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Thursday, December 20, 2012
Samsung Series 9 Ivy Bridge laptop review
Samsung introduced its thin-and-light Series 9 laptop last year, well before Intel came up with the Ultrabook initiative. As such, you won't find Samsung touting the latest version of the Series 9 as an Ultrabook on its Web site, even though it basically can be classified as one, and is the best in the category. The 13.3in "new" Series 9 that we are reviewing here really is a thing of beauty, both to look at and to hold. It's crafted out of aluminium, which makes it feel incredibly strong, yet light, and it includes a screen that is simply stunning to look at. On the inside, it makes use of Intel's third generation Intel Core i5 CPU, codenamed Ivy Bridge, and it includes solid state storage. See also Group test: what's the best ultraportable laptop?
The Series 9 (NP900X3C-A01AU) is one of the lightest notebooks on the market, tipping our scales at around 1.2kg. It actually felt a lot lighter when we handled it, and we almost forgot we had it in our bag as we transported it around with its small power adapter (which is 65mm wide, 94mm long and 16mm thick. Visit Intel Ivy Bridge review.
A thin base that tapers towards the edges allows the Series 9 look impressively thin, and it's not just an illusion: even when taking the rubber feet on the base into consideration, the notebook is only 14mm thick with the lid closed. (If it wasn't for the USB ports, the base could have been about 1mm thinner still.) That's a good 4mm thinner than Intel's official thickness specification for 13.3in Ultrabooks and 3mm thinner than the MacBook Air. It doesn't employ a wedge shape like the MacBook Air, instead offering a uniform thickness from the front to the back, which makes it well balanced and comfortable for lap use. The lid itself is only around 3mm thick and has a relatively thin bezel framing the 13.3in LCD panel.
You might think that a laptop this thin and light would end up being a little flimsy, but flimsy is one thing that this laptop is not. It's made out of aluminium and it feels very strong. The lid is rigid, and even when putting lots of pressure on it, the screen doesn't puddle. The hinges that support the screen are smooth in their movement, yet can hold the screen perfectly in place at your desired angle and there is no dreaded screen shake. It's fair to say that the Samsung Series 9 (NP900X3C-A01AU) is one of the best built laptops on the market.
The base alone is only 11mm at its thickest point near the palm rest, and you'll have a hard time causing it to flex or creak. The bottom panel is held in place by a series of screws, and this means the battery and the solid state drive can be replaced if needed. Because the base is so thin, it has a highly integrated design, which includes RAM chips that are directly soldered onto the small motherboard rather than being on a module in a slot; as such, you can't upgrade the RAM in this model.
We love the balance of the notebook, which allows the lid to be lifted open with one hand while it's sitting flat on a desk, and there is a little recess at the front of the unit so that you can easily distinguish the base from the screen. Because of the thinness of the design though, a compromise has been made when it comes to connectivity: you only get one USB 3.0 port (which is on the left) and one USB 2.0 port (which is on the right side). There is a combination headphone and microphone port, a micro HDMI port, and there are breakout ports for Gigabit Ethernet and VGA output. A Gigabit Ethernet dongle is provided in the box, but the VGA adapter is optional. There is an SD card slot on the right side and it has a cute little spring-loaded cover on it to keep dust out.
Wireless connectivity is facilitated by the inclusion of Bluetooth and an Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6235 Wi-Fi module, which supports dual-band operation and Intel Wireless Display (Wi-Di). For business users, there is a model that also has a Trusted Platform Module built in (the NP900X3C-A02AU).
With such a thin base, it's easy to dismiss the Series 9's keyboard as being difficult to use. While it's true that its keys have shallow travel, they also don't require a lot of force and they feel soft. In fact, as far as keyboards on thin and light notebooks are concerned, this one is great — it's better than the keyboard on the Toshiba Satellite Z830 Ultrabook, the Sony VAIO Z Series and even the recently-released Fujitsu LifeBook U772 14in Ultrabook. The keys are full-sized, have a standard layout, and the arrow keys are spaced so that they are easy to feel for, despite being half-height. Best of all, it's a backlit keyboard, which means you can type comfortably at night. The backlight is subtle and a shade of green rather than white, and it makes the notebook look very stylish. It has four levels of intensity and it also comes on automatically when the ambient light sensor detects that there is not enough light.
The palm rest is large and it houses a 98x68mm touchpad that is fun to use. Throughout our test period, the touchpad was responsive, accurate and it handled multi-finger gestures well. The size of the pad allows up to four-finger swipes to be conducted with relative ease. We did notice some stickiness though, in which the pad selected text when all we wanted to do was move the pointer to a different area, but it didn't cause us any problems. The left- and right-click buttons are located underneath the pad and we didn't have any problems performing drag-and-drop operations with either button.
Perhaps the best part about this laptop is its screen, which is simply stunning. It has a matte finish that won't reflect light sources and its brightness, contrast and viewing angles are all excellent. It has a native resolution of 1600x900, which is a step above the 1366x768-resolution that we're used to from most Ultrabooks, and it looks sharp and vibrant. The brightness level is especially high and it allows colours to just pop off the screen. It has wide viewing angles, with its vertical viewing angles being especially pleasing. As is the case with the keyboard backlight, the ambient light sensor works to adjust the brightness of the screen on-the-fly depending on your environment, and it worked almost instantaneously in our tests, dimming the screen in shaded areas and increasing the brightness in well-lit areas.
One of the biggest surprises of the Series 9 notebook is just how good its speakers are. For such a thin computer, its speakers actually produce a full sound, and a sound that is adequately loud. They are perfect for long YouTube sessions. However, because they are located on the under side of the chassis, it's easy to muffle the sound when you use the notebook on your lap.
Specifications and performance
While the most "oohs" and "aahs" for this notebook are reserved for its looks, build quality and screen, the Series 9's third generation Intel Core i5-3317U CPU deserves some kudos, too. It's an ultra-low-voltage (17W) CPU with a frequency of 1.7GHz, two cores and Hyper-Threading, and it gives the Series 9 good performance when it comes to multitasking, running office applications, and even for using some taxing media encoding applications. Alongside it are 4GB of DDR3 SDRAM (1600MHz) and a 128GB solid state drive.
In our Blender 3D rendering and iTunes MP3 encoding tests, this configuration mustered times of 49sec and 58sec, respectively. These results are big improvements over last year's Series 9, which had a 1.4GHz, Sandy Bridge-based Core i5 CPU that recorded 1min 19sec in Blender and 1min 29sec in iTunes. For tougher tasks, such as transcoding video files, the Series 9 isn't really ideal, mainly because it's just not designed to work that hard and doesn't have a large internal storage capacity. But if you wanted to perform a file conversion from time to time, you could do it. In our AutoGordianKnot test, where we convert a DVD file to an Xvid file, the Series 9 recorded 1hr 2min, which is an improvement of 53min over the previous generation.
The CPU has integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics, which are much improved over the previous generation Intel HD 3000 graphics, and this was shown in 3DMark06, in which the Series 9 recorded 5167 marks. Last year's Series 9 recorded 2394 in the same benchmark so you can see that the new Series 9 is much more capable in this area.
While the 128GB solid state drive only has a usable capacity of 94GB, it's a fast drive when it comes to working with big files. It recorded very high transfer rates in CrystalDiskmark (459MB read and 280MB write), but it put up a more modest rate of 44.16MBps in our file duplication tests, which is a little slower than we were expecting considering the CrystalDiskMark results.
It's worth noting that if you use the Series 9 on your lap extensively, there is a chance that you could block the vents that supply fresh air to the two cooling fans. When watching YouTube videos for a prolonged period of time, and with the notebook not resting on a flat surface, we noticed that the base did get quite warm. When running tasks that use a lot of the CPU, it's best to keep the notebook on a flat surface that can provide adequate ventilation. As for the fans, they were barely audible at all throughout our tests, and during idle time or basic Web browsing, for example, they didn't even spin.
The resume time from sleep mode was around 2.5sec and cold boot time was a superb 13sec. The overall performance of the unit was swift, too, when loading applications, watching videos and during general multitasking. However, we did notice some sluggishness when trying to adjust the brightness, volume and keyboard backlight. It sometimes took a few seconds before the controls would work.
The 6-cell battery in the Series 9 has a 40 Watt-hour rating. In our rundown test, in which disable power management, enable Wi-Fi, maximise screen brightness and loop an Xvid-encoded video, it lasted 3hr 39min. This is a little less than we were expecting, but part of that is to do with the high brightness of the screen, which Samsung rates at 400 nits. When we used the notebook for basic Web browsing and word processing, as well as for watching the occasional YouTube video and listening to a song now and then, the laptop lasted well over four hours. This was with the screen always on and the brightness at the halfway point. You can get more out of the battery if you employ eco mode or Samsung's optimised battery profiles, which are accessible by pressing Fn-F1.
If you're in the market for a thin and light laptop, then you should make it your duty to check out the Series 9 (NP900X3C-A01AU) — once you hold it in your hands, you'll fall in love with it. It can be purchased for under $1500 from some places (such as JB Hi-Fi) and you get a very well constructed and beautiful laptop for your money. It has one of the best screens on the market, its keyboard and touchpad are very good, and the unit's overall performance is suitable for most types of office work and everyday computing tasks (as long as they're not too CPU intensive).
The only problems we experienced were some stickiness with the touchpad, slightly slow brightness and volume adjustments, and noticeable warmth when using the unit on a non-flat surface. But they are not major concerns. Some people may balk at the lack of connectivity, which is fair enough, but if more ports are required, then a thicker, more conventional notebook should be considered.