Samsung Ativ Book 9 review: Samsung Series 9 with a name change

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The Good The Samsung Ativ Book 9 is still one of the smallest and best-built Windows 8 ultrabooks around, and has a crisp 1080p display.

The Bad It lacks a touch screen, and battery life is disappointing for such an expensive laptop.

The Bottom Line Formerly the Samsung Series 9, the rebranded Ativ Book 9 got little more than a change in name; the laptop feels dated, as it lacks a touch screen and the benefits of newer Intel processors.

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7.2 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 7
  • Performance 8
  • Battery 6

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.

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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?

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Samsung Ativ Book 9 MacBook Air 13-inch (June 2013) Sony Vaio Pro 13
Price $1,499 $1,099 $2,200
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
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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Sarah Tew/CNET