Samsung’s NC20 ultraportable notebook

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″ 1280×800 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 (1280×800) 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 VGA
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)
Trackpad
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.

Sizing up the NC20

Designed as it is around its 12.1″ display, the NC20 has the footprint of a traditional ultraportable: markedly smaller and thinner than your average 14″ laptop, but wider and deeper than a netbook. I’ve taken some pictures of the NC20 alongside examples of both classes of systems. Representing the business laptop is Lenovo’s ThinkPad T60, which has a thin profile and a 14″ display with a 4:3 aspect ratio. Representing netbooks is my Eee PC 1000H.

The NC20 slots right in between the T60 and the 1000H in terms of overall size. This is still a very compact and easily portable machine. Chassis thickness ranges from just over 1.5″ at the rear, with the battery installed, to 1″ thick at the front, so the NC20 is respectably trim, though it doesn’t delve into Kate Moss/MacBook Air territory.

As you can see, Samsung has endowed the NC20 with the usual complement of ports along its sides. I believe you can work out which ones are what types without my assistance, but I should mention that the one item of note not visible in the pictures above is an SD flash reader located on the front of the unit, under the left portion of the wrist wrest. Everything else is in plain sight, and the rear of the enclosure is devoid of ports entirely, save for the battery bay.

Yes, the NC20 is adorned with blue LED indicators, but rest assured: they are tastefully modulated and look rather attractive.

No, really!

User interface elements

Speaking of LEDs, the backlight on the NC20’s display is impressively bright. Even a relatively pricey older laptop with a CCFL backlight won’t match the NC20’s peak brightness, and I suspect many NC20 owners will prefer to work at levels between 40% and 60% of the display’s peak illumination.

But the big story here is the NC20’s native resolution. I love my Eee PC 1000H—or at least I really like it in a healthy, manly way—but working within the confines of its 1024×600 pixel grid oftentimes feels painfully cramped. Not so with the NC20, whose 1280×800 screen offers plenty of breathing room.

Unfortunately, like a great many laptops these days, the NC20’s LCD appears to be based on a TN panel. The giveaways are less-than-stellar color reproduction and a narrow optimal viewing angle. Color contrast varies dramatically within a range of five to ten degrees vertically, so I found myself tinkering with the screen’s position on the hinge to get things “dialed in” before each use. Of course, one can hardly make this criticism about the NC20 alone. The new MacBooks, to name but one example, have a display whose quality may not even match the NC20’s—and MacBooks cost over twice the price.

Now, let’s talk gloss. I am a proponent of transreflective (that is: “glossy”) coatings on laptop displays. Done right, they make tremendous sense. Such coatings allow more light to pass through from the backlight, which can conserve battery life, and they are unequaled in their down-to-the-pixel sharpness. Even the best matte displays look muddy by contrast. I’ve used a Sharp laptop with a glossy screen for years now, and I continue to appreciate its merits.

Even so, the NC20’s glossy display coating bugs me. It seems to reflect more light than some, and to do so very harshly. Sharp highlights behind you translate into sharp lines of interference on the screen. Add in the display’s narrow optimal viewing angle, and you have a recipe for frustration. Adapting to harsh lighting conditions can be rather difficult. I consider this problem the be the NC20’s single biggest drawback.

Happily, the NC20’s keyboard demands very few compromises. You can see in the picture that our sample’s keyboard doesn’t have a U.S.-only layout, but the key placements follow the typical U.S. style, as do the NC20s selling on these shores. The most apparent potential complaint in this layout might be the relatively small space bar, but it didn’t cause me any grief. The only difficult adaptation for me had to do with the page-up and page-down keys, which I hit much too often when aiming for an arrow key.

Beyond that one frustration, I have no complaints. The key caps are nicely textured, and the whole mechanism works very well. The chassis feels as if it were machined out of a single piece of high-grade plastic, with no hint of keyboard flex and no rattle from other keys as you bang away at high speed. Key travel is shallow, but the positive feedback of the scissor-style switch mechanism reassures. As a writer, I’m hypersensitive about keyboard quality, and I would purchase an NC20 for myself with no hesitation.

And yes, that is a ThinkPad next to the NC20 in the picture above, and I want desperately to compare the NC20 to it. Such things have become horribly cliche, though, so I’ll refrain. Although the comparison would put the NC20 in a very good light, if I were to make it.

Samsung bills the NC20’s keyboard as 97% of full size, but such claims are slippery. For those who care, the NC20’s keyboard area is 90% of the width of our reference “full-size keyboard” (from my colleague Geoff’s old 14″ Dell laptop) and 92% of its height, or only 83% of its total area. More notably, perhaps, the NC20’s alpha keys are 97% of full width and 95% of full height, and they occupy 91% of the area that our full-size keyboard’s alpha keys do. To me, that’s largely immaterial. The NC20’s keyboard is large enough not to call attention to itself, and that’s what matters.

The NC20’s touchpad is of the Synaptics variety, with a finely textured surface, adequate (and adjustable) sensitivity, and enough surface area to satisfy even this Eee PC 1000H user. The only multi-touch function supported by Synaptics’ latest drivers is zoom, though—no two-fingered scroll for you! The dedicated scroll area on the pad works well enough, but it’s just not as gratifying as a multi-touch swipe.

The other bits and pieces of the NC20 are serviceable, if not sexy. The webcam’s image quality is fine—for a 1.3 megapixel webcam—and the speakers are decent enough. There’s not much in the way of bass output, of course, but the sound is clear and crisp, with plenty of volume and little distortion at peak levels. In this, the NC20 participates in recent progress. If you’re accustomed to a laptop that’s two or three years old, the NC20’s sound quality may surprise you.

Power management software

I’ve seen some awful power management software in various laptops over time, especially from smaller brands. Fortunately, Samsung’s Battery Manager program doesn’t fall into that category. The interface is simple and clear, and the operation of the program via hotkeys is quick and smooth, not clunky. The software integrates well with Windows XP’s power schemes, and it offers eight increments of display brightness, enough to placate my control-freak impulses. The software can drop the display to a low brightness level after a configurable period of inactivity, too, which conserves battery life without annoying.

Battery Manager offers three power schemes, each of which is configurable. By default, in the “normal” and “speed” modes, the Nano peaks at 1.5GHz and idles at 800MHz. In the “max battery” mode, the CPU frequency is capped at 800MHz, but this mode must be invoked manually via a hotkey or the UI. The NC20 doesn’t automatically switch into this performance-restricted mode when unplugged from a wall socket—unlike a certain netbook against which we might be comparing it. Ahem.

Under the hood

The underbelly of the NC20 isn’t much to look at, but it does have a few notable features. Near the bottom edge of the unit, to the right, is the SD card reader slot. Just north of it, on the right and left, are the speakers.

A single piece of plastic covers the 2.5″ drive bay and the NC20’s lone SO-DIMM slot. Although it ships with a single 1GB SO-DIMM and is listed at a max of 1GB in Samsung’s specifications, the NC20 had no trouble recognizing a 2GB SO-DIMM and making use of it. Given the price of DDR2 memory these days, I’d order a 2GB module as a matter of course with any NC20 purchase.

Here’s a closer look at our review unit’s 5200 mAh battery. As I’ve noted, U.S. versions of the NC20 have a 5900 mAh battery, instead.

The NC20’s thermals are remarkably tame, a tribute to both the Via Nano platform’s low-power operation and Samsung’s engineering efforts for the NC20’s cooling. The surface of the NC20 rarely feels more than slightly warm to the touch, if that, and the operation of the side-vented internal blower is barely audible most of the time.

We measured the temperatures above after a fairly typical web surfing session. For what it’s worth, pointing our IR thermometer at the mouth of the exhaust vent on the NC20 yielded a reading of 104° F.

Our testing methods

We’ve compared this category-busting notebook against a pair of competitors: the Eee PC 1000H, the quintessential netbook, and another netbook-notebook tweener, HP’s Pavilion dv2.

All tests were run three times, and their results were averaged.

System

HP Pavilion dv2


Asus Eee PC 1000H


Samsung NC20
Processor AMD Athlon Neo MV-40
1.6GHz
Intel Atom N270 1.6GHz Via Nano ULV 2250 1.3GHz+
System bus HyperTransport 800MHz 533MHz (133MHz quad-pumped) 800 MT/s (200MHz
quad-pumped)
North bridge AMD RS690E Intel 945GSE Via VX800
South bridge AMD SB600 Intel ICH7M Via ID8353
Memory size 2GB (1 DIMM) 1GB (1 DIMM) 1GB (1 DIMM)
Memory type DDR2 SDRAM at 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM at 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM at 667MHz
CAS latency
(CL)
5 4

RAS to CAS delay (tRCD)
5 4
RAS precharge
(tRP)
5 4
Cycle time
(tRAS)
15 12
Audio codec IDC codec with 6.10.6138.62 drivers Realtek
ALC6628
with 5.10.0.5683 drivers
Realtek codec
with

5.10.0.5740 drivers

Graphics ATI Mobility Radeon HD
3410 with 8.563.3.1000 drivers
Intel GMA950 with
6.14.10.4926 drivers
Via Chrome9 IGP with
6.14.10.182 drivers

Hard drive
Western Digital Scorpio
Blue 320GB 5,400 RPM
Seagate Momentus 5400.4 160GB
5,400 RPM
Samsung Spinpoint M
HM160HI 5,400RPM

Operating system


Microsoft Vista Home Premium
x64 with Service Pack 1
Microsoft Windows XP Home
with Service Pack 3
Microsoft Windows XP Pro with Service Pack 3

We used the following versions of our test applications:

All the tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.

Performance

We’ve cooked up this quick suite of lightweight applications in the hopes of testing some relatively typical uses for laptops like these. The first two tests are FutureMark’s Peacekeeper, a web browser benchmark that uses JavaScript, and GUIMark, which measures Flash performance.

Via’s Nano is every inch a competitor for the Atom, as the NC20 demonstrates here by besting the Eee PC 1000H. The Asus netbook’s performance drops precipitously when it’s on battery power, too, which gives the NC20 an even broader lead.

Then again, the Nano is overmatched against the so-called Athlon Neo in the Pavilion dv2. That processor, a single-core, 65nm Athlon 64 derivative running at 1.6GHz, is arguably a different class of product with less of a focus on cost and power savings than the Nano. Accordingly, the dv2 presents a different set of compromises to users—including a higher price and less battery life—than the NC20.

Next up is 7-Zip’s built-in file compression and decompression benchmark. Decompressing a large file is one of those places where a slower CPU can leave you waiting for a few seconds, so we thought it would be a fitting application to test.

The Eee PC performs quite well here, no doubt in part due the fact that 7-Zip is multithreaded and thus takes advantage of the Atom’s dual hardware threads. This is one place where I found the NC20 to feel slow in real-world use: during the setup process, one of the software installers was packaged in a large zip archive, and decompressing it took an inordinate amount of time.

We chose Quake Live as an example of a semi-casual game that ought to run well on most hardware these days, given that it’s based on the old Quake III Arena. We captured frame rates in FRAPS from five 60-second gameplay sessions in the Quake Live training level. We tested at relatively low resolution—1024×576—on the Eee PC 1000H. We tried to run the game on the NC20 at its native 1280×800, but performance was too slow, so we dropped it down to 1024×576, as well. The Pavilion dv2, which didn’t need any special concessions, ran the game at 1280×800.

Upon reflection, we probably made a rather difficult pick in Quake Live, since it uses the OpenGL programming interface for graphics, while most Windows games use DirectX instead. The thing is, see, that both Intel and S3 have pretty terrible OpenGL support. From the look of it, S3’s is even worse than Intel’s, although neither one had the greatest image quality, either. Precision issues and dithering in visual effects and texture filtering were obvious in both, but the dithering in the Intel IGP’s output was probably most noticeable. Then again, the NC20’s frate rates were simply too slow to be workable. I didn’t even bother trying to test on battery power.

Here more than elsewhere, the dv2’s discrete Radeon graphics put it into a different performance class altogether.

Haunted by feelings of guilt over my choice of an OpenGL game, I installed the World of Warcraft trial version on the 1000H and NC20, to see whether an incredibly popular and not especially demanding DirectX game might give us a different perspective. But at the lowest possible graphical settings available in the WoW trial client, the NC20 averaged 12-14 FPS, and the 1000H was similarly slow.

I had kind of expected more from the S3 IGP in the NC20. Via likes to tout its superior 3DMark scores. I’m sure there might be a certain vintage of games that the NC20 runs games better than the 1000H or other Intel 945GM-based netbooks, but I see little point in searching for it. If you’re looking here for an edge in gaming performance, you’re barking up the wrong tree. Both of these systems require serious compromises for 3D games, although both should run excellent 2D casual games like World of Goo just fine.

Another sticking point for this class of hardware is video playback, so I decided to test that, as well, using several video formats. The first one was the same movie we used for our battery life tests, which looks to be converted from PAL television: it’s 624×352 resolution, 1537 kbps, with MP3 audio at 130 kbps, and FFDS compression. Playing the video through Windows Media Player 11 with ffdshow yielded entirely smooth playback on both the NC20 and the 1000H. The NC20 averaged about 25% CPU utilization, whether on battery or wall power. CPU use on the 1000H averaged about 22%, regardless of the power source. Be careful reading too much into those CPU utilization numbers, though, since the Atom’s Hyper-Threading tends to muddle the issue. I believe a pretty fully utilized Atom core may show only partial utilization in Task Manager if one thread is occupying the lion’s share of its execution resources.

Next, we moved over to QuickTime videos, both because it’s a popular format and because we’re leaving the protective cocoon of Windows Media Player and its GPU acceleration hooks. With a low-cost processor, video playback competency can be a fragile thing, and we wanted to push the limits. Fortunately, the NC20 played the 480p trailer for the new Star Trek movie reasonably well, with an average of ~93% CPU utilization. Switching to battery power caused the NC20 to experience some minor slowdowns at points, but playback was still acceptable overall. The 1000H handled the same video with even more grace, hitting about 71% CPU use on wall power and about 83% on battery, with no noticeable slowdowns at all.

Moving up to the 720p version of the trailer proved to be more of a problem. The NC20 simply couldn’t cut it. Both the sound and the video were choppy and grew increasingly out of sync during playback, while CPU utilization was pegged at 100%. The Eee PC fared a little better on wall power, losing sync on video and dropping frames, but without long pauses stopping the show altogether. Switching to battery power was predictably a disaster. Neither the NC20’s speed mode nor the Eee PC’s Super Performance mode provided enough of a boost to make the video play smoothly, either.

Here’s another place where I’d hoped to see the NC20’s performance distinguish it from the Atom-based netbook, but it wasn’t to be. If anything, our Eee PC was faster overall in the extremely performance-sensitive area of video playback. The NC20’s Nano processor didn’t grant it any advantage with QuickTime, and I have yet to find a video clip that will play smoothly on the NC20 in Windows Media Player but won’t do so on the 1000H.

Battery life

Each system’s battery was discharged completely and recharged before each of our battery life tests. We used a ~30% screen brightness setting on the Eee PC, which is easily readable under normal indoor lighting. That brightness level is roughly equivalent to the 40% brightness settings we used on the NC20 and dv2.

For our web surfing test, we opened a Firefox window with two tabs: one for TR and another for Shacknews. These tabs were set to reload automatically every 30 seconds over Wi-Fi, and we left Bluetooth enabled as well. Our second battery life test involves movie playback. Here, we looped a standard-definition video of the sort one might download off BitTorrent, using Windows Media Player for playback. We disabled Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for this test.

The NC20’s four hour, 28 minute run time in our movie playback test is heartening, especially since we’re using a 5200 mAh hour battery instead of the 5900 mAh one in U.S. models. However, the Samsung’s 3:14 run time in our web surfing test is rather disappointing.

Then again, we’re comparing against an Eee PC that caps its CPU speed when on battery power. To see what it could do, I also put the NC20 through our web-surfing test while in its “Max battery” power mode, which drops the screen brightness to its lowest level (still readable in indoor light) and caps the CPU clock at 800MHz. So configured, the NC20 ran for five hours and 24 minutes. That’s much more respectable, and again, I’d expect another 13% or so from the U.S. version’s larger battery. For long, untethered sessions, though, you’ll want to remember to drop the NC20 into “max battery” mode.

Conclusions

In a market populated by shrinky-dink netbooks with low-res displays for under 400 bucks, hulking bottom-feeder laptops for $750 with severely compromised mobility, and svelte ultraportables hovering near the daunting two-grand mark, the Samsung NC20 is a revelation. The formula Samsung has settled on for this system works very well indeed; it’s just what I’ve wanted to see since netbooks promised us affordable ultraportability but forced a few too many compromises.

I’m pleased to report Samsung has executed on this formula exceptionally well, so that the NC20 has very few downsides. The biggest one, in my view, is the display’s combination of a relatively narrow range of optimal viewing angles and its highly reflective glossy coating. Other nits I’d pick include the lack of 802.11n support, no multi-touch scrolling, and the page up/down key placement. But those are mostly small gripes, while Samsung got so very much right. Many folks will look at the display and find it sharp and bright, with vivid colors. The materials and build quality are excellent; picking up the NC20 by a front corner produces no discernible chassis flex. The keyboard is a fine typing instrument worthy of a much more expensive system.

And did I mention 3.3 lbs, over five hours of battery life, and a 1280×800 display for $549?

Our performance tests showed us Via’s Nano processor can be a viable alternative to the Atom in this space, as well. Our earlier comparison of the Atom and Nano in low-end desktops had raised our hopes that the Nano might outperform the Atom generally, but in its de-tuned mobile form, the Nano largely matches the Atom rather than beats it. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. With a proper mobile hard drive rather than a slow SSD, the NC20 feels just as fast as any competent PC in regular use. For web surfing, productivity work, or watching DVD-quality video, the NC20 works very well indeed. By all rights, Samsung ought to be able to sell these things by the truckload to students, folks who travel on business, and everyday consumers who simply want to surf and communicate online.

And I want one. Oh, yes. I really do. Somebody had better tell my wife to hide the credit cards.

The NC20’s only real competition may be in the upcoming wave of products to follow a similar formula, including grown-up versions of the Aspire One and Eee PC, along with rumored products based on the Athlon Neo and Intel’s CULV processors. The NC20 is the first product to strike this particular balance of price, performance, and mobility, however, and it sets a standard those upcoming systems may be hard-pressed to match.

Comments closed
    • Dealator
    • 11 years ago

    Man, this might just do it for me. $549 for a netbook I can read and write on, and actually use on a daily basis comfortably? I wasn’t sure it could happen.

    Considering this is the same size as the MacBook with half the weight for half the price, Apple’s going to be getting some serious competition. Not to say the two computers compare, but you can’t deny the fact that 80% of the computing populace doesn’t need more than just Word and Firefox. Either way, you still stand to save a lot with it online.

    • kamineko
    • 11 years ago

    Scott,

    Even though the graphics aren’t so hot, the most important question (to me, at least) is: will it play AudioSurf? 🙂

    • alex666
    • 11 years ago

    At the very least, some genuine currently available cpu competition at the netbook level. This could bode well if it leads to performance boosts while keeping price, power requirements, and heat down. And overall, the specs look pretty good on this system. I’d love to know how Windows 7 will run on this. And add an hdmi output along with an optional dvd player.

    • DeanBKA
    • 11 years ago

    Quicktime!!! You tested with that POS really!!! Come on QT even on OSX is poorly optimized for CPU’s and doesn’t even have proper GPU acceleration the Windows version is even worse than the OSX version.

    Why didn’t use you a proper media player with DXVA support for H.264 like Media Player Classic Home Cinema (make sure you use EVR custom mode as output).
    §[<http://mpc-hc.sourceforge.net/<]§ Rename your QT test videos to .mp4 as otherwise MPC-HC will invoke QT to playback any .MOV video. No testing of 1080p MKV either seriously bad testing guys, you need to re-do the review.

      • ltcommander.data
      • 11 years ago

      Your complaints completely miss the point of their Quicktime test. They specifically chose Quicktime to play media files because it doesn’t use CPU acceleration. They wanted to isolate the CPU’s role in video playback to compare Nano with Atom which means they deliberately want to avoid GPU acceleration.

        • MadManOriginal
        • 11 years ago

        You’ve certainly got a point but then this isn’t just an ‘Atom vs Nano’ article (that was already done actually) but rather it’s an article about a specific implementation of Nano. Would it have been right to turn off the GPU features for the HP d2v?

    • LoneWolf15
    • 11 years ago

    If a single 2GB module works, I’m wondering if a single 4GB will. After all, the Nano is 64-bit capable, but that’s not worth much if the system maxes at 2GB.

    • Corrado
    • 11 years ago

    So much for the Nano being the saviour of the netbook class. I know its clocked 300mhz less, but Via made it sound like this thing was gonna wipe the floor with Atom, and all the Atom/Netbook haters talked about how they were gonna wait until the Nano came out and yadda yadda ya. Turns out, Atom is just as fast, if not faster.

      • tay
      • 11 years ago

      Thats a real shocker isn’t it? VIA has always made junk and will always make junk.

        • eitje
        • 11 years ago

        psch. hater.

      • ludi
      • 11 years ago

      The benchmark suite for this review was pretty thin, and in the sampling of applications where it will matter — Internet usage — this unit was generally a little faster than the Atom (which has HT) at a slightly lower clock speed. Given the intended market, that’s a respectable showing.

      Also, this thing is shackled to a VIA chipset with integrated graphics, so it could do much better in future implementations if the Nvidia thing works out.

        • Skrying
        • 11 years ago

        How are Nvidia graphics going to help? Certainly not with Flash content. Not with javascript execution. Not with using Office applications. HD video and old games to a degree are the only areas of improvement to be had, but that’s not what you’re suggesting. Ion isn’t some magical savior of netbooks.

          • ludi
          • 11 years ago

          For the record, the word “savior” was Corrado’s and I believe you get authorship rights for adding “magical”, seeing as I used neither.

          And who said netbooks need “saving”, anyway? Atom has been selling them just fine for many of the very applications you describe. Nano was just behind the DV2 system and ahead of the Atom in the Flash benchmark, and Nano looks to be about equal or somewhat better across the board /[

            • Skrying
            • 11 years ago

            Yet Ion will do nothing when it comes to streaming high quality Flash video. It has been pointed out numerous times now that neither Atom or Nano can handle 480P Hulu or other HQ Flash options offered on other sites such as YouTube and news outlets. Considering the type of device this is, a Internet first device, that is a really big area that Ion doesn’t help with at all.

            You specifically used “internet usage” as a point missing in this review. A specific area where Ion will *[

            • cygnus1
            • 11 years ago

            I think mediocre flash performance is a flaw for which you should point a finger at Adobe. It’s ridiculous that Adobe can’t write decent video playback software.

            My craptastic old 1.6GHz single core Pentium M laptop can handle playing back even 720P x.264 and WMVs, but it can’t handle 480P video on hulu or HQ youtube. That is entirely Adobe’s doing, not Intel, not VIA, not AMD, not nVidia.

            • Skrying
            • 11 years ago

            Flash is well known for being rather inefficient, especially outside of Windows but blaming Adobe isn’t going to change the issue here. I roll my eyes at Ion, or more the way its introduction has been treated, because what it helps with is really only a tiny fraction of the issues netbooks face.

            • BobbinThreadbare
            • 11 years ago

            Actually, a Nvidia memory controller, fsb, and chipset could help with a lot of applications.

            • Skrying
            • 11 years ago

            Nvidia’s memory controllers have never been anything special. It might increase the number of channels to two but that would also increase cost. Additionally, Nvidia isn’t going to be raising the FSB any higher since that would be running Atom out of spec which would likely result in an even more angry Intel, not something Nvidia wants.

      • swaaye
      • 11 years ago

      Nano gets ripped a new one by a 4 year old Pentium M CPU. There isn’t even much of a power consumption advantage. What we need in these machines is a ULV Core 2, but Intel can and does charge a pretty penny for them so they’re not going to be in a ~$600 machine. It’s too bad AMD doesn’t seem to be able to make an applicable product that anyone wants to use.

      §[<https://techreport.com/articles.x/15204<]§ I have never been excited by a VIA/Cyrix/Centaur product. It's a sad story actually. Just about everything that's ever come out of VIA has been disappointing from the performance standpoint (and sometimes compatibility too). The product history of their acquired CPU designers (Cyrix & Centaur) isn't all that shiny either really (an understatement). The most interesting aspect of their CPUs has been the hardware AES units that made them useful for certain niches.....

        • Skrying
        • 11 years ago

        CULV and Neo.

        • alphacheez
        • 11 years ago

        It’s really impressive how well the Pentium M holds up in that comparison; part of the reason I went with computer I describe in post #17. If the CULV processor intel comes out with turns out to basically just be a die shrunk Pentium M (hopefully 64-bit with tweaks to further decrease power consumption) I think it could be a really compelling offering. The die shrink should let intel keep costs down and also crank down the power consumption.
        A big concern I have is the power consumption and performance of the chipset. The current favorite netbook chipset with the GMA950 graphics is both a power hog and a performance flop. Hopefully intel will realize they need to maximize performance and features per watt not just on the CPU, but also the chipset. If they don’t then I’d be really interested to see if nVidia can get manufacturers to pair up their chipsets (9300m or equivalent) with the CULV intel chips. I think that will be a good balance of CPU and GPU power.

    • barich
    • 11 years ago

    I would have liked to see some video playback tests in either Media Player Classic Home Cinema, or Windows 7’s Media Player 12, because both support DXVA for various video formats. Of course, as long as Flash doesn’t support DXVA, most web video will be unaccelerated.

    • [SDG]Mantis
    • 11 years ago

    Ion 2 platform and Via Nano dual core are where to really look for someone to enter anything near the segment with specs anything like those. Intel and AMD will have to counter when/if Via does something like that. And I suspect that they’re bright enough to do so and to have something in the works already. But even so, getting manufacturers to push it out the door quickly will be their issue.

    Still, since I suspect they will get leaked information as soon as someone starts putting together a cheap Ion 2/Nano dual core, Intel and AMD will have a chance to respond. That’s when the ultraportable segment is going to get very interesting…particularly if Via and nVidia are willing to cut their profit margins for market penetrations. If an Ion 2/Nano dc platform can sell at $150 over the competition’s single core Atom/GMA950 setup, it should eat them for lunch. And, I think that’s not an unreasonable pricing expectation if Via and nVidia get aggressive — which they should.

    Of course by the time that a dc Nano comes out, the Neo X2 will also be available. So, one can also imagine a tweaked dv2 or similar system with a Neo X2 in the $800-range. I think that the Ion 2/Nano dual core will be the cheaper platform and will offer be able to offer better performance per watt at a significantly lower price point…two very important factors in the segment. But that’s speculation.

      • tay
      • 11 years ago

      Always living in fantasy land?

      • cygnus1
      • 11 years ago

      Yup, all I want in a netbook is a DC proc and HDMI gfx capable of accelerating HD video. That way i can easily hook it up to the nearest HD TV and watch whatever i want. I’m not overly worried about battery life, 2 or 3 hours is fine.

      I think the dv2 with the Neo X2 you mention would be just about perfect.

        • cynan
        • 11 years ago

        Seconded. As soon as a netbook/ultraportable laptop comes along that has a powerful enough proc/vid combo to accelerate 1080p video successfully and pass it over a digital interface (HDMI works for me) for less than $700 or so, I will actually be seriously tempted.

      • ludi
      • 11 years ago

      Someone should submit this post to The Inquirer. I want to see just how many product rumors they extract and publish.

    • ludi
    • 11 years ago

    Me so very want. The size of an ultraportable with just enough hardware to make it work as an office machine & video player.

    But unless either my laptop or my Aspire One goes up in a ball of flame, I won’t be able to justify the cash outlay. So goes life…

    • eitje
    • 11 years ago

    I’m very pleased with the overall showing of the NC20.

    How do the hard drives compare between the units? It seems to me like the Nano’s 7-zip scores should have been a little higher.

    However, I was fully expecting the gaming results to turn out how they did.

    • UberGerbil
    • 11 years ago

    Yeah, given the intended usage of this class of machine — and VIA’s claims about the abilities of the Chrome IGP — more extensive video tests like a couple of people have asked for (YouTube, Hulu, Netflix) make sense. Doing it in a controlled way may be a problem though. You’d probably want to test a local, or local-network, FLV (ec) to factor out internet-originating hiccups. Though an interesting battery test might be to play a long video streaming over WiFi.

      • Damage
      • 11 years ago

      Hulu video was in the original plan for testing, but we ruled it out when it quickly became apparent that 480p video was going to be a no-go on both machines (1000H, NC20) and not a point of differentiation between them. Heck, even my old Pentium M 1.73GHz can’t do Hulu 480p smoothly, and clock for clock, Dothan is typically faster than either of these CPUs. The reality is that you’re probably going to need a dual-core processor to handle Hulu 480p–or Hulu/Adobe will have to tweak something in software or compression.

        • alphacheez
        • 11 years ago

        Maybe I don’t notice it stutter, but I’ve watched loads of Hulu 480p video on my Dell D410; it has a 1.83 GHz Pentium M and it’s my first notebook computer. I got it as an off-lease refurb a couple months ago and installed linux on it since it didn’t come with an OS. The base price was $290 but I right away bumped up the RAM to 2GB ($30) and HDD to a 250GB 5400 rpm unit ($85). The build quality and materials are a step up from typical netbooks since this was once a high-end ultraportable.
        The resolution is a bit better than a typical notebook at 1024×768 and it has a trackpoint-style input device that I wouldn’t want to live without. I also really like the 12.1″ 4:3 form factor of this notebook.
        I think the CULV-based notebooks that will be coming out throughout the rest of this year are going to be really interesting and will make this D410 look like the relic it is, but compared to the current netbook offerings I find the value of the D410 wins out.

        • XaiaX
        • 11 years ago

        Considering the Apple TV can crank out 720p24 h.264 video, I imagine the real bottleneck for Hulu would be getting proper GPU acceleration out of their software so as not to strain these lightweight CPUs.

    • Usacomp2k3
    • 11 years ago

    What about Hulu or Netflix Watch-Instantly?

    I’m reading this on my T60 laptop right now, so great comparison.

    What about Vista? Is there any reason that it wouldn’t work great on the machine?

      • UberGerbil
      • 11 years ago

      With 2GB of memory Vista should be doable, modulo any driver issues. Though at this point you might as well be thinking Win7.

    • bthylafh
    • 11 years ago

    In that side-view pic on the second page with the Eee on top of the NC20, it looks like the Eee is dominating the NC20. 🙂

    • NIKOLAS
    • 11 years ago

    I suspect that in 12 to 18 months time when Intel has Dual Core Atoms on a 32nm process and hopefully VIA and AMD have improved competitors too, that the Netbook market will then be one I am prepared to enter.

    Performance and/or battery life is still too lacking for mine in current offerings

    • flip-mode
    • 11 years ago

    Not bad. One of these days I’d really like to have the opportunity to toy around on an Atom / Nano system to see how fast they “feel”. I’m going to have to get over my performance hang up. From the outset, these aren’t meant to be workhorse machines.

    • codedivine
    • 11 years ago

    Quick question : What about flash video playback?

    Can you test whether it plays the HQ and HD youtube videos properly? Another flash video test might be cnet tv. The HD version of Cnet TV stutters a lot on Eee 1000H. I wonder if the NC20 can handle it?

      • Skrying
      • 11 years ago

      I’m curious about this too. Hulu with the 480P option, please.

    • Kurotetsu
    • 11 years ago

    I can’t help but think the color scheme is some sort of jab at Apple…

      • ltcommander.data
      • 11 years ago

      Then they are kind of late since Apple has largely moved away from white in it’s computers.

      • UberGerbil
      • 11 years ago

      More likely they’re trying to differentiate themselves from the blacks of the Eee PCs and the blues and reds of the Acers. At least for review models; I believe the NC 20 is available in other colors as well (black at least).

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