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.
The Samsung Series 9 NP900X3B features the following specifications:
In spite of top of range pricing, some of the core components are not top of range. For example, a 17W i7 CPU, 8GB RAM and 256GB SSD would all further enhance the performance and were mentioned by Samsung at the product launch. As supplied, only about half of the 128GB SSD is available to the user because, in addition to the pre-installed Windows and software, there is a 4GB hibernation partition and a 22GB recovery partition. A user upgrade to a 256GB SSD is technically feasible.
Performance and Benchmarks
The Samsung NP900X3B has adequate performance for everyday usage. What is particularly noticeable is the very rapid bootup and the instant resume both of which enhance the user experience.
The wPrime benchmark shows that the raw CPU performance lags behind many other computers. This is a result of the relatively slow i5-2467M CPU which, while nominally having a TurboBoost speed of 2.3GHz has a sustained speed of 2GHz (according to HWiNFO). Perhaps I shouldn?t grumble since it is a lower power, lower speed, CPU (except that there are faster 17W CPUs around). However, the i5-2457M is a long way behind the performance of the nominally slightly faster i5-2557M in the ASUS Zenbook UX31. I have to wonder whether ASUS allows its CPU more power headroom.
wPrime processor comparison results (lower scores mean better performance):
PCMark Vantage measures overall system performance (higher scores mean better performance):
PCMark 7 is a newer benchmark which measures overall system performance (higher scores mean better performance):
3DMark06 measures overall graphics performance for gaming (higher scores mean better performance):
Samsung makes some of the best SSDs. However, they chose to provide my NP900X3B with the Sandisk U100 SSD which has a mixed result in the CrystalDiskMark storage benchmark: The sequential read and write performance is good, but it shows a low 512k write speed and poor 4k results.
CrystalDiskMark storage drive performance test:
I therefore sought a second opinion from the ATTO benchmark. This showed a more normal performance with a 512k write speed more than 10 times faster than suggested by CrystalDiskMark.
Poor Wi-Fi performance was one of the most frequent problems encountered with the first generation Series 9 and caused some purchasers to return their machine. So did Samsung fix this problem at the second attempt? I took my S9 to the opposite end of the house from the router and ran speedtest and got results between 5 and 8.5Mb/s depending on the orientation of the computer (the internet is about 9.8Mb/s). For comparison, I took the ThinkPad T420s (which has Intel 6300 Wi-Fi) to the same place and the best it could manage was about 5MBs, which suggests that Samsung have addressed the previous Wi-Fi problem. How did they do this given the metal casing? Well, there?s one part that I think is not metal: The section between the hinges, which is where the antennae are located.
Heat and Noise
Readers may remember that this ultrabook contains not just one fan, but has two, in spite of the modest power rating of the CPU. The Samsung engineers evidently realised that the thin fans that can be squeezed into such a thin chassis could not be very effective unless spinning quickly, which creates more noise. The decision to provide two fans means that the fan activity is inaudible except in a quiet room and, even then, they can only be heard (with a purr, not a whine) when there is significant CPU load. My Lenovo T420s is much noisier. Full marks to Samsung for this aspect of the design.
HWiNFO shows that the CPU temperature only reaches about 75°C under intensive work which is cool considering the thin chassis (although placing the computer on a soft surface which blocks the bottom air vents will reduce the cooling efficiency).The outside of the chassis does not get uncomfortably hot with a maximum temperature of 41°C (106°F) and the palm rest stays cool under all conditions.
Samsung claim up to 7 hours running time on the battery, which is good considering that the nominal battery capacity is only 40WHr. The actual capacity of my battery is 38.85WHr (3% wear even though new). However, the notebookreview standard battery rundown test (Windows 7 Balanced power profile, 70% screen brightness, wireless active and refreshing a web page every 60 seconds) could only manage 4 hours and 55 minutes, which is well below average for the ultrabooks.
Battery life test results (higher scores mean better battery life):
However, in mitigation it must be noted that 70% brightness (I actually used 5/8) on a 400 nit panel is equivalent to 100% brightness on many notebooks. I therefore repeated the test with the display at 3/8 brightness (37% and equivalent to about 53% brightness on my T420s) and using a wired internet connection). This increased the run time to a more respectable 6 hours and 47 minutes so Samsung?s 7 hours is in sight and could be achieved with even lower display brightness (minimum brightness is equivalent to about 5/15 on the T420s which can, at best, manage 5 hours on its main battery).
If you want a slim, light and stylish notebook with a high quality, high resolution display then the 13-inch Samsung Series 9 must be on your shortlist. If you value the display above everything else, then there?s very little competition. However, achieving the slim and light form factor has necessitated some compromises, particularly the below-average battery capacity and the congested ports, many of which need dongles, while Samsung are charging a premium to the users who value this notebook?s attributes. Performance is below average but is still more than adequate for most applications.
Some of this notebook?s drawbacks will be overcome with the arrival of the Ivy Bridge version, which promises lower power consumption and/or better performance. Indeed, I would hypothesise that Samsung originally planned the release of this notebook to coincide with the arrival of Intel?s Ivy Bridge platform but then produced an interim version when Ivy Bridge was delayed. However, with the other ultrabooks also benefitting from Ivy Bridge?s improvements, this notebook will still be lagging in some areas.
For me, the question is whether this notebook can take over from my much larger Lenovo T420s (which is actually one of the lightest 14? notebooks available). And the only way I can find out that answer is to give it much more use than I have done to produce this review. Will the pleasure of looking at the display outweigh the other disadvantages? I will have to report back in a month or two.