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Notebook or netbook...Asus N10 has foot in both camps

The Asus N10 is one of four in the new N series line, produced separately from the vendor’s Eee PC range.

The low-cost, lightweight Eee machines were unashamedly netbooks and helped to define the category in its earlier stages. However, the N10 could be an indicator of the future, whereby portable PCs become smaller and cater for the budget-conscious, but retain high-end features some netbooks have done away with.

And with a recommended retail price starting at $1199 depending on the configuration, the N10 isn’t priced too far above most netbooks.

It largely has the physical characteristics of a netbook, with dimensions of 27.6 x 19.5 x 3.71cm, but is slightly weightier at about 1.5kg with the six-cell battery included, and feels bulky at the hinged end. The 10.2 inch LCD screen has a native resolution of 1024 x 600 pixels. The looks are reasonably chic, with a smoky chrome metallic finish and a glossy black screen bezel inside the lid.

However, there are some features reminiscent of more powerful laptops that set the N10 apart from competitors in the netbook space.

Discrete graphics (NVidia’s GeForce 9300M card with 256MB of VRAM) join the more standard Intel 945GSE, with the ability to switch between the two graphics modes. This makes gaming on the run a serious option, at decent resolutions; even though the CPU is Intel’s Atom N270 at 1.6GHz.

There’s an HDMI port designed to complement the discrete graphics if you want to output your view to a higher res screen, and the Altec Lansing speakers also hint at a higher-end multimedia PC.

Our review model had 1GB of DDR2 RAM, but this can be doubled. It also had a 160GB SATA hard drive.

Along with the standard range of ports, slots, switches and connectivity options (including 3x USB 2.0/1.1; LAN jack, Gigabit ethernet, Bluetooth and Mic-in) there are some that stand out besides the HDMI and the discrete graphics switch. These include an Express Card slot and support for Sony/Philips digital interface-compliant devices in the headphone-out jack. There’s also b/g and n wireless.

The eight-in-one card reader supports the various flavours of SD, MMC and MS formats.

For security, the N10 is equipped with a Kensington lock and fingerprint scanner.

The screen size could leave you feeling let down if you’re gaming; as the bezel takes up more than two of the lid’s 12.8 inches, leaving only 10.2 inches for the screen. The lid also has some flex in it, but the build quality gives the unit a solid feel. Its screen is clear and bright in different lighting conditions.

Unlike the screen, the 26cm keyboard makes maximum use of the unit’s overall size. The keys are comfortable to type on, while the touchpad is similarly enjoyable to use. The lack of multi-touch control is surprising though, given its increasing adoption in other laptop PCs.

The review unit was running XP with service pack 2, with bundled software including Asus tools, Cyberlink DVD suite, Lightscribe disk labelling, Lifeframe’s webcam app (for the built-in 1.3MP camera), and Acrobat Reader 8.

There are also two useful shortcut keys above the function keys – one is a magnifier and the other launches Express Gate/Power4Gear Extreme to switch between power saving modes.

Asus has aimed to extend the battery life with the N10. This is partly achieved through the machine’s ability to switch to the integrated chipset when not using mains power. There’s also the Power4Gear app, with the choice of CPU performance modes: Entertainment, Quiet Office, Battery Saving and High Performance.

Our review N10 came with a mini-notebook mouse, however an external optical drive is optional.

Overall, users will see this model as either a netbook with extras, or a well-priced smaller laptop with multimedia functionality. Either way, the feature-set is strong and the N10 is genuinely portable. For those who want higher specifications, or a business-oriented unit, Asus has three other models in this recently-released N line.