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Samsung's NC20 ultraportable notebook

Netbook? Not!

If you're a regular reader around here, you no doubt know that we like us some netbooks. Shiny little computers, so cute and cheap. We've hailed the trend from its early days and enjoyed watching the products mature into truly desirable little mobile PCs. Current, state-of-the-art netbooks deliver amazing mobility and functionality for almost scandalously low prices.

But we are also a curmudgeonly bunch, with ridiculously high expectations set by years of observing constant progress in computing, and we've been banging the drum for some improvements in key areas. We would happily pay a little more, we've said, if only we could have a system with a slightly larger screen and keyboard, perhaps a little more processing power, and—please, in the name of all that is right and good—a higher display resolution, while keeping the battery life in that same five-hour-plus territory of the best netbooks. Fact is, making that next step up has been an expensive proposition, since it carries you into the realm of more traditional ultraportables—premium products with prices approaching two grand, typically. That's a long, long way from the magical $399 price point occupied by the likes of the Eee PC 1000HE.

Fortunately, a few laptop makers have at last started to venture beyond the usual netbook mold. For instance, consider this formula: a slim little laptop with a 12.1" 1280x800 display, a curb weight of 3.3 lbs, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, a webcam and mic, Windows XP, and a rated six hours of battery life. The price? $549. Sounds almost to good to be true, but that's the exact recipe for the Samsung NC20, believe it or not, and these systems have already begun selling in North America.

Freaking dynamite, at least in theory. Call it a netbook or don't; doesn't matter to me. Whatever you call it, the NC20 sounds like the ultimate affordable ultraportable.

Intriguingly, Samsung has eschewed the usual Intel Atom platform for the NC20, instead becoming the first PC maker we know to ship a notebook based on Via's Nano processor, a low-power, PC-compatible CPU. As we know from our Nano vs. Atom shootout last summer, the Nano has the potential to be a formidable competitor to the Atom, perhaps delivering higher performance in some situations.

So the NC20 is a category-busting product in many ways, and that is often a very good quality indeed. But does the NC20's formula work? Will the Nano deliver on its promise? And has Samsung managed to nail all of the little details that can make or break a notebook? We have answers to each of these questions, and they may not be quite what you'd expect.

Into the NC20
I should begin by telling you up front that we are looking at a slightly different version of the NC20 than the one selling in North America, which is currently available at Newegg. In order to get you this review promptly, we worked with the folks at Via, who were eager to show off the Nano in its first big assignment. The firm supplied us with a foreign model of the NC20 that differs from the U.S. model in a few obvious ways.

Most apparent is the white finish you'll see in the pictures here. The U.S. version trades this pearly hue for a more masculine black finish. Also, although the key placement appears to be identical, U.S. versions lack the foreign-language characters on this NC20's keys. Additionally, the U.S. model trades up from this system's 5200 mAh battery to a beefier 5900 mAh one. Finally, this NC20 came to us with a blank hard drive; we had to install the OS and software on it ourselves. If you buy one yourself, it will come with the OS pre-installed.

Beyond that handful of mostly cosmetic differences, our NC20 review unit should be essentially the same as what you might buy here stateside. I'm not sure how well it translates into black, but our pearly white NC20 is a strikingly good-looking system in a way most netbooks cannot be. The "cute" look that comes from the diminutive-but-thick dimensions of a traditional netbook doesn't apply here. Instead, the NC20 is relatively thin for its size, sleeker than most netbooks, with a professional vibe and no hint of "toy" about it. We'll take a close look at the NC20's overall design shortly, but I'm pleased to report that its build quality, materials, and overall look are all top-notch.

Before we move on, we should have a quick look at the specs overview for the NC20. This is a unique product, so the mix of components involved deserves some attention.

Processor Via Nano ULV U2250 1.3GHz with 800MHz FSB
Memory 1GB DDR2-667 (1 DIMM)
Chipset Via VX800
Graphics Via Chrome9 HC3 IGP
Display 12.1" TFT with WVGA (1280x800) resolution and LED backlight
Storage Samsung Spinpoint M HM160HI 160GB 2.5" 5400RPM hard drive
Audio Stereo HD audio via Realtek codec
Ports 3 USB 2.0
1 RJ45 10/100 Ethernet
1 analog headphone output
1 analog microphone input
Expansion slots 1 SD/SDHC/MMC
Communications 802.11b/g Wi-Fi
Bluetooth 2.0 + EDR
Input devices Keyboard (97% of full size)
Internal  microphone
Camera 1.3 megapixel webcam
Dimensions 11.5" x 8.5" x 1.2" (292 mm x 216 mm x 30 mm)
Weight 3.3 lbs (1.5 kg)
Battery 6-cell Li-Ion 5900 mAh

Although it's based on a different hardware platform, Samsung has crammed the entire suite of standard netbook/ultraportable capabilities into the NC20, including a webcam, internal mic, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi. The only major omission, of a sort, is the absence of support for 802.11n wireless networks, which many netbooks now have.

The other notable entries on the spec sheet are the Via Nano CPU and its corresponding chipset. The Nano ULV U2250 is rated at 1.3GHz, or you may see it listed as a "1.3GHz+" processor. Via and Samsung aren't being slippery here so much as modest: the Nano CPU in our NC20 runs almost exclusively at 1.5GHz. Via says the processor will drop down to 1.3GHz as needed to keep itself cool, which conjures visions of the "Turbo" mode in the Core i7. Some clock speed beyond what's rated is available but not guaranteed. So far, though, I've not been able to get our NC20's processor to dip below 1.5GHz when active, even while running a Prime95 torture test.

Clock speed is one thing, of course. Performance and features are separate issues, and here, the Nano could have a edge on the Atom thanks to a more complex CPU design that includes number of provisions to enhance per-clock performance, including speculative, out-of-order execution and full support for 64-bit programs. (Although the Atom architecture can handle 64-bit code, Intel has disabled this feature in its netbook-class versions of the Atom for the sake of product segmentation.) For more on the Nano's underlying architecture, see our article on the subject.

The VX800 chipset is a single-chip core logic solution that incorporates the capabilities of a traditional north bridge, south bridge, and graphics processor. The chipset talks to the Nano over an 800MHz front-side bus, and its memory controller supports a single channel of DDR2 memory at up to 667MHz. The VX800's integrated Chrome9 HC3 graphics core is based on technology from Via subsidiary S3 Graphics and is a DirectX 9-class device. The Chrome9 HC's video engine is capable of accelerating video playback for a host of popular formats, including MPEG4, VC1, and DivX.