Walt Mossberg

Samsung’s Series 9 Makes a Statement

I am writing these words on an extremely thin and stylish, but very light, laptop made of metal. Despite its slender body, it has a full-size screen and keyboard, good performance and claims strong battery life. Like a tablet, it uses solid-sate memory instead of a hard disk and wakes up almost instantly, ready to resume work when you open the lid, even if it has been idle for days.

You might assume I’m using one of Apple’s alluring MacBook Air machines, introduced in 2008 and revamped last October. But you’d be wrong. Instead, I’m using the first real Windows-based competitor to the Air. It’s the new Samsung Series 9, a gorgeous black machine with a super-bright, vivid 13-inch screen.

I’ve been testing the Series 9, and my verdict is that it is a solid, beautiful, speedy laptop that provides Windows users a good alternative to the MacBook Air. It bests the Air in some respects and trails it in others, but overall, I found the Series 9 satisfying to use.

Prospective buyers of the Series 9, however, should prepare to pay a lot—more than what even premium-priced Apple charges for the Air. And, based on my tests, I suspect they will see noticeably less battery life than Samsung claims, and significantly less than on the comparable MacBook Air.

Samsung officials consider the Series 9 a premium “halo product,” the kind of item a company produces when it wants to make a statement about the work it can turn out. Though Samsung is a giant company, it hasn’t been selling computers in the U.S. for long and it sees the Series 9 as a way of drawing attention to its brand in PCs.

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The Samsung Series 9 laptop

In my experience with the Series 9, it did very well. I tested the consumer model, which runs Windows 7 Home Premium. It handled everything I threw at it with aplomb, and never crashed. I was able to simultaneously run Microsoft Word, Mozilla Firefox, Windows Live Mail, Adobe Reader, the TweetDeck Twitter reader and Apple’s iTunes with no problem. High-definition videos looked great.

The comparison with the MacBook Air, also a halo-type laptop, is inescapable. Unlike most Windows laptops, but like the Apple, the new Samsung has a large touch pad with no buttons—the entire pad is a button. Unlike most Windows laptops, but like Apple’s machines, it uses a sealed battery that isn’t designed to be replaced by the user. And, like the MacBook Air, it omits a built-in networking port, requiring you to plug in an adaptor to connect to a wired network. Neither machine includes a DVD drive.

The two laptops are about the same size and weight. The Samsung is a tad longer and narrower, and is two hundredths of a pound lighter. The Series 9 is a bit thinner by one measure. It’s 0.64 inch at its thickest point, versus 0.68 inch thick for the 13-inch MacBook Air at its thickest point. The more-severely tapered Apple is thinner at its thinnest point.

The price difference is larger. The consumer model of the Series 9, with the same base 128 gigabytes of solid-state storage as the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Air, costs $1,649, which is $350 more than the base Air. An 11-inch model of the Series 9 is due soon at $1,199, or $200 more than Apple’s base 11-inch Air.

One reason for the price gap is that the Series 9 has some newer or better components than the MacBook Air does. It is powered by Intel’s latest processor, while the Air uses the prior Intel chip. One of its two USB ports is a new version capable of higher transfer speeds. Its keyboard is backlit, unlike the latest Air’s. It has four gigabytes of memory versus two gigabytes on the Apple. It boasts a screen whose maximum brightness is a third higher than the Mac’s. And the screen is matte, not glossy, so it reflects light less.

But better specs don’t always translate into a better experience. For instance, in my tests, I found that the Mac was typically ready to work a couple of seconds faster than the Samsung and that, while the Samsung booted up and rebooted very quickly for a Windows PC, the Mac started and restarted in about half the time.

But the biggest difference, in my experience, was battery life. Both companies claim their competing laptops can get up to seven hours of use between charges. But my tests suggest that Samsung falls well short of that claim, while Apple meets or exceeds it.

In my longstanding battery test, I shut down all the power-saving features, turn up the screen all the way, leave on the Wi-Fi to collect email in the background and play an endlessly repeating loop of music until the computer runs out of juice. The Samsung Series 9 lasted just under four hours on that test, suggesting in normal use, with power-saving on, you’d likely get five hours or maybe 5.5 hours. By contrast, on the same test last fall, the 13-inch MacBook Air lasted over six hours—more than two hours longer. I estimated that, in normal use, you’d likely meet, or beat, Apple’s seven-hour claim.

Samsung explains the difference by noting that its screen is brighter, and takes more power to run. In fact, when turned up all the way, the Series 9 screen is brighter than the Air’s or any other laptop screen I can recall. But the Air’s screen, though the same size, has a much higher resolution, so you can see a lot more material without scrolling.

There were a couple of other things about the Series 9 that I found lacking. Instead of a slot for a standard SD camera card, it only has a slot for a smaller micro-SD card. There is no outside light to tell you the status of the battery.

But, all in all, this is a beautiful, capable laptop, as long you can live with its high price and mediocre battery life.

Find Walt Mossberg’s columns and videos at the All Things Digital website. Email mossberg@wsj.com.


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