Review: 4 'large' netbooks -- are they better or just bigger?

Netbooks have been the small wonders of the mobile world. But are the latest models getting too big to deserve the name?

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Samsung NC20

Samsung's NC20 is a capable machine that delivers a 12.1-in. screen and lets you adjust performance and battery life to suit your needs. However, its screen doesn't match that of the competition, and it has a travel weight of 4 lb.

The NC20 weighs 3.3 lb.; its AC adapter adds another half pound. It's quite a bit bigger and heavier than the Aspire but 5 oz. lighter than the IdeaPad and a couple ounces heavier than MSI, which has a larger screen.

The system's black case measures 1.1 by 11.4 by 8.4 in., which doesn't leave much room for a drink on a tray table. It has chrome accents and comes with a soft case.

Large netbooks
Samsung NC20

Its 12.1-in. screen matches the IdeaPad on size and resolution, but instead of equipping the netbook with an Intel processor and graphics, Samsung gave the NC20 a 1.3-GHz Via Nano chip and a Via Chrome HC3 graphics engine, which proved to be as powerful at moving pixels around as Intel's graphics engines on the other three systems. On the downside, the NC20's display was the least bright of the bunch.

A nice feature is that you can adjust system performance based on the work at hand. This allowed me to tune the machine for maximum battery life on a long plane ride, but made it faster for work when battery life wasn't as critical.

The system includes the usual group of ports, including three USB ports, an Ethernet adapter, an external monitor port, and microphone and headphone jacks. Like all but the IdeaPad, it does without an ExpressCard slot, but the NC20 has Bluetooth as well as excellent white-on-black markings so you know where each port is. The system has 802.11b/g Wi-Fi and a webcam above the screen.

With 18.4mm keys, the NC20's keyboard is stable, predictable and comfortable, although its half-size spacebar was a continual headache for me. It should be the international favorite, with a euro currency key -- something the others lack.

Because the NC20 comes with an application for adjusting its performance, its speed is a little hard to pin down. With the system set to High Performance, it scored a 311.1 on Passmark's PerformanceTest 7.0 benchmark, about equivalent to the MSI.

The six-cell battery ran for 4 hours and 29 minutes on a charge, just shy of the IdeaPad's numbers. In Silent mode, performance dropped to 179.9 while battery life rose to 5 hours and 7 minutes, or roughly what the Aspire One can do. The NC20 has a Wi-Fi range of only 85 feet, half the MSI's range.

The software that's included with the NC20 comes up short next to any of the other large netbooks. It does include Windows XP Home, McAfee's Security Center with two months of updates, and Samsung's backup program, but not much more. The one-year warranty is adequate but second-best compared with the Aspire's two years and the MSI's three years of coverage.

I really like the NC20's adjustable performance and looks, but it's so heavy that it drifts too far from what a netbook is into the realm of the overweight.

Conclusion

What is and is not a netbook is a matter of personal taste and mobile needs. For me, the IdeaPad and NC20 are too heavy, while the MSI is too expensive and big. That leaves Acer's Aspire One as the only netbook that hits all the hot buttons and stays within my budget.

The only one of the four to stay close to its netbook roots, the Aspire squeezes an 11.6-in. screen into a compact 2.8-lb. package that's only marginally bigger and heavier than earlier Aspire One netbooks. With more than six hours of battery life at its disposal, it's the long-distance runner of the netbook world and can power a digital life for a full day of travel, work or fun. While it lacks Bluetooth and an ExpressCard slot and may not be the best performer, it has the best price of the group.

In essence, it's the only system of this group that is so small and light that it's a no-brainer to take with me wherever I go. In comparison, all the others are oversized and overpriced. They may be portable, but they don't live up to my idea of a netbook.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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