ASUS N10J - Netbook or Notebook?

By sheer chance and very good fortune, I now own an ASUS N10J netbook. Or notebook.

By sheer chance and very good fortune, I now own an ASUS N10J netbook. Or notebook. Somewhere in between the two, I suppose, in terms of price, features and performance. This is likely to turn out to be very long, so I am going to start off with the summary, for those who just want the high points, and then I'll fill in a lot more details.

First, price. The typical retail price in Switzerland is 999.- francs (about 570 pounds or 660 euros). That's roughly twice the typical price of other netbooks here, which tend to be in the 450-699 franc range. So it is definitely at the top of the netbook price range, and in fact is well above the lower priced notebooks available here now. I stumbled across one offered at half price, the last demo model in a local store - if that hadn't happened, I would never have considered one, simply because of the price.

Second, features. The single biggest "claim to fame" of the N10J is that it has an nVidia GeForce 9300 graphic controller. But besides that, it is a very well configured system - 2 GB of memory, 250 GB SATA disk, 10.2" display (eat your hearts out, all you 10.1" owners), but oddly only 1024x600 resolution (my HP 2133 has 1280x768 in 8.9"), good sized keyboard, and to top it off, it even has an external USB DVD/CD drive included! The overall size is slightly larger than the roughly equivalent HP Mini 2140, and it is slightly heavier. Still, though, the size and weight keep the N10J squarely in the netbook category.

Third, performance. Overall very good, and very pleasant to use, but it is an odd combination of a relatively slow CPU (Intel Atom N270 1.6 GHz), and a relatively fast graphic card (nVidei GeForce 9300). So it takes a comparatively long time to boot, but once it is running the graphic performance is amazing. Various reviews I have seen suggest that it should be of interest to gamers, but I got it because I expect it to be very interesting to a number of my friends who are golf professionals, and need high performance video for their swing analysis software, but want a small/light system that they can carry along easily.

So, the N10J tends toward notebooks in price, netbooks in size, weight and features, and somewhere in the middle in performance. My suggestion is that if you happen to find one at a very good price, as I did, then jump on it immediately. Otherwise, at full price, you had better make sure that you really need what the N10J has to offer, because if what you want/need is a more typical netbook, you can get plenty of good ones at a much lower price.

Ok, so much for the executive summary. Now for the gory details...

I need to clarify at this point that the N10J actually has a slide switch on the side which enables and disables the nVidia display adapter. When it is disabled, the integrated Intel 945GME controller takes over. The idea seems to be that you will enable it when you need high performance graphics, and disable it when you want to optimize battery life. It's an interesting idea.

The N10J came preloaded with Windows Vistaster Business, along with Windows XP Professional recovery DVD. It should be no surprise to anyone that it runs like a terminally ill DOG under Vista - anyone who uses Vistaster on an Atom CPU must be a masochist. Boot time, from power on until the Vista desktop is as stable as it is ever likely to get, is so long that I gave up timing it because it was just silly. It is at least several minutes, maybe as much as 5 or more. If I decide to use Windows on this system, I will certainly "downgrade" to XP, but for the time being I'm leaving Vistaster on it as a reference, because I have long since wiped it from the other computers which had it. Besides, it's good for a laugh when things get boring - just turn it on and watch the N10 try to struggle to its feet.

I have installed a variety of Linux distributions on it (details below), and in the process of doing that I found the BIOS setup, specifically for boot device selection, to be a bit more tedious than most. It seems to think that some of my USB sticks are "removable devices", while others are "hard drives", and the CD/DVD drive is a category of its own, even though it connects via USB as well. It took a few trips into BIOS setup to get all the devices defined and in the right order so that it would boot what I wanted, when I wanted, but eventually it was ok.

The specific distributions I have installed so far are:

- Ubuntu Netbook Remix 9.04: I did this one first, because I consider it to be the obvious choice. It installed without a hitch, but I ran into a problem which I had previously seen on my HP 2133 Mini-Note, with its VIA Chrome 9 display adapter. The 3D graphic support for the nVidia card is not good, or not present, and the UNR desktop makes extensive use of that. So trying to run UNR with the nVidia enabled is ridiculously slow - unusably slow, for sure. But disable the nVidia, and the N10J becomes a very nice UNR system. The display is clear, bright and easy to read. The 1024x600 resolution makes for a lot of scrolling, but that is typical of most netbook. Both wired and wireless networking worked just fine, as did the SD card slot. The one other thing that was VERY odd was that the built-in camera shows an upside-down picture in cheese. More on this later.

- Moblin 2.0 Beta: I installed this second, so that I could compare it to UNR on this system, and to the Moblin installed on my Dual Atom nettop, which is having serious boot/hang problems. It installed very quickly - one thing you have to say about Moblin, installation is amazingly fast - and it seems to work very well. No sign of the problems I have on the nettop. Although it does not have the performance problems that UNR has when the nVidia adapter is enabled, it does have some display problems - the right side of the menu bar is badly distorted. Turn off the nVidia and reboot, and the display is just fine.

- Ubuntu 9.04 (Jaunty Jackalope): The standard distribution installs just as easily as the Netbook Remix, and actually works somewhat better because it doesn't have the display performance problems when the nVidia is installed, nor does it have the display corruption that Moblin has.

- Fedora 11 (Leonidas): Installed quickly and easily, and works just fine. Doesn't have any problem with the nVidia display adapter.

- openSuSE 11.1: Installed quickly and easily, and works just fine.

- Mandriva One 2009.1 (Spring): Installs quickly and easily, and works just fine.

So, the N10 now multi-boots Vistaster and all of the above Linux distributions.

Now, a word about the camera. I have read about this in the past, but I had never seen it myself. For some reason, some manufacturers install built-in webcams upside down. I don't know why, but I assume it has something to do with mounting space, clearance, brackets or some such. The result, of course, is that the image is upside down in applications such as cheese and Skype. There are a variety of fixes and work-around available and in the works, but I do not have sufficient need for the camera in this system right now to spend the time investigating them.

Also, a word about the nVidia GeForce graphic adapter. Because the standard Linux (X.org) drivers do not have good 3D support, if you need that kind of performance you would have to run Windows. That is not a problem in my case, because the golf pros whom I believe will be interested in this system use a video swing analysis program which only works with Windows. So I would just provide them with a dual-boot XP/UNR system.

So, finally, the non-executive summary: To steal a term from the auto companies new SUVs, this is a very nice "crossover" system. It is a netbook in size and weight, and a notebook in configuration and performance. If you can afford it at list price, or you can find one at a good discount as I did, then I strongly recommend it. If you intend to use Windows on it, you should plan to wipe the preloaded Vistaster and load from the XP Professional Recovery DVD. I like that term, because I consider that procedure to be "recovering" a usable netbook from a broken, unusable piece of junk. If you intend to use Linux, pretty much any of the popular distributions will work just fine on it. If you need both, or want to try both, dual-booting Windows and whatever Linux(-es) is easy.

jw 17/7/2009

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