Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus review: High-resolution, small-footprint premium laptop

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MSRP: $1,399.99

The Good The Ativ Book 9 Plus laptop has a sturdy, slim design, ultra-high-res touch screen, and really good battery life.

The Bad Costs several hundred more than we’d prefer; shrunken HDMI port; doesn’t convert to a tablet form -- strictly a laptop.

The Bottom Line If you’re just looking for an all-around excellently made Windows touch ultrabook and don’t mind that it's on the expensive side (and doesn’t convert to a tablet), the improved Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus is worth the investment.

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8.4 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 9
  • Performance 8
  • Battery 9

Take a beautiful Windows ultrabook design. Add a super-high-resolution touch screen and longer-battery-life Intel Haswell processor. What could be wrong with that?

Nothing at all. The Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus is a rebirth of the Book 9/Series 9, a laptop line we've loved for years because of its solid shape, slim design, and strong performance. Samsung's rebranding of Windows laptops to "Ativ" is a little confusing, as is the splitting of the line into two thin laptops: the Book 9 Lite and Book 9 Plus. The Lite, which I've already reviewed, is plastic, has an AMD processor, and is a different type of product, but costs around $750. The Plus is a far better ultrabook, but it's $1,399, nearly twice the price. It comes with what amounts to the New Standard in premium Windows ultrabooks: a greater-than-1080p 3,200x1,800-resolution touch screen, plus improved battery life thanks to a Intel Haswell Core i5 processor inside.

Do you pull the trigger on the more expensive ultrabook? I would. The Book 9 Plus is one of my favorite Windows 8 laptops, feels great to use, and I'd pay a few hundred more for it, begrudgingly. Even the equivalently configured 13-inch MacBook Air, albeit with a lower-res non-touch screen, costs about $300 less. And other Windows laptops in this territory are available closer to $1,000.

Nevertheless, it's hard to beat the pure package that the Book 9 Plus offers. It might not convert to a tablet, but it sure is a sweet, but expensive, laptop.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Design: Perfected ultrabook
The Ativ Book 9 Plus is extremely similar to the older Book 9: gunmetal-blue on the outside, silver edges, a curved, tapered profile like an airfoil, and a footprint smaller than a 13-inch MacBook Air.

You can make an argument -- an easy one, in fact -- that the biggest thing holding back Windows 8 laptops is Windows 8 itself. Hardware manufacturers are clearly trying to do their best, but there's a decision to be made: design a flippy-convertible tablet-to-laptop beast, or just make a good laptop?

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Samsung Book 9 Plus opts for the latter path, and probably wisely so. It's heavier than the last Book 9/Series 9, weighing in at 3.2 pounds versus the sub-3-pound wonder it was previously. It's a little bit thicker, too, to accommodate the upper lid's new touch screen. You probably won't notice much; the last Book 9 was shockingly light, and this new model just feels normal.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Display: More pixels than you'll know what to do with
The last year has seen a lot of computers adopting high pixel-density "ultra-high-res" displays, higher than 1080p and boasting much crisper image quality. The improvements can be hard to appreciate: once you get over 1080p, the sharpness of text and image quality amounts to close-up detail more than jump-out clarity.

The Book 9 Plus wins the pixel arms race with a stunning 3,200x1,800-pixel 13.3-inch display; the Toshiba Kirabook clocks in 2,560x1,440 pixels, and the 13-inch Retina Display MacBook Pro has 2,550x1,660. That's phenomenal pixel density, and a huge leap from the 1,600x900-pixel display on the previous Book 9.

But, while that quality display is great for clarity and viewing high-resolution images, a lot of the value is theoretical, since many Windows 8 apps don't take advantage of this resolution yet, and it's unlikely your video diet will include content better than 1080p.

The glossy display may be a little harder to see in direct light versus the matte display the Book 9 used to have, but glossy works better for capacitive touch. Gaining that feature is a plus -- in fact, it's hard to believe this high-end laptop lacked touch until now. The upper lid opens up 180 degrees, lying flat with the keyboard on a table if you wish, but it won't flip into a tablet. Gaining touch means easier compatibility with Windows 8 apps. The IPS display looks excellent and bright from all angles.

But at the 3,200x1,800 resolution, desktop mode becomes a hopelessly small landscape of mini-icons and micro-text. In tile-based app mode, however, apps stay the same size but gain more fine detail when optimized (for pictures and text, in most cases). Text size can be optimized either way. To be honest, though, I was usually fine working in 1080p; the extra-high resolution is just PC gravy.

The onboard speakers deliver nice, strong sound, too. The 720p Webcam also looks better-than-average. Overall, the Book 9 Plus has a pretty stand out set of audiovisual components for its small size.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Keyboard and touch pad are on point
Yes, this keyboard is backlit; but, it's so subtly done that you may not notice in normal light. The bluish LED lighting works gently, just enough so that the keys are readable in all light conditions, versus seem "lit up." The raised keys are pretty flat, like on many thin laptops, but the keyboard is laid out with generous spaciousness, and feels good to type on.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The wide clickable touch pad is once again really good, with lots of multifinger gesture room, and it's easy to do off-edge swiping. Keyboards and touch pads matter, and Samsung generally nails both on the Book 9 Plus.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Mini-ports galore
OK, here's one thing I really wish were improved since the last Book 9: Samsung really loves mini-ports on the Book 9 Plus. HDMI and VGA video-out are conspicuously represented by micro-ports. There are two full USB 3.0 ports and an SD card slot, but would it be so hard to fit a regular HDMI port in, too? Just curious.

Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi are here, though, as you'd expect, but not 802.11ac, the new, faster Wi-Fi standard. Go figure.

Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus MacBook Air 13-inch (June 2013) Acer Aspire S7- 392-6411
Price $1,399 $1,099 $1,399
Display size/resolution 13.3-inch, 3,200x1,800 touch screen 13.3-inch, 1,440x900 screen 13.3-inch, 1,920x1,080 touch screen
PC CPU 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 4200U 1.3GHz Intel Core i5 4250U 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 4200U
PC Memory 4096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz 4096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz 8192MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz
Graphics 1749MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 4400 1024MB Intel HD Graphics5000 128MB Intel HD Graphics 4400
Storage 128GB SSD hard drive 128GB SSD hard drive 128GB SSD hard drive
Optical drive None None None
Networking 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11a/c 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)

A word on SideSync
Samsung's recent Windows-compatible laptops feature SideSync software that allows Samsung Galaxy tablets and phones to work side-by-side and share keyboards and screen space. It's clever stuff: you can mirror your phone or tablet's screen on the Book 9 Plus to monitor calls and notifications or even use apps while the other device is tucked away, and the Book 9 Plus' keyboard and touch pad can be used to operate the phone or tablet.

It could be helpful in a narrow workspace like a plane's tray-table, or during a cramped event like, say, a tech live blog. If you're already a Samsung device owner, it's a nice perk.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Performance and battery life
The Book 9 Plus amounts to a standard fourth-gen Intel Core i5 ultrabook under its skin, and, to no surprise, it performs like one. "Haswell" Intel processors in thin laptops add up to better onboard graphics and big leaps in battery life more than overall system speed. As you can see on the benchmark charts, the new Book 9 Plus with a fourth-gen 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 4200U processor had performance pretty close to the Book 9 running a last-gen 2GHz Intel Core i7 3527U.

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