It's been six months since Asus shook up the netbook market with its Eee PC 1201N, a sleek 12.1-inch machine that for the first time paired a dual-core desktop Atom processor with Nvidia's Ion graphics. The result was the most potent mini-notebook yet, capable of playing HD content and mainstream games, as well as editing video. There was just one problem: short battery life.
Now Asus has answered the call for more endurance with its 1201PN ($499), which kicks that desktop part to the curb in favor of a power-sipping, single-core N450 CPU. Problem solved, right? Not exactly. While this netbook lasts longer on a charge and has even more graphics oomph, its overall performance falls short of its predecessor, not to mention a new crop of low-cost AMD ultraportables. So does the 1201PN offer a good enough balance of multimedia muscle and battery life for your money?
The 1201PN looks identical to the 1201N, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Despite its graphics horsepower, the 1201PN remains very easy to carry, weighing just 3.2 pounds and measuring 1.06 inches to 1.3 inches at its thickest point. We still like the black glossy exterior, but the chassis picks up fingerprint smudges. The system also has a few chrome accents, including the power button, touchpad on/off button, and the mouse bar beneath the dimpled touchpad (more on that below).
The left side of the 1201PN houses a VGA port, tiny AC adapter jack, HDMI output, and a USB port. You'll find two more USB ports, an SD Card slot, headphone and mic jacks, an Ethernet port, and a Kensington Lock slot on the right. We like that both edges of the netbook have grooved horizontal lines, a nice touch.
Keyboard and Touchpad
Although it looks and feels slightly cramped at first, the 1201PN's keyboard remains one of the most comfortable we've used on a netbook. The island-style layout continues to offer strong, springy feedback.
Still, Asus could make better use of the available real estate by getting rid of the Home, PuUp, PgDn, and End keys along the right side. This would leave room for a larger Right Shift key. We also wish Asus would invert the function keys and make them direct action keys (for things like adjusting the brightness and volume.)
The dimpled black touchpad remains as accurate and responsive as ever, and we like how easy it is to find by feel. Multitouch gestures like pinch to zoom also worked well. However, we really dislike the narrow and stiff touchpad button. We especially found it annoying when trying to select text or crop a photo. In fact, we tried to avoid this button after a day of testing.
Given that the 1201PN has a mobile CPU instead of a desktop one under the hood, you would think that it would run cooler than its predecessor. Yet when we measured the temperature of the netbook after playing Hulu for 15 minutes, they were actually a bit higher—though not uncomfortably warm. The touchpad area increased from 83 to 85 degrees, while the area between the G and H keys (85 vs. 87) and bottom of the system (87 to 90) both got toastier.
Display, Speakers, and Webcam
Just like the 1201N, the 1366 x 768-pixel display on the 1201PN is bright and crisp, though you have to tilt the lid back a bit to get the best picture. A 720p episode of The Good Guys on Fox.com looked grainy but played smoothly. A trailer of Tron: Legacy on YouTube HD had more detail.
Dialogue in that TV episode was sufficiently loud, thanks to the dual speakers underneath the front lip of the 1201PN. The speakers also delivered plenty of volume when we cranked Green Day’s Holiday on Slacker, though we noticed that the sound got muffled when we moved the netbook from the desk to our lap.
We’re not fans of the 0.3-MP webcam on this netbook. Another Skype caller said we looked “extremely pixilated.” On the plus side, the audio was clear on both sides of the call.
Moving from a dual-core processor to a single-core 1.6-GHz N450 CPU definitely has an impact on speed. In PCMark Vantage, which measures overall performance in Windows, the 1201PN notched a score of 1,329. That showing is higher than the netbook average (1,211) but lower than the older 1201N (1,488). The GeekBench scrore also saw a drop-off (903 vs. 1,064).
By comparison, the AMD-powered dual core ThinkPad X100e turned in a score of 2,382, although that system costs $100 more. The $579 Acer Aspire Timeline 1810TZ delivered a score of 2,830.
Even anecdotally the 1201PN struggled at times; we noticed delays when starting video calls in Skype and when opening the AT&T Connection manager software we installed. Otherwise, the 1201PN performed fairly well. The netbook didn't get bogged down when we had multiple tabs open in Google Chrome—one of them streaming Pandora—while we switched between the browser, WordPad, and TweetDeck.
The 1201PN’s 5,400-rpm 250GB hard drive proved faster than 1201N’s, delivering a transfer rate of 23.5 MBps (up from 17.7 MBps) on the LAPTOP Transfer Test (copying 4.97GB of files). Too bad the boot time increased form 53 seconds to 1:07, which is 6 seconds slower than the average netbook.
Although the Ion graphics inside the Eee PC 1201PN has 16 cores like the original 1210N, Nvidia says its new architecture allows each core to do more work in less time. Nvidia also claims that it worked to optimize its discrete GPU to minimize latency, which is important because this generation of Ion uses PCI Express to communicate with the CPU. And the netbook mostly lived up to these claims.
Take our video transcoding test in vReveal, which uses hardware acceleration. The 1201PN was more than two minutes faster than its predecessor when converting a MPEG-4 file to AVI, taking 5:12 vs. 7:51. We also saw a considerable boost in 3DMark 06, with the 1201PN jumping up 325 points to 1,863. The ThinkPad 100e's ATI Radeon HD 3200 graphics chip, by comparison, scored 1,080.
What about gaming? The 1201PN is no slouch. The netbook scored an impressive 67 frames per second in World of Warcraft at native resolution (1366 x 768) with the settings on low. The same settings on the 100e yielded a result of 60fps. When we switched to the default settings, the 1201PN's score dropped to a still-playable 24 fps.
HD Video Playback
Nvidia Ion's hardware acceleration also came in handy when playing HD video on the 1201PN. We saw a decent 23 fps when we fired up the Dark Knight 720p trailer on YouTube. But then the rate dropped to a pitiful 13 fps on the Tron: Legacy trailer. It turns out that the latter clip's performance suffered because it had an annoying text ad overlay. (Adobe is working on this issue.)
For our last video test, we played a 1080p video trailer of Iron Man 2 on a 32-inch Samsung TV using the 1201PN's HDMI port. Although the clip was slow to load (there's that single-core CPU again), the netbook notched a silky-smooth 48fps. We didn't notice any hitching, nor did we see any artifacts in the video. Got standard-def content on your hard drive? The bundled Arcsoft SIM HD will upconvert that video on the fly.
Battery Life and Wireless
Forty minutes. That's how much time the 1201PN's single-core Atom processor buys you versus its dual-core desktop cousin. This netbook's six-cell battery lasted 4:33 on the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous web surfing over Wi-Fi), compared to to 3:53 on the 1201N. That's certainly an improvement, but this system's runtime still trails the average 6-cell netbook by a longshot (6:24).
Then again, the 1201PN is more than a netbook, owing to its relatively large 12-inch display and discrete graphics. It's more akin to the 12.1-inch ThinkPad X100e ($599), an AMD-powered ultraportable we just tested; that system lasted 4:47. Willing to sacrifice graphics performance for endurance? The Intel ULV-powered Acer Aspire Timeline 1810TZ ($579) took nearly 9 hours to drain its juice.
The Atheros AR9285 802.11n card inside the 1201PN delivered zippy wireless throughput at both 15 feet (36.8 Mbps) and 50 feet (29.8 Mbps) from our router.
The 1201PN’s 6-cell battery took 2:45 to fully charge. During the charge time, it took 4,933 watts to fill its battery. Divide the total watts by minutes of battery life and you get the LAPTOP Battery Efficiency rating, which is a 18.1. That's a lot better than the 1201N's score of 35.2, though the average netbook is 15.8.
Software and Warranty
Asus bundles a number of utilities with the Eee PC 1201PN, all of which are accessible from the Eee PC dock that appears at the top of the screen. Among the apps ASUS has included are CyberLink YouCam for taking pictures with the webcam and ArcSoft TotalMedia Theater 3 for upscaling DVDs to 1080p, provided you attach an external optical drive. Asus also includes 500GB worth of online storage, good for 12-months. The Voice Command software, however, was hit or miss. It recognized a weather request for Washington but not New York, and in both cases we had to say "America" first.
Asus provides a one-year warranty and 24/7 toll-free tech support. To see how Asus fared in our annual tech support showdown, click here.
Asus and Nvidia deserve credit for improving on on the best 12-inch multimedia netbook. For $499, the Eee PC 1201PN offers longer battery life and better graphics performance than its predecessor. However, this system's CPU often feels like a bottleneck compared to the 1201N's dual-core CPU, as we often had to wait for that Windows 7 circle to stop spinning. We also want Asus to banish its stiff touch button in favor of something more comfortable.
Overall, the 1201PN is a good value, but some may prefer the $599 ThinkPad X100e, which offers better ergonomics, more processing power, and slightly longer battery life (though higher temps and no HDMI). The Acer Aspire Timeline 1810TZ offers even better endurance, but weak graphics. Still, if you're on a budget, this Eee PC is a good bet. Or wait until September, when Asus will offer a mobile dual-core version of this machine paired with Nvidia's Optimus technology (which automatically switches between integrated and discrete graphics).