Samsung ATIV Book 7 review: a high-end Ultrabook, arriving just before Haswell

If you've been waiting for Samsung to refresh last year's Series 9 Ultrabook, don't hold your breath; apart from a recent upgrade to 1080p resolution, it's basically stayed the same. That doesn't mean Samsung is taking a break from ultraportables, though: the company recently started shipping the Series 7 Ultra (now called the ATIV Book 7), which debuted at CES. Regardless of the name, the idea was always for it to be part of Samsung's performance line, ranking right below the flagship Series 9 family. To that end, it ships for $1,060 with all the specs you'd expect to find in a mid- to high-end Ultrabook: a Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, a 128GB SSD, a 13.3-inch, 1080p display and a stronger set of speakers than on the Series 9. Obviously, the fact that it's launching with Ivy Bridge is one knock against it, but how does it stack up otherwise? Might it be a good deal if it ever gets a CPU refresh?

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Samsung ATIV Book 7 review

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Samsung

Samsung ATIV Book 7

Pros

  • Beautiful 1080p display
  • Fast transfer speeds, runs cool and quiet
  • Great trackpad
  • Good audio quality

Cons

  • Heavy for a touchscreen Ultrabook
  • Flat keyboard
  • No Core i7 or 256GB SSD option
  • Lots of bloatware
Summary

The ATIV Book 7 is a good value among touchscreen Ultrabooks, with a reliable trackpad, fast SSD and lovely display. The main trade-offs are a shallow keyboard and a relatively heavy frame.

Look and feel

DNP Samsung ATIV Book 7 review a new highend Ultrabook, arriving just before Haswell

The ATIV Book 7 was announced at the same time as the Series 7 Chronos (now called the ATIV Book 8) and so, it shares much of the same design language, from the aluminum chassis to the metal keys and brushed texture. As with the higher-end Series 9, Samsung went easy on the gaudy touches: all you'll find here in the way of adornment is a flush power button above the keyboard, a small orange JBL logo and a thin band of chrome ringing the trackpad. The difference, of course, is that the ATIV Book 7 doesn't feel quite as high-end -- not that it was ever intended to be. Don't get us wrong: it's still a pretty machine, with clean lines and a modern feel. But with a lid that flexes slightly and a chassis that widens to a relatively thick 0.74 inch, it's not as sexy as its big brother -- nor as well-made, for that matter.

Samsung went easy on the gaudy touches.

Also, the ATIV Book 7 is heavier -- much heavier. At 3.64 pounds, it's about a third of a pound heavier than other touchscreen 13-inch models, like the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13. Particularly after testing Toshiba's 2.9-pound Kirabook, the ATIV Book 7 feels unnecessarily heavy. We can't see a reason for this to be on the bad side of three and a half pounds: there's no optical drive on board, and no discrete GPU. This has basically the same specs as other 13-inch Ultrabooks, and yet there's something about the design that weighs it down. (Spoiler alert: it ain't a heavy-duty battery, that's for sure.)

At least it makes room for a lot of ports. On board, you'll find an Ethernet jack crammed in, with a drop-down panel at the bottom to create more space when you actually need to wedge a cable in there. There are also three USB ports (one 3.0, two 2.0), along with an HDMI socket, a headphone jack, a Kensington lock slot and an SD card reader. There's also a proprietary port you can use to connect an optional VGA dongle, so feel free to ignore it if you don't end up buying the add-on.

Keyboard and trackpad

DNP Samsung ATIV Book 7 review a new highend Ultrabook, arriving just before Haswell

We're not sure how Samsung did it, but it managed to produce an Ultrabook keyboard where barely any of the keys had to be cut down in size. Everything from the Shift to the Backspace to the Enter button is amply sized, and easy to hit without looking. Even the arrow keys are pretty big, and that's usually the first area to be compromised when companies are looking to save space. What's funny, too, is that there's still plenty of unused space on either side of the keyboard, which creates the illusion that Samsung actually had room to spare.

The trackpad here is the best we've tested in recent memory.

If anything, we wish the keys had a bit more travel -- which they totally could have, seeing as how Samsung's priority clearly wasn't to build the thinnest-ever laptop. It's not a dealbreaker, by any means -- most Ultrabooks have flat keyboards -- but there were a few instances where I had to re-enter a letter after my press failed to register. I also felt myself hitting the keys with a little more pressure than I normally would, probably because I didn't trust that my presses would go through.

As befits a high-end machine, the ATIV Book 7 has backlighting on the keyboard, which you can control by hitting Fn-F10. In fact, you'll need to hit the Function key to do other things, too, like adjusting the screen brightness or changing the volume levels.

Hands down, the ATIV Book's Samsung-made trackpad is the best we've tested in recent memory. Everything works as it should: two-finger scrolls, pinch-to-zoom and, best of all, single-finger tracking. It's that last part that's most impressive to us, really -- plenty of Ultrabooks can zoom in smoothly, offering you lots of control as you re-scale the page. But few do a good job with simple one-finger navigation, for some reason. Here, though, the cursor goes where you want it to, with no stopping or stuttering -- a good thing when you're poking around the desktop in 1080p. What's more, the button itself is easy to press and it never (ever!) mistakes a left click for a right one. Why can't all Windows touchpads be like this?

Display and sound

DNP Samsung ATIV Book 7 review a new highend Ultrabook, arriving just before Haswell

No, it's not the 3,200 x 1,800 laptop display Samsung just showed off at SID, but the 13.3-inch, 1080p panel here is still crisp, with no obvious pixelation or jagged edges. We were especially fond of the potent colors, which stay vibrant even as you dip the screen forward or watch from the side. At times, the glossy finish can interfere with the viewing angles, but adjusting the brightness along its 350-nit range seems to mitigate that.

Would you rather your laptop's sound quality be shrill and tinny or quietly rich? That's the choice we've been forced to make with all sorts of Ultrabooks lately, first with the Toshiba Kirabook and ASUS Transformer Book and now with the ATIV Book 7. If you're like us, you'll take the balanced sound, even if it means you can't rock out at quite the volume Justin Timberlake requires. And that's what the ATIV Book 7 has to offer, really. I enjoyed listening to everything from jazz to punk rock to top 40 pop, but the maximum volume setting usually wasn't enough -- even traffic rumbling by an open window was enough to drown out the audio somewhat, which means creaky air conditioners are likely to be a problem too. The hitch, though, is that the sound gets more distorted the higher up the scale you go. All of which is to say, you should be fine if you're hanging out alone in a quiet space, but you might want to whip out a louder external speaker set once AC season gets underway.

Performance and battery life


PCMark7 3DMark06 3DMark11 ATTO (top disk speeds)
Samsung ATIV Book 7 (1.8GHz Core i5-3337U, Intel HD 4000) 4,418 4,045

E1081 / P600

626 MB/s (reads); 137 MB/s (writes)
ASUS Transformer Book (1.9GHz Core i7-3517U, Intel HD 4000) 4,414 3,840

E924 / P512 / X177

482 MB/s (reads); 317 MB/s (writes)
Toshiba Kirabook (2.0GHz Core i7-3537U, Intel HD 4000) 5,275 5,272

N/A

553 MB/s (reads); 500 MB/s (writes)
Acer Aspire S7 (1.9GHz Core i7-3517U, Intel HD 4000) 5,011 4,918 E1035 / P620 / X208 934 MB/s (reads); 686 MB/s (writes)
MSI Slidebook S20 (1.8GHz Core i5-3337U, Intel HD 4000) 4,043 3,944

E1,053 / P578

484 MB/s (reads); 286 MB/s (writes)
ASUS TAICHI 21 (1.9GHz Core i7-3517U, Intel HD 4000) 4,998 4,818 E1,137 / P610 / X201 516 MB/s (reads); 431 MB/s (writes)
Microsoft Surface Pro (1.7GHz Core i5-3317U, Intel HD 4000) 4,673 3,811 E1,019 / P552 526 MB/s (reads); 201 MB/s (writes)
Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 (1.7GHz Core i5-3317U, Intel HD 4000) 4,422 4,415

E917 / P572

278 MB/s (reads); 263 MB/s (writes)
Dell XPS 12 (1.7GHz Core i5-3317U, Intel HD 4000) 4,673 4,520 N/A 516 MB/s (reads); 263 MB/s (writes)

The ATIV Book 7 has 4GB of RAM, a Samsung-made 128GB SSD, integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics and an Ivy Bridge Core i5-3337U processor clocked at 1.8GHz. The solid-state drive notwithstanding, those are the same exact specs you'll find in various recent Ultrabooks, including the MSI Slidebook S20. It should be no surprise, then, that it delivers nearly identical benchmark scores in everything from PCMark 7 to graphics tests like 3DMark. Its eight-second startup time is typical too.

Really, the one thing that surprised us was disk performance. For starters, the SSD's write speeds are on the slow side, with an average of 137 MB/s in ATTO. At the same time, its read speeds were all over the place -- but always higher than average. Even at the lowest, we observed transfer rates around 545 MB/s, which is still better than what you'll get from most Ultrabooks. When it was good, though, it was really good -- as high as 742 MB/s, to be exact. After running the same test many times, we ended up with an average of 626 MB/s, which is still excellent indeed.

Anecdotally, apps launched quickly and we had no problem juggling Netflix with music streaming and some schizophrenic tab-jumping in IE10. After about an hour of playing music through the browser, the keyboard still felt cool, though the bottom side felt warm near the fan. It never got hot, however, so you shouldn't feel shy about putting this in your lap, as it was intended to be used. The fan noise is also minimal, especially compared to rivals like the Kirabook.

Battery life

Samsung ATIV Book 7 5:02
Acer Iconia W700 7:13
Samsung Series 9 (13-inch, 2012) 7:02
MacBook Air (13-inch, 2012) 6:34 (OS X) / 4:28 (Windows)
Dell XPS 14 6:18
Sony VAIO T13 5:39
Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 5:32
Dell XPS 12 5:30
Samsung Series 5 UltraTouch 5:23
ASUS Zenbook Prime UX31A Touch 5:15
ASUS Zenbook Prime UX51Vz 5:15
Toshiba Satellite U845W 5:13
Toshiba Kirabook 5:12
Toshiba Satellite U845 5:12
Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3 5:11
Toshiba Satellite U925t 5:10
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon 5:07
Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M5 5:05
ASUS Transformer Book 5:01 (tablet only)
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch 5:00
Sony VAIO Duo 11 4:47
Acer Aspire S5 4:35
MSI Slidebook S20 4:34
ASUS Zenbook Prime UX21A 4:19
Acer Aspire S7 (13-inch) 4:18
Acer Aspire S3 4:11
Lenovo ThinkPad Twist 4:09
HP Spectre XT TouchSmart 4:00
Vizio Thin + Light (14-inch, 2012) 3:57
ASUS TAICHI 21 3:54
Microsoft Surface Pro 3:46

Samsung rates the ATIV Book's 57Wh battery for 6.7 hours. We suppose you could approach that kind of runtime in real life -- if you're doing something low-intensive, like web surfing, and with the display brightness set to a low level. In our test, which involves looping a video off the local drive with WiFi on and the brightness fixed at 65 percent, the battery lasted five hours and two minutes. As we always say in these Ultrabook reviews, that's not bad, per se, at least relatively speaking; touchscreen laptops with Ivy Bridge don't last more than five and a half hours on a charge anyway. In this case, though, we were rather hoping that the ATIV Book 7 would justify its extra weight with out-of-this-world battery life. Fortunately, at least, Haswell should help in that department, assuming Samsung eventually orders a CPU refresh.

Software and warranty

DNP Samsung ATIV Book 7 review a new highend Ultrabook, arriving just before Haswell

It's never a good sign when you need to take not one, but two screenshots to illustrate how much software comes pre-installed on a computer. Samsung definitely went to town here, throwing in a mix of its own programs as well as some third-party ones. On tap, we've got Netflix, Evernote Touch, Kindle, Merriam-Webster, S Camera, S Player, S Gallery, Samsung Signature Store, Samsung SW Update, the Intel AppUp store, Music Maker Jam, StumbleUpon, Bitcasa, Jamie Oliver's Recipes, rara.com, 7digital, Slacker, Pandora, ChatOn, Photo Editor, Skitch, Fresh Paint, The Treasures of Montezuma, WeatherBug, AccuWeather.com, Samsung's Music Hub, Box.com, Nook and TuneIn. Samsung also included a few Xbox Live games (Pinball FX, Adera, Shark Dash, Microsoft Mahjong, Microsoft Solitaire Collection, Wordament, Cut the Rope and Minesweeper), along with a tile for Plants vs. Zombies that's actually just a link to buy it.

DNP Samsung ATIV Book 7 review a new highend Ultrabook, arriving just before Haswell

It's a ridiculously long list that's full of redundancies, as you can see (how many weather and music-streaming apps does one need?). Worse, there's even more: we haven't even gotten to the desktop apps. In addition to everything we've mentioned so far, Samsung also bundled a trial of Norton Internet Security and its own Kies file-transfer software. Wrapping up, you'll find Samsung's first-party apps for phone-screen sharing.

The ATIV Book 7 comes with a one-year warranty, just like most of the other PCs you might be considering.

Configuration options

The ATIV Book 7 is available in just one configuration in the US: the $1,060 model we tested, with the Core i5 Ivy Bridge processor, 4GB of RAM and 128GB SSD. Samsung won't comment on whether it plans to upgrade the machine to Haswell or add additional configuration options, like a Core i7 CPU or 256GB solid-state drive. Fortunately, Samsung has a proven history of refreshing its high-end machines as well as introducing additional configurations later on, so all hope is not lost.

The competition

DNP Samsung ATIV Book 7 review a new highend Ultrabook, arriving just before Haswell

The ATIV Book 7 is a good deal, the lack of Haswell notwithstanding.

It's difficult to compare the ATIV Book 7 to the rest of the market, when so many of its more obvious rivals (the Lenovo Yoga 13, Acer Aspire S7, Dell XPS 12) are due for refreshes themselves. In particular, with Intel about to formally introduce its next-gen Haswell processors, we're likely to see some brand-new designs altogether. Unless you're desperate, then, we suggest holding off on buying anything until all of the major players have shown their cards.

Slowly but surely, though, we're starting to get a better idea of what the Ultrabook landscape will look like over the coming months. So far, we've seen the Toshiba Kirabook, which starts at a lofty $1,600 with a Core i5 processor, 256GB of storage and a 2,560 x 1,440 display (non-touch, at least in the entry-level model). It's a crisp screen, to be sure, but the viewing angles are limited and, as we found with the Retina display MacBooks, not enough apps have been optimized to take advantage of that high resolution. Also, as lightweight as the machine is, its fan is one of the loudest we've encountered. Then, of course, there's the price, which is insane even when you factor in the two-year warranty and generous software package (full copies of Adobe Photoshop Elements / Premiere Elements and a two-year Norton subscription).

HP, meanwhile, just introduced the Envy TouchSmart 14 Ultrabook, which will go on sale later this summer with a 3,200 x 1,800 display option. Unfortunately, though, we don't know much about the other specs, and it's also unclear how much that screen upgrade will cost. Stay tuned, folks.

Wrap-up

DNP Samsung ATIV Book 7 review a new highend Ultrabook, arriving just before Haswell

So far, it would seem that $1,060 for a machine with a Core i5 processor, 1080p touchscreen and 128GB SSD is a pretty good deal, the lack of Haswell notwithstanding. And we're not just talking about the spec sheet, though that certainly makes for a good first impression. The ATIV Book 7 has the best touchpad we've used on a Windows laptop in a long, long time. That SSD offers faster read speeds than most competing Ultrabooks. The machine runs cool and quiet. The screen is sharper than the Yoga 13's, even though they're priced about the same, and it offers wide viewing angles, too. So far, so good, its last-gen CPU be damned.

Really, the biggest trade-offs are that it's heavier than other 13-inch Ultrabooks, while offering battery life that's similar, if not slightly shorter. The keyboard is fairly flat, but it's still serviceable. Lastly, there's also an egregious, almost insulting amount of bloatware here. Even so, none of these seem like dealbreakers, at least at this price. Naturally, we still suggest you wait for a Haswell upgrade, and also see what other PC makers come out with in the next few weeks. Tentatively, though, the ATIV Book 7 appears to be a solid choice -- let's just hope Samsung eventually decides to add more configuration options.