Look and feel
Samsung didn't need an embellished hinge or fancy logos to demonstrate that this is a premium laptop.
If you've already read our review of the 15-inch Series 9, you should have a pretty good idea of what's in store here. As you'd expect, the 13-inch version is basically a shrunken version of the bigger model: just as gorgeous, with one less USB 3.0 port in tow. Even now that Ultrabooks are flooding the market ahead of back to school season, the Series 9 remains one of the most stunning options out there, with a unibody aluminum chassis that's as rigid as it is lightweight. As ever, what we appreciate most about the design is how simple and unadorned it is: Samsung didn't need an embellished hinge or fancy penmanship to demonstrate that this is a premium laptop. Nope, just high-quality materials and some narrow bezels did the trick.
Our only gripe: those smooth aluminum surfaces are a magnet for fingerprint smudges, which can be tough to wipe away. The metal isn't totally immune to scratches, either, though nicks weren't nearly as big a problem as the grease stains.
But back to that featherweight chassis for a moment. At 2.55 pounds (1.16kg), the Series 9 is exceptionally light, even for an Ultrabook. (By comparison, even relatively light laptops like the MacBook Air and ASUS Zenbook Prime UX31A weigh 2.96 and 2.87 pounds, respectively.) As for that razor-thin profile, it measures just 0.5 inches (12.7mm) thick at its widest point, making it one of the skinniest Ultrabooks money can buy. It's worth noting, by the by, that it's only marginally thinner and a pound than the 15-inch Series 9, which comes in at 3.5 pounds and 0.58 inches thick. So, if you've been shying away from the larger model because you assumed you'd have to make a huge compromise in portability, it might be time to re-think that assessment.
Of course, a half-inch-thin laptop has its drawbacks, especially when it comes to port selection. As with other 13-inch Ultrabooks, you'll have to do without an Ethernet jack or HDMI output, and the number of USB ports tops out at two (compared with three for larger-screened Ultras). What you get are one USB 2.0 socket and one 3.0; micro-HDMI and mini VGA output; a 4-in-1 memory card reader; a standard 3.5mm headphone jack; and a miniature Ethernet port, which you can use with an included adapter. (Samsung also makes a VGA dongle, sold separately.) Though we wish Samsung would upgrade all its USB ports to 3.0, this selection is still pretty typical for a laptop in this class -- if anything, it illustrates one of the key trade-offs you'll make if you opt for an Ultrabook instead of a more mainstream notebook.
Keyboard and trackpad
If buying an Ultrabook means making a Faustian agreement with Intel, there's one other thing you're likely to sacrifice besides port selection, and that's a cushy, tactile keyboard. We so often see depressed, shallow keys on ultraportable machines, and it's not until you step up to the slightly heavier models that you start to enjoy a little more travel. The Samsung Series 9 is no exception: its keys are some of the flattest we've seen, and their smooth finish means your fingers might slip and slide in the beginning as you get used to the layout.
But there's hope: the buttons are widely spaced, so once you do acclimate to the short pitch your fingers should land where they're supposed to. Even the arrow keys, as tiny as they are, are easy to use for highlighting text and such. Also, for what it's worth (and it's worth a lot, we think), Samsung avoids the worst issue we've seen on Ultrabook keyboards: lifelessness. Here, the buttons are at least responsive, meaning you won't have to pound them just to make sure your presses register.
As with the 15-inch model we reviewed, this guy has some offbeat aquamarine backlighting, which turns on and off automatically. Which is to say, you can't force the funky lights to turn on if you happen to be sitting in a brightly lit space.
The refreshed Ivy Bridge machine we're reviewing shares the same Elan touchpad drivers as the larger 15-inch model. Since the Series 9 has been on sale for a couple months already, Sammy's had quite a bit of time to refine the touchpad experience. And refine it has. When we reviewed the 15-inch version three months ago, we complained that the pad sometimes mistook left clicks for right ones, and that even after a driver update multi-touch gestures like two-finger scrolls felt a bit jerky. This time around, our clicks registered correctly, and scrolling felt buttery smooth. Even pinch-to-zoom -- a difficult-to-pull-off gesture -- works pretty well here. Also, palm rejection continues to be excellent: not once did we have to put up with the cursor randomly flying to a different part of an email or document.
Oddly, despite responding well to two-finger scrolls, the touchpad stumbles when it comes to simple cursor navigation, of all things. Dragging the cursor around with one finger routinely felt clumsy, with the cursor stopping short somewhere on the screen before we got to whatever it was we intended to click. Surely there's room for Samsung to improve here.
Display and sound
When you're buying a PC from a company with as much television know-how as Samsung, you'd expect the display to be gorgeous. Well, Sammy doesn't disappoint: like the larger Series 9, this guy has a 1,600 x 900 SuperBright Plus display, which, in layman's terms, means the brightness is rated at 400 nits. It might just be the best display on an Ultrabook this size -- except, of course, for the 1080p IPS panels you'll find on ASUS' Zenbook Prime line. Pixel count aside, it's just so refreshing to sit down in front of a glare-free display that's bright, gentle on the eyes and easy to view at odd angles. If you look closely, you can see the LCD matrix, but nonetheless the brightness and contrast make this one of the best screens you'll find on a laptop in this category.
As is becoming standard on Ultrabooks, the Series 9 also features Intel's Wireless Display technology, which allows you to stream 1080p video to an external monitor or TV with the help of a settop box, sold separately. If you're not up for media streaming, you can also use the tech to mirror your desktop on a larger display. (We've got a fairly in-depth test of the technology here, if you care to learn more.)
When it comes to audio, you'll notice a bit of tinniness, as with the 15-inch version. The difference, though, is that the larger Series 9, at $1,500, has to compete with less expensive, but similarly sized laptops, like the HP Envy 15. In that scenario, the Series 9's audio output is disappointing. If you compare the smaller Series 9 to other 13-inch Ultrabooks, though, the quality doesn't seem bad at all, just because most ultraportables fall flat where sound is concerned. For the category, the volume here is surprisingly loud, and while we could've used some deeper bass notes, we still had a pleasant time kicking back, listening to Florence and the Machine and old Queen records.
The Series 9 is capable of one of the fastest boot-up times we've ever logged.
The $1,300 configuration we tested comes stocked with a 1.7GHz Core i5-3317U (Ivy Bridge) processor, 4GB of RAM, a 128GB SSD and Intel's integrated HD 4000 graphics. So what does that mean in terms of performance? Well, unfortunately for you, the consumer, our benchmarks and real-world tests tell two different stories. On the one hand, its PCMark Vantage score falls short of other high-end Ivy Bridge systems like the MacBook Air and the ASUS Zenbook Prime UX21A; in fact, it trends closer toward what we've been seeing from lower-end Ivy Bridge Ultrabooks, such as the Lenovo IdeaPad U310 and Sony VAIO T13.
On the other hand, this same machine is capable of one of the fastest (if not the fastest) boot-up times we've ever logged: just 12 seconds! We actually continued to run that test, wondering, perhaps, if that result was a fluke. Nope, the Series 9 boots in 12 seconds. Every. Time. By comparison, the new MacBook Air and UX21A both boot in about 18 seconds, which is already faster than most laptops we've tested.
It would appear, too, that its SanDisk-made solid-state drive is also faster than most. In the disk benchmark ATTO it managed top read speeds of 501 MB/s and max writes of 364 MB/s. That's actually roughly on par with the Zenbook Prime UX21A, but again, you wouldn't know it based on that gap in PCMark Vantage scores.
Graphics-wise, the Series 9 lands in the same general ballpark as most other Ivy Bridge machines with that HD 4000 chipset. Both the low-end IdeaPad U310 and premium UX21A, for instance, come within about 600 points of the Series 9, while the MacBook Air running Windows takes the lead by less than 700 points. Either way, a score in the mid to high 4000s or somewhere in the 5000s would reflect the kind of performance jump we'd expect to see going from Sandy Bridge (3000s) to Ivy Bridge.
When it comes to real-world gaming, you should be able to pull off some popular titles -- if you keep the resolution capped at default settings. In Call of Duty 4, for instance, our frame rates mostly hovered in the 30s when we settled for 1,024 x 768. With the display set to the native 1,600 x 900 resolution, though, gameplay slowed to a crawl at 13fps.
And we have a winner. Ladies and gents, meet the new longest-lasting 13-inch ultraportable on the block. The smaller Series 9 lasted a hair over seven hours in our usual rundown test, which involves looping a video off the local drive with WiFi on and display brightness fixed at 65 percent (and this is with a 400-nit panel, mind you). That's almost a half hour longer than the new Ivy Bridge-enabled MacBook Air, whose six-and-a-half hour runtime was already on the long side. Realistically, then, this means you'll enjoy an hour or more of battery life on the Series 9 than you would on most competing Ultrabooks.
Okay, so when it comes to bloatware the Series 9 isn't the pristine paradise that Vizio claims to be, but the list of pre-installed programs is at least relatively short. On board you'll find Absolute Reminder, Amazon Kindle, CyberLink YouCam, Norton Internet Security, Norton Online Backup and Skype 4.2. A mostly harmless bunch, though those pop-ups imploring you to convert your Norton trial to a paid subscription are as annoying as ever.
Samsung also bundled some software of its own, a suite of applications with some pretty self-explanatory names: Easy File Share, Easy Migration, Easy Settings, Easy Software Manager and Easy Support Center.
Configuration options and warranty
What you see here is what you get. There are two versions of the 13-inch Series 9, priced at $1,300 and $1,400, but the only variable is the OS: Windows 7 Home Premium on the first, and Win7 Professional on the second. Other than that, you'll get that 1.7GHz Core i5 CPU with Intel HD 4000 graphics, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB solid-state drive. None of these parts (e.g., the RAM, drive or six-cell battery) were designed to be user-replaceable. As we've outlined, these components add up to long battery life and strong real-world performance, but we're sure some power users will grouse at there being no 8GB or Core i7 option (not to mention, more storage space).
Whichever model you choose, though, you'll be signing on to a one-year warranty, which is typical for a consumer PC at pretty much any price.
If you're considering the Series 9, we're going to go ahead and assume you're not put off by that lofty price. (If you're here for the gadget porn, that's okay, too.) Obviously, Samsung justifies that $1,300-plus cost with high build quality and fast performance. Ergo, for the sake of keeping things simple and not overwhelming you with choices, we'll focus on other higher-end machines with similarly high-end specs.
Starting with the 800-pound gorilla in the room, the Series 9 is bound to get compared with the 13-inch MacBook Air, which also just got an Ivy Bridge refresh. It, too, used to start at $1,300, but Apple recently cut the price by a hundred bucks. For the money, it offers similar specs: a Core i5 CPU (clocked at 1.8GHz, not 1.7), four gigs of RAM and a 128GB SSD. On the plus side, it offers two USB 3.0 ports instead of one, and a slightly more comfortable keyboard and trackpad. Power users will also appreciate being able to configure it with a Core i7 CPU, 8GB of RAM and a larger 512GB drive. Still, the Series 9 offers an extra half hour of battery life and a higher-res screen (1,600 x 900 vs. 1,440 x 900). Ultimately, the decision comes down to your priorities. Suffice to say, though, you can't really go wrong with either, and if you're patently more comfortable in one OS, well, your decision just got a lot easier.
But before we crown the Series 9 the best Windows-based Ultrabook money can buy, we suspect ASUS might have a thing or two to say. The company's new Zenbook Primes greatly improve upon ASUS's first-generation models, with improved trackpads, more tactile keyboards and higher-res 1080p displays. We haven't yet tested any of the 13-inch models, so we can't vouch for their performance or battery life, but we were impressed with the 11-inch UX21A we took for a test drive. What's more, ASUS clobbers Samsung on price: a 13-inch UX31A with the same specs as our Series 9 review unit is going for a promotional $1,130 on Amazon right now (the normal price is $1,150 -- still a good deal).
We suspect some shoppers will shift their attention from the Series 9 when they see how relatively expensive it is compared to similar high-end systems like the ASUS Zenbook Prime UX31A.
In HP's camp, there's the recently announced Envy Spectre XT, the 13-inch little brother to the glass-clad Envy Spectre we reviewed earlier this year. At $999, it starts with the same internals as the 13-inch Series 9. Also like Samsung's model, it has a backlit keyboard and USB 3.0 / 2.0 ports, though it adds a full-size HDMI socket and full editions of Adobe Photoshop and Premiere Elements. Before you get too excited, though, the screen resolution is fixed at 1,366 x 768, and there's no option to upgrade. (You can, at least, add a Core i7 CPU and a 256GB SSD.)
It's a similar story with the Sony VAIO T13, which starts at $760, but costs about $1,000 if you deck it out with the same CPU, memory allotment and 128GB solid-state drive as the Series 9 we're reviewing here. Like HP, Sony is offering more configuration options than some other Ultrabook makers, including 8GB of RAM, a Core i7 CPU and a mix of hard drives and SSDs. Again, though, you're locked into 1,366 x 768 resolution.
We're not done yet. After many months, Acer is finally getting ready to ship the Aspire S5, a 13-inch Ultrabook with a motorized drop-down door in the back covering an impressive port selection (USB 3.0, Thunderbolt and HDMI). As is the case with almost all of these machines, we haven't yet had the opportunity to test the performance or battery life, though we can say that given the starting specs (Core i7, a 256GB SSD), that steep $1,400 starting price makes some sense. Still, for the money you'd expect more than just a 1,366 x 768 display, especially given that Samsung, Apple and ASUS are all offering denser, higher-quality screens for less money.
Finally, let's not rule out Toshiba, whose 2.47-pound Portege Z935 is one of the few 13-inch Ultrabooks that weighs even less than the Series 9. In brief, this is the Z835 we reviewed last year, except it's since been refreshed with Ivy Bridge. With a starting price of $900 it's certainly tempting, and we like how the company is throwing 6GB of RAM standard, where every other outfit is offering four. Still, raw specs aside, this is the same cramped keyboard we struggled with the first time around, so until Toshiba gives its Portege line a makeover, we believe you can find a better balance between ergonomics and performance elsewhere.
In recent weeks, we've been receiving an uptick in emails from readers, asking for help in choosing an Ultrabook (not the most affordable Ultrabook, but the best -- our fans do tend to be spec-obsessed, after all). While we can't outright make a decision for you kind folks, we've taken to suggesting a very small handful, and the 13-inch Series 9 always makes that list. Here's why: it's carefully made, with an exceptionally thin and light build. Its battery life is best in class, its screen falls toward the top of the heap and while its benchmark scores aren't record-breaking, real-world performance is indisputably solid.
So what can improve? The trackpad, mostly. Though Samsung's clearly done some fine-tuning here, it could still stand to update the drivers further so that single-finger navigation feels more precise. A beefier storage option would be nice. Lastly, we suspect some shoppers will shift their attention from the Series 9 when they see how relatively expensive it is compared to similar high-end systems like the ASUS Zenbook Prime UX31A, which offers the same internals and a 1080p display for almost $200 less. For now, Samsung can make an already-excellent Ultrabook more competitive by refining the touchpad and trimming the price. And maybe, just maybe, it'll buck the shallow keyboard trend when it comes time to design next year's model.