Apple hasn't updated its MacBook Air with a Retina display yet, but you can get high-res eye candy from Samsung's flagship ultraportable right now. The new ATIV Book 9 Plus notebook combines a 3200 x 1800-pixel touch-screen display with a fourth-generation Core i5 processor. Although its $1,399 price tag is a bit steep, this Ultrabook delivers a great viewing experience along with long battery life.
Design-wise, the ATIV Book 9 Plus and the ATIV Book 9 are practically identical -- and that's not a bad thing. The Book 9 Plus' aluminum unibody is quietly gorgeous, serving up a bevy of clean lines and soft, rounded curves. Samsung calls the midnight-blue chassis Mineral Ash Black, but weird color-naming conventions aside, the Book 9 Plus is a looker. The chrome Samsung logo found on the lid is the only ripple in the elegant sea of blue.
The ATIV Book 9's interior has also been ported over to the Plus, down to the chrome-lined touchpad and the wisp of a power button located directly above the keyboard deck. The biggest difference between the two notebooks is that the 3.2-pound, 12.6 x 8.8 x 0.54-inch Plus is slightly larger and heavier than its 2.6-pound, 12.4 x 8.6 x 0.5-inch predecessor.
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The ATIV Book 9 Plus is also heavier than the Acer Aspire S7 (2.4 pounds, 12.7 x 8.8 x 0.51 inches), Sony VAIO Pro 13 (2.4 pounds, 12.7 x 8.5 x 0.68 inches) and MacBook Air (3 pounds, 12.8 x 9 x 0.11~0.68 inches).
Make no mistake, the ATIV Book 9 Plus' 13.3-inch, 3200 x 1800 display is a joy to behold. Viewing an 1800p photo of flowers on the QHD+ display yielded vivid oranges, yellows and magentas, dusted with golden pollen. The image was sharp enough to clearly see all the miniscule veins in the petals. In a side-by-side comparison, the Book 9 Plus even managed to best the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display (2560 x 1600), delivering a slightly brighter and sharper image.
The Book 9 Plus has a Screen Scaling option in the Settings tab that resizes text to an optimal size for reading. This made content easier to read than on the ASUS Zenbook UX51Vz's 2880 x 1620 display. However, the MacBook Pro delivered text that was larger, sharper and easier to read on Kotaku, Clutch Magazine and CNN.com.
When we watched the 1080p "Ghost Team One" trailer , the ATIV Book 9 showed off the lead actress' tight-fitting blood-red dress and matching lipstick. We could also see the intricate details of a criminally old sofa and the lace pattern of another actress' dress. Viewing angles were wide enough to accommodate two people.
When we pitted the ATIV Book 9 Plus against the Air, the Samsung had better color, particularly when showing the lowlights in the brunette actress' hair. Greens and reds also looked brighter. The Samsung also had slightly better viewing angles.
The Book 9 Plus' brightness of 251 lux is just above the 241 ultraportable average and the MacBook Pro 13's 237 lux. However, the MacBook Air notched 263 lux, while the Aspire S7 lit the way with a bright 329 lux.
Performing Windows 8 gestures on the 10-point touch display was fast and accurate. Pinch-zooming the Modern display was also very easy.
Samsung includes a custom control panel to adjust color temperature and brightness and scale the screen as necessary. Of the six color presets (No Effect, Standard, Movie, Movie (Bright), Dynamic and Reading Mode), Movie (Bright) delivered the best results.
Having a Retina display on a laptop is awesome for watching video and viewing photos, but in some ways it's like driving a McCarren P1 on a city street during rush hour -- a beautiful waste. Currently, there are no Retina-ready apps in the Windows Store, compared to the more than 250 Retina-optimized apps in the Apple Mac Store.
Normally, we're down on bottom-mounted speakers, but the ATIV Book 9 Plus' pair of speakers were nothing short of impressive. Ariana Grande's angelic soprano filled our small test space as we listened to "Right There." The instrumentals were a little harsh until we adjusted the presets in the SoundAlive control panel. There are 13 settings to choose from, including Standard, Music, Classic and Jazz. We finally settled on Ballad, as it gave a good mix of volume and audio quality.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The ATIV Book 9 Plus' full-size island-style keyboard is well spaced and offers a satisfying click when typing, but the keys stick ever so slightly. As we took the Ten Thumbs Typing test, we found ourselves pressing harder than usual to compensate for the shallow travel. However, we still achieved 53 words per minute, slightly below our usual 55 wpm average.
The 4.1 x 2.7-inch Elan touchpad was responsive and accurate when navigating the desktop and performing Windows 8 gestures. However, two-finger scrolling stuttered a bit in Internet Explorer, as did pinch-to-zoom. Clicking the bottom corners of the touchpad to perform right and left clicks delivered firm feedback.
After running the Laptop Heat Test (streaming a full-screen Hulu video for 15 minutes), the ATIV Book 9 Plus' touchpad measured a cool 82 degrees Fahrenheit. The space between the G and H keys and bottom of the notebook were a little warmer at 88 degrees and 86 degrees, respectively. All of these measurements are well below our 95-degree comfort threshold. Compare that to the ATIV Book 9, which measured 86, 102 and 100 degrees on the touchpad, G and H keys and undercarriage.
Surprisingly, Samsung did not include its SCamera software like it has on other ATIV notebooks. However, the 720p HD webcam captured satisfying images; we could easily distinguish between our neon-green headphones and our tamer olive-green shirt. As with most webcams on Windows 8 systems, though, details were pretty fuzzy and full of visual noise.
The right side of the Book 9 Plus holds a USB 3.0 port, mini-VGA, a secure lock slot and a combination headphone/microphone jack. Another USB 3.0 port sits on the notebook's left along with a 3-in-1 card reader, micro-HDMI, mini-Ethernet and a jack for the AC adapter.
Samsung Side Sync
The ATIV Book 9 Plus comes with Samsung's Side Sync, an app that lets you interact with your Samsung Android device. The app now enables users to connect their devices over Wi-Fi as well as USB. However, both devices must be on the same local network and have the SideSync app to work. The phone must also have USB debugging enabled.
Once SideSync launched, we could choose between Phone S Screen Sharing and Keyboard/Mouse Sharing. Keyboard/Mouse Sharing enabled us to use the ATIV Book 9 Plus' cursor to navigate our Galaxy S4. We loved using the notebook's keyboard to compose text messages and chats in Google Hangouts. It was a lot faster than thumb typing on our smartphone's smaller keyboard. We also appreciated having the ability to cut and paste text between the phone and PC, particularly when copying from Evernote or a bookmarked webpage.
SideSync can also back up your Android device's files using Samsung Kies, a file-transfer app. Once a device is connected, Kies launches and automatically backs up all the new files, including photos, music and videos.
Photo Screen Sharing
Photo Screen Sharing mode is our favorite function of SideSync. Enabling this mode called up a virtual image of our handset on the Book 9 Plus' display. We used the mouse to unlock our phone, adjust the volume and use the Home, Back and Menu buttons.
The ATIV Book 9 Plus faithfully re-created our Galaxy S4's display, down to the app icons. The virtual phone exhibited about a half second of lag as we navigated home screens and launched apps.
Toward the top of the virtual phone sits a small white arrow. Clicking the arrow reveals a bar with icons for screenshots, recording the display, and accessing a Pen Tool, File Transfers and Settings. A similar arrow along the bottom of the phone shows a panel with all your open apps.
When we navigated through the home screens and launched menus over Wi-Fi, there was little to no latency. However, when we played games such as "Reaper" and "He-Man," there was about a second of lag. The latency decreased when we switched over to a USB connection.
Samsung HomeSync Lite
Samsung's newest software wants to integrate with all your beloved gadgets. Samsung HomeSync Lite will enable users to view and manage all the content on their devices, including camera, tablet and television -- or at least that's what it will do in the future. For now, HomeSync Lite lets users download and upload content between the Book 9 Plus and your Samsung mobile device using the cloud.
Before the magic can happen, however, we had to install Samsung Link on the laptop and our Samsung GS4. From there we registered the Book 9 Plus to our Samsung account. Once completed, we launched Samsung Link on the GS4, selected the PC and had instant access to all our photos, video and documents .
Thanks to its 1.6-GHz Intel Core i5-4200U CPU with 4GB of RAM, the Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus has plenty of brawn to match its beauty. The notebook easily streamed a full-screen episode of Netflix's "Orange is the New Black" while running a system scan with eight open tabs in Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox and Internet Explorer.
While the Book 9 Plus' score of 5,077 on Geekbench is below the 5,940 ultraportable average, the Acer Aspire S7, which sports the same CPU, notched 5,051. The Sony VAIO Pro 13 and its 1.8-GHz Intel Core i7-4500U CPU notched 5,507, while the MacBook Air's 1.3-GHz Intel Core i5-4250U processor posted 6,769.
The Samsung turned in a PCMark 07 score of 5,017, which is comparable to the Aspire S7 (5,051) but higher than the VAIO Pro 13 (4,698).
The Book 9 Plus' 128GB SSD booted Windows 8 in 11 seconds, beating the 21-second average. However, this time wasn't enough to outpace the Aspire S7 (9 seconds) or Pro 13 (7 seconds). The MacBook Air and its 128GB SSD loaded OS X Mountain Lion in 10 seconds.
On the File Transfer Test, the Book 9 Plus duplicated 4.97GB of multimedia files in 40 seconds for a transfer rate of 127.2 MBps. This showing is enough to top the 101 MBps average and the Aspire S7's 113 MBps. However, the Samsung was nowhere near the Pro 13 or the Air, which notched 242.4 MBps and 392 MBps, respectively.
During the OpenOffice Spreadsheet Macro, the ATIV Book 9 Plus paired 20,000 names and addresses in 5 minutes and 13 seconds, more than a minute faster than the 6:18 category average. This system was on a par with the Aspire S7 and Pro 13, which posted times of 5:12 and 5:10. The MacBook Air finished in 5:33.
Thanks to its Intel HD Graphics 4400 GPU, the Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus can play high-def videos galore and more than a few video games -- just not on settings higher than normal. On the 3DMark 11 benchmark, the notebook scored 913. That's enough to beat both the 750 ultraportable average as well as the Intel HD Graphics 4400 GPU-powered Sony VAIO Pro 13 and Acer Aspire S7, which notched 600 and 895, respectively.
During the "World of Warcraft" test, the ATIV Book 9 Plus achieved 24 fps on autodetect at 3200 x 1800. That's well below the 40 fps average and our 30 fps playability threshold. When we ran the test at 1920 x 1200, the frame rate rose to a barely playable 29 fps. The Aspire S7 (1080p) hit 28 fps and the Pro 13 (1080p) reached 20 fps. The MacBook Pro's Intel HD Graphics 5000 GPU notched 45 fps at 1440 x 900.
When we switched to Ultra, the Book 9 Plus dropped to 12 fps at 1800p and 14 fps at 1200p, missing the 20 fps average.
During the Laptop Battery Test (continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi), the Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus lasted 8 hours and 6 minutes, shattering the 6:16 ultraportable average. The Sony VAIO Pro 13 posted a lower 7:20 with its standard battery and a whopping 13:32 with its extended battery. The Acer Aspire S7 clocked in at 8:53 and the MacBook Air finished at 11:40.
Software and Warranty
Software on the ATIV Book 9 Plus is a mix of the new and familiar. Samsung Kies and Kies Lite let you organize your media files, while S Player aggregates all your multimedia content (music, video, images and slideshows) into one place for quick access.
If you want to keep your music files separate, there's always the 7Digital-powered Music Hub. S PhotoStudio is a new addition to the suite, allowing shutterbugs to perform light edits or create quick collages of their favorite shots.
Third-party apps include the popular "Plants vs. Zombies," Bitcasa, Netflix, I Heart Radio, Adobe Photoshop Elements 11, Skype and Norton Studio.
The Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus comes with a one-year standard parts and labor warranty.
What a difference a refresh makes. The Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus improves upon its predecessor in nearly every way, offering much longer battery life and a gorgeous Retina-like display. This Ultrabook also runs cooler than the previous version. If you own a Samsung Galaxy phone, you'll appreciate how well Samsung's handset and laptop work together. However, the 9 Plus' keyboard is a bit shallow, and the touchpad could be smoother when scrolling and zooming.
Overall, we give the edge to the Acer Aspire S7 ($1,499) in the premium Ultrabook category, because it lasts even longer on a charge and sports a lighter design. However, the Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus offers a sharper screen for $100 less, making it an excellent choice for shoppers craving a lightweight notebook with solid computing power, long endurance and a beautiful display.