Premium netbooks: Good value or oxymoron?

With smartphones becoming smarter and larger laptops becoming cheaper, are higher-cost netbooks worth a serious look? We look at four of them.

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Asus N10Jc

With its EeePC line of small systems, Asustek Computer Inc. did a lot to invent the netbook. Now it refines the genre, taking it upscale with its first-rate N10Jc. While the N10Jc combines a slew of premium features, chrome accents and flexible performance, this $650 device is anything but small, light and cheap.

Weighing 3.5 lb. (4.1 lb. with its small AC adapter), the N10Jc is seven-tenths of a pound heavier than the Samsung NC-10 and stretches the definition of a netbook. At 1.5 by 10.7 by 8.1 in., the N10Jc is also thicker, wider and longer than the others.

On the other hand, this is the bling king of netbooks -- there is no shortage of chrome accents on the hinges, switches and buttons. Unlike the basic (and some premium) netbooks, it also comes with accessories, like a soft bag, cleaning cloth, video cable and Velcro cable ties.

Premium netbooks
Asus N10Jc

Along with the NC-10 and MiniNote 2140, the N10Jc follows the standard netbook recipe with a 1.6-GHz Intel Atom processor, 1GB of RAM and a 160GB hard drive. To that, Asus adds top-shelf ingredients, like a fingerprint scanner and Altec Lansing speakers.

The N10Jc's 10.2-in. screen has the luxury of dual-mode graphics. The setup lets you switch between basic Intel 945 video for longer battery life or an nVidia GeForce 9300 engine with 256MB of dedicated graphics memory for peak performance. On the downside, the system needs to reboot to change its graphics engine.

For a class of computers with few frills, the N10Jc is connection central, with three USB ports (one more than the MiniNote 2140) as well as two things the others lack: an SPDIF digital audio connector for driving high-end speakers and an HDMI connector for a large-screen display. It also has an Express Card slot, a rarity in this market.

I really liked the system's first-class 17.9mm keys, which were comfortable and accurate to use. The touch pad is big enough to be useful and has a scroll zone on the right.

There are also five different levels of performance to choose from. I was able to tune the system's power to its base level for checking e-mail with maximum battery life, and I changed it to Super Performance (which pulled more power) for working with graphics files.

Because the N10Jc provides the ability to adjust the graphics and performance level, it can pour on the power if needed with a 253.0 on PassMark's Performance 6.1 benchmark, about 25% faster than the NC-10 and MiniNote 2140. That gets you 3 hours and 15 minutes of battery time. When battery life is more important, performance can be dialed back to a sedate 199.0 score (putting it on a par with the others), which increases battery life to 3 hours, 47 minutes.

The system comes with Windows XP Home and an excellent assortment of Asus utilities. My favorite is the Splendid Video Enhancement program that let me adjust a variety of screen settings, not just brightness.

While the others come with a one-year warranty, Asus provides the peace of mind of two-year coverage and throws in a year of accidental protection and free overnight shipping if the unit needs to be returned.

On the other hand, at $650, the Asus N10Jc is $200 more expensive than either of the others. So while Asus N10Jc is a primo netbook with the creature comforts of a full-size notebook, you will pay for it with a high price tag and larger load to carry. -- Brian Nadel

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