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A Review of the Samsung N220 Netbook (UK Edition, Repost)

Great for a Linux install (Ubuntu Netbook Edition 10.04)

I was looking for an attractive netbook with a good screen and good performance whose hardware would work well with Linux. I chose the Samsung N220 because of its long battery life (about six hours), lovely matte screen (no reflections from a glossy one), good set of connections for wired and wireless communication, and its large hard drive.

A First Glance and Build Quality

The candy apple red of the N220’s top looks really great. I don’t like to attract too much attention with my electronics, but I’ve been forced into it.

The case feels quite solid. It doesn’t have anything that creaks or rattles when putting pressure on the case to flex it slightly. The screen hinge is solid and looks like it will perform well for quite some time.

Connections

I think the whole point of owning a netbook is to take advantage of its portability. Some people just want an extra computer for browsing the web on their sofa (me, too), but I need a computer I am able to take with me nearly everywhere, and which is small enough that I actually will take it with me. This basic requirement gives a big advantage to netbooks who have lots of built-in connections so that I don’t have to purchase and carry a lot of accessories with me. The N220 has three USB ports, a 10/100 ethernet port, analogue audio input and output jacks, an analogue plug for an external screen, an SD card reader, bluetooth and wi-fi.

I got the wireless adapter to work running Linux by using Windows XP drivers and ndiswrapper. Apparently, the native Linux drivers are ready for prime time, so I’ll probably try to install them this week.

Processor and Memory

The N220 uses the newer Intel ATOM N450 (clocking at 1.66GHz, with 667MHz bus speed, and 512KB of cache), so it has plenty of speed for a computer of this class. Just don’t expect too much. I have found it to be perfectly sufficient for compiling software under Linux, which tends to be very processor- intensive.

The N220 also comes with a gigabyte of RAM, which is barely sufficient for the Windows 7 installation it ships with, but is more than enough for getting far better performance from Linux graphical desktop.

Battery life

You should expect 6-7 hours of battery life under Linux. The 12 hours Samsung claims appear to be completely mythical, even when used as configured straight out of the box. Windows users report 8-10 hours.

Graphics and Screen

The graphics really do shine on the matte 1024x600 LED-backlit screen. The Samsung is one of the few netbooks that support decoding 1080p video, thanks to the Broadcom Crystal HD decoder chip it ships with in the UK, but despite the drivers for it being available, at the time of this review there is very little software support for it in the Linux world. If playing back HD video is important to you, then I would suggest setting up a dual-boot system with Windows until the Linux community catches up.

You can read more about Linux support of Broadcom Crystal HD at Jarod’s Junk Collection on wilsonet.com. I haven’t managed to get XBMC—a media centre application—to use it yet, and really XBMC is a bit overkill for the mplayer or vlc support I’d like to see.

Keyboard

I have seen some reviewers complain about the keyboard. Since I use Apple Mac hardware on a daily basis, I am familiar with the N220’s ‘calculator’-style keyboard. Since it’s on a netbook, it’s smaller than what I am used to, but quite usable. I think the flattened profile allows the chassis to be thinner overall, which may be the reason Samsung chose this design. For some people who are used to typewriter-style keyboards with deep keys arranged in terraces, the change in style and then in size may take some getting used to.

Track pad

I don’t really like the track pad, but I don’t really like track pads. The one on my old iBook was better. I’ll probably end up buying a small mouse or a trackball, but the trackpad has been tolerable up to now, probably because I tend to use the keyboard a lot more when running Linux.

Power Switch

Another complaint I have seen concerns the difficulty of using the power switch—a ridged spring-loaded slide on the front edge of the unit. I strongly suspect that the designer of the switch intended it to be actuated using your right thumbnail. If it were less resistant, it would be too prone to accidental switching.

Accessories

The N220 ships with a switching power supply whose power lead connector is a grounded three-prong IEC C5 cloverleaf, instead of the more common two-pronged C7 or C8 connectors. The C5 connector is less common than the C8, so that’s something to keep in mind if you are like me and prefer to swap out the power cable instead of using an adapter when travelling abroad.

Samsung makes an external CD/DVD-Writer in the same colour as the N220 (Model SE-S084C/TSRS).

The case is really a dust cover, so you should invest in a more durable one if you want any real protection for the netbook. Mine is pretty well protected by the Chapman bag I carry. I’ve also been keeping the N220 along with its power supply, a headset, an extra USB ethernet adapter and a Cat 5 cable in an old case made for a 12-inch Apple iBook. The N220 fits in the same case quite snugly, which I can then load into the aforementioned bag.

Linux Distribution

I recommend the Ubuntu Netbook Edition for installation on this netbook because it mostly just works, and because a load of packages to add device- specific functionality are available on the Voria Launchpad repository.

Conclusion

I wanted a netbook for a long time before I actually bought one—I was waiting for the right hardware to come along at the right price. The Samsung N220 definitely fits the bill with its great connectivity and flexibility.

Update 2010-08-03

Reviewers (and Samsung) are reporting that the N220 comes with built-in 3g in Australia. Compare the UK product page (model NP-N220-JA01UK) with the Australian one (model NP-N220-HAT2AU). My N220 has the slot to insert a SIM card, but no contacts for it on the inside.

Update 2010-12-09

I have since upgraded my memory to 2GB, which helps performance in some of the things I do. I have also added a mobile broadband USB stick (Huawei) to my accessories. The mobile access is incredibly useful.