- Excellent PLS (Samsung?s equivalent of IPS) display
- Amazingly thin and light
- Robust and stylish
- Moderate battery capacity
- Only two USB ports and special adapters
- Limited potential for hardware upgrades
The Samsung Series 9 NP900X3B is Samsung’s top of the range offering in the 13-inch ultrabook category and is an updated version of the NP900X3A which was released in early 2011. It is expected that the Ivy Bridge version (NP900X3C) will be the same except for the upgrade to the new Intel platform.
Build & Design
The NP900X3B builds on the experience with the NP900X3A that Samsung released in early 2011 and addresses most of the issues encountered with that model while managing to lose some thickness and weight. My first impression, on unboxing, was that this notebook is not just thin, it is anorexic! The chassis thickness is about the same as a CD case and the display is about half a CD case thickness.
Fortunately, thinness hasn?t come at the expense of robustness. The whole machine is built from aluminium alloy. The main chassis is very rigid and, while it is possible to bend the display slightly, this does not cause ripples on the screen. The hinges are smooth and firm with no hint of wobble. The label on the box says the colour is ?mineral ash black? which, in the real world means almost black but with a hint of, I think, dark blue. Most of the time the colour seems to be black but, under some lighting conditions, it appears to be a very dark blue. The paint finish is matte, so gone are the problems of fingerprints on the glossy finish that beset some previous models.
Samsung have, however, provided some contrast to black by providing three shiny metal highlights. 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.
As with many ultrabooks, there is no provision for user access to the inside. The metal base is secured to the main chassis using 10 small screws which 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. Then, surprisingly, there are two fans both serving the CPU. The two Wi-Fi antenna are in the yellow area between the fan exhausts, the Intel WiFi card is adjacent to the top left corner of the battery and the SSD is adjacent to the top right corner of the battery. The various ports, with the exception of the power socket, appear to be directly mounted onto the board.
Ports and Features
As is often the case with ultrabooks, the NP900X3B is not generously endowed with ports. All together, there is one USB 2.0, one USB 3.0, an audio jack, a gigabit ethernet port (for which a dongle is provided) and HDMI and VGA ports (which need special dongles). There is also an SD card slot. The SD card slot is under a flap on the right side (but those thinking that this can be used for storage expansion should be aware that a card in the slot sticks out from the side of the computer). The power jack uses an unusually small plug.
Front: No ports here
Back: Two fan exhaust vents between the hinges
Left: Power jack, USB 3.0, micro-HDMI (via dongle) and ethernet (via dongle)
Right: Microphone, mini-VGA (via dongle), audio and USB 2.0
There are three unsatisfactory compromises associated with the ports: (i) the need to buy a special dongle (which are currently expensive and hard to find) in order to connect to any external 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 area of the ports gets very congested. There is a need for a simple 90° adaptor so the power plug does not obstruct the USB port and the power cable can run to the back of the computer instead of sticking out at the side.
Screen and Speakers
The display of the NP900X3B is outstanding for several reasons: It has an above average 1600 x 900 pixel resolution; is bright (Samsung claims 400 nit); has excellent viewing angles and has a matte finish so there are no annoying reflections (I have stopped buying glossy screen notebooks because of this problem). The display is reported to use Samsung?s PLS technology, which is similar to the better-know IPS, and provides much better viewing angles than the normal LCD panels.
To demonstrate the difference in display quality, I put the NP900X3B alongside my Lenovo ThinkPad T420s (NP900X3B on left, Lenovo T420s on right) and compared the viewing angles.
Another commendable feature of the display is that it does not noticeably wash out and lose colour and contrast at high brightness. The backlight also appears to be relatively uniform. Samsung claims that the display is 400 nit, which is unusually bright. While I cannot confirm the numbers, I can confirm the brightness. Full brightness is too dazzling for use inside: 5/8 brightness seems about right and is similar to 13/15 brightness on my Lenovo ThinkPad T420s. Samsung provides the facility for automatic control of brightness but, as with every other notebook I have used that has this feature, I find it annoying and turn it off.
Samsung have packed a surprisingly potent pair of speakers into the slim chassis. The specifications say 2 x 1.5W and the volume is enough for a small room. 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.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The keyboard is of the increasingly popular separated key type. Travel is limited due to the slim profile of the computer but it is not uncomfortable to use. I would have preferred to have small depressions on the top of each key to help centre my fingers, rather than the smooth surface, although hitting the edge of a key still causes it to register. As is common for the keyboards on this size of notebook, some functions are either absent or are accessed using the Fn key. As is normal for a European keyboard, the left shift key is small to make space for one extra key.
The keyboard is backlit (a feature I miss on the ThinkPad T420s) with four stages of backlight brightness. While the backlighting is not bright, and at full brightness there is some light leakage round the edges of the keys, it is effective. 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. Unusually, Samsung have also provided an Fn Lock key with its own indicator light.
Other Fn key functions are F1, to enter the Samsung Easy Settings program, F2 and F3 to control display brightness, F4 to switch display devices; F5 to turn the touchpad off / on; F6, F7 and F8 for audio mute and volume controls; F9 and F10 for the keyboard backlight brightness; and F11 to enable the silent mode (it reduces the CPU speed to minimise fan activity).
The Elan touchpad is enormous compared to those I have used previously with an area about double that on the Lenovo T420s. It?s not so much a small navigation device but a multi-finger playing field. The whole pad is about the same size as a 2.5-inch hard disk drive.
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). I am still getting familiar with the full range of supported gestures. One problem I have encountered is that pressing the left button area can cause the cursor position to move while the 2-finger tap to emulate a right button click doesn?t work most of the time, but the 2-finger scroll is very reliable (and already something I miss having on the T420s). Although it is better than many, perhaps another driver update or two will further increase the touchpad usability.