Samsung 530U Series 5 Ultrabook review
When we look at the new Samsung 530U, we aren't filled with the same sense of excitement that we were when we took the Dell XPS 13 out of its box. The Samsung, in fact, looks more like a regular laptop than it does an Ultrabook. But none of that matters a jot, because this machine is every bit the Ultrabook as any of its competitors.
What it adds is a lot of the sensible features that are missing from the Dell XPS 13 an - if you want to include it as an Ultrabook - the Macbook Air 13-inch. So, will the Samsung be able to tease our money from us, or is it lacking in the glamour needed by Windows-based laptops these days?
It may not be an exciting-looking machine, but it's very slim and incredibly light.
Where this machine shines is in the connections it offers. The Dell was hopeless here, sporting a miserly two USB sockets and a Display Port connector - which is nowhere near as useful as HDMI in practical terms, despite being very similar technically.
For a start, there are three USB sockets: two vanilla USB 2.0 and one blue-coloured USB 3.0. You also get that incredibly useful full-sized HDMI output. It's a small point, but these normal-sized sockets make it a lot easier to connect the laptop to displays or home cinema equipment. Not having to carry an adaptor cable is a nice touch, and very much welcomed.
The Samsung also has a 4-in-1 card reader. That the Dell was missing an SD card socket really caused us problems, because we - as you can imagine - write on the move a lot, and having access to photos we've taken on our SD-equipped cameras is a huge deal. You also get a combined headphone and microphone 3.5mm jack too, which is useful if you're a regular Skype user.
We also love that there's a Gigabit Ethernet connector too. This is accessed via a little spring down clip, which saves space in quite an elegant way. There's no need for any sort of adaptor here though, so that's more travel hassle eliminated.
Frankly, when it comes to connectivity, the Samsung 530U is king of the Ultrabooks.
Screen and audio performance
The 13.3-inch screen is pretty decent too. It may only support a resolution that's a little over 720p, namely 1366x768, but it is very crisp and sharp. Colour also seems pretty bold and accurate most of the time. But, there are some problems.
The brightness isn't great, so outside you're likely to have some problems, even though it features a matte screen, which keeps reflections to a minimum. Video in particular suffers from brightness issues. Mostly, it seemed too dark, but boosting the backlight just led to blacks turning grey/blue. You can probably adjust the video player settings to compensate for this a little, but it's still a concern.
Part of the problem seems to be the viewing angle of the screen. It's bad. Not especially so from the left and right, but up and down it's pretty severe. Indeed we found, especially with video, that we needed to have the angle exactly right to get anywhere near an accurate image.
Using Plex, we were able to stream 1080p video via Wi-Fi with no problems. It's important to note that the laptop needed to be in its "high performance" power profile to play the video smoothly though. Using any of the battery saving modes resulted in a bit of a mess.
Our big issue is that it doesn't tilt back very far. This is a real problem if you're typing on your lap: it doesn't quite have the ideal angle, and you'll find yourself stooping a little to see what's happening. The fact that the Samsung doesn't have the greatest viewing angle in the world doesn't help here either, and means that you'll often find yourself looking at a display that's not as clear as it should be.
Sound is impressive enough though. It's a bit tinny - to be expected from small laptop speakers - but it's very clear, and can be breathtakingly loud when pushed to its maximum.
As always, there's a sigh-inducing amount of nag-ware included on the Samsung. Norton Antivirus knows how to press our buttons, it really does. At boot, you'll be nagged to "activate" your antivirus software. Until you do, it will make dramatic claims about how your PC is unprotected. You get a small number of days free, and then it will be time to cough up some money for continued virus protection.
Additionally, to complete the activation, you'll need to provide an email address - what a surprise.
Save yourselves the bother, and send a message to the likes of Norton and McAfee that you don't respond well to their passive aggressive nonsense. Uninstall the minute you get the computer, and put a free antivirus system on there. We suggest Microsoft's, it's lightweight and works well, although it does need to be nannied in to updating itself. If you go to the Microsoft Security Essentials site, there are other free options listed too.
Samsung also opts to use a piece of custom software to manage other aspects of the computer. For example, the wireless networking is done via its own console, rather than through the native Windows version. Other things are managed here too though, so it does make for a convenient stopping place for system configuration.
Despite its slightly childish UI, we found it okay to use and don't object too much to using it over the Windows system.
Against a lot of Ultrabooks, the Samsung once again bucks the trend. Rather than use a 128 or 256GB SSD, the company has included a 500GB hard drive. This gives a lot more space than an SSD - or at least an affordable one - but doesn't have the same low power consumption or speed.
The power issue is hard to solve, but the speed can be addressed, at least partially, via the Express Cache. This is a system where a low-capacity SSD is included, in this case 16GB, which is used to boost the boot time and load speeds of your most frequently used applications.
It does work, we managed to go from the computer being switched off, to it loading Windows fully in less than 30 seconds (around 28 seconds, by our count). This is good, and pretty close to the speeds you'd see with a pure SSD. We certainly like the idea of having a lot of storage AND fast load times, it's a good solution.
Keyboard and trackpad
We have to say, despite some initial doubts, we like the Samsung's keyboard. The island keys don't have a lot of travel, but it turns out it's easy to type on, and we didn't have any real problems with confused letters or anything. The keys are a little slippy though, although in practice this gave us no trouble at all.
The trackpad too is very good. Multi-touch gestures are supported, but unlike a lot of similar devices, we found it actually did a good job with two-finger scrolling. It's not a glass surface, as it is on the Mac, but we found it was pretty low-friction, even so.
The battery life seems pretty impressive to us. Even on "high performance" mode, we could get about three hours out of the Samsung. Switch it to a more efficient mode, and you'll see that jump up to more than six.
The battery isn't removable, but users can access the hard drive and memory via a removable cover.
We did notice, as an aside, that the Samsung got a lot hotter than most machines we've tested when doing our 1080p video test. This probably isn't anything to worry about, but laptops that run hot do tend to burn out quicker than those that run cold. We've seen this issue before on Dell XPS machines.
The weak point of this machine is its screen. But it's not a total disaster by any stretch of the imagination. If we had a choice, we'd prefer that the screen had a little more flexibility in its movement too, but we could live with this.
What you get with the Samsung is a light, thin laptop that has every type of connection you could possibly want on a laptop - even a desktop replacement couldn't ask for more.
Performance is great, the keyboard and trackpad are really usable and comfortable. This is certainly a machine that you could use day-in day-out without ever wanting to throw it across the room in frustration.
It lacks the excitement of the Dell XPS 13, but this is a very capable and likeable laptop.