I was very surprised by Samsung’s move to ditch Intel’s popular Atom processor in favour of VIA’s Nano alternative in its latest netbook, but in reality it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference to the end-user experience. Intel’s Atom processor rules the roost when it comes to netbooks, and while AMD isn’t even trying to go head to head with Intel’s CPU VIA is hoping to capture a piece of the pie with its Nano processor. The NC20 netbook is Samsung’s successor to the mightily impressive Atom-powered NC10 and features VIA’s Nano U2250 processor running at 1.3+GHz (the ‘+’ signifies that the CPU has more to offer than its nominal clock speed suggests). Accompanying the unique innards is 1GB of DDR2 memory and graphics courtesy of VIA’s Chrome9 HC3 IGP, making the NC20 one of the best all-round netbooks.

Available in a choice of white or black, Samsung’s NC20 isn’t all about the VIA’s Nano processor. It offers a few other niceties. For starters it’s armed with a larger-than-usual 12.1-inch glossy display which provides a useful 1280×800-pixel resolution. The screen is brighter and crisper than most and makes Web browsing and casual gaming an absolute joy – gone is the endless scrolling up and down. Elsewhere, it’s very much a standard netbook affair.

There’s 1GB of DDR2 system memory (upgradable to 2GB), 3-in-1 memory card reader, three built-in USB ports (no eSATA or FireWire), a fixed 1.3-Megapixel camera that comes with CyberLink YouCam software for easy uploading to YouTube, and 5400rpm SATA hard drive options of 80-, 120- and 160GB (solid state disk drives are optional). With the standard 6-cell battery, the whole netbook weighs just 1.5kg (up 200g from the NC10) and should be good for around 6 hours between charges.

Microsoft’s ubiquitous Windows XP Home Edition serves as its operating system. Unfortunately, there’s a downside. The bump in screen size sadly translates to a bump in price. Samsung’s NC20 costs a not so impulsive £372 ($499) – nearly £100 more than the existing 10.2-inch (1024×600) NC10 – making it one of the most expensive netbooks currently on the market.

Samsung says the NC20 is actually a ‘full size netbook,’ which makes me wonder what the smaller models are (sub-netbooks?). At least with the larger form factor, touch typists will appreciate the full-sized 84-key keyboard with a standard 18.5mm key pitch. I’m not sure why Samsung moved the Windows key over to the right-hand side of the spacebar though, because we’re all used to it being on the left side.

VIA Nano
The Nano is the first 64-bit processor in VIA’s x86 portfolio and Samsung is the first manufacturer to use it in a netbook. Specifically designed to compete with Intel’s Atom processor, the Nano’s (formerly codenamed ‘Isaiah’) power consumption is on par with previous generation VIA CPUs, with thermal design power ranging from 5W to 25W. The Nano processor is coupled with VIA’s VX800 graphics chipset with support for Microsoft’s DirectX 9.0, high definition video and audio playback, and up to 4GB of DDR2 system memory. Several tests I’ve run showed that the Nano performs better than Intel’s single-core 1.6GHz Atom N270 across a variety of workloads including JavaScript processing, but even the NC20 struggles with HD clips on YouTube and Vimeo. VIA’s chipset stuttered a lot less than Intel’s GMA 950 and is a definite improvement on the NC10.

Combining VIA’s power efficient Nano processor and Windows XP Home, Samsung’s NC20 is a speedy and responsive netbook that behaves like a traditional laptop. Its stunning 12.1-inch display is also bigger, brighter, and richer than other netbooks. Thanks to its full-size keyboard with optimised key spacing and larger touchpad, the NC20 is a highly portable device that blurs the line between netbooks and ultra-portable PCs – a good or bad thing only you can decide…

Mobility is guaranteed by all manners of wireless connectivity, although 802.11n is notably missing, and up to 6 hours power outlet autonomy (around 4 hours with Wi-Fi turned on) should be enough to get things done on the go. Compared with its Atom-based rivals, the Nano-based NC20 offers significantly better performance. The only question you’ve got to ask yourself is whether you want to spend the same amount of money on a netbook as a proper laptop (Dell’s Inspiron 15 can be had from just £309), especially considering laptops are more powerful and better at playing back video and running games. If you’ve already got a Samsung NC10, the NC20’s larger screen size and improved keyboard warrant the upgrade. For others, the NC20 is the best netbook around.