Most people buy netbooks because they’re ultra-light, affordable, and offer long battery life. There’s just one thing missing: good graphics performance. That’s where Nvidia’s Ion comes in, a GPU that’s paired with Intel’s Atom processor to provide a better multimedia experience on mini notebooks. Ion-enabled machines can not only handle mainstream games like World of Warcraft, they can play high-definition video and stream your favorite shows at full screen on sites like Hulu without any stuttering. You can even edit video at a fast clip using programs like vReveal, which allows the GPU to do the heavy lifting instead of the Atom processor.
Unlike traditional 10-inch netbooks, Ion systems feature 11- to 12-inch displays with higher resolutions (1366 x 768) for enjoying high-def content, as well as HDMI ports for outputting video to the big-screen. And they’re only a bit heavier than regular netbooks, ranging from 3.2 to 3.4 pounds. Going the Ion route does involve a couple of trade-offs. Windows 7 models are more expensive than their Atom-only counterparts ($399 to $649), and you’ll sacrifice some battery life. But if you like the idea of owning a netbook that offers plenty of multimedia muscle, Ion is for you. But which one is best? We’ve tested four Ion machines — The HP Mini 311, Lenovo IdeaPad S12, ASUS Eee PC 1201N and Samsung N510 — and put them through seven grueling rounds to determine a winner.
All four Ion netbooks on the market today are about the same size with 11.6 – 12.1-inch screens. The IdeaPad S12 is the only one under an inch thin, yet manages to be .2 pounds heavier than the rest (which weigh 3.2 pounds). Though the Eee PC 1201N has the largest footprint — 11.7 x 8.2 x 1.3 inches –the Seashell design keeps it looking svelte.
Aesthetically, most of these netbooks resemble their 10-inch counterparts, the biggest exception being the Mini 311. There HP took advantage of the extra space to give the system a properly-sized touchpad, to correctly position the mouse buttons, and give the keyboard some extra width. Like the IdeaPad S12, the Mini 311 comes with a subtle swirl pattern on the lid (both netbooks are also available with white lids).
Underneath the lid Samsung and Lenovo both went with matte plastic and spare, professional-looking decks. Black, glossy plastic dominates the Eee PC’s deck and bezel, which looks great when sitting on a shelf but picks up fingerprints easily. HP’s glossy silver deck has the benefit of not betraying finger smudges too much and also lending the netbook a more modern feel.
Each Ion netbook has a near full-size keyboard that offers correct key placement. However, the IdeaPad S12 offered the best typing experience with no flex in the keys and snappy feedback. The keyboard on the Mini 311 comes in a close second.
We also liked the touchpad on the S12 better than the others as there was very little friction, making it easy to slide our finger across it. We also appreciate the dedicated left and right mouse buttons. The buttons on the Mini 311 are larger than the IdeaPad S12’s, giving fingers plenty of room. We like the size of the 311’s touchpad but wish it had less friction.
ASUS gave the 1201N the Seashell line’s dimpled touchpad which has a very distinctive look and is easy to use. But the small single mouse bar beneath it isn’t our favorite. The Samsung N510’s mouse bar is a bit bigger (but still just one instead of two), and the touchpad is wide and easy to use.