Samsung NC20 - A Brief Encounter

We had friends visiting over the weekend, and I had a very brief encounter with a new Samsung NC20 notebook/netbook. As has been discussed here previously, it is really not clear where to draw the line between those two market segments.
Written by J.A. Watson, Contributor

We had friends visiting over the weekend, and I had a very brief encounter with a new Samsung NC20 notebook/netbook. As has been discussed here previously, it is really not clear where to draw the line between those two market segments. This one had a VIA Nano processor, so we don't even have the typical "if it's an Atom, it's a netbook" to go on. The display is 12.1", with 1280x800 resolution, and a VIA Chrome 9 graphic controller. I would say that considering all of that, I would put the NC20 on the notebook side of the line, compared to my almost equally borderline ASUS N10J, which I put on the netbook side of the line. But the boundary certainly is fuzzy.

Anyway, I didn't have my hands on it for nearly long enough to write a real "review", so I just want to pass along some experiences and impressions. First, obviously, the display is very nice. While it has nearly the same resolution as my HP 2133 (1280x780), having the much larger area to view that resolution makes everything a lot easier to read. Second, the Nano CPU and Chrome9 graphic chip combine to make the whole thing feel significantly faster than the typical Intel Atom / GSM 945 netbook. Third, the full-sized notebook keyboard is great.

What we actually wanted to do with the NC20 this weekend was get Linux installed on it alongside the existing Windows XP Home. My first thought was to put Ubuntu Netbook Remix on it, since we were treating it as a netbook. I was a bit concerned by the Chrome9 graphic controller, specifically whether the Linux drivers would have sufficient 3D support to handle the UNR desktop - see my previous experience with the VIA Chrome9 in my HP 2133 netbook, and more recently with the nVidia GeForce graphics in my AUSU N10J. It turned out that I didn't even get far enough to worry about that, the UNR Live USB stick wouldn't boot properly, the display was totally corrupted - it actually looked much the same way that my HP 2133 used to look before they updated the OpenChrome driver to support that. I suspect that what is in the NC20 is a newer Chrome9 chip, and that is causing this proble3m again.

Before anyone writes to tell me that I should try this, that and the other to get updated drivers, please keep in mind that I knew I would have access to this laptop for less than 48 hours, and the objective was to get it working. So rather than fight with Ubuntu, I moved on; I decided to try Mandriva, since they have been very good at keeping up with the latest drivers. The Mandriva One 2009.1 (Spring) LiveCD booted just fine. Hooray!

The next problem we had to solve was that the 250 GB disk was divided into three partitions; a small "Recovery" area, a 120 GB C: for Windows, and a 120 GB D: for data. My friend wanted to keep the D: partition for data to be available under both Windows and Linux, so we needed to shrink the Windows partition to make room for Linux. I get very nervous when programs start monkeying around with shrinking (or moving) partitions, and I certainly didn't want to corrupt the disk on my friends computer when he was on his way to vacation, so I decided to try it on my ASUS first. I have only kept Vistaster on there for laughs (that's all it's good for), so if anything were to go wrong I could just reload the whole thing from scratch.

I was pleased and impressed to see that the Mandriva installation process was able to shrink my C: partition with no problem. Nice. So, on to the NC20, and happily it worked there just fine too - in fact, if anything, it was much faster than shrinking on my ASUS. Then we just told Mandriva to install in the free space, and in 20 minutes we were up and running! Another 10 minutes or so to download and install patches, and in a total of less than 30 minutes or so we had the basic installation done. We only came across one real problem while we were installing and configuring it; if the NC20 sits idle long enough of the screen to blank, it won't come back on again. The netbook is alive and responding, and if you look carefully enough at the screen in bright light, you can just see what is displayed. You can still shut it down and/or reboot by pressing the power button. While this is a fairly significant problem, it's not fatal, and if I were going to be using it I would simply disable the screen blanking to avoid it.

I was also curious as to whether Fedora would work on the NC20, because they also seem to do a good job with device drivers. So I booted the Fedora 11 LiveCD, and it too came up just fine. I didn't try to install it, so I can't vouch for it overall - it might run into the same problems that it does when trying to install on my VIA C7-M powered HP 2133 netbooks. But at least the video comes up ok.

That was about all the time that I had with it. We installed a few more optional packages, and Mandriva certainly seemed to work just fine. Oh, also, as my friend has experience with Ubuntu and Linux Mint, I chose to install the Mandriva Gnome version, rather than KDE. Obviously there were no problems as a result of that, either.

jw 21/7/2009

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