Are larger-scale ultrabooks the laptop version of "Dead man walking"? Well, it's a disconnect if you like ultrabooks for what they were originally promised to have: small-scale portability. Taking the thin splendor of a brilliantly executed 13-incher and going supersize feels a little like making the laptop version of Amazon's Kindle DX. Then again, the iPad succeeded at transcending being a big iPod Touch, so maybe anything's possible.
I felt more than a little deja vu handling the 15-inch Samsung Series 9 NP900X4B-A02, a larger version of the 13-inch Series 9 laptop that I fell in love with exactly one year ago. Actually, that's not entirely accurate: the new 15-incher is a large-scale version of the second-gen Series 9, which we took a peek at earlier this year.
The second-gen Series 9 is far better built, sleeker, and smaller, managing to slide into a footprint befitting a 12-inch laptop. Its big brother, this new 15-incher, goes in the opposite direction, a trend in ultrabooks we're seeing in laptops like the HP Envy 14 Spectre and Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3 (even though Samsung doesn't call the Series 9 an ultrabook, it clearly is).
The larger version makes me feel like I've shrunk a bit, but it's still a gorgeous piece of equipment from a structural standpoint. The chassis, keyboard, and touch pad&emdash;even the screen hinge&emdash;have exactly the sturdy, clean design that anyone ponying up for a pricey, fancy laptop would hope for. The screen's big and bright, too, just like its predecessor's. What's not to like?
Well, first, the price: the 15-inch Series 9 NP900X4B-A02 will cost $1,499 when it debuts in late April. That's less than the $1,600-plus for last year's Series 9 13-incher, but it's still way up in the stratosphere. It's not unreasonable for a larger laptop, provided it also has better specs and performance than a tiny ultraportable computer.
That's problem No. 2: under the hood, the 15-inch Series 9 is really just the same as its soon-to-arrive 13-inch sibling. It has a Core i5 processor and a 128GB solid-state drive (SSD), and even that big screen has the same 1,600x900-pixel resolution. An included 8GB of RAM is the only notably lofty spec. There's no optical drive (of course), and there aren't even any extra full-size ports like Ethernet and HDMI; you'll need dongles or special cables, and only the Ethernet dongle comes in the box.
Still, there's no denying that the larger Series 9 is a beautiful computer. However, is it worth the $1,499 price, especially when even a MacBook Air costs less, and perfectly capable if slightly less sexy full-size laptops can be had for half of that? That's up to you. After all, Samsung makes a less thin but equally powerful Series 5 Ultra that's still reasonably slim but costs over $500 less. Also consider that, for $100 less, the next-generation 13-inch Samsung Series 9 will offer much of the same functionality, in a smaller size with half the RAM. I certainly would love a 15-inch Series 9 if it fell in my lap, but it's a lot of money for what you get. In this instance, you're truly getting a super-size ultrabook. You're paying for thin.
Larger-screen ultrabooks will be a trend throughout 2012, but I'm still not sure I get the motivation for larger, thinner laptops...even though this Series 9 is probably one of the best of them, if you're judging purely on style and feel.
Note: our review version came with Windows 7 Professional installed, but the retail version will ship with Windows 7 Home Premium.
Steely gray all around, smooth matte metal surfaces, gleaming polished edges, and elegantly curved sides: the new Series 9 is one of the most impressively made laptops I've ever seen, and it feels as good as it looks. It leaves out any unnecessary flourishes or creaky bits that crept up on last year's model, in favor of a single-piece, all-metal, aluminum construction that's every bit as nice as a MacBook Air.
You'd think that taking the elegant efficiency of the 13-inch model and expanding it to a 15-incher would result in an awkward surplus of unused keyboard space or an extra-wide "surfboard" feel, but that isn't the case. Yes, the 15-inch version feels very wide and flat given its thinness, but I got used to that quickly and fell into the large screen with its compact bezel.
Part of what makes the design feel tight is the fact that this 15-inch-screen model fits into the footprint of a 14-inch laptop, according to Samsung. Indeed, this laptop's dimensions (14x9.3 inches) places it between a standard 14- and 15-inch laptop. It's nearly an inch wider than the 14-inch Series 5, and 0.3 inch deeper. A 15-inch MacBook Pro (which also has a slightly larger 15.4-inch screen) measures 14.35 inches by 9.8 inches. Incidentally, the original 13-inch Samsung Series 9 measured 12.9 inches by 8.9 inches, with a thickness of 0.64 inch, and weighed 2.92 pounds.
The most important metric might be thickness: at 0.58 inch, this is the thinnest 15-inch laptop I've ever come across. It weighs 3.68 pounds, which is also lighter than any 15-incher to my recollection (and is significantly lighter than many 14-inchers).
There's a question that arises: who needs a really thin 15-incher? This larger Series 9 isn't exactly ultraportable, and it's even a bit thicker than I would have imagined. Still, the laptop sits gracefully, has a wide-tilt screen hinge, and feels very comfortable. Because of this laptop's tweener size, after using it for a while you're likely to start feeling like it's not far from a 13-inch. It definitely rests easily in the lap, although the heat venting can run a bit warm.
The full-size raised keyboard has shallow keys, but it feels great to type on. The closest analog I've seen is a MacBook Air. In low light, a built-in backlight kicks in. It's subtle, but effective. The Samsung keyboard lacks a number pad and doesn't have function-reversed top keys (you need to press Fn to raise and lower volume, for instance), but other than a right-hand column of keys for Home/Page Up/Page Down, all keys are full-size and easy to access.
On the extra-large palm rest lies an extra-large multitouch clickpad, using Elan software. It feels as spacious as an Apple trackpad, with a large, matte-black and slightly recessed surface. Samsung posted a driver update during the process of my review that made the pad work a little more smoothly, especially for two-finger page scrolling, and overall it's better than average for a Windows laptop.
The 15-inch matte screen looks as great as the screen on the 13-inch version, although the 1,600x900-pixel resolution is slightly less astounding at this larger size. The screen looks very bright, almost shockingly so, head-on. However, it's a disappointment when viewed from off angles. From side to side it's got a passable range of readability, but from top to bottom the image blows out fast. The screen's so large and wide that the image can begin to degrade around the edges depending on where you're viewing it from, so center stage is best. The self-adjusting screen brightness auto sensor sometimes got finicky depending on where I placed my hand, too. That being said, from a direct viewing angle this is a premium laptop screen experience.
Stereo speakers seated under the laptop are fine for movies and TV shows, even music, but the audio quality resembles a loud pair of good but not great headphones. Plugging in your own headset will help matters.
The 1,280x1,024-pixel Webcam comes with CyberLink YouCam software and its requisite collection of absurd novelty effects. Video quality looked good, both for casual picture capture and Web chat.
The thin, teardrop-curved sides of the Series 9 NP900X4B-A02 are certainly elegant, but they come at the expense of a compromise: ports are limited on this laptop, especially for its size. Just like the 13-inch Series 9, it has no optical drive. Ports line both sides of the chassis, which curves gracefully like the cross section of an airplane wing. Despite the larger size of the 15-inch model, only one USB 2.0 and two USB 3.0 ports come standard. Ethernet, HDMI, and VGA are offered up via tiny ports that require either dongles or adapter cables; Samsung includes a dongle for Ethernet, but the Micro-HDMI port needs a special cable, as does the proprietary secondary display port. It makes no sense to me, as this laptop could easily have made room for a full-size Ethernet and HDMI port. Thankfully, at least there's an SD card slot. Bluetooth and Intel Wireless Display compatibility also come standard.
The 15-inch Series 9 15-inch comes with similar specs to a 13-inch ultrabook: 1.6GHz Core i5-2467M processor, 128GB SSD, and an impressive 8GB of RAM. Graphics are merely Intel HD 3000 integrated graphics (this isn't an Ivy Bridge laptop with Intel HD 4000 graphics--at least, not yet). The HP Envy 14 Spectre is a close comparison. This is the only configuration for the 15-inch NP900X4B.
That Spectre is also a close match on price: the 15-inch Series 9 will cost $1,499 when it goes on sale in late April ($100 more than the Spectre). Alternatively, you could spend $1,399 on the 13-inch Series 9 coming soon, which has identical specs except for its 4GB of RAM.
“Beautiful, sleek design and
a razor-thin all-metal body
make the 15-inch Samsung
Series 9 the most stunning
and portable larger-screen
laptop we've seen…”
In our benchmark tests, this Series 9 fared well, at least for an ultrabook. That's not surprising, since it features the same type of processor. The closest-performing ultrabook was the Toshiba Portege Z835-P370, which features the same second-gen Core i5 processor. All the ultrabooks we compared it with--the Portege Z835-P370, the Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3-581TG, and the Asus Zenbook UX31E-DH52--performed slightly better. The 13-inch MacBook Air performed much better, which makes sense given that some of our benchmark tests feature Apple software like iTunes and QuickTime.
The 15-inch Series 9 woke from sleep quickly and booted in an impressive 15 seconds, but it didn't wake instantaneously from sleep when the lid was lifted; it took a good 3 seconds or so, and sometimes didn't wake at all (I had to press the power button instead).
Samsung includes a standard one-year warranty with the Samsung Series 9 NP900X4B-A02. Samsung's Web site has a simple-to-find search function that pulls up all related product information and support downloads in one place, and a toll-free 1-800 service number is also prominently displayed, which isn't always the case on support pages.
The 15-inch Samsung Series 9 is even more impressively built and designed than last year's 13-inch model, but this jaw-droppingly thin laptop isn't all that different from a 13-inch ultrabook; it's just priced higher. If you crave impeccable design and a light luggage load along with a big, bright screen then look no further, provided your bank account can stomach it and you don't mind dongles for Ethernet and HDMI. But when it comes to performance, bigger for the Series 9 equals more of the same.
Samsung Series 9 NP900X4B-A02
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-2467M; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 64MB (Shared) Intel HD 3000; 128GB Samsung SSD
Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3-581TG
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.7GHz Intel Core i7-2637M; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 1GB Nvidia's GeForce GT 640M / 128MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 3000; 256GB Lite-On It SSD
Asus UX31E-DH52 (Zenbook)
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-2557M; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 64MB (Dedicated) Intel GMA HD; 128GB SSD
Apple MacBook Air 13.3-inch - Summer 2011
OS X 10.7 Lion; 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-2557M; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 384MB (Shared) Intel HD 3000; 128GB Apple SSD