Ultrabooks at CES 2012: Small Laptops Are Big

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Hands-On Preview: Samsung Series 9 (2012 Model)

Last spring, Samsung impressed me by kicking off its high-end luxury Series 9 brand with an incredibly thin and light laptop. It was a fantastic competitor to the Macbook Air that came months before every laptop maker started cranking out Ultrabooks. In some ways, you could even call it the “proto-Ultrabook.” So if you’re Samsung, and everybody else has a similarly slim laptop on the way, what do you do for an encore?

Apparently, you go even thinner. Thinner, in fact, than any other laptop we’ve yet seen. The new 2012 version of the Series 9 is so skinny it’s practically a tablet; it’s only 0.5 inches thick and 2.5 pounds. I’ve been using a pre-production unit for a few days now, and it’s certainly impressive. The matte anti-glare 1600 by 900 display is very bright and crisp, and the overall build quality is top-notch. Pre-production systems usually lack the fit and finish of final production systems, but this one is tight and solid. The aluminum unibody construction is very rigid. The lid is almost impossibly thin, yet it prevents nearly all flex in the display, and the hinge doesn’t suffer from even a hint of wobble.

There’s not a lot of room for ports in a laptop this slim. You get one full-sized USB 2.0 port on the left and USB 3.0 on the right. An SD card slot hides behind a little pop-down door on the left underside edge. The headset plug on the right is the typica 1/8-inch size. For everything else, you’re looking at mini-plugs and dongles: mini-HDMI and an Ethernet dongle port on the left, and a VGA dongle on the right. Most users won’t have need of these, but it’s worth noting that business travelers will likely need to carry a few extra bits and bobs in their bag.

The full-sized keyboard has very little key travel – a common issue with super-thin laptops – but it’s still quite easy to type on. The large touchpad has a great feel, but is currently a little hard to use. I’m told this is a software issue with the preproduction unit, and one of the key areas Samsung is focusing on before release.

Performance is about what you’d expect from a system with a Core i5 processor, 4 GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD. You won’t be blown away by the Series 9’s speed, but neither will you feel like you’re being held back, sacrificing your usual performance for the sake of the slim form factor.

All this super-slim, super-attractive design and premium materials will cost you, though. With a Core i5 and 128GB SSD, the system will sell for around $1400 at the end of February. That’s a considerable price hike over the competition, including the similarly-configured Macbook Air. Interestingly, Samsung plans to produce a 15-inch version that will cost about $100 more.

Samsung is clearly banking on extremely high-end design to justify the very high price of the Series 9. Granted, this line isn’t meant for everyday users; it’s a “one percent” product meant to have a halo effect on the brand, not to sell millions of systems. Though I’m very impressed by the quality of this early system, it’s clear that Samsung will be facing a flood of competition in the Ultrabook market this spring.

[For more blogs, stories, photos, and video from the nation's largest consumer electronics show, check out PCWorld's complete coverage of CES 2012.]

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