Netbooks Still Aren't Quite Ready for HD

I've spent the last week toying around with one of the new Eee 1000HE in my spare time. It's got a new(ish) Atom N280 processor that's meant to handle 720P HD video.

First generation Atom N270s were pretty lousy for videos and graphics, so Intel coupled their second Atom with an GN40 GPU. The two Atom processors have nearly identical clock speeds, but the new GPU is meant to rip through 720P videos like a shark in a surfer store...that has lots of movies...and water so the shark can breathe...and...let's just ditch this analogy.

High def video on a netbook makes for a great pitch, and systems like the Dell Mini 10 and HP Mini 2140 are both pushing HD LCD upgrade options to compliment the power. But I can tell you, the promise of HD on netbooks simply doesn't hold true...yet. I tested the new platform on the Asus Eee 1000HE, a pretty nice netbook with very typical specs—XP and 1GB of RAM.

Let's start with YouTube SD. The system can hit full frame rates offering smooth video. But scroll over a flash advertisement on the page for a moment? The system stutters. Scroll over it a second time? The system stutters again.

Overall, we're still talking about an improvement. If you can hold your cursor still while watching guys lighting their farts in SD, you'll probably be alright. And upgrading to 2GB of RAM might solve this issue, too. So let's move to Vimeo HD.

The N280 simply fails when streaming HD content. Even Vimeo's relatively compressed 720p video doesn't make 30fps, nor does it reach 24fps (the film standard) either. If I had to guess, I'd put the framerate somewhere around 15-20fps. In other words, it's smooth enough to get the point across, but the system is by no means silky smooth or enjoyable to use. (Especially with Adobe Flash 10's GPU acceleration, I was hoping that 720p would stream better.)
As for downloaded clips, running a 720p Windows Media file (at 9.44Mbps) was very smooth—perfectly smooth, really. The same can be said for an SD Xvid clip.

However, a DivX H.264 (1280x720) movie was far from wonderful, showing noticeable sustained choppiness. The result was watchable, but B-grade at best, dropping well below 24fps. In our book, that's not good enough. Since most video downloads are HD MPEG4s, the N280 needs to be able to handle this format.

I don't know that you should completely write off the Atom N280 chipset. It's still marginally better for video than the N270. But it's just. Not. Quite. There. Yet. And it pains me so to make that personal revelation.

Early reports on NVIDIA's competing Ion platform (that uses an Intel Atom processor with an NVIDIA GPU) are very promising. So if you are looking for a mini HD machine, it might be worth waiting a bit.