Friday, April 23, 2010

Samsung N150 Eliah Netbook review

I recently bought a white Samsung N150 netbook because I need it for my upcoming vacation in Japan. There are two target audiences for netbook users: Customers with a limited budget and customers that appreciate the small size and high portability of such devices. In my case, both was true. Since I've spent most of my money on my trip to Japan, I was not able to buy a laptop for like 600-700€ or something. Additionally, I wanted something small that would easily fit in my backpack, including a protectional case, and that does not weigh too much. With it's 10" display and a total size of 180x264mm (10.4"x7.4") and a weight (including battery) of 1240g (2.73 lbs), it fully meets my mobility expectations. You don't even notice the weight when carrying it in a backpack or bag.


Here are some additional specs: Like almost every netbook, the N150 features an Intel Atom at 1,6 GHz. It already uses the newer generation that has been introduced at the beginning of this year. The screen's resolution is 1024x600 pixels, displayed by an Intel GMA 3150 chipset. The resolution can be scaled to 1024x768 for applications that need this resolution, but it then obviously looks ugly. There is an external VGA plug that can output up to 2048x1536 pixels. Neat! I already tried to connect my HDTV and it perfectly works a Full HD 1920x1080 resolution. The N150 ships with Windows 7 Starter and a few drivers, utility software and games pre-installed. On the first boot, the installation is automatically being finalized, which took something like 2 hours, d'oh. In the setup process, you can choose the sizes of the two partitions that will be created. You have a total of 250GB harddisk available for your needs. I chose to have a 80GB system partition and left the rest for data storage. Because Windows 7 Starter only supports 1 GB of memory - you have to upgrade to Windows 7 Home Premium for something around 80€ when you want more - the netbook has only 1 GB of DDR2-800 installed. The memory can easily be upgraded, because there is a special removable cover to access the module. Another limitation in Windows 7 Starter is that you can't use the external monitor as an extended desktop. Only cloning of the image is allowed. The problem with not being able to change your desktop wallpaper on Windows 7 Starter can be circumvented using this trick.


It comes with a total of 3 USB ports, two on the right and one on the left. The one on the left is the only one that can be used with devices that draw power from the USB port and is labeled with a small "power" symbol. You can enable and disable the power output on this port with a special utility that comes pre-installed. Microphone and external speakers or headphones can be connected via two separate plugs. The aforementioned VGA connector is on the right side, while the ethernet cable can be plugged in on the left side, next to the round, relatively small power connector. Only 10 and 100mbit ethernet are supported - so no gigabit ethernet on the netbook :-( The AC adapter works with 100 to 240 volts, making it perfectly suitable for my stay in Japan. Quite hidden is an SD-card slot beneath the touchpad with the typical, somewhat fiddly cover. It supports the SD, SDHC and MMC formats.

Internal peripheral

That's it for the connectors for possible external peripheral. There already are some nice hardware pieces built in. One of it is the mandatory 802.11 b/g/n WLAN, but Bluetooth is also included, which can be quite handy to transfer pictures from your cell phone when you don't have a suitable (and usually expensive) cable at hand. While you can plug in an external microphone, there is already one built in. It's located next to the touchpad, which was kind of a stupid decision because you easily cover it with your hand when using the touchpad. I used it to Skype with friends and they said that the quality was very good - which surprised me, because it is so tiny. The webcam has a resolution of 320x200 pixels and is very slow. It's not that much fun doing video-chat with it, because you hardly see your movements. A software from Cyberlink is included that can be used to toy with the recorded picture. But it's actually not that great, either. What really bothers me is that there is no hardware switch or other means to disable or cover the webcam. When you got malware installed that can remote-control your webcam, you will never notice. There is no indicator whether the webcam is active or not, either.

Keyboard and touchpad

Being very small, the keyboard obviously does not come with a standard layout. The keys Insert, Delete, Enter, Page up, Page down and the arrow keys are directly accessible. Home and End, on the other hand, are only accessible by pressing the Fn key that's located between the left Ctrl and Windows keys. This is actually the only thing that requires some time getting used to. The rest of the layout is nice and I could immediately touchtype on the keyboard. Too much typing leads to numb fingers (at least for me, of course), because the keys are pretty hard. The numblock keys are located on the regular character keys and can be activated by pressing Numlock (only availble via Fn key). When pressing Fn and the designated numblock keys, they have the same function as the deactivated numblock keys. The F-keys have special functions that can be used by pressing the Fn key:

  • Escape: Sleep
  • F2: Battery status
  • F3: Euro sign (€)
  • F4: Switch monitor modes (when an external monitor is attached)
  • F5: Switch backlight on/off
  • F6: Mute sound
  • F7: Samsung Support Center
  • F8:
  • F9: Disable/Enable WLAN
  • F10: Disable/Enable Touchpad
  • F11: Numlock on/off
  • F12: Scroll lock on/off
  • Insert: Pause
  • Directional up/down: Brightness
  • Directional left/right: Sound volumne
All in all, the keyboard is very usable, despite the Home and End keys and the mislocation of the <>| key.

The multi-touch touchpad has two buttons - no middle mouse button! Scrolling is done with a two-finger move, which sometimes just doesn't want to work, especially when not sitting directly in front of the keyboard. But most of the time scrolling works very neat. There's also a "three-finger-flick" movement available that's supposed to switch between tabs in browsers, but it doesn't work for me (using Google Chrome as my brother on the netbook). The touchpad's sensitivity can be configured and after configuring for my needs, it works flawlessly (well, most of the time, at least). I bought an external mouse that matched the colors of the netbook, but rarely use it - only when gaming. My overall impression of the touchpad is, keeping it's size constraints in mind, very good. And that's although this my first laptop and I'm not used to touchpads at all.


I removed all pre-installed games before trying them, so I can't tell you whether they are fun or not. A 60-day trial of Microsoft Office 2007 and a full version of Microsoft Works is shipped with the N150, too. The Samsung Recovery Solution is pretty neat. You can easily back up your system partition to your data partition and restore it with only a few mouse-clicks. I think that Samsung Recovery Solution is a re-branded Acronis software. Since I own Acronis True Image Home, I've created a bootable USB-stick with Acronis that I use instead of the Samsung Recovery Solution, though. There are other Samsung tools for: Extending battery life, enable/disable the chargable USB port, manage the display, resolution and network settings and a software to update all Samsung tools. As with all other Windows 7 versions, Windows Live comes for free, which is not at all that bad. For example, you can use the Windows Live Movie Maker to convert movies to a lower resolution when playback is sloppy (which is the case with 720p material).

Working with the N150

When I bought this netbook, I thought that I'd have to live with a number of limitations due to the low-end hardware. I was wrong. The 1.6 GHz Atom with 1 GB of RAM actually performs much better than I had expected. I never ran into memory shortage, even when browsing with a number of open tabs, some of them containing a flash stream. Skype works fast and neat, too, although it warns me that my hardware was too slow. Video playback works great for standard definition videos. 720p videos are a little bit sloppy. It feels like only a few Hertz are missing to play them without stuttering. :-( Using VLC I get much better results than with Windows Media Player or Media Player Classic. I noticed that Flash video streams are very sloppy sometimes, though. I haven't figured out why, yet.

Even when under load, the netbook does not get very hot. It's more like a convenient hand warmer than something that would bother you. The fan and the harddisk are quiet, too, although the constant sound of the harddisk seeks can get on your nerves. You don't hear anything at all when there is some background noise (like a TV or something).

The display's low resolution is less of a problem than I initially thought, too. While there is quite a bit of vertical scrolling, it's not that bad because of the two-finger scrolling move (that works vertically and horizontally, btw). Some applications, however, expect a minimum of 1024x768. That's why you can switch to this resolution and scale it to 1024x600 (which looks ugly, of course, but may be necessary for some buttons to be reached).

But the CPU's missing performance shows in heavy computational tasks such as video transcoding. As I said, 720p videos are not playing without disturbance, so I tried to recode it to 480p using Windows Live Movie Maker (since that's what I had at hand). On my desktop system (a Core i7 860), it took something like 7 minutes, while the netbook was working on it for 1:15 hours. Admittedly, it's not very fair to compare the N150 to a system in which the CPU alone costs as much as the complete netbook.


I would never have thought that a netbook could be such a neat gaming device. Of course, it's only older games or games with 2D graphics that run on the N150. But since there are awesome classic games, you can have quite a lot of fun with gaming on this netbook. For instance, you can run Quake III in 1024x600 with something between 30 and 80 fps. Yay! You can play Diablo II on it, too, but it becomes very sloppy, sometimes only one frame every few seconds, when there are many enemies on screen. Go check for old games for free, such as Nightmare Creatures or Blood. There's also that sell classic games for relatively low prices. Modern "mini-games" like Plants vs. Zombies (you can get it on Steam for half the price) or the extremely famous FarmVille (on facebook) are perfectly playable, too. I even play Beat Hazard (on Steam) using a wireless XBox 360 Gamepad. But of course the device has some limits. I tried Torchlight, a modern Diablo-clone from the original Diablo programmers, but the game was running very sloppy and not playable, although it has a "Netbook mode". You need an Ion-netbook to run it smoothly, I guess. Basically every game released before 2000 should be ok. For later games, I'd try the demo before buying it. I ran the oldest available 3DMark, 3DMark03, and scored 670 points. Doesn't sound amazing, but seems to be enough :-)


I am very happy with this device. The price-tag is friendly to your wallet, the size is portable and the material quality is great. There are a few drawbacks (such as not being able to turn off the camera and a missing middle mouse button), but when you can live with them, there's nothing you can complain about. I have had much fun with it so far, and am sure it'll be a good companion on my trip to Japan. Great buy!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

C++ Trivia: Another reason to avoid function-style casts

I was asked to solve a problem that two of my collegues were puzzled by. The source code was short and minimalistic, but the error was not very obvious. Here's the code (modified, because the original included dependencies to Qt):

#include <iostream>
#include <string>

class Test
   enum Enum

   Test(Enum e): m_value(e) { }

   std::string name() const
      switch (m_value)
      case First:
         return "First";
      case Second:
         return "Second";
      case Last:
         return "Last";
      return std::string();

   Enum m_value;

int main()
   for (int i = 0; i < Test::Last; ++i)
      Test test(Test::Enum(i));
      std::cout << << std::endl;

Can you spot the error without compiling? Don't worry. Even compilers do not agree on this one. Visual C++ 2005 and gcc 4.4.1 both spit out a similar error message in line

"std::cout << << std::endl;"
. gcc, by the way, has the more helpful error message here:
test.cpp:39: error: request for member ‘name’ in ‘test’, which is of non-class type ‘Test(Test::Enum)’
Does this help you? Have a close look at the code in the for-loop. Only look at the solution when you are out of ideas!

Klick here to see the solution.

The statement
Test test(Test::Enum(i));
is a function declaration. There is a rule in C++ that everything that can be read as a function declaration will be a function declaration. In this particular case, it's a function returning an object of type Test, taking an enum value of type Test::Enum with the parameter name i. It's important to know that you always can put parameter names in parantheses. This means that
void test(int i);
is the same as
void test(int (i));
The failed attempt to cast i to a value of type Test::Enum lead to a construct that looks like a function parameter. So test is a function name, which obviously can't be used in the manner of Hint: This wouldn't have happened if static_cast had been used.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Change wallpaper background image on Windows 7 Starter for netbooks

This came as quite a surprise. I knew that Windows 7 Start might have some limitations. Luckily, the limitation of started applications has been dropped. But the only really annoying thing that it is missing is the ability to change your wallpaper. This is really a bummer and I can imagine that quite a few people will pay the $80 bucks for an Anytime upgrade to Windows 7 Home Premium just for this reason. But I don't want to throw my money at Microsoft for such a silly reason, so I investigated whether it is possible to change the wallpaper through some registry-hacks or something. I found out that many just replaced the original image and it worked for them. They were using older (pre-release) versions of Windows 7 Starter and this has been "fixed" in the final release. So the only way is using tools like WindowBlinds by Stardock. However, this tool will replace the complete look and feel of your Windows installation. Since I like the original look and feel and don't want to replace a large part of my system with 3rd party software, so I looked into more possible solutions. The best tool that I could find is available at a french site and called Starter Background Changer. This tool replaces the "Personalize" screen of Windows with a home-made interface (that has a few funny translations, at least in German) that lets you change your desktop's background image and some other settings. Here's a screenshot of the interface in German:

Starter Background Changer screenshot