Samsung’s Series 9 laptops have a lot to prove. Since the day Samsung showed the first one off at CES last year, they’ve consistently been priced higher than the equivalent MacBook Air, and that can be a pretty hard sell. If you want a premium Windows machine, though, a MacBook Air just won’t do. So when I reviewed the 15-inch Samsung Series 9, I was hopeful that its $1,500 price tag meant it would be the Windows ultrabook of choice going forward.
If you read my review, though, you already know that presumption wasn’t quite true. The 15-inch Samsung Series 9 is a gorgeous machine, but in an attempt to stretch the thin form factor to larger dimensions, Samsung wound up with a wobbly hinge, dull speakers, and an unremarkable screen. When I got the chance to test the smaller, cheaper 13-inch version of Samsung’s flagship notebook, with Intel’s newer Ivy Bridge processors to boot, I leapt at the opportunity to find out if it could make up for its larger relative.
Today, we’re looking at the $1,299 Samsung Series 9 with standard specs: a 13.3-inch, 1600 x 900 screen, a brand-new 1.7GHz Core i5-3317U processor, 4GB of RAM, a 128GB solid state drive, and integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics. In nearly every way, it’s a miniature version of the 15-inch machine. Is it the Windows experience we’ve been waiting for, though? Let’s find out.
Hardware / design
I could practically point you to my review of the 15-inch version for a discussion of the Samsung Series 9′s exterior. It’s almost exactly the same. Before you skip ahead, though, know that it, and by extension, the 13-inch model, are probably the most beautiful laptops I’ve ever seen. The way the light plays across the Series 9′s surfaces is truly a marvel to behold, the deep dark blue matte aluminum texture soaking up the rays to make the notebook seem impossibly slim, while the shiny brushed aluminum rim that forms the Series 9′s entire profile practically glows by comparison. The way the lid and body meet, they almost look like a single piece. And as you’d expect, the 13-inch Series 9 looks even better. It’s a supermodel of a Windows PC. Acer claimed its Aspire S5 was the thinnest ultrabook in the world, but the 13-inch Series 9 has it beat: Samsung’s notebook measures just over half an inch tall including its rubber feet. It’s thinner than the MacBook Air by a noticeable margin, in case you’re wondering.
Yet, despite the thinness, the 13-inch Series 9 retains excellent build quality. There’s no flex in the keyboard tray, none in the palmrests, and only the slightest bit of give in the bottom of the chassis and the lid, enough to let you feel that they’re constructed from thin metal rather than solid. And, crucially, the hinge is strong enough to hold up the screen without wobbling. It’s still not an exceptionally strong hinge, but the result is that the screen is easy to open and stays at the angle you want, and I couldn’t say either about the laptop’s larger brother.
The 13-incher has only a single USB 3.0 port on the left side, along with a Micro HDMI jack, the power socket, and the spot for an (included) Ethernet dongle, while the right side has a USB 2.0 port, a spot for a VGA dongle (sold separately), a 3.5mm headset jack, and a tiny microphone hole. That’s not a heck of a lot of connectivity — just take a look at what Acer stuffed into the Aspire S5 — but the lack of full-size ports does make far more sense here than on the larger 15-inch machine. I long for full-size HDMI and Ethernet ports, but I was extremely happy to see that Samsung’s clever SD card slotreturns here. It’s a spring-loaded door built right into the curve of the chassis, such that you can place a card there and leave it there without it sticking out past the edge of the case and worrying about how it might break off.
Screen and speakers
About a year ago, I asked an executive at a laptop manufacturer why they always seemed to insist on glossy, reflective screens. He told me that it all came down to the bezel: nobody wanted to see an ugly bezel on store shelves, he claimed, and that’s why edge-to-edge glass designs were in fashion. If I’d seen the Series 9 before then, I would have had quite the comeback.
Not only is Samsung’s 13.3-inch display a pixel-dense 1600 x 900 resolution PLS panel with nice, wide viewing angles and good color reproduction, but it’s matte, too. You can take it outdoors and still have a snowball’s chance in hell of seeing what you’re doing. That’s also partially due to the above-average 400 nits of brightness Samsung offers here. You know what? The combination of a particularly bright matte screen and a contrasting dark matte bezel (instead of the typical glossy plastic) means you can hardly see that bezel when the screen’s turned on. Score two for matte screens, and one for this well-above-average display. It’s still not the very best I’ve seen in this price range — the $1,399 Asus Zenbook UX31A’s matte 1080p IPS panel blew me away — but it’s good, bright, a far cry better than Samsung’s 15-inch display, and doesn’t suffer from any backlight bleeding issues like the Asus screen.
Continuing the theme of “better than the 15-inch version,” the speakers here aren’t bad. They can still be rather tinny, have little bass, and can get muffled easily since they point down, but they’ve got surprisingly full mids and are really quite passable as laptop speakers go. Vampire Weekend‘s “Taxi Cab” sounded pretty good, as did Dido‘s “Sand In My Shoes,” but a number of other pieces sounded rather muddy and distorted. Samsung’s using some audio enhancement software here, and it gets a bit overzealous with more complex tracks.
Performance and software
There are two models of the 13-inch Samsung Series 9, but the only difference is the operating system: The $1,299 NP900X3C-A01 has Windows 7 Home Premium, while the $1,399 NP900X3C-A02 has Windows 7 Professional. Both come standard with a 17W, 1.7GHz Core i5-3317U processor that turbos up to 2.6GHz, 4GB of DDR3 RAM, a 128GB SanDisk U100 solid state drive, a dual-band Intel 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi module, and integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics.
Update: Samsung just released a new model. The $1,699 NP900X3C-A04US has a 1.9GHz Core i7 processor and a 256GB solid state drive.
Though the dual-band Wi-Fi is a nice touch (and seems particularly well-implemented on the Series 9; I’m surfing my 5GHz network with better signal strength than any other laptop I’ve used in this house), that’s a pretty standard list of specs for an ultrabook today, regardless of whether it’s priced at $800 or $1,499. What does that mean? The operating system is snappy, apps open quickly, HD video plays without a hitch… but unless you’ve never used a computer with a solid state drive before, it’s mostly nothing special.
|Samsung Series 9 (13-inch, NP900X3C)||9,173||P3,071|
|Acer Aspire S5||12,379||P3,407|
|Dell XPS 13||10,242||P1,697|
|Lenovo ThinkPad X230||8,269||P3,159|
|Dell XPS 14 (2012)||10,227||P4,373|
|Lenovo IdeaPad U310||6,916||P2,402|
|Samsung Series 9 (15-inch, NP900X4B)||10,404||P1,693|
|HP Envy 14 Spectre (early 2012)||9,121||P1,526|
The reason I say “mostly” is because the speed with which the 13-inch Series 9 boots is nothing short of spectacular. Samsung’s reduced the startup sequence to the point where I was often fully loaded into Windows a mere ten seconds after I pressed the power button. Occasionally, it took as long as 16 seconds, but that’s still speed demon territory. Just as impressive was how long it took for the Series 9 to wake from sleep: as often as not, the system took just one and a half seconds to resume what I were doing.
SOFTWARE AND GAMING
Samsung’s got a fairly clean install of Windows 7, with just the omnipresent pop-up laden antivirus, Bing Bar, and WildTangent pay-to-play game suite, and a small handful of Samsung apps on top of the stock OS. Compared to the $1,399 Asus Zenbook UX31A I recently reviewed, another premium ultrabook, that’s a marked relief, and the software load here doesn’t seem to impact performance. The truly surprising part is that one piece of Samsung’s software actually improves upon Windows 7, and I wouldn’t characterize it as bloatware at all: Easy Settings lets you control a whole variety of computer settings (including wireless networking, power consumption, keyboard backlighting, USB charging, display colors, and more), all from a single, well-organized pane of options accessible by pressing F1.
Without discrete graphics, you probably won’t be doing a lot of gaming on the Series 9. My benchmark favorite Just Cause 2 wasn’t playable at native resolution even at the lowest graphical settings available. If you look to even older or less intensive games likeTom Clancy’s HAWX or Portal 2, though, the Intel HD 4000 graphics can do the job. I was narrowly able to play HAWX in DirectX9 mode at native resolution and max settings and counted 30 frames per second on average.
Via: The Verge