Etc.


— 3:11 PM on May 6, 2010

I am an idiot. I've spent an inordinate amount of time regaling you all with stories of my attempts to hammer my Samsung NC20 into shape, from Wi-Fi NIC issues and stripped screws to disappointed musings about the basic performance of the system. I've spent even more time myself poking, prodding, and tweaking the NC20 trying get it to perform acceptably, all the while debating whether there was some kind of technical problem slowing it down or if I'd just had my expectations dramatically reset by also using a dual-core Acer Aspire 1810TZ CULV laptop.

I must have known in the back of my head the NC20 should be better than it was, because I kept on fiddling with the thing, trying to find some fix.

Then, the other night, I found it.

And it should have been obvious all along. I kept blaming the NC20's Via Nano processor for being pokey, but the problem was the Via VX800 chipset's integrated graphics, which are just too slow to handle Win7's Aero visual theme. Duh.

The crazy thing is that I've been through this on little netbooks before—I have a Menlow-based 11.6" Acer netbook that's sluggish with Aero, too—but somehow in my head, I'd registered that Aero shouldn't be a problem for the NC20, and I didn't revisit that territory for a long, long time. Bad assumptions like that can make troubleshooting inordinately hard, and I was somehow deeply committed to one.

Finally, though, in the midst of a tweaking odyssey, I disabled "desktop composition," essentially turning off Aero, and the NC20 instantly began popping open windows and scrolling through web pages as quickly as one could ask. In fact, I've been using the NC20 for writing and surfing for several hours a day since the fix, and it's eminently usable, plenty quick enough for the sort of work I'm asking it to do. Even 360p Flash videos, a real sore point before, run smoothly enough in full-screen mode. Now that performance is no longer an issue, the NC20 is a serious threat to supplant the CULV-based 1810TZ as my everyday laptop for the reasons I've always liked the little Samsung: spectacular keyboard, larger screen, and great build quality.

And yes, finding the right laptop is a bit of obsession for me, an ongoing process. I've come to accept and enjoy that as part of my job and, heck, as a proxy for you, the generic reader out there. That's my excuse, at least, and it is a tax write-off. So there.

My experience with the NC20 and the cycles I've spent on our Moorestown write-up have rekindled another fascination of mine: the question of how much performance is good enough for most folks—even enthusiasts who don't happen to be playing games or encoding videos—and what sort of device can really deliver it. My tales of NC20 struggles have surely fanned the flames for the netbook haters among us, but I've come out on the other side more curious than ever. Perhaps a system based on a single-core Atom wouldn't suffice for your everyday needs, but what about one with an Ion chipset or GPU attached? Or maybe something like the Eee PC 1201N with a dual-core Atom + Ion config? A CULV system with a Core 2 Solo and a Gx45 chipset with H.264 decode acceleration? A dual-core version of the same? There are many points along the performance continuum, and somewhere in there, most of your needs for mobile computing (beyond gaming, etc.) are gonna be met.

Finding that spot isn't a totally silly pursuit, in my view, because it will determine how much you have to spend on a laptop—and how much you have to give up in terms of battery life, slimness, heat, and noise. This issue will come into even sharper focus if tablets take off as a new category of computing device.

The answer to that question is important to me, also, because we have decisions to make here at TR about which direction we'll take with our mobile coverage. We want to review laptops that are relevant and interesting to you guys, or at least the majority of you, and we're in the process of increasing the number of those reviews we do. We did a spate of netbook reviews for a while there, and they really did well for us, traffic-wise. And, as you know, we've never been too big on reviewing massive laptops that aren't truly mobile, no matter how much neon is spray-painted on their expansive surfaces. Yes, we're PC enthusiasts, but we don't automatically get enthused about replacing our desktops with enormous, hot, and expensive laptops.

Our current thinking is that the most interesting things, generally speaking, are happening between two points.

The first one is a step above the $299 netbook, because there's very little difference in the performance and internals from one $299 netbook to another. The area in question is occupied by little laptops fortified somehow beyond the bone-stock Pine Trail platform: CULV processors, AMD hardware, Ion graphics, or perhaps just Broadcom video accelerators. You'll pay a little more to get these things, but you'll generally have a better experience, too.

Oh, and we really want to escape the 1024x600 prison.

The upper bound of our interest is laptops around 14" or so that come pretty well equipped, not just with a fast processor but also with decent graphics, something from AMD or Nvidia that could play recent games reasonably well in a pinch. We don't want to compromise massively on battery life, size, weight, or fan noise to get such capability, though, because we don't think we should have to. A well-designed system ought to have enough dynamic range to travel well, especially during light use.

We reserve the right to let our enthusiasm take us outside of that range, but there are enough good things happening within it to keep us busy for a long while. I'm wondering what you all, think, though. Are you still interested in the cheapest possible netbooks? Are nine-pound, 17" laptops your thing? Or do you have a specific area within the range I've specified that interests you most? Let me know!

   
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