Samsung's super-sleek Series 9 ultraportable is getting all the attention, but the company has another 13-inch notebook that costs less than half as much and provides comparable performance and battery life. The $729 Samsung SF310 features a muscular Intel Core i5-480M processor, a DVD drive, Nvidia GeForce 310M graphics, and Optimus technology to maximize endurance. Sure, it's not as thin or sexy as the SSD-packing Series 9, but the SF310 successfully shoehorns a lot of power into its attractive 4.6-pound frame. Read on to find out how this notebook stacks up to other 13-inchers that cost less than a grand.
The Samsung SF310 is one classy-looking machine for the price. The notebook sports a glossy plastic gunmetal-gray lid with gently tapered edges. It picks up fingerprints quickly, but the color masks them somewhat.
Attractive chrome accents bisect the laptop, which has rolling wave-like humps toward the back on either side. Measuring 13 x 9.2 x 1.3 inches and tipping the scales at 4.6 pounds, the SF310 weighs as much as the 13-inch MacBook Pro, but it's 0.4 pounds heavier than the ASUS U31JG. Even so, the SF310's compact size makes it simple to slip into bags, and it's certainly light enough to be a travel companion.
Flipping up the SF310's lid reveals an all-black interior with a 13.3-inch display and an island-style keyboard that sits inside its own recessed well. We like the brushed-metal gray wrist rest and chrome accents. Above the keyboard you'll find four small silver buttons that control the volume and the Wi-Fi radio. A black power button, circled by blue lighting, adds a touch of color on the right side.
Keyboard and Touchpad
Samsung's island-style keyboards are usually well designed, and the SF310's is no exception. Its black keys are large, well spaced, and provide satisfying travel, making for comfortable typing. They also provide a soft click when hit for pleasing tactile feedback.
Below the keys is a large 3.9 x 2.4-inch touchpad made by Elan, which integrates the buttons into the design. We scrolled though web pages, zoomed in and out of photos, and flipped between images using two- and three-finger gestures without much effort. Still, the touchpad was erratic at times, which resulted in a jumpy cursor. And while the center of the touchpad clicks down when pressed, you need to use the bottom left and right sides of the pad to make selections.
Ports and Webcam
The Samsung SF310 is outfitted with a good selection of connections for its size. The left side houses a 4-in-1 card reader, headphone and mic jacks, and a VGA and an Ethernet port. Underneath a flip-down flexible dust cover are two USB ports and an HDMI output for pushing video to HDTVs. We're not a fan of these covers because they just get in the way. Power and Kensington security slots are here as well. One more USB port sits on the laptop's right side along with a DVD SuperMulti Drive.
The 0.3-megapixel webcam on the SF310 was quick on the draw when snapping pictures. Image quality was just average; sample videos were bright enough in well lit areas but dim in our office and noticeably blocky.
Display and Audio
The Samsung SF310's 13.3-inch display (1366 x 768 pixels) won't exactly bowl you over in terms of brightness. Still, the glossy panel exhibited high contrast with well-saturated colors and deep blacks. Both the 480p trailer for True Legend on Hulu and the 720p trailer of Green Lantern looked great. Viewing angles are acceptable too, though a little wider beyond 45 degrees would be better. Unlike the RV511, the SF310 doesn't include Intel WiDi technology, so video output is limited to the notebook's HDMI port.
The two bottom-mounted speakers on the SF310 got surprisingly loud; they're certainly powerful enough to resonate within a small room. That said, audio sounded flat with too much high end. "Pharaohs & Pyramids" by Cut Copy, for instance, was brash at maximum volume and lacked the thumping bass the track usually has. This is despite the integrated SRS Labs audio processing, which did manage to pleasantly widen the sound field.
After we played a Hulu video at full screen for 15 minutes, the SF310's touchpad remained a cool 75 degrees while the center of the keyboard (between the G and H keys) measured a relatively warm 95 degrees. Thankfully, the underside of the notebook returned a manageable reading of 87 degrees. Be advised that the SF310's back vent belched a dragon-like 112-degree stream of hot air. Still, when the notebook was on our lap, the only noticeable heat was some warmth emanating from the keyboard.
Configured with a 2.67-GHz Intel Core i5-480M processor and 4GB of RAM, the Samsung SF310 performed well. On PCMark Vantage, a benchmark that measures overall system speed, the SF310 scored 5,446, about 450 points above the thin-and-light average. This showing also holds up well against the $814 ASUS U31JG-A1 (2.53-GHz Core i3), which scored a slightly higher 5,550 on the same test. The $1,199 13-inch Macbook Pro (2.3-GHz Core i5) also slightly outperforms the SF310 with a score of 5,534. The SF310 positively trounced the $599 AMD Fusion-powered MSI X370 (1.6-GHz AMD E-350 CPU), which managed just 2,509.
It took a decent 1 minute and 2 seconds for the SF310's 5,400-rpm, 320GB hard drive to boot Windows 7 Home Premium. That's a shade faster than the category average, and it handily beats the ASUS U31JG-A1 (1:22). The SF310 did not prove nimble on our file transfer tests, with the laptop copying a 5GB folder of mixed files in 3 minutes and 58 seconds. That translates to a slow data rate of 21.4 MBps, below the average for thin-and-light notebooks (24.6 MBps). The 13-inch MacBook Pro (28.1 MBps), the ASUS U31JG (26.8 MBps) and the MSI X370 (24.5 MBps) all got the upper hand on this test.
The SF310 converted a 114MB MP4 file to AVI using Oxelon Media Encoder in a quick 47 seconds, much shorter than the category average (1:01). The ASUS U31JG-A1 matched this time (0:47), as did the 13-inch MacBook Pro (0:47).
Don't be fooled by the Samsung SF310's small stature; this laptop packs a pretty good graphics punch. Nvidia's Optimus technology intelligently switches between Intel's integrated graphics and a more robust Nvidia GeForce 310M discrete GPU. The SF310 notched a 3DMark06 score of 3,828. That's 500 points higher than the thin-and-light average and enough to best the MSI X370 (2,260; AMD Radeon HD 6310). However, both the ASUS U31JG-A1 (4,371; GeForce GT 415M GPU) and the 13-inch MacBook Pro (4,509, Intel HD 3000) fared better.
Real-world gaming scores also reflected the SF310's graphical prowess, with the laptop notching a smooth 60 frames per second while playing World of Warcraft in autodetect mode. Gameplay slowed to 28 fps with all the visual effects turned up. While this is well below the thin-and-light average (99/32 fps), it's on a par with the ASUS U31JG (61/27), and it blows past the MSI X370 (26/12).
In Far Cry 2, the SF310 mustered only 24 fps at 1024 x 768, so you'll want to steer clear of more demanding 3D titles.
Battery Life and Wireless
The Samsung SF310 will get you through a good portion of the day, but it's definitely not the longest-lasting 13-incher out there. The notebook's six-cell battery lasted 5 hours and 24 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test; that's better than the thin-and-light average of 5:02, but is outpaced by the U31JG (6:29), the X370 (7:05), and the 13-inch MacBook Pro (8:33).
Equipped with a Broadcom 802.11n Wi-Fi card, the SF310 offers fair wireless performance. At a distance of 15 feet from the router, it achieved a data rate of 28.5 Mbps, which dropped to 21.6 Mbps at 50 feet. The average thin-and-light notebook gets 34.2 and 21.9 Mbps from those respective distances. A Bluetooth 3.0 radio is also on board to connect phones, speakers, and a range of other mobile accessories.
Our Samsung SF310-S01 review model (2.67-GHz Intel Core i5-480M processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 320GB hard drive) is the only configuration available. Though its list price is $799, it can be had for as low as $729 from major retailers such as Amazon and Buy.com.
Software and Warranty
Samsung includes a good software package on the SF310. A Battery Life Extender adjusts the charge level to prolong the life span of the battery. The Easy Content Share utility uses Windows media sharing to stream music, video, and pictures to DLNA-compliant gadgets on a home network. Another useful feature is the Fast Start utility, which enables a quicker wake-up from sleep. There's also the Samsung Support Center program to contact a Samsung support rep over the web, access system utilities, and better diagnose an issue with the laptop. For burning DVDs and CDs, there's the Cyberlink Media Suite, which includes Power DVD 8 for watching DVDs. A feature called Movie Color Enhancer promises to optimize video color quality, though toggling this feature didn't result in a perceptible difference.
For $729, the Samsung SF310 provides an attractive design, a comfortable keyboard, and relatively strong processing and graphics muscle for the price. The only real drawbacks are the somewhat flaky clickpad and the fact that it doesn't last as long on a charge as some competing 13-inch notebooks. If those are potential issues for you, the ASUS U31JG-A1 may fit the bill with its longer battery life and comparable performance, though it costs $85 more. Otherwise, we recommend the SF310, as it looks, feels, and performs like a more expensive notebook.