Thin and light may be the name of the game for many when it comes to mobile computing, but there's still plenty of folks who need a full-featured portable machine. Samsung's Series 7 Chronos is just such a PC, packing an optical drive, numpad and discrete graphics beneath a brushed aluminum façade. While it may look like just another MacBook Pro clone running Windows 7, this Sammy's got some surprises up its sleeve that set it apart from Apple's offering (aside from a $1,000 price difference) and other laptops running Redmond's OS, for that matter. To find out what the Series 7 brings to the table and how it stacks up against its competition, you'll have to read on past the break. Let's get to it, shall we?
Look and feel
We liked what we saw when we first laid eyes on Samsung's Series 7 earlier this year, and little has changed since then. Upon pulling the Samsung out of its packaging, the 15-inch laptop cuts a handsome, if understated figure, with a beautiful layer of brushed aluminum covering the lid, keyboard deck and bezel. It's a darker shade than the aluminum we're accustomed to, the pewter color giving the impression that the Chronos is wrapped in the stuff usually seen covering high-end kitchen appliances and Doc Brown's favorite time machine. We think it's an appealing package, particularly since you get the luxe appearance of stainless steel without the weight gain.
There's only a modicum of branding adorning the machine, with a textured silver Samsung badge on the lid, a painted logo on the bezel beneath the display and unsightly ATI, Intel and Windows 7 stickers affixed just south of the keyboard. A chrome power button resides above the right side of the grid and a 1.3 megapixel webcam's centered above the screen. While the topside of the Series 7 is all posh metal, the underside and edges are, alas, made of comparatively low-rent plastic.
The Chronos has a slot-loading DVD-RW drive and a single USB 2.0 port on its right hand side. Moving around to the left edge, you'll find mini-VGA, HDMI and dual USB 3.0 ports along with a Kensington lock, 3.5mm headphone/microphone jack and a hinged RJ45 connector. The Ethernet port is hinged to accommodate a full-sized Ethernet connector despite the laptop's skinny profile (caused by a beveled underside meant to give the laptop a more svelte appearance). An SD slot is on the front of the machine, and the bottom sports a woofer speaker grille, cooling vents and a removable panel that provides easy access to the machine's memory.
Despite its solid construction, we do have a few niggles regarding its build quality.
Overall, the Series 7 Chronos is a sturdy laptop, with zero flex in its keyboard deck and a robust screen hinge. It also sports a slim silhouette, checking in at .94 inches (24mm) thin, which is .03 inches slimmer than Sony's svelte VAIO S. And, at 5.05 pounds (2.29kg), it's lighter than the 15-inch competition from Cupertino that weighs 5.6 pounds (2.54kg), but heavier than the aforementioned 4.4 pound (2kg) Sony. Despite its solid construction, we do have a few niggles regarding its build quality. For one, the laptop's skin is made of several separate sheets of metal and the plastic. This isn't an issue in and of itself, but the pieces aren't fitted together as well as we'd like. There are small gaps on either edge where the display bezel meets the lid, plus the metal keyboard deck doesn't fit flush with the plastic bottom, resulting in a protruding ridge of plastic around the palm rest. Hardly a huge deal, but the fit and finish are somewhat disappointing at this $1000 + price point, and it doesn't compare favorably to the clean look of a unibody chassis, either.
Keyboard and trackpad
The Series 7 has a pretty nice grid of backlit buttons, and Samsung managed to fit in a number pad as well. Typing on the Chronos was a joy, as the chiclets are located in a recessed channel in the deck to allow for a nice, long throw with each press, and the backlit keys were easily found by our touch-typing fingers. Our one nit to pick with the grid: a softer finish akin to the Lenovo U300S' keys would've provided a more pleasant tactile typing experience.
Our time with the trackpad was a less pleasant experience, however. It's a clickpad unit made by Elan, and it suffers from many of the foibles that seem to plague many of the Windows 7 breed. Left clicks often registered as right clicks, while our attempts to move the cursor were often taken for double clicks -- resulting in dragging windows or highlighting text unintentionally. And while typing, the cursor would randomly hop elsewhere in the document, a problem fixed only by hitting F5 to turn off the trackpad. We had better luck with multitouch gestures, as two-fingered scrolling was fairly reliable and smooth, three-fingered swipes for page up and page down worked well and four-finger swipes to bring up a cover flow-esque carousel of our open windows did too. Pinch-to-zoom was functional, but so choppy in its operation that getting to scale properly was a chore.
Display and sound
One of the real selling points with the Series 7 Chronos is its 15.6-inch, 300-nit, 1600 x 900 display, which gives multitaskers plenty of screen real estate to play with. The resolution leaves something to be desired, however, when compared to the 1080p panels found in the XPS 15z and VAIO S. Samsung has done consumers a solid by using a matte-finish LCD (hallelujah!), so screen glare is never an issue, and the rail-thin bezel surrounding it is the skinniest thing this side of the Shuriken display in Dell's XPS 14z. Viewing angles are mediocre, as the LCD washes out considerably when moving the screen towards you, and images turn to negatives and whites turn a sickly yellowish hue when moved away. Side-to-side viewability is quite good, however, and provides near 180-degree viewing.
Audio comes courtesy of two 1.5-watt speakers and a woofer -- though we think Samsung's taken some liberties with that description given the laptop's limited bass range. Sound reproduction is decent otherwise, as the mids and highs of Freddy Mercury's lyrical stylings from Queen on Fire: Live at the Bowl came through clearly at every volume level. Speaker sound while watching movies was respectable, too, though the audio wasn't as rich sounding as on a MacBook Pro. The Series 7 also comes with Sound Alive 3D software, which applies sound effects (read: different EQ settings) tailored for music, movies and speech along with an advanced mode to let you choose from 25 other presets as well. We fooled around with all of them and found the standard setting suited our ears best.
Performance and battery life
For this review, we had the top-end Chronos configured with Intel's 2.2GHz Core i7 2675QM CPU with integrated HD Graphics 3000, a discrete Radeon HD 6750M GPU, 8GB of RAM, a 7200RPM 750GB HDD, plus 8GB of flash memory on the motherboard enabling Samsung's ExpressCache technology. Sammy claims its automatic caching shaves 45 percent off normal boot up times and helps your most used applications launch up to two times faster depending upon your PC's settings. The Chronos starts up fairly quickly, as boot times were consistently under 40 seconds. However, that time didn't change whether we had the ExpressCache feature turned on or off, so we were unable to confirm the company's claims.
In general and workday use, the Series 7 performed admirably, letting us multitask with ease -- it didn't slow down even as we had multiple HD YouTube videos playing, 15 tabs open in Chrome, a chat client running and typing away on this here review. While the laptop would heat up and the fan would kick into gear while watching videos or performing graphically intense tasks, it didn't run nearly as hot or as loud as the MacBook Pro does under similar loads. Plus, there's a silent mode hotkey to turn off the fan if it gets too noisy. During regular web browsing and word processing, the laptop never heated up past lukewarm. We also played a little Warhammer 40K Space Marine to really put the GPU through it's paces, and managed 60fps while wandering around between battles, and frame rates dipped to 48fps while cutting our way through hordes of orcs.
The benchmark scores back up our snappy user experience, as the Chronos scored an impressive 8,891 on 3DMark06, though it didn't fare quite as well on PCMark Vantage.
Samsung Series 7 (2.2GHz Core i7-2675QM, Intel HD 3000 / AMD Radeon HD 6750M 1GB)
Dell XPS 15z (2.7GHz Core i7-2620M, NVIDIA GeForce GT525M)
3:41 (Optimus disabled) / 4:26 (Optimus enabled)
Lenovo IdeaPad U400 (2.4GHz Core i5-2430M, Intel HD 3000 / AMD Radeon HD 6470M 1GB)
Dell XPS 14z (2.8GHz Core i7-2640M, Intel HD Graphics 3000 / NVIDIA GeForce GT520M 1GB)
HP Envy 14 (2.3GHz Core i5-2410M, Intel HD Graphics 3000 / AMD Radeon HD 6630M 1GB)
Sony VAIO S 15-inch (2.40GHz Core i5-2430M, Intel HD Graphics 3000 / AMD Radeon HD 6630M 1GB)
3:59 (stamina mode) / 8:58 (stamina mode, slice battery)
Dell Inspiron 14z (2.3GHz Core i5-2410M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)
Notes: the higher the score the better. For 3DMark06, the first number reflects score with GPU off, the second with it on.
All that computing power doesn't mean meager battery life, either. In our standard rundown testing, with a video looping off the hard drive, WiFi on and screen brightness set at 65 percent, the Series 7 managed an impressive five hours and 47 minutes -- and that was with five percent of the juice left in the eight-cell lithium polymer battery. In general workday use, checking email, web surfing and word processing in Notepad, we got well over six hours out of our Series 7.
As we said before, we performed our review on the high-end Chronos, but there are three other Series 7 laptops available. On the low end, $1,000 gets you the same Core i7 2675QM CPU as our test unit, but exchanges Radeon graphics for an AMD Xeymour HD 6490 card and lacks the 8GB SSD. There's also a 14-inch model packing a Core i5 2430M CPU and Radeon HD 6490 GPU for $1,099. Lastly, there's a $1,149 model with identical hardware to our tester, but comes with Windows 7 Home Premium on board (as do the other cheaper models) instead of Windows 7 Professional.
The Series 7 comes with its share of preloaded bloat, though there's not an extensive amount of it. Skype, Norton Internet Security and Online Backup, and Cyberlink Media Suite and YouCam software are the third-party applications on board, and Samsung's smartphone syncing software, Kies, is included as well. Easy Settings is a useful little program that lets you access your wireless networks, power management, sound and display options and other settings from one place. There's also a software launcher that populates an OSX-like app tray at the bottom of the screen. A bundle of games from WildTangent is included as well, ensuring you have plenty of time wasting options aside from Solitaire and Minesweeper.
Ultrabooks may be getting more popular these days, but they aren't for everyone -- some folks want optical drives and discrete graphics, and fortunately, there are plenty of mainstream 14- and 15-inch laptops like the Series 7 that fit the bill.
Dell brings a couple of XPS machines to this mid-range party, the 14z and 15z. Each has the aluminum exterior that's popular these days, but come with design flourishes (see: chrome trim and lattice-work speaker grilles) not found on the austere Samsung. Round Rock's laptops will give you similar performance to the Series 7 at a similar price, but you'll trade the Chronos' matte screen, numpad-equipped keyboard and superior battery life for a better trackpad and higher-res (but glossy) screen.
Lenovo's IdeaPad U400 is another Chronos competitor, and comes with an identical Core i5-2430M to the 14-inch Series 7, so their performance should be similar, though the U400 lacks the Samsung's SD card slot and backlit keys. The Chronos gets the nod in graphics with a slight bump in the GPU department pushing pictures to a non-glossy, higher-res screen (1600 x 900 vs. 1366 x 768). However, the U400 does have seamless construction and can be had for $200 less.
Sony's VAIO SE packs neither the hardware punch nor the rigid build of its Korean counterpart, but its LCD panel packs more pixels and offers a Blu-ray drive. Apple's basic MacBook Pro 15 model is another entrant that appeals with a higher performance CPU, identical discrete graphics and unibody construction. But, it comes with half the RAM, a slower and smaller HDD and lower-res glossy screen in a heavier package that's $500 more than the Series 7. HP's new Envy laptops may also give the Chronos a run for its money, but we'll have to wait until they are released to know for sure.
Samsung's Series 7 Chronos is a good, but not great laptop. It's got lengthy battery life and provides quite the hardware punch for a reasonable, if not bargain price. It's graced with restrained good looks, and has a lot of the features we love in a laptop, but its build quality lags behind (relatively) similarly specced offerings from Dell and Apple. In short, we don't think you'll be disappointed should you decide to plunk down a grand or more for the Samsung, but you won't wake up thanking your lucky stars you get to use it every day, either.