Samsung – X30 HWC 1700 review

wide-screen laptop
Photo of Samsung – X30 HWC 1700
£1,899 + VAT

It’s quite entertaining watching the notebook industry cast around for new ideas. After all, the scope is actually fairly limited: that original orange plasma screen Toshiba is still very recognisably a notebook, for all the technological developments of the last two decades.

Recently though, a new trick has been added to the repertoire. Now, the choice has been extended from Big (desktop replacement) and Small (sub-notebook), to include a third option – Big Screen. Yup, those folks back at head office haven’t rested working on this one.

The relatively few wide-screen notebooks around share one characteristic, namely bulk. They tend to make even the more substantial desktop replacement shoulder-poppers look portable by comparison. So, in the ceaseless quest for something new, Samsung has come up with the latest refinement, exemplified by the X30.

What makes the Samsung X30 different is that although it is unquestionably a wide-screen notebook, with a 15.4-inch viewable diagonal to prove it, it is surprisingly light. In fact it weighs about 2.5kg, which puts it on a par with many conventional A4 portables, and makes it a deal lighter than some.

This has been achieved by taking the Centrino path rather than opting for a whopping desktop Pentium 4 processor and all the attendant heating problems. The 1.7GHz Pentium-M CPU inside the Samsung is more than fast enough, but since it doesn’t produce enough waste heat to run a small town, the casing can be slimmer and needs to house rather fewer fans than infest desktop-powered portables.

The X30 might be considerably slimmer and lighter than the wide-screen competition, but is it really that much more portable? For our part, we weren’t convinced. Yes, it only measures 28mm thick when closed, but it’s still 362mm wide and 266mm deep. This means that it’s an armful, and it won’t slip conveniently into a briefcase or anything else come to that. Think aeroplane seats, think train tables; think again.

Aesthetically though, the Samsung X30 works a treat. It looks rather swish thanks to a white-silver finish on the lid, and the slim profile is exaggerated by the overall size of the footprint. Better still, it’s very nicely built, and the base and lid surface are done in magnesium alloy, so it’s pretty tough into the bargain.

The keyboard is fairly spacious and has big keys where you want them, but what we really liked about it was its positive, mechanical-feeling action, which is a major improvement over many notebook keyboards.

Between the buttons below the touch pad is the X30′s other unusual feature. Instead of the expected scroll button, there’s a little window, which is the visible face of the X30′s impressive security system. Once you have established your fingerprint as the master key, you can lock the machine at boot and again at Windows log-in, and you can encrypt and lock individual files against unauthorised access. Some of Samsung’s corporate notebooks already have this feature, but it’s odd to find such thorough gatekeeping on what is essentially a consumer machine.

And it is a consumer machine, or else why the wide-screen display, which begs to be allowed to do more than simply provide more workspace for applications under Windows? It does this very well, what with a native resolution of 1680 x 1050 as opposed to 1024 x 768 standard XGA, but it really comes into its own when viewing wide-screen DVD formats.

Games look good too, and the 64MB Nvidia GeForce FX Go 5200 graphics processor makes sure that everything goes with a swing. Only consumers really need this level of 3D performance (3DMark2001 SE returned a very healthy score of 7,795), so business buyers are unlikely to want to pay a premium for it; ditto the wide-screen display.

This highlights a possible deficiency in the Samsung X30, namely its lack of a DVD burner. It can do CD-R/RW, but that’s it on the burning side, which leaves it at a disadvantage compared to other high-end consumer notebooks, most of which now come with DVD-R/RW if not dual-format DVD±RW.

We also noticed that while the X30 has wireless networking (again, surely more of a corporate feature, like the security), it is 802.11b rather than the much faster and more recent 802.11g standard. This was slightly puzzling given the overall deluxe positioning of the notebook – not to mention the price tag to match.

Although this is a Centrino system, with all the power-saving efficiency that that implies, you don’t get Atlantic-crossing battery life out of it. Given that it isn’t the most practical choice as a travelling companion, this isn’t a problem, and anyway, the battery will keep you going for nearly three hours under continuous light use.

Another odd thing is that despite intensive battery use on the road being unlikely for the X30, somebody has gone to the trouble of fitting it with an internal secondary battery so you that can warm-swap the main pack with the system in standby mode. This is the sort of feature that should be compulsory on all ultra-portables, but it’s puzzling to find it here.

On the face of it, ports aren’t the most exciting part of a review, but they are crucial none the less. The X30 takes the modern approach – three USB 2.0 connectors but no ‘legacy’ parallel, serial or PS/2 interfaces. Whether this bothers you will depend on how many ‘legacy’ peripherals you may want to connect, especially if this is to be a full desktop replacement.

There are some other goodies though, in the form of conventional VGA (but why, with that wide screen?), S-Video TV-out, S/PDIF digital audio (handy for surround sound DVD playback if you have the necessary 5.1 speaker array), and Firewire. Digital photography enthusiasts and owners of MP3 music players can also make use of the Memory Stick flash card slot, assuming that their camera/player is MS-equipped too.

Whatever you do with the Samsung, you are going to be on sound foundations thanks to the high-end spec. The potency of the 1.7GHz Pentium-M is already a matter of public record, but here it’s backed up by 512MB of zippy PC2700 (333MHz) DDR memory and an 80GB hard disk. Taken along with the steroidal graphics chip, this makes for impressive performance across the board.

This is an unusual machine that doesn’t fit neatly into any particular niche. It doesn’t quite match up to the array of features offered by something like the Toshiba Satellite P20, which could be seen as direct competition, but neither is it small enough to make it travel-friendly.

At the same time, it’s a really nice piece of engineering, and it’s both fast and pleasant to use. Regrettably, it’s also rather expensive, which is perhaps the nub. If you are going to part with this sort of sum, you are bound to be looking at other options, and deciding between design elegance or actual features that you will use.

Company: Samsung

Contact: 01932 455 000

This laptop is powerful, well-engineered and visually appealing, but neither a full-on desktop replacement nor a travelling machine. This would matter less if it were cheaper, but at this price point the question of what you are actually getting and what it is for becomes increasingly pressing.