The netbook with a notebook keyboard
Review If you can live with the price, relatively fragile hard drive and Windows then the Samsung NC10 is, without doubt, one of the best netbooks currently available. However, Samsung has decided that its range needs to address the parts of the market that other netbooks don't reach and with that in mind it has launched the N120, an Atom-based mini laptop finessed, fettled and tweaked to provide a generally more fulfilling multimedia experience.
Samsung's N120: netbook screen, notebook keyboard
Out of the box, you'd have to lay the N120 side-by-side with the NC10 to spot the difference. At 272 x 188.5 x 29.8mm there isn't that much between them, the new machine being 11mm wider, 3mm deeper and just under 1mm thinner than the old one. The same goes for the weight, the 1.28kg N120 being just a shade lighter than the 1.33kg NC10.
A more obvious difference is that the case of the N120 is rendered in a matte finish rather than the gloss of the NC10 or the Dell Inspiron Mini 12, making it less of a fingerprint magnet.
The basic layout of the N120 sticks to the format established by Samsung's first netbook, with a single USB port, VGA connector, power button, Kensington lock, and 3.5mm microphone and headphones jacks on the right side, and another two USB ports, 10/100Mb/s Ethernet and power jack on the left. On the front right of the chassis sits the machine's single flush-fitting three-in-one memory card slot.
The N120 lacks anything in the way of a physical Wi-Fi switch making do with a keyboard command - Fn-F9 in this case – but you do get a handy row of seven LEDs that let you know what your machine is doing.
The matte styling masks fingerprints
Dig about in the Bios settings and the two USB ports on the left can be set to charge devices even when the machine is switched off. This feature is hardly likely to work wonders for the battery life but still strikes us as useful, especially for frequent travellers used to scampering around airports in the quest for a power socket to re-charge their phone.
Continuing our tour of the N120 to the underside, we found a cover for the memory slot secured by an easily removable single screw. Usefully for the novice, Samsung's user guide includes detailed instructions about how to whip out the standard 1GB card and replace it with a 2GB one.
Customary port array
There's a fan exhaust situated between the Ethernet port and USB ports on the left-hand side. So quiet is the fan on the N120 that we only noticed it had one when we felt a warm breeze against a hand one evening when holding the machine in our lap. The HDD is also one of the quietest we have comes across in a netbook, making the N120 more or less silent in use.
Some may think the unusually thick screen bezel – a by-product of having such a large keyboard and a 10.1in screen together in the same chassis – has left the N120 well and truly beaten with the ugly stick, but in the flesh – or plastic – we didn't think it was that much of a blemish especially as the extra space around the screen is put to good use housing the N120's stereo speakers.
Other than the bezel, the only aesthetic let-downs are the faux chrome strips along the side of the base and the huge sticker announcing DIGITAL LIVECAM that sits next to the 1.3Mp webcam lens above the screen. The latter really does look cheap and nasty. Other than that, the N120 is a well made, solid and handsome bit of kit.
The next thing you will notice about the N120 is the size of the 84-key keyboard. According to Samsung, the machine has a "full-size 12in notebook-style keyboard with optimised key spacing". Whatever, it's the largest keyboard we have come across on a netbook – including the 12in Dell Mini - and it makes the N120 a very, very easy machine to use. It's a nicely made and weighted keyboard too, with a crisp and positive action and very little flex.
The keyboard's nice large and easy-to-use keys... as is the touchpad
The touchpad is a shade larger than the NC10's too, at 63 x 35mm to the older model's 60 x 30mm. The button bar below it stands a little more proud of the surrounding chassis. The extra size makes the pad easier to use than the NC10's is, and though the spiral scroll function was a bit hit-and-miss you do get a handy vertical scroll bar and pinch-to-zoom. The button bar itself is nicely weighted, with a positive and clean action.
Before we leave the keyboard its worth noting that Samsung has chosen to put the N120's microphone in the main body of the device next to the right-hand screen hinge, above the Insert key. This was a less-than-inspired idea because in that position it proved particularly prone to picking up the clicks of the keyboard. The penny only dropped after a person we were chatting to on Skype asked what the soft clicking noise in the background was – it was us, typing while we talked.
Inside, a bog-standard netbook spec
The N120 is powered by a 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270 processor with 1GB of DDR 2 memory and has a 160GB 5400rpm Sata hard drive. The latter is actually divided up into two equal spaces as the C and D drives, a move we suspect has something to do with Samsung's bundled idiot-proof Recovery Solution III application which makes a mirror image of the former – which the N120 uses as its default hard drive - and copies it onto the latter. Wireless connectivity is provided by an Atheros 802.11b/g Wi-Fi card and Bluetooth 2.0+EDR.
As is becoming increasingly common today the N120 is only available with one OS and, for good or ill that's Windows XP.
Though the N120's screen specification isn't remotely out of the ordinary – its a back-lit LED display measuring 10.1in corner to corner and has a resolution of 1024x600 - its shape is less common. At 224 x 126mm, it's a perfect 16:9 ratio, though since the resolution isn't, this is no advantage to movie viewers. While the NC10 has a matte screen finish, the one here is glossy and thus highly reflective. Whether this is a step forward or back depends on your personal taste - in daylight reflections can be rather annoying but on the other hand videos look more sharp with more vivid colours.
With video playback such a major part of the N120's raison d'être we decided to start our tests with some HD video files to see how it fared. The N120 struggled badly with a 1080p H.264 file - both at full screen and in-window, and using both QuickTime and VLC – suffering from major frame drop and regularly seizing up. We had better luck with a 1080p .AVI file which played perfectly at full screen using VLC as did a 720p WMV video. All the videos that played were commendably crisp, clear and colourful while the screen itself has plenty of brightness on offer.
Tweak to eke out your runtime
When we ran 3DMark06 we came up with a score of 83. That's nothing to write home about but its not an unreasonable performance for a machine fitted with Intel's GMA950 integrated graphics core. As an average figure it also just shaded the Asus Eee PC 1008HA Seashell.
The other part of the N120's claim to multimedia excellence is its speaker system. Rather than the typical netbook one, the N120 has three speakers, one on either side of the screen rated at 1.5W and a small sub-woofer buried in the front left-hand corner of the chassis. The exotic speaker array doesn't make the N120 the loudest netbook we have come across but it does make it one of the most pleasant sounding – swapping back and forth between the same source playing on an Acer Aspire One and an N120 the improvement was noticeable and dramatic, the little sub-woofer filling out the sound nicely.
SRS sound on a netbook? Oh, yes
The N120's audio performance is further helped by some trick sound modification technology from SRS Labs, the same folks who make the sound modification software for iRiver's media players.
A dedicated SRS control panel lets you switch between the ersatz multi-channel sound of TruSurround XT for video or the stereo expander SRS WOW XT for music. To be honest, messing about with the SRS control panel didn't really change the soundscape by much unless we had a pair of active speakers attached when its influence became more obvious.
The N120's six-cell, 5900mAh battery – up from 5200mAh in the NC10 – did a sterling job when we ran our usual test of playing a standard-definition H.264 video file at full screen using VLC with the Wi-Fi radio on and the screen set to maximum brightness. It averaged 298 minutes across three test runs.
In day to day use, we found it relatively easy to get over six hours of runtime from a full charge. The absolute best we managed, with the Wi-Fi off for most of the time, the screen brightness turned right down, and the CPU speed set to minimum was 8 hours 20 minutes.
Video Playback Battery Life Results
Battery life in Minutes
Longer bars are better
Moving on to PCMark05 and in all three tests – CPU, memory and HDD - the N120 performed worse than the NC10, though the margin wasn't large enough to have a noticeable impact on real-world use.
Longer bars are better
Longer bars are better
Longer bars are better
At around £380, an N120 will set you back in the region of £70 more than a NC10 so is it worth the extra? It's a tough call. Yes, the battery life is a little longer, the keyboard bigger and the sound better. That being said, for the extra cash we'd have liked Samsung to equip the N120 with the faster N280 Atom CPU and - since it's pitched as a media machine - a slightly more beefy GPU.
The fly in the N120's ointment isn't a Samsung, though, it's Asus' Eee PC 1000HE. For around £330, it comes with a faster chip, longer battery life and 802.11n Wi-Fi, though it's also heavier and the keyboard isn't a match for the N120's.
It goes without saying that we would also like to see the N120 available with an SSD and Linux, which would make it both more robust and cheaper. But we are not holding our breath.
Also available in black
With so many netbooks now on the market - and so many different interpretations of the genre - saying that any particular one is the best has become a little pointless. That's not going to stop us saying the the N120 is certainly one of the best, though. The excellent keyboard and screen make it a very easy machine to live with and use, while the 2.1 speaker system does actually live up to Samsung's claim that this is a media optimised machine. Such a shame then that there are so many better-value offerings to match it. ®
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