Samsung Q430-11 / 14-inch Laptops Review

Samsung Q430-11 / 14-inch Laptops Review
These are truly renaissance days for the thin-and-light laptop, with a wealth of superior models at very moderate prices. Samsung is trying to make a name for itself in this very competitive segment of the U.S. laptop market, and entries like its Q430-11 should certainly help. This 14-inch thin-and-light entry hits the sweet spot, delivering sleek-yet-understated good looks and strong performance in a package that will appeal to both everyday consumers and small-business buyers alike. Available exclusively from Best Buy (both in stores and online), the Q430-11 sells for a very reasonable $915. The battery life could be better, but by most other measures, the Q430-11 matches (and sometimes exceeds) the best in its price class.

The Q430-11 weighs 5 pounds and measures 1.3 inches thick. That makes it a bit bulkier than our current Editors’ Choice in this class, the HP Pavilion dm4t, which weighs 4.4 pounds and measures an inch thick at the front (expanding to 1.3 inches at the rear). Like the dm4t, the Q430-11 features a sleek aluminum chassis; the Q430-11’s case has a brushed black lid that looks sharp, while the dm4t goes with a brushed-silver design with etching that looks equally good. The clean, modern look of the Q430-11 continues inside, where a brushed-silver area surrounding the keyboard sets off the simple black keys, and the screen’s edge-to-edge glass suggests high-end consumer electronics. Two details were compromised, however: The chrome-finish mouse buttons look cool but show off every fingerprint, and to keep the minimalist look, Samsung opted not to include multimedia or other shortcut buttons.

Around the edges, you’ll find the typical array of ports and slots, with one expected item missing and one unexpected item present. The USB port on the left edge employs Samsung’s Chargeable USB feature, which lets the laptop charge a connected device (iPhone, iPod, Flip camera, or what-have-you) even when the laptop is in standby mode or completely off. You also get two regular USB ports, a LAN jack, VGA and HDMI ports for connecting external displays, and an SD/SDHC/MultiMediaCard flash-memory slot. (Note that the slots on most other notebooks support more formats.) Like many other consumer-oriented laptops, the Q430-11 doesn't include an ExpressCard slot. Less forgivable is the absence of an eSATA port for connecting high-speed external hard drives and the like. eSATA is common even on many budget notebooks these days.

As for other features, the Q430-11 does not disappoint. You’ll find a multiformat DVD burner, a generous 500GB hard drive, and wireless networking in the form of 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi. At this price, we would also like to see Bluetooth wireless for communicating with smartphones and the like, a feature the Q430-11 lacks. On the plus side, the full-size keyboard is roomy, comfortable, and quiet. We also have no complaints about the unit’s VGA Webcam, which delivered an excellent image in a brightly lit room, displaying sharp detail, good exposure and color reproduction, and no motion blur. In a dim room, the camera also did well, with decent exposure (although noticeable motion blur), and the camera even delivered a usable image with only the light from the screen.

The 14-inch screen is another gem. The LED backlight helps colors pop and lets the panel conserve power. The 1,366x768 resolution is appropriate (and typical) for a panel this size, delivering crisp, legible text and icons. The panel also did well with video, exhibiting natural colors, excellent detail in shadow areas, and no discernible motion blur in action scenes. As with other laptops, the Q430-11’s stereo speakers are fine for typical Web video and for watching a movie, but the volume isn’t powerful enough to fill a room. Music reproduction is mediocre at best.

What isn’t mediocre is the performance from the Q430-11. Powered by a 2.4GHz Intel Core i5-450M CPU and 4GB of RAM, the laptop delivered scores on our tests that were generally above average for the class and in line with like-priced competitors such as the HP Pavilion dm4t and Asus U30Jc-1A. For example, on the 32-bit version of our PCMark Vantage test suite, which measures overall system performance, the Q430-11 scored 5,553, which is essentially a tie with the dm4t’s 5,516 on that test and notably higher than the Asus U30Jc-1A’s 4,744. On the 64-bit version of the same test, the Q430-11 scored 6,019—slightly above the HP entry’s 5,933, nearly 1,000 points better than the Asus system's result, and 600 points better than the average for this class of laptop. On the 64-bit version of another of our standard tests, Cinebench 10, which taxes all the available cores of the CPU, the Samsung entry scored 8,332 to the HP’s 8,190. It also handily beat the class average of 5,867 and the Asus U30Jc-1A’s 6,857.

The Q430-11 also proved to be a strong multimedia performer. It completed our Windows Media Encoder trial (in which the test laptop converts a standard video clip) in a tick under four minutes (compared with 4:09 for the HP Pavilion dm4t, 4:50 for the Asus model, and over five minutes for thin-and-lights as a whole). And on our iTunes test (which measures the time it takes to convert 11 standard MP3 files to AAC format), the Q430-11 took a bit longer than the HP and Asus competitors—3:41, versus 3:09 and 3:15. That's a detectable, but not huge, real-world difference.

Where you will see a difference in real-world use is in 3D-graphics performance. The Samsung Q430-11 employs a dedicated Nvidia GeForce 310M graphics chip, compared with the integrated graphics solution found in most—but not all—machines in this price class. That allowed the Q430-11 to deliver excellent scores on our 3D tests. On our 3DMark06 test (which measures DirectX 9 graphics performance) at 1,024x768 resolution, the Q430-11 managed 4,209, which is double the score posted by the HP Pavilion dm4t (2,098). However, the like-priced Asus U30Jc-1A kept pace. It features Nvidia's battery-saving Optimus hybrid graphics technology, which automatically activates the discrete graphics when necessary and then reverts to integrated graphics when not. The Asus machine scored a very close 4,091 on 3DMark06 at the same resolution.

The 3D-gaming abilities of the Q430-11 were also a pleasant surprise, seeing as some similarly priced competitors make you forgo high-frame-rate 3D gaming. For example, the HP Pavilion dm4t mustered only 22.3 frames per second (fps) at 1,024x768 resolution on our Company of Heroes test, and that number shrank to an unplayable 15.9fps at 1,366x768 with graphics effects set to high. In contrast, the Q430-11 rolled along at 47.2fps at the lower resolution setting and a still-playable 29.4fps at the higher one. (For its part, the Nvidia GeForce 310M chip in the Asus U30Jc-1A delivered an identical 47.2fps at 1,024x768 and a slightly better 33fps at the higher resolution.) What this tells us: Gaming within reason at these moderate resolutions is well within the skill set of the Q430-11, and social-media or Web-centric games will present no problem.

The Q430-11 cedes ground to its competitors, though, in battery life. On our DVD rundown test, in which we loop a DVD movie (with screen brightness set to 50 percent) until the battery dies, the Q430-11’s six-cell battery lasted 2 hours and 41 minutes, well short of the 4:27 we saw from the HP Pavilion dm4t and shy of the three-plus hours typical for the class. What’s more, this is where Nvidia’s Optimus technology really stands out: The Optimus-equipped Asus U30Jc-A1 lasted 4:18 on this test. There’s no reason for Samsung not to include it on this system, and the omission costs the notebook a bunch of much-needed runtime.

You don’t get short-changed when it comes to software, however. In addition to the Windows 7 Home Premium operating system and all its goodies, Samsung preloads the excellent CyberLink DVD Suite for multimedia playback and creation. The easy-to-use suite includes PowerDVD 8 for DVD playback; PowerDirector 7 for video editing; PowerProducer 8 for DVD creation; and Power2Go 6 for burning all manner of data, video, photo, and music CDs and DVDs. You also get CyberLink's YouCam software for use with the Webcam, another intuitive utility that features frames, stamps, avatars, filters, and more. (It also lets you send video captures to YouTube or via e-mail with a single click.)

Samsung also preloads its own handy utilities. At initial boot-up, the Samsung Recovery Solution 4 software prompts you to create a backup image to the hard drive or an optical disc. The company also delivers a battery-life extension utility; Easy Content Share (for allowing Q430-resident music, photos, and video to be accessed by other Windows 7- and Vista-based PCs on your network); Easy File Share (used to transfer files from the host PC via Wi-Fi); and more.

We also like how Samsung (and partner Best Buy) have handled the problem of “offerware.” Instead of cluttering the desktop with teasers for software and services, Samsung and Best Buy rolled them all up into a single Best Buy Software Installer applet. You can launch that and see the offers, or ignore it and delete the icon from the desktop.

Another piece of software, the Samsung Support Center (SSC) app, is a centralized location that houses troubleshooting/diagnostic utilities and support info. Samsung’s warranty for the Q430-11 is typical for the class: a single year for parts and labor, with toll-free tech support or live chat (including assistance via remote desktop). What's unusual is that you can launch the latter via the SSC utility.

The Samsung Q430-11 does exact a few compromises to get its price under $1,000: namely, sacrificing Bluetooth, an eSATA port, and a few other extras. The machine’s dedicated graphics chip is a welcome step up from the integrated graphics of competitors like the HP Pavilion dm4t, but without Optimus technology to extend battery life (a feature that costs $0 to $22 per notebook, depending on whom you ask), Samsung comes up short on the Q430-11 in that regard. On the other hand, the Core i5 processor makes this one of the fastest sub-$1,000 thin-and-lights we’ve tested. If battery life is your main concern, go with the HP Pavilion dm4t, and if battery life and graphics are your two big things, you’ll be better served by the Asus U30Jc-A1. But if you want the fastest plugged-in CPU and GPU performance—and you get seduced by its looks—the Q430-11 is definitely your best bet.
Price (at time of review): $915 (mfr. est., as tested)

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