Wednesday

Samsung Series 9 NP900X4C Review

The 15-inch Samsung Series 9 NP900X4C is a larger-than-average Ultrabook with a thin profile, beautiful design and excellent battery life. Is that enough to make it a great laptop? Keep reading to find out what one owner has to say about this Ultrabook. 

Readers of  review of the 13.3" Samsung NP900X3B will recall that I was uncertain how that notebook would cope with my usage pattern. In the event the two biggest constraints proved to be lack of storage capacity (fixable now that larger mSATA SSDs have reached the retail chain) and the computer temporarily freezing once the 4GB of RAM was full and Windows needed to dump RAM contents to the SSD while concurrently trying to load more data. I hadn't anticipated this as being a major constraint but with the RAM being non-upgradable then I needed to look around. Given that I was well satisfied with the build quality and general usability of the NP900X3B, want better than HD resolution and dislike a glossy display then the logical upgrade was its larger sibling.


Design

 
The 15-inch NP900X4C bears a strong family resemblance to the smaller 13.3-inch version. The "4" in the model number indicates that Samsung considers it to be the equivalent of 14-inch notebooks rather than those with the larger 15.6-inch displays. In reality, the width is in the same range as the older 15.4-inch notebooks (see, for example,  review of the Samsung X60) and the height (and pixel size) is about the same as on a 14.1" 1440 x 900 pixel display but an inch wider. The whole machine (with the exception of some plastic between the hinges where the antennae are located) is built from aluminium alloy. The main chassis is very rigid and, while it is possible flex the display slightly, one has to push very hard to cause ripples on the screen. I expect the metal display back will provide much better protection than the carbon fibre alternative (my Lenovo T420s has developed light patches on the display due to, I suspect, pressure on the back of the screen during transport).

The NP900X4C is noticeably heavier than its smaller brother. The increase in weight is more than proportional to the increase in size and most likely reflects the need to strengthen the structure to maintain the same rigidity for the increased size. However, in spite of having to beef up the strength, the total thickness is about 15mm while the display is little thicker than a matchstick.

Fortunately, thinness hasn't come at the expense of robustness and everything feels very solid. The hinges are smooth and firm with no hint of wobble. They feel stiffer than for the 13.3" model, but there is a bigger display to be held in place. Magnets hold the display in place when it is closed and opening the display can be a bit of a struggle. One small, but effective, detail is a thin strip of rubber around the sides and top of the display bezel which rests against the palm rest when the display is closed.

The colour scheme is the same "mineral ash black" (black with a hint of dark blue) eggshell paint finish as on the NP900X3B. Samsung have, however, provided some contrast to the black paint by providing three shiny metal highlights. The keys are black. One is a narrow strip around the generously sized touchpad (which is very slightly recessed into the palm rest), another is a strip wrapping around the front and sides of the chassis and a third is a matching strip around the edge of the display. There is also a shiny metal "Samsung" on the display back. The overall impression is one of quality without being ostentatious. Those people who prefer silver to black should search for the NP900X4D.


 

As with many ultrabooks, there is no official provision for user access to the inside. The metal base is secured to the main chassis using 10 small screws and this most likely helps the structural rigidity. The intrepid owner may, however, choose to carefully remove the screws and lift off the base. I couldn't resist taking a look inside to see how a computer can be squeezed into so little space.



The inside is dominated by the lithium-polymer battery, each side of which is a loudspeaker (which look very similar to those on the smaller Series 9). However, unlike the smaller sibling there is only one cooling fan and there are two normal memory slots, so 16GB RAM is a feasible upgrade option. The two Wi-Fi antenna are in the yellow area between the hinges, the SSD is to the left of the fan, the the Intel Wi-Fi card is to the right of the fan, the CPU in the middle and the two memory slots on the right side. The various ports, with the exception of the power socket, appear to be directly mounted onto the board. However, closer examination shows that the board under the SSD is separate from the main board.

Display


While the display of the NP900X4C is above average for a notebook LCD panel it is a disappointment compared to Samsung's PLS panel in the NP900X3B with its excellent viewing angles and contrast. The strengths of the 15" display are the higher than average 1600 x 900 pixel resolution with a matte finish so there are no annoying reflections (I have stopped buying glossy screen notebooks because of this problem). Samsung claim that it is an exceptionally bright 400 nit panel which makes it usable outside. I find a much lower brightness (5 out of 8 steps) to be appropriate to indoor use. That's in the same brightness range as my Lenovo T420s (230 nit) at full brightness. There is no obvious "screen door" effect that I had to get accustomed to on the T420s display.


I wasn't very happy with the colours of the screen (partly because it was sitting alongside the NP900X3B) but now have a solution to that problem: A couple of months back I bought a Spyder4Express display calibrator. Since I had already calibrated the displays of my other notebooks I considered it fair to give the NP900X4C the same treatment before making comparisons. Photographs of the display before and after calibration are shown below and the .icc profile is here for anyone with the same display who wants to try it. It can be seen that initially there was a strong blue tint.


In the comparison below I put the NP900X4C between the NP900X3B(left) and Lenovo T420s (right) and compared the viewing angles with the displays at similar brightness (Samsung panels on 5/8 brightness and the T420s on full brightness).

It can be seen that the display is typical of the TN type of LCD with reasonable horizontal viewing angles but washing out when viewed from above and darkening when viewed from below. There is not much difference between the displays on the NP900X4C and the T420s but the NP900X3B with Samsung's PLS panel shows its wide viewing angles. Samsung provide the facility for automatic control of brightness but, as with every other notebook I have used that has this feature, I find the unexpected changes in brightness to be annoying and disabled the feature.

Speaker
The speakers appear to be the same as on the 13.3" Series 9 and are located on the tapered edges of the base near the front corners. The specifications say 2 x 2W and the volume is adequate for a small room although distortion occurs at full volume. The downward-facing speakers appear to benefit from the computer being on a table top so that the sound can be reflected upwards.  However, while I have come across many worse speakers in larger notebooks than this, the bass is still lacking.


Software 
One of the features is the Intel Rapid Start Technology which claims to get Windows booted in less than 10 seconds and also enables faster resume from hibernation. However, behind the overall impressions there are some limitations. While Windows appears to have loaded, right-clicking on a program results in no response although a left-click will start a program. In reality a lot of functionality is still loading in the background. Nonetheless, the Windows startup is faster than on the previous generation of notebooks.

Features
The other feature of the Intel Rapid Start Technology is an improvement of the sleep / hibernation / resume process. Without the Rapid Start feature hibernation / resume involved writing / reading the full RAM contents to a file. The new technology uses a separate hibernation partition which is mapped to the system memory and during normal use this partition is kept updated in the background. Hibernation involves only the final updating of the data in the partition while resume is designed to first load whatever was in use with the rest of the RAM contents loading in the background. Samsung's installation of this technology is incomplete because it does not load Intel's control that allows the user to set the time delay between the computer sleeping and hibernating. Some tips on how to get this control working are given here. One serious flaw in the Rapid Start technology is that it by-passes both BIOS level and Windows level passwords. The security-conscious people will need to remember to lock their Windows prior to closing the computer. Notwithstanding all the above reservations, the Rapid Start Technology does improve usability, when it works.

Samsung provide their Easy Settings program as the user interface for controlling a range of hardware and software features. One improvement I have noticed compared to the previous version is that the wireless devices can be set to maintain their current settings through a reboot. Previously, both automatically turned on upon reboot.


Keyboard And Touchpad

Notebook Reviews - Laptop Reviews and Netbook News Picture

The keyboard is of the increasingly popular separated key type. Travel is limited due to the slim profile of the computer but one quickly gets used to the reduced travel. The basic layout is similar to the smaller Series 9 but with the addition of a dedicated set of navigation keys on the right side of the keyboard which offsets the overall layout to the left.  I would have preferred to have small depressions on the top of each key to help center my fingers, rather the smooth surface, although hitting the edge of a key still causes it to register. As is normal for a European keyboard, the left shift key is small to make space for one extra key.

The keyboard has subdued backlighting which is effective under poor lighting or in darkness. Unlike some backlit keyboards, the keys do not shine brightly but the lighting makes the letters legible when they otherwise wouldn't be. There is an indicator light on the Caps Lock key and also on the F12 key which is used to turn the wireless devices on and off. As on the 13.3" keyboard there is also an Fn Lock key with its own indicator light, but this key is effectively redundant. The Fn key controls are the same as on the NP900X3B.

The Elan touchpad is even larger than the large pad on the NP900X3B. There are no separate buttons but the bottom part of the pad can be used for both moving the pointer and be pressed as a button (left part = left button, right part = right button).  The pad supports one, two, three and four finger gestures including scrolling and zoom although the provided control panel offers a relatively set of options compared to the long list of settings in the registry.

Ports and Features
As is often the case with ultrabooks, the NP900X4C is not generously endowed with ports. Altogether there are one USB 2.0, two USB 3.0, an audio socket, a gigabit ethernet port (for which a dongle is provided) and micro HDMI and VGA ports (which needs a special dongle). There is also an SD card slot. Even the power jack uses an unusually small plug.
There are three unsatisfactory compromises associated with the port arrangement: (i) the need to buy a special dongle in order to connect a standard VGA display; (ii) the power plug blocks many USB devices from fitting into the adjacent USB port so users may need to carry a USB extension lead; and (iii) the two USB ports on the right side are very close together (it would have been beneficial to put the less-used VGA port between them). One improvement from the NP900X3B is that the tip of the power lead now has a 90° bend so there is less bending force on the plug tip, less obstruction of the adjacent USB port and the power cable can run to the back of the computer instead of sticking out at the side.
Wi-Fi Performance
Regrettably, the Wi-Fi performance has proved to be less good than on my NP900X3B (which in turn is less good than the Dell E6410 and Lenovo T420s that I have tried in the same location at the point in my house most remote from the router. I had to set the power to maximum to be able to hold a connection at the other end of my house. Even then, the speed is disappointing. I have tried all the Wi-Fi options I can find in the search for improvements. The antennae arrangements in both notebooks are similar and are located at the back edge of the chassis between the hinges where the casing is plastic, not metal. However something has changed for the worse, at least on my computer (other NP900X4C owners are not complaining of this problem). The new model has the Intel 6235 Wi-Fi/ Bluetooth combo card while the older notebook has the previous Intel 6230 card with similar features. I hope that a driver update will improve the situation but wonder if the antenna module is sub-standard.

Performance
Samsung conveniently provide the key hardware specifications on the box label. My NP900X4C contains the following:
  • Processor: Intel i5-3317U CPU (1.7GHz with TurboBoost to 2.6GHz, 3MB cache)
  • Chipset: Intel HM75
  • Screen: 15.0 inch anti-glare 1600 x 900 WXGA+ LED Backlit
  • Memory: 8GB DDR3-1600 1.5V dual channel RAM (2 x 4GB Samsung, 11-11-11-28)
  • Graphics: Intel HD4000
  • Storage: 128GB mSATA SATA 3 SSD (Sandisk U100)
  • Optical Drive: None
  • Wireless: WiDi compatible Intel 6235 802.11abgn (dual band + Bluetooth 4.0)
  • UK 87 key island type backlit keyboard
  • Elan touchpad (117mm  x 76mm or 4.6" x 3.0")
  • 1.3MP web camera (at display top) and microphone (on left side)
  • 1 x USB 2.0 port; 2 x USB 3.0 ports; Samsung mini VGA port (needs dongle); micro HDMI port (maximum 1080p resolution); Samsung mini gigabit ethernet port (dongle supplied); combo audio port; SD card slot (SDHC / SDXC compatible)
  • Battery: 7.4V 62Wh 8-cell
  • 40W "slim" PSU
  • Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
  • Dimensions: 357 x 239 x 15mm  (including rubber pads about 1.5mm thick) or 14.1" x 9.4" x 0.6"
  • Actual weight: 1.65kg  / 3.64 lbs
  • Travel weight: 1.98kg / 4.37 lbs (with 40W PSU and 1m mains cable)
Versions of this notebook with a 17W i7 CPU and 256GB SSD are available in some markets. As supplied, only about half of the 128GB SSD is available to the user because, in addition to the pre-installed Windows and software, there is an 8GB hibernation partition and a 20GB recovery partition. A user upgrade to a 256GB mSATA SSD is technically feasible now that they are becoming available. In fact I have already done this and the impact is revealed in some of the benchmark results.
Performance and Benchmarks
The Samsung NP900X4C has adequate performance for everyday usage and moderately demanding work. The rapid bootup and the fast resume both enhance the user experience.
wPrime CPU Benchmark
The wPrime benchmark shows that the raw CPU performance lags behind many other computers. This is a result of the relatively slow i5-3317U CPU which, while nominally having a TurboBoost speed of 2.6GHz has a sustained speed of 2.4GHz (according to HWiNFO).  There is a modest speed improvement when compared to the i5-2467M CPU which is mainly the result of the higher clock speed. I would prefer the i7 CPU with its extra speed but Samsung don't currently offer it in the UK.
SSD Performance
Samsung make some of the best SSDs. However, they chose to provide my NP900X4C with the Sandisk U100 mSATA SSD which has class-trailing overall performance. It has reasonably good sequential data throughput but, as I had discovered with this same SSD in my Samsung NP900X3B, chokes when given multiple datasets to process concurrently.  I refer readers to review of the Crucial m4 mSATA SSD for comparative performance data for the U100 and the m4. I would note that, to date, Samsung have not used the U100 SSD in the models of the NP900X4C sold with a 256GB SSD.
PCMark Vantage
The PCMark Vantage benchmark measures overall system performance. I am giving two results for this benchmark: With the supplied 128GB Sandisk U100; and with the 256GB Crucial M4 which shifts the overall performance, according to this benchmark, from above average to the best in my house. A detailed examination of the breakdown of the PCMark Vantage results reveals, however, that components which should not, logically, depend on SSD performance are boosted by the change in SSD, so perhaps the extra capacity also influences this benchmark.
PC Mark7
PCMark 7 is a newer benchmark to measure overall system performance. The change in SSD from the U100 to the m4 has much less impact on this benchmark score but pulls it ahead of the recently reviewed ThinkPad T430s or Acer Timeline Ultra M3. This benchmark supports the impression that a fast SSD has more impact on overall performance than a slightly faster CPU.
3DMark06
3DMark06 measures gaming graphics performance. While there are the newer and more demanding 3D benchmarks, the older 3DMark06 benchmark is more appropriate for ultrabooks with their less powerful graphics.  The NP900X4C shows a significant improvement compared to the NP900X3B. Much of this can be attributed to the Intel Ivy Bridge architecture but having 8GB of 1600MHz RAM on board also helps.
Heat and Noise
The NP900X4C, with only one cooling fan, is unable to match the smaller NP900X3B (with two fans) in the quietness league table when under load. It is also noisier than my Lenovo T420s. Various factors appear to contribute to the fan noise: The first is that the airflow is more complicated. The two air inlets on the base of the computer are about 20% smaller than those on the NP900X3B requiring a more fan effort to suck the air in but it appears that air is also sucked in through one of the vents on the back. In addition, relatively conservative fan rules make the fan go to maximum speed once the CPU temperature exceeds 70°C which can occur even with an intensive single-threaded task. The highest CPU temperature I have observed is 78°C so there is plenty of headroom to raise the thermal settings (the CPU in the T420s can exceed 90°C under sustained load). Under light usage the fan noise is not noticeable and if there is a need to prioritise silence over performance then Fn+F11 will enable quiet mode which limits the CPU to 800MHz. The one benefit of the fan noise is that external temperatures do not get excessively hot in spite of the thin chassis and the temperatures after sustained CPU load are shown below.
Battery Life
The nominal battery capacity is 62Whr (7.4V, 8400mAh) and Samsung claim up to 10 hours running time. Although the notebookreview standard battery rundown test (Windows 7 Balanced power profile , wireless active and refreshing a web page every 60 seconds) normally uses 70% screen brightness I consider this inappropriate for a nominal 400 nit brightness display where the backlight consumes a substantial proportion of the power. After all, I find that 5/8 brightness is optimum for indoor use. A 70% brightness test wouldn't provide a fair comparison with a notebook such as the Lenovo T430 which can give up to 15 hours under those test conditions but uses a display that is half as bright (200 nit). I therefore ran two tests, at 3/8 brightness and 4/8 brightness and these provided 9 hours 57 minutes and 8 hours 4 minutes respectively. Samsung's claim of 10 hours is therefore realistic for working off-line or with a less bright display.
I investigated further the power consumption related to the backlight and created this graph which shows that maximum brightness adds about 4.5W to the power consumption which, considering the basic power consumption is around 5W, is nearly 100% increase. Not surprisingly, high brightness and long battery life do not go together. Samung provide a Battery Life Extender option which limits the maximum charge to 80% (ie up to about 8 hours away from a power socket). I hope this will substantially delay the date when a new battery is needed.
Conclusion
The concept of a lightweight notebook with a large display should appeal to many users who value portability but struggle with a small screen, perhaps due to aging eyes. I hadn't consciously noticed that I was sitting closer to the 13.3" display on the NP900X3B, but I was. Now I've got accustomed to the bigger screen I don't want to revert to the 13.3" size even if the quality is better.
Samsung are gradually working their way towards design perfection. The overall build quality is impressive considering the slender form. This is not a notebook that needs a thick padded sleeve (although I recommend a thin one to protect it from dirt and scratches). The main design failings are the ports being tightly packed together (wide flash drives are a problem) and the absence of a very high resolution video port (micro HDMI has a maximum of 1080p). The absence of the premium quality PLS display is easily rectified if Samsung decide to make one but I should emphasise that the display is noticeably better than that on the T420s. The problems I have encountered with Wi-Fi and fan noise reflect a lack of thorough testing and most users are not encountering these issues. 
So, will this notebook take over from the Lenovo T420s? So far the omens are looking positive: Better display; slim profile and less weight (particularly when the PSU is included); longer battery time and a feeling of durability. Adequate storage is the current bottleneck. I've already done one upgrade and can't wait for 512GB mSATA SSDs to arrive. And the final good news is that although the NP900X4C is wider than the T420s, its slender profile means that it will slip into the same bags.
Pros:
  • Exceptionally thin and light for a 15-inch notebook
  • Excellent battery operation time
  • Robust and stylish construction
  • Exceptionally large trackpad
Cons:
  • Non-premium display in a premium notebook
  • Needs special dongles for the network and display devices
  • Weak Wi-Fi performance and fairly noisy fan when under load (for me, not everyone)
  • Expensive