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Samsung Series 9: A Real MacBook Air Competitor

At less than 3 pounds and 0.7 inch thick, Samsung's Series 9 laptop challenges Apple's MacBook Air for the ultraslim limelight. At a starting price of $1649 (compared with Apple's $1299), the Series 9 is costlier than the 13-inch MacBook Air, but it offers generally superior hardware and is eminently usable.

Samsung Series 9: Similar to the MacBook Air in its dimensions, this ultraportable comes with some better, more-recent hardware inside; however, it also costs more.
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 even though the default clock speed of the Air is 1.86GHz and the ultra-low-voltage CPU in the Series 9 is only 1.4GHz, the Series 9 is actually a bit faster: It earned a WorldBench 6 score of 103, while the 13-inch MacBook Air scored 90. Also, Samsung includes 4GB of RAM.

The Series 9's battery life is quite decent for a laptop this thin: 5.5 hours in our battery run-down tests, which is on a par with many thicker, heavier ultraportables, and about half an hour longer than the 13-inch MacBook Air. The Series 9 comes standard with a 128GB solid-state drive, as the Air does, and this enables the system to feel responsive and quick, to boot up fast, and to resume Windows in less than 3 seconds when you open the lid.

The Series 9 falls a bit short in 3D gaming, relying on Intel's HD Graphics 3000 to push pixels; the GPU isn't powerful enough to run the latest games without severely compromising visual quality. But the integrated graphics does a great job with video decoding, so even high-def material plays smoothly.

After a bit of tweaking, our Series 9 was a joy to use. Samsung says that its handsome brushed-metal exterior is made from Duralumin, an aluminum alloy first made for rigid airships and planes. The system feels stiff and sturdy, with very little flex. The 13.3-inch LED backlit screen is one of the laptop's best features. The 1366 by 768 resolution is appropriate for its size, but the vibrant colors, excellent viewing angles, bright backlight, and matte antiglare finish really make it stand out.

The full-size keyboard is easy to type on--the keys have a distinct "clicky" feel and are all sized and spaced to enable touch-typists to achieve their full speed easily and without errors. The touchpad is big, but it's just too sensitive--and all its multifinger gesture controls can't make up for that excessive touchiness.

As for connectivity, Samsung provides a USB 2.0 port on each side, one of which is a "sleep-and-charge" port to power devices while the laptop is asleep. You also get a Mini HDMI output port, a combination headphone/mic jack, and a microSD card slot (a full SD card slot looks as though it could have fit, and would have been much more useful). In lieu of the too-big RJ45 jack necessary for an ethernet plug, Samsung has a special port on the left side for plugging in an included, short port-to-ethernet dongle.

Preinstalled software is relatively minimal, thankfully. You get trial versions 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--and that's about it.

Samsung is clearly trying to make a statement with the Series 9, but is it worth its $1600-and-up asking price? For the average person, no. You can get considerably better performance for the price, or the same performance in a less impressive body for much less money. But match it against the MacBook Air, and--though it costs $350 more--you'll get a faster processor, a matte screen, an ethernet jack, and twice the RAM.

--Jason Cross

Sony Vaio Z-Series VPC-Z137GX/S: Light and Mighty

Sony's Vaio Z-Series VPC-Z137GX/S balances portability, ergonomics, and performance in a way that's hard to beat. It's not quite as light or as small as the average ultraportable, but it offers a 13.1-inch, 1600-by-900-pixel display, great ergonomics, and a built-in DVD burner. It's still smaller and lighter than a typical all-purpose 14- or 15-inch laptop. (It weighs in at just over 3 pounds and measures 11.4 by 1.3 by 8.3 inches.) It looks great and performs superbly; the laptop hasn't sacrificed functionality for portability.

Sony's Vaio Z-Series VPC-Z137GX/S balances portability, ergonomics, and performance--but be prepared for sticker shock.
The downside to the VAIO Z-Series is its price: a whopping $2300.

That's owing in part to its 256GB solid-state drive, which gives the installed 64-bit Windows 7 operating system a snappy feel that a standard rotating hard disk can't match. Sony also provides 4GB of 1066MHz DDR3 system memory and a discrete Nvidia GeForce GT 330M GPU with 1GB of video memory.

On our WorldBench 6 test suite, the unit earned an excellent mark of 118, as well as fantastic frame rates in our reference games. High-def (1080p) video played smoothly on the gorgeous display, and the audio sounded surprisingly clear and spacious.

The unit's great performance doesn't hurt its battery life--the laptop ran for 6 hours, 20 minutes in our battery rundown test.

Even with the DVD burner, Sony offers lots of ports: three USB 2.0 (sorry, no USB 3.0), both VGA and HDMI, and gigabit ethernet. You also get Bluetooth and N-wireless, software for sharing a broadband connection with up to five other users, Memory Stick MagicGate and SD memory card slots, and microphone and headphone jacks; but no eSATA or four-pin FireWire jacks.

Video from the Webcam tops out at 640 by 480 resolution. The laptop's backlit, Chiclet-style keyboard resembles the ones on the MacBook Air and the Toshiba M645, but unlike on those units, the backlight around the keys isn't distracting. The keyboard has a nice, firm feel, and the touchpad is well-tuned.

Sony loads its VAIO laptops with software. Many of the programs are branded utilities that duplicate Windows 7 functions, but some--like the Wi-Fi hotspot utility and ArcSoft's WebCam Companion 3--extend the laptop's capabilities. You also get trial versions of Microsoft Office 2010 and Norton Internet Security.

Of all the laptops reviewed in our Test Center in the past year, this model would have been my choice to keep.

--Jon L. Jacobi

Living Light

Using a slim, small, and light laptop comes with a few compromises. These three tips can make it easier to live with an ultraportable's limitations.

1. Let another PC do the heavy lifting: If you want to play the latest games, edit high-definition video, or do the kind of photo editing or large spreadsheet work that demands more-powerful processing and a larger screen, you may want to delegate those tasks to a second computer. Even an inexpensive desktop PC will be far more capable than a lightweight laptop at CPU-intensive applications.

2. Keep your head in the cloud: Storage space is limited on smaller laptops, and you may not have an optical drive. Online storage services like Dropbox, Skydrive, or Amazon Cloud Drive make it easy to save and access documents. Save photos to Flickr or Picasa. Use remote desktop software such as Windows Live Mesh or LogMe­In to access your home or office computer when you are out on the road.

3. A great bag makes all the difference: You'll negate the benefits of having a laptop with a smaller footprint and lighter weight if you lug it around in a huge bag. Take your time in shopping for a backpack, shoulder bag, or handbag. Look for one that's light and comfortable, and fits your laptop, its charger, and your other gadgets and accessories. You want everything to be easy to store and retrieve--in a compact bag.

What About Mac?

Apple makes one laptop that weighs less than 4 pounds: the MacBook Air. Offered in 11- and 13-inch variants, it's extremely thin and light, much like the Samsung Series 9. An 11-inch Air starts at $999, but you'll get only a 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo processor, a 64GB SSD drive, and 2GB of RAM. A 13-incher starts at $1299 with a 1.86GHz Core 2 Duo CPU, a 128GB SSD, and 2GB of RAM.

MacBook Airs are beautiful systems with comfortable keyboards and great trackpads, and you can run Windows on them by using virtualization software. Of course, you'll need to fork over more than $100 for a Windows license on top of the MacBook Air's price.

If you prefer to work in Windows, you're probably better off with one of the lightweight PCs featured here. You can read our re­­views and other coverage of Apple's sleek laptop here.

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