We thought the Asus Zenbook Prime UX32A was a good competitor for the MacBook Air, but we hadn't put Samsung's recent Series 9 model through its paces. At 16mm thick, the 900X3B is even thinner than the Zenbook Prime, and its curvy side profile and subtle grey/metal two-toning give it an even more stylish appearance. In fact, the 900X3B is so thin, you wonder where Samsung has found room for the components. Yet it still has a reassuringly solid build about it, with little sense that much has been lost in the quest for girth reduction.
The Series 9's beauty isn't skin deep, either. Its Chiclet-style keyboard has a somewhat limited travel, thanks to the thinness of the chassis, but it's comfortable enough to type on, and Samsung also hasn't made the same touchpad mistake as Asus (and Apple), by placing it slightly to the left so the heel of your hand doesn't touch it when you type. This is a particular problem with Asus' Zenbook, as well as Asus' Eee Pad Transformer keyboard add-on. It's great to see Samsung not make the same mistake, and the off-centre placement has no detrimental effect on aesthetics. A choice selection of multi-touch gestures are supported, too. However, it is easy to press the trackpad above the active button area, which feels like it should be a click like a MacBook, but isn't. So the 900X3B isn't quite perfect, even if it is extremely good in this area.
The Core i5 at the 900X3B's centre is from Intel's Sandy Bridge generation, rather than the latest Ivy Bridge. The model in question is the 1.6GHz 2467M. This is still a dual-core processor with Intel's usual Turbo Boost and Hyper-Threading trimmings. So it has the ability to increase its clock speed when required, in this case up to 2.3GHz for a single core or 2GHz for multiple cores, and splits each processor into two virtual ones, for a performance improvement in multi-tasking and multi-threaded applications. Although this isn't one of Intel's U-class processors, it still has a 17W power draw so has a similarly miserly consumption.
The processor also provides the graphics in the shape of Intel's integrated HD 3000. This is better than integrated graphics used to be, and up to the odd 3D game at modest resolution and quality settings, but still pretty mediocre overall. The HD 4000 graphics in Ivy Bridge has improved this considerably, so it's a shame that the 900X3B relies on Intel's previous generation. The 900X3B sports 4GB of 1,333MHz DDR3 memory, which is the maximum for this notebook, as the RAM comes on a single module and isn't user-upgradable. The 128GB SanDisk U100 SSD provided for main storage is also slightly modest in size, if not in performance or low power consumption.
With its incredibly thin profile, there isn't much space on the 900X3B for ports and connections. Samsung has taken the same strategy as Asus' Zenbook Prime by bundling an adapter for Gigabit Ethernet, in this case with its own proprietary connection. There's USB 3.0 on the left, alongside micro HDMI. The right houses a USB 2.0 port, combo microphone and headphone minijack, and a miniature VGA output, although this requires an optional extra dongle which isn't included in the box. There's also an SDXC memory card slot lurking on the right, although you could easily miss it, as it's hiding on the underside protected by a sprung flap. Overall, there are enough ports, but Asus' Zenbook Prime provides an extra USB and its VGA adapter is included in the box.
On the flipside, the 900X3B's 13.3in screen is an improvement. This has a resolution of 1,600 x 900, slightly more than the Asus Zenbook Prime UX32A or the HP Folio 13. It's bright, with excellent viewing angles and plenty of detail. The anti-reflective coating works very well, making the screen visible even in quite bright conditions. This is one of the 900X3B's definite strong points, and its audio capabilities are surprisingly good for an ultrabook, too, with decent clarity, no distortion at high volume, and more bass than you would expect from this form factor.
Performance is pretty much on par with other similarly specified ultrabooks. The Cinebench R11.5 rendering score of 1.93 is almost exactly the same as HP's Folio 13, which is unsurprising considering the Intel processor is the same model. What is surprising is that the 900X3B actually acquits itself better than we've seen from HD 3000 graphics. The Cinebench R11.5 graphics result of 9.32 is notably ahead of other systems using Intel HD 3000 graphics with a Core i5 2567M, as is the 3DMark06 result of 4,054. This won't mean this notebook can play games that other ultrabooks can't, but will make it able to maintain slightly smoother frame rates than its competitors – except those with Intel's more recent HD 4000 graphics.
The 900X3B also managed to last a very credible 203 minutes in our battery test. This runs the processor and graphics at full pelt until the power is drained, so is essentially a worst-case scenario for battery life. HP's Folio 13 lasted a little longer than the Samsung, but this result still means the 900X3B will endure a couple of movies, or an entire day of lighter office application, Web and email usage on the move. So exactly the kind of mobile activities an ultrabook is likely to be engaged in. This is a pretty phenomenal result from such a skinny notebook.
Unfortunately, you do have to pay a premium for the Samsung Series 9 900X3B's superb design. At the time of writing, the cheapest price we found was £950, and most vendors were more expensive. As brilliant as the Samsung Series 9 900X3B is, its use of Intel's previous generation components is a slight dampener, too. But there is a 900X3C model arriving soon, with the same Intel Core i7 3517U as the Asus Zenbook Prime UX32A on board. Although you definitely won't be disappointed by the 900X3B's great design, excellent battery life and reasonable performance, if you can hang on for the 900X3C we suspect you will be even more pleased.
Manufacturer and model
Samsung Series 9 900X3B
1.6GHz Intel Core i5 2467M
4GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM
Intel HD 3000
128GB SanDisk U100 solid state disk
13.3in TFT with 1,600 x 900 pixels
802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 3.0
Micro HDMI, USB 3.0, USB 2.0, SD card reader, combo audio
Width x Depth x Height
328.5 x 227 x 16.3mm
1-year collect and return