At Last, a Netbook Worth Buying: Samsung's N120

It's been nearly two years since the first netbook, the Asus Eee PC 4G, became available to U.S. consumers. Even so, I just bought my first netbook, the Samsung N120. Why did I wait so long? (Several reasons.) And was it worth the wait? (Absolutely.)

Why I Waited

I don't buy first-generation hardware, as a rule. Why pay money to be a beta tester? So I waited while Asus, along with other computer makers such as Acer, Dell, HP, and Lenovo, pushed out their first-generation netbooks.

As second- and third-generation netbooks appeared, I still refrained. Despite their low prices (often $400 and under), the netbooks I tested came with too many compromises: cramped keyboards, awkward touchpad buttons, and batteries that wound down too quickly (in some cases, in under 2 hours).

Then Samsung jumped into the U.S. netbook market with the NC10, a promising entry that's currently number six on our Top 10 Netbooks chart. I was intrigued by its long battery life (6 hours, 54 minutes in our tests), its keyboard that's 93-percent full-sized (compared to 88 to 92 percent of most netbook keyboards), and other features. But it was Samsung's maiden netbook voyage, so I held off.

In recent months, though, Samsung has been prolific in the netbook department, pushing out new models such as the N110 and N120.

I finally made my move, buying a black N120 from J&R.com for $410. FYI: As a California resident, I didn't have to pay sales tax, and ground shipping was free. Another advantage of buying from J&R.com: The site offers a 30-day return policy; and it doesn't charge a restocking fee, unless you return the item without all its original pieces and packaging. (For more on return policies, see "Navigating Return Policies for Netbooks and Mobile Gear.")

Why I Bought the Samsung N120

While the N120's keyboard is smaller than a typical laptop's, it's noticeably more comfortable for typing than any other netbook keyboard I've tested. (The HP Mini 2140 keyboard is a close second.) Keyboard comfort is extremely important to me, as I've suffered from repetitive strain injury (RSI) in the past and I'm not about to awaken that sleeping tiger by using a child-size keyboard.

By the way, the worst netbook keyboard I've tried belongs to the Dell Mini 9. I suspect the "9" refers to how old you should be to type comfortably on that netbook.

The N120's battery life is another big draw. In PCW video-playback tests, the N120's battery lasted an impressive 7 hours, 43 minutes. I managed to go for over 5 hours typing on the N120 at a recent Twitter conference, with Wi-Fi on and the screen's brightness cranked all the way up. Even better, the six-cell standard battery protrudes only slightly, compared to the bulky six-cell battery options you'd get on the HP Mini 2140 and some other netbooks.

While the Samsung N110 offers longer battery life (8 hours, 23 minutes), the N120's keyboard is bigger. My need for the largest netbook keyboard possible trumped my desire for the longest battery life. (Read "Laptops With Epic Battery Life Keep You Working" for more long-lived portables.)

Other laudable features:

  • Its speakers have a subwoofer, so it delivers audio that's a bit better than the average netbook.
  • The N120's casing has a matte finish that doesn't show fingerprints as easily as the glossy finish on other netbooks, such as the NC10.
  • The touchpad has a large area dedicated for scrolling, making it easy to navigate to the top or bottom of Web pages and other documents. There's only one touchpad button, but I find it easy to use.
  • Samsung includes some useful software tools, such as Samsung Battery Manager, which gives you three different power consumption modes; software for troubleshooting and restoring; and an easy-to-understand user's guide.
  • Good, fluid playback of videos through Apple iTunes.
  • A glossy, bright 10.1-inch widescreen display that's highly reflective, yet still readable in bright sunlight.
  • A built-in 1.3-megapixel Webcam.
  • Even after the N120 has been running for several hours, it doesn't run hot, as some netbooks (and laptops) do. There's no noisy fan turning on and off, either.

A Few Quibbles

  • Why did Samsung put the dedicated Windows Start key on the keyboard's right side, instead of on the left, where it normally lives?
  • Samsung overachieved with status lights. The N120 has a total of seven indicators, for power on/off, wireless on/off, and, oh, I forget the rest.
  • No ExpressCard slot--though this is still a rarity among netbooks and not something I've had a need for yet.
  • No built-in cellular modem--though I don't recommend using these anyway. A better choice is to buy a USB cellular modem, so your netbook or notebook cellular connection isn't tied to a particular carrier's network.

The Wrap Up

The Samsung N120 is a pleasure to use. You can type for hours without causing your hands to throb. The battery will keep powering the netbook for nearly a full day of work, depending on use. You can watch video downloaded from iTunes or other sources without dropped frames or jerky motion. The screen is legible (though a bit too reflective) on a sunny day at the park. People I talked to in Skype video chats said the quality of my video and audio was mostly excellent. And though it's a bit bigger than some 10.1-inch netbooks, the N120 will fit easily into most small bags. Samsung throws in a protective slipcover, too.

Even though there are less expensive netbooks on the market, the N120 is a good value for $410, especially if you get free shipping and pay no taxes. Honestly, if you've been holding out for the right netbook, you may have just run out of excuses.

Mobile Computing News, Reviews, & Tips

T-Mobile myTouch 3G: Hot on the heels of the Apple iPhone 3GS and the Palm Pre comes T-Mobile's second-generation Android phone, myTouch 3G. The $199 phone (with two-year contract) features a virtual keyboard instead of a physical one. Otherwise, the myTouch 3G isn't hugely different from the T-Mobile G1 Android phone that debuted last year.

What's Missing from the iPhone 3GS: Apple's third-gen iPhone offers several improvements over previous models, including video recording, copy and paste functions, and universal search. But there are at least five things we'd still like to see, including the ability to drag and drop files directly onto the device and a better camera.

Five Reasons to Upgrade to Windows 7: Microsoft's upcoming revamped OS, Windows 7, offers one-click Wi-Fi networking. Unlike Vista, Windows 7 makes jumping onto a wireless network easy and convenient. You just click the System Tray icon and select from the list of available hotspots. We've got four other reasons you should consider making the switch to Windows 7 (which is currently available in beta).

Suggestion Box

Is there a particularly cool mobile computing product or service I've missed? Got a spare story idea in your back pocket? Tell me about it. However, I regret that I'm unable to respond to tech-support questions, due to the volume of e-mail I receive.

Contributing Editor James A. Martin offers tools, tips, and product recommendations to help you make the most of computing on the go. You can follow him on Twitter. Jim is also the coauthor of Getting Organized in the Google Era, to be published by Crown in March 2010. Sign up to have Mobile Computing e-mailed to you each week.

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