Keith Combs' Blahg

Ramblings from another nerd on the grid

The 2012 Samsung Series 9 notebook - NP900X3B-A01US mini review

The 2012 Samsung Series 9 notebook - NP900X3B-A01US mini review

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9The second generation Samsung Series 9 machines have landed on US shores.  I’ve been taking an opportunity to try one out and I must say, this is one fantastic machine.  It isn’t flawless but it’s probably the most competitive machine on the market to the Apple MacBook Air at this time.  As a result, the machine is already in high demand and the supply is rather low so finding one isn’t easy.  If you are looking for a sleek travel companion, this should be high on your list.

Hey Good Looking

Like the first generation of the Samsung Series 9 (SS9) machines, Samsung has created a couple of sexy machines in different sizes.  There’s the 13” and a 15”.  I am currently testing the 13” which is slightly smaller than the MacBook Air (MBA).

The MBA is 12.8” wide.  The SS9 is 12.4” wide.  The MBA is 8.94 deep and the SS9 is close at 8.6.  The MBA is .61” high at it’s thickest point.  The SS9 measures .51” and it really feels much thinner.  The MBA is 2.96 pounds and the SS9 is 2.56.

One thing you notice about the MBA is the rigid chassis and frame of the unibody construction.  ASUS also gets good marks for the rigid UX31.  The SS9 is extremely rigid as well.  The SS9 feels very solid in your hands as a result.

15silverIt’s hard to describe the color Titan Silver.  It’s not really silver at all.  The exterior color is more of a blue slate gray.  The interior is the same color but they both have interesting property of changing some depending on the lighting conditions and angles of the light.  For instance, the interior looks almost black right now in the medium incandescent light of my den.  Out by the pool it looks more blue.  The machine is awesome looking.  The edge is polished and adds to the premium look and feel of the machine. See the picture down below in this article for a close up of the polished edge.

At CES, there were a number of machines that had a different interior finish.  The interior I like is silver and I would definitely take that over the dark interior color.  I’ve been using ThinkPad's for years so I could do without another dark machine.

The picture at left is the 15” in the silver finish I am referring to.  I really like that look because it doesn’t show dust and fingerprints as readily as the dark finish on the 13”.  I know it looks more like a MacBook Air but choice is the spice of life.  Hopefully there will be some choices on this when the 15” finally lands on US shores.

The last thing I’d like to cover on looks is the backlit keyboard.  It is backlit, but barely.  You really can’t tell much unless you are in a really dark setting.  The first generation Samsung Series 9 machines certainly had a much brighter backlit keyboard than the second generation.  Most of the owners are referring to the color and brightness of the keyboard as glow-in-the-dark green.  That’s a pretty good way to describe it.  A faint light green glow. I’m actually pretty cool with the implementation.  The only time I really need backlighting is when the room or flight is extremely dark.

The Screen

Oh my god.  Someone finally made a screen that competes and beats the MacBook Air.  The 13” screen on the 2012 Samsung Series 9 notebook is nothing short of stellar.  The colors and contrast are really good.  Blacks are nice and deep.  It’s a matte screen so there is absolutely no glossy glare from objects around you.  Think of it like the exact opposite of the HP Envy 14 Spectre.  The Spectre is covered in glossy Gorilla Glass.  No thanks.  I’ll take the matte screen and non glossy finish of the Sammy every time.

And the 400 nit bright screen won’t disappoint you if you decide to take a diversion to a poolside umbrella.  Ah yes, Spring time in Texas is a wonderful thing and you might as well take advantage of the cool days while you can.  It was 83 today and it’s supposed to be 82-85 each day this week.  Perfect 400 nit screen testing weather.

The screen native resolution is 1600x900.  By comparison, the MacBook Air is 1440x900.  I was worried 1600x900 was going to be a little too small font wise but that quality of the screen is so good, I am not seeing any eye strain with the native resolution.  When I introduced the SS9 to my wife, I bumped the DPI to 125% because I know she would have said something if I didn’t.  I heard no complaints from her about it.

So there you have it, the next best thing about the SS9 after it’s uncanny good looks is the fantastic screen.  Great viewing angles, color and brightness.  If only the rest of the notebook makers would get a clue about screen quality.

The Keyboard

I’ve used quite a few keyboards in my career so I was a little apprehensive about the SS9.  I still prefer a great ThinkPad keyboard like the NMB’s I’ve used, but I knew after using a Mac for a little bit I could get used to just about anything.  This keyboard isn’t great, but it doesn’t suck either.  I type pretty hard so pounding this article out on the second gen keyboard has been fine.  I am not making many mistakes on the board.  I am not the best typist so I am probably looking at the keys more than I should right now, but that will change and improve with time.

As thin as the machine is, it isn’t like there’s a whole lot of room for key travel anyway.  You are going to deal with that on all of the thin and light machines coming out so be sure and look at them carefully when making a choice.  I like this keyboard well enough.  It’s never going to be a favorite in my collection, but it gets the job done.

I did note one oddity I need to investigate further.  Last night I closed the lid and my wife and I noticed there were a series or dings and sounds coming from the machine.  The lid close setting was “do nothing” so the machine didn’t go to sleep.  Apparently while it was closed last night, some of the keys were getting pressed.  When I opened it back up, there were a bunch of applications opened up.  There was a source code window for HTML on a page.  Really freaked the machine out.  A key press party.  Needless to say I changed the lid close property to sleep until I have time to investigate and reproduce the issue.

imageThe Touchpad

The touchpad on my 13” Samsung Series 9 (SS9) is fantastic.  My wife would say otherwise so I’ll get into more detail on that in a minute.  For now  you should know that the pad is nice and big and has good palm detection.  I have yet to see the cursor freak and jump to some other spot on the screen.

Clicking using the touchpad seems normal to me.  It isn’t quite a fluid as the touchpad on the MacBook Air but it’s fine if you ask me.  I noticed some other reviewers mentioned they would prefer some sort of line to demark where left and right mouse clicks can be performed.  I didn’t feel that was necessary.  I’m mostly using two finger taps for right mouse clicks anyway.

The ELAN driver allows you to set properties for a variety of behaviors in the Control Panel | Mouse area.  There’s an ELAN property page that allows you to get to the settings you see pictured at right.

Oddly, two finger scroll wasn’t set for me by default.  This is something that will be new to a lot of Windows users but very familiar to Mac users.  I highly recommend getting used to this feature right away.  I felt scrolling with two fingers in a web browser was every bit as fluid as using the MBA.  That’s a big accomplishment for ELAN and the PC makers.  This has been a sore point for quite some time and finally I feel someone is quite close to the Apple hardware and software implementation.

As for the all important WAF, the Mrs. didn’t like the touchpad because there was no left and right mouse button present.  She never uses a mouse even though she carries one in her laptop brief.  She has been using the Lenovo ThinkPad T400 for several years now and the touchpad on that machine is very good.  ThinkPads typically have four buttons, too.  Two up close to the red TrackPoint, and two below the TrackPad.  She uses them a lot so using the SS9 was very awkward for her.  She’ll get the hang of it but it definitely put her off.

As for me, I am a mouser.  I love using a mouse and I really don’t care if it’s left or right handed.  I am mousedextrous.  So when I am at my desk, there’s going to be a mouse plugged into the USB port via a nano transceiver.  When I am in one of the den chairs or on the couch, it really depends on my mood.  The SS9 touchpad may have me using the mouse less.

Heat and Noise

This thing is silent.  I mean really, you can barely hear the darn thing even when the fans are blowing seemingly hard. Sorry I can’t be more definitive about the fan RPM at the moment.  HWiNFO64 isn’t reading the dual fans and displaying them so I don’t have a good idea of their normal thresholds.

I can tell that the machine normally run at about 45-48C on temp with an easy workload.  Therefore the dual fans are doing their job keeping the components cool.  Now keep in mind I have been using the SS9 on a strong flat surface.  When used at my desk, well, it’s an oak desk surface.  The rubber feet on the bottom give the intake holes plenty of room to breathe.  When I am in the den, I use the Logitech Lapdesk N500.  This also allows the machine to breathe properly and thus everything stays cool.

I did notice after my wife used the machine for a couple of hours it was noticeably warmer on the bottom.  My surmise is that because she wasn’t using her lapdesk, her legs were blocking the intakes and stressing the cooling of the system.  That brings me to the first design point I don’t like.  The intake holes/slots on the bottom are right where someone is going to naturally put their knees or legs.  I guess there aren’t many choices in thin machine design so keep this in mind when you are looking at other machines.  It’s a really minor issue to me right now, but I do wonder how you go about cleaning dust bunnies on this system.

IMG_2415

Storage and Ports

Most of the ultra thin and light machines on the market had to make some sort of concession to get there.  Users are going to lose optical drive bays, ports, and other features they have taken for granted for years.  In return, they get awesome thin machines like the second generation Samsung Series 9 notebook.

I am going to pick a couple of bones with Samsung on their choices.  First, they launched the NP900X3B with only one storage option.  At present you can only get a 128GB mSATA disk in their machine.  This is fine for my information worker purposes, but it’s completely inadequate for my wife.  She needs at least 160GB and frankly, I would prefer more headroom than that.

I fully expect Samsung will have a 256GB mSATA model on the market in a few weeks or months, but they really need to get a clue and launch those models at the same time as the 128GB model.  Many people are going to be utterly shocked when they get the machine and start looking at the free space from the Samsung factory config.

Second, I’m really wondering how Samsung arrived at the final port configuration for the NP900X3B-A01US.  I get the micro HDMI for consumer connections to television sets.  What I don’t get is the proprietary micro VGA port you see pictured above.  This should be a mini DisplayPort instead and it’s really the biggest beef I have with the system.

I don’t know enough about DisplayPort and HDMI licensing to know the cost implications for each unit, but an analog VGA connection is not a good solution.  Basically the way the machine ships means I cannot connect to my Dell UltraSharp U2711 LCD panel and drive it at it’s native 2560x1440 resolution.  I can’t get there from HDMI and there’s no way to do it via VGA.  Combine that with the fact nobody other than Samsung produces a dongle for this port and you can see quickly this was wasted space on the port configuration.

On the bright side, the machine does ship with the micro Ethernet dongle so you can connect to a wired Ethernet network.  It uses the Realtek Ethernet chipset for wired connectivity.  I have not confirmed it’s throughput and speed.

WIFI Improvements

The first generation Samsung Series 9 machines were fatally flawed.  At least they were initially until Samsung added some models that included the Intel 3 antenna implementation.  For the second generation 2012 machines, this is also fixed.  In fact, I just tested the Intel(R) Centrino(R) Advanced-N 6230 chipset and it delivered the highest throughput score I have ever seen across WIFI here at my house. Using speedtest.net.  it managed to squeak out a 43MB download speed.  That rocks nicely.

And just in case you were wondering, I haven’t seen any network drops in the house or outside around the pool.  That’s a really good sign and I am glad Samsung heard the cries for help in this area and fixed the WIFI issues.

One last thing on WIFI.  If your Intel 6230 chipset is only seeing 2.4Ghz networks, make sure you update the WIFI driver via Easy Software Manager.  After the update I am able to see both N radio frequencies.

More information

I’ll continue testing this bad boy over the next few weeks.  In the meantime, see the specs at  http://www.samsung.com/us/computer/laptops/NP900X3B-A01US-specs.  See amazon.com for their listing of the 128GB second generation Samsung Series 9.  That’s where I bought mine.  Another favorite web retailer is jr.com so be sure and check their listing if you want to buy a machine.  Keep in mind these machines sell fast so you might need to setup a notify.  BestBuy will probably have them on the floor before too long.  If you want to go see one, you might be able to get your local CompUSA to show you one.  I had to get the manager to approve the opening of a box.  Those guys are something else.

Summary

Should you buy one?  Well, that really depends on a lot of stuff.  Do you need a machine right now?  Do you want the sexiest machine on the market?  Do you have $1399 USD and change for one?  Yes?  Then go for it!!!  Just keep in mind the few limitations I mentioned above.

If you are the type that likes to buy at the beginning of a chipset cycle, then I would advise waiting.  The Intel Ivy Bridge based machines will be out in a few months, and it’s also quite possible Samsung will introduce some 256GB SSD models.  I will likely wait on the 15” until I see that happen. Let me know if you have any questions.

I love the form factor and screen on the 13.3”.  I will buy it again.

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  • Do you know if the power connector is the same as on the first gen models? For our laptop fleet, we've had about a 30% failure rate on the connector. Samsung has been good about replacing them so far, but it seems like a poor design (or perhaps we got a bad batch). In general, the hardware reliability hasn't been the best so far--a couple screens have developed issues for no apparent reason (and they charge for replacing these, unfortunately!), trackpads occasionally get "stuck" (won't spring back into place), etc. They're great machines when working, but hopefully the hardware reliability has matured in gen 2.

  • Was the connector issue on the male or female side of the power connection?  As I recall it was on the female side inside the notebook.  Surely they fixed that.

    The screen is definitely different.

    I am not sure on the touchpad.  I don't recall from the two days I used a first generation notebook.

  • Yes--on the female side. It's almost as if the pin gets pushed inside and then sits loose. For some folks, it was still possible to get a charge (at least initially; not sure about over time), but for some, it stopped charging altogether. It will be interesting to see if our repaired units have a fix that corrects the design, or if these will continually have this issue.

  • just got one and it's going back as the screen has a white stuck pixel that I can't fix with any programs...the bright white pixel is only seen on a light background but not on a black background...for $1400 it shouldn't be there...

  • It's a great looking machine with a lot going for it, however I think that when you hands fall on the home keys the middle of the keyboard they and the track pad should be in the exact center of the machine, not offset to the left.  Maybe I'm a symmetry freak, but every system I have had with an offset keyboard track pad has driven me crazy.  MBA and Zen Book have that more nearly right (space bar does not exactly line up in each case).  

  • FYI,

    Nearly all PC trackpads are offset to some degree in the machine.  Even the legendary ThinkPads with their keyboard, trackpoint, and trackpad are.  The trackpad on the ThinkPad is centered on the keyboard and red trackpoint nub.

    The HP Elitebooks are way off for my taste.

    The Samsung Series 9 second generation ELAN touchpad didn't bother me at all, and I am pretty particular about such things.

  • Like you, I've also had issues with the "keypress party" you described above.  I'd really like to know if you find a solution.

  • The MBA, fine that is close in price or lower. The Pro is a ripoff. Let's just use the base model of the 17inch MBP. I just speced it out, absolutely basic. It is $2500. HP Envy WITH HIGHER SPECS (because they don't offer less than 6GB of ram or a slower speed hard drive at 750GB is less than 1800. A price difference of $700+ dollars or nearly 40% more.