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Netbook technology has been moving at a relatively glacial pace thus far, but while Intel is still tinkering with Pine Trail (its second generation netbook platform that's due early next year), nVidia has been attempting to muscle in with its Ion platform. It addresses Atom's main issue, its poor integrated graphics, but until now we've only seen Ion in nettops like the Acer Aspire Revo. Now we have one of the first netbooks to use Ion, the Samsung N510 (NP-N510-KA02UK).
In fact the N510, an 11.6in machine with a handsome 1,366 x 768 resolution display, uses an Ion LE chip. This is basically a Windows XP variant of the normal Ion chipset, itself based on the 9400M chipset found in MacBooks (among other things), which drops the DirectX 10 functionality that's no longer needed since Windows XP doesn't support it. What you're left with is a very capable graphics chip that has one important trick up its sleeve: HD video decoding.
Specifically we're talking H.264 here, though the oft forgotten fact is you need a software player capable of GPU accelerated video playback. To its credit Samsung does provide such a piece of software in the form of Cyberlink Power DVD 8, but we'd recommend using the freeware Media Player Classic Home Cinema, whose file format support is a little wider. It's not quite as user friendly, but it's ultimately more powerful and lightweight to boot.
We tested the system using a number of HD trailers and clips (both 720p and 1080p) and playback was flawlessly smooth, with CPU usage hovering around the 25 to 30 per cent region. Attempt to play back such files on a vanilla Atom netbook and you'll get nothing but judder and dropped frames. Another bonus, in stark contrast to the hot and windy Acer Ferrari One, is the N510 remains cool and quiet throughout.
nVidia would have you believe that Ion also delivers gaming potential on netbooks. This is true if you take Intel integrated graphics as your yardstick, but defeating the 945GSE graphics core is rather like besting a horse with four wooden legs - it doesn't take much. Ultimately, even in a relatively undemanding game like Trackmania Nations, the N510 could only manage playable frame rates (at native resolution) using the lowest, ugliest settings. Moreover, Atom's limited processing power means prohibitively long loading times, making gaming a deeply unsatisfactory experience. Some casual games might benefit, though, so it's not completely without merit.
Since we've touched upon Atom's limitations it's worth noting that, besides nVidia's Ion chipset, the N510 is much like other netbooks. There's 1GB of RAM in support of the Intel Atom N280 processor, which bumbles along at the usual 1.66GHz. As ever it's a combination that works okay for web browsing and other non-demanding productivity tasks, but rich media (high-res image editing, video editing etc) is tortuously slow. Moreover any HD video that's not GPU accelerated, such as flash video, is out of the question.