May 29, 2011
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Samsung Series 9 NP900X3A

The good: A thin, stylish design, long battery life, excellent screen, and a new second-generation Intel Core i5 CPU make the Samsung Series 9 NP900X3A one of the best ultrathin Windows laptops we've ever seen.

The bad: The Series 9's way-too-high sticker price makes the MacBook Air look downright affordable by comparison; the flexy case design doesn't feel as good as the MacBook Air's, either.

The bottom line: The $1,649 - $1439 Samsung Series 9 NP900X3A certainly won't be for every wallet, but this light, well-featured, and striking 13-incher is the closest the Windows world will ever come to a MacBook Air. However, its higher-than-the-Air price will be hard to stomach.

If every action has an equal and opposite reaction, then consider the Samsung Series 9 NP900X3A to be a direct response to Apple's MacBook Air. It's been a long time since we've seen two laptops so seemingly intertwined--in purpose, design, performance, and even price. For all that you could love about a MacBook Air, nearly the same could be said for the sleek, black Series 9, a 13-inch laptop packed with exceptional design and undeniable geek appeal.

At $1,649, the real question will be whether you're able to afford it. Weighing 2.9 pounds and packing a 1.4 GHz second-gen Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD drive, it's got some of the best performance-per-pound that we've ever seen. It starts fast and feels great to work on. However, this laptop makes MacBook Air look like a bargain by comparison, and that's saying something: the 13-inch Air starts at just $1,299 for that same 128GB SSD drive (although with half the RAM). Amazingly, the $1,649 configuration is the low end for the Series 9--there's also a $1,699 version that adds Windows 7 Professional, which is the configuration we were sent for review. That price is 15-inch MacBook Pro territory--lofty, indeed.

We've seen high-end design-heavy Windows laptops before, though not for a while--the Dell Adamo and Adamo XPS come to mind. The Series 9 is a better overall laptop than those--but if this laptop were $1,000, we'd really be far more bullish.

As it is, $1,649 is way above standard laptop pricing landscape (at least it comes standard with a three-year warranty). This is a luxury system, especially with $400-range 11.6-inch AMD Fusion laptops presenting pretty reasonable alternatives.

If you're a Windows laptop user but have been secretly envying devices like the MacBook Air, clenching your hands uncontrollably at night for a Windows analogue--and price is no object-- then your gleaming onyx savior has arrived. Otherwise, you might want to wait for the 11-inch Series 9 coming in about a month, which will cost a little less--or, find a more affordable alternative, provided you can live without supersleek duraluminum. But, if you can stomach the sticker price, this is one of the best, thin, usable ultraportable PCs we've ever come across.

 

Price as reviewed / starting price $1,699 / $1,649
Processor 1.4GHz Intel Core i5-2537M
Memory 4GB, 1,333MHz DDR3 RAM
Hard drive 128GB SSD
Chipset Intel HM65
Graphics Intel HD 3000
Operating system Windows 7 Professional (64-bit)
Dimensions (WD) 12.9 x 8.9 inches
Height 0.62-0.64 inches
Screen size (diagonal) 13.3 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter 2.9 / 3.3 pounds
Category 13-inch

The Samsung Series 9 NP900X3A has an instantly eye-catching look: sleek brushed-black metal (duralumin, a material used in aircraft construction), with gracefully curved edges around the back, give the thin laptop the appearance of a blade, or a cross-section of a wing with aerofoil. It's also extremely light: unlike the surprisingly dense iPad, the Series 9 actually feels lighter in the hand than you'd expect. At 2.9 pounds, it's nearly identical to the 13-inch MacBook Air.

This laptop is a bit thicker, though: by our measurements, about 0.64 inch at its thickest. While the MacBook Air measured 0.68 inch at its thickest, the front edge of the Air comes to a thinner point. The Series 9 feels and looks thicker, but these differences are small quibbles. Both laptops are functionality super-thin and pack flat into bags, adding little bulk.

Inside, the Series 9 laptop has more brushed metal, but also some glossy plastic trim around parts of the screen area and keyboard. The top lid feels too flexible when opening and closing, and part of the chassis even exhibited small squeaks when we pressed down on it. That's not to say the construction isn't very solid, but it just doesn't feel as rock solid as Apple's MacBook Air. It's miles above similar thin Windows laptops, however, even if we expected more for $1,600-plus.

The tiny AC adapter is more akin to the size of many smartphone chargers, with a removable plug that can be replaced with travel tips. The plug goes into the rear of the Series 9's left side, jutting out. It's not the elegant solution that Apple's flush magnetic power cord is, and the charger's awkward wall-wart size makes it a challenging fit for some outlets.

Going with an SSD drive has afforded the Series 9 with faster boot-up times: by our stopwatch, the NP900X3A took 24 seconds from a cold boot-up. That's faster than many Windows laptops, but slower than the relatively lightning-quick MacBook Air. The Series 9 has another neat trick up its sleeve: closing the lid puts the laptop straight into a no-power hibernation state. The Series 9 woke up from hibernation after lifting the lid in just 6 seconds. For most people, this is how they'll use the laptop, charging up as needed.

The 13.3-inch screen has a matte finish, which stands against nearly every other consumer laptop. Some will love this--many people gripe that the MacBooks are far too glossy. On the Series 9, the matte finish definitely helps images and text pop in brightly lit areas. The screen has a maximum resolution of 1,366x768 pixels, but its brightness and viewable angles surpass many other laptops we've seen. Movies and pictures look excellent, with stellar viewing angles that don't degrade no matter how far the screen is tilted. (We hate to keep comparing to the MacBook Air, but its resolution in case you're curious is a higher 1,440x900. Still, we think the Series 9 screen looks even better.)

On to that keyboard and touch pad: simply put, they rock. The keyboard's so similar in feel and size to the MacBook Air that it looks pressed from the same mold. The keys have less height than raised keyboards on larger laptops, but extended typing felt snappy and responsive. The keyboard is backlit, too, unlike the MacBook Air's. The large multitouch clickpad uses Synaptics Series 1.5 technology. While it's not a "click anywhere" pad (it uses a lever-style clicking mechanism, like Apple's MacBooks), its image-sensing technology and accuracy rivals most other laptops. The matte glass surface feels great and is amply sized for multifinger gestures. It's not as big as the epic one on the MacBook Air, but it's awfully close.

The stereo speakers hide behind tiny grilles at the front side edges, barely visible unless you tilt and check. The volume and sound quality is more than good enough for movies, TV shows and Webchat, even music, though they're obviously not going to surpass a good pair of headphones. The included 1.3 megapixel Webcam has a maximum resolution of 1,280x1,024 pixels, with pictures and light sensitivity that are better than average; the bundled ArcSoft YouCam software has a number of weird backdrops and effects for you to play with, too.

 

Samsung Series 9 NP900X3A (13-inch) Average for category [13-inch]
Video Mini-HDMI VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort
Audio Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone combo jack Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks
Data 1 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, micro SD card slot 3 USB 2.0, SD card reader
Expansion None None
Networking Ethernet (with a plug-in dongle), 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband
Optical drive None DVD burner

Ports and connections are always a challenge on ultraslim laptops, and the Series 9 is no exception. The newest MacBook Air only has two USB ports and no Ethernet port (it costs $29 extra as a USB dongle), but has an SD card slot. Comparatively, the Series 9 has it beat on paper: HDMI, one USB 3.0 port, one USB 2.0 port, and Ethernet connectivity. But, these ports are accessed via two flip-down doors on either side, and some require converter cables. A proprietary port connects to an included dongle that has an Ethernet port; a mini-HDMI-out jack is included, but requires the proper cable to use; and a microSD card slot is included instead of standard SD. If you want to transfer pictures from your camera, you're back to being stuck with a USB SD card adapter. One of the two USB ports allows sleep-and-charge (powering a plugged-in USB device while the Series 9 is hibernating or shut down).

A small annoyance--or convenience, depending on how you like your ports--is that all of these ports are hidden away behind tiny flip-down doors on either side of the Series 9's chassis, tucked away under a sloping edge. They're shades of what used to be on the first-generation MacBook Air. We were concerned the doors were flip shut once we laid the laptop down on a table, but as long as the surface was even and flat, we found no problems. Plugging in lots of cables at once could get messy, though.

The included 4GB of RAM can be expanded up to 8GB; however, you're stuck with 128GB of SSD storage space. Apple's Air offers double the space--256GB--on its $1,599 13-inch configuration. The default 128GB will be enough for some, but it falls short for those who want to put their whole media lives on a single laptop.

The 13-inch Series 9 has a second-generation Intel Core i5 CPU, but it's not the same processor that we've seen on recent fast mainstream laptops. This Core i5-2537M CPU runs at 1.4 GHz, and is a low-voltage processor more akin to the Core 2 Duo on the MacBook Air. Our benchmark tests confirm that: in terms of multitasking, it lags behind recent "Sandy Bridge" laptops. However, it's pretty close to that 13-inch MacBook Air we recently reviewed.

Single-task speeds fared better, and to many people the laptop will feel perfectly fine for most uses. You're paying for portability with system speed. We found that our Series 9 ran a little warm after using it for video streaming and games, not surprisingly: a set of small rear vents are tucked behind the screen's hinge, but two grilles under the chassis felt like they were pushing some warm air (along with some quiet fan noise) to the underside as well.

The Series 9 uses Intel second-generation integrated Intel HD 3000 graphics, just like Apple's 13-inch MacBook Pro. These integrated graphics are capable of being used for games and graphics-intensive programs, and yielded functional but not spectacular results, suffering a bit from the Series 9's slower CPU: Unreal Tournament III, a graphically nondemanding game, ran at 32.9 frames per second with medium settings at native 1,366x768-pixel resolution. Street Fighter IV benchmarked at around 16 frames per second, which, according to Street Fighter IV's tool is "unplayable." Bottom line: these graphics are better than were ever possible on thin-and-lights using last year's Intel integrated graphics, but they're not quite as good as the Nvidia GeForce 320M graphics on the MacBook Air.

Despite being so thin, the Series 9 definitely delivers on battery life: we achieved 5 hours and 22 minutes using our video playback battery drain test, which is excellent for this light a laptop. In fact, it bests the oft-mentioned-in-this-review MacBook Air by nearly half an hour. When it comes to how often you'll use a highly portable laptop like this, battery life matters immensely. This is enough to get you through a plane flight, albeit not a trans-Atlantic one.

Samsung includes a three-year warranty with the Series 9 NP900X3A, which at least adds some value to the high sticker price of the laptop: most other laptops only have one year of coverage. Samsung's Web site is easy to navigate, and the toll-free number is easy to find (1-800-726-7864).

Reviewed by: Scott Stein (Cnet)

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