Over the past few years, Samsung has released some of the best ultrabooks on the market. The company’s Series 9 laptops set a standard for portable Windows notebooks with excellent displays, decent keyboards, good performance, and ridiculously thin and light cases.
Samsung’s more recent models are branded ATIV Book 9 instead of Series 9, and the company offers premium model called the ATIV Book 9 Plus with an Intel processor and high-resolution display, and a cheaper model called the ATIV Book 9 Lite.
The Lite model isn’t quite as thin or light as the Plus, it has a plastic case instead of metal, lacks the high resolution display, and has a relatively low power AMD processor instead of an Intel Haswell chip. Despite all of that, the Samsung ATIV Book 9 Lite is actually a pretty decent laptop — I’m just not entirely convinced it’s worth the $800 asking price.
Fortunately it’s not that hard to find the ATIV Book 9 Lite on sale for lower prices. Amazon sells the notebook for as little as $749, and prices will probably drop even lower in the coming months, making this portable notebook a cheaper alternative to an ultrabook.
I’ve been using a Samsung Series 9 ultrabook with an Intel Sandy Bridge processor as my primary laptop for the past year. So when Samsung loaned me an ATIV Book 9 Lite to test for a few weeks, I jumped at the opportunity to see how the company’s new lower-cost laptop compares.
The short version is that the new model isn’t as fast as my aging ultrabook, and I prefer the matte 13.3 inch 1600 x 900 pixel display on my laptop to the glossy 1366 x 768 pixel screen on the review unit I tested. But my notebook doesn’t have a touchscreen display, and the more time I spend with touch-capable notebooks like the ATIV Book 9 Lite, the more I wish it did.
Read on for the long version.
The Samsung ATIV Book 9 Lite features 4GB of RAM, a 128GB solid state drive, and a 1.4 GHz AMD quad-core processor. AMD built that chip specifically for Samsung, so it doesn’t have a model number you’ve heard of — but it appears to basically be comparable to an AMD Temash or low-end Kabini processor.
That’s to say that it feature Radeon HD graphics with support for hardware-accelerated HD video playback and 3D graphics performance, and the computer handles multi-tasking pretty well. But it’s not particularly speedy at CPU-intensive tasks, particularly single-threaded tasks that don’t really take advantage of the multiple processor cores.
Day to day tasks such as web surfing, documenting editing, and media playback are no problem for this chipset. But if you plan to do a lot of video editing or hardcore gaming, you might want to look for another laptop. We’ll get into more details in the performance section below.
The laptop has 1 USB 3.0 port, 1 USB 2.0 port, a micro HDMI port, an SDXC card slot, 802.11b/g/n WiFi, and Bluetooth 4.0. You can also connect a VGA monitor or an Ethernet cable, but you’ll need a special adapter to do either of those things — the case isn’t really thick enough for full-sized RJ45 or VGA ports.
Samsung ships the ATIV Book 9 Lite with Windows 8 64-bit, and the notebook has a capacitive multitouch display that you can use to interact with the touch-friendly operating system. Touch input is a little less useful for classic desktop apps, but I find myself regularly reaching up to the display to scroll through web pages when reading with the notebook resting on my lap.
The company is also trying to build an ecosystem around its products, giving you a reason to buy not just your laptop, but also your phone and possibly your smartwatch, TV, home media server, and other hardware from Samsung. To that end, most of the company’s new laptops ship with a few value-added apps such as SideSync and HomeSync, which are designed to let you pair your PC with a Samsung Galaxy smartphone and control your phone with your noteboook’s mouse and touchpad, or backup the data from your phone to your PC.
At a glance, the ATIV Book 9 Lite looks a lot like the more expensive ATIV Book 9 Plus. But it’s a tad thicker and heavier, and despite the texture on the lid which is designed to look like brushed aluminum, this laptop has a case that’s all plastic.
That’s not to say that the notebook feels cheap. It has a case that feels sturdy, a palm wrest that feels comfortable, and a keyboard that doesn’t flex much unless you press down very hard in the center.
The touchpad is also nice and wide, supports multi-touch gestures including two-finger tapping and scrolling, and feels pretty good under my fingers. It might be a tad too sensitive — sometimes the mouse cursor jumped while I was typing this review, because it turned out my palm had accidentally swiped across the touchpad. But overall, the typing and tapping experience is pretty decent.
Samsung also sloped the sides of the notebook to make it look thinner than it actually is. Sure, that might be a psychological trick, but the ATIV Book 9 Lite really is pretty thin.
The notebook measures 12.7 x 8.8″ x 0.7″ and weighs about 3.5 pounds. That makes it smaller and lighter than most 13 inch ultrabooks, but kind of chunky compared to the ATIV Book 9 Plus, which measures 0.5″ thick and weighs just under 2.6 pounds. That model also costs almost twice as much though, so unless you’ve got around $1400 burning a hole in your pocket, it’s probably best to ignore the Plus and just focus on the fact that the Lite is pretty small by traditional notebook standards.
Unfortunately, while the ATIV Book 9 Lite isn’t technically an ultrabook, it has a few of the shortcomings often associated with those ultraportable notebooks: The battery isn’t user replaceable, and there’s no easy way to upgrade the memory or storage. That’s because the battery is hidden away inside the case, and there’s no access panel for removing parts for repair or upgrade.
Overall, the ATIV Book 9 Lite is an attractive, portable notebook that looks a lot like more expensive models in Samsung’s lineup, even if it weighs about a pound more. Equipping the laptop with a plastic case instead of magnesium alloy seems like an acceptable way to offer a cheaper model which is still more portable than most laptops — which is more than I can say about some of the other design choices that went into this notebook.
Display and touchscreen
Like many notebooks that ship with Windows 8, most of Samsung’s new ATIV 9 machines feature touchscreen displays. You can use the keyboard and touchpad to navigate through apps, web pages, and other on-screen elements, or you can reach up and just touch the screen.
That makes it easier to access some functions quickly. For instance you can swipe from the right side of the display to bring up the Windows 8 Charms menu which gives you quick access to search, settings, the Windows power menu, and other items. If you use Windows 8 full-screen apps from the Windows Store, some are also designed to be touched, and you can cycle through currently running apps by swiping from the left side of the screen.
But even if you absolutely hate the Windows 8 Start Screen and Metro-style apps, touch turns out to be a decent way to scroll through websites or eBooks, reposition apps by dragging them across your screen, or tapping buttons or links on websites (although I’ve found that some websites are more touch-friendly than others).
The display wobbles a little bit when you tap it, which can be a little annoying when it’s sitting on a desk. But if you’re using the notebook on your lap, it probably wobbles a bit when you type as well, so a little bit of shaking when using the touch panel isn’t that big a deal. You can also open the display to a 180 degree angle if you want to hold the notebook like a book or lay it flat on a table for some reason.
Unfortunately most touchscreen displays are glossy, which is to say that if there’s a bright light source nearby, you’re more likely to see glare. To be fair, most laptops ship with glossy screens these days, but Samsung’s older Series 9 laptops often came with matte displays, which is one of the things I liked best about them.
Samsung tries to reduce the glare on the ATIV Book 9 Lite by offering a 250 nit display, which means the backlight is brighter than those on many notebook displays. But if you keep the screen at full brightness, it will wear down your battery more quickly.
At lower brightness settings, colors can look a bit dull. And while the side-to-side viewing angles are decent (a friend sitting next to you and watching a video probably won’t have too much difficulty seeing what you’re seeing), the vertical viewing angles are less than stellar (if that friend is a head taller than you, pictures and videos might start to look like photo negatives).
The thing that disappoints me most about the display is the resolution: this is hardly the only 13.3 inch, 1366 x 768 pixel display, and with a list price of $800 I didn’t really expects a 2560 x 1600 pixel screen. But the reason I bought my Series 9 notebook last year is because it had a higher-than 720p screen with a resolution of 1600 x 900 pixels. That’s not an option on this notebook.
AMD designed a custom quad-core, low-voltage processor for Samsung, and it’s designed to offer moderate performance and low power consumption. The result is a chip which lets you perform common tasks on a PC with little to no difficulty, but which allows for decent battery life.
For the first few days I used this laptop, I didn’t run any heavy-duty benchmarks and I was reasonably impressed with the ATIV Book 9 Lite’s performance. It boots in about 8 seconds, resumes from sleep even more quickly, and I had no problem surfing the web with a dozen browser tabs open while listening to music.
Samsung says one of the things that AMD has done to improve responsiveness with this chip is to enable higher voltages while the PC is idle than you’d get with a typical AMD Temash chip, for instance. It seems to work, because this notebook does feel pretty responsive.
But when you start performing stress tests, a different picture emerges. The Samsung ATIV Book 9 Lite is actually one of the slowest computers I’ve tested in a long time when it comes to single-threader, CPU-intensive tasks such as compressing audio or video files or creating a ZIP archive.
For the past few years I’ve been running a test involving compressing an audio file using WinLame, compressing a video file with VirtualDub, and adding 2186 files to a large ZIP archive using 7-zip. Some of these tools are starting to look a little dated, but I keep using them so that I have a way of comparing performance.
It turns out that not only is the ATIV Book 9 Lite nearly 5 times slower in the video transcode test than my Samsung Series 9 notebook with an Intel Core i5 Sandy Bridge processor (a chip which is already a few years old at this point), but even the Asus 1015E notebook with an Intel Celeron 847 processor and the HP Envy X2 with an Intel Atom Z2760 Clover Trail chip outperformed the ATIV Book 9 Lite on each test.
Let’s put that another way: You can buy a $299 laptop with significantly better performance than this $800ish notebook.
As I mentioned, some of those tests are starting to look a little dated, so I decided to try transcoding the same video file using Handbrake, and as expected the job went much more quickly. But I ran the same test on my Sandy Bridge laptop, and again it completed the task about 3-4 times as quickly, depending on the settings.
Things look a little different when you run graphics benchmarks. The Samsung ATIV Book 9 Lite features AMD Radeon HD 8250 graphics. While the graphics chip isn’t quite as powerful as a discrete graphics card, it offers enough oomph for HD video playback and some light gaming duties.
You should be able to play many older games and even some modern games without too much difficulty… but that’s kind of been true of the last few low-power chips from AMD. Interestingly, the Samsung ATIV Book 9 Lite doesn’t really fare any better than older notebooks like the HP Pavilion dm1 in graphics benchmarks such as the Street Fighter IV bench.
It’s worth noting that Samsung includes a couple of different power profiles on this notebook. Most of these benchmark scores were recorded while running in Samsung Optimized or High Performance mode. You might be able to eke out longer battery life in Power Saving mode, but performance will suffer.
So what kind of battery life are we talking about? Samsung says the laptop should run for about 5.5 hours on a charge, and in my tests that seems about right. In fact, I was occasionally able to get about 6 hours of battery life while using the laptop while working coffee shops — but that was with the sound turned off, the screen dimmed, and without watching any videos.
For casual use, the Samsung ATIV Book 9 Lite offers perfectly acceptable performance, and in fact when you combine Windows 8, UEFI fast boot, the 4GB of RAM, speedy solid state drive, the notebook sometimes feels much faster than high-end notebooks from a few years ago when it comes to things like suspend, resume, and boot times.
But if you need a high performance machine (or expect an $800 laptop to offer higher performance) for editing videos, running complicated calculations, or other CPU-heavy tasks, the ATIV Book 9 Lite is hardly your best bet. In many ways, it’s not even as fast as a netbook from a few years ago.
The Samsung ATIV Book 9 Lite ships with Windows 8, which is largely the only thing you need to know about the software experience. If an app runs on Windows, it’ll run on this laptop.
But Samsung is trying to add to the experience, populating a section of the Start Screen, for instance with “Samsung Apps” including a few Windows apps developed by the consumer electronics company, and a few recommended apps such as Skype, Evernote, and iHeartRadio.
Some of these apps are only useful if you actually wanted them — and they’re all free, so you could have installed them from the Windows Store yourself. Others, such as Samsung SideSync and HomeSync really do offer something you won’t get unless you buy a Samsung laptop.
HomeSync, for instance, lets you pair your Windows laptop with a Samsung phone, tablet, or other device to share photos, videos, or other content.
SideSync, meanwhile, is an app that’d designed to let you do two different things: Use your laptop’s keyboard and touchpad to control your smartphone, or mirror your smartphone display on your computer.
This lets you, for instance, look up a contact or chat with a friend on your phone while using your notebook’s hardware. SideSync is designed to work with most recent Samsung Galaxy smartphones and you can either connect your phone to your PC with a USB cable or via a WiFi connection.
I didn’t have a Samsung phone handy, so the company sent me a Galaxy S III to test SideSync. Unfortunately, it arrived without the SideSync app pre-loaded, so I had to download it from the Samsung App Store… which also wasn’t preloaded. Once I figured out that visiting Samsung Apps in a mobile browser gave me an option to download and install the app store, I was able to install the SideSync app.
But then it took 30 to 60 seconds for the PC to locate the phone every time I wanted to connect the devices, which was kind of a hassle. And while I was able to use the PC keyboard and touchpad to control a cursor on the phone, but I was never able to mirror the phone’s display on the PC screen.
Remote controlling the phone is kind of a neat party trick, but it doesn’t seem all that useful at this point.
Interestingly, while I was trying to figure out how to get SideSync to work, I spent some time searching YouTube for videos off people using it successfully. Almost every video I found was either posted by Samsung or by tech reporters who caught up with Samsung at trade shows where there was a Samsung rep on-hand to show off the service.
That said, Samsung believes the phone might have had faulty software, and the company is looking into the problems I had. If we find a solution, I’ll update this review.
I’d be interested in knowing whether any Liliputing readers are actively using SideSync and if their experiences have been any better than mine.
Samsung is clearly pushing the software pretty hard — the SideSync and HomeSync Lite logo are painted onto the palm rest.
I get why Samsung is trying to build software that links the company’s Windows PCs and Android phones. By creating an ecosystem that’s only available to Samsung users, the company can try to pull an Apple and encourage folks to buy all of their devices from the same company. But Apple controls the hardware and software on its devices much more tightly than Samsung can, since Apple makes OS X and iOS, while Samsung has to rely on partnerships with Microsoft and Android.
What I’m less clear on is whether Samsung has succeeded in building out an ecosystem that’s actually useful… yet.
There’s a lot to like about the Samsung ATIV Book 9 Lite. It’s relatively thin and light, offers decent day-to-day performance, and up to 6 hours of battery life. If it weren’t for the fact that I spent $800 on my Series 9 notebook a year ago and got a model that’s thinner, lighter, and faster, it’d be a lot easier to recommend the ATIV Book 9 Lite.
As it stands, this laptop just doesn’t seem to offer the kind of performance you’d expect from an $800 notebook.
Fortunately, you can already find stores selling the ATIV Book 9 Lite for much lower prices, and as the price starts to inch closer to $600, it’ll be a lot easier to recommend this as a portable, inexpensive alternative to an ultrabook. But as things stand, there are too many other portable notebooks that offer better performance and similar or longer battery life at much lower prices.