For a product which has been declared "dead" by some so-called experts, Netbooks still have a lot of interesting development going on and new products being announced. When I got a Samsung N150 Plus about six months ago, I was very impressed with it. Three months later I got the new Lenovo S10-3s and it looked like it would be even better. While it is better in a lot of ways (CPU and screen resolution to begin with), I have had some problems because it contains some very new/unusual hardware (Broadcom 4313 WiFi and Synaptic ClickPad, primarily). So when I saw the new Samsung NF310, and I read the specifications, my first thought was that it might turn out to be what the S10-3s should have been.
After having it in my hands for just one day, I can say that it is going to be just that, and more. It has a Dual Core Atom N550 CPU, 1GB DDR3 RAM (faster than DDR2), 10.1" HD 1366x768 LED-Backlit LCD display (whew, that's a mouthful!), and as much as 9+ hours of battery life! It also has all the typical netbook stuff, like wired and wireless (b/g/n) networking, Bluetooth, three USB 2.0 ports, webcam, SD/MMC card slot and external VGA connector. It is slightly heavier than the Lenovo S10-3s (2.87/2.6 lbs), but not enough to notice. On top of it all, it has what I consider a very elegant design:
There is something about the curves along the edges, and the overall effect, which I think give the NF310 a much more polished look than either the N150 or the S10-3s.
It has a "Chicklet-style" keyboard similar to the S10-3s (and unlike the N150). That is not my favorite design, and I find pressing the keys a bit mushy for my taste, but it works well and it has certainly been able to keep up with my typing. It also has a "traditional" touchpad with separate buttons, so I won't have to fight with "integrated" buttons as I did on the ClickPad of the S10-3s. In fact, I just compared the two of them side-by-side, and most of the keys on the S10-3s are larger than on the NF310, BUT the Enter/Shift/Tab/Backspace keys are considerably larger on the NF310. I've seen a number of people complaining about those specific keys being too small on the S10-3s, so this is probably a good thing. Oh, and the NF310 actually has twelve F-keys, rather than eleven on the S10-3s (I consider Fn-F11 to get F12 to be a very dirty trick, and it's one of the few things that I really don't like about that netbook).
Ok, but what about the important stuff? Operating systems and software? Here we go...
It came with Windows 7 Stupor, which I will waste very little time discussing. I will say that the installation was much easier and more convenient than it was on the S10-3s, and even on the N150. During the installation a Samsung utility came up and asked how I wanted to partition the disk between C: and D:, with a slider that I could move and a display to show how much space was in each partition. Even better, I discovered afterwards that it had put D: in an Extended Partition, not a Primary, which made it even easier for me to wipe D: and use the space for Linux partitions. It also was not nearly as loaded with third-party garbage as many other new systems I have seen. Basically all I had to remove as Norton Internet Security and Norton Online Backup. It also spent about 15-20 minutes thrashing about doing something that it called "boot optimization". I don't know or care what that is - once it was done I shut down Windows, and it may well never see the light of day (or display) again on this lovely little system.
The Atom 550 CPU is not only dual-core, but it also has the full 64-bit instruction set. So for all of the following Linux installations, I installed the 64-bit distribution. (As far as I know, there is no 64-bit Windows 7 Stupor edition, so I assume it has a 32-bit version installed.)
The first Linux distribution I installed was Linux Mint 10 (Julia) - still my current favorite. Everything went very smoothly, and in less than 15 minutes it was up and running. After the base installation was complete the Additional Drivers utility popped up and offered to install the WiFi STA driver for the Broadcom 4313 adapter. That took about two minutes, after which everything was working. Everything. So, to those who continue to moan about the "nightmare of Linux drivers", I simply say "try a current Linux distribution, and then tell me exactly what doesn't work". Fooey.
Next up for installation was openSuSE 11.4. Again, the installation was fast and easy, and took less than 15 minutes. I was surprised and quite pleased to find that the Broadcom brcm80211 driver worked straight away - the firmware name problem I had seen right up to and including 11.4 RC2 has been fixed. I changed the KDE Workspace Type from "Desktop" to "Netbook", and was again pleasantly surprised. I thought that KDE Netbook might not look too good on this higher-resolution display, but I really like it. I had to stop to do something else in the middle of the openSuSE setup, and thus inadvertently also tested the power management and suspend/resume. When I returned after about 20 minutes, it had gone into Suspend mode. I closed the lid and opened it again, and it woke up again with no problem.
Third on the Linux installation list was Mint Debian Edition. As with the previous two, it was dead easy... this is getting boring! The only minor hitch was that the firmware files for the Broadcom 4313 adapter are not included in the Mint Debian base distribution. I cheated and copied them over from the Mint 10 installation, but if you don't have them handy on some other distribution, you can always just go to the Package Manager and install "firmware-brcm80211", and you'll be all set. Oh, one other thing. Mint Debian was the only release which did not have touchpad tapping enabled by default. If you want it, go to "All Applications / Preferences / Mouse Preferences / Touchpad" and "Enable mouse clicks with touchpad".
Finally, for the moment, I installed Ubuntu 10.10 (Maverick Meerkat). I expected this to be almost identical to installing Mint 10, and it was. Right down to the Additional Driver utility installing the STA WiFi driver. As with all three of the above installations, everything just worked.
I will load some of the other Linux distributions on this netbook over the next few days, including SimplyMEPIS, Fedora, Mandriva and PCLinuxOS. I expect every one of them to work just as well as these four did. If anyone is particularly interested in the results for a specific one, please just ask here in the comments.
In summary, I see this Samsung NF310 as being good news in two different ways. First, it is an excellent netbook, well equipped and with great specifications. It works extremely well with whatever Linux distribution I have tried so far. But beyond that, it is likely to drive down the price for the N150 Plus even more. So if you are interested in a netbook, and you don't need the absolute latest and greatest in configuration and performance, have a look around for that - it is likely to be a real bargain pretty soon!