Sometimes it's pretty hard to tell what constitutes "low-cost" in a laptop. There are doorbuster, underpowered computers for $300, plenty of perfectly decent bargains for $500, and a wide swath of ultrabooks and gaming PCs that'll get as expensive as you let them.
The perfect sweet-spot $799 touch-screen Windows 8 ultrabook has been made already: we've reviewed several, in fact. But, those configurations tend to get discontinued.
The Samsung Ativ Book 9 Lite has a retail list price of $799.99, but it's now sold most places for $749. It's a reasonably nice-looking variation on the Samsung Ativ Book 9 (formerly the Series 9) superthin laptop. But, corners have been cut. Instead of metal, it's made of plastic. And, most importantly, instead of an Intel Core i5 or i7 processor, the Book 9 Lite is AMD-based, using a customized quad-core processor. So, it's not an ultrabook at all -- not technically, since that branding belongs to Intel -- but, like many previous AMD-powered "sleek" laptops such as the HP Sleekbooks, the idea is similar.
Do these changes make the Ativ Book 9 Lite a worse laptop? Well, yes. Is it still a functional, sleek, and solid computer? Yes, but you can do better. The Book 9 Lite loses some of the Samsung magic. It's just not a great laptop. And if you go bargain-hunting for last year's ultrabooks, there's a good chance one of those discontinued models could even be a better overall experience. I'd buy this product at $600, but not at $800. Hunt down one of those previous third-gen Intel touch-screen ultrabooks instead, unless you prefer Samsung's built-in Samsung Galaxy-friendly software...which you can also get on other, better Samsung laptops (read below on that).
|Samsung Ativ Book 9 Lite||MacBook Air 13-inch (June 2013)||Sony Vaio Pro 13||Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus||Acer Aspire S7- 392-6411|
|Display size/resolution||13.3-inch, 1,366x768 touch screen||13.3-inch, 1,440x900 screen||13.3-inch, 1,920x1,080 touch screen||13.3-inch, 1,920x1,080 touch screen||13.3-inch, 1,920x1,080 touch screen|
|PC CPU||1GHz AMD A4 Quad-Core||1.3GHz Intel Core i5-4250U||1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U||1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U||1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U|
|PC memory||4,096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz||4,096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz||4,096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz||4,096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz||8,192MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz|
|Graphics||512MB AMD Radeon HD 8250||1,024MB Intel HD Graphics5000||1,659MB Intel HD Graphics 4400||1,749MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 4400||128MB Intel HD Graphics 4400|
|Storage||128GB SSD||128GB SSD||128GB SSD||128GB SSD||128GB SSD|
|Networking||802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||802.11a/c wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||Windows 8 (64-bit)||OSX Mountain Lion 10.8.4||Windows 8 (64-bit)||Windows 8 (64-bit)||Windows 8 (64-bit)|
Design: plastic isn't always fantastic
I always loved the Samsung Series 9. The Ativ Book 9 Lite isn't exactly that laptop.
It does, however, have a lot of style...but it's a plastic type of style. The Book 9 Lite's dark-gray matte chassis immediately feels heavier and thicker, but only in comparison with a wafer-thin Series 9. It feels like it has the same heft as a MacBook Air, and feels like a budget plastic stand-in.
However, if you get closer, you can see differences. The glossy brushed-metal-effect plastic back lid is reminiscent of a Toshiba laptop, or something by Asus. The lid opens smoothly, but the top screen bounces up and down a bit during heavy typing. The bottom half has tapered side edges, but the center feels thicker. It almost feels like a DVD drive should be hidden in there, like on a Toshiba Portege or Acer Timeline M5.
The keyboard's got lots of finger room, and the palm-rest area below feels generous. The clickable touch pad is big, too. But, there's just something about the whole experience that feels a little off. The keys aren't backlit, and the matte plastic surfaces and typing responsiveness feel less crisp, a little cheap. The touch pad works just fine, especially for off-edge Windows 8 swipe gestures.
The 13.3-inch, 1,366x768-pixel-resolution display is fair, not great. I was always impressed by the crispness and off-angle viewing the older Series 9/Book 9 provided; this doesn't have that. This is a standard everyday LCD display, prone to washing out at off-angle. It's reasonably bright at highest settings, but text just doesn't pop at this resolution. You can't expect a lot more at this price. It also has a glossy edge-to-edge covering, which throws a lot of glare. But, that's because this is a capacitive touch display. Touch interactivity works well, and is a welcome addition compared with the touch-free Book 9 I last reviewed, but most Windows laptops now have touch screens. It's not a surprising addition.
Stereo speakers tucked under the sides pump out loud audio, but sound quality on the Book 9 Lite doesn't feel like a standout any more than picture quality.
Configurations, features, performance
Just like on the old Series 9, you get a weirdly compressed bunch of ports: full-size USB 3.0 and 2.0, but Micro-HDMI and Mini-VGA, and no Ethernet port. It doesn't make much sense not to have full-size ports on a laptop this big.
The 4GB of RAM and 128GB solid-state drive (SSD) that this $799 configuration comes with match the standard of any basic ultrabook. The change here comes in processor: a quad-core AMD processor takes the place of the Intel Core i3/i5/i7 you'd normally expect. What type of processor? That's a good question: all Samsung's review documentation, and even the internal Windows Experience Index descriptor, says is, "Quad Core Processor, 1.0GHz (up to 1.4GHz)." What does that mean, and how does this processor perform?
From an everyday-use "Folger's taste test" type of challenge, you could use this laptop and enjoy its features without realizing it lacks a Core i5 processor...unless you were playing games or monitoring battery life. Our benchmark tests show a significant speed drop from a standard ultrabook. If you're multitasking, pushing heavy graphics-based tasks, or editing video, this laptop will disappoint. I find it hard to accept the performance drop at this price.
There is one compelling, but relatively minor, incentive for Samsung phone/tablet owners to upgrade: SideSync allows a Galaxy phone or tablet to connect to the Ativ Book 9 Lite wirelessly or via USB cable, and can either mirror the phone's functions on the laptop screen, or allow you to use your laptop's keyboard and touch pad to control your phone or tablet. It's clever, especially as a way of monitoring your phone when working at a cafe, and recent Samsung Windows laptops include it.
The Book 9 Lite's battery lasted 5 hours and 7 minutes in our video-loop playback test. Samsung claims 5.5 hours of battery life for the laptop, which isn't far off the mark. The last Book 9 I reviewed had very similar battery life (5 hours, 5 minutes), but was a smaller laptop.
In 2011, that would have been a great battery score. In 2013, it isn't. Many ultrabooks with Intel's latest fourth-gen processors are averaging 8 hours or more on the same tests. Five hours can get you through a day, but it means keeping an eye on the battery level, tweaking settings, and keeping a power outlet nearby.
Conclusion: Would have been good for around $600
It isn't such a great thing to sacrifice battery life and performance for a few hundred dollars in savings. You may not even have to spend that much more: laptops like certain configurations of the Toshiba Portege cost about the same. Yes, some of our favorite ultrabooks cost closer to $1,000. Honestly, you'd be better off spending a little extra.
For an everyday, solid computing experience in a stylish, thin body, the Ativ Book 9 Lite will do well enough. I just wouldn't want to buy one, especially with so many new laptops coming out and so many discounted models floating around online. It's nothing special in the world of Windows 8 touch laptops...which is a shame, because so many recent Samsung ultrabooks are.