Samsung improved its brand score from last year, from 69 out of 100 to 74. Two of the biggest reasons for that jump are the brand’s very good showing in our Tech Support Showdown and its compelling Samsung SideSync software, which lets you run phone apps and respond to messages on the big screen. The company also continues to shine when it comes to design, but the keyboards and overall product selection could still use improvement.
Of the five notebooks we reviewed from Samsung, two received 4-star ratings, and three garnered 3.5-star ratings, which is a big jump over 2013′s last-place finish. The ATIV Book 9 Plus got top marks for its svelte design, Retina-like display, long battery life and performance. The ATIV Book 8 — which boasts a 1080p touch screen, quad-core processor, discrete graphics and nearly 8 hours of battery life — also impressed.
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Thanks to a new Samsung Cares app for Android, a Remote Support for PCs program and a dedicated online support team, Samsung’s tech support continued its upward trek in this category for the second year in a row. The company’s Live Chat could still use some work, however. On the phone, our average call time with Samsung was 9 minutes — less than Sony’s 9:36 — but its representatives had difficulty with some of our questions; one promised to call us back and never did.
Samsung moved up from a three-way second-place tie in design to a two-way tie for second place. Like Apple, Samsung has found its signature look: a midnight-blue all-aluminum chassis for such premium notebooks as the ATIV Book 9 and ATIV Book 9 Plus. However, the remainder of the ATIV Book line — including the ATIV Book 5, ATIV Book 6 and ATIV Book 8 — has retained the second-string aesthetic mix of aluminum and hard plastic.
Depending on which Samsung laptop you buy, you could end up with a good keyboard and touchpad — or not. While some systems, such as the Samsung ATIV Book 9, provided solid tactile feedback, many others, including the $1,200 ATIV Book 8, suffered from shallow travel and overall mushiness.
Despite charging premium prices for most of its systems, Samsung hobbled many of them with inaccurate, frustrating touchpads like the one on the $1,399 ATIV Book 9 Plus, which had trouble pinch-zooming and two-finger scrolling in our tests. Even worse, the $1,199 Samsung ATIV Book 6′s touchpad had difficulty distinguishing between scrolling and pinching, and rejected Windows 8 gestures unless we were extremely deliberate. Users should expect a first-class typing and navigation experience for that kind of money.
The ATIV Book 9 Plus is a good example of the best Samsung has to offer. The Ultrabook sports a 3200 x 1800-pixel, 13.3-inch display that delivers captivating images on a par with that of the Retina display MacBook Pro. However, the ATIV 8 suffered from washed-out colors, and the ATIV Book 5′s 1366 x 768p, 15.6-inch display was on the dim side. On average, Samsung laptops only reached 234 lux, which is lower than the 242-lux laptop category average for display brightness.
We didn’t have many complaints about the audio quality on Samsung’s machines, and we enjoyed playing with Samsung’s SoundAlive technology.
Samsung was light on the innovations this year, though two notable standouts helped the company score 5 points: the ATIV Book 9 and ATIV Book 9 Plus. The ATIV Book 9 features Samsung’s new SideSync technology, which allows users to sync their Samsung smartphones with their laptops. The ATIV Book 9 Plus gave us Samsung’s HomeSync Lite, which the company says will eventually allow users to wirelessly interact with such devices as cameras, tablets and televisions from their laptop.
For the most part, Samsung has stopped producing low-end laptops, which limits the brand’s value proposition. The company was clearly heading that way in 2013, releasing just a handful of laptops, almost all of which came from the consumer-focused ATIV line. Samsung still has the budget-friendly Chromebook for $249, but that’s an older model. Costs for different models in the series, such as the $649 ATIV Book 9 Lite, vary by CPU and size configurations, but they carry the same form factor. Prices top out at a whopping $1,799 for the ATIV Book 9 Plus. You can get Samsung laptops from a variety of retailers, such as Best Buy, Walmart and the Microsoft Store, in addition to Samsung’s own website. Windows 7 fans can still find a smattering of notebooks with the older operating system in Samsung’s Series 9 Premium Ultrabook line, but the selection is small.
Samsung went all out on the software front this year, delivering a bevy of multimedia programs that boosted its score by a point. The company’s ATIV Book line offers the S Player for enjoying entertainment content, S PhotoStudio for picture editing and Kies for backing up files. The ATIV Book 5 features Samsung’s SoundAlive technology, with 13 audio settings for audiophiles. However, it’s SideSync that makes the company shine. The app allows you to pull up a virtual image of your Samsung phone’s screen and interact with your mobile apps on your laptop.