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Samsung NC10 Netbook

The stock weight for a modest 15” laptop these days seems to be nearly 3kg and that doesn't include the honking great power supply which is needed or the umpteen bits of vital support gear you are forced by nerd law to carry. So it was only just after my Dell XPS arrived that I felt the need for a better travel companion.

About 6 months ago the 'Netbook' arrived and within weeks there was a choice of cute computers for people who don't like lugging. Of course the basic premise, to ape the $100 laptop for the third world has slipped. There are bargain basement models which are barely enough for e-mail but now the top of the range Netbooks are good enough to pass muster as a travelling companion for photo nerds. Need a little laptop? Now they don't cost an arm and a leg.

Netbook Market

The market has spread, now. First the word was net browser for around 100 but that was without all the things which computers useful, and tax! So for real these babies start at 150 for low res, low speed, Linux (not a bad thing but a cheap thing) loaded novelty and by 250 you have something quite handy. At the moment the pick of the bunch by common consent is this Samsung. At present none of the major PC vendors make their own baby. Some of the second tier Acer and Asus sell and resell the bulk of the market. Margins must be small but everyone has one and there's no time for their own R&D. This leaves folk like Dell with a very expensive looking underperformers and Toshiba with their Portege line sitting on shelves beside near identical micro laptops for half the price... which is where Samsung have leapt in.

By common consent the NC10 combines the best traits of all the netbooks available...

Not too small – a 10” 1024x600 screen and 93% full size keyboard

Not too slow – a 1.6GHz Intel Atom CPU

Not poverty spec – 160GB hard disk, 3xUSB, VGA, LAN and wireless (G)

Not an obscure OS – Sadly Linux is great for nerds but not for everyone, it has XP

Meet the NC10

So its the little laptop you always wanted? Probably. It's fast enough for simple tasks and were it running Linux you could do grown up stuff too but that's not the way the world works. So it's no ball of fire but OK – no worse than any of the others. It's I/O actually runs at a decent speed so it's fines as a travel photo store. One pity is that the card reader which is virtually invisible on the front edge is just for SD cards, when a Compactflash slot would have opened the world up to any format via an adaptor. That much is a shame but he unsprung slot means the card sticks out, where a push in pop out reader would have given you a flush fit non volatile backup drive.

The screen seems fine at first, in many respects it is very good but the height, 600 pixels, just doesn't allow many programs enough space for the standard windows furniture. Some like Explorer can be re-arranged to great effect but others, like Picasa squeeze your work area as their lumbering controls hog LCD real estate... if only they could have stretched a little. I'd have traded the web cam for some more lines. That aside the screen is sharp, fearsomely bright turned up to the max and very good to work on at lap distance. Aside from the feeling of looking through a letter box its really very good. This downside is just a side effect of the much higher res displays now habitually in use every where – I felt somewhat the same when my 15.4” Dell was returned to 1280x800 for a couple of days when the screen was replaced. Getting back to 1680x1050 was like having a field to run around in after being shut in a box.

The keyboard is very pleasant, apparently anti-bacterial, and as large as could be fitted in the space available. The side effect if that the track pad is pretty small, this is emphasised by making it flush which makes it easy to slip off and the rocker style buttons are tiny too. The number of times I have drifted onto the scroll area of the track pad doesn't bear thinking about. But its not reasonable to expect normal sized controls. I would have much preferred a mouse nipple in the keyboard and two large mouse keys but they seem to have fallen out of favour.

Size Matters

So how small is small? Its easiest to say that in almost every respect it is half the size of a 15.4” laptop. You could fit two in a stand laptop bag, turned side ways. It's width and length are about three quarters typical so it has half the surface area though its not particularly thin - I'm not sure that's always a huge benefit anyway – you can pay a lot more to lose 1cm of thickness than of width. That all gives a weight of 1.3kg, a little under half the weight of a 15.4” laptop – you probably guessed that. One of the reasons that it's not much, much little is that it has a bulky 6 cell battery which wouldn't look out of place on a full size portable which serves a couple of useful functions, it adds a hump which angles the keyboard and more importantly it gives a mobile life of getting on for eight hours. A four cell would probably lose the foot, 2-300g and cut the life to 4 hours. I think they could sell that but at the moment the NC10 is one size fits all.

The one choice you do get is colour, one of three. Black, where the shiny lid is rather prone to look like a forensic display of the last person to pick it up, white which while cool in a Mac way will leave you having to talk to pale Moby-esque creatives and probably, eventually go that nicotine yellow which is the fate of most light consumer good. I chose blue. Not too shiny, not too lifestyle and gently slimming. It even looks good with the scattering of blue LEDs which are dotted about. I'm sure the people who bought either neutral option will have reasons which are just as good...

As a Netbook it certainly does what it says on the box. The Samsung had no trouble picking up public wi-fi, always connecting at 54Mbit/s which is more than my Dell does. It doesn't support Wireless N but given that router bottlenecks choke these services at source rather than access I don't think I would have noticed any benefit.

There are a few nice touches around the thing. The best is that the hinge is not only big and chunky but has the on/off switch as a round button on the right hand end. I suppose the rest is just well done rather than worthy of comment but that counts for a lot in itself. All the connectors are on the sides – none at the back because of the battery. Headphone, mic, 1 USB and VGA on the right and 2 USB, LAN and power on the left. There is an SD card slot on the front

The audio output is distinctly weak from the two tiny 'speakers' under the front edge of the keyboard. Now that some mobiles can pump out quite spectacular volumes of acceptable sound this seems to be an oversight from Samsung who make the odd phone. Via decent headphones the audio is obviously greatly improved.

Another missed opportunity is that the simple suede slipcase which comes with the NC10 and is a pleasantly slick, and light, way to protect it hasn't been designed to let it charge whilst fully covered. This would have been so easy and should have been a no-brainer.

Conclusion

In the end I suppose it's best to be realistic and to break down the pros and cons.

Pros: Small, light, very good battery life, big disk, large keyboard, useful out of the box.

Cons: Not very fast, limited memory, runs XP, very letterbox screen, tiny trackpad.

The list of cons is common to nearly all Netbooks but the list of pros isn't. If you feel you need a little laptop then this is a good one. If you want something to work on at home that you can fold up and put away a full size laptop will be faster have more screen space and be a staright value winner on any criteria - for kilo/pixel/MB/GB or GHz. There's always a better model round the corner but for the moment the NC10 makes a great travel companion and if you compare it to other options such as card dumps and image tanks the versatility utility of having a PC with you is a clear advantage.