With each generation, 12-inch Ion netbooks are edging closer to their Pinocchio-like aspirations of becoming real notebooks. The ASUS Eee PC 1215N comes the closest yet to that ideal of a sub-$500 machine that performs like systems that cost more--yet lasts even longer on a charge. That's because it's packed with a dual-core Atom processor and Nvidia's Optimus graphics-switching technology. Not only that, the 1215N features an improved design that makes it more comfortable to use for extended periods of time. Power and portability in an inexpensive package? Wish no longer.
The 1215N looks very similar to the 1201PN (and the 1201N, for that matter) but comes with some welcome enhancements. The laptop is slightly heavier than previous iterations, at 3.4 pounds (compared to 3.2 for the 1201PN), but remains very easy to carry. Gone is the glossy black exterior; the 1215N has a matte finish that doesn't pick up fingerprints as easily as its predecessor--but you'll still notice them after a few days of use. Chrome accents are also sparse: The power button, mouse bar, and two strips outlining the touchpad are the only metallic trim on this handsome machine.
Like the 1201PN, the left side of the 1215N houses a VGA port, tiny AC adapter jack, HDMI output, and a USB 2.0 port, as well as a memory card slot (the latter was formerly on the right side). On the right are two more USB ports, headphone and mic jacks, an Ethernet port, and a Kensington Lock slot.
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Keyboard and Touchpad
The keyboard is also unchanged from the 1201PN; it's quite comfortable to use and offers pretty good feedback. However, the right Shift key is slightly undersized, and there's a bit too much flex for our liking. If ASUS were to get rid of the Home, PgUp, PgDn, and End keys along the right side, it 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).
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The most noticeable change to the inside is that the touchpad is no longer dimpled, a trademark feature of ASUS notebooks for some time. Rather, the smooth surface is the same as the rest of the keyboard deck but is very low friction, making it easy to maneuver. We especially like that the touchpad is a good deal larger than before--3.3 x 1.9 inches versus 2.5 x 1.3 inches on the 1201PN. This made multitouch gestures, such as pinch to zoom, much easier to execute. The touch button, too, is much larger, now measuring 3.4 inches wide, up from 2.5 inches. However, it still remains a single button, and is slightly stiff.
The 1215N remained very cool during our testing. After playing a Hulu video at full screen for 15 minutes, the touchpad area was just 79 degrees Fahrenheit, the area between the G and H keys was 82, and bottom of the system got up to 90. All are well below what we consider uncomfortable--95 degrees and higher--although the bottom next to the vent reached 105 degrees.
Display, Speakers, and Webcam
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The 1366 x 768-pixel display on the 1215N is bright and crisp, though you have to tilt the lid back a bit to get the best picture, and horizontal viewing angles could be better. The 720p videos streamed from YouTube were detailed and smooth, as were 480p TV shows on Hulu.
The dual speakers underneath the front lip of the 1215N delivered plenty of volume, though we noticed that the sound got muffled when we moved the netbook from the desk to our lap.
The 0.3-MP webcam is improved from before; while our face looked a little pallid on Skype, it wasn't pixilated, and the image was fairly bright. A new addition is a little sliding cover that physically blocks the webcam, for those times when you'd prefer others not to see you.
While it is a desktop, not a mobile processor, the new dual-core 1.8-GHz Intel Atom D525 CPU in the 1215N showed a marked improvement over the 1201PN, which has a single-core 1.6-GHz Atom N450. In PCMark Vantage, which measures overall system performance, the 1215N scored 1,921, which is about 600 points higher than the 1201PN, and 700 points above the netbook average. It even compares favorably with the Toshiba T215D, whose 1.7-GHz AMD Athlon II Neo Processor K125 managed a score of 1,938. The AMD-powered dual core ThinkPad X100e turned in a score of 2,382, although that system costs $100 more.
The 1215N's score of 1,285 on Geekbench is also the highest we've seen in a netbook; the only other system that comes close is the 1201N, which was 200 points less. Still, it's important to recognize Ion's limitations: It took 3 minutes and 17 seconds for the 1215N to convert a 117MB MPEG-4 file to AVI using Oxelon Media Encoder; while that rate is half the netbook average and equal to the Toshiba Satellite T215D, the Dell Inspiron M101z finished the test nearly a minute faster.
When we reviewed the single-core 1201PN, we noticed it struggled occasionally when launching apps and loading large files. With the 1215N, this wasn't a problem. We were able to stream music from Pandora, watch a 1080p movie at full screen, and run a virus scan simultaneously without any of the programs being affected.
The 1215N's 5,400-rpm 250GB hard drive was fairly speedy, duplicating a 4.97GB folder of multimedia files in 3 minutes and 8 seconds. That translates to a rate of 27.1 MBps, well beyond the netbook average (18 MBps), not to mention the ultraportable average (24.6 MBps). It's too bad the 1215N took 1:23 to boot.
Like the 1201PN, the 1215N comes with Nvidia's Ion 2 graphics, only this time, it has the added benefit of Optimus, which switches automatically between the more powerful Ion chip and the power-saving Intel GMA 3150 GPU as need demands. On 3DMark06, a synthetic graphics benchmark, the 1215N simply blew away previous Ion netbooks. Its score of 2,692 was more than 800 points higher than the 1201PN, 1,500 points higher than the Toshiba T215 (which has an ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4225 GPU) and even bettered the thin-and-light notebook average by 100 points.
Although the Ion graphics inside the Eee PC 1215N 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.
We also saw a marked improvement in our vReveal video transcoding test, which uses GPU acceleration. The 1215N took 3 minutes and 17 seconds to convert an MPEG-4 file to AVI; that's two minutes faster than the 1201PN (5:12), which itself was more than two minutes faster than its predecessor (7:51).
Consumers looking to do a little gaming will not be disappointed with the 1215N; when playing World of Warcraft with the resolution at 1024 x 768p and graphics set to default, we got an average of 37 frames per second while flying around Origrammar. That's an improvement of nearly 10 fps over the 1201PN. When we turned graphics to low and set the resolution at its native 1366 x 768, we saw a better result of 48 fps. However, with graphics cranked up to ultra, the 1215N dropped to just 9 fps, slightly lower than the 1201N (12 fps).
HD Video Playback
Nvidia Ion's hardware acceleration also came in handy when playing HD video on the 1215N. 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 1080p video trailers of Iron Man 2 and Avatar on a 32-inch Samsung TV using the 1215N's HDMI port. Not only was the clip quick to load (a problem we had with the single-core 1201PN), but we saw an excellent frame rate of 60 fps, 12 fps higher than the 1201PN. 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 up-convert that video on the fly.
Battery Life and Wireless
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While Nividia's Optimus technology hasn't completely closed the gap between Ion netbooks and those with integrated graphics, it's definitely helping them make up ground. On the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous web surfing over Wi-Fi), the 1215N lasted 5 hours and 40 minutes, which, while 50 minutes short of the netbook average, is around an hour longer than the 1201PN (4:33), as well as AMD-powered ultraportables like the Toshiba Satellite T210 (4:45), and the Dell Inspiron M101z (4:54).
The Atheros AR9285 802.11n card inside the 1215N delivered speedy wireless throughput at both 15 feet (39.4 Mbps) and 50 feet (23.7 Mbps) from our router.
The 1215N's 6-cell battery took a lengthy 3 hours 52 minutes to fully charge. During the charge time, it used an average of 27.8 watts. Because of the long recharge time, its LAPTOP Battery Efficiency rating of 19 is a little worse than the 1201PN's score of 18.1, as well as the average netbook of 15.7.
Software and Warranty
ASUS bundles a number of utilities with the Eee PC 1215N, 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 Boingo Wi-Fi finder. ASUS @Vibe is a neat portal where you can listen to streaming music and radio stations, play casual games, and even take language classes--although the only ones offered were from Dr. Chinese. The Dr. Eee voice command software was hit or miss, and had a few quirks. When looking for local weather, we had to say the country's name, then the city. However, the country name for the U.S. is "America," as in "America, New York." When we said "United States, New York," it was interpreted as "Indonesia, Surabaya."
ASUS includes a 30-day trial of Trend Micro Internet Security and a 60-day trial of Microsoft Office 2010. The 1215N also comes with 500GB worth of online storage, good for 12 months.
ASUS provides a one-year warranty and 24/7 toll-free tech support. See how Asus fared in our annual Tech Support Showdown.
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There are now a plethora of options for those who want to buy a sub-$500 notebook they can take anywhere, and the ASUS Eee PC 1215N provides the best bang for the buck. While AMD-powered 11.6-inch ultraportables offer comparable processing power, they don't last as long on a charge as this machine and don't provide as much graphics muscle. That's the difference Nvidia's Optimus technology makes. Yes, you could get a similarly sized Intel ULV laptop that offers more pep and even longer battery life (like the Acer Aspire Timeline 1830T), but you'd have to cough up at least $200 more. Call it a supercharged netbook or a notebook. The bottom line is that for those on a budget, the Eee PC 1215N can't be beat.