Tiny gets semi-tough in Samsung netbook

NB30 Pro sets a new standard for business-rugged

The latest trend in laptop PCs isn’t being a laptop at all. Instead we have netbooks, laptops’ tiny cousins, becoming all the rage.

The logic behind a netbook is that most travelers don’t require the ultra-fast performance offered by full-sized laptops. For checking e-mail messages on the road, writing Word files, surfing the Web and other mundane tasks, a slower processor is all that’s needed.

Samsung NB30

Pros: Durable case, hard drive protected from shock, portable.
Cons: Slower performance than most laptops.
Performance: C
Ease of use: A
Features: B+
Value: B+
Price: $519

So for most people, the dainty power-sipping Intel Atom chips will do just fine. And that reduces the need for massive components to support the chip, such as batteries. You might not get the raw speed of a full-sized laptop, but most netbooks can get the job done at less than 3 pounds, a nice boon on weight savings. Some are even lighter than that.

The Samsung NB30 fits the netbook guidelines for the most part. Powered by an Atom N450 chip running at 1.66 GHz, it does what we have come to expect from a computer of this class. What separates the NB30 from the pack is that Samsung has taken steps to increase the durability of the unit beyond normal design parameters. That isn't to say that the NB30 is rugged in terms of Mil-Spec 810f. But it is a lot more durable than most netbooks, which tend to be on the fragile side, even for a technology product.

Looking at the NB30 as a laptop first, before we get into the rugged features, we found a decently performing system. It was able to get 215.4 on the Passmark Performance Test Version 7 benchmark, which, although low, is about average for a netbook.

We like to set a goal of at least 300 for systems that want to do anything outside of the norm, but 215 is close enough that you will be able to do things such as open Photoshop files. You just might want to go get a cup of coffee while they load. Also, the NB30 couldn’t perform many of the 3-D tests the benchmark requires, so don’t expect this netbook to do much else beyond 2-D business graphics. It has 128M of shared graphical memory and an Intel GMA2150 processor, hardly a heavyweight but adequate for most office tasks.

The NB30 we tested had 2G of memory, which seemed to be about the minimum needed to drive the Windows 7 Pro operating system. Sometimes even common tasks could seem a little slow. For example, trying to open the control panel occasionally resulted in a delay of between five and 10 seconds.

Not too surprisingly, the NB30 did quite well on our worst-case scenario battery life testing, where we constantly run a movie on the screen with the brightness and sound set at 80 percent. The movie clip played over and over again for 3 hours, 16 minutes before the netbook went dark. More common tasks and running with power-saving features active (we disable everything to run it full-out during the test) will likely net you even longer run times.

In terms of extras (not counting rugged, which we will look at separately), there were a few nice surprises. For one, the NB30 has a very crisp, LED-backlit 10.1-inch display with a native resolution of 1024 x 600. Everything on the screen was crisp. That is matched by an above average sound system, for a netbook anyway. The speakers are only 40 watts, but everything coming out of the NB30 is in HD audio, so it sounds great. And again, it’s adequate for most tasks. We had no problem hearing our movie clip running from an adjacent room.

And we were happy to find three USB ports, a necessity for netbooks, given that extra devices are often needed to increase functionality. For example, it has no DVD drive, so if you need one, a USB model would be a perfect choice. You could plug one in and still have two USB ports available for a mouse and portable backup hard drive. There is also an SD slot which could come in handy if you are using a camera or smaller data device. A 0.3 megapixel camera rounds out the extra features. A 0.3 camera is nothing to write home about but is fine for most videoconferencing if all you are doing is talking to someone or showing still pictures close to the lens.

At first, we were a little concerned about the price of the unit, which retails for $519 as configured for our testing. But we know that rugged gear typically sells for more than comparable nonrugged equipment, so this is somewhat understandable. Samsung also said that government discounts were in place, though we don’t have the details on that.

Usually, when we talk rugged we are dropping notebooks from 48 inches onto plywood over concrete, as set out in the 810f specification. But that didn’t happen here. The NB30 isn’t ready to enlist. It’s just a bit more durable than a standard netbook.

The two main areas that make it durable are the shock-mounted hard drive and the special polymer case. The hard drive is a 2.5-inch 5400-RPM model, so nothing really special there. It is mounted in special shock-absorbing material, which can help in a fall. It also has a drop sensor that locks it in place quickly if it detects rapid motion, such as a sudden fall. We tested this sensor, and it worked fine, though we have also seen this on non-rugged notebooks in the past.

The plastic case has deep grooves carved into it that help to absorb the shock of a fall. The case seems to push out a bit from the actual frame of the netbook, so light to medium damage will presumably affect the plastic covering and not the vital components inside.

With the special case and the hard drive protection, our years of testing rugged gear tells us that the NB30 could almost certainly survive at least one moderate drop without losing any data. But because it’s not actually rated as rugged, we didn’t perform that test as the unit would have likely been damaged when doing so. But that’s really the point. The case can take a cosmetic beating while protecting the data on the drive, if not the other vital components. The weight of the NB30 is 2.95 pounds, which is heavy for a netbook, but understandable because even light armor adds weight.

Factoring all that in, the $519 price tag isn’t too bad. Even if there is only a low chance of the unit experiencing a fall, it’s nice to know that, if nothing else, the data on the hard drive will likely survive. And that peace of mind is more than you will get with most other units in this class.

Samsung Electronics America, www.samsung.com

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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