Samsung ATIV Book 9 2014 Edition review: big screen, even bigger price
So many Ultrabooks in our laptop buyer's guide: Not one with a 15-inch screen. Which is strange, because it seemed for a while that bigger-screen ultraportables were going to become a thing; HP, Sony and ASUS all tried their hand at super-light 15-inch machines. Two years later, though, Samsung is one of the only companies that's still at it. The company recently came out with the ATIV Book 9 2014 Edition, an update to the 15-inch Series 9 laptop from 2012. Like the original, it's insanely thin and light for a machine with this screen size, except now, it graduates to a full HD touchscreen, longer battery life and updated processors. Most notable of all, it features an improved audio setup with a built-in digital-to-analog converter allowing you to play back lossless, or "studio-quality" audio formats. The thing is, even for a flagship it's pretty expensive: At $1,500, it has one of the highest starting prices we've seen, and there are plenty of similarly specced machines that cost less. That raises an interesting question, then: Who should buy this?
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Samsung ATIV Book 9 2014 Edition review

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Samsung

ATIV Book 9 2014 Edition

Pros

  • Best-in-class audio quality
  • Thin and light for a 15-inch laptop
  • Long battery life
  • Comfortable keyboard and trackpad
  • One of the few 15-inch Ultrabooks available

Cons

  • Expensive, even for a flagship Ultrabook 
  • Screen isn't as sharp as what you'll find on competing 13-inch Ultrabooks
  • You could enjoy the same performance on a much cheaper machine
Summary

The ATIV Book 9 Edition is one of the only 15-inch Ultrabooks available right now, and it's a fine product indeed, with long battery life, a thin and light design and unmatched audio quality. It's expensive for what it is, though, particularly considering cheaper models offer superior screen quality and similar performance. 

Hardware

With the exception of that sweet audio setup, the ATIV Book 9 2014 Edition is basically a blown-up version of the 13-inch ATIV Book 9 Plus, which we reviewed last fall. Like its little brother, the new Book 9 is made of smooth aluminum done up in a "Mineral Ash Black" shade that actually looks blue in certain light. It's elegant in much the same way the MacBook Air is, except that dark color means it shows fingerprints more easily. I suggest you buy a microfiber cloth -- and be prepared to wipe down the lid and palm rest every once in a while to keep the machine looking fresh.

Lift the lid and you'll see the interior is as minimal as the outside, with expansive metal surfaces and very few embellishments -- just the power key sitting above the keyboard, and some thin metal trim surrounding the trackpad. What's nice is that Samsung has scrubbed the Book 9's palm rest of any branding -- with the ATIV Book 9 Plus, Sammy actually painted on logos for its SideSync and HomeSync software. Needless to say, then, I'm glad Samsung came to its senses and kept things simple here.

Those persistent grease stains aside, this really is an impressive design. At this point, building extra-thin Ultrabooks is actually Samsung's "thing." Granted, this has gotten more challenging, what with rival PC makers finally turning out super-skinny machines of their own. In fact, thanks to its new touchscreen, the ATIV Book 9 is thicker and heavier than it used to be. That said, it's still super light for a 15-inch laptop, weighing in at just 3.92 pounds and 0.63 inch thick. Remember, too, that there aren't many 15-inch Ultrabooks nowadays, and most aren't this thin or light. After that, your next lightest options are machines like the Dell XPS 15 and the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display, which measure 0.7 inch thick and weigh 4.44 and 4.46 pounds, respectively. And after that? You're looking at mainstream notebooks that weigh five-plus pounds. Hardly an ultraportable anymore.

Besides, there's actually a benefit to the 15-inch Book 9 being slightly thicker than it used to be: Samsung had a little more room when figuring out which ports to include. The machine now features full-sized HDMI output, a step up from the micro-HDMI socket on the last-gen model. As before, there are three USB connections (two of them 3.0), a mini-VGA port, a headphone/mic jack, a lock slot and an SD card reader. There's also an RJ-45 Ethernet port, but it's not a proper full-sized socket, so you'll need a dongle (not included) to get a wired connection.

Keyboard and trackpad

One thing you should know about Samsung laptops: They tend to have fairly flat keyboards. The new ATIV Book 9 does too, but Sammy at least made some subtle changes that make the typing experience more comfortable. For starters, the keycaps now have a slight contour, making them more finger-friendly. They're also coated in some sort of soft finish -- not rubbery, exactly, but soft. Whatever it is, the keys are pleasant to touch. Other than that, the keyboard is still on the shallow side, especially compared to rival machines from Apple, Dell and Lenovo (Dell and Lenovo are particularly big on cushy keyboards). That said, the Book 9 is still easy to type on, especially since the wider footprint means most of the keys are generously sized. It's just not my favorite keyboard, but hey, they can't all be.

The same can be said of the trackpad. The ATIV Book 9 has one spacious pad, and to Samsung's credit, it's much more precise than the last-gen model was when it first came out. Once in a while, I'll struggle with single-finger navigation, but for the most part, tracking is precise, even when I'm selecting small items on the desktop. Ditto for two-finger scrolling and pinch-to-zoom -- both feel remarkably controlled most of the time.

Display

If you're considering the ATIV Book 9, odds are you like the idea of having a little extra screen real estate. And more screen real estate you shall have: The panel here measures 15.6 inches diagonally. That's a slight bump over the 15-inch panel on the last-gen model, and it's a big leap over standard 13-inch Ultrabooks. For what it's worth, it's a fairly high-quality panel, too: The colors are vibrant, and between the 300-nit brightness level and the low-reflective panel, I encountered relatively little screen glare.

The problem is, though the screen is indeed higher-res than its predecessor (1,920 x 1,080 vs. 1,600 x 900), it's still relatively low-res compared to most other Ultrabooks. At this point, 1080p is standard for flagship Ultrabooks, even those with 13-inch screens, and many go up to either 2,560 x 1,440 or 3,200 x 1,800. (Samsung says super-high-res screens in this size range are still hard to come by -- fair enough.) What this means is that even mid-range 13-inch systems have a higher pixel density and, in many cases, are noticeably sharper. So, while you do indeed get more screen real estate here, you otherwise can get as good a screen or better on any number of cheaper machines.

Sound

And now, the reason you might consider this over a cheaper system: the stupendous audio quality. You can't tell by looking at it -- the two speakers on the bottom edge are small and discreet -- but the ATIV Book 9 houses an audio encoder/decoder made by Wolfson, a respected name among audiophiles. In particular, this is the Wolfson WM5102, a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) tailored for phones, tablets and other portable devices -- you know, like this one. That means while this offers best-in-class sound quality for a notebook (more on that in a minute), it would be unfair to compare this with a standalone DAC; all the processing here is handled by a single piece of silicon, as opposed to a bunch of discrete chips. That processing, by the way, includes support for tracks with up to 24-bit resolution, and sampling rates as high as 192kHz -- basically, the highest-quality files you can buy in stores like HDtracks.

I suspect those of you who care about music enough to purchase a machine like this already have preferred apps for playing back lossless audio formats. Just in case, though, Samsung's own S Player+ app will do the job, with support for FLAC and ALAC, Apple's lossless audio codec. As you might expect, you'll need a wired connection to make full use of the built-in DAC, so be prepared to plug in either a headset or an external speaker into the headphone jack.

Armed with a pair of AiAiAi TMA-1 headphones, I put on an assortment of albums, all in FLAC format with a sample rate of 192kHz. Whether I was listening to Tchaikovsky's "Manfred Symphony," as performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, or duets between Ella and Louis, the music had a refreshing clarity to it. There was no distortion, definitely no tinniness. Everything sounded so... unimpeded. Unimpeded, and balanced, too; no one instrument ever overpowers another. Janis Joplin's hoarse vocals shine through, but so do the piano, the guitar and the drums. I won't go so far as to say it's like listening to music in your car, or in your living room -- the setup here isn't nearly as powerful -- but it's definitely the purest sound I've ever gotten out of a laptop.

Performance and battery life

PCMark7 3DMark06 3DMark11 ATTO (top disk speeds)
Samsung ATIV Book 9 2014 Edition (1.6GHz Core i5-4200U, Intel HD 4400) 4,835 5,947

E1,752 / P948 / X297

551 MB/s (reads); 141 MB/s (writes)
Microsoft Surface Pro 3 (1.9GHz Core i5-4300U, Intel HD 4400) 5,024 5,053

E1,313 / P984

555 MB/s (reads); 252 MB/s (writes)
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon (2014, 1.6GHz Core i5-4200U, Intel HD 4400) 4,773 5,881

E1,727 / P930 / X284

555 MB/s (reads); 137 MB/s (writes)
Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 2 Pro (1.6GHz Core i5-4200U, Intel HD 4400) 4,676 5,688

E1,713 / P914 / X281

546 MB/s (reads); 139 MB/s (writes)
Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus (1.6GHz Core i5-4200U, Intel HD 4400) 4,973 5,611

E1,675 / P867 / X277

547 MB/s (reads); 508 MB/s (writes)
Acer Aspire S7-392 (1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U, Intel HD 4400) 5,108 5,158

E1,724 / P952 / X298

975 MB/s (reads); 1.1 GB/s (writes)

Blink and you'll miss it: The ATIV Book 9 boots into the desktop in just five seconds, about half the time I was expecting. That was my first clue that Samsung's newest Ultrabook is fast and indeed, it slightly beats some other machines in benchmark tests, including a few that run on the same dual-core Core i5-4200U processor. The thing is, even with 8GB of RAM, it doesn't significantly outperform machines we tested with the same CPU and four gigs of memory. And while the Samsung-made SSD delivers solid read speeds of 551 MB/s, its peak write speeds tapped out at around 141 MB/s -- on the slow side for a machine of this caliber. What I'm saying is, the performance is generally solid, but it's also more or less in line with other Ultrabooks we've seen, even those that are cheaper and/or make do with half the memory.

Regardless of whether the ATIV Book 9 is overpriced compared to its peers, there's no question it gets the job done. And let's be clear, by "job," I'm not including any sort of intensive gaming; if that's what you're into, may I suggest a gaming laptop, or even a workhorse like the Dell XPS 15? In everyday use, though, the Book 9 shines. I was able to do all my usual Engadget-editor work on it, with HipChat open on the desktop and lots and lots of Chrome browser tabs open. Movie playback is smooth too, and I have no doubt you can get away with batch photo-editing as well. Basically, anything other Ultrabooks can do, this one can do too. You'll just pay a higher price for it.

Battery life

Samsung ATIV Book 9 (2014 Edition) 9:48*
MacBook Air (13-inch, 2013) 12:51
MacBook Pro with Retina display (13-inch, 2013) 11:18
Sony VAIO Duo 13 9:40
Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus 8:44
HP Spectre 13 8:30
Sony VAIO Pro 13 8:24
Acer Aspire S7-392 7:33
Samsung Series 9 (15-inch, 2012) 7:29
Microsoft Surface Pro 3 7:08
Sony VAIO Pro 11 6:41
Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro 6:32
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon (2014) 6:18
Samsung ATIV Book 9 Lite 4:33

*Engadget recently modified its battery life test in such a way that the new version has a small impact on battery life. With the new test, the ATIV Book 9 lasted 9:34; the old test put it at 10:01. The number listed in the table is the average of those times.

According to Samsung, the ATIV Book 9's 62Wh battery can last up to 8.8 hours on a charge. Turns out, that's a fairly conservative estimate: In our battery rundown test, we got an average of nine hours and 48 minutes. Now, just to be clear, Engadget recently tweaked its laptop battery test, so that we're using a higher-res movie than we used to. That's obviously going to have a bit of an impact on battery life. Thankfully, though, the effect is fairly slight: Even with a 1080p movie, the Book 9 managed nine hours and 34 minutes of runtime. With the old test, it just cracked 10 hours.

Either way, that's a big improvement over Samsung's last-gen 15-inch Ultrabook, which died out after around seven and a half hours. The Book 9's runtime is also a clear step over most ultraportables (save the MacBook Air). Then again, there are many 13-inch models that come within about an hour of the ATIV Book 9. I have to wonder if the battery life gains here are big enough to justify the extra weight and higher price.

Software

The ATIV Book 9 Plus ships with Windows 8.1, including a recent update that made the OS easier to use on mouse-and-keyboard machines like this one. Thankfully, it's a pretty clean experience; Samsung didn't install much bloatware alongside the usual built-in Windows apps. Boot up the machine for the first time and you'll find trial versions of Adobe Photoshop 11 as well as Norton security software. There's also a shortcut for Samsung's own SideSync software, which lets you transfer files between your PC and mobile device. The problem is, it only works on Samsung-made devices, like the Galaxy S5 or Galaxy Tab S, so if you happen to own an iPad or Moto X, you may as well delete that Live Tile; it's going to be useless to you.

Configuration options and the competition

The 2014 Edition starts at $1,500, with the same specs my unit had: a Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, integrated graphics and a 128GB solid-state drive. For $1,900, you can get it with a Core i7 CPU and a 256GB drive. It's a bit of a shame you can't configure the thing precisely to your liking, but that's Samsung for you: The company always offers a few fixed configurations, and has a habit of reserving 256GB drives for the Core i7 machines.

The thing is, there's nothing else on the market quite like it. Though there are other 15-inch laptops -- even reasonably thin and light ones -- none are quite as thin and light as this. The closest contenders are the Dell XPS 15 and 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display, which I mentioned earlier. In addition to being relatively compact, they're both offered with discrete GPUs, which make them well-suited to folks who need some real graphics horsepower on the go. Though these machines are indeed thin and light, they're still quite a bit heavier, so it might be smarter to think of them as shrunken-down workhorses, not Ultrabooks like the ATIV Book 9.

If you do want an Ultrabook, most of your options have 13-inch screens. As it turns out, I've accumulated lots of favorites, but I'll try my best to explain why each is worth considering. For starters, there's the Acer Aspire S7-392, a near-perfect laptop that's exceptionally thin, light and fast with a vibrant, low-glare screen. The only thing you'll want to keep in mind is that because it's so skinny, the battery is smaller than in other systems. Then there's the Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro, whose 3,200 x 1,800 screen folds back into tablet mode, making it the most versatile design we've seen. The keyboard is comfortable too; just beware of the short battery life. The Dell XPS 12 offers a similar, if slightly less flexible, form factor, with a screen that flips back in its hinge. Here, too, you can expect good performance, a comfortable keyboard and a sharp screen. Finally, there's Samsung's own 13-inch ATIV Book 9 Plus, which has mostly the same design and specs as the Book 9 2014 Edition, save for weaker audio and a battery that lasts around nine hours instead of 10. It's fast, and well-designed, with pretty good battery life; just be prepared for a high price tag.

Whichever you choose, each of these rival Ultrabooks costs less than the 15-inch ATIV Book 9. In many cases, they offer the same screen resolution, with some going as high as 2,560 x 1,440 or 3,200 x 1,800. Either way, the display will appear sharper: These machines offer the same pixel count or higher on a smaller screen. Additionally, the performance isn't any faster on the 15-inch model. True, the battery life is slightly longer, but for some, the 13-inch models might come close enough. All told, the biggest difference is the audio quality: The sound is indisputably better on the ATIV Book 9 2014 Edition, though even then, you need a wired setup to make the most of it. That begs the question: Why bother with the 15-incher unless you really want the extra screen real estate?

Wrap-up

The ATIV Book 9 Edition is a good Ultrabook in its own right: It's well-designed and thin and light for its size, with solid performance, long battery life and a comfortable keyboard-trackpad combo. It's also a clear improvement over its predecessor, and so it deserves an even better score. That said, it's awfully expensive for what it is: $1,500 is just the starting price here, and for the money, you get the same performance you'd expect on a machine that costs hundreds of dollars less. The battery life is only modestly longer than what smaller models are capable of, and the screen is decidedly less pixel-dense, to boot. All in all, the only things really distinguishing this from the competition are its unusually big screen and its unusually strong audio quality. If neither of those things is crucial, you're better off sizing down and spending less on a 13-inch system.

Edgar Alvarez and Daniel Orren contributed to this review.