At first glance, the Samsung N120 looks like a cross between the Samsung NC20 and N110 laptops. Like the N110, the Samsung N120 has a 10 inch display and a 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270 CPU.
But Samsung’s latest netbook has a larger chassis than the N110, which makes it closer to the size of the N120. And that means it has room for a larger keyboard than most of today’s mini-laptops. Samsung also crammed two front-facing speakers into the N120, which, along with a 1.5 subwoofer below the keyboard, helps provide high quality audio.
Samsung managed to pack these features into a laptop that’s barely any wider than the Asus Eee PC 1000HE, and which weighs about half a pound less. But the Samsung N120 isn’t without flaws. The speakers aren’t very loud, and the SD card slot is positioned so that memory cards will stick out right under your palm as you type.
The unit I reviewed has a 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270 CPU, 1GB of RAM, a 160GB hard drive, 802.11b/g WiFi, and a 10.1 inch, 1024 x 600 pixel display. It has a 6 cell, 5200mAh battery, weighs 2.8 pounds and measures 10.7″ x 7.4″ x 1.17″. The Samsung N120 is available from Amazon for under $399.
The Samsung N120 looks a lot like the popular Samsung NC10 netbook, but it has a slightly larger chassis which makes room for the two things that really set this netbook apart: One of the largest keyboards you’ll find on any netbook and front-facing stereo speakers placed to the right and left of the 10.1 inch, 1024 x 600 pixel display.
The result is a computer that has the same 10 inch screen as many netbooks, but a larger body than most mini-laptops. The computer is just a tad wider than the Asus Eee PC 1000H, but a little less thick. The Samsung N120 also weighs less than the 3.2 pound Asus Eee PC 1000H, at just 2.8 pounds including a 6 cell battery.
The computer comes in black or white, and the chassis consists of plastic. The lid and palm area are matte, which helps protect the computer from fingerprints. There are a few chrome areas including the hinges by the lid and two chrome stripes along the side of the netbook.
On the left and right sides of the computer you’ll find the Ethernet and power jacks as well as 3 USB ports, a VGA port, and mic and headphone jacks. Just in case you can’t find them, Samsung has printed little icons to the left and right sides of the keyboard to indicate where each port is. While these labels might be helpful at first, once you already know where the ports are, they just seem to litter the computer case unnecessarily.
If you flip the computer over on its back you’ll find a RAM access panel. The computer ships with 1GB of RAM, but can be upgraded to 2GB. Replacing the hard drive or other components will take a little more work, as there are a total of 13 screws holding the case together. There’s also a speaker vent for the 1.5 watt subwoofer.
One thing that I find to be a minor annoyance is the SDHC card slot, which is placed on the front of the computer, just under the keyboard.
While the netbook ships with a small piece of plastic that fits perfectly into the slot to keep dust from accumulating when you’re not using an SD card, that piece of plastic is a bit shorter than a real SD card. In other words, your flash storage cards will stick out a little bit.
At the base of the keyboard, you’ll find a total of 7 LEDs that let you know the status of the WiFi, hard drive, battery, and other information. Honestly, there are so many LEDs it’s hard to keep them straight and tell what’s going on at a glance. But they don’t use up much power so I won’t complain.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The keyboard on the Samsung N120 features 82 keys, and Samsung describes it as a 97% sized keyboard. In other words, you’re not going to find a netbook with a keyboard much larger than this. Touch typing is quite easy, and there’s a full sized shift key on the right side of the keyboard, something which is becoming more and more common in netbooks but which still isn’t a given.
But I did have a few issues with the keyboard. In order to make room for that larger right shift key, Samsung squashed the arrow keys and the page up/down buttons into a tiny corner of the keyboard. That probably wouldn’t be too hard to get used to, but each of those keys serves double duty. Hitting the Fn button and the left or right arrows adjusts the volume. Fn+ up/down adjusts the screen brightness. And the PgUp/PgDn keys serve as the Home and End keys. And because these keys are all so close together, I often find myself brightening the screen when I want to jump to the beginning of a sentence, and vice versa.
Admittedly, part of this problem is due to the fact that I’ve been switching back and forth between this keyboard and the Asus Eee PC 1000H keyboard for the past week. The Asus keyboard has a different layout, and the Home and End buttons are assigned to the left/right keys, not the PgUp/PgDown keys. It’s possible that full time Samsung N120 users will get used to this key combination faster than I did.
I’m also a bit perplexed by a few of the other Fn keys. For instance, Fn+F3 inserts a €. That’s it. There’s a whole key dedicated to one special character that most Americans will rarely use. I would rather have moved the brightness or volume keys to this row rather than have a Euro key, but again maybe that’s just me.
The touchpad is wide by netbook standards, and it’s indented a bit from the rest of the chassis, which is a huge improvement over the Samsung NC10 touchpad which sits flush with the palm wrest area, making it hard to detect where the touchpad begins and ends without looking directly at it. There’s a single large button below the touchpad which you can use to enter right or left clicks. I personally prefer two distinct buttons, but I found the single button relatively easy to use.
The touchpad supports scrolling, which means you can place your finger over the right edge and move up and down to scroll up and down in many applications. Scrolling your finger along the bottom of the screen scrolls certain apps to the left or right. There is no support for multi-touch gestures.
The netbook features a 10.1 inch, 1024 x 600 pixel glossy display. It does reflect a bit of glare when placed in bright and sunny places (like outdoors). But it’s not the glossiest/shiniest screen I’ve seen.
Samsung includes a utility called Easy Resolution Manager that lets you toggle the virtual screen resolution between 1024 x 600 and 1024 x 768. While it’s impossible to actually squeeze any extra pixels onto the screen, the 1024 x 768 mode fakes it by doubling up some pixels and treating the screen as if it had a higher resolution than it does. The results look kind of crappy, but could come in handy for some applications that have a minimum screen resolution requirement.
There’s also an Easy Display Manager tool that lets you set hotkeys for performing actions like adjusting the screen resolution and rotating the display.
One of the things that sets the Samsung N120 apart from most netbooks is that there are two speakers on the front of the laptop, the left and right of the screen. There’s also a 1.5W subwoofer tucked away on the bottom of the computer. It’s not exactly going to turn your netbook into a boom box, but the 2.1 channel speakers do provide decent audio quality. Decent, but not spectacular.
The speakers don’t get very loud, and they’re not going to sound as good as plug-in speakers or headphones. But they do reproduce sound a little better than some netbooks. The only other netbook I happened to have handy this week was my trusty old Asus Eee PC 1000H, so I ran a rather silly audio test.
Here’s what I did. I grabbed my Sony PCM-D50 digital audio recorder and positioned it about 18-24 inches away from the speakers in a position similar to where your head would be if you were typing on the netbooks while listening to music. In order to avoid any copyright issues, I grabbed two songs the band I played with in high school recorded. So umm, yeah. Here’s what the Samsung N120 sounded like:
And here’s the Asus Eee PC 1000H:
To my ear, the Asus Eee PC 1000H is louder, but the audio is a bit more muddy and gets a bit distorted when the volume peaks. On the other hand, my cat decided to scratch at the door while I was recording the Samsung N120 audio sample, so that audio quality could have been cleaner too.
Samsung packs the N120 with a series of system utilities including the screen resolution and display apps I mentioned above. There’s also a battery life extender program that isn’t quite what you think.
Instead of trying to adjust the power settings to give you the maximum possible run time per battery charge, this tool actually tries to increase the life of your battery as measured in months, not hours. It does this by telling the computer to charge your battery to 80% capacity instead of 100% which theoretically helps give you at least a few extra charge cycles in the long run.
There’s also Battery Manager utility which does provide all sorts of details about your battery and power saving settings to help you squeeze more life out of your batter (this time measured in minutes and hours).
There’s also a utility called SRS Control Panel for adjusting your audio settings, a utility for receiving system and software updates from Samsung, the Samsung Magic Doctor program that helps diagnose system problems as well as a backup utility. You can find some more screenshots at the end of this review.
The Samsung N120 has a 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270 CPU and integrated GMA 950 graphics. In other words, it performs pretty much exactly like every other Intel Atom powered netbook out there. It can handle light tasks like firing up a web browser, instant messaging client, and a media player simultaneously without complaining. I had no problem opening up half a dozen or more browser tabs in Firefox or Google Chrome. And the computer boots Windows XP in a respectable 45 seconds.
The netbook handles web video from YouTube and Hulu well, whether in windowed or full screen mode.
The 1.3MP webcam and microphone worked reasonably well for making video calls over Skype. The picture quality was clear, but the frame rate was a bit on the low side. You can check out the video quality yourself by watching a recent episode of TechVi where I was a guest. I recorded the interview using the Samsung N120. And yes, I know. I accidentally said the national section of the New York Times is free when you use the new Times Reader 2.0 application. I meant to say the front page section.
This computer gets excellent battery life from its 6 cell, 5200mAh battery. While the battery doesn’t pack as much juice as the 8700mAh battery that comes with the Asus Eee PC 1000HE, I was regularly able to use the computer for about 6 hours without plugging it in.
I ran the same Battery Eater test I’ve been using to review other netbooks and the Samsung N120 lasted for 4 hours and 20 minutes. Keep in mind, the test is designed to put constant strain on the battery, so it’s not unusual to see a score around 4 hours in the test and still get around 6 hours in real world conditions. For comparison’s sake, the Eee PC 1000HE scored 4 hours and 51 minutes in the Battery Eater test and ran for over 7 hours under normal conditions.
The battery fits into the bottom of the computer and sticks out a little, but not as much as some other 6 cell netbook batteries I’ve seen. It gives the Samsung N120 keyboard a slight tilt which helps make typing comfortable.
The Samsung N120 isn’t the smallest or lightest netbook on the market. And it doesn’t have the loudest speakers. But it is thin, light, and has some of the best sounding speakers I’ve heard on a netbook to date. And they totally justify the bezel around the 10.1 inch display. In fact, the bezel isn’t really that much larger than th ones found on many other 10 inch netbooks, and it’s much less noticeable than the huge bezel around the original netbook, the 7 inch Asus Eee PC 701.
The computer also comes with a nice array of software, provides excellent battery life, and a touchpad that’s a step up from the tiny touchpad on the Samsung NC10.
But these features do come at a cost. The Samsung N120 is available right now from Amazon for $433, which is is $45 higher than the similarly specced Asus Eee PC 1000HE which is going for $388. The Eee PC 1000HE also provides better battery life, has a 1.66GHz Intel Atom n280 CPU, and supports 802.11n WiFi, which the Samsung N120 does not. But the Eee PC 1000HE is also nearly half a pound heavier than the Samsung N120. Update: Since this review was published the price has dropped, and you can often find the Samsung N120 for as little as $350.
Here are all the photos featured in this review plus a few extras: