Before you get your hands on the Samsung Series 9 you know it’s going to be thin and light, but it’s only when you lift it out of the box you realise just how thin and how light it really is and how sleek it feels.
The first time you see it, you’re also amazed by how Samsung has been able to fit in a surprising number of ports and connectors. The company has also managed to install a real processor to make a laptop that gives Apple, and every other PC maker, a run for their money.
The Series 9’s brushed black metal case is so thin that it keeps surprising you every time you pick it up. The combination of sweeping curves on the chassis, rounded corners and thin projecting edges are breathtaking and impressive. Although it's less than 17mm thick, the Series 9 is very well built, there's no flex at all in the keyboard and you have to twist the screen with some determination to get it to flex. There’s also thin rubber edging which protects the screen when closed from the ravages of dust and keys. The feather-weight 1.31kg - a hair lighter than the MacBook Air - and strength are down to the duralumin aluminium alloy once used to make the frame of airships and still common in aircraft.
The 13.3-inch 1366 x 768 resolution screen is thankfully matte, as is the generous palm rest; but the shiny screen and keyboard surround and wide curved hinge, which runs almost the full width of the screen, introduce distracting reflections in bright light. The design is clean and understated with indicator lights for Caps Lock and Wi-Fi embedded in their respective toggle buttons. All the other lights are gathered at the top right of the screen where you can see them.
Keyboard, trackpad and gestures
Even the power button is unusually sleek with the familiar power icon embossed onto the case itself. You might not use it much though, because a thoughtful design touch turns on the Series 9 automatically when you open the lid - a feature we’ve only seen on Sony laptops previously.
The isolated island-style keys have rounded corners and enough space between them for fast typing, and a comfortable, positive action. The spacebar and the bottom row of secondary keys are a little taller than the other keys and the Enter key is double height, but the inverted-T of arrow keys are really too small for comfort and we miss dedicated secondary navigation keys like Home and End. Leaving less annoying glossy space around the keyboard would have made room for them without cramping the main keys and it does feel a little like functionality has been sacrificed to design here.
The Series 9 has no media control keys at all, not even on the function key strip, which does have a more useful selection of secondary functions than many notebooks, from launching the handy utility control centre to turning off the touch pad and switching between Samsung's own power management modes and turning the subtle keyboard backlighting up and down.
The extra-large trackpad has no visible buttons at all, although the whole lower third is clickable. The touch surface is so responsive that it feels smoother than it actually is and the default settings are far too responsive, making the cursor fly around and randomly select objects in passing. Crank the sensitivity down a notch and you get an superb trackpad that's crammed with so many features it's quite confusing. Handy though, is the ability to pick and choose the features you want, from assigning a different command, to tapping in each of the four corners, to blocking clicks in certain areas of the trackpad.
Multitouch gestures include not just the usual two-finger scroll (excellent), pinch-zoom (delightfully responsive) and rotate (responsive if not necessarily that useful) plus a second "chiral" rotate gesture and the three finger press to launch an application (which works - not true on all touch pads). There’s also a flick to scroll through photos. Swipe down and it minimises all your open windows, swipe up and it opens the 3D Aero task switcher so you can swipe a finger across the touch pad to choose the window you want. Even with this large a touch pad, getting four fingers in place can be a bit of a squeeze but the task switching gestures are great time savers; much faster than mousing down to the taskbar when you have a lot of apps open.
If you find the invisible buttons a problem for clicking accurately and you can't learn to tap the touch pad instead, you can use a two-finger press and hold gesture that's familiar from touch screens for right-click. You can also use a three-finger press to get the middle mouse button actions or customise it to something you find more useful, like, say, search.
With the dropped screen hinge and the knife-thin front edge, there doesn't seem to be room for any ports and the only ones visible are the security lock and the extra-small power jack. To go along with the tiny laptop, the usually chunky power brick is transformed into a much sleeker single-piece adapter.
Everything else is concealed in a snap-down, tilt-out flap at either side. These fit sleekly without any protrusions, but open easily when you hook your thumbnail in the gap. They seem exceptionally sturdy and are made of the same aluminium alloy as the rest of the latop. Even so it's a minimal and downsized selection of ports. There's just one USB port on each side, one of which is just USB 2.0 while the other is a USB 3.0 port, capable of charging devices even if the Series 9 is off.
The micro HDMI connector is one of the smallest we've seen and there's a microSD slot instead of a full size memory card (great for phones, annoying for cameras) and a single combined headphone and microphone jack.
Unlike the MacBook Air, the Series 9 has an Ethernet port; the case is physically too small for a standard port so it's a custom connector with an adapter - which is still better than the Air's USB to Ethernet converter because it doesn't take up a USB port or cost an extra £25. It should beat the Air for speed as well, as it's a gigabyte Ethernet connection rather than just 100Mb. Our only concern is that it appears to be routed through the USB bus as it doesn't seem to deliver full gigabyte speed in action. The Wi-Fi doesn't run power-hungry 5GHz connections, just the more common 2.4GHz 802.11n, but you do get Bluetooth 3.
Happily, this isn't a gussied up netbook in a fancy case hobbled by an Atom. The 1.4GHz Intel Core i5-2537M isn't the full speed Sandy Bridge that's in the Toshiba Portege either, but as the first Sandy Bridge ULV processor it combines good performance with decent battery life.
The integrated graphics isn't the most powerful system we've seen, especially when you're running in power-saving modes, but it does speed up GPU-accelerated software like recent browsers and copes beautifully with video.
With Wi-Fi on and streaming video or music continuously and background web browsing, you’ll see a full 3 and a half hours of battery life; turn on battery saving options and Wi-Fi off and you'll see 5 hours or more.
The startup and shutdown speed is delightfully fast too, even with Norton poised to nag you once Windows is running. Shutting down takes somewhere between 5 and 10 seconds; it's so quick and uneventful that it feels like it just stops immediately. Cold boot is an impressive 15 seconds to the login screen and fast start on by default, which means that you open the lid from sleep and start working a few seconds later. A lot of that is down to the 128GB SSD, but having the system well configured to start with is also a huge win - you shouldn't have to tinker to get Windows 7 to deliver and here you don't.
Bundled software is almost uniformly useful: Office Start, Windows Live Essentials, Skype, CyberLink YouCam, even Samsung's AnyWeb print utility (for saving paper when you print from webpages and an unusually helpful utility control panel. Only Norton Internet Security and Online Backup will infuriate you with popups; you can ignore (or remove) the low-quality WildTangent games.
Sound and video
The screen is excellent; vivid and colourful without being over saturated. Contrast is excellent too, even in dark areas of images and you get both good viewing angles and stunning brightness. Streaming 1080p video online is crisp and shows outstanding detail,with fast-moving action sequences playing smoothly and fluidly. The detail on our referencee 720p test clip, streamed over Wi-Fi, was also excellent, and we liked the effect of the "movie colour" enhancement that kicks in automatically.
The sound is far better than you'd expect from an ultra-thin system like this. The speakers are tiny but they're on the sides of the case at the end of the palm rest, which gives good stereo separation, as well as putting them closer to your ears than many designs. This helps to give plenty of volume as well as avoiding the sound being muffled when the Series 9 is on your lap. Music is clear and full of detail with excellent, if slightly thin, treble and midrange; what you don't get is much bass (hardly surprising as there's no space in the case for resonance - plug in a pair of headphones and as well as avoiding being antisocial, you can enjoy bass so rich you ought to be able to feel it in your chest). The webcam is also unusually good; HD resolution with excellent, crisp detail and accurate colours, even in dark rooms.
The stunning design of the Series 9 is sleek, slim and sturdy all at the same time. It's amazing that Samsung can pack performance, battery power and the ports you actually need in, along with a great keyboard and screen, plus surprisingly good sound. The 3-year warranty makes this a PC that's good enough for business users (although beware, as not all of the first models released have a TPM chip).
So what's not to like? If you’re a perfectionist, the keyboard could be better. The touch pad irritated us far too often and the price is undeniably high (though less than the chunkier ThinkPad X1). A system this thin makes compromises but we think Samsung has made all the right ones. If you fancy an Air but don't want OS X, the Series 9 is almost perfect.
Additional photos by Dan Sung