Review: Samsung NC20

Our hands-down favorite computer of the year is in a category all its own. With its 12.1-inch screen, 3.3-pound fighting weight, outstanding battery life, and exceptional performance, the Samsung NC20 might seem like a new entrant in the ultralight notebook market. But utterly unlike the Apple Macbook Air or Dell Adamo, it’s cheap — as in rock-bottom, netbook cheap. Sure, the utilitarian design won’t win awards, but in today’s economy, sensible trumps stylish every time.

It’s not quite a netbook, not quite an ultralight PC. Whatever it is, Samsung’s NC20 is a dazzling feat of engineering: an extremely usable 12-inch laptop with epic battery life, impressive specs and a downright mystifyingly affordable price tag.

The NC20 takes many of its under-the-hood cues from the netbook world, offering comparably restrained specs like 1GB of RAM and a 160GB hard drive and, most eyebrow-raising, a VIA Nano U2250 CPU.

Seriously, a VIA? Though VIA has been touting the Nano as David to the Intel Atom’s Goliath, eschewing the now-standard Atom for a VIA still sounds like a downgrade. But in reality it’s the opposite. In our benchmarks, the NC20 outclassed every Atom-based laptop we’ve ever tested (most of which can’t make it through a round of benchmarks without crashing), and it even outscored our beloved Lenovo IdeaPad S10 by five percent on PCMark05.

But the NC20 doesn’t make depressing tradeoffs to achieve those scores. Battery life is three hours, 40 minutes (22 percent longer than the S10) and weight is just 3.3 pounds, comparable to the Asus Eee PC 1000H. All that and you get a 12.1-inch LCD, too, instead of the usual 10.2-inch netbook display.

All of this might nudge you into classifying the NC20 as an ultralight, where similar size and specs can run into the $2,000 territory (as with the Toshiba Portege R series). The NC20 doesn’t quite measure up to the performance of those machines — and it lacks an optical drive — but consider the price. At $550, it’s less than a third the cost of a MacBook Air and only 0.3 pounds heavier. Sure, it commands a premium price compared to a $400 netbook, but what the NC20 offers in upgrades more than makes up for the extra cash it costs. Wildly so.

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