A Samsung NC10 UX review
In general I agree with the concept of netbooks, a reasonably powerful computer that is very light and therefore easily portable. Upon reaching my destination, my ultraportable should allow me to continue with my work with ease and efficiency. Except they don’t. I have had several netbooks before (Eee 700 and 900), however both were atrocious mainly due to the horrendous keyboard and trackpad. And ever since I became an iPhone user, the reasons for getting another netbook vastly diminished. The iPhone had better apps, better battery, was always online, has GPS and truly does go with me everywhere. More importantly, the iPhone had a fantastic user experience, it is a joy to use, constantly surprising me with the ease and enjoyment of achieving my goal.
Many months have passed however, and netbooks have reached so-called v2.0 status, perhaps it’s time I looked again. As I’ll be doing some travelling in the months ahead, I could imagine the need for a machine that is lighter than my MacBook Pro, but meets most of my needs for short periods of time. Learning my lesson from the two Asus Eee PCs, I was very clear on what I wanted from a v2.0 netbook. Firstly, I don’t care much for tech specs, they rarely translate into anything meaningful, so I’m much more interested in the user experience (UX). With UX firmly in mind, my key complaints about the Eee were that the keyboard was much too small and had an incredibly annoying layout (particularly the apostrophe’s close proximity to the up arrow). Also, the trackpad was not only too small, but was also unresponsive. This resulted in the computer being not very enjoyable to use, and any time I wanted to look up information, my iPhone or MacBook Pro would always have taken preference over the Eee. As such, the Eee never found a place in my life, chiefly due to the sub-par UX.
To repeat my chief requirement, I was after a netbook that is enjoyable to use. I write a lot of text; papers, proposals, e-mails, responses, reviews, so I have to feel comfortable drafting and editing text. Looking at keyboards, the HP Mini-Note 2133 seemed to be top, and although I couldn’t care less about processor speed etc, all reviews did mention that it was so slow as to be frustrating, thus clearly impacting on my UX goal. Some newer Eee PCs also seemed to have a keyboard with the same size as the HP (92% of full scale), but I’ve had enough of Asus by this stage.
The Samsung NC10 seemed to be great at everything, whilst not managing to actually be the best in any one particular feature. It had a good keyboard (92% full scale), ok screen size (1024×600), but its killer feature is the 8 hour battery life from the 6-cell battery. The only downside seemed to be the slightly small trackpad, but reviews said you get used to it. A perfect netbook? At £300, it seemed worth trying to find out.
As I have stated elsewhere, I’m a Mac user, a MacBook Pro being my everyday machine. I mention this, as using Apple laptops for the last 6 years I sometimes forget the experience that other computer users have. With that as my reference point, we can move on. The out-of-box-experience (OOBE) was nothing stellar, an anonymous brown box with more brown boxes inside. I do find it surprising that other manufacturers haven’t learned from Apple on how packaging should be done. The only other item whose packing has impressed me recently was a box of Christmas confectionary from Hotel Chocolat, superb.
The moment you power on the NC10 however, the user experience goes downhill. The OS is Windows XP SP3, I’m not a fan, but I’m hoping it will allow me to be productive. The first thing you notice is that there are icons that cover almost half the screen, pre-installed bloat. Some are genuinely useful apps (Acrobat reader), but the McAfee trial annoyed me instantly. I’ll not dwell on the Windows part too much, as you’ll know what to expect by now, but I’ll summarize by saying that the laptop had to reboot 4 times to configure and update itself. My MacBook Pro hasn’t had that many reboots in 6 months.
But that’s nothing compared to actually using this machine. I loathed it. It was the Eee all over again, this is not a netbook v2.0, it’s more v1.1 at best. The screen has the same yellow tint that the Eee had, and the keyboard is definitely better as it’s almost full size, but not quite. As a result, I find myself in a typo / correction loop just often enough to become annoying. These almost-full-sized keyboards remind me of learning to play a Casio musical keyboard as a kid before I finally moved up to a piano; they looked like a piano, but somehow, didn’t feel right. This 92% problem is made worse when stepping back down from a full-sized (and excellent MacBook Pro) keyboard.
Let’s discuss this machines key weakness, no, that’s not strong enough, it’s key failing, the trackpad and mouse button. I am convinced if I continue to use this machine I will have no fingerprints left on my right index finger after a week. The trackpad is simply unresponsive, and I’ll qualify that by saying that if it doesn’t react to my touch 99% of the time, then it’ll cause frustration. But it gets worse. There’s a dedicated area at the side of the trackpad for vertical scrolling on web pages, I couldn’t get this to work with IE, but initially I wasn’t sure if it just didn’t work with IE, or if the trackpad was not responding. It now does work with IE, perhaps as one of the many updates that occurred at the start, however it’s so difficult to control the vertical scroll that I don’t want to use it. I would say the success rate of the scroll area responding is around 40%.
There’s more bad news for the trackpad area. The trackpad button is directly at the bottom edge of the case, however it’s slightly recessed relative to the edge bezel. This means that almost every time I try to click the button, my thumb hits the bezel first, with no click registered. The likelihood of failure to click the button, 70%. Assuming Samsung did usability testing on this machine (?), then when they were observing people using it and after the 400th time they saw someone hitting the bezel instead of the trackpad button, why didn’t they fix it? I can just imagine the discussion, “Wow, that looks like it’ll seriously hinder productivity and cause frustration. Ship it”.
Then there’s the ergonomics of the trackpad and button relative to one another. On my MacBook Pro, it’s possible to use the trackpad and button whilst keeping the right hand in a natural posture (see figure).
On the NC10 however, as the trackpad and button are so shallow, your hand ends up in a permanent pinch posture. As if that’s not bad enough, to select a left-mouse click, your thumb has to press almost at the very left-hand edge of the button. As your hand is in a pinch posture however, this means your right index finger is also close to the left of the trackpad, not in the centre where you want it to be (see figure). What a mess.
There are other minor issues too such as the weight. Yes, it is only 1.3Kg, but the distribution of that weight is not even, so if you’re sitting with it on your knee the heavy battery will want to keep tipping the laptop backwards, always. Perhaps I’m too fond of BMW’s 50:50 weight distribution, but Samsung could learn from creating a balanced machine.
I wanted to like this netbook, it not only looked good on paper, but it’s gained high praise from the computer press too. As I was discussing earlier, I’m not fussed on tech specs, meaningless for my purposes, I want to know what technology feels like and if it’s enjoyable to use. I find it surprising that no other reviewers mentioned how horrible this machine is to use, instead choosing to focus on the long battery life, it’s Atom processor and almost-full-sized keyboard. Perhaps usability and user experience are either not was desirable as I thought, or most reviewers are simply ignorant of users’ needs.
My quest was to find a netbook that was enjoyable, by which I mean I can get my job done without having to worry about the ergonomics of the machine. When I used the NC10, I feared having to use the vertical scroll area of the trackpad, I felt my teeth clenching, this is not enjoyment.
Yes, the battery is astonishing, I believe I could get 8 hours out of this, and this brings me to the title of the article. Netbooks may be be cheap and have a battery life that goes on forever, but what’s the point in having 8 hours of a frustrating, unenjoyable computing experience? I’m not interested in the equivalent of a diesel car experience, I’d much prefer something that may only last half as long, but shines ten times as bright. It’s time to order a MacBook Air.