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Samsung's thin and light Notebook 9 harks back to simpler times

Engadget Engadget 20/04/2016 Dana Wollman

© Provided by Engadget

Samsung's new flagship laptop, the $1,500 Notebook 9, does not have a touchscreen. Its display does not detach or fold back into tablet mode. It's not even that exciting-looking. And yet I am fully enjoying my time with it. Though it doesn't offer some of the niceties we've come to expect on modern laptops, it excels in just about every way that matters, with healthy battery life, a comfortable keyboard, a bright display and a thin design. Even the touchpad is OK, and that's saying something.

Hardware

I was sure I had received the wrong shipment. The Notebook 9 is available in two sizes: 13.3 and 15 inches, and though I knew I was getting the 15-inch version to review, it really did seem, when I pulled it out of the box, that I had been sent the smaller one. First off, thanks to some super-skinny bezels (just a quarter of an inch wide), Samsung was able to cram a 15-inch display into a machine with a much smaller footprint. Think: the sort of chassis you'd normally find on a 14-inch laptop. Second -- and this is where I really got confused, I think -- the 15-inch version weighs only 2.9 pounds. Think about that for a second: That's on par with the 13-inch MacBook Air. (The 13-inch Notebook 9 is even lighter, at a barely there 1.9 pounds.) Perhaps you can understand, then, where the 15-inch laptop we have here simply doesn't match my notions of how a machine that size should look and feel.

Before I gush too much, though, I want to make one thing clear: Light as this is, it's not a particularly pretty machine. Its magnesium-alloy casing is sturdy, yes, but it looks like plastic from afar. There's also a strange bump where the palm rest ends, putting the keyboard on a slightly lower plane. What can I say? It's weird-looking.

As plain as the Notebook 9 is, Samsung makes up for that in other ways. Aside from those skinny bezels and that compact footprint, the port selection is good, even despite those slim half-inch-thick edges. On the left side we've got a full-size USB connection, along with a headphone jack, a USB Type-C port and a Mini DisplayPort. Over on the right you'll find another USB port, along with a full-size HDMI socket and a microSD card reader. That covers most of the bases, then, though I'm one of those people who would have preferred -- and regularly use -- a full-size SD slot.

The keyboard also excuses the uninspired design. The buttons here are well spaced, springy and responsive; I never have to retype a letter because it didn't register the first time. They're also relatively quiet, which is always a plus. If I could change anything, I would prefer not to have to hold the function key to adjust things like volume and screen brightness. But for typing, it's fantastic.

As I said, the touchpad isn't bad. Not perfect, but I would totally agree with my colleague Chris, who said in his initial hands-on that the trackpad "didn't make me want to shoot myself." Indeed, Chris. Indeed. Yes, it does that thing that other touchpads do where it sometimes makes me accidentally rearrange pinned browser tabs, but it happens less often here. Most of the time, the touch surface works fine for single-finger tracking and two-finger scrolling.

Display and sound

The display is another example of where the Notebook 9 isn't flashy, perhaps, but is still enjoyable to use. The 1,920 x 1,080 panel we have here isn't particularly high-res, but it still feels more than adequate for everyday use. What the machine lacks in pixels it makes up for in balanced, pleasing colors and minimal glare; this isn't a matte panel, exactly, but the gloss is so minimal that you won't see many reflections. It helps, I think, that the display has a high brightness rating of 350 nits. (The brighter the panel, the easier it is to outshine natural light.) Separate from screen glare, the viewing angles are wide enough that when you dip the screen forward, the colors mostly keep their fidelity. That's also a plus.

As we've learned over and over again, there's more to good screen quality than just pixel density. And if the pixel density were higher, the battery life wouldn't be as long as it is, which would be a shame.

While I never craved a higher resolution, however, I did sometimes miss having a touchscreen. Going as far back as Windows 8, Microsoft's operating system has been built for a mix of keyboard and finger input. Indeed, basically every Windows laptop I've tested in recent years has had a touchscreen, even if it didn't have a detachable or convertible design allowing it to be used in tablet mode.

With that bit of background, you can say I've been spoiled. My inclination is to hit the Start button in the lower-left corner when I'm ready to power down the machine. And when I needed the built-in calculator app, it sure would have been nice to tap the numbers with my fingers rather than click, click, click on each digit. I realize that having a touchscreen would have meant a slightly heavier, slightly thicker design, but I think I would have been OK with that.

Performance and battery life

PCMark 7PCMark 8 (Creative Accelerated)3DMark 113DMark (Sky Diver)ATTO (top reads/writes)
Samsung Notebook 9 (2.5GHz Core i7-6500U, Intel HD 520)5,3093,705E2,567 / P1,541 / X4163,518539 MB/s / 299 MB/s
Dell XPS 13 (2.3GHz Core i5-6200U, Intel Graphics 520)4,9543,499E2,610 / P1,5313,3351.6GB/s / 307 MB/s
HP Spectre x360 15t (2.4GHz Core i5-6200U, Intel HD 520)5,0403,458E2,672 / P1,526 / X4203,542561 MB/s / 284 MB/s
Razer Blade Stealth (2.5GHz Intel Core i7-6500U, Intel HD 520)5,1313,445E2,788 / P1,599 / X4263,4421.5 GB/s / 307 MB/s
Toshiba Radius 12 (2.5GHz Intel Core i7-6500U, Intel HD 520)5,4583,684E2,865 / P1,6223,605552 MB/s / 489 MB/s
Microsoft Surface Pro 4 (2.4GHz Core i5-6300U, Intel HD 520)5,4033,602

E2,697/ P1,556/ X422

3,6141.6 GB/s / 529 MB/s
Lenovo Yoga 900 (2.5GHz Core i7-6500U, Intel HD 520)5,3683,448

E2,707 / P1,581

3,161556 MB/s / 511 MB/s
Microsoft Surface Book (2.4GHz Core i5-6300U, Intel HD 520)5,4123,610

E2,758 / P1,578 / X429

3,6231.6 GB/s / 571 MB/s

The unit I tested, which sells for $1,500, is the only available configuration of the 15-inch Notebook 9. That includes a 2.5GHz, dual-core Intel Core i7-6500U processor, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB Samsung-made solid-state drive and integrated Intel 520 graphics. Those are the same specs we've seen in a handful of other high-end laptops, including the Razer Blade Stealth, Toshiba Radius 12 and the Lenovo Yoga 900.

Given the high marks we gave each of those systems, it should come as no surprise, then, that the Notebook 9 is also a strong performer. No, it won't suffice for any kind of serious gaming -- no one said it would! -- but it can otherwise keep up with the best of them. Its eight- to nine-second boot-up time is also fast, even by today's standards. I also used it as my workhorse for much of my review period, juggling around 10 pinned Chrome tabs and open apps like Skype, Slack, Spotify and Microsoft Word. The performance was smooth throughout, though some credit is due to other key elements, like the bright display, comfortable keyboard and decent trackpad. An all-around good setup like that makes it easier to stay productive.

Basically, the machine doesn't call attention to itself while you're trying to get stuff done. Well, with one exception. Unlike other modern PCs, many of which come installed with Intel-owned McAfee security software, the Notebook 9 comes pre-loaded with a trial version of Symantec's Norton Security suite. Norton isn't alone in its affinity for annoying pop-ups -- McAfee is also a bad offender -- but Symantec takes death by trialware to a new level. After I repeatedly refused to pay for a subscription (read: I clicked the passive-aggressive "stay unprotected" button), I eventually started seeing a pop-up in the lower-right corner of my screen.

But unlike with other pop-ups, I couldn't close, minimize or even move this one. Ultimately, I had to uninstall the program to make the annoying box go away. Which, let's be real, I might have done anyway, but is that really what Norton wants? To lose a chance of me ever signing up? Also, I think we can agree that having to open program settings, uninstall an app and then restart your machine is quite an extreme, time-sucking response when all you wanna do is close a pop-up.

OK, I'm done ranting. Thanks for listening.

Battery life

Samsung Notebook 98:16
Surface Book (Core i5, integrated graphics)13:54 / 3:20 (tablet only)
MacBook Air (13-inch, 2013)12:51
HP Spectre x360 (13-inch, 2015)11:34
Surface Book (Core i7, discrete graphics)11:31 / 3:02 (tablet only)
Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display (13-inch, 2015)11:23
iPad Pro10:47
HP Spectre x360 15t10:17
Chromebook Pixel (2015)10:01
Lenovo Yoga 9009:36
Microsoft Surface 39:11
Apple MacBook (2015)7:47
Dell XPS 13 (2015)7:36
Microsoft Surface Pro 47:15
Microsoft Surface Pro 37:08
HP Spectre x26:43
Razer Blade Stealth5:48
Dell XPS 15 (2016)5:25 (7:40 with the mobile charger)
Toshiba Radius 125:12

Samsung rates the Notebook 9 for up to 12 hours of battery life on the 15-inch model, and up to 10 hours on the 13-inch version, which I haven't tested. I'm sure with somewhat intermittent use and conservative brightness settings you could indeed reach 12 hours, or close to it, but in Engadget's (admittedly taxing) video rundown test, I got 8 hours and 16 minutes. Given how bright this particular screen is, I decided to re-run the test at half brightness, but even that extended the runtime by only 36 minutes.

The competition

Fifteen inches has long been one of the most popular laptop screen sizes here in the US, so you'll find no shortage of choices there. If, specifically, you want a flagship-caliber machine that's also thin and light, your options will dwindle to just a handful. What a nice selection it is, though. In addition to the Notebook 9, Windows users should check out HP's Spectre x360 15t ($1,150 and up). At 4 pounds and 0.63 inches thick, it's not quite as thin or light as the Notebook 9, but then again, it has a 360-degree touchscreen that's bound to add some heft. In addition to being slim for a convertible this size, the 15t earned a high score for its comfortable keyboard, strong build quality, long battery life, 4K screen option and robust audio.

If performance is a priority, you might also consider the Dell XPS 15, whose top-end configurations have quad-core Core i7 chips, discrete NVIDIA graphics, 32GB of RAM and a color-accurate 4K touchscreen. Obviously, though, you're in much more modest specs at the entry-level $1,000 price. Either way, the XPS 15 is lightweight for what it is, with a starting weight of 3.9 pounds, but it still doesn't come close to the Notebook 9 in that regard. If you care more about portability and don't mind giving up a touchscreen (or the option of 4K resolution), Samsung's offering might still be your better bet.

As long as we're on the subject of slim, lightweight laptops, I may as well mention the 15-inch MacBook Pro, though be aware that it has more in common with the Dell XPS 15 than the Notebook 9 we're talking about here. That is to say, with a starting price of $1,999 and base specs that include a quad-core Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM and Intel Iris Pro graphics, it's a workhorse first. Yes, it's portable too, at 4.49 pounds and 0.71 inches thick, but that doesn't seem to have been as big a priority here as it was for Samsung when it designed the Notebook 9. You could also go with the lighterweight MacBook Air, but that's a less perfect comparison, just because there's no 15-inch Air, and meanwhile the 13-inch Notebook 9 is probably an even better match for the 11- and 13-inch MBAs.

Wrap-up

As is always the case, the Samsung Notebook 9 isn't for everyone. But I suspect it will hit the sweet spot for many people. It's exceptionally thin and light for a 15-inch laptop -- so much so that to this day I still sometimes forget I'm using such a big-screened machine. The battery life is decent, especially if you take care to rein in that bright, 350-nit display. That screen is gorgeous, by the way, even if some power users will feel disappointed by the middling 1080p resolution. Rounding out the list, performance is fast, the keyboard is comfortable to use and even the trackpad is all right.

If you crave modern-day amenities like a 4K screen, touch panel or a 2-in-1 design, this isn't the machine for you. But for people who just want a great laptop that's fast and comfortable to use, this belongs on your shopping list.

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