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On the Samsung Series 9 (900X3C)

March 13, 2014 on 11:37 pm | In Technology | No Comments

Recently, I bought a used, mint condition, Samsung series 9 ultra-portable, or Ultrabook as Intel likes to call them these days. Specifically, the model I bought is a NP900X3C-A04. This configuration is powered by a 17W IvyBridge Intel I7-3517U CPU, 4GB of 1600MHz DDR3L (low power), a standard MSATA LiteOn 256GB SSD, and a 13.3 1600×900 Samsung PLS panel. There are plenty of reviews that detail benchmarks of this thin little machine. So instead of rehashing those, I’m sharing my impressions after a couple of weeks of living with it from a (power) user’s perspective.

The first thing that strikes the new owner is how quickly it boots. Power-on to login is dealt with in 10 seconds flat! And the first thing that strikes the user after logging in is how bright and vivid the display is. Colors are rich, contrast levels are very good, and viewing angles are impeccable. I find 30-40% brightness to be perfectly comfortable for daily use, and closer to the 80% on most other laptops. Even in the day, unless you’re outside in direct sunlight, anything above 50% will start to hurt your eyes after a couple of minutes.

But what I like the most in this thin sliver of aluminum are the little details. Things most reviewers don’t even notice, or just skimp by without much attention. Things like how the lid closes itself just millimeters before meeting the body, reassuring the user it IS indeed closed shut, or how the display hinge is stiff enough to hold the display steady without the slightest hint of wobble, yet still light enough it can be opened with a single hand without needing to grab the body with the other fearing it would lift. The display bezel, while being one of the thinnest compared to any laptop, integrates a very thin rubber lip that goes around the sides and top of the display. Its job? Simply to provide a soft cushion for the lid when closed so it doesn’t rub against the deck, scratching it, while giving the closing action a soft, quiet, feel. This one in particular, I haven’t seen mentioned in any review, but is certainly one of the nicest little details about this laptop.

Despite being ridiculously thin at 12.9mm (0.51in), it feels very solid in the hand. The display lid doesn’t have any play, hardly has any give if you try to twist it with both hands, and even pressing hardly against its back will not result in any ripples on the display. The story is pretty much the same with the body. The palmrest is rock solid, and so are the keyboard deck and bottom of the laptop. Its almost as if it is made from a solid block of aluminum. The sides have a silver, polished, cut to them that give the profile a very slender look and the illusion that its even thinner than it already is.

The backlit chiclet keyboard is one of the best to be found in ultra-portables. Its no Thinkpad, but its certainly one of the better typing experiences. The keys offer crisp feedback; there is no confusion as to whether a keystroke registered or not under your finger. The backlight is a subtle aqua tone that, even at its highest level, is still very comfortable to the eye in total darkness yet clearly visible in a well lit room at night. It also goes very well with the dark navy color of the body. The keys themselves are very generously sized and well spaced. Both shift keys, Tab, Enter, Caps-Lock, and backspace are standard sized. The only shrunken keys are the arrow and function keys. One nice feature about the keyboard is the Fn-lock key, nested between the F12 and Insert keys on the top row. When activated, the F1-F12 keys will lock to their alternative functions such as brightness, volume and backlight level controls. This key, along with the Wi-Fi, mute, and caps-lock keys have tiny blue LEDs to indicate whether they’re on or off. These LEDs are bright enough to be easily noticed, but not so bright to blind you like some other laptops. The same goes for the power and charging LEDs.

The Elan touchpad is very generously sized and has a very smooth silky texture. Its very precise and supports multi-finger gestures in Windows 8/8.1 that work quite well. Its a click-pad with no physical buttons, so clicking anywhere on it will register a left click, while clicking on the lower right part (if you divide the touchpad area in two columns and four rows, it will be the bottom right quadrant) will register a right click.

Connectivity-wise, there are two USB ports, one on each side. The left being USB 3.0, while the right one is of the 2.0 variety. The left side is also home to a Micro-HDMI and proprietary micro-Ethernet (Gigabit) while the right side houses a combo headphone/microphone 3.5mm jack and micro-VGA ports. Samsung includes the ethernet adapter in the box, while the VGA adapter is an accessory separately sold.

Two stereo speakers are located on the bottom sides, below the palmrest. While they lack in bass, as can be expected from such a thin machine, they are surprisingly loud and clear.

There are two fans to cool the ULV CPU that suck cool air from the bottom and push the warm air towards two exhaust vents on the back of the body. Under normal use, only one will turn on when needed to keep things cool. Under battery operation, the laptop stays cool – and quiet – and will barely get warm to the touch under load. In this mode, the CPU will top at the advertised 1.9GHz under load. I haven’t tested how long a charge will last, but reviews around the net range from 6-8.5 hours, depending on what you’re doing. Windows tells me I’ll get somewhere between 6 and 7 hours when I’m browsing the net on battery. Pretty decent for such a light and small machine. Plugged to the AC adapter, the CPU will Turbo-Boost to 3.0GHz under single threaded loads, and 2.8GHz under multi-threaded loads. Here, under heavy CPU load, both fans will kick in and while not loud by any measure (even for a meeting), they become quite noticeable. The palmrest will become warm, but not uncomfortably so. The bottom will become quite warm under load but I haven’t found it to be too warm to be uncomfortable on the lap, let alone categorize it as hot to the touch. I stress tested it a bit by rendering four, quite heavy, CAD designs in parallel. During the twenty-something minutes it took OpenSCAD to render them, all four virtual cores (dual cores with Hyper-Threading) were reporting 100% load under task manager. Yet, switching back and forth between the four instances of OpenSCAD and the seven open tabs on Chrome never felt anything but snappy. You can argue whether the credits for this go to Intel, Samsung, or Microsoft, but the end result is that even under load this machine maintains a smooth user experience.

Clearly, I quite like this machine and I’m quite impressed by its design, build quality, attention to detail, and performance. But it’s not all roses and rainbows. For starters, brand new my configuration was $1800, way too much IMO for something that can’t be a first computer for power users. The keyboard, while providing excellent feedback is extremely shallow. I have gotten used it, but its still not the most comfortable experience. The clickpad touchpad is pretty loud. Connectivity is anemic, to put it midly. Why on earth did Samsung bestow only 2.0 speeds for the right side USB port is beyond me. The same goes for using single-channel memory for the 4GBs of RAM. The lack of an integrated 3G/4G modem or at least the option to add one is also a bit of a let down. Its not like this is a budget laptop and they had to cut corners somewhere. The power adapter, while very compact and light, uses the bulky C5 connector instead of the smaller C7 with its much thinner cable. If C7 is good enough for the likes of Apple and Lenovo, I don’t see why it’s not good enough for Samsung. The power cord is as heavy as the adapter itself and about twice the size!

To sum it up, this is a very well thought out, and very well made laptop. It has some downsides, but if you can get past them, its really a great little machine. Its very stylish, but in a subtle and quiet (read, non-flashy) way. Brand new, at retail price, I would never consider buying it. But thanks to Samsung’s accelerated refresh cycles of the Series 9 (no less than three in the past 12 months!), which has since been renamed the ATIV 9, NP900X3C models powered by IvyBridge i5 and i7 processors are hitting the used market at a third, or even less, of their price barely a year ago for very clean, near mint, units. At this price point, it becomes a whole other proposition. It becomes one of the best value ultra-portables out there in terms of size, weight, design, build quality, and performance, and should be on the top of the list of anyone looking for an ultra-portable on a budget.

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