Review: Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus

A design worthy of the MacBook Air

Our score: 4/5
Reviewed: November 1, 2013 11:22 AM
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Published: November 1, 2013 11:22 AM
Updated: January 24, 2014 3:06 PM
By Rémi Jacquet
Translated by: Hugh Ehreth
Samsung is following up last year's Series 9 range of high-end ultra-portable laptops with the Ativ Book 9, a series of ultrabooks that boasts Intel's new Haswell processors. The look is the same and the design is just as high-quality, but the performance and battery life are not. And, as we'll see below, the screen is something of a mystery...

Design4/5


Visually speaking, not that much has changed since the 2012 Samsung Series 9. The finish is just as impeccable and the aluminium that covers the entire shell looks fantastic—it doesn't collect many fingerprints and feels quite robust. The body is in the same arena as the MacBook Air.

Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus

The chiclet keyboard is satisfactory, with a somewhat slack stroke, but the travel is so short that it isn't too bothersome. The keys are backlit, with adjustable levels. The touchpad is large enough (10.2 x 6.9 cm) and comfortable to use. It provides smooth, fluid movements and recognises your fingertips' position with precision. It has a number of multitouch shortcuts using up to four fingers and is clickable on 80% of its surface, making it pretty much equivalent to a MacBook's touchpad.

Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus

The touchscreen is precise and responsive, so you shouldn't miss your target unless you've had too much coffee. The screen hardly bounces back at all when you press on it, as the hinges offer extra resistance once you've tilted it back past a certain degree. In fact, the hinges go back far enough to allow you to lay the screen down flat, as shown above. This is almost a great idea—the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 and 11S take this concept literally as far as it will go, bringing real practicality to the touchscreen.

Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus
Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus


Ultrabooks aren't known for having lots of ports, and the Ativ Book 9 Plus is no exception. It has two USB 3.0 ports, mini-VGA, mini-HDMI, mini-RJ45/Ethernet, a headphone/microphone combo jack and an SD card reader. The idea of having "mini" versions of the connectors might seem like a good idea to save on space, but it would have been nice to include the adapters—all but the RJ45 adapter have to be bought separately.

Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus
Heat readings with the components under stress (°C)
Images taken using a Fluke Ti25 thermal imaging camera

The body doesn't get too hot, maxing out at 42°C at the top right of the keyboard. The air enters below the chassis and is expelled out the back, in the space between the chassis and the lid—that way it doesn't feel too hot when you have it sitting on your lap. On the other hand, you have to watch out where you set the computer down, so as not to block the air coming in and out.

Display3/5



Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus

Now for the mysterious PLS panel. You could say we had some trouble testing this guy... Samsung says it has QHD+ resolution (3200 x 1800 pixels), but in reality you can only obtain that resolution if you're running Windows 8.1, as version 8.0 doesn't support anything higher than 1920 x 1080. Plus, this is the first time we've run into this type of panel, which uses white subpixels added to the standard red, green and blue.

In Full HD (1920 x 1080 pixels) mode, the maximum screen brightness is a lowly 270 cd/m², which means that well-lit settings can be problematic, making the image difficult to see. The contrast is 330:1, which is lowlier still. In our rating system, the contrast is so low that the Ativ Book 9 Plus isn't even eligible for more than four stars on its overall score. By comparison, last year's Series 9 had 800:1 contrast. We figure this must have something to do with the white subpixels, which may have been added to keep the power consumption down, as it should make the panel require less energy.

Samsung Ativ Book 9 PlusGrey colour temperature
Samsung Ativ Book 9 PlusGamma
Samsung Ativ Book 9 PlusDelta E


The colours, however, are much more faithful than on the Series 9, with a perfect Delta E of 2.8. That's rare on a laptop (if only the contrast followed suit...). The average colour temperature is 7,500 K, which is a bit cold, but nothing crazy. But all of this goes for naught with such catastrophically low contrast. It's a shame. For an ultrabook whose display gets it right across the board, check out the Sony Vaio Pro 13, which has 1,000:1 contrast and a Delta E of 3.6.

But there's something very strange about all of this: these measurements apply only when the Ativ Book 9 Plus is plugged in. When it's running on battery, it gets completely different results! When you unplug it, the brightness drops all the way down to 200 cd/m² (this isn't obvious to the naked eye, as it falls gradually over five or six seconds), the contrast goes up to 530:1 (which is a good thing) and the colour accuracy regresses to an unfaithful Delta E of 7.5. We're currently waiting for Samsung to shed some light on this mystery...

The other thing that piqued our curiosity is this whole deal with the resolution. We installed the final version of Windows 8.1, and the resolution jumped up to 3200 x 1800 pixels. So we pulled our sensor back out and found that the measurements are a bit different than when it was running on Windows 8.0 (contrast ratio = 340:1, Delta E = 2.1). And when we unplugged the computer and ran it on battery, it didn't have quite the same effect as when it was on version 8.0. This time, the brightness dropped again, but the contrast fell ever so slightly to 320:1 and the Delta E went up to 3, which is still superb.

Audio4/5



We've rarely heard sound quality this good on such a small device! Until now, the 2013 Apple MacBook Air 13" was the only laptop capable of producing decent audio through its built-in speakers. Here, the volume doesn't go as high, but it has a much more balanced and less aggressive sound than the MacBook Air.

Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus

As for the line in/out, the combo jack high loud volume with ultra-clean reproduction. What else to say? It's great stuff.


Configuration:

The model we were sent to review features an Intel Core i5-4200U processor, 4 GB of RAM, an Intel HD Graphics 4400 chipset and a 128 GB SSD. Whereas the observations made above refer to all versions of the Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus, the comments below apply only to the model we tested.


Processing Power3/5



The Intel Core i5-4200U is the same processor found in the Sony Vaio Pro 13. It's capable of undertaking any task at more than reasonable speeds. And here it works 10% faster than in the Vaio Pro 13.

In detail: it took the Ativ Book 9 Plus 326 seconds to export a batch of photos that the Vaio Pro 13 took 407 seconds to export, and 398 seconds to encode an HD video that the Vaio Pro 13 took 469 seconds to encode. As for compressing and converting files, both took almost exactly the same amount of time.

The 128 GB solid-state drive allows the Ativ Book 9 Plus to start up in 8 seconds and shut down in 7 seconds.

Gaming1/5



The Intel HD Graphics 4400 (3DMark06: 5750) is no miracle worker with video games. It will run non-demanding games like FIFA 13 in Full HD, and more recent title will also run, as long as you lower the graphics settings. But anything heftier, like Crysis 3, isn't even worth trying, even with the settings turned all the way down.

Battery Life5/5



Samsung is advertising 11 hours of battery life, which would be outstanding, if only it were true. We got 6½ hours in our standard test (continuous video playback in airplane mode with the screen brightness at 100 cd/m², the keyboard backlighting turned off and headphones plugged in). That's still excellent—just as good as the Vaio Pro 13—but it isn't close to what's being advertised. What is close to what Samsung's advertising, nay, better, is the MacBook Air, which lasts 14 hours.

With such a thin frame and light weight (1.39 kg), the Ativ Book 9 Plus is a great laptop to carry around and will fit discreetly in any appropriately sized bag.

4/5 Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus DigitalVersus 2013-11-01 12:22:00

Pros

  • Quality design and finish
  • Touchpad
  • Battery life: 6½ hours
  • Processing power
  • Sound quality

Cons

  • Inconsistent screen with low contrast (330:1)
  • Not good for gaming

Conclusion

The Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus is a great ultrabook with an excellent design, lots of processing power and top-notch sound quality (for an ultrabook). But with screen contrast this low (330:1), we just can't give it five stars. Plus, it has only half the battery life of the Apple MacBook Air.

OUR SCORE 4/5
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