Samsung Series 9 NP900X3D Windows 8 ultrabook review
Samsung has been offering a line of ultrabooks since before they were called ultrabooks. The Samsung Series 9 line of laptops including thin and light cases, solid state disks, and Intel Core family processors.
When Intel introduced the ultrabook category, Samsung resisted calling the original Samsung Series 9 an ultrabook — because it was too expensive. Ultrabooks were supposed to sell for around $1000, give or take, but the first Series 9 laptops had price tags of $1300 or higher.
A lot’s changed in the last year. While Samsung still has some high-end Series 9 notebooks to sell, the company also offers a handful of models at much lower prices. On Black Friday this year I was excited to be able to pick up one of those models for $800 — or about $200 below list price.
I was a little less excited a few days later when I noticed that Amazon had lowered the regular price for the same notebook to $830, but the good news is that now anybody in the market for a 2.5 pound notebook with a 1600 x 900 pixel display, decent battery life, and a reasonably fast processor can pick one up for just a few bucks more than I paid.
The Samsung Series 9 NP900X3D-A01US isn’t the fastest ultrabook around. It’s powered by an Intel Core i5 Sandy Bridge processor, which is basically a 2011-era chip. And it doesn’t have all the latest features: while the laptop ships with Windows 8, it doesn’t include a touchscreen display, for instance.
But it’s tough to find another computer that offers the same mix of features as this notebook for under $1000.
You won’t find many laptops that are thinner or lighter than a Samsung Series 9. Even the 13 inch MacBook Air is thicker and heavier.
But Samsung manages to cram the latest processors, decent batteries, and premium features including backlit keyboards into its Series 9 notebooks, even though they measure just half an inch thick and weigh just about 2.5 pounds.
The model I purchased features:
- 13.3 inch, 1600 x 900 pixel matte display
- Windows 8
- Intel Core i5-2537M dual core Sandy Bridge processor
- Intel HD graphics 3000
- 4GB of RAM
- 128GB solid state disk
- 44Whr battery
- Stereo 1.5W speakers
- 1.3MP webcam
- 802.11a/b/g/n WiFi
- Bleutooth 4.0
- Intel WiDi (Wireless Display)
- 1 USB 3.0 port, 1 USB 2.0 port
- SD card reader
- micro HDMI port
- Ethernet jack (which requires a dongle)
This is literally the cheapest Series 9 notebook Samsung offers. But it doesn’t feel cheap in any sense of the word. It just has somewhat dated specs compared with newer models featuring Intel Ivy Bridge processors.
The NP900X3D-A01US measures 12.3″ x 8.6″ x 0.51″ and weighs 2.49 pounds. It has a magnesium alloy case — which looks a bit like plastic at first glance, but which gets cold when you’re not using the laptop, like metal. It also feels quite sturdy and does a pretty good job of resisting fingerprints.
Most of the surface area of the laptop is covered in the same silver/gray material, giving the laptop a uniform look.
The lid, base, and area around the keyboard and display all have the same matte gray/silver finish. I can’t say with absolute certainty that they’re all covered by the same material, but if not, Samsung did a pretty good job of matching the paint.
There’s a thin black rubbery strip around the edges of the display, which keeps the screen from bumping the keyboard when the laptop is closed. Samsung also uses a rather unusual hinge which is designed to accentuate just how thin the laptop is.
When you close the lid, the rounded hinge fits neatly with the sloped back of the laptop base so that the back of the notebook isn’t much thicker than the front.
While it’s impressive that Samsung was able to make a notebook that’s only 0.51 inches thick, what’s more impressive is just how light the Series 9 is. At 2.5 pounds, it’s lighter than many 10 inch netbooks, even though this laptop has a 13.3 inch display.
It’s been a while since I’ve carried around a laptop so light that after tossing it in my bag and running out the door, I find myself stopping down the block and opening my bag to make sure the notebook is really in there. But I’ve done that at least twice since picking up the Series 9 a few weeks ago.
Speaking of tossing the notebook in my bag, I have a backpack with a laptop compartment. But I like to put my notebooks in a slip cover for extra protection. When I ordered a 13.3 inch notebook I figured I’d need a new slip case, since my last laptop had a 12.1 inch display. But the Series 9 is small enough that it fits comfortably into a slip cover designed for that smaller notebook. Your results may vary.
Samsung does make some sacrifices in order to keep the Series 9 so thin and light. The battery, memory, and solid state disk are not user replaceable. They’re sealed up inside the laptop case, and while you might be able to remove some components and replace them by performing minor surgery on the notebook, you’ll probably void your warranty in the process.
The selection of ports also leaves a bit to be desired. There are only 2 USB ports, and there’s no room for full-sized Ethernet or VGA jacks. There’s not even a full-sized HDMI port.
Instead, there’s a micro HDMI port which you can use to connect an external display. But you’ll need a micro HDMI-to-HDMI or micro HDMI-to-VGA adapter to do that. Those are sold separately.
You also need an adapter to connect an Ethernet cable, but Samsung does include an adapter in the box.
It’s the display that drew me to this laptop in the first place. As a writer, I like to have two windows open side-by-side, one for writing and one for research. You can do this with a 1366 x 768 pixel display, but both your writing and research windows tend to be too small.
My desktop monitory is a 22 inch, 1920 x 1080 pixel display, and that’s just about the right size — although I wouldn’t mind a few more pixels. But a full 1080p screen feels like overkill on a 13.3 inch notebook. Until recently, Microsoft didn’t handle small, high resolution displays very well, and while full-screen Windows 8 style apps look great at any resolution, desktop-style apps are another story.
The higher resolution your display, the tinier text and graphics are going to look on a small screen. So for a 13.3 notebook, a 1600 x 900 pixel display is just about right for my needs: letting me view more content at once without making me squint or hold the laptop up to my nose.
As an added bonus, the Samsung Series 9 doesn’t just have a high resolution display, it has a very nice one. It’s a matte screen, which means it doesn’t reflect glare the way glossy screens do. While it’s not really meant for outdoor use, you can shine a light directly at the screen and while you’ll see a bright spot, you won’t see the light flash back at your eyes.
You also won’t be able to use the screen as a mirror when the display is off, so if the mirror functionality of a laptop is important to you… you’ll have to fire up the webcam to emulate it.
Viewing angles are pretty good. I was able to tilt the screen all the way back or view the display from the sides without pictures starting to look like photo negatives. Images and colors do look best when viewed head-on, but you should have no problem typing in bed or showing photos or videos to the person sitting next to you on a couch.
The bezel around the display is pretty small by laptop standards, which probably helps explain why this notebook was able to fit into my 12.1 inch laptop slip case.
Keyboard and TouchPad
Like virtually every other notebook released in the past few years, the Samsung Series 9 has an island-style keyboard. That means the flat black keys are surrounded by a sea of little spaces.
This layout takes up less vertical space than an old-fashioned keyboard with large keys that are a bit concave, and helps the laptop stay thin. But when you press down on a key, there’s a comfortable bit of travel, which makes it easy to tell when a key has been pressed and when it has not.
If you press down very hard near the center of the keyboard the whole panel will give a little. But there’s much less flex in this keyboard than in most notebooks I’ve used, and under normal typing conditions I didn’t notice any give at all.
The 80-key keyboard is backlit. Light shines up from behind the keys, illuminating their edges and also lighting up the characters printed on the keys. This makes it easier to see the keys when you’re in a darker environment.
The backlight is linked to an automatic light sensor so that in a bright room you won’t notice any illumination, while in a dark room the keys shine brightly. You can also enter the Windows General Settings panel to disable the backlight altogether, or press Fn+ F9 or F10 to manually brighten or dim the keyboard lights.
Other special function keys let you adjust the volume and screen brightness, disable the touchpad, or access display settings. You can also hit Fn + F1 to bring up a Samsung Settings app, which I’ll discuss in the software section below.
While the Samsung Series 9 NP900X3D ships with Windows 8, it doesn’t have a touchscreen display. That means you get the touch-friendly Windows 8 Start Screen and access to full-screen weather, calendar, eBook, or other apps from the Windows Store. But you have to use a keyboard and touchpad or mouse to interact with them.
Fortunately the laptop has a pretty good touchpad with support for Windows 8 multitouch gestures. You can open up the Elan Smart-Pad options to see a list of available gestures, adjust speed, and enable or disable features.
For instance, you can swipe from the left or right edge of the touchpad to switch apps or open the Windows 8 Charms Menu — just as if you had been swiping from the edge of a touchscreen. The touchpad also supports two-finger scrolling and clicking, and 3 and 4-finger swipe gestures
The touch surface is a large enough to support 4-finger gestures, and you can adjust the sensitivity. So if you find yourself accidentally hitting the touchpad with your palm while you type, you can slide the palm sensitivity meter until you’re less likely to move the cursor while you’re typing.
When you’re using a mouse instead of the touchpad, you can still trigger certain Windows 8 functions by moving your mouse cursor to the corners of the screen. Dragging it to the bottom left corner brings up an icon that lets you return to the Start Screen. From the bottom right corner you can open the Windows 8 Charms menu.
Yes, Windows 8 is a touch-friendly operating system. But you don’t need a touchscreen to use the OS. It just helps.
If you’ve used Windows 7, you should have no problem with the Windows 8 operating system that comes with the Samsung Series 9 NP900X3D-A01US. There are basically two things you have to get used to:
- The Start Menu has been replaced with a Start Screen.
- It takes a few more clicks to shut down or restart the laptop.
The Start Screen is a full-screen canvas for shortcuts and live tiles. You can arrange icons for the apps you launch most often or view up-to-date info about the weather, your unread email messages, or other details.
You can also just start typing to search for apps, files, or settings. It’s a lot like the search/run box in the Windows 7 Start Menu… but faster. It can be a bit disconcerting at first that every time you hit the Windows Key, a full-screen Start Screen pops up instead of a little menu on the side of the screen. But once you get used to it, the Start Screen is actually pretty useful.
One of the first things I did after my laptop arrived was to install a Start Menu replacement. One of the next things I did was to uninstall it. The Start Screen isn’t bad — for the most part.
My only complaint is that it now takes a lot more effort to shut down or restart a computer. Instead of opening the Start Menu and clicking a button that’s right there, you now have to open the Start Screen or Charms menu, go to Settings, Choose Power, and then choose Sleep, Restart, or Shut Down.
But honestly — this isn’t something you’ll need to do all that often. For the most part you can just close the lid and let the computer to to sleep. It springs back to life almost as soon as you lift the lid again.
A cold boot doesn’t take much longer — just 15 seconds.
Like most laptops that ship with Windows 8, the Samsung Series 9 NP900X3D-A01US uses UEFI instead of a traditional BIOS. This, combined with a solid state disk (which is faster than a hard drive), and Windows 8 boot optimizations mean that the computer boots in a matter of seconds, not minutes.
What if you plan to run something beside Windows 8 on the laptop? You can do that too.
Secure Boot is turned on by default, but you can disable secure boot, enable support for legacy BIOS functions, and allow the computer to boot from external devices such as USB flash drives or disc drives.
By doing this, I was able to boot Ubuntu and Linux Mint from a USB flash drive. For some reason Ubuntu 12.10 didn’t detect the Series 9′s touchpad at all, but worked fine with a USB mouse. Linux Mint seemed to recognize all of the laptop’s hardware including the touchpad, wireless card, and more.
I didn’t go as far as installing either operating system on the laptop’s solid state disk, so I can’t say how well the Series 9 handles dual or multi-boot configurations. But it is at least possible to boot something other than Windows 8.
Samsung also includes a 20GB recovery partition on the SSD, so if anything goes wrong you should be able to restore the computer to its factory settings… assuming you have’t damaged that partition.
You can run the Samsung Recovery utility from within Windows or by hitting the F4 computer when you power up the computer, before you see the Samsung splash screen.
The Recovery tool also lets you backup your files and settings to an external storage device.
Samsung’s Settings app for the Series 9 gives you control over the keyboard backlight, the computer’s fan, power management, and a few other features.
For instance, there’s a Battery Life Extender option which sets the maximum battery charge level to 80 percent, which theoretically helps extend the number of recharge cycles for the battery… at the cost of reducing your battery life per charge. Still, if you can get by with an hour or so less of battery life per charge, this might be a useful feature to have, since the battery is not user replaceable.
You can also enable or disable USB charging — which lets you charge a phone or other device by plugging it into the laptop’s USB port, even when the notebook is powered down.
Samsung also loads the laptop with a “Samsung Optimized” power plan which, among other things, limits the CPU usage to 50 percent when you’re using the device on battery power. This helps prolong battery life, but at the cost of overall performance. If you want full performance, you can just switch to “High Performance” mode or customize your power settings.
Powered by a 17W Intel Core i5 Sandy Bridge notebook processor, the Samsung Series 9 isn’t exactly the most powerful computer I’ve tested recently. But it is the speediest computer I own.
That’s because I don’t buy a new computer every year… so the zippiest machine in the house up until a a few weeks ago was a desktop with a 65W Core 2 Duo E7400 processor. The Samsung Series 9 may have a lower power processor, but it can encode an HD video in about half the time as that desktop.
In fact, I’m seriously considering just picking up a cheap docking station so I can quickly plug the Series 9 into an external monitor, speakers, keyboard and mouse so I can use it both as my primary work machine and as my on-the-go-machine.
But how does it compare to the latest systems with Intel Ivy Bridge processors? It’s not quite as fast… but for most tasks you probably wouldn’t notice the difference.
For instance, Series 9 took 100 seconds to transcode a video file that took 81 seconds to encode using the HP Envy TouchSmart 4 — a Windows 8 notebook with an Intel Core i5 Ivy Bridge CPU. But that’s still much better than the 239 seconds the same tasks takes on an HP Pavilion Dm1 notebook with an AMD E2-1800 processor or the 204 seconds it took on my old notebook, an Asus UL20A with an Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300 CPU.
In most tests, the Samsung Series 9 scored about the same as the Asus Zenbook UX31 ultrabook I reviewed almost a year ago… which makes sense since the Series 9 is basically a new laptop with last year’s specs (and this year’s operating system.
While there’s not a huge difference in CPU performance between Intel’s 2nd generation (Sandy Bridge) and 3rd generation (Ivy Bridge) Core processors, the newer chips do offer about 40 percent better graphics performance. And the thing I’ve noticed most about overall performance with the Samsung Series 9 is that CPU usage spikes considerably when I’m using it to play HD videos.
When the laptop is plugged in, or when it’s on battery power with High Performance mode enabled, it can still handle 1080p video without a problem. But in Samsung Optimized mode, with the CPU limited to 798 MHz or so, sometimes HD video can look choppy or audio will sound glitchy while a video is playing. This is especially true when watching HD video.
I’ve also found that audio distorts when played at high volumes — whether you’re watching video or not. It’s generally best not to expect too much from laptop speakers, and if you have low expectations the Series 9 doesn’t sound too bad. Just don’t crank the volume all the way up unless you have some external speakers or headphones to plug in.
Technically the Core i5-2537M processor is considered a 1.4 GHz chip. But when you don’t limit the processor speed, it can jump up as high as 2.3 GHz from time to time in order to offer extra performance when necessary.
So it’s not surprising that performance suffers noticeably when you use the Samsung Optimized power plan and intentionally cripple the battery life.
The good news is that the Samsung Optimized plan really does allow you to get nearly all-day battery life from the Series 9′s 44Whr battery.
Run time varies pretty greatly depending on what you’re doing (watching HD videos will run it down quickly). But I was regularly able to get around 5 to 6 hours of run time from a fully charged battery while surfing the web, writing documents, and playing occasional audio or video files.
The bottom of the laptop does get a little warm after extended or heavy-duty use. But the keyboard tends to stay comfortably at room temperature. And while this isn’t a fanless system, the noise from the CPU fan is relatively quiet.
A year ago most ultrabooks sold for around $1000 and up. Today you can find models priced as low as $600 or as high as $1500. The Samsung Series 9 sits somewhere in the middle — and the model I purchased offers pretty strong performance for the price.
It doesn’t provide a no-compromise experience. The battery isn’t replaceable. The RAM and storage aren’t upgradeable. You need dongles to connect an external monitor or Ethernet cable. There’s no touchscreen. And it has a Sandy Bridge processor instead of a faster Ivy Bridge chip.
But here’s why I paid $800 for this laptop: It has a 128GB solid state disk (with no hard drive) for speedy performance. It has a 1600 x 900 pixel display. It offers almost all-day battery life. And it’s small and light enough to take pretty much anywhere I would take a netbook.
Heck, it’s almost as thin as a tablet. Here’s a photo of the Series 9 with a Google Nexus 7 and an Amazon Kindle Fire:
I’m a sucker for a good bargain… and while the Samsung Series 9 NP900X3D-A01US isn’t the cheapest ultrabook on the market, it’s the cheapest that offers that combination of features.
Now that I’ve had a chance to use it for a while, I can say it also has an attractive design, great keyboard, a decent touchpad (although I still prefer to use a wireless mouse for serious work) and decent battery life.
The Samsung Series 9 NP900X3D-A01US has a list price of $999, but you can pick one up from Amazon for $830.