The Asus N series is Asus' premium laptop brand. It comprises the high-end N50 (which sports a built-in air ionizer), the 14.1-inch business-focused N80, the 12.1-inch N20 and this product, the 10-inch N10. It's easy to be sceptical about yet another 10-inch netbook-style machine -- particularly if Asus makes it -- but the N10 is easily one of the most exciting portable computers to emerge in 2008.
The N10 occupies a market segment somewhere between netbooks and ultraportable laptops, utilising internal components from both classes of machine. Most significantly, it uses a relatively powerful graphics card, which gives it the ability to run 3D games, high-definition movies and more. But is it the best of both worlds or a pointless hybrid? Read our review before you part with your £400.
The N10 is developed not by Asus' Eee division, but by its standard laptop division, so it's no surprise its design has more in common with laptops than netbooks. It lacks the Eee badging made famous on the Eee PC 700, and its chassis is larger and heavier than Asus' largest netbook, the Eee PC 1000H. But don't let that put you off -- it's significantly smaller than rivals such as the Samsung Q210 or MacBook Air.
The N10 is a looker. It's not in the same league as the Eee PC S101, but its glossy champagne colour scheme with contrasting black keyboard and screen bezel give it a premium aesthetic. It's in the same league as Asus' gorgeous U and S series laptops and we're convinced that if released prior to the dawn of the Eee PC, Asus could easily have gotten away with selling it for over £1,000.
Its looks are spoiled slightly by a large-screen bezel, which makes the 10.2-inch screen appear smaller than it actually is. There are no unsightly speakers in the bezel, as we saw with the Eee PC 700, but its fatness is incongruous with the otherwise stellar design. It's not a major issue though, and given Asus' penchant for updating its machines, an 11-inch version of the N10 (perhaps called the N11) wouldn't be a huge surprise.
The keyboard, the bane of many machines of this size, is well-implemented on the N10. The main Qwerty keys are large, well-spaced and have good travel, so touch-typing is easy. The function keys are also logically arranged, so everything is where you'd expect to find it -- apart from the Shift keys, which are preposterously small.
The mouse trackpad is good, too -- it's phenomenally smooth to the touch, and the selector buttons have good clicking action. The pad itself has dedicated scroll strips at the far right and bottom segments for moving vertically or horizontally through documents. Multi-touch gesture inputs aren't possible straight out of the box, but there is a Synaptics model, so it's possible to download gesture input updates at a later date.
Despite the N10's relatively large chassis, it doesn't include an integrated optical drive. Instead, Asus has supplied an external DVD writer that connects to one of the machine's three USB ports. You also get VGA and HDMI video outputs, a 4-in-1 memory card reader supporting MMC, SD Memory Stick and Memory Stick Pro. On the left side of the chassis, you'll also find two rather interesting switches. The first of these instantly activates or deactivates the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios. The other transforms the N10 from a boring old netbook into a polygon-munching, 3D-gaming, 1080p-playing harbinger of fun.
The aforementioned switch lets you cycle between the N10's two graphics cards. The first is the exceptionally boring and rather inept Intel GMA 950, which can be used when you require longer battery life at the expense of high performance. The other is the rather more exciting Nvidia GeForce 9300M GS, a discrete card designed to provide thin and light laptops with better graphics performance than you'd get with standard integrated Intel solutions.
It is -- currently -- several rungs below the flagship 9700M graphics you get in gaming laptops, but it is powerful enough to facilitate light gaming, HD video playback, and is CUDA enabled, which means it can work in conjunction with the CPU to accelerate tasks like video transcoding or image manipulation.
The graphics card is usually seen alongside entry-level Core 2 Duo CPUs, but in the N10, it's paired with a 1.6GHz Intel N270 CPU of the type usually seen on netbooks such as the Eee PC or MSI Wind. You also get a healthy 2GB of DDR2 667MHz RAM, so all things considered, the N10 is currently the most powerful netbook-style machine on the market.
Given the N10's ability to run video and games, it would have been almost criminal to restrict its storage capacity. Thankfully, our sample came with a 250GB hard drive, which is fantastic considering some netbooks have just 4GB of storage. Asus also offers 160GB or 320GB drives, and those who go overboard on BitTorrent can always use the external Lightscribe-compatible DVD rewriter drive to create backups.
It's all too easy to enjoy multimedia content on the N10. Its 10.2-inch screen runs at a native 1,024x600 pixels, which is large enough to comfortably browse Web pages or work with a couple of application windows open side by side. The image quality is good, too. Our sample had a small amount of LED light bleeding into the picture from behind the right bezel, and the glossy coating made it tricky to use in direct sunlight, but on the whole we found it a pleasure to use.
Those who are interested in high quality sound shouldn't be disappointed. The N10's internal speakers, supplied by Altec Lansing, are far better than those found on the Eee PC range. They're good enough to fill a small room, and mean you won't need to have a set of earphones handy whenever you want to watch a movie or listen to music. Better still, the N10's headphone jack doubles as an S/PDIF jack, so you can easily connect to a set of surround-sound speakers.
The aforementioned factors combine to make the N10 an excellent miniature Media Centre laptop. It's odd then, that Asus would ship it with Windows Vista Business edition. We would definitely have preferred a copy of Vista Home Premium, or even Windows XP Professional edition since it incorporates the fantastic Windows Media Centre interface.
The N10 doesn't come with an integrated 3G modem, but has high-speed 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Two of the coolest features, however, are the fingerprint reader between the mouse selector buttons, and the webcam just above the screen. Both can be used to authenticate logins. Simply swipe your finger across the reader, or look directly into the camera, which is linked to face-recognition software, to access the operating system.
The N10 is faster than most netbooks and, in some respects, faster than most ultraportable laptops. You won't feel the benefit of its extra RAM and high-speed graphics in everyday use, however. Its Atom N270 CPU and 2GB of RAM doesn't always get on very well with the Vista Business operating system, as evidenced by random slowing down during everyday tasks and the fact that it takes a good 4 minutes to boot. It probably won't annoy anyone except the most impatient of people, and its solid PCMark score of 1,604 is actually higher than most netbooks, but it can be frustrating.
Graphics performance was far more impressive. With the Intel-integrated graphics chip enabled, it scored a paltry 601, which is in line with the netbook average. However, with its Nvidia GeForce 9300 GS graphics chip enabled, the N10 achieved an impressive 3DMark score of 1,309. It's fast enough to run 3D games such as Half-Life 2 relatively smoothly at the screen's native resolution. The frame rate drops substantially when the action hots up, but if you're willing to scale back the detail levels, you'll still have a good time.
High-definition video was surprisingly good, too. The N10 coped fine with 480p and 720p video, and while 1,080p was a tiny bit juddery, we reckon it's definitely watchable in the same way 3D games are playable even with the odd dropped frame.
With such solid performance, it's easy to assume the N10's battery life
is rubbish, but it's not. Our Battery Eater classic test, which runs
the CPU at 100 per cent until the battery dies, lasted for a very respectable 2
hours 48 minutes -- and that was with the GeForce 9300 GS chip enabled. With the integrated Intel graphics chip enabled, it lasted an impressive 3 hours three hours 20 minutes.
It's difficult to pigeonhole the N10. It's small and cheap enough to be considered a netbook, but it's also powerful and well-equipped enough to take on traditional ultraportables. Whatever you call it, it's undeniably a great piece of engineering that offers more possibilities for less money than its rivals. As long as this is around, there's absolutely no point buying something like an Eee PC 1000H or even a MacBook Air.
Edited by Cristina Psomadakis