Look and feel
We've met Samsung's laptop design team. It's led by some lovely, humble people, but we suspect that deep down, they know the same thing we know: that last year's Series 9 Ultrabook was a near-perfect product. So, content to let perfect dogs lie, the company more or less kept the same blueprint when it sat down to design this year's ATIV Book 9 Plus. This time around, it measures 0.54 inch thick, making it only a hair thicker than last year's model, which measured 0.5 inch (and which didn't have a touchscreen, we might add).
It also has generally the same shape, with a profile that tapers drastically toward the front, but widens near the hinge to make room for the various ports (two USB 3.0, micro-HDMI, mini-VGA, a headphone jack and a hidden SD slot). In the box, you'll find an Ethernet adapter as well. The machine is also comfortable to hold, and we're not even referring to the weight (more on that in a moment). Though the edges here look sharp, they're actually quite blunt, so it won't hurt to press your palms into them when you're carrying this thing with two hands.
The overall build quality is the same too. Like its predecessor, the ATIV Book 9 Plus is made of smooth aluminum, except the color, billed as "Mineral Ash Black," has a slightly bluish tint in some light, whereas last year's was a plain black affair. Between that and the subtle flourishes (a thin metal band around the trackpad, just one button on the keyboard deck), the entire machine has an understated, but still expensive feel to it. The only problem is -- and we complained about this last year -- is that despite having a matte finish, the aluminum picks up fingerprints quickly. Make sure to have a cloth in your desk drawer so that you can give the machine a rubdown every once in a while.
All told, almost everything that feels different about the ATIV Book 9 Plus has to do with the addition of that touchscreen. There's the glossy screen, of course, which used to have a matte, anti-glare finish. And of course, there's the weight. Without a touchscreen, the old Series 9 weighed 2.55 pounds -- an astonishing spec, even for an Ultrabook. Thanks largely to the touchscreen, though, this new model comes in at 3.06 pounds. Now, before we get carried away, even that's pretty respectable for a touchscreen, 13-inch Ultrabook. But it does feel a lot heavier than we remember the Series 9 feeling. And besides, there are plenty of touchscreen ultraportables that manage to be even lighter than this.
There's one other change, and this one we can't blame on the touchscreen. In addition to adding its new SideSync software to Windows 8, Samsung slapped some conspicuous "SideSync" and "HomeSync Lite" branding on the device itself, over on the right side of the palm rest. What's annoying is that it's painted onto the aluminum, so it's there, staring back at you whether you like it or not. We would have much preferred a sticker we could peel off.
Keyboard and trackpad
Just like the rest of the design, the keyboard is basically the same as on the last-gen Series 9. Once again, the buttons are well-spaced, with a pretty aquamarine backlight glowing from underneath. Be warned, though: they're also flat and shallow, with minimal travel. Don't get us wrong; they're still reasonably easy to type on, but we did suffer more dropped letters than on some other Ultrabooks we've tested recently. Type too quickly and you might have to go
bak back and re-type a letter that didn't register the first time around.
One of the first things we noticed when we initially unboxed the ATIV Book 9 Plus is that the trackpad is much more reliable than the one we tested on the Series 9. The cursor actually went where it was supposed to, and multi-touch gestures like two-finger scrolls and pinch-to-zoom were also easy to pull off. After a little more time with the machine, we did notice that the pad has a bit more friction than we'd like. To the machine's credit, the cursor never went rogue and ended up on some random, unintended part of the page; we did suffer a bit of drag, though. There were also a few times when the trackpad mistook two-finger scrolls for a swipe in from the left, which caused us to inadvertently switch from one app to another. That was definitely more annoying than the slightly stubborn cursor.
Display and sound
Even if you decided to downgrade the resolution to 1080p, you'd be left with a fantastic screen.
Adding a touchscreen to the Series 9 was clearly something of a compromise for Samsung: not only did it add noticeably to the weight, but it also meant Sammy had to move from a matte, anti-glare screen to a glossy one. Still, if you're under the impression Samsung swapped in a pedestrian display, we'll correct you now. With this generation, the company made 3,200 x 1,800 resolution standard -- a dramatic improvement over last year's model, which topped out at 1,600 x 900. We won't waste your time describing how it's noticeably sharper than the original, but we will add that it looks even sharper than a typical 1080p screen; yes, your eyes can probably tell the difference.
That increased acuity works great for certain desktop apps, like Word, and it also brings out the best in the colorful Windows Start Screen. That said, we'll make the same caveat we make any other time we review a laptop with a super-high-res screen: not all content has been optimized to look good on displays this sharp. With YouTube, for instance, videos look strange at full-screen, with the scrubber and buttons at the bottom all scaled way down. The effect is so terrible, it's funny.
Even if you decided to downgrade to 1080p, though, you'd be left with a fantastic screen. Though it's naturally more reflective than the matte panel that shipped on last year's model, there really are very few light artifacts here. At half-brightness, I could barely see my reflection in the screen while I typed; at full brightness, I couldn't see it at all. Speaking of the sort, the 350-nit brightness rating helps contribute to some great viewing angles from the side -- with the brightness turned all the way up, you should have no problem crowding around the laptop and watching a movie from slightly off to the side. What's nice is that the vertical viewing angles are great even at lower brightness settings. So, even if you're working on an airplane and want to conserve battery life by dimming the backlight, you'll still enjoy good contrast with the lid dipped forward.
We honestly weren't expecting much in terms of sound: most Ultrabooks deliver tolerable quality at best and besides, Samsung hasn't exactly been making a big deal of the ATIV Book 9 Plus' audio chops. That may have been a mistake, though: the sound here is not just surprisingly loud, but surprisingly rich too. Most of the time, we had the volume set well below the median mark -- maybe at level 30 or 40 out of 100. What's more, the volume stays loud even when you place the laptop on a soft surface like a couch or a bed; the speakers' placement on the bottom side doesn't muffle sound as we feared it would. Really, the only reason we avoided the top setting is that it makes for an uncomfortably loud system when it's just you chilling by yourself in the home office. If you do crank the volume all the way up, though, you'll only have to suffer a minimal amount of distortion.
At lower volumes, it's even better -- dare I say, the best sound I've heard yet on an Ultrabook. Over an afternoon of listening to Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Simon and Garfunkel, Dusty Springfield, The Temptations and others, I often felt as if I were rediscovering my favorite songs; piano notes and drum beats pushed through the dual two-watt speakers more forcefully than I'm used to on other machines. In fact -- and no, I'm not trying to troll here -- I didn't want to go back to my MacBook Air for music-listening after trying out the speakers here.
Performance and battery life
The ATIV Book 9 Plus is available in just one configuration, and it rocks generally the same components as other Ultrabooks we've tested recently: a dual-core, Haswell-series Intel Core i5-4200U processor clocked at 1.6GHz, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD. Accordingly, then, its benchmark scores land in the same ballpark as other machines with the same processor, including the Sony VAIO Pro 13, and the new Acer Aspire S7-392.
The one area where the ATIV Book 9 Plus falls short is in I/O speeds. All told, the Toshiba-made SSD (you read that right) notched average reads of 547 MB/s, with writes hovering around 508 MB/s. To be clear, we're not saying those speeds are slow. It's just that we've recently tested a string of machines that managed to hit or exceed speeds of 1GB per second, even on the write test, which is always harder. (Note: the Acer Aspire S7 has a RAID 0 setup, which has tradeoffs of its own, so we'll concede that's not a totally fair comparison.) At any rate, as we said, these speeds would have once been very impressive, but we can no longer say the Series 9 is a leader in this area. Which is surprising, since Samsung makes some of the fastest SSDs on the market. Maybe the company should have stuck to its own components here?
That said, the machine feels plenty fast in real-world use. Not only did I write my review on this laptop, but I wasted plenty of time on it too, keeping open tabs for Gmail, YouTube, Pandora and lots and lots of web searches. Switching from one app to another was easy, as was toggling between all those open tabs in Internet Explorer. At first, we thought the machine was in danger of overheating, as the bottom side and upper keyboard area got warm just six minutes into a YouTube video. The good news is that though it gets warm quickly, it doesn't get any hotter after that. Even after hours of use, complete with non-stop media streaming, the bottom stayed fairly lukewarm -- definitely cool enough to comfortably rest on my lap.
It's a similar story with fan noise. The ATIV Book 9 Plus pipes up quickly -- heck, it sometimes makes noise when it's sitting idle. But that noise never rises above a quiet sigh. In fact, we didn't even notice it until we paused Pandora and started to work without any background noise.
Normally, when a company rates a laptop for a certain amount of battery life, we just assume we'll get a bit less runtime, especially since our tests involve taxing conditions (WiFi on, brightness at 65 percent, video looping off the local disk). In this case, though, Samsung seems to have given a conservative estimate: though it promises up to 7.5 hours of use, we actually managed eight hours and 44 minutes in our video rundown. As you'll see in the table above, that's a respectable showing for a Haswell machine. In fact, the Sony VAIO Pro 13 was only 20 minutes off in the same test.
Software and warranty
For all the apps it loads onto its new Galaxy phones, Samsung actually went easy with the bloatware on the ATIV Book 9 Plus. Here, we've got Bitcasa cloud storage, iHeartRadio, Netflix, a trial of Norton Internet Security and Adobe Photoshop Elements 11. As for Samsung apps, it's just S Player+, SPhotoStudio and Music Hub, all of which are basically exactly what they sound like.
HomeSync Lite lets you download and upload content between your PC and mobile devices. In total, you can add up to five user accounts, with six devices per user. The catch, though, is that you'll need the Samsung Link app installed on your phone and, uh, it's only available on Samsung handsets. So if you're using a Moto X, you can keep on trucking to the next section. Also -- and maybe this goes without saying -- you need to refrain from deleting HomeSync from your computer, even if it looks like bloatware; without the app installed on your PC, you can't use the service on your mobile devices either. SideSync, meanwhile, is for transferring files between your PC and Samsung phone, which you can do using either a cable or over a wireless connection.
The ATIV Book 9 Plus comes with a one-year warranty.
Configuration options and the competition
To reiterate: the ATIV Book 9 Plus is sold in just one configuration in the US: a $1,400 model with a 1.6GHz Core i5-4200U processor, 4GB of RAM, integrated Intel HD 4400 graphics, a 3,200 x 1,800 screen and a 128GB SSD.
As you've probably gathered by now, we're rather fond of the ATIV Book 9 Plus, and would highly recommend it to anyone shopping around for a premium Ultrabook. That said, it's not the only excellent option out there. Below, you'll find a rundown of the competition. There's a lot to cover, so to keep things simple, we'll go in alphabetical order:
- We've already mentioned the Acer Aspire S7 several times in this review. As the successor to the original S7, which came out last year, this new model steps up to Haswell processors and a larger battery capacity, leading to a serious improvement in runtime. Even then, it doesn't last quite as long as the ATIV Book 9 Plus in our tests, but its endurance (7.5 hours) is still more than acceptable. At 2.87 pounds, it's one of the lightest touchscreen, 13-inch Ultrabooks we know of, and it rivals the ATIV Book 9 Plus in thinness too. Its screen is lower-res, at 1080p, but in terms of overall quality (viewing angles, colors, et cetera) it's one of the best we've seen.
- Longtime Windows users won't give Apple's MacBook Air a second look, but it's worth calling out for folks who are OS-agnostic. With this year's refresh, Apple mainly just swapped in Haswell processors and PCIe SSDs, with no changes to the exterior. That's not a bad thing, per se -- we still dig the unibody aluminum chassis and comfortable keyboard -- but the resolution is still stuck at 1,440 x 900 on the 13-inch version. The only thing excusing the mediocre screen is the battery life, which topped out at nearly 13 hours in our video rundown, with the next-best performer trailing hours behind.
- It's not out yet, but ASUS' Zenbook UX301 is worth adding to your shortlist. With a 2,560 x 1,440 screen, it's one of a few Ultrabooks to push the envelope beyond 1080p -- and that list gets even shorter if you include only machines that are based on Haswell. In addition to the stunning IPS screen, the UX301 has a durable (and also beautiful) Gorilla Glass 3 lid. Thanks in part to that glass armor, the machine will weigh almost as much as the ATIV Book 9 Plus (3.04 pounds, to be exact). In exchange for the "heft," though, you at least get some promising performance: a Core i7 CPU, paired with optional discrete NVIDIA graphics.
- We already liked the Dell XPS 12 for its sturdy build quality, attractive design and comfortable keyboard, and now it's even better: Dell recently refreshed it with Haswell CPUs, a bigger battery and an NFC sensor. The screen resolution is still the same, at 1,920 x 1,080, but then again, so is the price: at $1,200 with a 128GB SSD, it's a tad cheaper than other systems carrying similar specs.
- Here's another one you might want to wait on. The Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro is the successor to the original Yoga 13, and in addition to being both thinner and lighter, it brings a much-sharper 3,200 x 1,800, 350-nit screen -- yep, just like on the ATIV Book 9 Plus. And at 3.06 pounds, it weighs the same as Samsung's offering too. And, as with the ASUS UX301, though, it's likely to be more configurable. Most importantly, however, the starting price is $1,100, which is considerably less expensive than what the Samsungs and Acers of the marketplace are selling.
- Though we only did a full review of the 11-inch Sony VAIO Pro 11, we did spend some time benchmarking the 13-inch version, the Sony VAIO Pro 13 (see its results in the benchmark table in the performance section further up the page). With Haswell processors and PCIe SSDs, it manages to offer long battery life and transfer speeds in excess of 1GB per second. And, in the grand tradition of Sony's earlier Z-series laptops, it has a carbon fiber build that allows it to be remarkably lightweight -- just 2.34 pounds in this case. That's easily the lightest 13-inch touchscreen laptop on the market (maybe even the lightest 13-inch Ultrabook, period).
- We're mainly including the Toshiba Kirabook on this list so that you know to stay away. With a 2,560 x 1,440 screen, the Kirabook was one of the first Ultrabooks to ship with something better than a 1080p screen. Still, Toshiba made the mistake of releasing it before Haswell came out, and to this day, it's stuck with last-gen Ivy Bridge processors. That's a real shame, given the lofty $1,600 starting price, and you're going to miss out on battery life because of it too. Oh, and adding insult to injury, that starting price doesn't even include a touchscreen. As if!
Samsung already had the best Ultrabook on the market, and it's managed to stay on top in 2013, even as its competitors have improved battery life and performance on their own models. Like its predecessor, the ATIV Book 9 Plus is impressively thin, with an understated design and sturdy build quality. And thanks to a sharp 3,200 x 1,800, low-glare screen and a current Haswell processor, it rises to the top in terms of both display quality and performance. Even the battery life, which isn't technically best in class, is still very good. It's a solid enough package that we can forgive its few flaws (the painted-on branding and the comparatively slow disk speeds). So, while there are some other excellent, similarly priced options out there, the ATIV Book 9 Plus is a fantastic option in its own right.