1201PN. The Atom N450 is geared for low-power, along with its integrated Intel graphics core. In theory, we should see higher battery life scores on the 1201PN compared to the 1201N in order to compensate somewhat for the hit in performance on the benchmarks.
To touch on gaming
Notice anything interesting? Probably not, and that's a shame. To say that the 0.06GHz boost and the jump from Ion 1 to Ion 2 provides just a minor bump in gaming performance is understating things. And again, the Atom N450 in the 1201PN is also a single core chip, versus the dual core Atom 330 found in the original 1201N. Of course, this is still a netbook, so we wouldn't ever recommend it for serious gaming. And at the end of the day, we did see minor improvements, but Ion 2 definitely isn't about to usher in full-scale gaming in the netbook. For that, we'd recommend something like Alienware's powerful M11x.
|SiSoftware Sandra & Multimedia 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,
CPU Arithmetic Test; Click To Enlarge
CPU Multimedia Test; Click To Enlarge
Memory Bandwidth Test; Click To Enlarge
Physical Disc Test; Click To Enlarge
These benchmarks say it all. In terms of raw graphics performance, the Ion 2 is clearly a small step ahead of the competition. But it's about the whole package when you buy a notebook. The Atom N450 just isn't as strong as the dual core Atom chips, and we simply cannot wait for a real revolution in the Atom family. Even the N450, which was introduced half a year ago at CES, isn't a tremendous leap forward from the original Atom assortment, and these numbers show it. We're a few years into the netbook form factor, yet the benchmarks are nearly identical now as they were then. We need some serious forward progress from Intel and AMD.
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 a screenshot of the 1080p clip from the Mini 311 (which uses the original NVIDIA Ion GPU) to give you a better idea of CPU utilization from a rival system.
Click To Enlarge; 720 H.264
Click To Enlarge; 720p WMVHD
Click To Enlarge; 1080p
Click To Enlarge; 1080p on HP Mini 311 w/ Ion
It's clear from these slides that it's still stressing the netbook to play high-definition video clips at full-screen, but it's certainly possible. Video playback was silky smooth (though loading each video did take a few seconds), and the Ion 2 is largely to thank. We'd say you're pretty much covered here; whatever HD media you have, the 1201PN can likely handle it. We wouldn't attempt to do any hardcore multi-tasking while a 1080p video clip was playing, but aside from that, performance shouldn't suffer much.
In the past, we've had some ups and downs with regard to Asus battery life claims. But while we were impressed with how close the Eee PC 1201N came to meeting Asus' expectations of around 5 hours of maximum life, we're a little underwhelmed here. Asus claims that you can get up to 7 hours of battery life on the 1201PN, largely thanks to the new Atom N450 in use rather than the Atom 330 found in the previous generation 1201N model.
We were able to squeeze out just under four hours in our real-world BatteryEater Pro test, which runs a graphical application in the background to simulate average desktop use and Web surfing while having the brightness set at 60%.
That's nowhere near 7 hours. Of course, if you cranked the brightness way down and barely used your machine at all, you may get it to stay alive for 7 hours, but in real-world use, expect a lot closer to 3-4 hours. Had we ran any serious multi-media, the score would've certainly stooped closer to 3 hours on a full charge. The benefit is that there's no "battery bulge" with the included 6-cell, but an extended 9-cell for even longer use may interest some. Also, note we score another 35 minutes of battery life above and beyond the previous generation Asus 1201N. Not too shabby actually but we were looking for a bit more..
|Summary and Conclusion|
Performance Summary: In our SiSoftware Sandra tests, the Eee PC 1201PN did well in comparison to the reference systems in the CPU benchmarks (versus other single core Atom variants), and it matched up fairly well against rival components in other areas too. That said, the Atom 330 in last year's Eee PC 1201N bested the netbook-centric N450 in a few areas, which makes this particular hardware configuration a bit of a toss-up. Just for some perspective; again in the Windows 7 Rating for the 1201N, the CPU scored a 3.3, while the CPU score in the 1201PN was 2.3. Real-world performance felt very similar as on the 1201N, though. The 6-cell battery (4700mAh) lasted just under 4 hours in our "real world" test simulation, which is definitely respectable given the large screen and Ion 2 GPU, but it falls well short of the 7 hour maximum that Asus promises. We also found the machine getting rather warm even after just an hour of browsing the Web, and once it warmed up, it was pretty much impossible to get the fans to turn off. This one blew a bit of hot air, particularly for a netbook.
What's there to say? The Eee PC 1201PN is sort of the Eee PC 1201N, for all intents and purposes. The GPU is a little stronger, and the CPU is a little weaker, but at the end of the day, you end up with near-identical real-world performance in most cases. Both machines handle HD video. Both machines can only game with moderately taxing titles cranked down to the lower resolution, and both machines share the exact same chassis and port assortment. It's sort of hard to understand why the 1201PN even exists in a world where the 1201N is still being produced, but yet, that's exactly what has happened.
Click To Enlarge
The Eee PC 1201PN sounds promising, but then you realize that the vast majority of this machine is a simple copy-and-paste of the 1201N. The only major differences are the CPU and GPU. The 1.66GHz Atom N450 is said to provide somewhat better battery life, and while we found that to be true, it wasn't a huge leap (4 hours vs. 3.5 hours on the 1201N in our BatteryEater Pro test). The GPU is NVIDIA's GeForce 201M, otherwise known as the next-generation Ion, or Ion 2. It provides minimal gains in GPU benchmarks, but it's hard to tell there's a new GPU under the hood in real-world use. It's still not possible to play any fast-paced serious 3D action titles with the resolution cranked up, and HD video playback is just as seamless as it was on the 1201N.
Here's the real kicker: Asus probably should have held on releasing the 1201PN until Optimus was ready for the Ion 2 platform. Had Optimus come on this machine, we can imagine things turning out a lot better for the 1201PN. If we could switch off the discrete GPU and use the IGP when needed, we suspect battery life figures would've been far better. And what's a little bothersome, aside from the lack of Optimus. The Ion 2 isn't a GPU that totally crushes its predecessor. If a GPU were included here that really smoked the competition, we might be able to forgive the fact that we can't switch between discrete and IGP easily; but as it stands, even the discrete GPU isn't one worth writing home about compared to the original. The first Ion truly took netbook graphics to a new level; Ion 2 simply takes a baby step toward an even loftier level, at least here on the 1201PN. We can certainly recommend this unit to new netbook buyers; it's one of the best netbooks on the market. But it makes no sense whatsoever to consider an upgrade, even if you have a netbook that's well over a year old. The performance of this machine, in the middle of 2010, is barely better than machines available in the middle of 2009. That's just a fact of the slow moving netbook world, but it's one worth paying attention to if you've been bitten by the upgrade bug and are considering scratching it. All that said, there's no reason why Asus couldn't turn an Optimus enabled version of this machine around in fairly short order. We'll be waiting for that day to come, hopefully in the not so distant future.