Premium netbooks: Good value or oxymoron?

With smartphones becoming smarter and larger laptops becoming cheaper, are higher-cost netbooks worth a serious look? We look at four of them.

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Samsung NC10

Samsung Electronics Co.'s NC10 is a comparatively inexpensive ($439) but surprisingly feature-rich premium netbook with a bright, crisp 10.2-in. display, an excellent keyboard and standard Bluetooth connectivity. Despite those advantages, however, it was sometimes frustrating to use.

The NC10 comes with the commonly used Intel Atom N270 chip set operating at 1.6 GHz and 1GB of RAM. It performed well with a PassMark Performance rating of 201.7. It has a standard 160GB hard drive, three USB ports, VGA and Ethernet ports, and a slot that handles SD, SDHC and MMC flash cards. However, it doesn't have an expansion slot like the HP Mini 2140's ExpressCard slot.

At 2.8 lb., the NC10 is about the same weight as the other netbooks in this roundup and, at about 10.3 in. wide and 7.3 in. deep, typical size for this class of device.

Premium netbooks
Samsung NC10

In most ways, the NC10 is quite pleasant to use. Its 10.2-in. LCD was bright and crisp. Most notably, its keyboard was, subjectively, the best I've found on any netbook. The keys are well-beveled, with the top of each key being about two-thirds of an inch across. This provided good separation between the keys, which is a boon for touch typists and made the NC10's keyboard usable for extended periods.

The NC10 comes standard with a six-cell battery. As a result, in our run-down tests, the battery lasted an impressive 4 hours and 46 minutes before petering out.

But the generously sized keyboard left too little room for the device's pointing system, which was a significant detriment for comfortable moment-to-moment use. The touch pad is just 2.5 by 1.25 in., which I found too small to use comfortably.

One potentially nice feature is that the far right side of the touch pad emulates the wheel of a mouse. Dragging your finger up and down enables vertical scrolling within applications and Web pages. But the touch pad is so small that it was easy during normal use of the touch pad to encroach on that mouse-wheel emulation section, which would start scrolling the page. Worse still, the response to a finger drag often lagged a bit behind the actual finger motion despite adjustments to the touch pad's tracking speed and touch-sensitivity.

Yet another problem with the device's pointing system is the touch pad's buttons, which are located on the two ends of a narrow bar positioned horizontally beneath the touch pad. The bar is pivoted in the middle; pressing the left side of the bar emulates pressing the left mouse button and pressing the right side emulates the right mouse button. However, the bar is too narrow and is flush with the rest of the computer, so it wasn't always easy to know when my finger was in an appropriate location. Plus, the key press on the bar was imprecise so that I sometimes thought I had pressed a button when I hadn't. Overall, the pointing system significantly detracted from the otherwise enjoyable use of the NC10.

The Samsung NC10 is relatively inexpensive and comes with a generous set of features including a six-cell battery. With one improvement -- a better pointing system -- this device would be a clear-cut winner among premium netbooks. However, because of that pointing system, I found the NC10 frustrating to use. -- David Haskin

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