As the thin, sleek laptops otherwise known as ultrabooks continue to wend their way through the computing landscape, two things will start to matter more than anything else: design and price. The Samsung Series 5 Ultra is a line of ultrabooks priced far more reasonably than the impressive but dear Samsung Series 9 (which technically doesn't carry Intel's trademarked ultrabook stamp of approval). Yet, on the surface at least, the Series 5 retains a lot of the attractive look and trim design that the Series 9 had in spades.
We reviewed the 14-inch Series 5 Ultra already, which is a different beast altogether: equipped with a DVD drive, the 14-incher feels more like a thin "regular" laptop than anything ultrabookified. The 13-inch Series 5 Ultra meshes more naturally into the MacBook Air and ultrabook landscape. No optical drive. No dedicated graphics. No tweener features. Just a slim chassis, a quick-booting drive, and a spare number of ports.
Actually, in that regard, the Series 5 Ultra is a step ahead of most, as the included Ethernet port, HDMI, USB 3.0, and SD card slot should fill the everyday user's every need. The 13-inch Ultra is somewhat affordable, too: it lists at $999 with a 128GB solid-state drive, but we found it online for as low as $850. A configuration with a 500GB hard drive goes for even less, at $850 or as low as $700).
The biggest problem with the Series 5, frankly, is that it isn't the Series 9. It feels more like a budget ultrabook, and it's hard to shake that feeling even after a few days with it. In my view, this laptop is better the less expensive you can get it, so go with the 500GB hybrid hard-drive version. At $999, I can't help thinking of the larger, less expensive, and better -- to me, at least -- HP Folio 13.
As mentioned above, when we reviewed the 14-inch Series 5 Ultra, which had a tray-loading DVD drive, we remarked that it looked and felt less like an ultrabook and more like a thinner "normal" laptop. "Ultrabook" is Intel's marketing language for a defined set of features and chassis sizes, originally aimed at creating a Windows laptop with the chops of a MacBook Air. Intel's size guidelines are a little more forgiving for 14-inch ultrabooks, hence the larger Series 5's bulk.
The 13-inch version, on the other hand, is as sleek and light as you'd expect an ultrabook at this point to be. Comparisons with the Asus Zenbook, Acer Aspire S3, and even the Dell XPS 13 are apt. The Series 5 Ultra is 0.69 inch thick at its thickest point, and weighs 3.04 pounds. That's roughly the same size as the XPS 13: it's the same weight, length, and thickness, but the XPS 13 has 0.5 inch less depth to its footprint. The 13-inch Asus Zenbook and Acer Aspire S3 are a little bigger. The HP Folio 13 is bigger and heavier.
Bottom line: there's no "ultrabook drift" in this laptop. The 13-inch Series 5 Ultra is a true ultrabook by anyone's definition, and it's smaller than you'd expect a 13-inch laptop to be.
So, the inevitable question: how does it compare with a MacBook Air? The Series 5 has an undeniably more plastic feel, although some parts are aluminum. It has a smaller footprint than the 13-inch MacBook Air, but it's a little thicker and over a half pound heavier. The Air has it beat with its thin, all-metal blade design, without a doubt, but that doesn't mean this system isn't attractive and surprisingly small.
This laptop slides comfortably into the Samsung laptop design spectrum. Remember the small Samsung Series 3? It's a little like that, but better-built. The sleek, curved edges, meanwhile, are reminiscent of the more expensive Series 9, but translated into a more functional, more pedestrian design. It's got a smaller footprint than last year's first version of the 13-inch Series 9, too, but it's a bit heavier than that laptop as well.
Size and weight are no small factor when it comes to ultrabooks; after all, most of the other internal features are pretty similar to other machines in its class. In some way, the field of 13-inch ultrabooks reminds me of 10-inch Atom Netbooks once upon a time: when every one has similar specs, design and ergonomics become chief factors.
The Series 5, from an ergonomic standpoint, is hit and miss. The position of the keyboard, the size of the large touch pad, and the clean, comfortable feel are theoretically advantages. Look more closely, and you'll see the seams. The screen opens well enough on its slightly stiff hinge, but the bezel has some flex. The shallow raised keys on the keyboard aren't backlit like on some ultrabooks (and the MacBook Air), and the somewhat mushy key feel isn't as good as the Series 9's. That large touch pad, instead of being a clickpad, has plastic buttons underneath. That might not bother anyone much. It's not the best touch pad I've ever seen, but it's a lot better than some ultrabook touch pads from last year (Asus Zenbook, I'm looking at you).
The 13.3-inch screen on the Series 5 Ultra has a matte antiglare coating, just like other recent Samsung laptops. The shift from glossy screen coatings is welcome, as it makes text far more readable, and movies more watchable.
The 1,366x768-pixel resolution is standard for a 13-inch laptop, although we've seen some ultrabooks outdo this resolution lately. Colors look sharp, and viewing angles remain sharp at horizontal angles (though vertically it degrades quickly). It's not as good as the screen on last year's original Series 9, but it's more than acceptable.
Built-in stereo speakers situated above the keyboard do the job just fine; they're not stupendous, but for watching movies and having a Web chat, they're loud and crisp enough. The 1,280x1,024-pixel Webcam is better than average, with a sharp picture and good light sensitivity. Cyberlink YouCam software is included.
The Series 5 Ultra effortlessly includes all the important ports while still having a svelte design; pray tell, why can't other ultrabooks do the same? Ports are openly accessible at the rear of each side edge. You get two USB 2.0 ports, an USB 3.0 port, HDMI, an SD card slot, and a pull-down Ethernet port. No compromises. There's even Bluetooth. The 15-inch Series 9, by comparison, relied on dongles and specialized cables far too much. There is one specialized port that connects to an optional VGA-out, but few people will notice that feature.
For the price-conscious (which is, frankly, most of us), Samsung has offered Series 5 Ultra buyers a choice of SSD or hybrid hard drive in two different configurations. This is a trend that's spreading across previously SSD-only ultrabooks. A 128GB SSD version costs $999 (or less on some Web sites), while a version with a 500GB hard drive and small SSD cache costs $849. I'd personally choose to save $150 and get more storage, even if it meant slightly slower boot time and file access speeds (I only tested the SSD version). 4GB of RAM comes standard, and a Core i5 CPU is the only processor option currently available.
“You’re getting good overall design and a slim build plus plenty of ports on the Series 5…”
The 1.6GHz Core i5-2467M CPU matches what we saw in the HP Folio 13. It's a second-gen "Sandy Bridge" Intel processor, and not the third-gen "Ivy Bridge" version you'll see in just a matter of weeks in some laptops. Should you wait for Ivy Bridge? There should be some advantages to the next-gen processor upgrade in ultrabooks, notably in integrated graphics, which should transcode video and play games significantly better. You might want to hold off for a month or so to be sure. Still, the current CPU in this Series 5 Ultra performed well for all tasks we threw at it. Boot time was also fast at around 17 seconds, in part due to the SSD. As for waking up from sleep, sometimes the Series 5 did it quickly and effortlessly; other times, not so much. This is a problem with most Windows laptops, not just the Series 5 Ultra.
Alas, here's the rub: the battery life on the Series 5 Ultra NP530U3B is a letdown. We got 4 hours and 37 minutes of continuous video playback, which puts it narrowly at the bottom of the pac k of ultrabooks we compared it with. Recent ultrabooks have fared better. For example, the HP Folio 13 lasted 5 hours and 58 minutes in the same test, and the MacBook Air lasted 6 hours and 46 minutes. From an 11-incher, maybe, you could expect a battery life like that, but for a 13-inch ultrabook, it's deficient.
Samsung includes a standard one-year parts-and-labor warranty with the system. The company's support Web site offers an easy-to-use menu for finding your laptop model, and frequently asked questions and driver/manual downloads are easily accessible. Samsung's 1-800 service number is also prominently displayed, which isn't always the case on support pages.
The 13-inch Samsung Series 5 Ultra NP530U3B is, finally, Samsung's affordable mainstream ultrabook that the pricey Series 9 never was. That's great news, but it's not exactly a super bargain: many other ultrabooks cost about the same. You're getting good overall design and a slim build plus plenty of ports on the Series 5, but it's not as sexy as a MacBook Air. It simply isn't. Get one at a discount if you can. The Series 5 Ultra is a very good ultrabook, but it isn't a world-beater.