Just as the original 13-inch Samsung Series 9 laptop was a direct shot across the bow of the 13-inch MacBook Air, this new 11.6-inch version is aimed squarely at the smaller version of the Air. The 11.6-inch Series 9 is so similar to the 13-inch version that it looks like our earlier Samsung review unit got hit with a shrink ray. The same curved sides and rounded hinge are there, as is the brushed metal surface, made of a space-age metal called Duralumin, which Samsung claims has "twice the strength of aluminum."
While the Series 9 is most likely to be compared to the MacBook Air, 11-inch laptops are becoming more popular, and there are now several worthy options to choose from, such as the high-end Alienware M11x and the inexpensive HP Pavilion dm1z. The $1,199 Series 9 is arguably the best-looking of all of these (it's a toss-up against the Air), but it falls behind on price--the Air starts at $999--and performance, as the Series 9 is saddled with an older 2010 low-voltage version of Intel's Core i3 CPU.
If you upgrade to a comparably priced 11-inch McBook Air, you'll get double the hard-drive space (128GB rather than 64GB) and slightly better graphics. The less expensive Air also beat the Series 9 in the area of battery life, a key selling point for an ultraportable. Samsung's strategy here should be to under-promise and over-deliver, not the other way around.
At the same time, the Samsung Series 9 has a lot going for it, including a backlit keyboard (something the MacBook Air lacks), a huge touch pad, and something close to the instant-on capabilities of OS X. It's state-of-the-art for Windows laptops, and likely the only real contender if you've got MacBook Air envy and don't mind spending a little more (a lot more, actually) than your average 11-inch laptop shopper.
|Price as reviewed||$1,199|
|Processor||1.33GHz Intel Core i3 380UM|
|Memory||2GB, 1,333MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||64GB SSD|
|Graphics||Intel HD 3000|
|Operating system||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||7.8x11.7 inches|
|Height||0.62 inch - 0.65 inch|
|Screen size (diagonal)||11.6 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||2.3 pounds /2.7 pounds|
Laptop designs are typically more about function than form, even for high-end brands such as Dell's XPS or HP's Envy. The Series 9 from Samsung is a rare exception to that rule, and after its debut at CES 2011, we've lost count of how many people raved to us about the look and feel of this very thin system.
At a bit over 2 pounds, it feels very light, but reasonably sturdy. Still, it lacks the solid slab-of-metal feel that gives MacBooks that air of invulnerability. As with the 13-inch version of the Series 9, there's a little too much flex in the top lid, and the matte black interior surfaces easily pick up fingerprints and smudges.
The 11-inch Air weighs the same, but the "Who's thinnest?" question is a little trickier to answer. The more tapered Air is thinnest at its edges, going down to 0.11 inch, while the Series 9 is a hair thinner at the thickest point (0.65 inch versus 0.68 inch). In short, both are amazingly thin and will satisfy aesthetic minimalists.
Two of the features that make the MacBook Air such a joy to use are its quick boot times and nearly instant sleep mode. Close the lid, and it goes to sleep. Open the lid and it wakes right up, even if you've left it sitting untouched for days. Samsung has come the closest to matching that performance, and the boot times are amazingly brief for a Windows laptop, typically under 30 seconds. When you close the lid, the Series 9 goes into a Mac-like sleep mode. That's especially welcome, as we like the idea of just closing your laptop's lid, walking away, and coming back to it later, without having to worry (too much, at least) about the battery or the unpredictability of the sleep/hibernate process on Windows laptops. The Series 9's sleep mode wasn't quite as good as the MacBook Air's, however. Sometimes the laptop would wake right up in a few seconds, other times we had to hit the power button, and at least once the laptop failed to wake at all, requiring a hard reboot.
Review of Samsung Series 9 (13-inch)
Review of MacBook Air (11.6-inch)
Review of Alienware M11x
Review of HP Pavilion dm1z
The keyboard and touch pad have an unmistakable MacBook-like style (it may seem tedious at this point to compare every feature to the Apple equivalent, but the Series 9 is so explicitly positioned as the Air's direct competitor that it's unavoidable). The large, flat-topped keys are backlit, a feature we always appreciate and that is especially hard to find in an 11-inch laptop. The large touch pad, again like the MacBook's (and a few others, such as the HP Envy's), is a single surface without buttons, hinged at the top. Its response to multitouch gestures is halting and imprecise, however--a universal problem for Windows laptops.
The 11.6-inch display has a native resolution of 1,366x768 pixels, which is the same as the Air and most of the 11-inch to 15-inch laptops we've seen this year. On the smaller screen, this resolution provides crisp detail and plenty of screen real estate. Even better is the nearly glare-free surface of the display, with excellent off-axis viewing. It's definitely a highlight of the system.
|Samsung Series 9||Average for category [ultraportable]|
|Video||Mini-HDMI||VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Single headphone/mic jack||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||2 USB 2.0, microSD card reader||3 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet (via dongle), 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband|
To preserve the clean lines of the Series 9, ports and connections are hidden away under sliding plastic flaps on the right and left edges of the body. The downside is that the doors themselves are fragile-feeling and cumbersome, and you need an external dongle to hook up everything from an Ethernet jack to an HDMI cable.
The 11.6-inch Samsung Series 9 comes in a single configuration that includes a 1.3GHz Intel Core i3 CPU, a 64GB solid-state drive (SSD), and 2GB of RAM. For $1,200 the 64GB SSD is just way too small--Apple offers the same 64GB SSD for $999, or a 128GB drive for $1,199. At least the Series 9 has a newer Core i3 CPU, rather than the dated Core 2 Duo in the MacBook Air. However, that Core i3 is a 2010 version, not Intel's latest generation (the 13-inch Series 9 has a 2011 Intel CPU). That means you miss out on the better battery life and integrated graphics found in other 2011 laptops.
In fact, the older CPU in the 11.6-inch MacBook Air ended up outperforming the 11.6-inch Series 9 in our benchmark tests, although not by a huge margin in most cases. As an example of what the Series 9 could be capable of, Dell's new Alienware M11x has a 1.4GHz Intel Core i5-2537M in an 11-inch chassis, and offers comparable performance to a full-size laptop. In anecdotal use, however, the Series 9 was perfectly fine for Web surfing, working on documents, and media playback, even of full-screen HD video.