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Windows 8 touch-screen laptops to date have largely fallen into two categories -- really high-end systems, from $1,200 to $1,600 or more, with slim, sexy designs; or else entry-level models that cram in a touch screen, but at the expense of design, with middling, plastic bodies.
Samsung's 13-inch Series 5 UltraTouch threads the needle excellently, with an upscale, metallic body, an Intel Core i5 CPU, and good battery life for $849 (note that we also saw it listed on the Home Depot Web site, which is apparently selling laptops now, for $50 less). A less expensive Core i3 version runs about $150 less, but the i5 is where you want to be for a system you can use as your main laptop for several years.
The Series 5 UltraTouch doesn't have any secret tricks up its sleeve, like a screen that detaches, rotates, or flips around, it's just a reasonably solid, reasonably priced ultrabook that looks like a more expensive product (perhaps from Samsung's own higher-end Series 7 and Series 9 lines). Only the twitchy touch pad, with separate buttons, rather than a single clickpad, keeps it from being an easy got-to-have-it recommendation.
|Price as reviewed||$849|
|Processor||1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U|
|Memory||4GB, 1,600MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||500GB 5,400rpm w/24GB SSD cache|
|Operating system||Windows 8|
|Dimensions (WD)||12.4x8.6 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||13.3 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||3.7 pounds / 4.3 pounds|
Design and features
Unlike some other Windows 8 laptops, which were designed (or redesigned) from the ground up, this Series 5 looks and feels a lot like the pre-Windows 8 Series 5 laptops we've looked at previously.
The matte brushed-aluminum finish does a great job of resisting fingerprints and looks sharp, and this 13-inch model is significantly thinner than 14-inch Series 5 laptops we've reviewed -- but those larger models do manage to fit in a tray-loading optical drive.
The front edge of the system creates the illusion that it's a bit thinner than it actually is. The sides taper toward the front, while expanding toward the back, where they can accommodate ports and connections. No one will mistake this for a MacBook Air (or Acer Aspire S7) in size and weight, but it's certainly competitive in the under-$900 category.
This Series 5 carries Intel's official Ultrabook sticker, while the last Series 5 I reviewed had an AMD processor, so it was lumped in with the larger category of fauxtrabooks -- laptops that are thin and powerful, but don't meet Intel's official specs for the ultrabook designation. While the Series 5 has a standard platter hard drive, it skirts the solid-state drive (SSD) requirement by adding a small SSD cache to the hard drive.
The island-style keyboard keys, in a slightly darker gray than the rest of the body, have a matte finish to them, and have absolutely no flex under the fingers, even with heavy typing. Shift, Enter, Tab, and other important keys are large and easy to hit, but the spacebar is shorter than I'd like.
Multimedia functions are mapped to the alternate function of the F-keys. Some laptops, including recent HP models, swap the F-key and the alternate F-key commands, giving you easier access to volume and brightness settings, for example.
The large touch pad is responsive enough to single-input commands, but it still has separate left and right mouse buttons below it, which is quickly becoming a dated look. Many new laptops are switching to a buttonless clickpad design. Multitouch gestures, such as the all-important two-finger scroll, feel a little sluggish, and it's far too easy to accidentally trigger the Windows 8 UI charms bar while putting your fingers anywhere near the right side of the pad.
The 13.3-inch display has a native resolution of 1,366x768 pixels. That's still fine for a 13-inch laptop, and gives you a good mix of screen real estate and readability. Using that resolution in larger 14- and 15-inch laptops is starting to look clumsy, especially when you pass the $800 mark.
Like nearly all new Windows 8 laptops, the screen here is covered by edge-to-edge glass -- scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass, in this case -- and supports full 10-finger touch input. So far, the Windows 8 UI has worked great with every new laptop we've tested, from the lowly Intel Atom all the way through high-end Core i7 systems.
|Samsung Series 5||Average for category [13-inch]|
|Video||HDMI, Mini-VGA (requires sold-separately dongle)||HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, combo headphone/microphone jack||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||1 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, SD card reader||2 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
|Optical drive||None||DVD burner|
Connections, performance, and battery life
While many slim 13-inch laptops drop the Ethernet jack, the Series 5 manages to keep it, thanks to a hinged data-port connection that swings open when needed. It's disappointing that you only get a single USB 3.0 port -- the other two are of the slower USB 2.0 variety.
The Series 5 performed well in anecdotal testing for Web surfing, video playback, and other everyday tasks. However, note that when compared with other Core i5 ultrabook-style laptops, from the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 to the MacBook Air, the Series 5 was slightly to significantly slower in most of our performance tests.
One partial explanation may be the slower 5,400rpm hard drive in the Samsung versus the SSD drives in the other systems. Samsung's proprietary software, such as the Quick Starter software dock, may also eat up some processing overhead. Despite this, the system was fine in hands-on use, and these slower benchmark results shouldn't be a deal breaker.
Battery life was a pleasant surprise. In our video playback battery drain test, the Series 5 ran for 6 hours and 2 minutes, which is very good for a 13-inch laptop, especially one that costs under $900. The 13-inch MacBook Air ran significantly longer (and costs significantly more, as well), and Lenovo's well-reviewed Yoga ran for about half an hour less.
I've looked at Windows 8 laptops that cost $1,300 or more, as well as ones that dip down below $600. The former tend to be very nice, but hard for everyday consumers to swallow, while the latter can be functional, but plasticky. For $849, the 13-inch Core i5 Series 5 makes a compelling argument, especially when you consider its 6-hour-plus battery life. Dell makes a similarly good case in this price range for its 15-inch Inspiron 15z if you need something with a bigger screen.
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Samsung Series 5 UltraTouch
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (Shared) Intel HD 4000; 500GB HGST5400 hard drive
Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (summer 2012)
OS X 10.7.4 Lion; 1.8GHz Intel Core i5; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 384MB (Shared) Intel HD 4000; 128GB Apple SSD
Acer Aspire S7-391-9886
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.9GHz Intel Core i7-3517U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 128MB (Shared) Intel HD 4000; 256GB Intel SSD
Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 128GB Samsung SSD
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon
Windows 8 (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.8GHz Intel Core i5-3427U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 180GB Intel SSD