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Samsung joins the jet set

Samsung’s new Series 9 laptop is inevitably compared to the MacBook Air, but comes into its own when used for business travel, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

It’s not an enviable situation when your products are always judged against the best in the market. In a 13″ laptop, that comparison right now is inevitably with the MacBook Air ‚ its first rendition was beautiful to look at but low on performance and features. Its second was one of the great products of 2010. The new MacBook Air, released in South Africa this week, will also set new benchmarks.

It’s in this challenging context that Samsung recently unveiled its challenger to the Air.

If Samsung Series 9 brings to mind a breakthrough new generation of LCD TVs rather than a laptop, that’s probably no coincidence. The new Series 9 laptop takes both style and format as far away from its older, clunkier counterparts as the Series 9 TVs took it from older, chunkier TV monitors.

To remove it from its equally stylish packaging, feel the heft – it weighs 1.3kg – and turn it on, easily brings to mind the equivalent Air experience. But how does it perform on the Gadget 5 Question User Test?

1. Is it ready to use?

The look, feel and promise of the device insists you get working on it immediately. However, the sensitivity of the touchpad means that you barely breathe on the keyboard and objects begin moving about or opening and closing seemingly of their own volition. It turns out you have a small learning curve between you and happy use of the device. The single pad touchpad looks similar to that on a Mac laptop, but has left- and right-key functionality built into the bottom corners, along with multi-finger gesture control, scrolling and flick actions. It’s not so much about the device being ready, but about you being ready – and practiced – to use it. And you may also need to reduce the sensitivity of the touchpad and speed of the mouse pointer.

2. Is it easy to use?

Touchpad training aside, this is as logical a machine you’re likely to find in such a compact package of full-featured computing. My fingers naturally and easily found the function and feature keys I needed as I typed, and the taskbar kept me alerted to the status of the computer. Most important, the appealingly backlit keys mean you can work in the dark (as one does, sometimes) and small but sharp blue lights warn you of the activation of Caps Lock, microphone and the like. The backlight is adjustable and includes an ambient light sensor for automatic adjustment. So don’t get a fright when you switch it on at night and it lights up like the Eiffel Tower.

3. Does it deliver on its promise?

Let’s be honest about one thing: part of the promise of this device is that, like the MacBook Air, it will turn heads. The reality? Oh, yeah. Near whiplash from people sitting near me on a plane and, later, in a coffee shop. It delivers in spades there.

It’s not the fastest machine on the market, but it does address one of the great disappointments in 21st century computer speed – boot-up time ‚ and it does so aggressively. It takes around half-a-minute to go from zero to full functionality, and wake up time is almost instant. That’s the joy of using a Solid State Drive (SSD), which means a hard drive with no moving parts and instant access to data. That obviously has implications for speed, battery life and durability. An SSD will take a somewhat larger bang in its stride than will a spinning optical drive.

Battery life under normal document and browsing use is close to 6 hours – double that of my previous laptop and beginning to rival the typical tablet computer. If you need to keep working during an overseas air trip, for example, this almost pays for itself. The Intel Core i5 processor is claimed to make power management more efficient, too, but that is something that only long-term usage will bear out.

The one downer here is the size of the SSD: a mere 128GB, the same as the low-end version of the new Air. The high end Air has 256GB. Just because you want to produce a laptop that can out-portable a tablet doesn’t mean you have to match it on capacity.

The laptop’s biggest promise is its combination of size and weight. It comes into its own when travelling. The ability to slip it into any sheath of a laptop bag ‚ and slip it out in moments ‚ means it is always ready for action.

4. Is it innovative?

The greatest innovation here is not the size and weight of the laptop – I may have mentioned another brand that compares well here – but something called Duralumin, an alloy claimed to have twice the strength of aluminium. It lends the casing an impression of strength and toughness, despite much vaunted “”elegant lines””. The overall impression is of a device even sleeker than that other brand’s equivalent.

5. Is it value for money?

This is the only test where the Series 9 truly falls down. To be as good as but more expensive (R13,999) than the equivalent MacBook Air (R11,999), when that’s the obvious competition, is not guaranteed to win market share. But it makes sense for the confirmed Windows user with a professional need to keep working when mobile. Especially on international air trips, the productivity boost from battery life alone almost covers the investment in the device. Its absurdly slim form factor also means it adds little bulk to your carry-on luggage ‚ two of these would take up the same space as my previous laptop ‚ and less weight. If budget is not an issue, it is a viable and desirable alternative to any other laptop on the market.

* Follow Arthur on Twitter on @art2gee

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