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The Samsung Series 9 2012 (aka NP900) is presented by Samsung as a laptop line that “pushes the envelope”, and the company has certainly up the ante by introducing a new design that is 20% thinner and more robust than the original Series 9 laptop (the 900X, which I owned and use one for about 12 months). The changes are quite obvious from the outside: this year’s model has directly accessible USB ports and the whole design is simply better in general. In fact, this is one of the nicest laptop design on the market, and in the 15″ category, there is simply nothing like it. It looks good on paper, but how is it in the real world? In this review, I will go over the look and feel, the system performance and the battery life to tell you how it really is to use one of those.

Context

It’s important for you to know what I do with my laptops so that you can see where I’m coming from. There is no doubt that my particular usage pattern will affect my view of what’s useful (or not) in a computer. I mainly use my laptops as secondary machines because I normally work on a powerful desktop PC with 3 displays. When I go on an extended trip, I take a powerful 15” laptop that can be used for light development as well. For a local trade shows, I use a 13” laptop (3 lbs). On either, I mainly do email, story writing, and video editing. On the 15” laptop, I can do basic development as well.

Technical Highlights (as tested)

15″ LED Display 1600×900 (400 nit brightness)
Intel Core i5 (3371U 1.7GHZ)
8GB of RAM
Windows 7 Home Premium 64
Sandisk SSD U100 (128GB)
Gigabit Ethernet (via a dongle)
WiFi A/B/G/N + Bluetooth 4.0 (low power)
Micro HDMI, VGA (dongle), audio IN/OUT
2x USB 3.0 and 1x USB 2.0 (sleep and charge)
Multi-card reader (SD/SDHC/SDHX/MMC)
356.9 x 237 x 14.9 mm (14.0″ x 9.3″ x 0.58″)
1.65 kg (3.63 lbs)
62Wh – 8 Cell battery

Official specifications on Samsung.com

Industrial Design

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Samsung has made a name for itself in the laptop space with the original Series 9. That line of laptops represents that best that Samsung can build in terms of mobile computer, and this is a rather crowded market. Note that Samsung probably considers those to be “for business” as its whole laptop division is under an “IT” flag. The most remarkable aspect of this 15” New Series 9 laptop is its weight: a surprising 3.63 lbs. But that’s not it, the metallic construction makes it feel very solid as well and won’t bend when you pick it up with one hand. As you may expect for a laptop this size, it has a very low profile and looks incredibly thin from the side, or when resting on a table. Check our photo gallery if you want to see all the details.

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Keyboard: the keyboard is spacious and comfortable. It has a classic layout, except that Samsung has had enough room for additional Home / Page Up_Down / End buttons which can come in handy if you are used to having those on hand. The key travel length is very short, and depending on your taste you may or may not like it. For reference, it’s noticeably shorter than most laptops that I’ve tried (I use a Macbook Pro Retina 15” with Windows 7).  Yet, it doesn’t prevent me from typing at full speed, and over the years I’ve learned that it takes a bit of time to get used to any new keyboard.

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The trackpad is very spacious and feels very smooth (granted, not “glass-smooth”), and this is one of the best laptop trackpad that we have tested recently. Those who complain that PCs don’t have large trackpads (I hear that a lot, for good reason) will certainly be glad to play with this one. The whole trackpad is connected to a mechanical switch, so anywhere you press it triggers a sharp mechanical “click”. The lower-right section of the trackpad serves as the right mouse button. I think that the trackpad software could be better: the “right click zone” is to big for my taste. Right-handed users will have a tendency to click slightly off-centered on the right even when meaning to click with the left button, so the “right click” should be in a smaller corner at the lower-right of the pad. Unfortunately, there is no option to tweak the size of that zone.

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Ports: there are three USB ports (two of them are USB 3.0), one micro HDMI, a proprietary network connector for an Ethernet dongle, a standard 3.5mm audio jack, an SD Card reader and a DisplayPort (+ power connector of course).  For a laptop this thin, this is really good and I was surprised that the multi-formats Flash Card reader made it in. I really like having three USB ports, because in some instances, two USB ports was just too little for my use. Check the photo gallery to see all the ports.

Display (very bright, but narrow view angle)

The 1600×900 resolution is good, but as you may know, there are higher-resolution displays out there. The Macbook Pro 15” retina display hits 2880×1800, which is impressive, but I think that a 1920×1080 option would have been very nice as well. There is no doubt that Samsung is going to up the ante in future generations of displays but we’re not there yet. So far, the company is behind the most impressive tablet display in the Google Nexus 10: it has a 2560×1600 resolution over a 10″ diagonal.

This Series 9 display is extremely bright which is great if you want to work outdoors for example. I was pretty impressed by how strong the LCD light is. In normal conditions, I use only a 30%-50% brightness setting.

The color rendering is good, but only if you look at the screen straight-on. When looking at it from the top, bottom or sides, the color quality will start degrading pretty quickly. I’ve recorded a video to show you what it looks like. I wish that Samsung had used an IPS display which has much better view angles, but I suspect that to hit the 3 lbs weight target, the display choices may have been restricted. Given that displays are used nearly 100% of the time, I think that they deserve more attention.

Webcam

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In dim lighting, the webcam does not do well at all. As you can see, the Samsung New Series 9 webcam produces a photo that is nearly black. Granted, the lighting conditions are very difficult, but the Macbook Pro Retina did better, and the Microsoft Surface Pro did even better, so that’s possible. Most smartphones have better low-light performance, so the technology is out there.

samsung series 9 2012 webcam dim

Performance

One of the primary reason to buy a PC is because we want better performance, so it’s a critical aspect of any PC review. However, most people don’t want performance at any price and at any size. It is best to understand your own usage so that you can focus your (monetary) resources towards the particular thing that you want to do. The good news is: if you are doing productivity work (email, text, web, excel…), this computer can handle it easily. I recommend an SSD drive and plenty of RAM (4GB minimum, 6GB recommended) and you should be fine. This particular computer has 8GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD, so you should be fine.

PCMark 7 is a benchmark application that tries to simulate real-world tasks which would provide an accurate estimation of the overall system performance. A higher score would mean that the computer is better at regular tasks like opening apps, booting doing mild graphics operations (user interface), etc…

samsung series 9 2012 pcm7

As you can see in the graph, there are differences in this “productivity” benchmark, although the range is small enough that I would say that in the real-world, it’s actually hard to perceive if one is much faster than the other for everyday tasks. If you are using Office, browsing the web etc, performance should not be your primary concern, but form factor and design should.

3DMark11 is a much more demanding benchmark that aims at testing whether or not a machine is “gaming-capable” since gaming is probably the most demanding thing that a computer can do these days. If you use CAD (computer Assisted Design), this may give you a hint as of how fast the system could be for computer graphics, but keep in mind that dedicated CAD graphics processors and drivers do contain specific optimizations for CAD software.

samsung series 9 2012 3dm11

This is a much better example of performance difference that can be felt by just about everyone: if you want to play recent 3D games, this shows that having an external graphics processor (like the Macbook 15” Retina) can make a world of difference in terms of performance. Obviously, not everyone needs it, but this graph should tell you to think hard about it.

The Samsung Series 9 comes with an Intel HD4000 graphics processor that is embedded in the main Intel Core i5 chip. It’s decent, but just doesn’t cut it for games. In you work on video compression, you should know that the Intel Core i5 has a technology called QuickSync that can compress HD movies at real-time speed (1mn video = 1mn compression). With a stand-alone graphics processor, I can compress up to 2X faster than real-time (1mn video = 30 sec compression), that is IF the video-editing software supports hardware encoding at all.

Geekbench is a “math” benchmark which aims at providing a synthetic CPU (central processor) performance score. While this provides a good hint, this benchmark does not behave at all like real-world applications, so you should take its score with caution.

samsung series 9 2012 geekbench

Most recent ultrabooks run on the same Core i5 Intel hardware platform that this Samsung Series 9 does. As a result, many computers will have similar performance characteristics. If for some reason, you need a much faster processing speed, you may want to opt for a Core i7 Intel processor, but as of late, I haven’t heard many people complain about the lack of sheer CPU speed. Disk IO, memory footprint and bloated OS are more common performance issues.

Value for the weight, price

Raw performance is one thing, but it should clearly not be the only metric. It’s not very hard to build a fast computer that is heavy and expensive. It is also easy to build a thin and light one which is slow. That’s why we like looking at performance via prisms, like the performance in relation to the price and weight.

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As you can see, the Samsung Series 9 delivers as much processing “punch” as the Macbook Pro Retina 15”, if you take the weight into account. Now, it’s worth nothing that smaller form factor machines using similar hardware deliver even more performance/Lbs, but they are also significantly less comfortable to use, so again, design will be a key factor in one’s purchase decision.

Battery Life (excellent)

 

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In our standard battery depletion test, the Samsung Series 9 2012 lasted a little more than 8 hours, thanks to its 62 Watt-hours (Wh) battery capacity. The setup was as follow: WiFi-ON, no applications running other than those loaded during the initial boot, display was at 40% (it’s brighter than most screens at 50%).

Simple battery depletion tests are very important because they represent scenarios that involve a low-intensity workload (reading ebooks, typing text, doing basic spreadsheets or PowerPoint). For example, if you type a text document or read an eBook, the computer works very little as it is just waiting for the next keystroke or page turn. In fact, the main processor actually goes to “sleep” mode in-between keystrokes.

One hour of video playback with a 1080p MP4 file stored on the local disk will consume 17% of the battery’s life, while streaming a 1080p video for one hour one YouTube is a bit more expensive at 23%. This means that you could watch almost 6 hours of movies before needing to recharge, which is really good for a laptop. You may not have the 10 hr of movie playback that some tablets have, but you get a large 15” display, and that’s not negligible at all.

Battery Charge Speed

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Charging speed depends on many factors, so you should always correlate this to the depletion test data. What you want is a blend of high battery capacity and quick charge. The bigger the battery and the longer it may take to charge, so you should always take into account the battery depletion rate (8 hrs here). In absolute terms, the Samsung Series 9 (2012) takes 2:30 to reach a charge of 93%. Every battery has difficulties going from 90% to 100% so I often don’t bother performing a full charge if I’m in a hurry. Also, I wanted to stress that the future is “fast battery” charging, and a computer like the Lenovo X1 does have that feature. While this is not “critical” to most people, it can be in your particular case: it’s up to you to decide.

Most batteries will charge at linear speed up to a point (usually 80%-90%) then the charging will slow down significantly. How fast you get to the 80% is important, especially if you are on the go, in between meetings or planes. It is unlikely (but possible!) that battery technology will get a significant boost (they have mainly gotten “bigger” in recent years), so the ability to charge quickly is desirable.

Conclusion

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The Samsung Series 9 2012 is a great laptop with a stunning design. It’s not always easy to see how things really “feel” in the real world when all you have are photos and videos, and Samsung should do anything it can to put these in people’s hands. It is amazing to see that a 15” laptop can be so light (3.63lbs), and yet feel so well built.

As nice as it is, it’s not perfect: the display view angle and the touchpad driver would be the main thing that I would like to see improved in a subsequent update. If you are working on Email, Spreadsheets, PowerPoint  etc, it won’t affect you that much, but I don’t recommend this laptop to designers and people who have to pay close attention to color rendering.

I was surprised by how good the battery life of this computer is, and of the multiple computers that I have been using in the past 18 months, I would say that I would replace my Macbook Air 13 (+Win7) with this one. With the same configuration, they cost about the same price, except that the Samsung Series 9 is a 15” computer with 3 USB ports, and it has a longer battery life. And if you compare it to other 15” PC laptops, I’m having a hard time finding an obvious competitor.

I hope that this review gave you a good feel for how it is to use the Samsung Series 9 (2012) in the real world. If there is something else that you want to know, leave a comment below, and I will try to address it ASAP.

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