It's marketed as a netbook, but is the Samsung NC20 really more a clever re-invention of the budget laptop in a lighter, cheaper less compromised form?
It's worth mentioning this from the off because most reviews have compared this machine with other netbooks, the current majority of which feature 9 inch and 10 inch screens and sub-compact keyboards. In contrast, the NC20's 12.1 WXGA inch screen and 95 percent full-size keyboard and respectable 1280 x 800 screen resolution feel much closer in everyday use to a conventional 15.4 inch laptop.
That seems to be idea behind the NC20. Build a laptop that is 50 percent smaller, 50 percent lighter (it weighs 1.5 kg) and 25 percent cheaper than the mainstream 3Kg designs that rule the aisles of PC World, but do so without chopping it down so far that it is good only for occasional use. That means making it a bit more expensive that the average netbook - £380 ($450) rather than £280 ($320) - but clearly the company reckons there is a niche to be exploited here.
So having established what the NC20 is trying to out-compete, in what ways does it re-invent the mould?
The machine itself, which comes finished in white or black plastic of a slightly shiny type, is pleasingly well made, with a built-in 1.3 megapixel webcam, two speakers on the underside front of the machine, 10/100 Ethernet, three USB ports, an SD card slot, mic/headphone sockets, and an external VGA. The keyboard features an 18.5 mm key pitch and decent travel, and keeps all the major keys in the right places for the fat fingered.
This is definitely a step up from the keyboards netbook users have had to use so far. It even boasts of its anti-bacterial properties though why this is necessary is not explained. Are laptop keyboard a known source of disease?
New chip on the block
An unusual aspect of the feature table is that the NC20 is one of the first netbooks to be based around VIA's Nano U2250 low-power chip and not Intel's better known Atom. Running on Windows XP with 1GB of RAM to work in, this has the eccentricity of being able to vary its CPU speed between 800Mhz and 1.6GHz, with a 1.3GHz stop in between.
By default, which speed the machine chooses depends on the power profile chosen by the user, with the system offering a choice of four; Max battery life, Max Performance, Normal, and a custom mode, with ‘Max' setting the CPU to its highest speed. The chip speed can be manually over-ridden by pressing the Fn+F12 and choosing from one of the three settings, while another F key can be used to power on and off the 802.11b/g Wi-Fi; the integrated Bluetooth is off by default.
As involved as this all sounds, the idea of allowing the user to adjust not only screen brightness, and hard disk spin times but CPU adds a useful element of power control that no other laptop (to my knowledge) offers. With battery running slow, the user would have a way of extending the machine's working capacity without having to rely on mastering the intricacies of power consumption profiles.
The VX800 Chrome9 graphics is also VIA-sourced, and it does an admirable job of handling things like YouTube video without missed frames, as long as the video window is kept within reasonable bounds. The screen itself is bright.
We'll forgive the machine its tinny sound - it does as well as can possibly be expected from such small units. What you don't get is a built-in CD/DVD drive though these are widely available in external units if such a thing is needed. With this in mind, Samsung includes a backup utility that can put the machine back on its feet, depending on the severity of the problem. A straightforward Windows corruption can be restored after creating a system backup on the NC20's hard disk itself, which will reinstall the OS in a stable state. If the disk has a deeper problem then a more radical Windows reinstall will be needed, and this will have to run either an external CD drive or - we think though it was hard to confirm at press time - an external hard disk.
The NC20 booted from cold in just under a minute; the 6-cell battery lasted under real-world use (and with Wi-Fi turned on) for around 2.5-3 hours. This is a worst-case scenario but worst case scenarios are probably how any portable computer will have to be used some of the time, so the figure stands. Bear in mind also that the NC20 features a larger screen than most of its near rivals.
Fiddle with power management and the CPU settings, turn down the screen a bit, and this could probably reach over four hours without too much bother. The company has promised a nine cell battery for future versions of this machine, which we'd hope would be available as an upgrade because all Li-Ion cells wear out in 2-3 years of hard use.
Lacking a Windows XP reference system, we didn't formally benchmark the NC20, but can report that its overall response is pretty similar to any other £400 laptop. Apps sometimes took longer to launch from the 160GB 5,400rpm hard disk, but not unnaturally so.
As long as the 12.1 inch screen and slightly compacted keyboard are not a worry, the NC20 could, for moderate daily use, be considered as a replacement laptop and not just a portable machine for travelling. That marks it out from every single netbook with a 9 or 10 inch screen.
It doesn't have the graphics and multimedia horsepower of a conventional mainstream laptop, and anyone needing a CD/DVD drive would have to invest around £50 for an external unit, but you get most of what you need in a laptop form in a way that does more than pay lip service to the idea of portability.
This is a machine that is easy to lug around without worrying about weight, battery life but without having to put up with the anaemic performance and a cramped computing experience. The software package is also well thought out.
If the NC20 is a taste of where netbooks are headed the days of the barely luggable laptop could be coming to an end.
The XP-only NC20 currently has one main rival at the same screen size, Dell's Mini 12, which can be bought in Ubuntu Linux or XP versions. The Ubuntu version is a bit cheaper than the XP of course, but the main difference is that the Samsung has a larger hard disk and a better battery - Dell supplies an inferior 3 cell 24WHr unit with the Mini 12.