Pros: Fast performance; Strong graphics; Comfortable keyboard; Cool operation; Good speakers
Cons: Polarizing faux-wood desgin; Short battery life; Small touchpad and buttons
Verdict: Samsung's latest 15-inch notebook performs well and plays games smoothly, but its faux wood design isn't for everyone.
Since it entered the U.S. notebook market, Samsung has established a reputation for pairing powerful components with head-turning designs. The Samsung RR540 continues that trend, though not necessarily in the best way possible. This 15-inch laptop ($999 as configured) has the power to best even more expensive machines in its weight class and offers smooth Blu-ray playback. However, while the faux-wood pattern on the lid and deck will certainly get stares, you'll either love it or hate it.
At 5.5 pounds and 14.9 x 10.1 x 1.4 inches, the R540 is relatively light for a notebook with this size display. The notebook has a smooth, brown plastic lid with a wood grain pattern, making it look like a Formica countertop. Not only does this surface pick up fingerprints, it has a somewhat cheap feel.
On the inside, Samsung's attempts to mimic wooden surfaces are more successful. The palm rest and chassis, still made of brown plastic, at least have etched grains instead of painted-on ones, along with a more subtle matte finish. The touch buttons, too, have this faux-wood look, although the touchpad itself is smooth, with a pattern of brown dots.
We give Samsung props for trying something different, but we much prefer the look and feel of the ASUS's U33Jc. That 13-inch notebook uses real bamboo, and it's much more elegant.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The R540 has terraced keys that are positioned close together, as opposed to a chiclet-style layout. Even with amply sized keys, the keyboard deck can still accommodate a full number pad. Particularly since Samsung didn't skimp on the Enter and right Shift keys, we were able to type quickly (for us, at least) at a rate of 93 words per minute. As we typed, though, we felt some flex beneath our fingers; this keyboard panel isn't the sturdiest on the block.
The touchpad isn't large, at 2.8 x 1.6 inches, but it felt smooth and offered next to no resistance. The twin touch buttons, likewise, are easy to press, although they're on the noisy side and we found ourselves wishing they were a bit taller so they could better accommodate the pad of our finger.
Even after extended use, the R540 doesn't get as hot as other notebooks in its class. After watching a Hulu clip at full screen for 15 minutes, we measured temperatures of 88 degrees on the touchpad, 89 degrees at the center of the keyboard, and 83 degrees on the underside of the machine. (It did, however, reach a hot 100 degrees near the vent.) That's not bad when you consider that the average notebook this size reaches temperatures of 90, 93, and 97 degrees in the same spots.
Display and Sound
The 15.6-inch display has a resolution of 1366 x 768, which is standard for an inexpensive notebook of this size, and is good enough to watch 720p video. Although it has a Blu-ray player, the benefits might be lost on this lower-resolution display. When we watched "The Other Boleyn Girl" on Blu-ray, the picture was sharp, colors accurate, and the screen bright, but thanks to the display's glossy finish we had a hard time making out the picture when watching from the sides or with the lid pushed forward.
The twin speakers, located above the keyboard, produced fairly strong sound, given that this isn't a souped-up multimedia machine. "Maria, Maria" by Santana, for instance, sounded as it should both at medium and high volumes, and at all times we were able to make out the strong bass notes. More guitar-based songs, such as "Someday" by The Strokes, sounded clear and balanced as well.
Ports and Webcam
The R540 has a predictable range of ports, including three USB 2.0, HDMI and VGA output, an Ethernet jack, Kensington lock slot, headphone and mic ports, and an SD card reader. (While SD is the most common format, people who own, say, Sony cameras and use Memory Stick cards, are out of luck.)
The webcam's VGA video was adequate, but during a Skype call voices sounded weak and not completely clear. We could hear an echo when we spoke, and voices became harder to make out even when we simply leaned back in our chair, away from the camera. On the plus side, our videos and still photos were well-lit, and the included CyberLink YouCam software offers an array of fun filters, animations, 2D frames, and avatars.
The R540 comes equipped with a 2.4-GHz Intel Core i5-450M processor, ATI Mobility Radeon HD545v graphics, and 4GB of RAM. The R540 blew past the mainstream category average on PCMark Vantage, a Windows benchmark, scoring 5,971 (the average is 4,551). Meanwhile, the Toshiba Satellite A655 ($899), which has nearly identical specs, save for its graphics card, scored only 5,224. The R540's score is even better than a $1,024 configuration of the HP Pavilion dv5t (it notched 5,725).
Throughout our testing, the R540 responded briskly as we worked in both IE9 and Chrome, and didn't stutter as we jumped from tab to tab, commenting on a favorite blog, and streaming music from Slacker. And when we used Oxelon Media Converter to transcode a 114MB MP4 clip to AVI, it took 56 seconds, shaving six seconds off the category average. It's worth noting, though, that the much less expensive MSI P600 ($650) was powerful enough to complete this test in 55 seconds.
In other respects, too, the R540 showed above average speed, although the difference between it and other notebooks wasn't as dramatic. It booted in 59 seconds, for instance, whereas the avearge laptop this size takes an additional five seconds. Its 5,400 rpm hard drive transferred a 4.97GB mixed media folder in 2:47, or at a rate of 23.9 MBps, which nearly matches the category average of 23.5 MBps. (The A655's file transfer rate was a comparable 23.2 MBps.)
The R540 has a discrete ATI Mobility Radeon HD545v graphics card with 1GB of video memory, which delivered an above average score of 4,383 on 3DMark06. (That's about 1,000 points above the mainstream average.) However, the $899 Satellite A655, which has a discrete Nvidia GeForce GT330M card, scored a much more impressive 7,002 on 3DMark06.
While by no means a gaming rig, the R540 can plow through mainstream titles at native resolution and can handle more demanding titles if you dial the pixels down. In World of Warcraft, the R540 reached 188 fps at 1024 x 768 and a still-playable 31 fps at 1366 x 768. (The average mainstream laptop peaks at 76 fps at 1024 x 768 and slows to 25 fps at native resolution.) The A655 doubled the R540, averaging 64 fps at 1366 x 768.
In Far Cry 2, the R540 peaked at 56 frames per second at 1024 x 768, and dropped to 19 fps at 1366 x 768. The A655 delivered a similar frame rate of 60 fps at 1024 x 768, but managed a more playable 29 fps at its native resolution.
Battery Life and Wi-Fi
Aside from its polarizing design, the R540's other drawback is its battery life: It lasted 2:47 on the LAPTOP Battery Test, whereas the average mainstream notebook endures 3:54. (The Toshiba Satellite A655, which we mostly liked, lasted a similarly short 2:55.) The MSI P600 ($650), meanwhile, lasted 6:17 on the same test.
If you're close to the router, at least, the Atheros 802.11b/g/n radio will load web pages faster than other notebooks. From 15 feet away, it delivered throughput of 38.2 Mbps (the category average is 30.1 Mbps). From 50 feet away, however, the throughput dropped to 18.5 Mbps, while the average notebook this size can still perform at a rate of 21.1 Mbps. All in all, though, this last difference is fairly minor.
The good news is that despite its short battery life, the R540 is slightly more energy efficient than other laptops in its class. It takes 1:11 to charge the battery from 0 to 80 percent, and 1:55 to fully recharge. By dividing the total number of watts consumed during charging by the battery life, we derive the LAPTOP Battery Efficiency Index. Since lower numbers are better in this case, the R540's rating of 28.0 is an improvement over the average mainstream laptop's index of 32.6.
Software and Warranty
The R540 comes with a motley bunch of software, including some useful trial programs and a few add-ons, such as a Google toolbar, that we could have done without. The list includes CyberLink Blu-ray Disc Suite, LabelPrint, Power2Go, PowerDirector, PowerDVD 8, PowerProducer, and the aforementioned YouCam webcam software; several Samsung-branded utilities, such as a network manager; Google Toolbar for Internet Explorer; trials of McAfee Security Center, Microsoft Office 2010, and Norton Online Backup; Skype 4.2; and Windows Live Essentials.
The R540 comes with a one-year warranty including 24/7, toll-free phone support. To see how Samsung fared in our most recent tech support showdown, click here.
The Samsung R540-11 ($999) delivers fast performance, smooth graphics, and a Blu-ray drive for a reasonable price. However, some may be turned off by the faux-wood look. If you can do without Blu-ray, we think the $899 Toshiba Satellite A655 is a better deal. That notebook's design isn't nearly as daring, but it offers nearly identical specs to the R540 and even better graphics performance.
|CPU||2.4-GHz Intel Core i5-450M processor|
|Operating System||MS Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|RAM Upgradable to||8GB|
|Hard Drive Size||500GB|
|Hard Drive Speed||5,400rpm|
|Hard Drive Type||SATA Hard Drive|
|Optical Drive||BD-ROM/DVD /-RW|
|Optical Drive Speed|
|Graphics Card||ATI Mobility Radeon HD545v|
|Ports (excluding USB)||VGA|
|Ports (excluding USB)||Microphone|
|Ports (excluding USB)||Kensington Lock|
|Ports (excluding USB)||Headphone|
|Ports (excluding USB)||HDMI|
|Ports (excluding USB)||Ethernet|
|Card Slots||SD memory reader|
|Warranty/Support||One-year limited/Toll-free, 24/7 phone support|
|Size||14.9 x 10.1 x 1.4 inches|