The Samsung NF310 features a unique design, a dual core processor, and a high resolution display, not to mention some of the best speakers I’ve ever heard on a netbook (which isn’t really saying much). But at a time when you can pick up many netbooks for less than $300, Samsung is selling the NF310 for $399. So are the extra features enough to justify the relatively high price tag?
That depends on how you look at it. Not everyone will love the higher resolution display or the unusual case design of the NF310. And the battery life and performance are decent for a netbook, but not spectacular. Still, the Samsung NF310 runs just $20 more than the Samsung NF210 which has a less attractive design, a lower resolution screen, and a single core processor, which either makes the NF310 look like an excellent buy or makes the NF210 look ridiculously overpriced.
Samsung sent me a demo unit of the NF310 netbook to test, and I’ve been using it for the last few days. The review unit features a 10.1 inch. 1366 x 768 pixel display, 1GB of RAM, and a 250GB hard drive. It has a 1.5GHz Intel Atom N550 dual core processor, 802.11b/g/n WiFi, and Bluetooth 3.0. The computer runs Windows 7 Starter Edition. It’s available from Amazon for $399.
The Samsung NF310 is a bit larger than your typical 10 inch netbook. That’s not to make space for the high definition screen… it’s still just 10.1 inches. Instead, the extra space makes room for a sort of wavy design on the sides of the case, which gives the laptop a distinctive look that’s a bit of an acquired taste.
The waves also rise up on either side of the keyboard, which along with the raised touchpad area mean that the keyboard is actually a little lower than the palm rest, which some people might find makes typing more comfortable. It’s probably a matter of taste.
I will say this for the wave design though. I really didn’t like it on the Samsung NF210, but somehow it works for the Samsung NF310. Even though both netbooks feature the same plastic case, the NF310 has a metallic paintjob which somehow works to make the design look classy.
Samsung reps told me that would be the case when I previewed the NF210 a few months ago, but I didn’t believe them until I got my hands on the NF310. It turns out they were right. I actually really like the design of the Samsung NF310.
It probably helps that while the netbook is a little wider than normal for a 10 inch model, it still weighs less than 2.9 pounds, so it doesn’t really feel that much larger.
The laptop features a glossy, shiny lid which attracts some fingerprints, but not too many. It can also function as a full mirror if you need to check and see if there’s any food between your teeth. There’s also a tiny lip protruding from the front and center portion of the lid, making it easy to grab the lip and open the netbook without fiddling around trying to find a spot to grip.
Around the sides of the laptop you’ll find the usual array of ports including 3 USB 2.0 ports, mic and headphone jacks, a VGA port, Ethernet jack, power jack, and key lock port.
On the bottom you’ll find a single access panel for upgrading RAM, as well as the battery. Interestingly, the battery doesn’t extend to the back of the case like the batteries on most netbooks. But it also doesn’t sit flush with the bottom of the laptop.
It juts out a bit instead, which means that when you rest the Samsung NF310 on a table the keyboard will tilt forward a little bit.
While you might think this would give the display room to tilt back further than normal, it doesn’t. When you open the lid, it drops down a little behind the back of the laptop, and when you push back a bit, the base of the lid hits the back of the laptop so you can’t open the screen any wider.
The screen probably opens to a wider angle than those on many netbooks — but it’s nowhere close to a 180 degree angle for folks hoping to read eBooks or do whatever it is some people like to do with laptops that open up flat.
Above the keyboard you’ll find a power button and what looks like a wide grate that stretches from one end of the netbook to the other. When you look closer, you’ll see that most of this “grate” is just dimpled plastic, but there are two small speakers tucked away on the left and right sides. And they really sound quite good.
The Samsung NF310 has two 1.5 watt speakers. Not only are they louder than those found on most netbooks, but they also sound a lot better. There’s clearly no subwoofer, so you’re not exactly going to get booming bass frequencies. But overall audio sounded a lot better on the netbook than I’m used to hearing when watching video or listening to music on 10-inch mini-laptops.
Aside from the distinctive case, probably the most distinctive design element is the screen. It’s a 10.1 inch, 1366 x 768 pixel matte LCD display surrounded by a moderately glossy bezel with a sort of dotted texture.
Samsung has been one of the few manufacturers to consistently release netbooks with matte displays in recent years, and while matte screens may not look quite as sexy on the store shelf (and some folks will claim that colors don’t look as good on matte screens as glossy ones), the upshot is that the display is somewhat viewable in direct sunlight, since the screen doesn’t turn into a mirror as soon as you shine some light on it.
The viewing angles are also decent. I had no problem tilting the screen as far back as it would go and viewing the text as I was typing this review. I also tilted the screen left and right at 45 degree angles and while some of the colors started to wash out, I could still read the text.
I’m split when it comes to the high resolution 1366 x 768 pixel feature though. On the one hand, there’s no denying that it’s easier to get work done on a computer with a high resolution screen. I didn’t run into a single web site that wouldn’t fit fully on the display. In some cases, I could even run two apps in side-by-side windows without having to scroll too much in either window.
On the other hand, while Windows 7 lets you tweak some font and DPI settings, and most web browsers let you zoom in and out of web pages, the OS really doesn’t handle things quite as well as some operating systems. For example, iOS looks pretty much the same on a 3.5 inch iPhone 3G with a 360 x 480 pixel display as it does on an iPhone 4 with a 640 x 960 pixel screen. Everything just looks crisper on the latter.
But when you move from a 1024 x 600 pixel screen to a 1366 x 768 pixel screen with Windows 7, the text, icons, toolbars, and other graphic elements are all made smaller. That’s sort of the point, since it lets you fit far more content on the screen, as well as displaying HD video and photos without reducing the image quality.
But reducing the size of text and graphics elements without changing the physical dimensions of the screen means that folks with less than perfect eyesight might have to spend a little more time squinting at their screens to make out the fine print. At times I found myself getting a bit of a headache while using the Samsung NF310 for extended periods.
If you change the DPI settings in Windows, some of these items will be changed, but not all of them, which leads to a somewhat inconsistent experience. I suppose you could spend a lot of time customizing every element of the UI and tweaking programs you run frequently if they don’t conform to the default OS settings, but that seems like a lot of work to go through.
Keyboard and Touchpad
As I mentioned above, the keyboard sort of sits in a bowl, surrounded by a raised palm rest area and the wavy sides of the netbook. This serves to elevate your palms a bit over the keyboard, but not as much as using one of those squishy palm rests that some people like to put on their desktops.
The island-style keyboard features keys with flat surfaces and a bit of space in between each key. Thanks to the gray/silver metallic finish of the case, the keyboard actually looks a lot like a MacBook keyboard, although it has more flex to it since the base is made of plastic instead of aluminum.
The keyboard is a bit smaller than a “full” sized keyboard, but I found typing to be quite comfortable and I was able to tap out about 102 words per minute in a typing test, which is about average for me. There are nice wide shift keys on the left and right side of the keyboard, although the enter key isn’t that large.
I’m not a huge fan of the arrow key section, which crams the arrow keys and Page Up and Down keys into a pretty small space. I find myself having to look down to make sure I hit the right key in that area even after a week of using the laptop. These keys also serve as the volume, screen brightness, and Home/End keys when you press and hold the Fn key on the left side of the keyboard.
The touchpad is nice and wide. In fact, it’s a bit wider than the space bar, which is unusual — although to be fair, the space bar is a little smaller on this netbook than on many other mini-laptops I’ve used.
There’s a nice texture to the touchpad which makes sliding very easy. It also supports multitouch gestures such as pinch-to-zoom or using two fingers to scroll.
Below the touchpad is a single button with a rocker in the middle. While it’s fairly easy to register right and left clicks using the button, there’s no way to click on the left and right side at the same time.
The Samsung NF310 has a 1.5GHz Intel Atom N550 dual core processor. Thanks to hyperthreading, the Windows Task Manager actually reports that the computer has four processors, even though it only has two. As you would expect, the netbook is faster than a typical single core netbook and handles multitasking better. But don’t set your hopes too high, because it’s really not that much better.
Like most Atom N550 netbooks, the Samsung NF310 offers maybe 20% better performance than a machine with a single core Atom N450 processor. On the other hand, it can consistently play 720p HD video from the hard drive without stuttering, and it can even handle 720p HD Flash video to some degree.
I had no problem watching HD flash video from YouTube as long as it was in a window. When I tried to blow the video up to full screen it started to stutter, but I didn’t have that problem with local video playback.
The computer can handle HD video playback solely because of the faster processor. It doesn’t have any sort of support for HD video or 3D graphics acceleration and uses the same Intel GMA 3150 graphics accelerator as most other recent Atom powered netbooks. That means your CPU usage will likely spike when you try to watch HD video and you shouldn’t expect this netbook to handle 3D video games any better (or worse) than earlier 10 inch netbooks from Samsung.
In other words, the Samsung NF310 offers decent performance for surfing the web, watching some videos, creating and editing documents, playing some games — doing most of the things you would expect to do on a computer. But it wouldn’t be my first choice for CPU-heavy tasks like editing video files or running Photoshop to edit high resolution images.
I ran a series of tests to see how the Samsung NF310 stacked up against a few other recent netbooks in CPU-heavy tasks. These tests involved transcoding an audio file from WAV to MP3, converting an AVI video file to Xvid, and creating a ZIP archive containing more than 2000 files. As you can see from the chart above, the Samsung NF310 held its own against the Asus Eee PC 1015PN and HP Mini 5103 netbooks which both feature the same Intel Atom N550 dual core processor as the Samsung netbook.
The Acer Aspire One 521, on the other hand, was much faster in most tests, thanks to its 1.7GHz AMD Athlon II Neo K125 single core processor. If speed is the only thing you’re looking for, then the Acer machine might be a better bet. But the Samsung NF310 does still have the higher resolution display, a more distinctive design, and one other distinctive feature, which Samsung calls “Fast Start.”
Basically Fast Start uses an advanced sleep state that’s sort of a cross between sleep and hibernate so that your computer can get up and going about 3-4 seconds after you open the lid. But like normal hibernation, your data is saved to the hard drive before the computer goes into suspension, which means that you shouldn’t lose much battery power while the computer is “off.”
Samsung ships the NF310 netbook with a 6 cell, 48Whr battery. The company says that you should be able to get up to 9 hours of battery life, but in my tests, I found that 5 to 6 hours of run time was more realistic when surfing the web with WiFi on and the screen set to about 60% brightness.
That’s certainly not bad, but it’s nowhere close to 9 hours. I also found that I got better battery life from the Asus Eee PC 1015PN and HP Mini 5103, two other netbooks with Intel Atom N550 processors and 6 cell batteries.
On the bright side, the Samsung NF310 did last longer in my battery test than the Acer Aspire One 521, with its AMD Neo K125 processor… but not that much longer, especially considering the fact that the Acer Aspire One 521 was close two twice as fast as the Samsung NF310 in some of my performance tests.
There are a lot of things to like about the Samsung NF310. It may not have the latest high power graphics chip, or the fastest CPU available for a 10 inch mini-laptop. But it does have a low power dual core Atom processor which offers slightly better performance than the chips that came before it, and it does have a high resolution display if that’s a feature you’re looking for.
The netbook also has excellent speakers, an unusual design I was somewhat surprised to find that I actually really like, a matte display, and a nice keyboard and touchpad.
On the other hand, while I would have been thrilled to pick up a 2.9 pound laptop with a 5 hour battery a few years ago, the idea of a battery that lasts just 5 hours seems kind of quaint in late 2010.
For $399, I think the Samsung NF310 is a pretty good buy. If you can find it on sale for less than that, it might be a really good buy.