Samsung Series 9: The First True MacBook Air Competitor
At a Glance
Samsung Series 9
If you can afford it, Samsung's high-style superthin laptop will make you the envy of your friends with bulky PCs.
Samsung's Series 9 laptop isn't the first Windows-bearing PC to try to steal Apple's MacBook Air limelight. Remember the troubled Adamo from Dell, set to compete with the first-generation Air? At less than three pounds and 0.7 inch thick, the Series 9 is trying again where Dell slipped up the first time. While the Adamo offered inferior hardware at a dramatically higher price than Apple, Samsung at least gets the hardware part right, and narrows the price gap a little. The Series 9 is costlier than the competing 13-inch MacBook Air with a starting price of $1649 (compared with Apple's $1299), but it offers mostly superior hardware and is eminently usable.
The biggest advantage that Samsung's slim wonder has over the Air is in the processor. Apple is still using a two-generations-old Core 2 Duo, while the Series 9 comes equipped with a new "Sandy Bridge" Core i5 2537M. So, while the default clock speed of the Air is 1.86GHz (with a 2.13GHz option available), and the ultralow-voltage CPU in the Series 9 is only 1.4GHz, the Samsung laptop is actually a bit faster. Some of this is due to architectural differences between the old Intel chip and the new one, and some of it is because the Core i5 2537M allows for Turbo Mode speeds up to 2.3GHz. The difference is not astounding, but it's noticeable: The Series 9 earned a WorldBench score of 103, while the 13-inch MacBook Air scored 90. Also note that while Apple gives you 2GB of RAM, Samsung includes 4GB.
Battery life is quite decent for a laptop this thin. It lasted 5.5 hours in our battery run-down tests, which isn't quite as long as most netbooks but is on a par with many thicker, heavier ultraportables. That time is also about half an hour longer than the 13-inch MacBook Air. The Series 9 comes standard with a 128GB SSD, just as the Air does, and this really helps the system to feel responsive and quick, to boot up fast, and to resume Windows, when you open the lid, in less than three seconds. The Series 9 falls a bit short when it comes to 3D gaming, relying on Intel's HD Graphics 3000 to push pixels. There's a huge improvement over previous Intel integrated graphics, but it's still not powerful enough to run the latest games without severely compromising visual quality. Older games, and simple casual games, work great. Performance is actually quite similar to the integrated Nvidia GeForce 320M found in the MacBook Air. Intel's new integrated graphics does a great job with video decoding, so even hi-def material plays smoothly.
After a bit of tweaking, the Series 9 is really a joy to use. Samsung says its handsome brushed-metal exterior is made from Duralumin, an aluminum alloy first made for rigid airships and planes. That may or may not be a bunch of marketing hooey, but the system is definitely attractive and feels stiff and sturdy, with very little flex in the main body. The 13.3-inch LED backlit screen stands as one of the laptop's best features. The 1366 by 768 resolution is appropriate for its size, but it's the vibrant colors, excellent viewing angles, bright backlight, and matte antiglare finish that really make it stand out. That's right: It's a colorful, bright screen on a high-style laptop that doesn't leave you staring at reflections of yourself all day!
The full-size keyboard is quite easy to type on. There isn't a lot of travel to the keys, but they have a distinct "clicky" feel and are all sized and spaced so that touch-typists can easily achieve their full speed without errors. The touchpad is less fantastic. It's a huge, buttonless clickpad that has a nice smooth feel and tracks quite well, but it's just too sensitive. Even after tweaking the Synaptics driver, I found the cursor occasionally jumped around a bit, or the palm-cancellation would briefly fail when I was typing. All the fancy multifinger gesture controls in the world don't make up for a clickpad that sometimes does what you didn't want it to do. Things go more smoothly after a period of adjustment, but the overtouchy clickpad was definitely the one usability sore spot in my testing.
Port space is extremely limited on a laptop this thin, and Samsung mostly does a good job with what it gives you. You have a USB 2.0 port on each side, one of which is a "sleep-and-charge" port that can power your devices while the laptop is asleep. You also get a Mini HDMI output port, a combination headphone/mic jack, and a microSD card slot. That last one is a bit unfortunate--it looks like there's room for a full SD card slot, and that format would have been much more useful for importing photos from digital cameras. The MacBook Air and Series 9 are too slim to fit the RJ45 jack necessary for an ethernet plug, but while Apple just does without it, Samsung's got your back: A slim proprietary port on the left side is for plugging in an included, short port-to-ethernet dongle.
Preinstalled software is relatively minimal, thankfully. You get trials of Norton Internet Security and Online Backup, a few casual games from WildTangent, plus Skype and CyberLink YouCam. Samsung includes its own emergency system restore software as well as a simple Control Center that's a one-stop shop to adjust brightness, join Wi-Fi networks, enable or disable Bluetooth, and so on. In short, you don't have a tray full of useless junk eating through all your precious RAM and processor cycles, and I didn't feel the need to clean the fluff out of this brand-new computer.
Samsung is clearly trying to make a statement here, creating a high-concept halo product that will attract customers to its brand even if they can't stomach the price of the Series 9. Is it worth the $1600-and-up asking price? For the average person, no. You're certainly paying for style here, and you can get considerably better performance for the price or get the same performance in a less impressive body for a lot less money. It actually stacks up well against the MacBook Air in terms of value. Sure, it's $350 more, but you get a faster processor, a matte screen, an ethernet jack, and twice the RAM.