If ever there was a product to blur the boundaries between a netbook and an ultra-portable, the 12.1-inch Asus Eee PC 1215N is it. Priced at around £430, it packs in a much more powerful dual-core Atom processor than you'll find on most netbooks, and it also has Nvidia Ion graphics to speed up video decoding. But just how good is it?
Gloss and glamour
Looks-wise, the 1215N is a much more upmarket proposition than most plasticky netbooks. For starters, the lid and wrist rest have a gorgeous brushed-aluminium finish, and the keyboard and screen surround are dressed in glossy black. The edges are nicely curved, too, and there's some beautiful detailing dotted about, including the chrome strips on either side of the trackpad that mark out its boundary. It's fairly light at 1.5kg, and petite measuring 296 by 203 by 38mm, but despite this it also manages to feel quite robust. You certainly get the impression it will stand up to some abuse during life on the road.
Since the 1215N is aimed primarily at consumers, Asus has gone with a glossy coating on its 12.1-inch screen. This, combined with the display's LED backlighting, does help colours to really leap from the screen, but it's also a tad reflective, especially when you're using it indoors under bright overhead lighting. Nevertheless, the screen's resolution of 1366x768 pixels is good by netbook standards and provides just enough real estate to allow you to work on two documents side by side.
On the right trackpad
The keyboard isn't quite as impressive, however. It features isolated keys, which are actually quite large by netbook standards and have a decent amount of travel. The layout is excellent, too, but unfortunately the keyboard has a fair amount of flex, especially towards the centre, and this can be a little off-putting. When you're tapping away at a decent rate, you can actually feel the flex under your fingers.
The trackpad, on the other hand, is first class. It sits flush with the wrist rest, with two thin chrome strips to mark out its edges. It's big and wide, and the smooth surface means your fingers glide effortlessly across it. The long, narrow trackpad button also ticks the boxes -- it feels sturdy and responds with a satisfying click when pressed.
One area where the 1215N feels very much like a netbook is its connectivity. Along with the usual three USB ports (which are actually USB 3 ports), there's just an Ethernet jack, VGA connector and HDMI port. Naturally, there's also 801.11n Wi-Fi on board, and Asus has included Bluetooth 3.0 support, too.
Ultra-fast netbook or nifty ultra-portable?
What really sets this netbook apart from its peers, however, is its powerful, dual-core, 1.8GHz D525 Atom processor. Although Intel now has a dual-core processor designed for portable devices, the one used here is actually aimed at desktop machines and has speedier performance. Asus has also kitted the 1215N out with 2GB of RAM, when most netbooks are limited to just 1GB of memory. This has also forced it to run the Home Premium version of Windows 7, as OEMs aren't allows to use Windows 7 Starter on netbooks with more than 1GB of RAM.
The upshot of all this is that the 1215N feels much speedier in use than other netbooks, even those such as the Acer D255 that use the new dual-core N550 processor. Applications are quicker to load, and when you have a few applications open at the same time, it doesn't make a fuss when you switch quickly between them. This extra performance was reflected in its PCMark05 results, where it scored 2,451, compared to the 1,634 racked up by the N550-equipped Samsung NF210.
The other big benefit of the 1215N is that it has discrete Nvidia Ion 2 graphics with Nvidia's Optimus technology, which allows it to switch back to on-board graphics to save on battery power when it's not faced with demanding graphics tasks. It easily outperforms all other netbooks we've tested, clocking up a score of 2,849 in 3DMark06. But even with this capacity, you'll still need to reduce the detail in newer games to achieve a decent frame rate.
Gaming aside, the main benefit of the Ion chip here is its hardware video decoding. To make use of this, the software you're using needs to be optimised for it. This leads to some issues here and there. For example, 720p BBC HD streams played via iPlayer still look a little jerky, while 720p and 1080p video played via the Ion-optimised Media Player Classic software plays back as smooth as silk.
Battery life is a good deal shorter than most other netbooks. In our Battery Eater test, for instance, the 1215N lasted for three hours and 28 minutes. The dual-core Acer D255 kept running for four hours and 12 minutes, in comparison. To be fair, though, you're likely to achieve much longer battery life than this under real-world conditions.
While you certainly pay for the privilege of the Asus Eee PC 1215N's dual-core processor and discrete graphics, your extra outlay is handsomely rewarded with fine performance. It's the first netbook we've used that didn't make us feel like we were compromising on speed or quality of graphics. As such, it comes highly recommended.
Edited by Emma Bayly