Netbooks are by design lightweight and low power mini laptops, majoring on portability and (hopefully) longevity rather than raw speed. And a lower price than you'll found on many a full size laptop certainly helps sweeten the deal. But since the first 7in screen Eee PC, we've seen the members of the breed grow in size and price - but not in performance. Now and for the first time, we have a miniature laptop that breaks the imposed boundaries of netbook performance.
Samsung has created exactly the kind of definition busting compact laptop that will divide opinion on its very categorisation. Is it an oversized netbook or a somewhat small laptop?
We would argue that a sub-£400 price point, absence of intrinsic optical drive, under-1.5kg weight, along with a screen that's below 12in is a good enough definition for a netbook. In which case, welcome to the most capable netbook yet created, the Samsung N510.
Before we look at its performance, we need to gauge its dimensions. At around 290mm x 200mm, the Samsung N510 is about an inch wider than your typical MSI Wind-clone 10in netbook. And it weighs a tad more too, at 1.4kg, where most 10-inchers are closer to 1.2kg. The extra width of the Samsung N510 accomodates an 11.6in screen. And those extra 1.5 inches on the diagonal not only make for a larger panel - it's also inspired Samsung to up the screen resolution, up from the claustrophobic 1024x600 desktop we usually see, to an HD-friendly 1366x768.
If anything, this pixel count may be a little too high for what is still a rather small screen. A 1280x720 screen may have been an even better balance between resolution and readability. Best of all, this is an anti-glare matt panel, crisp, bright and clear, and viewable under most lighting conditions without doubling up as a mirror. Colour balance and contrast are good, and viewing angles not too tight.
Samsung has always made good keyboards for its netbooks, and the Samsung N510's keeps up the tradition. At 260mm edge to edge, it's only 10mm short of a full size keyboard. A single pivoted bar serves as left and right mouse clicking, smooth and positive, and it can be easily pressed using your thumb's edge without having to lift your hand. Above this sits a good touchpad, not the largest at 70mm x 42mm, but suitably precise and responsive to light finger pressure.
It may be saddled with the ubiquitous Intel Atom yet the Samsung N510 proved to be the highest performance netbook we've tested to date. The secret, of course, is in the graphics processor. Where Atom netbooks have been held back by Intel integrated chipset graphics controllers (watch out for barely there Intel GMA 950, GMA 500 and GMA 4500M part numbers, whenever you look over any laptop specs) the Samsung N510 is bolstered by an effective nVidia GeForce 9400M chip.
Note that the version used here is listed as nVidia Ion LE, which means that DirectX 10 support has been deliberately switched off in firmware, to keep Microsoft happy with its Windows XP licence restrictions.
When Intel Atom and nVidia GeForce 9400M are combined, you get what nVidia calls the Ion platform, lifting graphics performance to equal or better that of a full size laptop. And before anyone too ‘grown up' for computer games complains that 3D graphics processors are wasted on a laptop that won't be threatened by the latest shoot em up, just bear in mind the potential of a capable graphics processor.
Flash is now ubiquitous across the worldwide web, but Adobe's embedded media player take a heavy toil on a computer's processor. Depending on computer and platform, we've seen regular YouTube videos take more than 100% CPU power to play on dual-core systems. Now this strain can be offloaded to the GPU, following Adobe's recent update to its Flash plugin, to Adobe Flash version 10.1.
Outside of YouTube, high definition video playback is still possible, providing you use the right software. We've found CyberLink PowerDVD to work very well - not just for DVD and Blu-ray discs but for playing assorted other MPEG4 HD video files.
And then there's the other long touted uses for GPGPU (general purpose graphics processing unit) computing. In the case of nVidia processors, we already have CUDA technology in CyberLink MediaShow Espresso and Badaboom Media Encoder, both able to take on high speed video compression through the graphics processor.
We compared standard definition Flash video playback on the Samsung N510 using YouTube clips. The Flash plugin used was a prerelease version (v10.1.111709) with some glitches, but on the whole it worked well.
Web videos that required between 60% and 90% Atom CPU using a Flash 10.0 plugin needed only 30-40% after being GPU-accelerated in Flash 10.1 by the nVidia processor. We could also play smoothly high-definition 720p H.264 clips, that were previously only rendered as a slomo slideshow of individual frames.
In regular gaming tests, we found FEAR could play on the Samsung N510 at an average framerate of 8 frames per second (fps) in our standard Maximum-quality test. We had to lower quality settings two levels to Medium before the Samsung could surpass the 25fps minimum, playing then at 32fps.
While running Windows XP, almost every netbook we've tested has scored around 35 points in the WorldBench 6 real-world speed test; results here usually range between 30 and 38. The Samsung N510 bust the 40-point barrier with a final score of 42, assisted by a much faster performance in the Autodesk 3D (DirectX) component of the ten app benchmark test.
The extra power of the GPU, along with the larger screen, takes a toll on battery life. Despite a sizable 6-cell battery pack - the same high 66Whr-rated size as the previous few models in fact - the N510 lasted ‘only' 354 minutes in a MobileMark 2007 Productivity test. That's still nearly six hours, of course, an excellent result that's only eclipsed by the groundbreaking figures of over nine hours from the Samsung N110 and N140 models.
We're in more familiar netbook country when we total the ports and connectors on the Samsung N510. As well as the textbook three USB, headphone and mic sockets, SD card slot, ethernet and VGA video outputs, this Ion-fuelled portable usefully adds a digital video connector - HDMI. This is a welcome extra for such a video capable laptop, making it a cinch to get razor sharp video and graphics playing out on an external LCD display or high definition TV.
Wireless connections on the Samsung N510 comprise the latest Bluetooth 2.1 and 802.11n Wi-Fi cards.
The perfect netbook? Our only grumbles are the skimping on a decent complement of RAM - 1GB will get you by but 2GB wouldn't have broken the Samsung parts bank - and an option on an integrated 3G modem, for that real on-the-road net connected experience.
At the heart of practically every netbook beats a slow but steady Intel Atom, chosen for its worthy low power requirements. Now Samsung has, with nVidia’s help, opened up the multimedia possibilities in the Samsung N510, making the first Ion netbook. An inbetweener, yes, but one with graphics credibility. The presence of a larger, high resolution and matt finish LCD display further ticks boxes on the checklist for assembling a truly serviceable compact laptop. If you can stretch to the extra £100, the Samsung N510 delivers.