The 15-inch Samsung Series 9 NP900X4C is a larger-than-average Ultrabook with a thin profile, beautiful design and excellent battery life. Is that enough to make it a great laptop? Keep reading to find out what one owner has to say about this Ultrabook.
Readers of my review of the 13.3" Samsung NP900X3B will recall that I was uncertain how that notebook would cope with my usage pattern. In the event the two biggest constraints proved to be lack of storage capacity (fixable now that larger mSATA SSDs have reached the retail chain) and the computer temporarily freezing once the 4GB of RAM was full and Windows needed to dump RAM contents to the SSD while concurrently trying to load more data. I hadn't anticipated this as being a major constraint but with the RAM being non-upgradable then I needed to look around. Given that I was well satisfied with the build quality and general usability of the NP900X3B, want better than HD resolution and dislike a glossy display then the logical upgrade was its larger sibling.
Build and Design
The 15-inch NP900X4C bears a strong family resemblance to the smaller 13.3-inch version. The "4" in the model number indicates that Samsung considers it to be the equivalent of 14-inch notebooks rather than those with the larger 15.6-inch displays. In reality, the width is in the same range as the older 15.4-inch notebooks (see, for example, my review of the Samsung X60) and the height (and pixel size) is about the same as on a 14.1" 1440 x 900 pixel display but an inch wider. The whole machine (with the exception of some plastic between the hinges where the antennae are located) is built from aluminium alloy. The main chassis is very rigid and, while it is possible flex the display slightly, one has to push very hard to cause ripples on the screen. I expect the metal display back will provide much better protection than the carbon fibre alternative (my Lenovo T420s has developed light patches on the display due to, I suspect, pressure on the back of the screen during transport).
The NP900X4C is noticeably heavier than its smaller brother. The increase in weight is more than proportional to the increase in size and most likely reflects the need to strengthen the structure to maintain the same rigidity for the increased size. However, in spite of having to beef up the strength, the total thickness is about 15mm while the display is little thicker than a matchstick.
|The tape measure is in centimetres, not inches
||Matchstick resting on top edge of display|
Fortunately, thinness hasn't come at the expense of robustness and everything feels very solid. The hinges are smooth and firm with no hint of wobble. They feel stiffer than for the 13.3" model, but there is a bigger display to be held in place. Magnets hold the display in place when it is closed and opening the display can be a bit of a struggle. One small, but effective, detail is a thin strip of rubber around the sides and top of the display bezel which rests against the palm rest when the display is closed.
The colour scheme is the same "mineral ash black" (black with a hint of dark blue) eggshell paint finish as on the NP900X3B. Samsung have, however, provided some contrast to the black paint by providing three shiny metal highlights. The keys are black. One is a narrow strip around the generously sized touchpad (which is very slightly recessed into the palm rest), another is a strip wrapping around the front and sides of the chassis and a third is a matching strip around the edge of the display. There is also a shiny metal "Samsung" on the display back. The overall impression is one of quality without being ostentatious. Those people who prefer silver to black should search for the NP900X4D.
Left: NP900X3B on NP900X4C
Right: Base of NP900X4C
As with many ultrabooks, there is no official provision for user access to the inside. The metal base is secured to the main chassis using 10 small screws and this most likely helps the structural rigidity. The intrepid owner may, however, choose to carefully remove the screws and lift off the base. I couldn't resist taking a look inside to see how a computer can be squeezed into so little space.
The inside is dominated by the lithium-polymer battery, each side of which is a loudspeaker (which look very similar to those on the smaller Series 9). However, unlike the smaller sibling there is only one cooling fan and there are two normal memory slots, so 16GB RAM is a feasible upgrade option. The two Wi-Fi antenna are in the yellow area between the hinges, the SSD is to the left of the fan, the the Intel Wi-Fi card is to the right of the fan, the CPU in the middle and the two memory slots on the right side. The various ports, with the exception of the power socket, appear to be directly mounted onto the board. However, closer examination shows that the board under the SSD is separate from the main board.
Ports and Features
As is often the case with ultrabooks, the NP900X4C is not generously endowed with ports. Altogether there are one USB 2.0, two USB 3.0, an audio socket, a gigabit ethernet port (for which a dongle is provided) and micro HDMI and VGA ports (which needs a special dongle). There is also an SD card slot. Even the power jack uses an unusually small plug.
Front side: No ports and just a small recess
in the center to help with opening the display
Back side: Two air vents between the hinges
Left side, left to right: Power jack, USB 2.0, audio, micro-HDMI and ethernet (via dongle)
Right side, left to right: SD car slot, mini-VGA (via dongle), audio and two USB 3.0 ports
There are three unsatisfactory compromises associated with the port arrangement: (i) the need to buy a special dongle in order to connect a standard VGA display; (ii) the power plug blocks many USB devices from fitting into the adjacent USB port so users may need to carry a USB extension lead; and (iii) the two USB ports on the right side are very close together (it would have been beneficial to put the less-used VGA port between them). One improvement from the NP900X3B is that the tip of the power lead now has a 90° bend so there is less bending force on the plug tip, less obstruction of the adjacent USB port and the power cable can run to the back of the computer instead of sticking out at the side.
While the display of the NP900X4C is above average for a notebook LCD panel it is a disappointment compared to Samsung's PLS panel in the NP900X3B with its excellent viewing angles and contrast. The strengths of the 15" display are the higher than average 1600 x 900 pixel resolution with a matte finish so there are no annoying reflections (I have stopped buying glossy screen notebooks because of this problem). Samsung claim that it is an exceptionally bright 400 nit panel which makes it usable outside. I find a much lower brightness (5 out of 8 steps) to be appropriate to indoor use. That's in the same brightness range as my Lenovo T420s (230 nit) at full brightness. There is no obvious "screen door" effect that I had to get accustomed to on the T420s display.
I wasn't very happy with the colours of the screen (partly because it was sitting alongside the NP900X3B) but now have a solution to that problem: A couple of months back I bought a Spyder4Express display calibrator. Since I had already calibrated the displays of my other notebooks I considered it fair to give the NP900X4C the same treatment before making comparisons. Photographs of the display before and after calibration are shown below and the .icc profile is here for anyone with the same display who wants to try it. It can be seen that initially there was a strong blue tint.
Display colors before calibration
Display colors after calibration
In the comparison below I put the NP900X4C between the NP900X3B(left) and Lenovo T420s (right) and compared the viewing angles with the displays at similar brightness (Samsung panels on 5/8 brightness and the T420s on full brightness).
It can be seen that the display is typical of the TN type of LCD with reasonable horizontal viewing angles but washing out when viewed from above and darkening when viewed from below. There is not much difference between the displays on the NP900X4C and the T420s but the NP900X3B with Samsung's PLS panel shows its wide viewing angles. Samsung provide the facility for automatic control of brightness but, as with every other notebook I have used that has this feature, I find the unexpected changes in brightness to be annoying and disabled the feature.
The speakers appear to be the same as on the 13.3" Series 9 and are located on the tapered edges of the base near the front corners. The specifications say 2 x 2W and the volume is adequate for a small room although distortion occurs at full volume. The downward-facing speakers appear to benefit from the computer being on a table top so that the sound can be reflected upwards. However, while I have come across many worse speakers in larger notebooks than this, the bass is still lacking.
The keyboard is of the increasingly popular separated key type. Travel is limited due to the slim profile of the computer but one quickly gets used to the reduced travel. The basic layout is similar to the smaller Series 9 but with the addition of a dedicated set of navigation keys on the right side of the keyboard which offsets the overall layout to the left. I would have preferred to have small depressions on the top of each key to help center my fingers, rather the smooth surface, although hitting the edge of a key still causes it to register. As is normal for a European keyboard, the left shift key is small to make space for one extra key.
The keyboard has subdued backlighting which is effective under poor lighting or in darkness. Unlike some backlit keyboards, the keys do not shine brightly but the lighting makes the letters legible when they otherwise wouldn't be. There is an indicator light on the Caps Lock key and also on the F12 key which is used to turn the wireless devices on and off. As on the 13.3" keyboard there is also an Fn Lock key with its own indicator light, but this key is effectively redundant. The Fn key controls are the same as on the NP900X3B.
The Elan touchpad is even larger than the large pad on the NP900X3B. There are no separate buttons but the bottom part of the pad can be used for both moving the pointer and be pressed as a button (left part = left button, right part = right button). The pad supports one, two, three and four finger gestures including scrolling and zoom although the provided control panel offers a relatively set of options compared to the long list of settings in the registry.
Regrettably, the Wi-Fi performance has proved to be less good than on my NP900X3B (which in turn is less good than the Dell E6410 and Lenovo T420s that I have tried in the same location at the point in my house most remote from the router. I had to set the power to maximum to be able to hold a connection at the other end of my house. Even then, the speed is disappointing. I have tried all the Wi-Fi options I can find in the search for improvements. The antennae arrangements in both notebooks are similar and are located at the back edge of the chassis between the hinges where the casing is plastic, not metal. However something has changed for the worse, at least on my computer (other NP900X4C owners are not complaining of this problem). The new model has the Intel 6235 Wi-Fi/ Bluetooth combo card while the older notebook has the previous Intel 6230 card with similar features. I hope that a driver update will improve the situation but wonder if the antenna module is sub-standard.
One of the features is the Intel Rapid Start Technology which claims to get Windows booted in less than 10 seconds and also enables faster resume from hibernation. However, behind the overall impressions there are some limitations. While Windows appears to have loaded, right-clicking on a program results in no response although a left-click will start a program. In reality a lot of functionality is still loading in the background. Nonetheless, the Windows startup is faster than on the previous generation of notebooks.
The other feature of the Intel Rapid Start Technology is an improvement of the sleep / hibernation / resume process. Without the Rapid Start feature hibernation / resume involved writing / reading the full RAM contents to a file. The new technology uses a separate hibernation partition which is mapped to the system memory and during normal use this partition is kept updated in the background. Hibernation involves only the final updating of the data in the partition while resume is designed to first load whatever was in use with the rest of the RAM contents loading in the background. Samsung's installation of this technology is incomplete because it does not load Intel's control that allows the user to set the time delay between the computer sleeping and hibernating. Some tips on how to get this control working are given here. One serious flaw in the Rapid Start technology is that it by-passes both BIOS level and Windows level passwords. The security-conscious people will need to remember to lock their Windows prior to closing the computer. Notwithstanding all the above reservations, the Rapid Start Technology does improve usability, when it works.
Samsung provide their Easy Settings program as the user interface for controlling a range of hardware and software features. One improvement I have noticed compared to the previous version is that the wireless devices can be set to maintain their current settings through a reboot. Previously, both automatically turned on upon reboot.
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