After plotting its entry into the branded U.S. laptop market for close to two years, Samsung burst onto the scene this past October with seven models in four categories—just in time to see the economy go into full-meltdown mode. So to win the hearts and minds of buyers, the company needs exceptional products at attractive prices. While Samsung hit those marks with its NC10 netbook, its business-focused P560-54G is less successful. It’s not that it’s a bad machine; the problem is, this 15.4-inch mainstream business platform is largely unremarkable, delivering the expected features at the expected price ($1,299) in a package that’s dull even by boring business-PC standards.
Take My Industrial Designer, Please!
At 14.1 x 10.5 x 1.4 inches and 5.8 pounds, the P560 is similar in size to most 15.4-inch notebooks—which is to say it’s fine for lugging to and from your car but far too big for an airplane tray table. The exterior design is nonexistent, consisting of just a rounded matte black shell reminiscent of the off-brand notebooks you see at warehouse clubs. Granted, business notebooks tend to be conservative, but the P560 makes no attempt at a style statement, which is curious considering the attention Samsung paid to aesthetics with its other notebooks, such as the X460-44P. The black-on-black treatment is a little more successful inside, where the smooth keyboard and perforated speaker grille could be read as minimalist-modern. Or just plain ol’ plain.
The keyboard itself is a high-quality, full-size model that’s comfortable and quiet to use. The responsive touchpad could be larger considering the screen size and the copious room on the palm rest, and unlike many business models, Samsung did not include a pointing stick in addition to the pad. Nor are there any multimedia control keys or even dedicated volume controls; the latter, at least, have become commonplace in this class.
The 15.4-inch LCD is, again, an unremarkable choice. Its 1280 x 800-pixel resolution makes for readable text, but a higher-res panel would have made better use of the expansive size, letting you have more windows open and viewable at once. The satin (as opposed to heavy matte) antiglare finish on the LCD is the right choice for a business notebook, cutting down on reflections but still letting the colors come through.
Watching a DVD copy of Pirates of the Caribbean, the screen showed natural color reproduction and remarkably little motion blur. Unfortunately, Samsung’s speakers are abysmal; sound was thin and tinny. It’s worse than most notebooks we’ve tested and particularly poor compared with other machines this size, which tend to have room in the chassis to work some audio finesse. The speakers are maybe good enough for Web audio, but if you were planning on using the P560 as a presentation device, bring external speakers.
Webcam and Ports
Samsung included a 1.3-megapixel webcam above the screen, along with a handy Play Camera utility on the desktop. The applet is easy to use, with icons for Open File, Record, and Snapshot. Right-click in the utility to launch the settings menu, where you can adjust a range of camera presets including brightness, contrast, saturation, sharpness, and resolution (though 352 x 288, 640 x 480, and 1280 x 1024 are your only choices). In our experience, you’ll want to turn the saturation level all the way up; at its default level, colors were muted and skin tones appeared washed out. Image quality was good in typical lighting conditions, but low-light environments proved a challenge, with the camera delivering a barely usable image.
The LightScribe-enabled DVD burner is typical for this class, as are the fingerprint reader and TPM module for added security. The 320GB hard drive is a generous inclusion, even in this day of cheap storage capacity. The P560 employs a noise-reduction system, consisting of sound- and vibration-absorbing material for the hard drive and a new cooling-fan design that keeps noise to a minimum. Indeed, except when the DVD drive is spinning, the P560 is essentially inaudible.
Connectivity features are standard fare for a business notebook, with a couple of surprises. You get four USB ports, a VGA connector, Ethernet and modem jacks, and headphone and mic jacks. One surprise is the serial port on the back edge, and we’re happy to see an HDMI port on a business notebook. Samsung opted for a PC Card slot, but the 3-in-1 card reader (SD, SDHC, Memory Stick) has a more limited format support than most readers nowadays. The company offers a docking solution ($209) for the P560 that includes (among others) five USB, HDMI, DVI, and eSATA connectors.
The P560 is available in two configurations. We tested the $1,299 P560-54G, which comes with a 2.0-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T5800 processor, 3GB of RAM, discrete Nvidia GeForce 9600M GS graphics with 256MB of VRAM, and a 320GB, 5,400-rpm hard drive. For $200 more, the P560-54P delivers a faster 2.26-GHz P8400 CPU, a 1.66-GHz frontside bus (versus 800 MHz in the lower-cost model), and 512MB of VRAM for the Nvidia GPU.
Productivity performance, as measured by PCMark Vantage, is average among mainstream notebooks, with the P560 delivering a score of 3,008. Its file-transfer performance is also just below average, at 16.3 MBps, and the system boots Windows Vista Business in a reasonable 1 minute and 15 seconds. The P560 is a good multitasker, showing just a 6 percent drop in performance when encoding files in iTunes with an antivirus scan running.
Where the P560 really stands out is in 3D performance. The dedicated Nvidia GPU powered the machine to scores of 14,469 on 3DMark03 (which tests DirectX 9 performance) and 5,057 on 3DMark06 (which tests DirectX 9 3D graphics, CPU, and 3D features); both are around double the mainstream averages. In real-world use, that translates to very usable horsepower for 3D games, albeit at the screen’s less-than-top-end resolution: 75 frames per second on F.E.A.R. at 1024 x 768 and 65 fps at 1280 x 800.
Wireless, Battery Life, and Software
The P560 delivers 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi and the latest Bluetooth 2.0 + EDR support. While the machine’s wireless performance is slightly above average, delivering throughput of 20.5 Mbps at 15 feet from our access point and 17.8 Mbps at 50 feet, there is no embedded wireless broadband option.
Battery life from the included six-cell battery is on the low side; it lasted 2 hours and 51 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi), around half an hour less than the average. A nine-cell battery ($231) is available as an option should you need closer to 5 hours of runtime.
As is appropriate for a business machine, Samsung keeps preloaded software to a minimum. You get the company’s recovery, maintenance, and update utilities, plus McAfee VirusScan and CyberLink DVD Suite. The machine also comes with a standard one-year limited warranty.
If 3D abilities are important to you, the $1,299 Samsung P560-54G may be worth a look. Of course, you can configure other makers’ business portables with discrete graphics and get similar performance for a similar price, along with a little more style. Small-business users could get a better deal with the Dell Vostro 1510, or the XPS M1530 if they need a little more muscle. As the new kid on the block, Samsung had to give buyers a reason to jump ship; we can’t say this first effort does so.