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Samsung's Series 9 ultra-slim notebook

The MacBook Air's black-clad nemesis

There's been a lot of talk lately about ultrabooks—a new category of laptops that's supposed to be slimmer than 0.8" and cost less than $1,000. The problem is, those systems are still nowhere to be found. Intel indicated that ultrabooks would be out in time for the holiday shopping rush, and while some manufacturers have promised machines later this month, none are available quite yet.

So, what does one buy if on the market for an ultra-slim laptop right now?

One could turn to the dark side, put on a coat, hat, and sunglasses, and head to a local Apple store to purchase a MacBook Air. Of course, that would mean having to either deal with Mac OS X or shell out additional cash for a copy of Windows 7 and installing it via Boot Camp. The Air has no optical drive, so that Windows installer would need to be on a USB stick. And then there's the danger of feeling slightly dirty for having joined Apple's empire of glass, aluminum, and white plastic. That all sounds like a lot of trouble.

There is another way. Samsung currently offers the Series 9, a notebook very much like the 13" MacBook Air, minus the fruit logo and feline-themed operating system. The Series 9 starts at the same price as the 13" Air ($1299 at Newegg), and it's about as light and as slender. The internal specs are similar, too, at least for the base model, which features a low-voltage Sandy Bridge processor with Intel HD 3000 graphics, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB solid-state drive.

The Series 9 even looks rather good, at least for a machine that didn't come out of Jony Ive's design studio. Like many upscale Windows laptops, this one features a combination of plastic and metal: plastic for the underbelly and metal for the display lid and palm rest. Instead of plain aluminum, Samsung used duralumin, an aluminum alloy hardened with copper, manganese, and magnesium. Samsung boasts that duralumin is "twice the strength of aluminum, despite being light in weight." TR's Editor in Chief tells me I'm not allowed to file an expense report for a MacBook Air, a second Series 9, and a sledgehammer, so that claim will unfortunately not be tested in this review.

Tougher or not, the Series 9 compares well to the MacBook Air in terms of slenderness and portability. The Samsung's chassis doesn't have a tapered front edge like the Air's, but it's actually thinner at its thickest point (0.65" vs. 0.68" for the Air). The Series 9 also tips the scales at slightly less than the Air's 2.96 lbs, although of course, both systems are considerably lighter than typical 13" laptops. Heck, a lot of 10" netbooks weigh more than three pounds, and the 13" MacBook Pro is a comparatively elephantine 4.5 lbs.

Naturally, the slim form factor involves some compromises, particularly when it comes to hardware capabilities and connectivity. The Series 9 uses a low-voltage Sandy Bridge processor that runs at just 1.4GHz, and there are only two USB ports available on the sides of the machine. One of those ports is of the SuperSpeed variety, though.

Processor Intel Core i5-2537M 1.4GHz
Memory 8GB DDR3-1333 (2 DIMMs)
Chipset Intel HM65 Express
Graphics Intel HD Graphics 3000
Display 13.3" TFT with 1366x768 resolution and LED backlight
Storage Samsung MZ8PA256HMDR 256GB solid-state drive
Audio HD audio via Realtek codec
Ports 1 USB 3.0
1 USB 2.0
1 mini-HDMI
1 RJ45 Gigabit Ethernet via Realtek controller
1 analog headphone/microphone output
Expansion slots 1 microSD
Communications 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi via Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6230
Bluetooth 3.0
Input devices Chiclet keyboard
Synaptics ClickPad
Internal microphone
Camera 1.3-megapixel webcam
Dimensions 12.9" x 8.9" x 0.62-0.64" (328 x 226 x 16 mm)
Weight 2.88 lbs (1.3 kg)
Battery 6-cell Li-ion 6300 mAh

This is as good a time as any to mention that the Series 9 we received in our labs is a bit different from the base, $1299 model. Both offerings have nearly identical specifications, but our sample has 8GB of RAM and a 256GB solid-state drive, while its sibling features exactly half as much memory and storage capacity. Our benchmarks are almost all bound by CPU and graphics performance, so the numbers you see in the next few pages should provide a reasonably reliable (albeit inexact) indication of the base model's performance.

Now for caveat number two: the particular model we have is, as far as we can tell, only available in Canada. Its closest U.S. relative seems to be this variant, which serves up 6GB of RAM with a 256GB SSD and will set you back $2049.99. Again, the extra RAM shouldn't really make a difference in our tests. The only truly palpable distinction is the funky bilingual keyboard that ships with the Canadian laptop. You'll see what we mean on the next page.

Now that the boring stuff's out of the way, let's take a closer look at the Series 9—and see if it has brains to match its good looks.