A year ago, if someone had told us that a 15-inch notebook would be lighter and thinner than most 13-inch ultraportables, we would have called them crazy. Yet, Samsung has done just that with its new Series 9 15-inch. This $1,499 system weighs less than 4 pounds and is just a hair over half an inch thick. But thinness isn't everything: Inside that svelte chassis is a super bright display, Core i5 processor, 128GB SSD, and 8GB of RAM. Are we looking at the future of mainstream notebooks? Quite possibly.
Editor's note (3/28/12): After Samsung released an update to the trackpad driver, its performance improved, and we amended the touchpad section to reflect that change.
It's as if Samsung put the 13-inch Series 9 on a medieval torture rack, and gave it a good stretch. The 15-inch Series 9 looks essentially the same as its smaller brother, albeit with a larger footprint. The entire chassis is a bluish-gray aluminum unibody that looks as sleek as any Ultrabook we've seen, and resists fingerprints well. We also like the shiny edges, which adds just the right amount of pizzaz, and widens gracefully toward the hinges to accommodate the ports.
At 14 x 9.3 inches, the Series 9 will take up more desk space than the HP Envy 14 Spectre (12.9 x 8.7 inches), but less than the Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3 (14.75 x 10 inches). Regardless, there will be no room left on the airplane seat tray.
We can't get over how light the 3.8-pound Series 9 15-inch is. It's also amazingly thin -- at 0.58 inches, it's just a hair thicker than its 13-inch sibling (0.4 inches), and manages to make other Ultrabooks, such as the Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3 (0.78 inches, 4.5 pounds) and HP Envy 14 Spectre (0.8 inches, 4 pounds) seem portly by comparison.
Keyboard and Trackpad
There's a trade-off to being thin, though. The travel of the keys on the Series 9 was rather shallow, which led to more typing errors, despite the well-sized and spaced keys. Backlighting also leaves something to be desired. In fact, the only way we were able to make out the keys was because the screen was so bright. We also wish the function row were reversed, especially given how prominently the icons for the secondary functions (backlighting, volume, etc) are shown.
Measuring 4.2 x 3 inches, there's plenty of room on the Series 9's spacious touchpad. But size isn't everything.When we first received the Series 9, clicks would only register on the lower third of the touchpad. However, an update to the Elan driver remedied this issue. Still, as the trackpad is hinged at the top, it takes much less effort to press the bottom.
At times, the touchpad mistakenly registered a left click for a right click. Part of the problem is that there isn't a small dimple or mark along the bottom of the pad to demarcate the left and right mouse buttons. Nevertheless, multitouch gestures (pinch-to-zoom, three- and four-finger flick, etc) worked smoothly.
As a company that makes TVs for a living, we're glad that Samsung included such a bright, high-resolution panel in the Series 9. Its 15-inch matte display has a high resolution of 1600 x 900, and a brightness of 399 lux, which is almost 100 lux above average, and blows other panels out of the water. Only the ASUS Zenbook UX31 (391 lux) comes close. Needless to say, this screen made watching videos a pleasure.
The 1080p trailer for "The Avengers" was bright and crisp--everything from Iron Man's suit to ScarJo's red hair stood out. Contrast was also above average, and we appreciated the lack of pixelation in darker scenes.
Explosions from the two speakers on the underside of the Series 9 were loud and commanding when watching "The Avengers," but music was another story. Higher tones on the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What you Want" sounded distorted and fuzzy. Audio was better on Ice Cube's "Check Yo Self," but a little bit of the distortion on the high end returned on Jay-Z's "Guess Who's Back."
If you open Samsung's Easy Settings utility, you can select one of several presets to change the audio profile, which had limited effect. However, dig deep into the Audio control panel, and you can tweak the profiles of the speakers much more. The Enhancements tab lets you do neat things, such as adjust the pitch, even remove vocals from songs. SoundAlive let us adjust equalizer settings, either with presets or manually. Too bad these controls are buried so deeply.
The Series 9 ran a little warm in our tests. After streaming a Hulu video at full screen for 15 minutes, the middle of the underside was 95 degrees Fahrenheit, and the area toward the back reached 98 degrees. The touchpad was a more comfortable 83, and the space between the G and H keys was 94 degrees. We consider anything above 95 degrees uncomfortable, and anything over 100 too hot.
Samsung minimizes some of the ports on the Series 9 in order to accommodate a healthy selection. The left side has a powered USB 2.0 port, as well as a microHDMI and a micro Ethernet port. Samsung thoughtfully includes an adapter for the latter; we only wish it also included an adapter for the mini VGA port on the right side. At least you get two full-size USB 3.0 ports. Also on the right, a hinged door covers the SD card, but still maintains the graceful lines of the system. Are you paying attention, Dell, HP and Lenovo?
Using the included Cyberlink YouCam software, the 1.3-MP webcam in the Series 9 can capture video at resolutions up to 1280 x 1024. For the most part, it rendered colors, such as the stripes in our shirt and our skin tones, accurately. While we've seen greater detail on higher-resolution webcams, the Series 9 should more than suffice for video chats over Skype.
In what's become standard for most Ultrabooks, the Series 9 has a 1.6-GHz Intel Core i5-2467M processor and 128GB SSD, only here it's beefed up by 8 GB of RAM. On PCMark07, the Series 9 scored 3,636, outpacing the Envy 14 Spectre (3,217), which has the same CPU, and the Acer M3 (3,474), which has a Core i7 processor. The Series 9's score also beat the ultraportable average by about 1,300 points.
Thanks to the blazing 128GB SSD, the Series 9 15-inch duplicated a 4.97GB folder of multimedia in a mere 33 seconds, for a rate of 154.2MBps. That crushed the category average (33 MBps), but still came in behind the 256GB SSD in the Acer M3, which was an even faster 164MBps.
On our Spreadsheet test, the Series 9 matched 20,000 names with their corresponding addresses in 7 minutes and 4 seconds, almost a minute longer than average (6:14), and 90 seconds longer than the M3.
Boot and Wake Times
Aided by Samsung's Fast Boot utility, the Samsung's SSD booted Windows 7 Home Premium in a blinding 16 seconds. That time is twice as fast as the Spectre, and about 7 seconds faster than the Acer M3. In fact, that's a second faster than the MacBook Air took to boot into OSX Lion. Deactivating Fast Boot increased the boot time by about 5 seconds.
The notebook was also able to wake from sleep in around 2 seconds, which puts it on a par with other Ultrabooks we've tested.
The Intel HD Graphics 3000 inside the Series 9 15 inch performed adequately, notching 30 frames per second in our World of Warcraft test with the effects set to Good, and the screen resolution at native. That's about 25 fps lower than the category average, but is still playable--barely. The Envy 14 Spectre, which also has a 1600 x 900 panel, was only able to muster 24 fps, but the Nvidia GeForce 640M graphics in the Acer M3 was able to play the game at 155 fps. Increasing the effects to the max dropped the Series 9's frame rates to an unplayable 14 fps.
You can't remove the battery in the Series 9 15-inch, but that shouldn't be a problem. The notebook lasted 6 hours and 59 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test (Web surfing via Wi-Fi). That's about 15 minutes longer than the ultraportable category average, and on a par with the Acer M3 (7:04). The Envy 14 Spectre lasted 6:24, but the HP Folio 13 lasted 7:50.
Software and Warranty
Loaded on the Series 9 are a host of Samsung utilties. Samsung Easy Settings is a colorful and intuitive program that lets you adjust battery settings, display and audio properties, wired and wireless networks and other things such as keyboard backlighting and USB charging. Easy Software Manager informs you of updates to installed programs and drivers; and Easy Support Center makes sure the system is running optimally. Finally, the Software Launcher Toolbar gives you somewhat quick access to utilities and apps, but nothing that couldn't be acomplished through pinning items to the taskbar.
Of course, no Windows notebook would be complete without Microsoft Office Starter and security trialware, in this case a trail of Norton Internet Security. The Series 9 comes with a one-year standard warranty. See how Samsung fared in our annual Customer Service Showdown and Best & Worst Brands report.
The Samsung Series 9 15-inch is a notebook that straddles multiple categories. It has the screen size of a mainstream laptop but is light and thin enough to be considered an ultraportable. We love its spacious 1600 x 900 display, amazingly fast boot time, and long battery life. Yet, for a $1,499 system, there's a few things that are lacking. The keyboard travel is somewhat shallow for our tastes, and we'd like a visual or tactile cue between the left and right mouse buttons.
If you're getting a system this big, some might prefer a notebook like the Acer Timeline Ultra M3. It's chunkier but gives you equally long battery life and adds in discete graphics. But if you're looking for a machine that's thin and light enough to take anywhere with a large and sharp screen, the Samsung Series 9 15-inch is well worth the splurge.