If you want an Ultrabook but don't want to spend $900 or more then Samsung might have the perfect solution: The AMD-based Samsung Series 5 ultrathin notebook gives you the same Ultrabook shape with better graphics and a lower price tag. Keep reading to see if we think it's a good deal.
Samsung has shown a serious commitment over the last two years to the ultrathin laptop market. The Series 9 Intel-based Ultrabooks and the Series 5 ultrathins using Intel and AMD processors have been the showpieces of Samsung's line of laptops.
Unfortunately, the words "Ultrabook" and "ultrathin" usually come with an ultra-expensive price tag. The AMD-based Series 5 laptop hopes to change that consumer perception about high price and provide a better multimedia experience to boot.
Build and Design
Samsung offers the Series 5 ultrathin notebooks in both 13-inch and 14-inch varieties and we opted to review the 14-inch model with AMD technology inside (Series 5 NP535U4C). It's important to note that while the Series 5 with Intel Core i5 or Core i7 processors inside is called an "Ultrabook" the Series 5 with AMD processor and graphics is labeled as just an "ultrathin notebook" since Intel owns the Ultrabook name. That said, the Series 5 Ultrabook and the Series 5 ultrathin notebook are exactly the same on the outside.
One of the key design elements differenciating the Series 5 from the more expensive Series 9 (other than the use of Intel processors) is that the Series 5 Ultrabooks and ultrathins use plastic exterior chassis parts rather than aluminium alloy. This helps keep the Series 5 laptops light weight even though they are slightly thicker than the Series 9 Ultrabooks in some spots (0.82" thin on the Series 5 compared to 0.6" on the Series 9). Overall build quality is still quite good although there are a few spots like the palm rests and the access panel on the bottom of the notebook where the plastic feels a bit too thin.
In terms of durability, the Series 5 should survive most common use and abuse as long as you don't do something foolish with the low-profile tray-loading DVD drive. The screen lid feels quite ridgid and should provide excellent screen protection. We couldn't create and screen distortions or "ripples" by pushing on the back of the screen and that's usually a good indicator that the lid is doing a good job protecting the display.
If you take a quick look at the bottom of the Series 5 you'll see some good and bad news in terms of upgrades. Samsung was kind enough to include an easy-access panel on the bottom that lets you upgrade the RAM, hard drive and wireless card after purchase if you decide that's necessary (more on that later in the review). Unfortunately, like most ultrathin laptops on the market the Series 5 uses an integrated battery so there is no way to replace the built-in battery without completely disassembling your notebook. In short, if anything happens to your laptop's battery you are better off sending it back to Samsung for repair.
Ports and Features
The 14-inch Series 5 laptop features all of its major ports on the left and right sides of the chassis and nothing on the front or back edges. You'll see a 4-in-1 media card reader (SD, SDHC, SDXC, and MMC), headset jack, standard VGA and HDMI as well as two USB 3.0 ports and a USB 2.0 port. The smaller 13-inch Series 5 (NP535U3C) only has one USB 3.0 port but has two USB 2.0 ports and doesn't have room for the built-in DVD drive found on its big brother. All the port descriptions below are listed from left to right.
Left: AC power jack, Ethernet, two USB 3.0 ports, VGA, HDMI and headset (headphone/microphone) jack
Right: 4-in-1 card reader, USB 2.0 port, DVD drive and Kensington lock slot
In order to keep this ultrathin laptop as thin as possible the Samsung engineers used a folding Ethernet jack on the left side of the notebook. You simply flip down the "door" on the bottom edge of the Ethernet port to allow a standard Ethernet cable to fit inside. It's also worth mentioning that although this 14-inch laptop meets the dimension requirements for an Ultrabook this laptop still has room inside for a DVD drive ... a nice addition if you want to watch movies while traveling or just need to install software that isn't available online.
Screen and Speakers
The 14-inch screen on the Series 5 is a pretty average LED-backlit HD display with a 1366 x 768 resolution. The one worthwhile item of note here is that Samsung wisely decided to use an anti-glare or matte display surface and a bright 300-nit backlight so the screen is actually usable outdoors under bright sunlight (assuming you have the backlight turned up all the way).
That being said, we can't be overly impressed here simply because the Samsung Series 9 NP900X3C has 1600 x 900 resolution screen with what Samsung calls a "PLS" display, which is similar to an IPS-type display in that the viewing angles are nearly unlimited. You can tilt back the PLS display or pull it forward until the screen lid is almost closed and pictures on the screen look the same. This is a major advantage when doing color-critical video or photo work. Unfortunately, the screen on the Series 5 is just a standard TN-type display panel so you'll start to notice varying degrees of color shift as soon as you tilt the screen forward or back since color fidelity is only maintained when your eyes are viewing the screen from straight ahead.
There are two 2W stereo speakers located just abvove the keyboard and beneath the screen hinge. It's worth mentioning that these speakers are actually larger (and have a higher watt rating) than the speakers used on the more expensive Samsung Series 9 Ultrabooks. Since the speakers are located above the keyboard the sound is directed up and toward the user making for a more enjoyable listening experience. However, Samsung placed the two speakers less than three inches apart from each other and when stereo speakers are that close the listener gets almost a false monophonic sound effect. If you overlook the close proximity of the stereo speakers the sound is quite realistic between low and high frequencies with some bass. Overall, we're impressed with the little speakers on this laptop.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The Series 5 comes with a pretty standard Chiclet-style or "island style" keyboard. The keys have a short travel common to the latest generation Samsung Series 9 and Series 5 keyboards but there is sufficient tactile feedback to deliver an enjoyable typing experience. The keys are quiet and there is no keyboard flex at all (mainly because ultrathin notebooks don't have any room inside for flex). The keys are large enough to find by touch and the high-contrast white lettering makes it reasonably easy to see the keys in a dark room even though the keyboard lacks LED backlighting.
I also enjoy the fact that the Home, PgUp, PgDn, and End keys are all located in a row on the right side of the keyboard rather than being spread apart in various locations. I like how the keys are large and easy to find by feel. The plam rests are pretty comfortable but unlike the Series 9 palm rests which are made from a solid block of aluminum these palm rests have an "edge" where the palm rest meets the bottom half on the chassis. There is also a slight "squeak" when you apply pressure to the right palm rest because the plastic is just a little too thin in that spot.
The ELAN touchpad is reasonably large for a 14-inch laptop (larger than the one found on the 14-inch HP Pavilion dm4) and features dedicated left and right mouse buttons (which are increasingly hard to find on modern laptops). The smooth matte touchpad surface is surrounded by a beveled edge and tracking was smooth and accurate. My only complaint about the touchpad buttons is that they have very shallow throw/feedback and they produce a loud "click" when pressed.
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