LAS VEGAS — Don’t call it an Ultrabook. Samsung previewed the second version of its Series 9 ultraportable at CES 2012, showing off a lighter and smaller model than the MacBook Air and a more powerful Core i7 processor and higher-resolution 1600 x 900 display. Yes, this laptop has top-of-the line components, all inside a package that’s just 0.4 inches thick and 2.6 pounds. Starting at $1,499, the new Series 9 is less expensive than the original — but is it worth $200 more than the Air?
Editors’ Note: Samsung sent us a pre-production version of the Series 9 to try out. The company said it will send us a full-production model once it is available.
It’s hard to believe, but Samsung managed to make the Series 9 even thinner and lighter than the original. Where its first Series 9 measured 12.9 x 8.9 x 0.6 inches and weighed 2.9 pounds, the newer version is 12.3 x 8.6 x 0.4 inches and weighs 2.6 pounds.
That makes the Series 9 smaller and lighter than almost every other Ultrabook we’ve reviewed: The ASUS ZenBook UX31 (13.3 x 8.9 x 0.7 inches) and the MacBook Air 13-inch (13.3 x 8.9 x 0.7 inches) both weigh 3 pounds. Only the Toshiba Portege Z835 (12.4 x 8.9 x 0.6 inches, 2.4 pounds) is lighter than the Series 9.
The Series 9’s design is quite different from the look of its predecessor. Gone is the black brushed duraluminum in favor of a matte-gray aluminum that looks even sleeker. Also, where the first Series 9 had pieces of plastic near the hinges, the new Series 9 is all metal. Where the first Series 9 had a lip on the lid and around the deck, the 2012 Series 9 has flat machined edges. Overall, it’s a simpler, more refined look, but we do miss the black brushed-metal finish.
The Series 9 has a backlit chiclet keyboard that’s spacious, but it’s relatively shallow. The keys don’t offer as much travel as the earlier Series 9 or the MacBook Air’s keys, and at least on our pre-production unit they felt somewhat mushy. It seems Samsung was willing to sacrifice ergonomic comfort for a slimmer profile.
Unfortunately, the keyboard backlight didn’t get very bright. Plus, there’s no way to adjust the brightness using keyboard shortcuts. You need to use the Easy Settings software, which forces you to scroll down to adjust the illumination once in the utility. How is that easy?
The shortcut keys that are available require users to press the Function key and then one of the F keys for them to work. We much prefer dedicated action keys. On the plus side, Samsung includes a unique button on the F11 key that enables “library mode,” quieting the notebook. In our testing, though, the Series 9 remained pretty quiet without this feature.
The 3.9 x 2.6-inch clickpad, made by Elan, is definitely a work in progress. Navigating the desktop was mostly smooth, but at times the cursor literally would not budge. We noticed this issue especially when resuming the notebook from sleep or just letting it sit idle for a few minutes. In these cases, we had to wait 20 seconds or more for the cursor to come back to life. According to a Samsung representative, our unit had generic touchpad drivers; the production version should resolve these issues.
Pinch-to-zoom worked well, as did two-finger rotation, though when going counterclockwise the pad occasionally mistook a rotation gesture for a right click. We could easily flick through photos with three fingers and show the desktop with a four-finger swipe up. Swiping down with four fingers shows all of your open programs using the fancy Aero interface.
Even though it has a thin profile, the Series 9 manages to dissipate heat well. After we streamed a Hulu video at full screen for 15 minutes, the clickpad was a cool 79 degrees Fahrenheit, and the spaces between the G and H keys and underside were a cool 90 and 91 degrees, respectively.
One welcome improvement over the original Series 9 is that Samsung increased the resolution of the SuperBright Plus 13.3-inch display to 1600 x 900 from 1366 x 768. It’s much more befitting of a notebook this expensive, and brings it into the company of the ASUS UX31 (1600 x 900) and the MacBook Air (1440 x 900). Better yet, it’s just as bright. Measured with our AEMC lightmeter, the Series 9’s display averaged 355 lux at full brightness, which is well above the MacBook Air (285 lux), and on par with the ASUS UX31 (360 lux).
Videos, such as the trailers for Battleship and Men in Black III, were bright, vivid and crisp, and we liked the extra pixels, which enabled us to have several windows open at the same time. Thanks to its matte coating, the Series 9’s screen offers wider viewing angles than the ASUS UX31. We also preferred the Series 9 to the MacBook Air 13-inch when watching video, which is saying a lot.
When we played the same Happy Endings episode on Hulu, the Series 9 had richer colors and superior contrast. The picture on the Air appeared slightly brighter, but looked slightly washed out by comparison.
It’s amazing that a notebook as thin as the Series 9 can put out as much volume as it does. Whether watching movies or listening to music, we were impressed with both the power and fidelity of the Series 9’s speakers. Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” boomed out, and had a nice balance between the treble and bass. Most importantly, it didn’t sound tinny, especially when we played more bass-heavy tracks, such as 50 Cent’s “Window Shopper.” The SoundAlive control panel—accessible via the Easy Settings utility—let us adjust equalizer settings and choose from a variety of presets, which really made a difference. We only wish we could get to the settings with just one click.
There isn’t much room for ports on the Series 9, but Samsung packs in a USB 3.0 port, microHDMI and an Ethernet adapter on the left, and a USB 2.0, mini VGA and a headphone port on the right. Also on the right is an SD card slot protected by a spring-loaded door. It’s a much more elegant method of maintaining the curved sides of the Series 9 than resorting to plastic flaps that get in the way.
Inside the Samsung Series 9 is a quad-core 1.7-GHz Intel Core i7-2637M processor, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB Samsung SSD, which returned very good results for an ultraportable. On PCMark07, which measures overall performance, the Series 9’s score of 3,653 was about 1,300 points above the ultraportable average, and on par with the UX31 (3,606; 1.7-GHz Core i5) and the MacBook Air (1.7-GHz Core i5; 3,663). On Geekbench, the Series 9 did even better, scoring 6,024 to the MacBook Air’s 5,860 and the UX31’s 4,680.
The Series 9 booted Windows 7 Home Premium in a fast 33 seconds, which is about half the category average (56 seconds), but a bit behind the MacBook Pro (17 seconds), the Toshiba Portege Z835 (21 seconds) and the HP Folio 13 (26 seconds). Still, it woke from sleep in less than 3 seconds, which is on par with other Ultrabooks.
It took just 5 minutes and 36 seconds for the Series 9 to churn through the LAPTOP Spreadsheet Macro Test, in which we use OpenOffice calc to match 20,000 names with their addresses. That’s almost half the category average (9:44), and beats out the MacBook Air (6:16), UX31 (5:50) and the Toshiba Z835 (11:36). Only the Lenovo IdeaPad U300s (5:05) was faster.
As an SSD, the 128GB drive in the Series 9 was good, but not great. It duplicated 5GB of multimedia files in 1 minute and 17 seconds, a rate of 66.1 MBps. That’s comfortably above the category average (41 MBps), but well below the UX31 (98 MBps) and the MacBook Air (127 MBps).
The Intel HD graphics inside the Series 9 performed pretty much as expected, delivering enough power for watching videos and photo and video editing, but not enough for mainstream games. On 3DMark06, the Series 9 scored 3,931, which is better than the category average of 3,114, and the UX31 (3,731), but below the MacBook Air (4,236).
On World of Warcraft, with the display set to 1366 x 768 and graphics on their recommended setting, the Series 9 averaged 34 frames per second. That’s on par with most other Ultrabooks (the Toshiba Z835 averaged 32 fps and the UX31 averaged 26 fps), but below the MacBook Air (59 fps) and the category average (40 fps). At its native resolution and effects at max, the Series 9’s average dropped to an unplayable 13 fps.
Aside from its clickpad, the one area where we hope Samsung improves the Series 9 is its battery life. On the LAPTOP Battery Test (web surfing via Wi-Fi at 40-percent brightness), the Series 9 lasted just 4 hours and 48 minutes, nearly 2 hours below the category average (6:36), the MacBook Air (6:25) and the Toshiba Z835 (6:48), not to mention the HP Folio 13 (7:50). Worse, that was about half an hour less than the original Series 9 (5:11).
Considering that the Series 9 has a brighter panel than its competitors, we also re-ran the battery test with the brightness set to 10 percent (about 34 lux), which was roughly equal to the MacBook Air at 40-percent brightness. Even then, the Series 9 lasted just 5:36.
There’s not too much in the way of software on the Series 9. Utilities include Samsung Easy Settings, which, as the name implies, let us tweak things such as power settings, network, and audio controls. A customizable Software Launcher dock can be activated at the bottom of the screen, providing shortcuts to apps and utilities. It’s relatively unobtrusive, but we can see it taking up too much real estate on a lower-res display.
Preinstalled third-party apps include Microsoft Office 2010, Norton Online Backup and Internet Security and Skype.
With the second edition of the Series 9, Samsung has improved upon the original in multiple ways. More important, it’s smaller and lighter than the MacBook Air, and it boasts a better display and audio. We only hope that Samsung improves the clickpad performance and battery life by the time this notebook hits the market in February. Both would have to improve significantly before we’d recommend paying $200 more than Apple’s ultraportable.