Too many so-called Ultrabooks render the label nearly meaningless. The thrust of the idea is a category of extremely thin and light laptops that also perform well. However, Intel owns the trademark, and its standards sets the bar laughably low (case in point: the bulky HP Spectre actually qualifies).
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That's why it's so good to see Samsung taking the idea seriously with the Series 9: a laptop that is very much in the spirit of the original concept. The "ultra" is supposed to allude to ultra-thin design, and the Series 9 isn't just a good example -- it's a head-turning one. At its thickest point, the notebook measures just 0.64 inches, which is 0.04 of an inch thinner than a MacBook Air with the same screen size. It's also 2.88 pounds to the Air's 2.96.
Incremental differences, to be sure, but the competition to be the lightest and thinnest among mobile devices is akin to an Olympic sport -- those hair's-breadth victories matter. In fact, thanks to clever tapering along the edges, the laptop feels even thinner than it is. The overall design isn't new (Samsung debuted the Series 9 last year), but it's still beautiful.
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The Series Advances
What's new is on the inside: the third-generation Intel Core processor (a.k.a. Ivy Bridge). We checked out a Series 9 with a 1.7GHz Core i5 chip, right in the middle of the line.
The new Series 9 also differs from its predecessor by building the connectors right into the side edges -- the old model had them flip out from drop-down flaps. Those connectors constitute a pair of USB ports (one per side), mini HDMI and mini VGA connectors, a headphone jack, and a mini Ethernet port that you use with the included adapter (since the machine is just too damn thin to include a regular Ethernet port).
Unfortunately Samsung kind of cheaped out on the USB ports, and only one of them adheres to the newer, faster 3.0 spec. There's also an SD card slot.
The keyboard and trackpad on this machine are simply awesome -- some of the best I've used on any laptop. The chiclet-style keys, which have rapidly become the norm on laptops, have just the right amount of resistance, and the Elan trackpad feels great, a bit more "matte" than other pads, such as the one on the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook.
The result is smooth scrolling and tracking at all times. There's support for multi-touch gestures as well, something that I've never found Windows machines do as well as Apple laptops. The Series 9, however, snapped the PC side's losing streak in my eyes -- two- and three-finger scrolling were excellent.
(more after the gallery)
Samsung Series 9 Ultrabook
Lighter and thinner than a MacBook Air, the Samsung Series 9 laptop is the epitome of the Ultrabook ethos.
Speed and Power
In keeping with the Ultrabook ethos, the Series 9 has no optical drive and it uses a solid-state drive (SSD) for storage instead of a hard disk. That gives it impressive speed, particularly at startup, which was a mere 12 seconds. And it wakes up from sleep virtually instantly.
To get a more quantitative sense of how well the Series 9 performs, we ran a couple of quick benchmarks, on the Series 9 and compared them to the 2012 MacBook Air. Like the Series 9, our MacBook Air had 4GB of RAM and 128GB SSD. Geekbench, which gives a fairly good overall picture of performance, gave the Series 9 a score of 6,213, while the Air scored 6,735 -- a notable difference but still fairly close.
We also tested read and write speed to the SSD, which is a good measure of just how nimble the machine will perform when you tax it. Here the Series 9 fell even further behind, reading 388 MB per second to the MacBook Air's 504 MB/s. Write speed on the Samsung was 258 MB/s while the Air's was 412.
Something I really appreciated is that the Series 9 has very little bloatware. While other manufacturers (such as Acer) preload lots of software that you don't need, Samsung keeps its software build relatively light, with very few shortcut icons on the default desktop. It's not 100% clean, though, throwing in apps for Kindle, Norton and Skype, along with a few others.
The 13.3-inch screen has a resolution of 1,600 x 900, which makes everything a bit squinty for my taste, but things like photos and YouTube videos look great on it. Samsung is big on the brightness of its displays, and Series 9 brings the dazzle, ready to light things up when you need it -- like when you're in a park on a sunny day. And for when the sun goes down, the keyboard is backlit.
Let's talk battery life. I used the Samsung Series 9 on both legs of a round trip from New York to San Francisco, about a five and a half hour flight. On each stretch, the machine had power to spare, clocking in with about 15% power left, and that's even after using in-flight Wi-Fi. Nice.
The Epitome of Ultra
After using the Samsung Series 9 Ultrabook for a couple of weeks, I could see why Microsoft selected it as the test laptop for reviewers of the Windows 8 Release Preview. It's instantly become my favorite Windows laptop. While the $1,299.99 price tag is steep -- especially considering that's for just 128GB of storage and 4GB of RAM -- you're paying for one well-crafted machine. If only it performed a little better, it'd be perfect.
Samsung isn't really known for laptops, but if it keeps building beauties like the Series 9, that should change. Ultrabooks, here's your poster child.
Christina Warren contributed to this review.
This story originally published on Mashable here.