Samsung Ativ Book 9 (2015) review: A slim 12-inch laptop that doesn't skimp on ports

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MSRP: $1,199.99

The Good Samsung fits a good number of ports into its very slim 12-inch Ativ Book 9. The system gets the best battery life to date from a Windows system running a Core M processor.

The Bad Shorter battery life than Apple's very similar 12-inch MacBook, and a matching configuration costs more. The lack of a touch screen and small touch pad aren't ideal for Windows 8.

The Bottom Line This very usable 12-inch laptop is a good, if expensive, tool for websurfing and casual use, but would benefit from better battery life.

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7.8 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 8
  • Performance 7
  • Battery 7

Before Apple even announced its slim, lightweight 12-inch MacBook , Samsung had already released a nearly identical product. First seen at CES 2015, the Samsung Ativ Book 9 matches the MacBook nearly spec for spec.

Both systems have 12-inch displays with better-than-HD resolutions, both use Intel's Core M processor, both have premium-feeling designs and are very slim and light, with each weighing just a hair over two pounds.

Side by side, they're very similar, so why does the MacBook have an edge in our head-to-head comparison? While Samsung is among the most forward-looking companies making Windows PCs (it practically invented the ultrabook concept with the original Series 9), this new 12-inch Book 9 falls short in a few key areas.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The MacBook has longer battery life than the Samsung, and significantly so. The keyboard and touchpad on the Book 9 are good for such a small laptop, but not as good for long-form typing or for OS navigation as the MacBook versions are. Lastly, the Ativ Book 9, if configured with the same 8GB RAM and 256GB SSD as the MacBook, costs $100 more, at $1,399 (£1,399 in the UK, but not currently available in Australia). It's tough to sell a laptop that's very similar to a buzz-heavy new MacBook by saying it costs more and its battery doesn't last as long. However, a less-expensive version of the Book 9, with 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD, is less than the MacBook, at $1,199 (£1,199 in the UK).

One area where Samsung beats Apple is in ports and connections. While the new MacBook has the new USB-C connector, which is very forward-looking and will eventually be everywhere, it's the only port of any kind on that system (aside from a headphone jack). Samsung proves you can squeeze more into a similarly slim system by including two USB 3.0 ports and Micro-HDMI, alongside an audio jack and a proprietary power connection.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Yes, the 12-inch MacBook is flashier and more fun to use. But, especially compared to other Windows 8 laptops, the Samsung Book 9 also has a very premium look and feel, is powerful enough for everyday online tasks, and has a keyboard and touchpad good enough for most typing and navigation needs. Neither system has a touchscreen, but that omission is more noticeable in the touch-centric world of Windows 8. If Samsung could boost the battery life, and at least match the MacBook spec-for-price, it would earn a stronger recommendation.

Samsung Ativ Book 9 (2015)

Price as reviewed $1,199
Display size/resolution 12-inch, 2,560, x 1,600 screen
PC CPU 1.1Ghz Intel Core M 5Y31
PC Memory 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz
Graphics 2005MB Intel HD Graphics 5300
Storage 125GB SSD
Networking 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system Windows 8.1 (64-bit)

Design and features

Several people have seen both the Samsung Book 9 and the 12-inch MacBook side by side in the CNET Lab and have expressed surprise that Apple's new design has already spawned copycats. In reality, we first saw this system in December 2014, and it was announced shortly afterward at CES 2015, more than two months before Apple gave notice of the 12-inch MacBook. So, while the long development cycle of computer hardware precludes any notion of design plagiarism, let's at least give Samsung some credit for getting its 12-inch Core M laptop out first.

Comparisons to the MacBook are inevitable, but as a standalone ultraportable laptop, the 12-inch Book 9 is very slick, indeed. In the hand, it's incredibly light, but still feels sturdy and well-constructed. One of the reasons it's so small is that this model moves to Intel's Broadwell-generation Core M CPU, a processor designed for very slim laptops, tablets and hybrids that sell at a premium price and can even run without a fan.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Visually, it's very similar to other recent Book 9 systems, with a matte-metallic finish, black island-style keyboard, and relatively large touch pad. While 13-inch laptops have always been the sweet spot between productivity and portability, this and the 12-inch MacBook both have me reconsidering that convention, as the savings in desk footprint and weight may well be worth the screen-size tradeoff.

The keyboard gets squeezed down a bit more than full-time typists might like in order to fit. The island-style keys are spaced widely enough to prevent much mistyping, but the actual key faces are small, especially compared to the enlarged ones on the 12-inch MacBook. Keys such as the tab and backspace are especially small, as is the spacebar. The keys are, however, much deeper than on the MacBook and have a satisfyingly hefty click.

The touchpad is a generous size, and gestures such as two-finger scrolling work well, even in apps such as Google's Chrome Web browser, which can be a hangup for low-power systems. But this touchpad lacks the wider array of multitouch gestures that people love in MacBooks. In a Windows 8 laptop, having access to a touch screen can make up for some of that when it comes to quick navigation, but as there's no touchscreen here, just getting around the OS can be a chore.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Many PC makers have come to see the wisdom in offering a very stripped down set of preloaded apps. It helps performance, reduces on-screen and hard-drive clutter, and frankly, no one uses proprietary apps, which tend to be overly self-serving. It's been awhile since I've seen a custom toolbar/app launcher as comprehensive as the Samsung Smart Advisor. It lives along the top of the display, with a secondary quick-launch bar along the bottom, above the Windows 8 taskbar.

Dan Ackerman/CNET, Samsung

From the toolbar, you can perform such exciting tasks as ordering printer ink, buying a Samsung-branded $20 mouse from a very dated-looking online storefront, launching a weather widget, or just jumping the gun and trading in your hardware via an affiliate deal link with NextWorth. You can also customize the toolbar to show other features, such as an icon to launch the RealPlayer media app (I can't recall the last time I've seen that pre-installed on a PC).

The secondary toolbar, smaller and located at the bottom of the screen, is somewhat more useful, with links to support and settings menus, a customized start menu, and a launcher for SideSync, an app that can link a Samsung phone and computer, allowing you to mirror the phone screen on your PC.