Samsung’s Series 9 was one of the first Windows-based ultrabooks out of the gate during the 2011 revival of the category, and little has changed since its launch early this year.
And who can blame Samsung for its unabashed focus to out-design the MacBook Air with a different, snazzier, curvier, blacker look?
At its core, the machine doesn’t wander far from its inspiration: Same 2.9-pound weight, nearly the same dimensions (though, like most PC ultrabooks, it isn’t tapered), and a near-identical keyboard layout, complete with the weirdly conjoined, half-sized up- and down-arrow keys. Like the air, the Series 9 is made from aluminum, but the metal is covered with a powder coating that, for better or worse, feels exactly like slick plastic. This is not necessarily a bad thing on, say, the palm rest. On the whole the machine is sturdy, with the notable exception of the LCD lid, which flexes a bit more than it should (and far more than the Air’s screen does).
Under the hood, the Series 9 comes in a variety of configurations. Our setup included a 1.4GHz Core i5 CPU, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD — almost the same as the lower-tier Air but with a slightly slower CPU. The large clickpad and backlit keyboard are also familiar accoutrements. Even the power brick, which attaches directly to the wall instead of sitting in between two cables, is clearly inspired by Apple.
The only differences you’ll readily find here are the slightly lower screen resolution — at 1366 x 768 pixels, it’s got the same resolution as all other PC ultrabooks — plus Ethernet available (via an included dongle), an upgrade of one of the two USB ports to a chargeable USB 3.0 port, and the subbing in of a mini-HDMI port for the Mac’s Thunderbolt connection. Samsung also goes for a microSD card slot instead of the full-sized SD reader on the Air, which is probably less of a drawback than it seems given our rapidly shrinking tech world. In a curious move, the Series 9 secrets all of its ports behind flip-down covers. If you look at the laptop from either side, you’ll see no exposed wiring.
These distinctions aren’t that substantial, but there are also some non-trivial performance differences between the two machines. In Windows-based benchmarks, the Air was about 30 percent faster at general apps, and twice as speedy or more at gaming and graphical tests. In fact, the Series 9 is easily the pokiest of all ultrabooks we’ve reviewed when it comes to gaming — though at least it managed to crawl to a finish in most of our tests.
But for the most part, Samsung gets the equations right. The laptop looks good (especially the ultra-bright display) and stays both cool and quiet, the feel and action of the keyboard are solid, and the audio is plenty loud. The clickpad has its problems when multiple fingers get involved, but that’s about par for the course.
All of this brings us down to what has to be the true Achilles’ heel of the Series 9: the price.
Considering it’s substantially slower and lower in resolution than the Air, I was hoping for an Acer-like price tag (in the realm of $900), but that’s not to be. At $1,650, the Series 9 costs $350 more than the similarly equipped Air. I expect Samsung will start slashing prices to something more appropriate as more sub-$1,000 ultrabook competition arrives on the market, but for now this machine’s performance just can’t back up its hefty outlay.
WIRED An all-around capable ultrabook, with thoughtful features and a quality design. Dazzlingly bright screen. Average battery life (about 4.5 hours).
TIRED Much too expensive. Surprisingly lackluster performance, particularly at graphical tasks. SOL if you need a full SD card reader. Bummer clickpad problems.
Photos by Jon Snyder/Wired