byJoanna Stern||March 28th 2011 at 12:45pmMarch 28th 2011 12:45 pm
Back at CES, Samsung pulled out quite a few surprises, and no, we're not referring to its Zoll-infused press conference -- although, that performance still gives us the willies. Of all the Korean company's announcements at the show, which we'll remind you included an impressive new LTE phone and range of SmartTVs, it was its Series 9 laptop that left us the most stunned. And well, a glance at that picture above should explain why we found ourselves counting down the days until its March launch date. The 2.8-pound system is a complete and total 180 from Samsung's typical bulky mainstream systems, yet its 0.64-inch thick chassis still crams in quite a bit of horsepower with a Core i5-2537M processor, a 128GB SSD, and 4GB of RAM. It's also built from some of the toughest stuff on earth, has a backlit keyboard, and an incredibly high quality 400 nit LCD. You see, the $1,699 machine teeters on having the absolute perfect balance of beauty and brawn, and certainty has the core ingredients to compete with that other extremely popular and super thin ultraportable -- but when you get it home and out of its fancy box, does it truly have the chops? Or is this just yet another rail thin and expensive Windows laptop that falls short? The time has come to find out – hit the break for our full review.
Beautiful, thin, and light chassis
Speedy Core i5 and SSD performance
No SD card slot or higher res display option
Touchpad lacks palm rejection
Look and feel
We're just going to come out and say it: the Series 9 is one of the most striking laptops we've ever seen. Unlike the Dell Adamo and the Sony VAIO X, which both seemed to try too hard to look like Apple's MacBook Air, the Series 9's deep black case and sharp angled edges give it a seriously distinct look. And it's one of sophistication and simplicity, if you ask us. The entire dark chassis may seem basic and highly minimalistic, but there are small intricacies like the chrome borders, hidden port covers, and wave-shaped hinges that just make this thing feel more like a computing piece of art than a basic bargain-basement PC. But beyond the aesthetics, the system just feels great in hand. The duralumin build, which is the same stuff used in airplane construction, feels insanely solid, and there's absolutely no bend to the top half of the chassis. Unfortunately, the bottom feels like it's made of plastic, though Samsung tells us it's made of a powder coated aluminum. Still, the metal lid and palmrest are very soft, and believe us, you won't be able to resist petting the surface. However, beware of fingerprint streaks -- specifically, the palmrest gets covered pretty quickly, though thankfully, Samsung includes a cloth in its high-end box.
But, of course, the first thing everybody notices about the 9 is its insanely thin profile. Yes, it's one really thin and light machine, and in terms of numbers, it comes extremely close to rivaling the MacBook Air. Samsung claims the Series 9 weighs 2.88 pounds and measures 0.62 to 0.64-inches thick. In comparison, the Air tips the scales to 2.9 pounds and is 0.11-inches at its thinnest point and 0.68 at its thickest. Still, the differences are as minimal in person as they are on paper -- while the Series 9 does seem slightly thicker in hand, it's really not a difference you'd notice everyday, and just like the Air, picking it up off your lap or table requires little to no muscle.
Samsung was able to find a home for quite a few ports on the svelte system as well. The left port cover pulls down to reveal one USB 3.0 port, a mini HDMI socket, and a jack for the included Ethernet adapter. The one on the right hides a USB port 2.0, a microSD card slot, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. It's a decent lineup, we just wish Samsung had gone with a regular SD card slot. Oh, and those worried that the port covers would retract when the system is sitting on the table will be happy to know that it isn't an issue.
Keyboard and touchpad
The best news may come when you open up the Series 9's lid. In fact, we can confidently say the chiclet keyboard and touchpad duo is one of the best we've seen on a Windows laptop. The keyboard itself is extremely well laid out and the keys themselves feel nice and smooth. The panel doesn't bend, though we could have done without the glossy plastic surrounding the keys and the screen. Naturally, we're just elated to see the backlight and the fact that you can adjust the brightness manually with the F7 and F8 buttons. It really makes a world of difference when you get caught in dimly lit environments -- something we wish Apple had remembered when it cut out that feature on its new generation of Airs.
The touchpad -- or what Samsung is calling a SuperButton ClickPad -- has integrated mouse buttons, and it's actually the best we've seen on a shipping Windows laptop. It's still not a perfect experience, but it does use Synaptics' ClickPad Series 3 with image sensing technology. the traditional finger layout – a thumb on a mouse button and an index finger to navigate – is noticeably improved. Additionally, the 4.0 x 3.0-inch matte pad, which has a rubberish feel to it, is also quite spacious and lends itself nicely to multi-finger movements. However, two finger scrolling is still where things aren't exactly perfect – running two fingers down the pad while on this very site still made for a very jittery experience, though adding a bit more pressure helped move things along. However, some other gestures work as advertised – four fingers down brings you to the desktop and four up launches Aero. You can always customize the gestures, though for some reason, the menu for that is buried deep in the Control Panel's mouse settings tab.
The touchpad and keyboard provide hassle-free experiences on their own, but we found in our typical use, that our palms would swipe up against the pad while typing and would subsequently cause the cursor to jump across the screen. Making some adjustments to our wrist positioning helped ease the situation as did turning off the touchpad, but it's something we wish either Samsung or Synaptics would address with some palm rejection tweaks.
The 13.3-inch display on the Series 9 is yet another place the it rises above the rest. The 1366x768-resolution, 400-nit screen boasts Samsung's SuperBright Plus technology, and its one heck of a viewing experience. The matte screen (yes, it's also matte!) is extremely crisp and colors just look dazzling. The ambient light sensor automatically adjusts brightness, but we opted to disable that function while plugged in and cranked it up to the max. There's also good news for those that plan to do a bit more outdoor computing: without any brightness adjustments, the screen looked extremely crisp when we took it on a field trip to Times Square. Our only ungranted wish comes with the resolution – we would have liked to see a higher-end option, like the 13-inch MacBook Air's 1440 x 900-resolution panel or the VAIO Z's overly dense 1600x900 screen.
Samsung claims wide 160-degree viewing angles with the 9, and we can attest that both horizontal and vertical angles on this thing were top notch. Actually, horizontal angles are almost perfect; sitting to the far right of the system, we were still able to make out everything on the panel. It's indeed impressive. The 1.3 megapixel HD webcam above the display served up decently crisp images of our mug while chatting over Skype, though it seemed to have a slight issue adjusting the brightness as we moved around. The two speakers, which are located on the right and left edge, were surprisingly loud for their size. Unsurprisingly, the sound was rather tinny when listening to Adele's latest on Rdio.
Performance and graphics
We've established that the Series 9 has what it takes to compete on an aesthetics and ergonomics to a large degree, but a large chunk of your green is going to its higher end performance parts. So, is it worth it? The experience is certainly snappy, there's no doubt about that. The 1.4GHz Core i5-2537M processor and 4GB of RAM consistently opened applications quickly and didn't show any signs of slowing down when we worked simultaneously on this review in Microsoft Word 2010, intermittently wrote posts in Firefox 4, edited pictures in GIMP, checked our Twitter feed in TweetDeck, and even video chatted with a friend on Skype.
But don't underestimate the role of the 128GB SSD in launching apps and quickly resuming / booting Windows 7 Home Premium. Similar to what Apple's done with its MacBook Air, Samsung's worked on what it's calling Power Back, which promises to wake the system from sleep in three seconds. And our testing proved that claim to be exactly on the mark. The Air, on the other hand, resumes from sleep in a slightly faster 2.6 seconds, though the Series 9 has Apple's system beat on boot time -- it revved up Windows 7 Home Premium in 20 seconds flat, while our 13-inch Air took 25 seconds.
Graphics-wise, the Series 9 packs Intel's integrated HD 3000 graphics, and as we saw with the Lenovo ThinkPad X220, the performance is markedly improved over the last Core integrated options. It had no problems handling the local and Flash HD clips we threw at it. How does it compare to the NVIDIA's GeForce 320M in the Air? Well, as the benchmarks show, NVIDIA's option is still a stronger choice, but like we said, Intel's solution was extremely nimble when it came to watching 1080p clips.
Notes: the higher the score the better. For 3DMark06, the first number reflects score with GPU off, the second with it on.
Battery life and software
Give its standard voltage processor, we never really had that high of hopes for the Series 9's battery life, and actually, we doubted Samsung's claim of seven hours. However, it fared much better than we anticipated. On our standard video rundown test, which loops the same video at 65 percent brightness and WiFi on, the six-cell 6300mAH battery lasted four hours and twenty minutes. That's quite a taxing test, and in typical use with brightness hovering around 75 percent, we got closer to five hours of juice. Yes, of course, that's not as long as the X220 we just tested, but that had a much larger battery and an additional slice cell. Apple's 13-inch MacBook Air lasts 25 minutes longer on a charge on our battery test, but in use we got closer to 6.5 hours of use with similar brightness adjustments. Either way, we're content with the Series 9's endurance considering its high performance parts and the fact that dragging around its small, one piece charger isn't a bother. We should also note that the rig stayed fairly cool during both corded and cordless use -- the keyboard got slightly warm, but only after quite a bit of use.
Like most of Samsung's laptops, the Series 9 is preloaded with a bit of the company's own utilities. Listed under Samsung in the Start menu are Easy File Share, Easy Migration, Easy Network Management, and other "Easy" tools. Shockingly, the rest of the system is pretty bare on third-party software.
Finally! The Series 9 gets right what so many other ultrathin PCs have repeatedly gotten wrong. It's got a brand spankin' new and speedy Sandy Bridge Core i5 processor, a fast 128GB SSD as well as a high quality screen and stunning exterior. And on top of all that, it doesn't require that you drag along the AC adapter everywhere you go. But just as we're about to say the Series 9 hits it out of the park, we're hit in the face with its $1,649 price tag. No matter how you slice it, this ultraportable is still meant for a niche user who's willing to shell out over $1,600 for a laptop (although, we are seeing it listed for $1,599 at Best Buy). And while it may have more processing power than Apple's 13-inch MacBook Air and a backlit keyboard, Apple's offering shaves off $350, has a higher resolution display, slightly longer battery life, stronger graphics performance, and a better multitouch touchpad experience, and ultimately, we assume that will be enough for those seeking an incredibly thin laptop. That said, the Series 9 has the horsepower to be one's main system and finally proves that PC manufacturers can build an incredibly thin, head-turning laptop without sacrificing the vitals. And well, despite the Samsung tax, that's quite a feat.
Update: The touchpad, while excellent, does not use Synaptics' ClickPad Series 3 design. Rather, it's built on the company's ClickPad Series 1.5 technology, with Series 3-enabled notebooks slated to arrive later this year.