The rounded and colourful case of this sleek and shiny Samsung netbook makes it stand out from the pack, as do the backlit keyboard and light weight. But do the compromises Samsung has made to achieve the style and slenderness mean it's all flash and no substance?
The glossy metallic case certainly looks flash, in dark red or rich bright blue. The colour continues round to the base of the chassis and even moulds around the ports neatly, although the embossed Samsung logo across the lid is rather imposing - or tacky, depending on your point of view. Neatly curved corners and sloping edges look good and are comfortable to carry, especially as the NS310 is just a hair over a kilo in weight. The weight is well balanced too; when you have it open, the two hinges hold the screen steady and there's no sign of it tipping over backwards.
The interior is all black, relieved by the blue glow of the power button above the screen and the indicator lights below the large trackpad. These are placed so that you won't keep brushing over them as you type, and even if you do they don't have the sharp edges we've complained about on some netbooks.
The screen and bezel have the usual popular but irritatingly reflective gloss finish; despite the good viewing angle of the screen, we had noticeable problems with reflections when working near a window with the NS310.
Keyboard and trackpad
The keyboard, surround and trackpad are a uniform matte black plastic. The keyboard is sunken into a well to give you more action on the keys; it's also backlight. This adjusts automatically to surrounding light, turning on as the room gets darker, and off when you don't use the keyboard for a while - or you can adjust the brightness yourself.
The keys are a little on the small size for a machine with a 10.1-inch screen, thanks to those curving edges and sloping sides; although there's plenty of space between the isolated keytops, the keyboard, as a whole, feels rather cramped and we'd happily sacrifice the second alt and ctrl keys for real home/end keys, rather than extra functions on the arrow keys. The secondary controls on the function keys are all useful, adjusting brightness and volume or bringing up the ControlCenter utility, but there are no media buttons.
The trackpad is large for a netbook, with a surface that's both smooth and yet textured enough for precision. It's responsive for simple scrolling and two-finger pinch zoom, scroll and rotate. The three-finger tap and swipe gestures are turned off by default, probably because the touch pad surface is just too small to use them comfortably unless you have the tiniest of fingers. The buttons have a nice positive action, but they're set into a single rocker bar so the middle section doesn't press in at all.
The selection of ports down the sides of the shiny case isn't impressive with three USB 2.0 ports but no USB 3 and VGA but no HDMI. The good news is there’s 100Mbps Ethernet and separate headphone and microphone jacks, plus an SD card slot on the front. At least you get three USB ports, but the layout of the ports is also irritating. The third USB port, in particular, is too close to the VGA port and a monitor cable will make it hard to reach.
We had no real complaints about the build quality; the keyboard doesn't flex while you're typing but the plastic chassis is a little creaky and it doesn't feel as sturdy as an HP Mini.
Sub-standard performance and battery life
What is disappointing is the performance and the battery life. The NS310 comes with the usual Office Starter and Windows Live apps, a large selection of not-very-interesting games and the ubiquitous YouCam Webcam tools. The round dozen Samsung utilities mostly duplicate Windows controls or only work with specific Samsung phones or printers. That sad, the DLNA content sharing tool is useful. There are also netbook versions of Norton Internet Security and Online Backup combine those with IE8 and the Bing Bar and you get a slow and unresponsive system.
Swap Norton out for a less bloated AV like Microsoft Security Essentials and things improved but even a 1.5Ghz dual-core Atom N550 isn't particularly speedy, especially with only 1Gb of memory. And when you compare the price to other similarly equipped netbooks it becomes clear that you're paying extra for the case design. The hard drive is a fair 240Gb but oddly our review sample was formatted so only 90Gb was in use.
With Wi-Fi on and the screen at about half brightness, we saw nearly four hours of battery life in light use; start streaming videos and music and that drops to two and a half hours. That's considerably less than other netbooks because while the 25Wh battery keeps the case sleek rather than bulging it also stores rather less power than usual.
Things are better when it comes to multimedia. The twin speakers above the keyboard produce quite pleasant sound at full volume, although they're almost inaudible below half volume. The screen is bright and vivid, especially for a netbook, although it's not particularly saturated and there's no comparison to high-end screens. The adjustments that automatically kick in when you play a video file do improve the picture, and video is enjoyable to watch. Contrast is fairly poor, especially in dark areas, but the hinge stops the screen tilting back enough for this to be a problem.
Intel GMA 3150 graphics isn't up to even half-serious gameplay, but it does well on video. The screen is too small to really see the detail on 1080p video but what you can see is crisp and full HD video streamed smoothly from YouTube. 720p video streamed over a home network fared better, playing smoothly with excellent crisp detail and only the slightest and very occasional artefacting on regular backgrounds like roof tiles.
Beyond the minimal specs and cramped keyboard it's not that there's much actually wrong with the Samsung NS310 and we do like the design, although it may not appeal to everyone. But to get the good looks and the slim style, Samsung has sacrificed battery life and the performance is average for the price. Cute, shiny, with an unusually good screen for a netbook, the Samsung NS310 doesn't make the right compromises for most users.