Ion netbooks head-to-head: Atom, overcharged?

Joanna Stern
J. Stern|12.30.09

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Ion netbooks head-to-head: Atom, overcharged?
It's been more than a year since NVIDIA announced its Ion platform, promising to bring HD video and gaming to the underpowered Atom CPU. After all the hold ups, we started to wonder if we'd ever see the platform packed inside a netbook, so imagine our surprise when no less than four Ion-based machines launched in the past few months. With bigger screens, better specs, more graphics muscle and, of course, the resulting higher price tag, each of these Ion machines promises quite a bit, but which one lives up to the hype? We got them all together and spent the past few weeks testing the ASUS Eee PC 1201N, Lenovo IdeaPad S12, HP Mini 311 and the Samsung N510 -- follow on past the break for our complete faceoff.

The Contenders

ASUS Eee PC 1201N ($499.99)
  • 12.1-inch LED display (1366 x 768)
  • Windows 7 Home Premium
  • 1.6GHz Dual Core Intel Atom 330
  • NVIDIA Ion
  • 1GB of RAM
  • 5,400rpm, 320GB Hard Drive
  • Battery: 6-Cell 63Whr Li-ion

Lenovo IdeaPad S12 ($649.00)
  • 12.1-inch LED display (1280 x 800)
  • Windows 7 Home Premium
  • 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270
  • NVIDIA Ion
  • 3GB of RAM
  • 5,400rpm, 250GB Hard Drive
  • Battery: 6-Cell 52Whr Li-ion

HP Mini 311 ($474.99)
  • 11.6-inch LED display (1366 x 768)
  • Windows XP Home Edition
  • 1.66GHz Intel Atom N280
  • 1GB of RAM
  • 5,400rpm, 320GB Hard Drive
  • Battery: 6-Cell 55Whr Li-ion

Samsung N510 ($599.99)
  • 11.6-inch LED display (1366 x 768)
  • Windows 7 Home Premium
  • 1.66GHz Intel Atom N280
  • 2GB of RAM
  • 5,400rpm, 250GB Hard Drive
  • Battery: 6-Cell 66Wh Li-ion

Round 1: Design

All four netbooks forgo 10-inch displays for more spacious 11.6- to 12.1-inch screens, but not to worry -- they're still compact enough to slip into a laptop bag or carry with just a free hand. While on paper the 1.1-inch, 3.4-pound Lenovo isn't quite the thickest -- that'd be the ASUS at 1.3-inches -- its hefty, protruding six-cell battery does makes it the heaviest and chunkiest-looking of the bunch. And though Samsung does manage a nice, 1.2-inch thin body, the 3.1-pound, 1.1-inch thin HP Mini 311 is noticeably the lightest and trimmest and it still manages to house the same ports as the rest (three USBs, HDMI, VGA, Ethernet and a headphone and microphone jack).

When it comes to aesthetics, the Lenovo, Samsung and ASUS all closely resemble their smaller netbook siblings, and their glossy, fingerprint-loving lids and black matte keyboards decks exude a pseudo-professional look. The Lenovo's light circular dot pattern gives it some difference, but overall all three look quite similar. We did appreciate the small differences though, like the tear drop power button nestled on the Samsung's hinge, and the pearl-like decoration on the Lenovo. But it's really HP that manages to hit on both portability and design. We really liked the Mini 311's subtle, swirly pattern on its white lid and the contrasting silver keyboard and palmrest. And as fingerprint-smudged lids really drive us nuts, it didn't hurt that the lid didn't leave any traces of our slimy hands.

Round 2: Keyboard, touchpad and screen

With wider screens and more deck real estate, all of the keyboards were comfortable for everyday use, but that's not to say they're all perfect. Though we found ASUS' chiclet keyboard easy to type on, the keys themselves felt chintzy, as we've mentioned before. It's a similar story with HP's silver coated keys; we like the feel of them, but they don't seem like they'd wear well and in some areas we could probably pop a key off without too much effort. The Samsung and Lenovo's matte keyboards are by far the most sturdy, but feel of the raised and angled black keys on the Lenovo stood out in quality.

All the touchpads were comfortable. But HP continues to have an Achilles heel when it comes touchpads: the Mini 311's pad is positioned too close to the keyboard, and when we typed our palm repeatedly moved the cursor to a different location on the screen. Because you can't turn the touchpad off, we did figure out how best to angle our hands, but it was quite peeving. Both the Samsung and ASUS have multitouch pads, and we're happy to report two finger scrolling worked fine, although the single mouse buttons were lame and we preferred to double tap. In the end, Lenovo's wide pad and firm, dedicated right and left buttons provided the best all-around experience.

While the ASUS and Lenovo have 12.1-inch displays, HP and Samsung went with smaller 11.6-inchers -- though they're really not noticeably smaller to the naked eye. Lenovo's screen has a 1200 x 800 resolution, but the rest have 1366x768 resolutions, which makes viewing HD content crisp and clear. However, the glare caused by the glossy screens on the ASUS, Lenovo and HP is extremely noticeable and results in poor horizontal viewing angles when trying to share the screen with a friend. We did, however, take a liking to the viewing angles on the Samsung N510's matte screen, and the fact that we didn't have to look at our reflection every time the screen turned dark in a game or video. Though Samsung's screen was better in terms of pure quality, this round still goes to Lenovo for superb ergonomics.

Round 3: Overall performance

Okay, here's the big surprise. Though NVIDIA says Ion should have no impact on everyday performance, the Samsung, HP and the Lenovo felt slower than other Atom N270 and N280 netbooks we've tested. Though it's not really reflected in the benchmarks, we noticed it taking longer for the machines to open programs, and when working in Firefox with a handful of tabs they just lagged more than others. In an informal stopwatch test it took the Lenovo and Samsung 2.5 seconds to open Firefox with no other programs running, while it took the standard N280-based HP Mini 5101 1 second. Similarly, it took the Lenovo 8 seconds, the Samsung 6 seconds to open the same 1.5MB PDF in Adobe Acrobat 9, while both the standard HP Mini 5101 and the next-gen Atom N450-based Eee PC 1005PE opened it in 3 seconds flat.

So while Ion promised better performance, these netbooks feel more sluggish in everyday tasks. And though we've heard theories trying to explain it -- including Liliputing's about increased screen resolution causing more strain on the CPU -- all we actually know is that these results are disappointing. Sure, all these laptops will capably handle your web surfing and light application needs, but the inescapable fact is that a netbook which costs $200 less will probably do it faster.

PDF Open Times GIMP Open Times
ASUS Eee PC 1201N (Win 7 SE) 3.5 sec 21 sec
HP Mini 311 (XP) 5 sec 24 sec
Lenovo IdeaPad S12 (Win 7 SE) 8 sec
42 sec
Samsung N510 6 sec 33 sec
ASUS Eee PC 1005PE (Intel Atom N450)* 3 sec 21 sec
HP Mini 5101 (Intel Atom N280)* 3 sec 20 sec
*Standard Intel Atom configuration

The HP, Lenovo and Samsung all may come equipped with standard, single-core Atom processors, but the Eee PC 1201N's dual-core 1.66GHz Atom N330 processor showed no hurt. And as we mentioned in our full review of the 1201N, it felt much snappier in everyday use than any of the N270 or N280 Atom netbooks we've tested, and the benchmark chart below echoes that.

GeekBench PCMark05
ASUS Eee PC 1201N (Win 7 SE) 1106 2208
HP Mini 311 (XP) 957 2016
Lenovo IdeaPad S12 (Win 7 SE) 833 1394
Samsung N510 883 1799
ASUS Eee PC 1005PE (Intel Atom N450) 942 1431
HP Mini 5101 (Intel Atom N280) 920 1650

Round 4: Graphics and HD performance

Graphics and multimedia performance, on the other hand, blew us away -- Ion undoubtedly provides better multimedia handling, even if it's at the expense of everyday performance. All four of the netbooks were able to play a Blu-ray clip at a full 1080p resolution, smoothly stream a YouTube 1080p clip with Flash 10.1 installed, and handle some mainstream games -- all things we couldn't do with the HP Mini 5101 or the Pine Trail-powered MSI Wind U135. But as you'd expect, the Eee PC 1201N's stronger CPU helped it to notch better benchmarks and framerates than the other systems. Playing Batman: Arkham Asylum at 1024 x 768 resolution was noticeably speedier on the ASUS than with the Lenovo IdeaPad S12.

3DMark06 WoW (FPS)*
ASUS Eee PC 1201N (Win 7 SE) 1555 30
HP Mini 311 (XP) 1464 29
Lenovo IdeaPad S12 (Win 7 SE) 1243 21
Samsung N510 1271 25
ASUS Eee PC 1005PE 157 ---
HP Mini 5101 128 ---
* World of Warcraft frames per second measured in native resolution

Quick note: the Samsung N510 and HP Mini 311 have an Ion LE chipset. The only difference between LE and regular Ion is that the LE version disables support for DirectX10, but if you're up for the challenge you could always try and hack it.

Round 5: Battery life

Battery Life on video rundown
ASUS Eee PC 1201N (Win 7 SE) 2:26:00
HP Mini 311 (XP) 3:53:00
Lenovo IdeaPad S12 (Win 7 SE) 2:40:00
Samsung N510 3:20:00
ASUS Eee PC 1005PE 8:10:00
HP Mini 5101 5:45:00

NVIDIA claims that Ion has minimal effects on battery life; we'd beg to differ. Despite the fact that each netbook was outfitted with a higher-capacity six-cell battery, none of them lasted longer than four hours on our HD video rundown test. Both the ASUS and the Lenovo got less than three hours, which is incredibly low for a modern ultraportable or netbook. Nevertheless, the Mini 311 posted the best time at 3 hours and 51 minutes -- far short of the standard Atom-based HP Mini 5101's six hours, and not even close to the eight hours we got from the Pine Trail-equipped ASUS Eee PC 1005PE.

Overall Winner

ASUS Eee PC 1201N

We're sad to say that we're a little disappointed in this crop of Ion netbooks -- we've waited over a year for them to arrive, and, well, it's just not last year anymore. While the $499 Eee PC 1201N is our choice of the group since it doesn't sacrifice performance for added graphics, it still feels dated in some ways: Intel's next generation Pine Trail Atom has just been released and you can get a comparable ULV laptop for just a few more bucks. You'll have to ask yourself if the improved graphics and multimedia capabilities of these machines are worth the decrease in performance and battery life the Ion chipset seems to involve -- and whether that tradeoff is worth an extra $200 over a typical netbook. In the end, we just feel like this is all too little, too late, and maybe NVIDIA knows it too -- Ion 2 is supposedly right around the corner. Let's just hope we don't have to wait another year.
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