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
Sleek, chic, especially when oblique
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.
|Dimensions (in.)||Thickness||Weight (lb.)|
|Samsung Series 9 (13-inch, 2012)||12.3 x 8.6||0.5||2.55|
|Acer Aspire S5||12.8 x 8.9||0.6||2.65|
|Dell XPS 13||12.4 x 8.1||0.24 - 0.71||2.99|
|MacBook Air (2012, 13-inch)||12.8 x 8.94||0.11 - 0.68||2.96|
|Toshiba Portege Z835||12.4 x 8.94||0.33 - 0.63||2.47|
|Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A||12.8 x 8.8||0.11 - 0.71||2.86|
|HP Folio 13||12.54 x 8.67||0.71||3.3|
|Lenovo IdeaPad U300s||12.8 x 8.5||0.58||2.90|
|Samsung Series 9 (15-inch, 2012)||14.0 x 9.3||0.58||3.51|
|HP Envy 14 Spectre||12.88 x 8.7||0.79||3.79|
|Lenovo IdeaPad U310||13.1 x 8.8||0.7||3.8|
|Dell XPS 14 (2012)||13.2 x 9.2||0.81||4.6|
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 slot returns 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
Indoors or outdoors, this screen is sweet
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.
Keyboard and touchpad
I've nothing but praise for the laptop's overall aesthetic, but the keyboard is a different story. If memory serves, it's a teensy bit quieter than the clicky one on the 15-inch model, but it's just as stiff and shallow. If you've taken a good look at the current crop of ultrathin laptop keyboards and asked, "Why are these so thick," then perhaps the Series 9 is for you, but I think vast majority of users would probably feel some finger fatigue after using the laptop for a while. As with all my reviews, I wrote this entire article you're reading on the laptop itself, and here it felt like a chore. The beginning of a keypress takes more pressure than you expect, and then as soon as you hit that threshold, the key harshly bottoms out.
On the plus side, the soft aqua keyboard backlighting is classy and unobtrusive, just bright enough to do the job, and the handy function keys are joined by a dedicated Fn Lock button, so you can let you adjust all your primary laptop settings with a single press each, rather than holding down Fn each time you want to change brightness or volume. One nitpick is that goes for the arrow keys as well: Since they're mapped to Home, End, Page Up and Page Down, you might find yourself skipping across a document when you just meant to move a single line or character along.
Samsung's touchpad has absolutely improved since the last time I saw it, and though the Elan software still has its quirks, it's one of the best I've used on a Windows laptop and approaching Apple quality. The textured glass surface is pitch-perfect — my fingers slide across it like figure skaters on freshly Zamboni'd ice — and both single-finger tracking and two-finger scrolling work extremely nicely. Palm rejection still has a ways to go, but it's not as much of a concern as it is on other laptops because Samsung neatly sinks the trackpad a ways into the frame. The physical button underneath the pad isn't overly difficult to press (though I still prefer discrete buttons), and single-finger taps are nice and responsive, unlike how they were in March on the 15-incher.
So, what's wrong? Elan's software simply can't keep up. Pinch to zoom isn't detected well, and there's an extremely noticeable delay before it takes effect. Inertial scrolling is ugly: If you swipe up quickly with two fingers in a webpage or document, it simply stutters along a few lines at a time like it's spasming. There's also a single finger drag-and-drop function which is on by default, and you might want to turn it off. I found that it liked to grab my browser tabs any time I put the cursor near them, and wouldn't let go until I asked nicely. Last but not least, when I bogged down the machine by launching a hefty program or loading a dozen browser tabs at once, I noticed that the entire touchpad stopped responding reliably to input until the load on the processor ceased. I don't know why this is, but Samsung and Elan still have a short ways to go to reach parity with Apple's excellent trackpad.
Comfort obviously wasn't priority one
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.
Incredibly quick boots
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 like Tom 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.
Battery life, heat, and noise
Even if the Series 9 could game, though, you probably wouldn't want to do it for long. Shortly after I measured that 30FPS framerate, my fingers noticed that the laptop was literally burning hot to the touch. When I whipped out a temperature gun, I found that the aluminum surface had reached 130°F with the processor under full load.
While the laptop quickly cooled to a slightly more reasonable 96°F when I stopped my gaming benchmarks, uncomfortably warm surfaces seem to be a theme for this machine. If your palms sweat easily, like mine do, you might want to look elsewhere. The two tiny fans are nice and quiet, but they don't kick in until the laptop is much warmer than it should be, and they don't move enough air to cool it down when the system is fully loaded anyways. The odd part is that Samsung actually has a function called Silent Mode, mapped to the F11 key, which supposedly turns down the fans to deaden their sound, but the fans are so quiet and run so rarely that it doesn't make sense to turn on.
Battery life is a little below average for an ultrabook, though I suppose it isn't surprising given the thinness of the 13-inch machine — while the 15-inch model has room for an 8400mAh pack, Samsung only fit managed to fit 5800mAh worth of Lithium Polymer chemistry goodness into the 13-inch chassis. I got 5 hours, 19 minutes on our Verge Battery Test, which cycles through a series of popular websites and high-res images via Wi-Fi with the screen set to 65 percent brightness, and about four and a half hours during a real work day, which for me consists of dozens of auto-refreshing browser tabs, multiple push email accounts, streaming audio in the background, lots of typing, and some video clips here and there.
We didn't try frying an egg on the Series 9, but I wouldn't be surprised
|Samsung Series 9 (13-inch, mid-2012)||5:19|
|Lenovo ThinkPad X230||7:10|
|HP Folio 13||7:07 |
|Dell XPS 14 (2012)||6:59|
|Samsung Series 9 (15-inch, early 2012)||6:01|
|Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A||5:46|
|MacBook Air (13-inch, mid-2012)||5:34|
|Lenovo IdeaPad U300s||5:33|
|Sony VAIO Z (2011)||5:27|
|HP Envy 14 Spectre (early 2012)||5:14|
|Dell XPS 13||4:55|
|Lenovo IdeaPad U310||4:32|
|Acer Aspire S5||4:24|
Samsung nearly nails the gold... but will take bronze home
Samsung's 13-inch notebook is better than its big brother in almost every single way, and if we were to judge the design alone, I'd argue it comes close to the high bar Apple set with the 13-inch MacBook Air. It's a truly stunning piece of kit, and the screen is a cut above. Everything else equal, I'd say it would be worth the $100 premium over Apple's $1,199 laptop.
Unfortunately, just like with the 15-inch model, Samsung focused on beauty rather than comfort. You could get used to the thinner, stiffer keyboard, but combined with sweaty surfaces and merely average battery life, it's not the amazing portable companion it could have been.
If you want comfort and style, HP's $1,399 Envy 14 Spectre is still your best bet, though you gain a load of bulk and weight. Dell's XPS 13 is a comfortable lightweight alternative, though it has a terrible screen. Lenovo's ThinkPad X230 and the HP Folio 13 have our recommendation if you need a notebook with full-size ports and battery life to spare, but neither will turn heads.
Just imagine if Samsung had given the Series 9 a little more room for a bigger battery, a deeper keyboard, and ways to dissipate all that hot air. Sure, it wouldn't have been the thinnest ultrabook in the world.
It might have been the best.