Windows 8 laptops with touch are everywhere, but don't tell the Samsung Ativ Book 9. This laptop doesn't seem to have gotten the memo. In fact, it seems almost exactly the same as the 2012 Samsung Series 9. That's because it is almost the same.
Samsung has new laptops and tablets coming soon, including a Book 9 Pro and Book 9 Lite, but this particular Book 9 is really just a rebranding effort. Gone are the "Series" naming conventions for Samsung laptops, which were admittedly getting wonky (there was a separate Series 7 and a completely different Series 7 Gamer, as well as a Series 5 and Series 5 Chromebook, but don't get us started). Now Ativ has become a catch-all for the Windows PC world of Samsung.
The Series 9 was one of our very favorite thin, compact 13-inch ultrabooks: it had a great build, a sharp screen, and great battery life. And the Book 9 hasn't changed much. It does have an excellent 1080p matte display, but much like Apple's MacBook Air, its design has stayed the same while the rest of the world is moving forward. And unlike the latest MacBook Air, the Book 9 didn't get a next-gen processor. But truthfully, Intel's latest processors don't offer any really big gains in speed: they're really all about the accompanying great improvement in battery life, and a boost in onboard integrated graphics.
A year later, can the same look and feel still work for Samsung, the way it does for Apple?
|Samsung Ativ Book 9||MacBook Air 13-inch (June 2013)||Sony Vaio Pro 13|
|Display size/resolution||13.3-inch, 1,920x1,080 touch screen||13.3-inch, 1,440x900 screen||13.3-inch, 1,920x1,080 touch screen|
|PC CPU||2GHz Intel Core i7-3537U||1.3GHz Intel Core i5-4250U||1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U|
|PC memory||4,096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz||4,096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz||4,096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz|
|Graphics||32MB Intel HD Graphics 4000||1,024MB Intel HD Graphics 5000||1,659MB Intel HD Graphics 4400|
|Storage||256GB 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|
|Operating system||Windows 8 Pro (64-bit)||OS X Mountain Lion 10.8.4||Windows 8 (64-bit)|
Design, display, keyboard, and touch pad
I have no qualms about the Ativ Book 9's overall design. It remains one of the sleekest, best-built ultrabooks I've ever seen. Even next to the latest efforts from Asus, Sony, Toshiba, and others it holds its own, and that's a testament to how much Samsung got right about the design.
At 2.6 pounds and 0.5 inch thick, it's still one of the lightest 13-inch laptops around. It also has one of the smallest footprints, and slides easily into a bag. I even found a way to improbably cram it into an STM iPad shoulder bag.
A deep gunmetal-type blue on the back lid and inner deck almost looks like charcoal from certain angles. The smooth, matte surfaces do pick up smudges and prints, but the laptop feels absolutely solid, carved into a blade, like the MacBook Air does but in its own way.
One nice extra touch: the lid opens up to an extra-wide angle. Not 180 degrees, but farther than most.
A backlit keyboard features keys that feel a little shallower than the MacBook Air's, but are equally excellent for typing. A large multitouch clickpad beneath works commendably well for everyday Windows usage, and its ever-so-slightly recessed edges make it still effective enough for the off-edge swipe gestures that Windows 8 uses for Charms and the like.
But, it's not an adequate touch-screen replacement. For all the great qualities of this last-year's design, the Ativ Book 9 lacks a touch screen, a big negative in a laptop that costs $1,399.
Windows laptops have entered a phase change in design because of Windows 8. You don't have to have your laptop bend into a pretzel, but I'd strongly advise that it at least have a touch screen -- you don't have to use a touch screen, but it's certainly nice to have. Apple can get away with a same-as-2012 design philosophy because Macs don't make use of touch yet. Samsung's decision not to add a touch screen-free just makes the laptop feel like an old holdover.
It's a shame because the 13.3-inch display is otherwise excellent. It has a matte surface rather than the more common glossy coating, and a razor-sharp 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution. Other laptops have even higher pixel counts, but this is plenty. The screen is bright, and boasts excellent viewing angles.
I do have a gripe about the Ativ Book 9 speakers: like the Series 9's, they're very quiet and don't carry well, even at maximum volume.
Samsung's intriguing Side Sync technology makes it possible to mirror a Samsung phone or tablet on the Ativ Book 9's display, or for that tablet or phone to double as an extra display. Both devices can be controlled with your Book 9 keyboard and mouse. It's a clever trick for travel and cramped desks, but requires buying into the Samsung hardware ecosystem for your PC and mobile device.
Ports, configurations, performance
The Ativ Book 9 sticks its ports on the rear end of both side edges, fitting in two full USB 3.0 ports but relying on mini ports for the rest like HDMI and VGA. An SD card slot is tucked under one curve inside a flip-in door. There's no Ethernet port. The overreliance on micro ports is a shame: it feels like, at the least, there could have been room for full-sized HDMI.
The base configuration of the Ativ Book 9 comes with a dual-core Core i7 processor, but it's a third-gen Core i7, not one of the latest fourth-gen chips. It also has 4GB of RAM and a 128GB solid-state drive (SSD) for $1,399. That's more than you'd pay for a laptop like the MacBook Air. You get a better-resolution display here, but an older processor.
The funny thing is, unless you're counting on graphics performance, last year's Ivy Bridge Core i5 and i7 ultrabook processors are very similar to this year's. Our benchmark tests show our review unit being as speedy, or even speedier, than some recent ultrabooks. The 2GHz Core i7-3537U CPU in this laptop is still a very good option, and at least it's a step above the often-standard Core i5.
Integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics get the job done, but newer HD 5000-level graphics on new fourth-gen Core i-series CPUs (they don't all have 5000-level) do a distinctly better job for gaming or graphics-intensive work.
Ah, then there's battery life. This is where Ivy Bridge fails the most. The Ativ Book 9 lasted 5 hours and 5 minutes in a video playback test. That would have passable but disappointing a year ago, but compared with recent ultrabooks' times it's a vast gap. We've seen Windows machines top 8 hours easily, and of course the Air blasted up to 14 hours on the same test.
You might find a way to live with 5 hours of battery life, but at this price and at this point in 2013, you shouldn't have to.
Samsung has newer Book 9 variants (the Plus and Lite) coming at some point. I'd wait for those. At the very least, hold out for a next-gen processor upgrade so the battery life will be better. And, I'd consider waiting for a version with a touch screen.
As it is, the Ativ Book 9 is still a very good laptop; but it's also one that's slightly out-of-date. That form needs to be matched by something better under the hood.
Find out more about how we test Windows laptops.
Samsung Ativ Book 9 (13-inch, 2013)
Windows 8 Pro (64-bit); 2GHz Intel Core i7-3527U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (Dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 4000; 256GB SSD
Samsung Series 9 NP900X3C (13-inch, 2012)
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 128GB SanDisk SSD
MacBook Air (13-inch June 2013)
OSX 10.8.4 Mountain Lion; 1.3GHz Intel Core i5-4240U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1,024MB (Shared) Intel HD Graphics 4000; 128GB Apple SSD
Sony Vaio Pro 13
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1,659MB (Shared) Intel HD Graphics 4400; 128GB Samsung SSD
Samsung Series 9 NP900X4B-A02
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-2467M; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 64MB (Shared) Intel HD 3000; 128GB Samsung SSD
Samsung Series 9 NP900X3A
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit); 1.4GHz Intel Core i5-2537M; 4,096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 64MB(Dedicated) Intel GMA HD; 128GB Samsung SSD