The full HD 1920 x 1080 display is simply gorgeous and very bright (Samsung is still arguing with itself whether this is a 300 or 400 nit display). I honestly never loved the 1600 x 900 PLS display on the previous Series 9 because the colors weren't very accurate or rich across the color spectrum. The 1080p 900X3E's BOE Hydis panel is a different story: it has a wide color gamut, no glare and near 180 degree viewing angles. Since BOE Hydis is known for their AFFS displays, I suspect this is one (it's similar to IPS technology). It surpasses the venerable and twice as expensive Sony Vaio Z third generation thanks to vastly superior viewing angles while maintaining a wide color gamut and avoiding glare. This is one of the best displays on a laptop, and only the Sony and Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A (non-touch) can compare. Speaking of touch, there's no touch screen option here, likely because touch screens are heavier and thicker, and that would ruin the Series 9's super-thin and light reputation. Samsung's more affordable Series 7 Ultra does have a 1080p glossy touch screen, for those who like the Samsung experience but want touch with Windows 8.
It All Just Works
What strikes us in the Series 9 is how everything just works as it should. It boots in under 5 seconds, the trackpad is marvelously responsive (even more important since there's no touch screen) and the backlighting for both screen and keyboard isn't as difficult to control or twitchy as the Samsung Series 7 Ultra and some other competing brands. This tells us that Samsung does know how to do it right; they simply want you to be the top Series to get all the good stuff. Samsung's SW Update (not exclusive to the Series 9) is the best effort we've seen from a computer manufacturer to keep software and drivers up to date without being arcane, buggy or intrusive. SW Update and a variety of additional Samsung apps are pre-loaded. What if you wipe out the machine and want to start from scratch with a clean Windows 8 install? Rather than offer driver updates as individual downloads on the Samsung website, they offer just SW Update for download. Install it and it will find all drivers and programs available for your model. You can selectively choose just the drivers and software you want, and you can save those downloads for later use if you wish.
Horsepower and Performance
The Series 9 full HD model runs on the updated Ivy Bridge Intel Core i7-3537U 2.0 GHz CPU with Turbo Boost to 3.1 GHz. The 22 nm, 17 W CPU is powerful enough to handle everyday productivity tasks, HD video playback, Adobe Photoshop and HD video editing. It's paired with Intel HD 4000 graphics and there's simply no room for a dedicated GPU in a laptop this thin and small. Integrated graphics can easily handle 1080p video playback and even 3D gaming with more forgiving titles like Civ 5 and Left4Dead 2. Sorry, no Crysis or BioShock Infinite here, unless you want to play at low resolutions and graphics settings at 25 fps or less. Ultrabooks with integrated graphics perform very similarly, but we give the Series 9 full HD model a modest edge for its fast Core i7 CPU and zippy SSD drive. Even though it doesn't trounce the comparable competition on benchmarks, it feels fast in actual use.
The machine has 4 gigs of DDR3 single channel RAM soldered to the motherboard, and it's not upgradable. We wish Samsung had used dual channel RAM since that boosts integrated graphics performance (integrated graphics use system memory). It's not a deal breaker, but it is something I'd like to see on Samsung's highest end Ultrabook. Our model shipped with a Lite-On 128 gig mSATA SSD (standard size, upgradable). Though Samsung's own SSD drives have a great reputation for performance, this Lite-On actually did better in CrystalDiskMark and ATTO drive benchmarks than the Samsung PM840 SSD in the Series 7 Ultra. It puts out very good numbers and feels fast in daily use.
Samsung pre-loads IntelliMemory on most of their Windows computers, and it's the first thing we remove from a machine with an SSD drive. It can speed up slower conventional spinning hard disks by caching lots of stuff to RAM (memory), but when you have an SSD this isn't helpful and it tends to hog all the RAM. Uninstall it!
PCMark 7: 4448
Windows Experience Index:
Graphics (for Aero): 4.5
Gaming Graphics: 6.2
PCMark 7 Benchmark Comparison Table
CrystalDiskMark SSD Scores
Keyboard and Trackpad
I'm picky about keyboards since I write for a living. While the relatively low travel keyboard is a necessary evil on very thin Ultrabooks like the Series 9, I must admit Samsung has the magic formula to make the keyboard work well. Just as with the Series 7 Ultra, the key travel feels limiting, but I've typed near my best speeds on both machines. It may not feel like Lenovo's wondrous ThinkPad keyboards, but it's great for getting the job done. The black keys are masked with white key markings, so it's easy to see the keys in most any light. The white backlighting behaves well and gets the job done when typing in dim lighting or the dark. It's not nearly as twitchy as the Series 7 machines that respond to overhead lights and people passing by in the room. Typical of Samsung, there's an Fn lock key that we love: press it and you no longer have to use both the Fn key and the appropriate F1-F12 key to use the multimedia, wireless, display backlight, keyboard backlight and other controls.
The oversized, buttonless Elan trackpad is another joy by Windows standards. It tracks a single finger well with no cursor jump, and swipes for Windows 8 gestures work perfectly. It's not maddeningly sensitive to left side swipes, so we didn't find ourselves being thrown into the last used app by accident as often as we often do on other Windows 8 laptops. The trackpad supports two finger gestures for things like pinch zooming and it also supports 3 and 4 fingered gestures. The full-featured trackpad control panel applet gives you control over gestures, swiping, tapping, pointer speed and more.
We didn't expect the Series 9, with its smaller 44Wh, 4 cell Lithium Ion polymer battery, to approach the Series 7 Ultra's strong runtimes, but we were pleasantly surprised. We've averaged 5.5 to 6 hours of productivity use (web, MS Office, email, social networking and an hour of streaming video) on a charge with WiFi on and brightness set to 50%. That's the best we've seen yet for a Series 9 13" machine, even if it doesn't match Samsung's 9 hours claim.
In the US, Samsung uses the same spec 40W compact world charger for several machines including the Samsung Series 7 Slate, Samsung Series 7 Ultra (overseas models with dedicated graphics get a beefier 60W charger), Samsung ATIV 700T convertible tablet and the Series 9. The battery, typical of Ultrabooks, is sealed inside, though if you remove the bottom cover screws, you can access it for repair.
You can tell, can't you? I really like the Samsung Series 9 and it's hard to beat as one of the most ultraportable 13" Ultrabooks for style, quality, performance and extreme light weight. The only drawback? It lacks a touch screen, and Windows 8 is easier to use with touch. That said, if you spend most of your time in the traditional Windows desktop UI with Word, Excel, Visual Studio, Photoshop and other Windows staples as your constant companions, you probably won't miss the touch screen. Four years from now when third party Windows programs have moved to touch user interfaces, that likely won't be the case, but by then you'll be ready for a new laptop. Until then, the Samsung Series 9 full HD model is simply one of the most gorgeous and portable Ultrabooks on the market. At 2.55 pounds it's never a burden and the Intel Core i7 CPU and fast SSD make for a very fast machine. The full HD matte display is easy on the eyes with no glare and good color gamut. It's a high end machine that truly is worth the money.
List price: $1,399 ($1,299 street)
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