The other day, Dell sent us two Inspiron Mini 10s that were alike in most respects: Both had Atom N450 processors, 1GB of RAM, and 250GB hard drives, and ran Windows 7 Starter. However, one came with a Broadcom Crystal HD video accelerator, a $30 option that promises better graphics performance when watching movies both online and on the netbook's hard drive.
But how does it compare to netbooks without this chip, and how Broadcom's tech stack up against Nvidia's Ion technology?
First, a disclaimer: Adobe's Flash 10.1 does not yet support the Broadcom BCM70015 chip in the Mini 10--which means that we can't see how the netbook performs while streaming content from sites such as Hulu and YouTube. Believe me, we tried. When Flash 10.1 is updated to beta 3, which we hear will be mid-February, we'll give it as thorough an evaluation as our original Flash 10.1 tests.
However, the Broadcom chip does work with content stored on the netbook itself, and can improve performance of WMV, MPEG2, MPEG4, and MOV files. So, we played a few files on both Mini 10s, as well as on an HP Mini 311, and recorded the frame rates using Fraps.
Both Avatar trailer clips are MPEG4 Quicktime files, and the "Magic of Flight" is a WMV file from Microsoft's HD Content Showcase. As you can see, with the 720p clip, there wasn't much difference between the two Dells, but once we went up to 1080p, the delta becomes much more pronounced. However, Nvidia's ION chip still wins, as 60 frames per second is ideal for video.
Also, don't expect to game on Broadcom systems the way you would on an ION netbook.As you can see, the Dell Mini 10 with Broadcom's accelerator performed essentially the same as the Asus Eee PC 1005PE-P on our World of Warcraft benchmark.
We expected the higher-resolution screen and Broadcom chip to have a negative impact on battery life and we were correct, but fortunately the battery life is still very long. The regular Inspirion Mini 10 manage 9 hours and 3 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous surfing over Wi-Fi, while this configuration lasted 7 hours and 51 minutes.
Until we know how well the Broadcom chip works with streaming HD video, it's difficult to say whether or not this option is a good bargain. But just for starters, an HP Mini 311 with Windows 7 Starter, a 250GB hard drive, and 1GB of RAM costs $535 when you configure it on HP's site. If you take the cost of the Dell Mini 10 ($369), and add the expected cost of the Broadcom chip ($30) and a 1366 x 768 display ($125), you get to $474, a $61 difference. That's a good chunk of money for a category that's known for it affordability.
However, the Mini 311 has a larger, 11.6-inch screen and HDMI output. The Mini 10 won't offer an HDMI output, and as far as we know nor will any Broadcom-powered netbook (including the HP Mini 210). In other words, you won't be able to output that high-quality video and audio with a single cable to a bigger monitor or TV--if you care.
Stay tuned for more results and analysis.