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Samsung Series 9 (March 2012) review: Samsung Series 9 (March 2012)

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Samsung's first Series 9 was a stunning piece of kit, offering slim, light and powerful computing before the word ultrabook had even slipped out of Intel's mouth.

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7.5

Samsung Series 9 (March 2012)

The Good

Excellent screen; good build quality; comfortable keyboard.

The Bad

Expensive; average performance not justified by price; underwhelming battery life.

The Bottom Line

The new Samsung Series 9 has received a boost in power over its predecessor as well as a considerable makeover. Sadly though, its high price makes it difficult to recommend over similarly performing ultrabooks.

Nowadays, ultrabooks are all the rage, and the Series 9 doesn't stick out as a special treat in quite the same way it used to. Although Samsung argues that the latest model isn't an ultrabook (I'm not sure why), it basically is, and you'd be nuts not to check it out as part of an ultrabook shopping trip.

It comes packing an Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB solid state drive, for which Samsung wants £1,200, so sell your pets now.

With similarly specced ultrabooks and even Apple's MacBook Air available for less money, does Samsung's Series 9 have the same appeal that it did last year?

Design and build quality

The original Series 9 was undeniably a gorgeous piece of kit. The brushed black metal covering the lid was equal parts stylish and professional, making it well suited for a fancy coffee in a Mayfair hotel or a business class lounge. The new version has had quite the makeover and, personally, I'm not as keen.

Samsung Series 9 aluminium case
Go on, plunge your fingers into a Victoria sponge and try to leave fingerprints on this sand-blasted aluminium case. Samsung dares you.

For a start, Samsung has ditched the brushed black metal jacket, opting instead for a blue-grey colour with a matte finish. It's a much more subtle design that eschews the industrial, machined look of its predecessor. It's still smart and professional looking, but I can't help but feel that Samsung has taken the stylish edge off it.

The blue colour is rather attractive though and it certainly makes a refreshing change from the shades of grey that adorn most laptops these days. It's apparently been finished with a sand blaster, which Samsung reckons helps reduce fingerprints. While it does a better job of avoiding grease than shiny piano-black laptops, it's still going to need a polish if you've been typing away while eating an oily sausage roll. Make sure to keep a cloth on standby if you're heading into an important meeting.

At its thinnest edge it's only 12.9mm thick, which knocks a few millimetres off last year's model. I doubt whether you'd ever really notice the difference in size. With such a slender design it's incredibly easy to slide into a neoprene sleeve or a messenger-style bag. Weighing in at only 1.19kg, it's not going to drag you down as you trot off on your adventures.

Samsung Series 9 thickness
As you'd expect, it's extremely slim at just 12.9mm thick on this 13-inch model.

The original Series 9 was made from a material called duralumin, which is apparently the same stuff that fighter jets are made out of. The new model uses the more common aluminium though, so don't try flying it at supersonic speeds. Even without its war plane credentials, it feels extremely well built. There's no flex to be found anywhere in the chassis, even under the brutal barrage of pokes and presses I unleash on all laptops I review.

There's no tell-tale loose casing or bendy edging whatsoever, resulting in a machine that I'd have every confidence could survive a tough life on the road.

Under the lid you'll see more of that matte blue colour. Thankfully, Samsung hasn't seen fit to surround the keyboard with shiny plastic, which it did on the original Series 9 and was something of an eyesore. Instead, the entire base of the machine is made from metal, with the keyboard tray recessed slightly into the chassis to avoid the keys touching the screen when closed.

Samsung Series 9 keyboard
The low-slung keyboard is extremely comfortable to type on.

The keys are of the isolated variety and are set quite low, offering little travel when pressed. This resulted in a few mistakes at first, but I quickly got used to it and found it to be extremely comfortable to type on, even for long periods.

Less pleasing was the amount of rattle that the keys provided when you run your fingers over them. It's not a massive issue, but it does detract from the premium feel of the machine. It's certainly something I've never experienced on one of its main competitors, the MacBook Air. The keyboard is backlit though, so typing long into the night shouldn't be a problem for you.

The trackpad is a good size and is clickable, dispensing with separate buttons and keeping all that precious space available for you to slide your finger around. It's pretty responsive, but it often didn't recognise a single left-click when I clicked the pad, rather than tapping it, which quickly became annoying. I had to really make sure I was accurate in my pressing. Even then it didn't always work properly.

Samsung Series 9 trackpad
The clickable button-free trackpad means there's more space to skate your digits around, but it didn't always register my clicks.

Around the sides you'll find one USB 2.0 port, one USB 3.0 port, a micro-HDMI outlet, a VGA socket (with adaptor), an Ethernet port (with adaptor), a microphone/headphone jack and an SD card slot hidden underneath a small flap.

There's a 128GB solid state drive stuffed inside for you to store all those movies and TV shows. SSDs are faster than traditional hard disk drives and they have no moving parts, so they're less susceptible to knocks and are more power-efficient too. It's only got 128GB of space, which isn't a massive amount -- you get double that on the Asus Zenbook UX31 -- so you'll have to keep an eye on what you're storing on there.

Screen

The 13.3-inch screen boasts a resolution of 1,600x900 pixels, which is about what I'd expect. It would have been nice to see Samsung push for the Full HD mark on its top-end machine, but this is adequate.

Despite an average resolution, the screen manages to be one of my favourite things about the new Series 9. It's very bright and extremely crisp, making the tiny snow flurries on my favourite YouTube clip look amazing. If you plan on reading a lot of text, it'll suit you well, as will the matte coating that eliminates practically all reflections, so you won't be staring back at your own mug while trying to focus on the words.

It does a great job at handling colours too so any photos or movies you want to check out will look as good as they can. It also has a great viewing angle, so you don't need to stay square-on to get the best view.

Samsung Series 9 aluminium case
Samsung is calling the screen tech HD+ SuperBright Plus, which sounds double-plus good to our Orwellian ears.

Performance

Under the lid you'll find an Intel Core i5-2467M processor clocked at 1.60GHz, backed up with 4GB of RAM. That's a more up-to-date processor than the Core i5 found on last year's Series 9 and it has a slightly faster clock speed, so I was expecting a noticeable improvement in performance.

First, I booted up the PCMark05 benchmark test and was given an admirable score of 8,354, which cleanly beats the 7,418 offered by its predecessor. That's a pleasing step up for the new model, but if you compare it to the 11,650 the Asus Zenbook UX31 achieved on the same test, it doesn't look too good -- especially as the Zenbook costs £200 less.

Still, I found that navigating around was extremely swift and the 4GB of RAM was easily enough to handle intense multi-tasking. I booted up some high-definition video and simultaneously ran the Google Chrome browser with numerous tabs open and didn't notice any slowdown.

For day-to-day and office tasks like word processing, web browsing and basic image editing, it'll cope absolutely fine and will even handle some gaming. I ran the 3DMark06 benchmark test and was given a score of 4,062 -- a marked improvement over the 2,800 offered by the previous model.

That's not nearly enough to tackle hugely demanding recent titles like Mass Effect 3 or Skyrim, but it should let you play older games like Half Life 2 if you dial the settings down.

While technically not an ultrabook, the Series 9 is still designed to be as portable as possible. You'd therefore be right to expect it to deliver awesome battery life. I ran my battery test and found it could survive for just under 2 hours on a single charge.

Samsung Series 9 waking time
The Series 9 takes only 1.4 seconds to wake from its slumber, which is 10,000 times quicker than CNET UK's PCs boot-up time in the morning.

While that's fairly good in comparison to bigger laptops, for an ultra-portable, it's not particularly impressive. By comparison, the older model managed an extra 40 minutes and the Asus UX31 kept going for over 3 hours. It's a really demanding test though that involves running the processor at a constant 100 per cent, so 2 hours would be the absolute minimum you should expect to get out of it. Still, if battery life is a big concern, you'd be wise to consider the alternatives.

Conclusion

The new Series 9 offers a refreshed style that you'll either think is very smart or will leave you disappointed that it's not as badass as the old model. It does bring a moderate performance step-up from the older model and it's easily powerful enough to tackle everyday office tasks as well as a spot of photo editing or gaming.

However, if you don't need the extra oomph and want to save a few quid, the previous Series 9 is still on sale for £300 less. As a third option, the 11-inch Series 9 received a boost and now has pretty much identical specs to this new model. If you can manage with a smaller screen, you can buy that for only £800.

Alternatively, if you're not fussed about being on Windows, Apple's popular MacBook Air comes with an ever-so-slightly faster processor and is £100 less. Putting that and the new Series 9 side by side, it's hard to agree with Samsung's steep price tag.

If you want a Windows laptop to impress the boardroom and you have enough money to buy Greece, then the new Series 9 is worth checking out, but it doesn't quite live up to its high price.