Keith Combs' Blahg

Ramblings from another nerd on the grid

Samsung Series 9 900X3A - mini review

Samsung Series 9 900X3A - mini review

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900x3aA little over a week ago I purchased the snazzy Samsung Series 9 900X3A at Costco. When I returned it yesterday the lady working the returns desk asked me, "Why is this machine so expensive?" 

That's a really good question and one each of you is going to need to answer for yourself.  I had three main reasons for the return.  Lets start with the good stuff and work our way to the features I didn't like.

Executive Summary

If you want one of the coolest machines on the market, one that will have MacBook Air owners eyeing it conspicuously, look no further than the Samsung Series 9 laptops. At 2.88 pounds, you'll barely notice this machine in your Tumi executive laptop brief.  Packing plenty of power for your Excel spreadsheets, the Intel i5 powered 900X3A is perfectly suited for executives and information workers alike. This machine is really a work of art, but lets look into the science.

Things I Liked

If there was something really horrific about this machine I would certainly get right to the point. Since there wasn't, I'll start off with positive attributes of this machine since there are a number of them.  The first and most striking feature of the machine is it's uncanny good looks.  That alone almost kept me from returning the machine.  It's really a fabulous work of art.  So slim and light.  This combined with a great slate device would be a powerful combination for the frequent traveler.  In fact, this particular machine makes you wonder why you would ever need a slate.

There is some science associated with those good looks.  Samsung used Duralumin as the material for the lid and chassis of the machine.  This adds a considerable amount of rigidity to the design though I would like to see more stiffness in the LCD lid. The dark gray and black finish it very good looking though it does attract it's share of fingerprints.

The 13.3" matte screen is very nice, bright and colorful. The Samsung SuperBright 400 nit screen can easily be used outdoors in the shade.  I didn't test it in direct sun but it worked well under an umbrella poolside. The screen is a typical 1366x768 16:9 ratio widescreen display and has vivid color and decent contrast.  Screen angles were ok but considering this isn't an IPS screen, I didn't figure it would rate excellent. Color calibration was very good and I would not have expected less from Samsung, makers of the excellent Series 9 HDTV.

The 900X3A has a backlit keyboard.  I have always wanted one but my primary work and personal computers have never included this.  Backlighting comes in very handy in low light conditions like a long night flight.  The 900X3A will automatically turn the backlight off when not in use and wake it back up when the keyboard or trackpad is used.

I mentioned earlier, the 900X3A is powered by an Ultra Low voltage (ULV) Intel Core i5-2537M.  This dual core processor runs from 1.4 GHz all the way up to 2.3 GHz with the benefit of Turbo Boost.  Likewise, the integrated Intel HD Graphics 3000 GPU runs at 350 or 900 MHz depending on the boost.  Please note that the lower clock speeds and TDP allow this chipset to run in the tight quarters of the Series 9 chassis.  In the week or so of use with this machine I never felt it was underpowered.  I didn't tax it much, but it seemed plenty powerful for it's designed purpose.

After creating the factory disk set, I wiped the SSD drive and installed Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1.  I then installed the Hyper-V role and promptly created a 64 bit Windows 7 virtual machine.  This worked without issue though I would never think of this machine being a fulltime virtualization platform.  The fact it worked was interesting to me.

Because this machine has the ULV proc, it is able to conserve power and achieve decent battery life.  In my tests the 900X3A managed 5-6 hours of battery life with WIFI networking.  The first test I tried the battery lasted 5 hours with the WIFI network active, Outlook 2010 running and receiving email, Tweetdeck up and running, and .mp4 movies playing the entire time from the SSD drive.  The second test of 6 hours was similar but without the movies.

Power management on the 900X3A was very good though I would have preferred more fine grained controls.  The notebook boots quickly, sleeps fast, wakes up in a couple of seconds and shuts down clean and quick.  I didn't really care for the way Samsung locks down some of the power properties like lid close actions, but I understand them.  Part of the reason the machine performs well under these conditions is due to the 128GB mSATA SSD drive

Another benefit of the ULV processor is low heat.  The last thing I would ever want is a notebook computer that runs too hot to use on my lap when I am traveling.  I've had a few and they were annoying.  The 900X3A ran nice and cool in the week I used it.  The fans were nice and quiet. On rare occasions you could hear them spin up but Samsung did a masterful job of suppressing the noise.  Interestingly enough, if I lifted the front edge of the machine off my desk slightly, I can hear the fan more prominently. Sitting flat on the desk they were near inaudible.

Stuff I Could Not Live with

As I took notes over the course of a week, I noticed things that started to annoy me were adding up.  Some of my dislikes were fairly cosmetic, but others weren't.  In the end, the fabulous looking machine got 86'd and returned. Here were some of the things I would improve.

Although the screen was a bright matte screen, it is a native resolution of 1366x768.  Sorry, I just can't take that low of a resolution for work or play.  I am used to 1440x900 or 1600x900 on the bottom end and I draw the line in the sand there.  This also means the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 is going to be dead on arrival, too.  Screen quality and resolution are important to me.  I could certainly live without a fancy IPS screen with great viewing angles, but I won't sacrifice resolution.  If the Series 9 had a 1600x900 screen I probably would have kept it.  I would have preferred a 16:10 ratio 1440x900 screen.

Next up was the keyboard. The backlighting was kewl but not enough to override the productivity hit I took typing.  Now keep in mind I have been using ThinkPad keyboards (the gold standard) for years so this certainly was a contributing factor.  But after a week of use, it was such a relief to switch back to my personal T410s.  I don't like flat Chiclet style keys.  I like the gum, not the key style.

I could not stand the Clickpad.  It was just too flaky and erratic for me. I understand after talking with some folks that a new firmware was released to address some of the issues I saw.  I hope so.  I'm normally a mouse guy, but considering the 900X3A is USB port constrained, I tried to use the clickpad as much as I could.  It was hard.  I hope they resolve this.

Since I mentioned USB ports, this machine is rather constrained in that department.  There are only two.  One USB 2.0 port and one SuperSpeed USB 3.0 port.  Access to those ports is under the right and left side of the machine via the pull down access ports panel. With no optical disk drive built into the machine, you'll be using an external CD/DVD drive with this machine.  The bigger challenge is using a hard drive enclosure for backups that uses two USB ports for data and power.  Those Y cables aren't designed for use on both sides of a machine.

While we are talking about ports, you should be aware that a dongle in needed for the Ethernet connection on this machine.  In addition, there is a micro HDMI port but you'll need a cable or adaptor to convert that to VGA, DVI, or DisplayPort.  I am not a big fan of carrying around dongles like this because they get broken or lost.

Unfortunately for the 900X3A, there is no Samsung docking station for this machine. Another Microsoft employee directed my attention to the Samsung Central Station which might be interesting if I didn't already have a desk full of large LCD panels, a KVM switch and other peripherals.  I would certainly need a solution that works with my existing desktop.  There might be some third party port replicators that would fill the void.  I think the same challenge with the ThinkPad X1 is coming when it shows up at my doorstep.

The Broadcom wireless card in the 900X3A didn't work with both bands of my dual band Netgear WNDR3700 wireless router. It could not detect and use the 5 GHz band.  On the 2.4 GHz band it only managed about half of the speed of my other notebook computers on the same network.  I am not sure why that's the case but I also noticed the 900X3A also doesn't see the other networks around my home.  It appears something is inhibiting the speed and range of the notebooks wireless capabilities. And considering the conversations about it on the internet, it certainly isn't my home network.  It would have ben nice to take this machine to Atlanta and Tech Ed 2011 for a proper field test.  That's the best way to figure out if it's really an issue or not.

I listed the 128GB SSD drive in the likes area above primarily because, well, SSD drives are great.  They are fast and folks coming from a traditional hard drive will be impressed.  However, 128GB is too small for my needs.  The actual capacity of the drive 119GB and I can fill that rather fast with the OS, applications and personal data.  Nearly 20GB of the drive is consumed by a hidden recover partition. If you decide to delete that partition, make sure you have it backed up first. The 119GB mSATA drive is the largest such drive on the market so expending internal capacity will be impossible until another drive comes out. 

If you want more information on the mSATA SSD drive, see the thessdreview.com article written by Les Tokar last week.

Wrap-up

So there you have it, some of my impressions after using the Samsung Series 9 900X3A for a little over a week. I realize I could have kept the machine for much longer given the Costco return policy, but I was afraid I would drop it or something so I figured it was best to return it after I made my mind up.  No sense in temping fate with a $1600 machine.

I have not tested the model with the TPM chip so I haven't tested it with our internal DirectAccess implementation, or BitLocker.  I believe Samsung PR was considering sending me one but I don't think that is necessary now.

I also didn't test the machine's performance characteristics thoroughly with synthetic benchmarks or any heavy real world tests. The 900X3A seemed plenty fast for email, web surfing, and using other office applications.  I'm sure it will perform even better with 8GB of memory. It isn't designed to be a powerhouse so I didn't spend any time testing it from that perspective.

I'm sure many people will love the machine. It's thin, light and sexy.  But with the screen resolution and other factors I listed above, this model simply wasn't a keeper for me. 

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  • For me the 900X3A now went back to the store. Good pc in many ways, but the wifi range and performance is terrible.