The ATIV Book 9 Plus is a real eye-opener of an ultraportable. With its attractive anodized-aluminum body highlighted by streaks of silver, Samsung's Ultrabook (priced at $1,224) offers Apple-level aesthetics for the Windows crowd. Featuring a 13.3-inch Quad-HD+ touch screen, an Intel Core i5 CPU, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD, the Samsung is well-equipped. But is this laptop really worth $250 more than the MacBook Air?
Our review unit, the NP940X3G-K03US ($1,289 on Amazon), comes with a 4th generation Intel Core i5-4200U CPU, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD, but it's not the model you really want. There's a newer and cheaper model (NP940X3K-K03US, $1,258 on Amazon), which features an updated 5th-gen Intel Core i5-5200U CPU, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SDD. Intel's latest CPU promises longer battery life and better graphics performance.
If you need some extra speed, there are more expensive models that extend up to $1,700, featuring Intel Core i7-5500 CPUs, 8GB of RAM and 256GB SSDs.
I've had expensive, professional-grade cameras with thousand-dollar lenses and shouty gaming laptops with blinding neon lights sitting on my desk, but it's the Samsung's ATIV Book 9 Plus' refined elegance that's drawn the most attention from co-workers.
Samsung's aluminum-skinned notebook looks stately when closed, with an anodized, brushed, midnight-blue finish (Samsung calls it Mineral Ash Black) that shimmers between purple and black in the right light. There's a silver brushed-metal rim that highlights the circumference of the lid and deck, while the bottom features a streamlined design broken up only by speaker grilles toward the front and fan vents near the back.
Opening the laptop reveals a super-sharp, 13.3-inch, 3200 x 1800 touch screen and a spacious, backlit, chiclet-style keyboard. The deck features the same midnight-blue finish as the exterior, accented by the silver metal lip around the spacious touchpad.
Samsung's notebook design is luxurious without being gaudy, and its dark blue finish provides a great alternative to the sea of brushed-metal laptops from other makers. My only complaints are that fingerprints become a little bit more noticeable against a dark finish and that the display's bottom bezel is more than twice the thickness of the other sides, giving the screen a Leno-like chin. But don't let my nitpicking outweigh the positives; the ATIV Book 9 Plus is beautiful, and easily one of the best-looking thin-and-lights laptops on the market.
At 12.5 x 8.8 x 0.54-inches, the ATIV Book 9 Plus is ever so slightly larger than the Dell XPS 13 (12 x 7.9 x 0.33-0.6-inches) and the HP Elitebook Folio 1020 (12.2 x 8.3 x 0.62 inches), although it is a hair thinner than both.
Weighing 3.06 pounds, the ATIV Book 9 Plus is a little heavier than both the XPS 13 (2.8 pounds) and the Elitebook Folio 1020 (2.68 pounds).
Keyboard and Touchpad
The ATIV Book 9 Plus features a spacious chiclet keyboard with standard measurements for key travel (1.6 mm) and actuation weight (60 grams). This let me surpass my typical typing average of 75 words per minute on 10fastfingers.com, with 78 wpm on my first attempt. The keyboard also features backlighting with multiple brightness levels, which can also be set to adjust dynamically to your current environment.
The ATIV Book's 4 x 2.7-inch one-piece touchpad is expansive, featuring a lovely matte surface and more than enough room to move around. Two-finger gestures, such as scrolling and pinch-to-zoom, were smooth, and the ATIV Book never confused left and right clicks.
With its 13.3-inch Quad HD+ 3200 x 1800 touch screen, the ATIV Book 9 Plus delivers bright images with deep, saturated colors and wide viewing angles. Everything has a sort of knife-edge sharpness that makes you not want to look away. When I watched the trailer for The Gunman, I was dazzled by the golden sparks of ricocheting bullets and the deep oranges of raging fires and sudden explosions.
Producing 315 nits of brightness, the ATIV Book 9 Plus is brighter than the XPS 13 (285 nits), the Elitebook Folio 1020 (224) and the ultraportable average of 244 nits.
The Samsung also does a good job recreating colors, as the panel covered 95.4 percent of the sRGB spectrum. That's right in the ballpark expected of a premium ultraportable, barely behind the XPS 13 (97 percent) and the same as the Elitebook Folio 1020 (95 percent).
Unfortunately, the ATIV Book's color accuracy lagged slightly behind other systems, with a Delta-E rating of 11, worse than the XPS 13 (5.1) and the Elitebook Folio 1020 (7.4). Lower scores are better.
To evaluate the touch screen, I played a Popcap's Plants vs. Zombies. I had a blast touching the screen to collect sun power and placing Peashooters and Wall-nutts to protect my house from the shambling undead. The touch screen response was quick, both in the game and when navigating Windows' Modern UI.
For such a thin system, the ATIV Book 9 Plus put out a surprising amount of volume, but if you're looking for the best audio quality, it's best to avoid the max setting. When I listened to Dance with the Dead's "Robeast," I liked the crisp, rich mids and the bright highs. Bass was a little lacking, but that's pretty typical on systems of this size.
On the Laptop Mag Audio Test, we recorded 92 decibels of sound from 23 inches away. While it can't match XPS 13's 94 dB speakers, the ATIV Book 9 Plus is significantly louder than the Elitebook Folio 1020 and the category average (both 85 dB).
The worry with all-aluminum laptops is that they have a tendency to get a little hot, due to metal being a better conductor of heat than plastic. Thankfully, the ATIV Book 9 Plus manages its temperature well, consistently staying below our 95-degree-Fahrenheit comfort threshold.
On the Laptop Mag Heat Test (15 minutes of streaming HD video from Hulu), the Samsung label below the screen was the hottest spot on the notebook, at 91 degrees, with the underside (89 degrees), space between the G and H keys (84 degrees), and the touchpad (79 degrees) measuring cooler.
Ports and Webcam
The ATIV Book's 720p webcam captures just passable images. A self portrait captured at my desk showed the faint vertical striping in my shirt and some detail in my hair, but the heavy grain in the image overall was a turn-off.
Like most laptops this size, the ATIV Book 9 Plus features two USB 3.0 ports (one on each side), with power, micro HDMI and Ethernet dongle ports on the left, and a slim security slot, combo headset/mic jack and VGA dongle port on the right. Lastly, there's an SD Card slot hiding behind a cover midway down the left side.
With an Intel Core i5-4200U CPU, 4GB of RAM and 128GB SSD, the ATIV Book 9 Plus easily streamed a 1080p video from YouTube, even with 10 tabs open in Chrome Hearthstone downloading in the background.
When we ran Geekbench 3 to test overall system performance, the ATIV Book scored 5,056 -- just behind the XPS 13 (5,653 with 5th Gen Intel Core i5 and 8GB of RAM), but way ahead of the Elitebook Folio 1020 (3,814 with Intel Core-M5Y71 and 8GB of RAM) and the category average of 3,846.
The Samsung took 5 minutes and 17 seconds to match 20,000 names and addresses in OpenOffice. That's ahead of the XPS 13 (5:34), the Elitebook Folio 1020 (6:36) and the ultraportable average of 11:02.
To evaluate the ATIV Book's 128 GB SSD, we duplicated 4.97GB of mixed media files. The Samsung achieved a transfer rate of 221.3 MBps, a good deal faster than the SSDs in the XPS 13 (154.2 MBps), the Elitebook Folio 1020 (182 MBps) and the category average of 100 MBps.
It's too bad we weren't able to test the Intel HD 5500 graphics found on new ATIV Book 9 Plus models, but the Intel HD 4400 graphics in our configuration is more than enough to handle light gaming. The only issue is that the 3200 x 1800 native resolution is often too high for smooth gaming; we suggest moving down to a lower resolution.
When I played Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft at the ATIV Book's native resolution and medium settings, I noticed periods of lag when I was selecting cards and when spell animations were running. After I switched to 1920 x 1080, Hearthstone ran much more smoothly.
On the 3DMark Fire Strike graphics benchmark, the ATIV Book 9 Plus scored 581, about 30 percent behind the XPS 13 (740), slightly behind the ultraportable average of 603, but ahead of the Elitebook Folio 1020 (403).
On the Laptop Mag Battery Test (continuous Web surfing at 100 nits of brightness), the ATIV Book 9 Plus lasted 7 hours and 54 minutes on a charge. While this runtime is not the best we've seen, it's half an hour more than the Dell XPS 13 (7:24) and the ultraportable average (7:27).
The Samsung also lasted an hour longer than the HP Elitebook Folio 1020 (6:49), even with its low-power Core M CPU.
Software and Warranty
Along with a standard one-year warranty, Samsung includes some helpful software, such as a customized settings menu, recovery tool, software update, the company's suite of S apps (S Agent, S Player and more) and SideSync, which can be accessed through the OSX-like Quick Starter toolbar.
The Samsung settings menu doesn't do much that the normal Windows options can't do, but using it makes it a little easier to set text to a readable size when the resolution is at 3200 x 1800. I appreciate Samsung's SideSync app, which lets you share content from your Galaxy phone, view your phone or tablet's screen on the laptop, and even use your phone's touch screen as a wireless mouse. This is perfect for when you want to play a movie on your TV, but don't want to get up every time you need to pause.
There's some other third-party software on board, such as Norton Studio, iHeartRadio and Netflix, along with trials for Microsoft Office and Plants vs. Zombies. In the end, there's a little too much pre-installed junk for my liking.
The Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus has everything you want in an ultraportable: a bright, high-res touch screen; good power; 8-hour battery life; and an exquisitely crafted aluminum body. However, it's not quite our favorite Ultrabook. The $1,399 Dell XPS 13 has twice as much memory and storage (8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD), not to mention a stunning bezel-less infinity display and smaller, lighter body. Overall, though, the ATIV Book 9 Plus is one of the best ultraportables available.