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, andplease, in the name of all that is right and gooda 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 ultraportablespremium 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)|
|Graphics||Via Chrome9 HC3 IGP|
12.1″ TFT with WVGA (1280×800) resolution and
Samsung Spinpoint M HM160HI 160GB 2.5″
5400RPM hard drive
|Audio||Stereo HD audio via Realtek codec|
3 USB 2.0
1 RJ45 10/100 Ethernet
1 analog headphone output
Keyboard (97% of full size)
|Camera||1.3 megapixel webcam|
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.
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 1000Hor at least I really like it in a healthy, manly waybut 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’sand 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, thoughno 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 finefor a 1.3 megapixel webcamand 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 socketunlike 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.
HP Pavilion dv2
Asus Eee PC 1000H
AMD Athlon Neo MV-40
|Intel Atom N270 1.6GHz||Via Nano ULV 2250 1.3GHz+|
|System bus||HyperTransport 800MHz||533MHz (133MHz quad-pumped)||
800 MT/s (200MHz
|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|
RAS to CAS delay (tRCD)
|Audio codec||IDC codec with 6.10.6138.62 drivers||
with 220.127.116.1183 drivers
ATI Mobility Radeon HD
3410 with 8.563.3.1000 drivers
Intel GMA950 with
Via Chrome9 IGP with
Western Digital Scorpio
Blue 320GB 5,400 RPM
Seagate Momentus 5400.4 160GB
Samsung Spinpoint M
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.
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 usersincluding a higher price and less battery lifethan 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 resolution1024×576on 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.
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.
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.