Asus Eee PC Seashell 1015PEM review

The tapered matte black (or blue, or red or white) case of the Eee PC 1015PEM not only shows far fewer fingerprints than its glossy 1005PE predecessor; it also conceals an unusually feature-packed netbook, for much the same price. The dual-core Atom N550 CPU, DDR 3 memory, USB 3 ports and gigabit Ethernet add up to a more powerful spec than most netbooks, and Asus claims exceptionally long battery life. Can the Eee PC 1015PEM pack in enough to blur the line with ultraportables or is it just an extra-nice netbook?

Netbooks have the advantage of size - and the disadvantages. You can slip one in a bag, but the screen and keyboard are far smaller than on 12-inch ultraportables. In the past Eee PC keyboards have often been flimsy and prone to flexing as you type; the 1015PEM’s chiclet-style keyboard is far sturdier, although there isn’t much travel on the keys. The keyboard uses nearly the full width of the case and the gaps between the keys help stop you hitting the wrong one - although the keys are still small and typing can feel cramped. The single-sized left Shift key (and the next to it) were the cause of most of the typos we made writing this review. The wrist rest is a little on the small side too, and the cutouts for the LED indicators on the edge have surprisingly sharp edges.

Most of the space is taken up by the large, extra-smooth trackpad (which is flush with the wrist rest but marked off by stylish chrome bars that match the single bar covering the two mouse buttons). This has several multitouch gestures of variable usefulness; two fingered scrolling works well (even if your fingers are sideways on the pad), double-tapping only worked for us after we tweaked the sensitivity and we couldn’t get the two and three-fingered tap gestures shown in the Elan Smart-Pad control panel to register at all. (They're not mentioned in the manual, so it may be that they're not actually supported and shouldn't be in the control panel either.)

The 10-inch screen runs at a surprisingly low (but common on netbooks) 1024 x 600 resolution which truncates the bottom of many Windows dialog boxes. You can crank it up to the rather odd 1152 x 864, but this makes the screen looked squashed, and the 800 x 600 and 1024 x 768 resolutions you can change to using the function keys aren't any better. However the image is bright and if anything a little over-saturated, especially if you use the Vivid utility to enhance colours. The matte finish and excellent viewing angle make it easy to see even in bright light.

Video performance is fair. Streaming 720p video from YouTube was smooth and reasonably detailed but streaming a 720p video over the local wireless network didn't work nearly as well; although the details were crisp, the colours bright and the playback generally smooth and without artefacts, occasionally the video would freeze or jump several frames to catch up while the sound continued playing. The speakers are a little on the quiet side and as so often the bass is lacking, but there's enough volume and range to enjoy a movie.

The slider on the webcam above the display is probably more for keeping dirt off the lens in transit than a paranoid security measure; the picture quality is nothing special and we had to tweak the white balance significantly to get rid of a distinct yellow cast on the image.

With the back taken up by the dropped hinge, the ports are arranged down both sides of the case. The power brick isn’t the tiny one-piece unit we’ve seen with some Android tablets but it’s still small, and the power connector itself is tiny. As well as the usual headphone, microphone and VGA connectors, the SD card slot and one USB 2 port, there are ports you don’t expect on a netbook. The Ethernet port is Gigabit speed (up to 1,000Mbps) so if you’re connecting to a fast router (and Gigabit Ethernet is becoming more common on home routers) you’re doing it at full speed; this plus the Kensington lock suggest that Asus might have an eye to the business market with this model.  The USB 2 port supports USB Charge+ which lets you charge devices over USB even when your netbook is asleep or turned off; you have to turn this on and you have to explicitly choose to have devices charge if the PC isn't plugged in, so it's not running your battery down without you realising it (an hour of charging a phone took 3 hours off the predicted battery life in Windows).

But the most interesting ports are the twin USB 3 ones (which you can spot easily because of the blue connector inside). External USB 3 drives promise transfer rates up to 5Gbps. USB 3 memory sticks aren't as fast, but we saw speeds of 80MB/second copying files from a Kingston USB 3 DT Ultimate and 24MB/second writing files over USB 3 on the Dell XPS 15. The Eee doesn't reach quite those speeds, which is probably a combination of the 5400rpm hard drive and the Atom processor, but read and write speeds around 34MB/second are much faster than the 6MB/second write and 16MB/second read speeds we measured with a fast USB 2 stick in the same port. That means you can copy 4GB of files in just over 2 minutes rather than around 20; a very welcome speedup.

As for general performance, the dual core Atom doesn’t transform a netbook into a true notebook and the processor speed is similar to single core Atoms, so any one program you run will feel about as fast as on single core netbooks. As usual, there's a button to switch the processor through the different power modes that Asus calls its Super Hybrid Engine, but we found we wanted the higher speed, higher power modes to stop Windows feeling slow. Where the N550 Atom does help is if you want to run more than one program at once, so browsing the Web, listening to music and taking notes in Word at the same time are less painful.

Asus claims up to 11.5 hours of battery life thanks to the six-cell battery (which does make it heavier than you'd expect from the look of the curving case - 1.27kg without the power adapter). We didn't measure anything like 11 hours but in light use and low-power mode you can expect to get over 8 hours of battery life and even with continuous Web browsing and video streaming we were seeing 6 hours of use, which is at the high end of what you can expect from a netbook.

With the more powerful processor it seems a little odd to slow the system down with a 5400rpm drive (even with 160GB capacity) which means it takes over 30 seconds to resume from hibernation and can feel sluggish when you wouldn’t expect it to, but it keeps the price low. That and only 1GB of memory definitely hold the Eee 1015PEM back, but upgrading yourself would made this a more expensive proposition. 

Again, bundling Windows 7 Starter helps to keep the price down and the integrated graphics would struggle to cope with Aero. You also get a copy of the free Office Starter; this has pretty much all the Excel and Word features you’ll need on a netbook, but on a 10-inch screen losing 2 inches to a task pane with tips and ads in is a little more intrusive. Asus bundles plenty of other software, as well as its own AppUp-powered app store of programs designed for Atom: various games, Windows Live Essentials, Cyberlink YouCam software, syncables desktop SE (for easily copying files between multiple computers) and various utilities that are handily accessible from a toolbar on the desktop, including a year’s free Web storage.

Verdict

A dual core Atom isn’t quite as impressive as you might expect, and we’d like to see faster graphics paired with it to improve the HD video performance. And while they keep the price low, the relatively slow hard drive and small amount of memory don’t let the Eee PC 1015PEM shine the way we’d expect it to, so it doesn’t break out of the netbook mould. If we were being picky we'd say it's a little heavier than we expected and we don't love the keyboard, the wrist rest or the sharp edges of the indicator lights scratching at our wrists. But these are quibbles; it's great to see USB 3 on a netbook, the battery life is very good and at this price the combination is great value. 



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