Samsung Series 9 (NP900X3A) review: Samsung Series 9 (NP900X3A)
Samsung's Series 9 is a gorgeously thin piece of equipment, which would be great for any traveller looking for something light, thin and portable. If the MacBook Air is out of the question due to OS X, this may be your next port of call — just be prepared to pay a bit more.
Samsung's currently going through the courts for copying Apple's smartphones and tablets, and we're sure Cupertino isn't too happy about the Series 9 either, which is doing its best to mimic the MacBook Air, from its oversized, buttons-integrated touchpad, to its tapered profile.
There are many differences, of course, from the fold out ports on each side reminiscent of the first MacBook Air, to the backlit keyboard and the fact that it's running Windows.
The black anodised aluminium certainly attracts significantly more fingerprints too, and rather than go aluminium all over, the base and keyboard area are plastic. It looks a little cheaper than the Air as a result, but the construction is good and the plastic no doubt helps with the weight.
Of mice and Macs
We've talked about integrating buttons into the touch pad before, and specifically how it doesn't work for Windows. Apple gets around this due to its fantastic multi-touch system, specifically allowing two fingers on the touch pad to be a right click.
For Windows, which doesn't have this option, you need to physically click on the left or right side, and this introduces accuracy errors (as the button area is treated as part of the trackpad, and as you press down the finger can slip and cause the cursor to move).
Samsung's included a newer version of Synaptics' hardware and software, which brings a few new features into the fold to try and offset this. Mimicking the double finger tap of Apple, you can physically press down with two fingers to get the right-click menu, and three fingers to get middle click. You can customise these too. Sadly, these don't extend to taps, and we found the results to be inconsistent. It also didn't cope well with moving the cursor around, then adding a second finger to right click — you have to take both fingers off the pad, then click on again for it to work. Even then it didn't always get the desired result.
Pinch to zoom is still there and more reliable than before, although rotate occasionally got confused as to what function was trying to be performed, particularly if you didn't take your hands off the pad first and then do the motion. You can also do a three-finger flick to browse through images, and four fingers vertically to load the spectacularly useless Flip 3D, at which point the mouse cursor refuses to move and the items can only be scrolled through by moving your finger left or right. More useful is the four-finger horizontal flick, which accesses the alt-tab switcher. Two-finger scrolling is still present, and works as it always has.
In short, multi-touch touch pads are getting better on Windows, but they're still not great.
Ports are hidden away in docking bays, which can be pulled down with a finger. Just like flaps that cover ports, we're definitely not fans of this. It hinders accessibility and, in this case, just adds another element that can break. It's obvious why it's been done, though: with the ports docked, the Series 9 looks significantly thinner. The left side has a USB 3.0 port and Micro-HDMI port, along with a tiny port that connects to a Samsung-supplied Ethernet adapter. This in turn feeds into a gigabit Ethernet chip, although this is clearly going through a USB 2.0 interface, as transfers are limited to around 43MBps. No such luck for a Micro-HDMI to HDMI converter — you'll need to supply your own.
The right side features a USB 2.0 port, combined headphone/mic jack and a microSD slot, which we find less useful than a full-sized one. While Samsung is the only company that uses microSD in its cameras, the format is everywhere on mobile phones, positioning the Series 9 perhaps more as a companion to your mobile phone than your camera.
Internally, there's a Core i5 2537M @ 1.40GHz, which is a dual-core chip that exposes four threads thanks to hyperthreading. Included is 4GB RAM, as is a 128GB Samsung SSD. Samsung's own SSDs aren't at the top of the pile like those featuring SandForce controllers, but performance is acceptable, and will blow any mechanical drive out of the water.
The Series 9 supports Bluetooth, but, unlike the MacBook Air, it doesn't support 5GHz 802.11n.
Software is the least intrusive we've seen on laptops for a while, and Samsung is to be commended for this. The desktop is mostly clean and, apart from the included Norton Internet Security, pop-ups and annoyances are kept to a minimum.
Software found in the Start menu includes CyberLink's YouCam, Norton's Online Backup, Skype, the always bad WildTangent games. There's also a tool from SRS to tweak the audio, which gives a much nicer soundstage — but is undone by the appallingly bad and weedy speakers Samsung has included.
Samsung's own software, Control Center, is excellently designed and minimal, allowing many changes to be made to the system. It is at times too minimal, though: for example, the "Silent Mode" setting only has the description "Turn On/Off a Silent Mode". It doesn't actually tell you what it does.
There are other things here that set the Series 9 apart: Movie Color Enhancer, which automatically detects a movie being run and adjust colours to match; and a battery life extender that only allows the battery to charge to 80 per cent. Wi-Fi, Hybrid sleep, adaptive screen brightness, the backlit keyboard and chargeable USB port can also be controlled from here.
Performance and conclusion
For a laptop as thin as the Series 9, it performs admirably, pumping out a 3DMark06 score of 2622 and a PCMark05 score of 7066. Playing back a movie at full screen with all power-saving features turned off and screen brightness and volume set to maximum, the battery lasted three hours and 29 minutes, an excellent showing.
Samsung's Series 9 is a gorgeously thin piece of equipment that would be great for any traveller looking for something light, thin and portable. If the MacBook Air is out of the question due to OS X, this may be your next port of call — just be prepared to pay a bit more.