Look and feel
Engadget comments was one of the places Samsung turned when it set out to retool the Series 9.
As rough as it is being an Engadget editor, watching hot-headed readers run amok in the comments section, it must be that much more agonizing to be a product manager, the guy whose baby gets eviscerated by anonymous people on the internet who really can't stand 1366 x 768 resolution, man. If not for the sake of politeness, you fine folks in the peanut gallery might want to choose your words carefully: Samsung's product team draws some of its user feedback from the comments left here and on other tech sites. In fact, says Samsung's design team, Engadget's comment section was one of the places it turned when it set out to retool the Series 9. Based on what it found there, a couple things became clear: consumers weren't fond of the shiny plastic bits, and there wasn't much love lost for those launch buttons and port covers either. That explains what we have here: a clean, minimalist machine fashioned out of unibody aluminum (sorry, no aircraft-grade duraluminum this time). The trackpad now blends in with the rest of the palm rest. Save for a small, discreet power button above the keyboard, you won't find any hardware keys. Even the LED lights (all two of them) are tiny. All told, it's a refreshing strategy: instead of obvious tropes like brushed metal (or plastic painted to look like brushed metal), Samsung is relying almost entirely on build quality to persuade shoppers this is a luxury item. This laptop's thin shape, rock-solid build, bright display and clean design speak for themselves, and the result is not only sexy, but eminently tasteful, too.
What really makes this notebook special, though, is how absurdly thin it is. We know, we know: there's been a flood of svelte Ultrabooks announced over the past six months, and dozens more are on the way. (And yes, for the record, Samsung is calling this generation of the Series 9 Ultrabooks, just not in its marketing materials.) But even the jaded among you can't say you've seen anything quite like this: a 15-inch laptop weighing just
3.3 3.5 pounds and measuring .58 inches thick. This is far and away the skinniest 15-inch laptop we can remember seeing. To put that it context, it's almost as skinny as the 13-inch Series 9, which measures a wispy half an inch thick. It should go without saying, then, that it handily trumps all mainstream laptops, even the Dell XPS 15z, which at 5.54-pounds / .97 inches thick is otherwise thin for its class. The problem with being this lean, though, is that without any love handles there isn't room for all the ports you'd expect to find on a 15-inch laptop. You won't find an Ethernet jack, and there's no full-sized HDMI port. You will find a micro-HDMI socket and miniature VGA /LAN ports, along with an included Ethernet adapter, though that's not quite as convenient, is it? (Samsung sells an optional VGA adapter as well.) On the plus side, it comes bearing two USB 3.0 ports, along with one of the 2.0 variety. There's also a combined headphone /mic jack and a 4-in-1 memory card reader, located underneath a door hidden on the laptop's right side. Looks like Samsung's engineers also heard your complaints about the last-gen model's absent SD slot.
The power brick that ships with the Series 9 is notably thin, though it's not modular the way the HP Envy 14 Spectre's is. You also won't find as many luxury goodies in the box: while it comes with that Ethernet adapter, there's no case -- something you'll get with the $1,400 Spectre and even the $1,100 ASUS Zenbook UX31.
Keyboard and trackpad
No one ever said a machine this thin would come without compromises. One such trade-off seems to be the keyboard, whose backlit keys are quite shallow, even for an Ultrabook. We suspect most of you will be able to do without that extra bit of tactile feedback, especially since the keys are well-spaced with a smooth, pleasant finish. The arrow buttons, too, are a bit larger than what you'll find on smaller-screened Ultrabooks, and should be easy to tap without looking away from the screen. (Ditto for the Tab and Caps Lock keys, which are inexplicably tiny, given the machine's 14-inch-wide footprint.) The real problem, though, isn't that the keys aren't cushy enough, but that they're sticky, and sometimes fail to register key presses. Ultimately, we still managed to type the brunt of this review on the Series 9, albeit with copious taps to the Backspace key. To put things in perspective for all the comparison shoppers reading this, we'd still rather use this keyboard than the lifeless one on the ASUS Zenbook UX31, but by no means is it our favorite.
As you'd expect, the top row is home to all the controls you'd expect to find there (volume, brightness, etc.), though in this case you'll need to hold down the Blue Fn key to make use of them. Among these buttons, as it happens, is a pair of controls for lowering and raising the brightness of that lovely aquamarine backlighting. But, the keyboard only glows if the computer's ambient light sensor determines you're parked in a dim enough room. And to address that follow-up question you tinkerers are about to ask, the answer is "no": you cannot force the backlighting to turn on in bright surroundings.
Once again, Samsung went with a sprawling clickpad for the Series 9, leaving plenty of room for multi-touch gestures. While we didn't get off to the smoothest of starts, Samsung released a driver update mid-way through our testing that noticeably improved the tracking precision and made pinch to zoom and two-finger scrolls easier to pull off. Still, you can expect a learning curve here. The pad (powered by Elan, this time, not Synaptics) often mistakes left clicks for right ones and vice versa -- a complaint we have about many touchpads with built-in buttons. Fortunately, at least, it has smarter palm rejection than most: you most likely won't struggle with the cursor flying to random parts of the page as you compose emails. In any case, this is the same set of trackpad drivers used on the 13-inch Series 9, so if and when we give that guy a whirl, we'll be curious to see how Sammy refines the navigation experience.
Display and sound
A non-glossy display isn't necessarily a shortcut to wide viewing angles.
With the exception of a major jump in resolution (1600 x 900, up from 1366 x 768), this is the same 400-nit SuperBright Plus panel crowning last year's Series 9 laptop. (And yes, that pixel count applies to both the 13- and 15-inch models.) Which is to say it's bright -- brighter than pretty much everything else on the market. For indoor use, we think you can get by with a dimmer display (after all, most people do), but a screen this brilliant will come in handy if you get the urge to work on the patio, or in some nearby park. Like last year's model, too, this screen has a matte finish, which means you can say goodbye to nasty glare from overhead lights. As we found with the Series 5 Ultrabook, though, a non-glossy display isn't necessarily a shortcut to wide viewing angles. If you dip the screen forward, you'll notice it starts to wash out, and colors lose some of their potency -- a shortcoming Samsung might have averted had it chosen the kind of IPS panel used on the Spectre 14. Still, yours truly had no problem watching hours of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report from an awkward side angle (you can't always have the choice seat in the house, right?). So it's not visibility that's the issue; it's that the colors and overall image quality aren't truly at their best unless you're looking at the screen head-on.
It's a similar story with the speakers. As it happens, we'd argue the sound quality is even tinnier than average, but it fares particularly poorly compared to the Zenbook UX31, which for $400 less offers stellar Bang & Olufsen audio. And though the Spectre 14's Beats setup isn't quite as impressive, it's still an improvement over the metallic, buzzy sound you'll get on the Series 9. Two years after Intel Wireless Display debuted, it's finally become a table-stakes feature for new, reasonably high-end laptops. Like lots of other notebooks we've tested recently, the Series 9 incorporates the second generation of this technology, which allows users to wirelessly stream 1080p video to an HDTV or monitor. In addition to that, you could just mirror your entire desktop if what you're really after is a bigger canvas. As we've said before, the whole thing is easy to set up (even if you do need to drop an extra hundred bucks or so for an adapter) and the streaming is fluid -- so long as you've got a strong WiFi connection at the ready.
Whatever the special ingredient is, this shapes up to be the fastest Ultrabook we've seen since the ASUS Zenbook UX31.
The 15-inch Series 9 comes in a single configuration, with a 1.6GHz Core i5-2467M processor (the same you'll find in many other Ultrabooks), integrated Intel HD 3000 graphics and a 128GB solid-state drive. Similar specs as other Ultras we've tested, only this guy has twice the RAM: eight gigs. We're not sure if it's the extra memory or that Samsung-made SSD, but whatever the special ingredient is, this shapes up to be the fastest Ultrabook we've seen since the Zenbook UX31. We're referring, in part, to its five-digit PCMark Vantage score, but its real-world performance dazzles, too. Samsung claims that with its FastStart technology it should boot in less than 20 seconds; we were up and running in 14. Resume times feel near-instantaneous -- less than two seconds, according to our stopwatch. Meanwhile, in the disk benchmark ATTO we saw peak read speeds of 521 MB/s and max writes of 266 MB/s. That doesn't beat the 550 MB /s reads and 500 MB/s writes we got with the UX31, but it's the closest any Ultrabook has come to matching it. All told, that's an improvement not just over other Ultrabooks, but other 15-inch laptops as well. Even with a Core i7 processor and switchable NVIDIA graphics, the Dell XPS 15z scores 2,500 points less than the Series 9, and takes 25 seconds longer to boot up. The Series 9's Intel HD 3000 graphics notch a higher score in 3DMark06 than other Ultrabooks, but that's not saying much. In The Sims, we saw frame rates hover between 62 and 65 fps -- about what you'd get from similarly specced laptops. Likewise, Call of Duty 4 crawled along at 16 to 17 fps, as opposed to 15 fps in lower-scoring machines. If you really cared, of course, you wouldn't even be shopping for an Ultrabook (except, perhaps, this one). It would be inaccurate to say the Series 9 stays cool -- after a good hour or two of streaming video, a friend resting the laptop on his legs could feel the heat through the legs of his pants. That said, the notebook always felt more tepid than hot, and wasn't uncomfortable to touch.
Now that's more like it. After reviewing two larger-screened Ultrabooks whose extra weight didn't translate to longer battery life, we have the Series 9: a 15-inch laptop that weighs as much as a 13-inch Ultrabook, and lasts hours longer. In our standard battery rundown test, which involves looping a movie off the disk with WiFi on and the brightness fixed at 65 percent, it managed seven hours and 29 minutes. That's almost two hours more than the Toshiba Portege Z835, which is itself the most longevous 13-inch Ultrabook we've tested. Not to mention, it's a more impressive showing than what you'll get from a mainstream laptop like the XPS 15z. Even with its Optimus graphics turned off, that machine lasted just four and a half hours in the same test. It's clear that the Series 9 makes up for its larger size with longer runtime, and the best part is that its extra "heft" isn't much of an inconvenience anyway.
All things considered, Samsung barely saddled the Series 9 with any bloatware. On board, you'll find CyberLink's YouCam software, a common webcam console, along with Skype 4.2, Windows Live Essentials 2011 and, of course, Microsoft Office Starter Edition. Norton Internet Security 2012 and Norton Online Backup round out the list. (No free Adobe Photoshop Elements / Premiere Elements, sadly. It looks like the Spectre's freebies may have spoiled us a bit.) We usually don't have much to say about pre-installed security trials (you can keep them or choose your own, we say), but it is worth noting that every time we've tested a computer running Internet Security 2012 we've run afoul of the download-scanning feature, which consistently forbids us from installing a (harmless) .exe file that older versions of Norton would have approved.
Configuration options and warranty
As mentioned, the 15-inch Series 9 only comes in one configuration, but this seems as good a time as any to clarify what you'll get if you opt for the $1,400 13-inch version instead. This, too, has a 128GB SSD and Core i5-2467M processor, though it packs 4GB of RAM, not eight, and has one USB 3.0 port, not two. The battery life is rated for a max of seven hours, though we haven't yet had a chance to test this claim on a final, production-grade machine. Whatever you choose, the Series 9 comes with a one-year warranty, though Samsung's offering a three-year option as well. This is fairly standard for the industry, though it's worth noting the Envy 14 Spectre costs a hundred dollars less and comes with a two-year plan.
None. As we've said, there's nothing directly comparable to the 15-inch Series 9: nothing this thin, this light, this fast with this big a screen. You could spend almost a thousand dollars less on a mainstream 15-inch laptop, but it would bring shorter battery life, slower performance and a clunkier, blander design, all of which defeats the purpose of owning an Ultrabook, if that's what you're considering buying. If you can live with a smaller display (and shorter runtime), you'll enjoy similar performance with a 13-inch Ultrabook. There are lots to choose from, of course, but we have a soft spot for the $900 HP Folio 13, which offers a great balance of speed, longevity, portability, ports, a comfortable keyboard and tasteful design. (Of course, at this price you'll be sacrificing the build quality and high-quality display that allow the Series 9 to command that higher price.) There are other promising choices, too, though you might end up making more trade-offs, whether it's a shallow keyboard, jumpy trackpad, skimpy port selection, short battery life or some combination thereof.
More than anything, the 15-inch Series 9 makes us giddy about what laptops will look like a year from now. After all, if the original Series 9 foretold a market full of skinny Ultrabooks, might this machine be a harbinger for other larger-screened Ultrabooks with fast performance and extra long battery life? As the only such laptop around right now, the Series 9 is impressive in its own right, though not quite the magic bullet we thought it would be. On the one hand, it's elegant and well-made with exceptional horsepower and robust battery life. On the other, its so-so keyboard and trackpad don't match the premium experience Samsung is trying to sell, and it's missing other top-shelf features like higher-end speakers and an IPS display with wider viewing angles. For $1,500, we'd expect all these things, though if eventually Samsung cuts the price (as it did with the original Series 9), these shortcomings might sting less. These imperfections aside, though, it's a solid laptop that keeps most of it promises as a luxury machine. If you need a new laptop now and can't bear to step down to a smaller, lower-res display, carpe diem! Just keep in mind that there's room for other Ultrabook-makers to do even better.