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photo gallery
Thanks to its size, the Samsung NC20 is a 12″ netbook that brings an appreciable level of comfort for typing and viewing – two things that their smaller cousins have come under fire for. In our minds, there’s no doubt that PC makers are currently building a 12″ to 13.3″ category of low-cost laptops that cater to a simple customer demand: “good enough” performance, comfortable typing and long battery life.

Each of us has a different take on what that really means, that’s why many variants will continue to exist. In this article, we will tell you if the Samsung NC20 was good enough for us.

Context

Let us tell you how we use netbooks so that you can extrapolate what your experience would be. We mainly send/receive emails, browse the web to find stories, chat with our friends on IM or social networks and do some photo resizing, but nothing computationally demanding.

Physical design

The Samsung NC20 is a cute machine. In the real world, it doesn’t look as nice as the product photos (that’s you’re trusting our hands-on photos, right?) but it is sufficiently nice to get some “wow” and envious looks, even from a few Mac users who carry bigger laptops (15″/17″).

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The NC20 has matte screen and a good size keyboard, which is still smaller than the comfy one on our Vaio SR. Something in between would be just perfect. There’s an overall plastic feel, but remember, it is a low-cost computer. Visiting the photo gallery is better than a long paragraph, so click on the photo at the top to browse it.

Configuration

On the hardware side, here’s the configuration as tested in this review:

  • Via Nano CPU at 1.3Ghz, 1MB of cache, 800Mhz bus.
  • 12″ Display, 1280×800 (widescreen) + 1.3MP webcam
  • 1GB Ram (DDR 800)
  • 160 HB hard disk (5400rpm) SATA
  • 11.5×8.5×1.2″ for 3.3lbs
  • 10/100 wired Ethernet + WIFI + Bluetooth 2.0 EDR
  • 3x USB, 1x VGA, audio in/out (jack), speakers
  • 6-cell battery

For the OS, it comes with Windows XP Home, but would could not resist trying it with Windows 7 beta. We don’t expect to have wild performance differences between these OS, therefore most of our comments below should stick.

Performance

We used a few tests from PCMark 05 to get some numbers:

  • PCM05 HDD test (power saver) 3914
  • PCM05 HDD test (balanced) 4140
  • PCM05 CPU test (power saver): 1470
  • PCM05 CPU test (balanced): 1510

The hard drive is actually fairly fast. In the same benchmark, the Voodoo envy 133, the Vaio SZ120p and the HP 2730 were all slower, even if they cost more than twice as much.

On the CPU (processor) side, the Via nano is much slower than a Core 2 duo. We get something like 1510 points versus 4100, but that was to be expected. We’re not trying to bash the Nano processor’s ability, but we want to show you that Netbooks have substantially lower CPU performance than “traditional” (more expensive) laptops.

These scores reflect only the “peak” performance that processors can reach under stress. The thing is: for simple productivity uses like email, web browsing or word processing, we don’t need this peak performance, that’s why people often say that Netbook processors might be slower, but they are “good enough” and consume much less power.

When comparing Intel’s Atom processor with the Via Nano, most reviewers agree that the 1.3Ghz Via Nano is overall slightly better than Intel’s 1.6Ghz Atom. For you and us, the perceived performance is often comparable, if not identical.

Boot time, App launch time

We also tried boot and application launch times to give you an idea of what to expect. Remember, this is a clean version of the OS, so that should be comparable to an out of the box experience, assuming that you don’t get “bloatware” from your particular PC maker.

  • Boot time: 40 sec (from power-on to visible Windows desktop)
  • MS Word launch: 9 sec
  • MS Excel launch: 3sec
  • MS PowerPoint launch: 3sec
  • MS Outlook launch (no emails): 6 sec

We found MS Office to be totally usable, even if the applications don’t load as fast as they would on our desktop PCs. Outlook, which is known to be a resource pig, was running OK, but it was also empty so we can’t conclusively say that it is usable. You could keep only a small number of email items (like 1 month) in your inbox to maintain the performance to a decent level.

Web videos

We found the nano to be quite snappy at loading web pages (with Firefox) and full-screen Youtube videos were working better than on previously tested notebooks, even if the framerate was much lower than on a desktop machine (30%-50%?). Depending on the bitrate, the NC20 might be able to code a 720p video stream, but we wouldn’t count on it.

Portability and comfort

Weight and size

Interestingly, our first impression was that the NC20′s 3.3Lbs were not “so” different from the Vaio SR’s 4.2 Lbs – perceptually. Well, we were wrong. You can definitely feel the difference if you carry the computer with you all day. There’s no question that the difference in weight gives a big boost in “comfort”. The thing that spoils it a little bit is the big power “brick” and its mess of cables. That’s why we want a long battery life: so that we don’t have to carry that power supply around.

Interestingly, there are very few laptop backpacks that are made for Netbooks.

Heat

The Samsung NC20 does not have any heat issues. The left side of the laptop generate a flow of mildly hot air, but nothing that would be disturbing or uncomfortable on the bare skin.

Keyboard

The keyboard size is a definite “plus” when compared with 10″ or smaller Netbooks. The keys have the same size than full-size keys, but the spacing between the keys is much tighter. To keep a “normal” rate of typing errors, we had to slow down by 20% or so. It is not a big problem and it’s hard to tell how much of it will go away if we used it long enough.

We honestly prefer the Chicklet keyboard design like the one in the Asus Eee 1000HA, but the NC20 was OK.

Note that the keyboard if our test unit was a Korean keyboard. As such, it has Asian characters that won’t be present in the U.S version.

Trackpad

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The NC20 trackpad is not huge, but it has a sufficient size that makes us forget why we just wrote this paragraph. It’s good enough.

Battery life

So, with our low-intensity activity, we got between 5 to 5.5 hours of battery life, which is very respectable. If you watch videos all the time or crank up the display backlight up, this will go down. Also, we used the “power savings” mode at all times.

Ports and connectivity

There are 3 USB ports, a Wired Ethernet, audio in and out. Ok, there’s no PC Card slot, but we can definitely live without it.

Upgradability

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It is very easy to open and upgrade the hard drive or the memory (2GB max), so we give the NC20 additional points for that. Keep that in future designs Samsung. Oh, and we would like to add 4GB (or more). Memory is so cheap, it’s crazy.

Things to work on

There is a lot to love about the Samsung NC20, but we think that Samsung
can also improve a few things, starting with the keyboard. It might be worth looking at maximizing the space on the side and the top to offer a larger spacing between keys and bigger function buttons. The arrow buttons would also gain to be bigger. We don’t know for you, but we use them, a lot.

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Next is sound quality. The speakers are located on the bottom side, and it’s hardly a dream place.

Other than that, we would expect the usual improvement for future generations like faster CPU, more memory, storage… and an edgier design.

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The power supply could be smaller and have a cable management system too.

Conclusion

The Samsung NC20 is a good Netbook that is comfortable, light and has a good battery life – the three fundamental qualities that many of us seek. Its Via Nano processor can totally stand against Intel’s 1.6Ghz single-core Atom and its hard disk is even faster than many (more expensive) laptops that we tried before.

But the world moves fast and there are already competitors out there that can pack more punch while staying in the same price range ($550), power consumption and thermal envelope. If you follow Ubergizmo, you know that we are talking about the Lenovo S12 which packs many times the graphics power, thanks to its Ion chipset.

Naturally, the question is: when will Netbook come with both the Via Nano and the NVIDIA Ion chipset?

Links: Samsung NC20 product page, Atom vs Nano benchmarks at tweaktown and hardocp

Filed in Computers >Reviews . Tags: Hands-On, laptops, netbooks and review.
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