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Samsung Series 9 NP900X3A Notebook Review

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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Thin is in. From cell phones to tablets, tech companies are hawking ever more freakishly thin wares to a market where device’s portability is of utmost importance. Unlike the ballooning girth of some cell phones, notebooks have begun slimming down in every conceivable way with sales of smaller 13” and 14” products spiking over the last year or so. In order to take advantage of this newfound love for everything ultra mobile, notebook manufacturers like Sony, Apple, Acer and ASUS have focused upon expanding their mid-sized lineups with some interesting products. Many have taken aim at entry level price points but Samsung had something else in mind for their new Series 9 laptops.


Industrial design excellence with no costs spared is the primary focus of the Series 9. In layman’s terms this means Samsung has tried to shoe horn leading edge technology into a beautiful, yet razor thin enclosure without sacrificing performance.

Our particular review unit came with an Intel i5 2537M processor, 8GB of DDR3 memory and a 256GB SSD and a staggering price tag of $2300. If you aren’t in the mood to part with an arm and a leg for this version, slimming things down to 4GB of system memory and a 128GB SSD will knock a good $600(!) off the price tag.

When shopping for a Samsung notebook, be prepared for some confusion. They release different versions in every country, each with its own unique product code. For example, this means a configuration reviewed by a US site may never be found in the EU and vice versa. Some geographic regions and large vendors like Best Buy have specific models tailored to their needs and believe it or not, many of these will never show up on Samsung’s website. The bottom line is that if you are looking at a Samsung notebook, pay very close attention to its specifications before taking the plunge.

For reference purposes, the NP900X3A-B05 (which ironically isn’t even listed on Samsung’s US website) is the US model with the closest specifications to our review unit. It does however come with a faster processor and a price tag of less than $2000.


In notebook reviews, we don’t usually concentrate upon the packaging and accessories but Samsung’s are actually tiny works of art all by themselves. The Series 9 box is finished in a felt-like exterior and has an interior that is both functional and a wonder to behold.

Samsung has worked some miniaturization magic on the power brick we’re all used to seeing. Instead of going with the typical cord plus power supply brick configuration, the conversion hardware has been minimized so it fits within an extended plug casing. This along with a detachable plug makes it infinitely more portable than anything we’ve come across. Unfortunately, the cord is very, very thin and can be chewed through in seconds by any overeager pet.

Due to the Series 9’s thin design, a standard LAN connector just wouldn’t fit into either side profile but instead of ditching it altogether, one was included anyways by using an elegantly simple solution: a break out adaptor which fits into a custom mini jack was designed.


The Series 9 laptop is, well, beautiful. There is no better way to describe it. Sleek lines that would put any other current notebook to shame and a featherweight mass of only 2.86 pounds make it very portable as well. If this is what Intel’s future “Ultrabooks” will look like, we say bring ‘em on!

The exterior is clad in a thin sheet of brushed black “Duralumin” that is actually quite stiff and seems to be nearly impervious to blemishes and dents. This is a Samsung creation which is supposedly stronger than aluminum, lighter than magnesium and easy to recycle. We certainly won’t dispute any of these points since this notebook went through two weeks of hell in our possession without so much as a scratch. However, be ready with a microfiber cloth because the finish is a fingerprint magnet.


The interior of the Series 9 is no less refined with a continuation of Duralumin for the palm rest and a well integrated, discrete power button. There is also a matte screen (huzzah!) which is a welcome addition to any ultra portable but Samsung, in their infinite wisdom, added a highly reflective bezel that continues down around the keyboard.

The design sure looks pretty or at least it does up until you bring this puppy outside and everything BUT the screen blasts sunlight right back into your face. There’s a term for this kind of SNAFU: design taking precedence over common sense.

On the positive side, the interior construction is second to none with a discrete yet secure hinge, an almost bulletproof lid that exhibits zero flex and a lack of perceptible material joints.


According to Samsung this is one of the slimmest notebooks currently available and with a thickness of 0.62”; we’re inclined to believe them. Unfortunately the design doesn’t allow for an integrated disk drive but who needs one when you have a profile like this to look at?

For those of you wondering, the metal edge you see above isn’t tacked on. Rather, it is the Duralumin sheet’s edge which has been polished to a shine and curved for maximum structural rigidity.


In order to maintain the chassis’ elegant curvature, all of the Series 9’s ports are hidden behind clever hinged panels that can be flipped open. The one on the left side reveals the aforementioned mini Ethernet LAN jack, a mini HDMI output and a SuperSpeed USB 3.0 port. The other houses a mini SD card reader, a combo headphone / mic 3.5mm jack and a single USB 2.0 connector.

All in all there should be more than enough connection options here to appease most users but there are some significant limitations as well. A mini SD card slot is a huge step back from the 5 in 1 readers nearly every other notebook possesses and demands careful choices be made when shopping for digital camera storage. Even the mini HDMI connector quickly outlives its usefulness once you realize Samsung didn’t include a full size adaptor for it.
 

SKYMTL

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Keyboard and Touchpad

Keyboard and Touchpad



*Take note that our sample is the bilingual version of the Series 9 (for sale in Canada and some EU countries) so the left-hand Shift key is slightly shorter in order to make space for additional French keys.

Samsung’s notebooks have never been known for their typist-friendly keyboards but the Series 9 is a refreshing departure from mediocrity. Its chiclet style keys (which have an adjustable backlight) are well spaced for touch typing and all of the necessary function buttons are located in logical places. After a few hours of using it, we actually set a personal word per minute record, partially due to the high level of tactile feedback every key possesses.


If you are a typing purist there are some items that may cause some concerns. The CAPS and Enter buttons along with the space bar do tend to feel a bit crowded and the keyboard’s underside exhibits some flex. The glossy key backer was also quite annoying and faintly distracting when used outdoors but none of these had a negative impact upon typing speed or accuracy.


While finding faults with the keyboard wasn’t easy, the same just can’t be said about Series 9’s gargantuan trackpad. Granted, it does give the user plenty of real estate but this has to be one of the worst touchpads we have had the displeasure of using. But first, let’s hit upon some positive points.

By using the Synaptics ClickPad 1.5 technology, a decent number of multi touch functions have been included and for the most part, two finger scrolling, pinch-to zoom and other gesture-oriented features work as advertised to varying degrees of efficacy. The touchpad’s slightly rubberized finish helps make all of these movements relatively problem free.

Unfortunately the bad far outweighs the good here. The pad’s integrated click buttons lack feedback and as a result were extremely frustrating to use correctly. To add insult to injury, no amount of software tweaking could help a case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde sensitivity which had the cursor either moving at a snail’s pace or high tailing it across the screen at light speed. This issue was further compounded by the touchpad’s slightly offset position which caused our left hand the constantly brush its surface.
 

SKYMTL

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Screen & Audio Quality / Included Software

Screen Quality



Samsung has equipped their Series-9 notebooks with an ultra bright 400-nit LED backlit display which is has a matte finish. To our eyes, the colour reproduction was absolutely spot on, viewing angles were excellent and the contrast ratio was actually quite decent. Backlight bleed was also slim to none which is a major achievement considering the distinct lack of screen depth and the huge amount of light it can push out.

During testing, we did notice –when used at default settings- this panel tended to overly compensate white balance which led to vivid, eye-burning scenes in some games and movies. A few modifications with the built in colour modification tools helped even things out so if you are willing to tweak things a bit, the Series 9 can really put on a visual show.

There is one major issue here though: resolution. Granted, 1366x768 is decent for a 13.3” notebook but even on such a small canvas, icons will be overly large, the tools within programs like Photoshop and Word will eat up far too much valuable real estate and internet browsing will be vertically constrained. This is particularly troubling when you consider most of the competition like Sony’s Vaio Z and the Macbook Air boast screens with higher resolution.

Samsung has also included an automatic backlight dimming feature which works quite well and can be disabled in the advanced power options.


Audio Quality


Are you ready for a shock? This tiny ultra portable notebook actually puts on an impressive audio show through its seemingly meager 3W (2x 1.5W) speaker system. The speakers are very small so the quality we’re talking about doesn’t come close to touching a dedicated sound system but this is by far the best sounding ultra portable we’ve used. The highs are a bit harsh and the low end was non-existent but the mid range came across as clear. However, the most surprising thing about these speakers is how they can pump out sound at high volumes without much distortion.

Headphone output quality is also quite good but we found ourselves wishing for a dedicated headphone equalizer. In addition, there have been some reports from end users complaining about the jack intermittently failing, although we didn’t experience this particular issue.


Included Software


Our particular unit came with Windows 7 x64 Professional while some other Series 9 notebooks use Windows 7 Home Premium. So, if you need features like the handy XP Mode and incorporated network backup, be sure to do your research.

Samsung’s default software package isn’t huge but there is a fair amount of bloatware included. One of the most annoying inclusions is a trial of Norton Internet Security which ironically acts just like malware with constantly pops ups requesting you buy their over-priced software. Norton runs in the background even when disabled so it greatly contributes to the Series 9’s bulky 1.44GB of memory use when Windows is sitting idle. We recommend you delete Norton and replace it with free software like Microsoft’s excellent Security Essentials.


The first bit of unnecessary software installed is an application called Wildtangent Games which is a very basic game download service that has a limited selection. There are a few free trials which could distract you for a few minutes but there isn’t anything here which hasn’t already been surpassed by services like Steam, Origin, Good Old Games and Direct2Drive.


Aside from a few other programs for the integrated webcam and WiFi pairing, Samsung has included a boatload of their own software. Much of it is named easy this and easy that but its usefulness is dubious at best considering most of these programs repeat features that already exist within Windows 7 Pro. In addition, the two which looked the most interesting (Easy Display Manager and Movie Color Manager) flat out refused to run on our system even after an update through Easy Update. The other Samsung-branded applications cover everything from network file transfers to WiFi access to startup optimization. There’s even a complete product manual with dynamic searches and plenty of useful information.


In our testing, we usually go through every notebook with a fine toothed comb in order to insure full system stability. The Series 9 worked exceedingly well but we did notice some major software issues of which Easy Display Manager’s refusal to boot was just the tip of the iceberg.

<object width="640" height="390"><param name="movie" value="http://www.youtube.com/v/F14Sbml9AnE?version=3&hl=en_US"></param><param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"></param><param name="allowscriptaccess" value="always"></param><embed src="http://www.youtube.com/v/F14Sbml9AnE?version=3&hl=en_US" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" width="640" height="390" allowscriptaccess="always" allowfullscreen="true"></embed></object>​

As you can see above, certain full screen applications that override the desktop (Photo Viewer’s full screen mode, PowerPoint, etc) cause past versions of the desktop to pop up. In the video, we open Photo Viewer, extend the image to full screen mode and in a few seconds it automatically minimizes, only to be replaced with the image of a desktop state from hours previously. This is followed by a full screen shot of Wildtangent Games and then back to Photo Viewer.

Unfortunately we haven’t been able to find a solution for this but it looks to be that a software issue is preventing the proper segregation of information within the system’s cache. Old blocks of system memory seem to be sticking around like little Gremlins and end up causing these overrides.
 

SKYMTL

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System Benchmarks

System Benchmarks


These system benchmarks will cover the basics of a notebook’s sub-system performance along with Startup and Shutdown times. For PCMark 7 the standard test is used for most notebooks but entry level models are tested using the Lightweight Test. WPrime tests CPU performance and finally, Crystal Diskmark will give us an idea of storage (HDD or SSD) performance.







Because of its very, very fast 256GB SSD the Series 9 is able to post some extremely impressive results in some of these tests. System startup and shutdown, application start time, PCMark and Crystal Diskmark are the primary beneficiaries of this move to solid state storage. These all point to this particular Series 9 model being a very potent competitor in the ultra portable market where CPU intensive tasks aren’t normally used.

When the CPU starts getting factored into some of these benchmarks things don’t turn out too favorably. Yes, we understand that the two other notebooks we’re comparing it against boast slightly higher end processors, but this just goes to illustrate what a “small” upgrade can accomplish. Just remember that the low voltage 2 core, 4 thread CPU within the Series 9 is more than adequate for the vast majority of the applications it will be used for.
 

SKYMTL

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Productivity Benchmarks

Productivity Benchmarks


In this section we will be benchmarking programs which many people use on a daily basis. WinRAR will show how well a given system’s CPU, memory and storage subsystem performance work together to compress a large folder with 2.5GB of information contained within. Meanwhile, we use DriverHeaven’s Photoshop Benchmark and CineBench to recreate a professional usage environment of photo manipulation and rendering. MediaCoder x64 is also included in order to show CPU video transcoding performance within a free, vendor agnostic and multi threaded program.






Since our higher echelon productivity benchmarks focus upon stressing the whole system, the Series 9 tends to fall by the wayside. Its slow CPU becomes a bottleneck regardless of the 8GB of system memory and a 256GB SSD. Once again though, it is very important to remember that ultra portable notebooks like this one aren’t meant for quick completion of intense CPU tasks.
 

SKYMTL

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Entertainment Benchmarks / Network (WiFi) Performance

Entertainment Benchmarks


With a swift propagation of online and disk-based high definition content, testing a notebook’s performance in this area is critical. In order to accomplish this, a 720P YouTube Flash video clip is played through Google Chrome with hardware acceleration enabled.

The Blu Ray tests are conducted through Cyberlink’s PowerDVD 11 Ultra once again with hardware acceleration enabled if the system supports it. The video was run directly from the notebook’s hard drive. If the notebook doesn’t support 1080P input to its screen, we output the video via HDMI to a 1080P HDTV.


The gaming tests seen below are relatively straightforward with a single basic DX9 game being used along with 3DMark06 as a synthetic benchmark. All games are benchmarked in-game three times over so as to ensure accuracy with all settings as indicated in the charts below.






The Intel HD 3000 series GPU is by no means a powerhouse but it doesn’t have much trouble with these two benchmarks. CPU usage does peak at some higher than expected levels during the 1080P decoding process but we highly doubt this notebook will be used for many people’s HTPC.

Gaming definitely isn’t the Series 9’s forte though. The HD 3000 IGP may be light years ahead of the units used in pre-Sandy Bridge processors but it is still a far cry away from even lower-end discrete GPUs. Playing some games at very low detail settings may be possible but we wouldn’t recommend it.


Network Performance


One of the most important aspects of any portable device is its ability to connect to wireless networks. A weak wireless card, insufficient insulation around the receiver or a badly placed antenna could all lead to connection issues and poor signal reception. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting booted from the ‘net due to insufficient signal.

In this simple test, we set up a wireless router (D-Link DIR-825) in six pre-determined locations within our 3-floor home at a rate of two locations per floor and each connected to a host PC. The notebook is placed upstairs (on the 3rd level), the router is connected to and a 1GB folder of information is transferred over to the host PC over the network. Typically, the transfer takes 5 to 20 minutes depending upon signal strength, etc.

The numbers you see below indicate how many connection points each notebook could recognize and then complete a successful file transfer. Naturally, higher recognized connection rates and successful file transfer numbers indicate better wireless performance.

Note than the floor plate between the basement and first level is concrete, which will prove to be a significant challenge for the penetration of wireless signals. The locations chosen range from 20 feet to approximately 50 feet away from the tested computer.



To put it bluntly, the Series 9 offers absolutely pathetic wireless performance. Even though the DIR-825 is one of the more powerful home routers currently available, our Samsung notebook was only able to pick it up in three of the six locations. Even with a meager 50% detection rate, it was only able to successfully complete the 1GB transfer to ONE of the six points.

While the chart doesn’t show this, we also tested an older MSI Wind U100, a three year old Dell Inspiron 1521 and a Vaio Z 1290 and all of them had significantly better results than Samsung’s $2300 ultra portable.

If you are travelling and expect the Series 9 to offer hassle free wireless internet connection in hotels or airports, be prepared for a rude surprise.
 

SKYMTL

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Battery Life

Battery Life


Battery longevity is one of (if not THE) most important aspect of any mobile device which is why we are breaking this section down into three distinct tests. The “Standard Workload” represents relatively light usage with a Flash-enabled web page being refreshed every 30 seconds. Our “Heavy Workload” runs a looped 10 minute automatic script that reflects a professional usage pattern of photo manipulation (Photoshop CS5), word processing (Microsoft Word), drafting (AutoCAD 2011) and file compression (WinRAR). Finally, the “Gaming” test runs a timedemo loop of Far Cry 2 DX9.

All tests are run until the battery reaches 5% with the Balanced battery mode enabled and the screen at 75% brightness. Wireless is also turned on but any backlit keyboard functionality is turned off.



With battery life hovering just north of the four hour mark, this notebook’s 6-cell battery has what it takes to carry you through a mid range flight or a few classes in a typical school day. Even during more intensive tasks it stayed alive for more than three hours which is a respectable achievement and could prove to be a huge benefit for professional users.

While four hours may sound like a long time, we actually expected far better from the Series 9 considering its claimed 6.5 hours of work time. In our opinion, in order to achieve “ultra portable” status, a notebook needs to run for at least five hours on a single charge and Samsung’s $2300 unit couldn’t achieve that. With no battery upgrade option available, there are very few options to coax more out of it unless certain sacrifices are made.

There is however a glimmer of hope. Since the Series 9’s screen is so bright, reducing it to 75% brightness in our battery tests resulted in luminosity which easily matched other notebooks’ 100% backlight setting. Further dialing it back to 50% resulted in perfectly acceptable viewing levels while squeezing out an additional twenty minutes of battery life.
 

SKYMTL

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Temperatures & Acoustics

Temperatures


Temperature testing is quite straightforward: we load the system with a loop of Far Cry 2 in order to stress the dedicated GPU (if there is one) while the CPU load is handled by a loop of WPrime 32M. Temperatures are recorded with HWInfo and GPU-Z. Remember that this is a worst case scenario test so typical usage patterns will result in slightly lower temperatures.

Meanwhile, exterior temperatures are taken with a calibrated Fluke infrared thermometer at various locations on the notebook chassis. For comparison’s sake, we consider exterior readings of under 85°F to be perfectly suitable for on-lap usage while temperatures between 85°F and 95°F will start to feel a bit toasty. Anything above 95°F is uncomfortable and care should be given before placing it on your lap.



For such a compact device, we were actually expecting the Series 9’s CPU temperatures to soar in our demanding test but that just wasn’t the case. Both the processor and SSD remained cool under load without any significant temperature spikes. There is however a reason for this….



In order to achieve low CPU and system temperatures, a shocking amount of heat is transferred to certain parts of the metal chassis. This leads to sections of the keyboard becoming uncomfortably hot (luckily, the palm rest and touch pad are spared for the most part) while the underside sees temperatures that are best reserved for hot asphalt rather than a notebook. We can’t put this more delicately: when its processor is pushed, the Series 9 can become a dangerously hot nut roaster.


Acoustical Testing


No one likes a loud laptop so in order to objectively determine acoustical properties, we use a calibrated decibel meter which is placed 16” away from the keyboard. A loop of WPrime is used to load the system and replicate a high usage scenario.

Any result under 35dB can be considered no louder than general background noise and usually won’t be noticed. Between 35dB and 45dB is still perfectly acceptable for notebooks yet will be much more noticeable than lower frequencies and likely won’t be heard over the noise of typing. Finally, we consider any result above 45dB to be unacceptable for a mobile device.



Silence is golden and while the Series 9 may get blisteringly hot on the outside, its fan spins at very reasonable speeds and don’t cause any discernable noise.
 

SKYMTL

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Conclusion

Conclusion


To many of our readers the Series 9 will look like an almost desperate attempt by Samsung to create a bona fide Macbook Air competitor or at the very least make their presence known in the ultra portable market. Well, a statement has certainly been made; this svelte notebook crams a significant amount of power into its confined chassis and performance is actually quite respectable. There certainly won’t be any records set but 8GB of memory and a reasonably fast SSD configuration make for some very responsive computing and let’s be honest: this is one good looking computer.

There is also a fair bit of innovation here too. Slim designs usually mean throwing out some much-needed connectivity but we still get USB 3.0, HDMI and a LAN port via an included –somewhat flimsy- adaptor. Granted, we would have liked another USB port but otherwise, the selection of I/O ports is enough to satisfy most users. In a true departure from other ultra thins, ridiculous bumpers, screen protectors or other bodyguards won’t be needed for this notebook since the Duralumin shell is built like a tank, exhibits no flex and is almost impervious to scratches. There are also unique flip-down side panels which hide the connectors to maintain a beautifully sculpted profile.

While the Series 9 may appear to be a technological tour de force, it sacrifices practicality and lasting appeal for sleek, sexy lines. Sure, the chassis is wonderfully thin but WiFi performance was laughable at best, exterior temperatures hit scary levels, the omission of a full sized SD card reader is disappointing and battery life fell short of our expectations. The inclusion of a 1366 x 768 screen is also baffling considering the astronomical price and a prevalence of higher resolution panels are used on Sony’s Z-series (1600x900) and the Macbook Air (1440x900). Samsung once again went the “design for design’s sake” route by adding a mirror-like finish to the matte screen’s bezel, reflecting light right back into your eyes and marring an otherwise excellent viewing experience.


This particular Series 9 model has been parachuted into a very appealing market niche but we find ourselves struggling to find a practical use for it. Ultra light weight, a matte screen, good performance and an incredibly thin profile should have created a perfect travel companion but many of points we listed previously hold it back in this area. Its extreme portability and broad range of capabilities make it well suited as a back-to-school notebook as well but $2300 is well beyond the means of most students. The less expensive versions of the Series 9 will likely provide an excellent alternative if cost is holding your decision back but many of our concerns apply to these as well.

So what can Samsung’s newest ultra portable be used for? Almost everything you could possibly want but that doesn’t distinguish it from the competition in any way. This is a high end, expensive, albeit well built fashion statement that will elicit stares from passersby while providing no more functionality than other, much less expensive ultra portables like Sony’s Vaio Z, ASUS’ U36 and yes, even the MacBook Air.


 
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