Two trends are sweeping the netbook world of late: new Intel Atom processors, and the spread of the Nvidia Ion GPU, which finally gives tiny Atom-powered laptops some graphics muscle. Although the Asus Eee PC 1201N Seashell doesn't utilise the new 'Pine Trail' Atom N450 processor, it has a rarely used dual-core Atom at its heart instead. Normally employed in desktop or set-top small-form-factor machines, the Atom N330 gives the £400 1201N the ability to multi-task in a way that netbooks normally never do.
With a sleek, black, curved case and glossy shine, the 1201N bears a resemblance to other recent Eee PCs. Its size, however, means that, like the Lenovo IdeaPad S12, it looks more like a compact laptop than a netbook. Unlike the S12, the 1201N's battery is better integrated underneath, without the hanging bulge. The lid is covered in glossy black all around (the 1201N is also available in silver). Other than the keyboard, which runs edge to edge on the 1201N, the only other features on the interior are a touchpad-control toggle and the power button.
Although this netbook will never be confused for a fully fledged laptop in a line-up, opening this little guy up for some serious work is far more satisfying than with many other ultra-compact laptops. In our test drive with the 1201N, we found its raised chiclet keyboard to be slightly smaller at the edges than usual, but very comfortable during prolonged use.
We were less fond of the touchpad, however. As with Asus' other recent offerings, the glossy surface of the touchpad sits flush with the palm rest, and it's distinguished only by small stippled dots that add texture. It's hard to get a feel for the edges, and the small chrome-covered plastic button bar beneath is of the rocker variety, meaning you'll have to press on the far left or right for the best click. We still prefer the S12's superior keyboard and touchpad.
The 1201N has an Nvidia Ion graphics processor, and we'd expect a good screen and speakers to come with a netbook bearing that GPU. The 12.1-inch glossy screen has a 1,366x768-pixel resolution, which is standard for high-end netbooks and gives the 1201N plenty of screen real estate. The colours are sharp and crisp, and the brightness is better than average, although not as intense as that of the S12's screen.
The speakers on the 1201N, embedded below the base, offer ample volume and are good enough for you to enjoy videos without plugging in headphones. Above the screen is a 0.3-megapixel webcam with a better-than-usual resolution. The included Cyberlink YouCam software (part of an Asus suite of odd mini tools and apps) delivered good results with still shots and videos.
With three USB ports, 802.11n Wi-Fi and HDMI out, the 1201N offers better connectivity than many netbooks. Our £400 model had 2GB of RAM, which can be expanded up to 8GB, and a 250GB hard drive.
The 1201N's CPU innards are rare: it's one of the only dual-core Atom netbooks we've seen, running a processor we're more used to seeing in nettops. The N330 still isn't very speedy compared with Core 2 Duo-based ultra-low-voltage processors, but having two cores greatly helps with multi-tasking and prevents additional slowing down when several programs are open.