Samsung Series 9 NP900X3C-A01 review

The first version of the Samsung Series 9 debuted before the word "Ultrabook" had even been coined by Intel. It was a proto-ultrabook, a thin-and-light 13-inch laptop that looked like a Windows variation of the MacBook Air, clad in black duralumin. The original 2011 Series 9 was far from affordable for a laptop -- it actually exceeded the cost of an Air at the time by several hundred dollars -- but few who saw it didn't lust after it.

We actually got a sneak peek at the new 2012 Series 9 back in January, but it's taken until now for Samsung's elite laptop to become a reality. After a long wave of ultrabooks and the debut of new Intel processors, the new Series 9 is sleeker, lighter, and more affordable than last year's version. Still, at $1,299 it's $100 more than the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Air, and it's considerably more expensive than the average 2012 Windows ultrabook sticker price of $999 or less. (Even though Samsung doesn't call the Series 9 an ultrabook on the box, it is one.)
I reviewed the 15-inch version of the new Samsung Series 9 (with the older second-generation Intel Core i5 processor) this spring, and found its reduced footprint and bezel gave the laptop the feel of a thin 14-incher. The same is true for the 13-inch Series 9: the entire footprint is smaller, making the laptop feel almost like a 12-incher. It's the thinnest and lightest ultrabook I've ever seen (sorry, Acer Aspire S5, that even includes you).
What are the new Series 9's drawbacks? It's hard to think of any. Excellent battery life, superb build quality, and a bright, high-resolution (1,600x900-pixel) screen in a 2.6-pound frame make the new Series 9 a perfect portable hybrid, and one of the most impressive ultrabooks of the year.
Price as reviewed$1,299
Processor1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U
Memory4GB, 1,600MHz DDR3
Hard drive128GB SSD
ChipsetIntel HM77
GraphicsIntel HD 4000
Operating systemWindows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)
Dimensions (WD)12.3x8.6 inches
Height0.5 inch
Screen size (diagonal)13.3 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter2.6 pounds / 3.24 pounds
The new Samsung Series 9 (it's even called "New Series 9" on the laptop itself) feels leaner, tighter, and less physically flexible than its 2011 predecessor. A clean, smooth hinge and an extremely thin, flat form make this 0.5 inch-thin laptop feel smaller than any other 13-incher around, including the 2012 MacBook Air.
And it is. At 2.6 pounds, the Series 9 weighs less and is slightly thinner at its thinnest point than the new Acer Aspire S5, the Dell XPS 13, or the 13-inch Air. It's not as small or light as an 11-inch Air (2.34 pounds), but it's close. Only the Sony Vaio Z, at 2.5 pounds, matches it in the 13-inch category based on laptops we've seen this year.
The new Series 9 is made out of a solid piece of aluminum, lending it the same rock-solid feel as Apple's laptops, and avoiding some of the flexible feel of the last-gen Series 9. It's the same construction concept that went into the new 15-inch version, but on a smaller scale. The profile is blade-thin, with a steely metallic edge that wraps around the sides. The outer surfaces are a matte, dark steel blue, and attract finger smudges way too easily. Keep a cloth handy.
Matching the ultraportable feel of the new Series 9, the included charger is equally slight...except that the narrow plug that jacks into the laptop pokes straight out, and the cable itself is thick.
The 12.3x8.6-inch footprint is smaller than that of the average 13-inch laptop, too, so it's easier to slip into a smaller bag. That also means a little less palm rest surface area, which I could feel when typing up this review. Any narrower and it would be frustrating.
The shallow raised keyboard has a similar key feel to the MacBook Air and, to some degree, the Sony Vaio T. The typing experience falls in between the two: better than the Vaio T, not as good as the Air. The keyboard is backlit, but the pale-blue lighting is so subtle that you might not notice it's there except in a very dark room. The upper keys (volume controls, screen brightness) require holding down the Fn key to activate.
The large, wide multitouch clickpad seems responsive at first, with a smooth matte surface conducive to two-finger gestures. However, the built-in Elan software sometimes interacts oddly with the touch pad, resulting in icons or windows being dragged or text being highlighted by accident. This problem has occurred on other Windows laptops for me, especially with tap-to-click turned on. It's a shame, but not a surprising one. And yes, it knocks the ergonomics of this laptop down a notch.
The 13.3-inch matte display is beautiful and bright: colors and text pop and look wonderfully crisp, more so than on the 15-inch Series 9. Viewing angles are also superb, and text can be read off the screen even at maximum tilt. The screen is higher-res than many 13-inch laptops at 1,600x900 pixels. Some rare 13-inchers are full 1080p, but 1,600x900 feels like a better resolution at this size. The effective desktop area becomes larger, and icons are smaller, but not enough to be annoying.
Stereo speakers are seated below the front edge of the laptop, and while they have crisp definition for music or movies, they're not particularly loud. In a quiet room, it was still hard to hear some dialogue in a Netflix streaming movie. Headphones are still a better option.
The included Webcam (1,280x1,024-pixel maximum resolution) has decent light sensitivity. The Series 9 comes with CyberLink YouCam 3 software preinstalled.
Samsung Series 9 (13-inch, 2012)Average for category [13-inch]
VideoMicro-HDMI, VGA (dongle needed)HDMI or DisplayPort
AudioStereo speakers, headphone/microphone combo jackStereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks
Data1 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, SD card reader2 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, SD card reader
NetworkingEthernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, BluetoothEthernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband
Optical driveNoneDVD burner

Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that an ultrabook this small lacks many ports. There are only two USB ports (one 3.0, one 2.0), one on the rear of each streamlined side. There's also an SD card slot, cleverly tucked away on the undercarriage. Then there are a series of micro-ports that require dongles to use: Micro-HDMI, a port for an Ethernet adapter, and a port for a VGA adapter. The Ethernet dongle is included, but you'll need to buy your specialized HDMI cables and VGA-out dongles separately.
Our $1,299 configuration of the 13-inch Samsung Series 9 (NP900X3C-A01US) comes with a 1.7GHz Inel Core i5-3317U processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB solid-state drive (SSD) -- pretty standard for the ultrabook set, but a little unimpressive at this price. It matches what the 13-inch MacBook Air includes for $1,199, but in the Windows space most manufacturers offer more in this price range. For example, the $1,399 Acer Aspire S5 has a slightly faster 1.9GHz Core i5 processor and a larger 256GB SSD. Other configurations of the 13-inch Samsung Series 9 will include up to 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD, and a Core i7-3517U CPU. Upgrading to Windows 7 Professional costs at extra $100; so does increasing RAM from 4GB to 8GB. Unfortunately, you can't get to a 256GB SSD configuration without picking the top-end $1,799 Series 9, which also has a Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM, and Windows 7 Professional.
The new 13-inch Series 9 features third-gen Intel Core i5 and i7 processors, not the second-gen parts in the 15-inch Series 9 I reviewed a few months back. The charts tell the tale: performance is improved. Everything from multitasking to video editing and conversion feels zippier. The included third-gen Core i5 CPU (i5-3317U) is the same one that's been on many 2012 ultrabooks, including the Dell Inspiron 14z, Lenovo IdeaPad U310, and Sony Vaio T. It's a little slower than the bumped-up 1.9 GHz Core i5 processor found in premium ultrabooks as of late, including the Asus Zenbook UX32VD and Acer Aspire S5. Thanks to the included SSD, bootup and wake-from-sleep times are impressive: a cold boot to Wi-Fi on took 15.9 seconds, and the system woke up in a little over a second when the lid was opened -- when it worked. From time to time, opening the lid didn't trigger waking. Also, this Series 9 is great for everyday computing use, but when running multiple programs or streaming lots of video the bottom of the laptop started to get pretty warm.
Integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics are good enough for everyday gaming with graphics settings adjusted, but keep your expectations low. Street Fighter IV, already an older game, ran at 20.9 frames per second at native 1,600x900-pixel resolution.
Now, here's a point where I regret that the new Series 9 didn't strive to become a more "premium" ultrabook, considering its price. Many new high-end ultrabooks are including discrete graphics, as well as larger-capacity SSDs. The Series 9 has a great build and very good performance, but it's not much different under the hood from many of its cheaper siblings.
Based on our video-playback battery drain test, the Series 9's battery life was shockingly impressive: it lasted 6 hours and 55 minutes. The 13-inch MacBook Air outlasted it by over half an hour, but this new Series 9 outperformed the older, larger 15-inch Series 9 by over an hour. The original Series 9 lasted 5 hours and 22 minutes in the same test. No Windows ultrabooks have done better.
Samsung includes a standard one-year warranty with the Series 9. Samsung's site is relatively easy to navigate, provided you can find the specific configuration model of your laptop. Customer service contact numbers are easy to find.
The new Samsung Series 9 may not be a unique product as it was over a year ago, but it's a better laptop: being smaller and lighter than a MacBook Air is no easy feat, and yet this laptop seems to do it without breaking a sweat. It's a shame that it's more expensive than most ultrabooks, including Apple's Air, but the build quality, slimmer size, and great battery life will make the Series 9 worth the investment for many. Yes, it could have had more bells and whistles for its premium price tag, but what the Series 9 does is high-class, except for that touch pad.