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Samsung NC20 review: Samsung NC20

Samsung NC20

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
5 min read

Editors' note: The U.S. version of the Samsung NC20 is now available through online retailers for $549.


Samsung NC20

The Good

Bigger screen than standard Netbooks; new Via Nano CPU.

The Bad

Larger size sacrifices some portability; very basic port selection.

The Bottom Line

The 12-inch Samsung NC20 holds its own in the first Netbook showdown between Via's new Nano CPU and Intel's popular Atom.

Samsung's NC20 stands out from the crowd in two very important ways. First, it's one of only a handful of 12-inch Netbooks (the best-known example being Dell's Vista-addled Mini 12); secondly, it's the first laptop we've tested with Via's Nano CPU, intended as an alternative to Intel's popular Atom processor.

The Atom is found in virtually every other Netbook, so it's always good to see some competition, and the new Nano managed to fight Intel to a tie, beating it in some benchmarks and falling behind in others--but keep in mind the Nano was powering a larger screen with a higher resolution. We look forward to seeing the Nano in other systems, especially if it can undercut Intel's Atom pricing and bring Netbook costs down even more.

We're more concerned about the NC20's 12-inch size, which blurs the line between typical Netbooks (and we're even hesitant to use the term in reference to a 12-inch display) and more full-featured ultraportable laptops. The key to Netbook satisfaction is keeping one's expectations realistic, and with a larger screen and keyboard, the NC20 looks and feels more like a traditional laptop, but still struggles, as all Netbooks do, with multitasking and video streaming.

Our test unit was an imported Korean version of the NC20, but when it's available in the U.S., we expect it to sell for between $500 and $600, based on prices in other markets and current exchange rates. We'll update this review when we get our hands on the American version of the NC20.

As most 12-inch laptops are high-end ultraportables built around expensive ultralow voltage processors, you may be expecting a slim, highly designed system along the lines of Lenovo's U110 and Toshiba's Portege R600. But at about a third of the price, you instead get a thicker, heavier system with a plastic chassis that looks and feels like a grown-up version of the Samsung NC10.

The no-frills chassis contains a reasonably comfortable keyboard with slightly tapered keys and a shortened space bar. The large touch pad is a big improvement over the ones we've seen on smaller 10-inch Netbooks, but the single wide rocker switch that takes the place of left and right mouse buttons feels cheap. There are no media-control or quick-launch buttons, which, while we wouldn't expect them on a Netbook, are common on more traditional 12-inch laptops.

The 12.1-inch wide-screen LCD display offers a 1,280x800 native resolution, which is the same as you'd typically find on a 13- or 15-inch laptop. That lets you view more of a Web page than the 1,024x600 resolution we've seen on most 10-inch Netbooks. Even though it's the right resolution for watching 720p HD video, the system showed typical Netbook-style stuttering when trying to stream HD content. Via's integrated graphics chip also includes an app called Screen Toys for monitor management, screen rotation, and other option tweaks.

Netbooks in general are starting to add higher-end extras such as HDMI ports or ExpressCard slots, but the Samsung NC20 has a standard no-frills selection.

More important is the 1.3GHz Via Nano CPU, which is this system's main selling point. As described by CNET blogger Brooke Crothers: "Formerly referred to by the code name Isaiah, Nano is based on the x86 architecture, meaning it can run the same software as chips from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices...One of the principal differences between Nano and Atom is that Intel's chip uses a more simple 'in-order execution' design compared to Nano's superscalar, out-of-order design. Because of this more sophisticated design, Nano may deliver better performance than Atom in some cases."

This is not the first time we've seen a Via CPU in a Netbook. HP's Mini-Note 2133, one of the very first pre-Atom Netbooks, used Via's C7-M ULV to disappointing results. But the new Nano, specifically designed for small, low-power laptops, was a different story.

In our benchmark tests, the Via Nano held its own against the Intel Atom, beating both the N270 and N280 versions in our iTunes encoding test, and coming in between them in our JAlbum image-processing test. Only in our multitasking test--which has never treated single-core Netbooks kindly--did the Atom perform notably faster than the Nano.

In anecdotal use, we didn't notice a real difference between using an Atom-powered Netbook and the Nano-powered NC20, which indicates that this new CPU could easily find acceptance as an alternative to the widely used Intel CPU.

The Samsung NC20 ran for 4 hours and 35 minutes on our video playback battery drain test, using the included six-cell battery. That's excellent, even for an energy-efficient Netbook, although both the Asus Eee PC 1000HE and the Acer Aspire One AOD150 topped 6 hours in the same test. Note, however, that the NC20 had to drive a larger display with a higher resolution.

The Samsung NC20 has not been released in the U.S. as of this writing, but we expect the warranty to be similar to that offered by the 10-inch NC10 Netbook, which included an industry-standard one-year parts-and-labor warranty with the system with a 24-7 toll-free phone line, an online knowledge base, and driver downloads.

Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Samsung NC20

JAlbum photo conversion test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Samsung NC20

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Samsung NC20

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Samsung NC20

Find out more about how we test laptops.

System configurations:

Samsung NC20
Windows XP Professional SP3; 1.3GHz VIA Nano U2250; 1024MB DDR2 SDRAM 533MHz; 128MB VIA/SG3 Chrome9 HC3 IGP; 160GB TK 5400rpm

HP 2133 Mini-Note
Windows Vista Business Edition; 1.6GHz VIA C7-M Ultra Low Voltage; 2048MB DDR2 SDRAM 667MHz; 256MB VIA/SG3 UniChrome Pro II IGP; 120GB Seagate 7,200rpm

Acer Aspire One AOD150
Windows XP Home SP2; 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270; 1024MB DDR2 SDRAM 533MHz; 224MB Mobile Intel GMA 950; 160GB Hitachi 5400rpm

Asus Eee PC 1000HE
Windows XP Home SP3; 1.66GHz Intel Atom N280; 1024MB DDR2 SDRAM 533MHz; 128MB Mobile Intel GMA 950; 160GB Seagate 5400rpm


Samsung NC20

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 6Performance 7Battery 8Support 6