The Samsung NC10 may have been a late arrival to the netbook party but has proved to be very popular. However, there are those users who found the 1024 x 600 resolution display to be a constraint and complained that the NC10's touchpad was too small. The Samsung NC20 ($478 US MSRP) addresses these complaints by providing larger machine with a 12.1" display. Samsung describe the NC20 as a "large-screen netbook" and this is a fair description since the underlying hardware is as used in other netbooks (for example a low cost single core CPU). The NC20 includes another feature which sets it aside from the crowd: It uses the VIA Nano U2250 CPU and associated chipset and graphics.
During the past two years I have looked at several ultra-portables: the Samsung Q35, the Sony G11, the Zepto Notus A12; the Toshiba R500 and the Samsung NC10 netbook. How does the NC20 compare with these? Is it a viable substitute for the ultraportable notebooks in terms of portability, performance and battery life? How does performance and usability compare with the Samsung NC10? Read on for my evaluation.
The Samsung NC20 complete with glossy screen
What's in the Box?
The NC20 came in a smallish box containing:
The user guide is an animated .SWF document pre-installed on the hard disk. I would have preferred a normal PDF file.
Hardware Specs: Samsung NC20
The standard configuration comprised the following hardware and specifications:
The NC20 comes with Windows XP Home SP3 preinstalled and with a recovery CD. The Windows sticker on the bottom of the computer says "Windows XP Home Edition LrgScrn LFD", whatever that may mean. Samsung also provide preinstalled software and a DVD which will need to be reloaded if the operating system is reinstalled. The Samsung software package is very similar to the other Samsung notebooks and includes:
Detailed discussion of these would need another review. Readers can consult the user guide for more details of these programs. The only point I will note here is that Easy Display Manager is the program which makes the Fn key controls work.
Build and Design
The NC20 features plastic construction and feels very solid with no flex or creaks. The white (slightly off-white) version has matte plastic surfaces so fingerprints are not a problem. The NC20 shares the NC10's shiny metal belt around the front and sides. Perhaps this is the "Protect-o-Edge chassis" described on Samsung's website as "ensuring reliability and durability, giving you added peace of mind." The NC20 shares the NC10's wedge shaped design with the 6-cell battery protruding from the bottom near the back. The hinges are very substantial.
During travel the display is held closed by spring-loaded hinges. It takes two hands to open the screen on my NC20. As new, the display has no wobble, although the hinges may loosen with time. The display back is very rigid and I found it almost impossible to create ripples on the screen by pushing on the back.
The bottom of the computer has small protruding feet about 1.5mm (1/16") at the front while the battery protrudes downwards at the back and contains two more feet. The bottom is well-endowed with air vents and there is a single removable cover for both the memory slot and the hard disk. The standard (the same battery as on the NC10) 6-cell battery fits at the back of the notebook and is held firmly in place by two latches.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The keyboard has an almost standard layout including the highly desirable dedicated Pg Up and Pg Down keys. The Ctrl key occupies the almost standard position in the front left corner. There are 84 keys (83 keys on the US keyboard) which have grey markings on a white plastic background. The keys have an almost-standard 18.5mm pitch. However, there are some slightly unusual key locations: Fn by itself becomes the Windows menu key and the Windows key right of the space bar is the other windows key which is left of the space bar on most notebooks. The funny character key (`¦¬) normally located to the left of 1 is located left of the space bar and backspace becomes bigger.
The keyboard keys have reasonable travel but I would have liked a bit more springiness in the action. Perhaps my expectations have been raised by the keyboard of my Dell Latitude E6400. Samsung states that the keyboard has been treated with silver nano technology so that it is less likely to spread bacteria (they have been doing this since the R20 was introduced in early 2007). The treatment is not obvious and the keys look and feel like normal plastic.
People complained about the touchpad on the NC10 being too small. The NC20's Synaptics touchpad is a generous 70mm x 42mm. There is a one-piece touchpad button which is fixed in the middle and behaves like two buttons. This single button is easy to operate. The touchpad supports multi-touch gestures including chiral scrolling and pinching.
There are seven indicator lights on the front edge of the chassis with symbols on the front of the palm rest. The surround to the lights is glossy, which makes it more difficult to see the lights. As with many other notebooks, Samsung chose to put the NC10's lights where they are covered by the user's left palm. A central location in front of the touchpad would be much more visible. From left to right the lights are: Num Lock; Caps Lock; Scroll Lock; HDD/SSD Activity; Wireless On; Charge Status and Computer On.
Samsung provide the standard Samsung set of function key facilities, so they haven't reduced capabilities in spite of the low price. Fn+F8 switches between three operating modes: Silent; Normal; and Speed. This control is hardly needed on the NC10 since the fan is very quiet but the Silent mode locks the CPU to the minimum speed which means the fan stays off except under sustained full CPU load. Something not mentioned in the User Guide is that pressing the Esc key during initial boot brings up a boot device menu. This is in addition to F2 for entering the BIOS setup.
Where is the power button? It is on the right side hinge and glows blue when the computer is on.
Ports and Features
The port count is the same as on the NC10 although there are significant differences in the NC20's port layout. Samsung avoided squeezing ports so close together that they interfere with each other. Therefore all three USB ports can always be used. There are no ports on the front right side where cables can get in the way of a mouse. The fan exhaust is near the back on the left side. An HDMI port would have been a welcome addition since VIA claims that the Nano CPU is capable of HD playback.
Let's have a tour of the sides, clockwise starting at the front:
The display is a 12.1" 1280 x 800 (WXGA) gloss LCD with LED backlight. The label on the box says 220 nits brightness. There are eight brightness levels. The lowest level is barely usable but one step above minimum gives adequate lighting while extending battery time. The overall range of Viewing angles are typical for displays of this type with colours fading when viewed from above and inverting when viewed from below. Horizontal viewing angles are good. The backlighting is very even. Personally, I prefer a matte display because there are fewer problems with reflections.
Compared to the NC10's display, the NC20 seems to have a slightly yellow tint. At the default settings it also lacked contrast. Fortunately, Samsung have included the S3 ScreenToys control panel which enables users to make fine adjustments to the display and it is worthwhile using this to fine-tine the appearance.
Speakers and Audio
The NC20 contains two loudspeakers located on the bottom under the palm rests and the specification states these are rated at 1.5W. The overall audio is much better in both quantity and quality than on my Dell E6400 and slightly more powerful than the NC10's speakers. The audio output quality is slightly improved by both the Samsung Enhanced Digital Sound and the equalizer option in the Realtek audio manager.
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