The best keyboard on a netbook yet?
Review Samsung is knocking out new netbooks like there is no tomorrow. Yet, with the N120  and N310 , we have seen the company try to define new netbook genres where there really aren't any. The former is marketed as a multimedia optimised machine, while the latter targets anyone swayed by styling and fancies a laptop that resembles a bar of soap.
Samsung's N110: another netbook, another price point
Now the N110 has arrived, we suspect it is intended to be seen as an upgrade of the NC10 , rather than a new niche filler. But does new equal better? And, more importantly, does it equate to being worth the extra cash Samsung will no doubt be asking for?
The most obvious differences between the N110 and NC10 are in appearance. Let’s face it, with so many netbooks doing more or less the same thing for more or less the same price, looks are as good a reason as any or predicate your purchase on. In this respect, the N110 can be regarded as a worthwhile improvement.
To start with Samsung has ditched the silver highlight strip that circles the NC10 in favour of deep red narrow pinstripe, although the screen hinges are still chrome effect. Efforts have also been made to give the N110 a smoother and more rounded profile than the NC10 making it look rather more svelte and sculpted. It appears a more expensive machine too, which is just as well because as we will see below, it is a more expensive machine.
In terms of size there is nothing to choose between the old and the new. At 261 x 185 x 30.5mm the N110 is, to all intents, identical to the NC10. According to Samsung, the new machine is actually 70g lighter at 1.26kg.
Powered by a 1.6GHz Intel Atom, aided by go-faster stripes
The layout of the external jacks and sockets has been carried over from the NC10 so you get two USB sockets, an 10/100Mb/s Ethernet port and power plug on the right along with a third USB socket, VGA port, Kensington lock and 3.5mm headphone and microphone jacks on the right. The on/off button sits in the right hand end of the screen hinge and as with Samsung's other netbooks, you also get a 1.3Mp web cam and built-in microphone.
The icons on the upper deck of the NC10 and N120 that tell you what all those side ports are for have mercifully been removed – not only were they wholly pointless, they made the keyboard surround look an utter mess.
As with so many SD card slots, the protrusion factor when loaded is a vulnerability
Up front on the left you will find the usual Samsung row of seven status LEDs while a SD/SDHC/MMC card reader lurks on the right hand side. While the cards don't stick out to the ridiculous extent as they do on Dell's Mini netbooks, they still protrude too far to be left in place without fear of damage. Fortunately, the N110 continues Samsung's tradition of allowing easy access to the memory slot should you wish to upgrade the Ram.
Inside, the important bits are the current Samsung netbook norm. So you get an Atom N270 1.6GHz processor along with Intel's 945GSE chipset, 1GB Ram and a 160GB HDD. Connectivity is courtesy of 812.11b/g Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 2.0+EDR. The OS – if you need to ask – takes the form of the venerable Windows XP.
While the 84 button keyboard is identical to the NC10's – complete with antibacterial protection that can apparently compete with Domestos in the germ genocide stakes – the touchpad is a little larger at 60 x 35mm. The keyboard was always an NC10 strong point and while it feels a good deal smaller than the N120's 'full size' affair, it is still a joy to use and one of the best on any 10in netbook.
The NC10's sound system has also been given the once over with the two 1W speakers replaced by 1.5W units. It’s hardly enough to give you a Maxell moment, but the increased output will be welcome if you intend to watch a lot of videos without headphones.
Among the best keyboards we've tried on a 10.1in netbook
The N110's screen is typical netbook at 10.1in corner-to-corner, with a 1024 x 600 resolution. However, unlike the matte effect screen finish on the NC10, the N110 has a glossy affair. Better for watching video in low light, less helpful in bright conditions where reflections can become an issue. With the N120 being punted as a multi-media machine we are not quite sure why Samsung didn't stick a matte screen on the N110. Perhaps the NC10's screen just wasn't that big a hit with the punters.
Video Playback Battery Life Results
Longer bars are better
Longer bars are better
Longer bars are better
Longer bars are better
By way of satisfying idle curiosity we booted Ubuntu 9.04 from a USB Live stick just to see what was what and can report that everything seemed to work out of the box with the exception of the built-in microphone, which simply refused to play ball no matter what we did. We still haven't managed to overcome the exact same problem with a 9.04 instal on a Dell Mini 10v, so we are beginning to suspect it’s a problem deep down in the bowels of the latest Ubuntu distro.
Battery life sits roughly in the middle of the 6-cell models we've tested
Like the N120, the 110 comes with a 5900mAh 6 cell battery. That's 300mAh more charge than the NC10's battery can hold so we expected better performance. Running our usual test of playing a standard def H.264 video at full screen and maximum brightness using VLC with the Wi-Fi radio on and the volume turned up to max, we got 4 hours 51 minutes from a fully charged battery.
That's almost half an hour more than the NC10’s best result. With the screen brightness turned right down and Wi-Fi radio off, the best we got from the battery was 8hrs 12m, very close to the 8hrs 20m, the N120 achieved. Turning to the PCMark05 benchmarks, the CPU and Memory tests were very much on a par with both the NC10 and the N120. However, the N110 did better than both in the HDD test.
Moving on to the GIMP Gaussian Blur test the N110 turned in a time of 5.3 seconds. That's just a shade slower than the 5.0 seconds recorded by the NC10 and the 4.9 recorded by the N120, but not by enough to cause any noticeable real world differences between the three machines. Running 3DMark we came up with a score of 88, which is one of the better performances we have seen from an Atom powered machine, shading both the N120 and Asus Eee PC 1008HA Seashell.
As you would expect from a PC with Intel's GMA 950 integrated graphics core, the N110 struggled to play HD files with H.264 encoding, even in-window. Still, like the N120, it proved capable of handling HD AVI files at full screen.
Codec crunch: stable H.264 playback is a typical netbook hurdle
As with previous Samsung netbooks, the N110 thoroughly impressed us with its combination of silent and cool running. The only way to tell if the fan is working is, literally, to hold the vent grill next to your ear.
Since the N110 lacks what we would call a killer advantage over the NC10, its success or otherwise is going to come down to the sordid matter of coin. The cheapest we found the N110 for was a penny under £350 making it forty quid more expensive than the NC10’s typical street price.
Sibling rivalry: different, but not that different
So is it worth the extra? No, not really. Yes, the battery will give you an extra half an hour running time. Yes, the glossy screen is better for watching video – though many will prefer the NC10’s matte screen. Yes, there are some other minor improvements, such as the more powerful speakers, larger touchpad and rather more attractive design. Yet, none of these are really reason enough to cough up the extra cash let alone upgrade if you already own an NC10.
Taken on its own merits the N110 is a very appealing machine. The problem is that the differences, such as they are, don't really justify the price hike over the NC10. With Samsung launching several variations on the netbook theme recently, it should just have bitten the bullet and priced the N110 as a direct replacement for the NC10 rather than as a putative improvement. ®
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