By pairing Nvidia's Ion graphics engine with Intel's Atom processor, Lenovo's IdeaPad S12 Multimedia mini is rewriting the rules of how netbooks are made and what they're capable of. The S12 mini -- the first netbook to carry this hardware -- offers a significant performance boost that justifies its $US649 price tag.
The centerpiece of the S12 mini is Nvidia's MCP79 Ion graphics processor with 256MB of dedicated video memory. The Ion platform uses same GeForce 9400 video engine that Apple uses in its MacBooks, has 16 independent graphics cores and runs at a clock speed of 300MHz faster than either Intel's GMA 500 (200MHz) or GMA 950 (250MHz), which are standard netbook graphics processing units (GPUs). While Ion is capable of digital images as high as 2,560 x 1,600 resolution, Intel's GMA 500 or 950 only go to 2,048 x 2,136 images.
The S12 mini has a bright 12.1-inch display that shows 1,280 x 800 resolution, has LED backlighting. During testing, it delivered smooth, flawless video, regardless of whether I was playing movies, watching online clips or manipulating a CAD figure. Other netbooks I've used often stutter, drop frames or produce jerky motion when performing similar complex video tasks.
A marvel of miniaturization, the entire system board with graphics, processor, memory and support chips measures 4.7 x 3.9 inches, about half the size of the typical netbook system board.
Clothed in basic black, the S12 mini that I reviewed starts with a 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor (like most netbooks), but augments it with 3GB of RAM (the maximum possible) and a 5,400 rpm hard drive that can hold up to 320GB of data -- twice the capacity of most other netbooks. You can get a model for $50 less that drops the memory to 2GB RAM and substitutes a 250GB hard drive.
Like other netbooks, the S12 mini does without a DVD drive. I found its keyboard, equipped with full-sized keys, to be a responsive and comfortable keyboard, but the Ctrl and Fn keys are reversed compared to the traditional layout, which takes a little getting used to.
Connections include an HDMI port, three USB ports, an external monitor port and audio jacks. The system also has the expected Flash card reader, and adds an XpressCard/34 port. The netbook also offers Dolby audio and a 1.3 megapixel webcam embedded in the top bezel.
While it's equipped with a Bluetooth radio as well as wired and wireless networking, it can't connect with the newest 802.11n networks. I really like the handy switch for quickly turning the wireless on and off, but there's no option for an internal connection to a 3G mobile phone network. It weighs 3.4 lbs.; with its AC power pack, the S12 mini hits the road at 4.0 pounds.
At 1.0 x 11.4 x 8.5 in., the S12 mini is about the same size as Acer's Aspire One 751h, but it provides a 12.1-in. screen rather than the Aspire's 11.6-in. display.
I benchmarked both systems with PassMark Performance Test v. 7.0. The S12 mini tested at an overall score of 232.6, which is 43% better than the Aspire One's score of 162. While the S12 mini's processor score of 305.9 was 10% higher than the Aspire One's score of 270.0, the S12 completely blew away the Aspire One's 3D graphics result of 25.8 with a 101.1 score -- nearly a 4-to-1 advantage.
More to the point, an animated sequence was rendered by the Aspire One at a choppy 1 frame per second, while the S12 mini showed it at a fluid 30 frames per second. All this adds up to top-shelf graphics in a small and light system.
The S12 mini's 6-cell battery ran for an adequate 3 hours 56 minutes while playing an Internet radio station over a Wi-Fi connection. This is good but was more than two hours short of the Acer Aspire One's exceptional battery life of 6 hours 20 minutes.
On top of Windows 7 Home Premium, the S12 mini offers the Splashtop QuickStart system that can give the user any of seven activities-- such as Web browsing or viewing photos -- in 12.0 seconds. To use Windows, you'd have to reboot, which takes 1 minute and 24.1 seconds.
Like other S12 minis, the Multimedia mini comes with a one-year warranty; upgrading to three years of coverage adds $129.
In the final analysis, the fully loaded $650 S12 Multimedia mini costs twice what other netbooks go for, but delivers excellent graphics and enough of a performance kick to get you through the day.
At a Glance
Lenovo IdeaPad S12
Price: $US599 (base unit), $US649 (reviewed unit)
Pros: High-end components, performance boost, QuickStart software, HDMI port, excellent graphics
Cons: Expensive, 802.11b/g only
Brian Nadel is a freelance writer based near New York and is the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.