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May 28, 2009

Samsung N120 (12GBK)

Samsung may not be the most seasoned laptop maker in the American market, but you couldn't tell by the quality of its netbooks. The NC10-14GB debuted earlier this year with one of the biggest netbook keyboards (93 percent), while the NC20 (check back soon for our review) launched as one of the few with a 12-inch widescreen. But the fun doesn't stop here. Continuing this success is the Samsung N120 (12GBK) ($470 street), a 10-inch netbook that hones in on the typing experience, much like its predecessors. Its full-size keyboard is a rarity on a netbook, and its parts are consistent with those of some of the top netbooks in the market. The only pitfall is its price, which is about $100 more than that of the ASUS EeePC 1000HE and the Acer Aspire One (10-inch).

The first thing you notice about N120 is that its matte surface doesn't pick up fingerprints or smudges, as does the finish on the ASUS 1000HE and the Acer One (10-inch), but its looks are definitely blander than those of the aluminum-clad HP Mini 2140 and the pattern-rich HP Mini 1000. The N120 weighs only 2.8 pounds despite its big, 57-Wh, six-cell battery; the ASUS 1000HE (3.2 pounds) and the Aspire One (2.9 pounds) are slightly heavier in their six-cell configurations.

At 10.7 by 7.4 by 1.2 inches (HWD), the N120's dimensions are about a half-inch wider than those of the ASUS 1000HE (10.3 by 7.3 by 1.1 inches) and the Samsung NC10-14GB (10.3 by 7.3 by 1 inches), and for good reason. With a wider-than-average netbook frame, the N120 was able to accommodate a full-size keyboard—the biggest on a 10-inch netbook. This makes the typing experience phenomenal—better than that of the ASUS 1000HE, the HP Mini 2140, and HP Mini 1000, whose keyboards measure 92 percent of full size. The mouse buttons put up just enough resistance so as not to be hard to press, but the pinch (the space between the thumb and forefinger when you are using the mouse buttons and touchpad) could use a little widening. (The ASUS 1000HE has its mouse buttons wrapped around the front bezel, producing a wider pinch and a more comfortable navigating experience.)

In this stage of the netbook game, the N120's 10-inch widescreen is tolerable, but the 1,024-by-600 resolution is a yawner. Netbooks like the Dell Inspiron Mini 10 (check back soon for our review) and the HP 2140 are offering 1,366-by-768 resolution, while the HP Pavilion dv2 and Dell Inspiron Mini 12 bump their screen sizes to 12 inches and their resolution to 1,280-by-800. To its credit, Samsung is already shipping the NC20, a 12-inch (1,280-by-800) netbook that has the much-needed screen real estate.

The N120's feature set looks like that of an average netbook. Samsung, however, made a few adjustments to beef up the N120's appeal. The three USB ports are standard netbook fare, but two of them (on the left side) are chargeable, meaning that they can be used to charge peripherals when the laptop is turned off and even when it's unplugged from its power source. Because of the netbook's width, there's room to place the speakers on either side of the screen so that sound is blasting directly at you. The speakers are rated at 2 watts for the pair. Sound quality when sitting back in my chair was noticeably better than that of its rivals. Every other feature—a built-in webcam, Bluetooth, a 3-in-1 card reader, VGA-out, and an Ethernet port—is consistent with those of its peers. The N120 comes with a one-year international parts-and-labor warranty.Samsung N120 (12GBK)

Performance wasn't any better or worse than that of other netbooks wielding an Intel Atom platform. The 1.6-GHz Atom N270 CPU and the 1GB of DDR2 SDRAM are the same parts found in the Samsung NC10-14GB, the Acer One, and the HP Mini 1000. The ASUS 1000HE has a slightly higher-clocked processor, but you couldn't tell that from its performance scores. The N120's 5-minute, 4-second score on the video-encoding tests ranked next to last against its rivals, and was 40 seconds behind the 1000HE. However, the N120's SYSmark 2007 Preview Overall score, which measures a system's ability to run day-to-day tasks, was 14 percent higher than that of the 1000HE. Frankly, you'd be hard pressed to notice much of a performance difference when running real-life applications. One thing worth noting, though, was how easy it was to upgrade memory to 2GB on the N120: A single screw in the base of the system holds the key to dramatically improved netbook performance. (As there's only one slot, you have to swap the 1GB module for a 2GB to upgrade.)

What the N120 lacks in raw horsepower it makes up for in battery life. The 57-Wh battery is actually smaller in size than the one found in the 1000HE (63 Wh), but it achieved a higher score on the MobileMark 2007 battery test. Its 7 hours 57 minutes is spectacular, beating the 1000HE's 6 hours 36 minutes by over an hour. The Acer One (10-inch) still reigns, however, with a battery life of 8 hours 46 minutes.

Samsung has found its calling in netbooks. The company has realized that good keyboards are lacking in this category, so it outfits every one of its netbooks with keyboards that are larger than those of its rivals. The N120 is particularly special in that it's the only 10-inch netbook that incorporates a full-size keyboard. That and a phenomenal battery score easily make the N120 one of the top netbooks on the market. Its $470 price, however, is about $100 higher than that of the ASUS 1000HE and the Acer One (10-inch), so the question you have to ask yourself is whether having a great typing experience is worth the extra money.

Check out the Samsung N120's (12GBK) performance test results.

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