Hands on: Samsung Ativ Book 9 (2015) review

Samsung's smallest, sharpest and safest Ultrabook yet

What is a hands on review?
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Our Early Verdict

Be prepared to pay up for Samsung's would-be Retina MacBook Air rival, filled to the brim with security and style.

For

  • Super thin and light
  • Cool screen features
  • Solid security measures

Against

  • Pretty expensive
  • Short on screen space

Save for Apple, Samsung is the only laptop manufacturer yet to hop on the hybrid train. In 2015, the Korean firm presses on with its conservative approach, perhaps even trying to beat its archrival to the punch with the fanless, 12.2-inch Samsung Ativ Book 9.

Of course, Samsung is as focused on premium as it's ever been in the Ultrabook space, changing little about its leading laptops aesthtetics and build quality. What you see here is the same alluring aluminum unibody construction in that cool almost-cobalt hue ... only smaller.

How small, you ask? How about a razor sharp 0.46 inches thin and an airy 2.06 pounds? Part of this is made possible through Intel's most mobile-friendly CPU yet: the Core M 5Y10c, its first chip so low on power draw that it allows for fanless system designs. Naturally, the only thing not so small about the new Ativ Book 9 is its $1,199 (about £782, AU$1,482) starting price.

Samsung Ativ Book 9 2015

Taking a bite out of Apple's Retina plans

If you've been following the latest Apple rumors, then you already know that the Cupertino juggernaut might be working on a smaller, thinner and even lighter Retina MacBook Air. With that in mind, it's tough not to see the new Ativ Book 9 as Samsung's attempt to beat Apple to the punch.

But don't take this as a slight -- frankly, it's a smart move. However, the cynic in me sees the new Ativ Book 9 and imagines some team within Apple checking off its own boxes in response. Regardless, Samsung does quite a bit to justify that premium asking price.

Samsung Ativ Book 9 2015

The 12.2-inch LED panel on offer puts out a sharp 2,560 x 1,600 pixels, right within Apple's "Retina" range. (Not to mention Samsung nixed touch control on this model, citing unsavory adoption rates.) But Samsung does you one better with an outdoor viewing mode that ups the max brightness from its standard 350 nit to a whopping 700 nit.

Of course, I wasn't able to test this feature while I previewed the device, but it sounds like a much welcome addition. Samsung was mum on how long the new Ativ Book would last at 700 nit, but advertises 10.5 hours of battery life at standard brightness. (So, rough math would peg it at 5 hours and some change, but we'll be the judge of that in our full review.)

On the other hand, Samsung offers a serious power saving mode. Click one button, and you can shut down Bluetooth and other radios as well as lock the brightness to a lower level. Again, no exact figure on how much more time that will net you, so stay tuned for a full review.

Samsung Ativ Book 9 2015

Finally, Samsung has doubled down on its display capabilities with a privacy mode that, with a press of the Fn10 key, blurs the screen. In-flight onlookers, begone! You can even drill down and select which windows are blurred.

Power meets privacy and protection

While early evaluations of Intel's fanless chip aren't exactly glowing (ahem, Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro), the spec sheet on the new Ativ Book 9 is nothing to scoff at. In addition to Core M, this laptop comes packing 4GB of RAM and a 128GB solid-state drive. If you need more oomph, Samsung will offer a model with 8GB of memory and a 256GB SSD starting at $1,399 (about £912, AU$1,729).

Samsung Ativ Book 9 2015

And for being such a smallfry, Samsung managed to cram two USB 3.0 ports, micro HDMI, a headphone and mic jack and an SD card reader into the new Ativ Book. (Ethernet is available through an included USB dongle.) Wireless connectivity includes Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, with Wi-Fi Amp technology that's said to up connection speeds by up to 20% through access point prioritization.

If security is your concern (for, say, BYOD potential), Samsung allows you to set up a draw path on the trackpad for log-in. But taking that one step further, the company also included the option to disable audio and video recording for the 720p webcam with integrated microphone. You can finally put the duct tape away.

Samsung Ativ Book 9 2015

Early verdict

There's not much else to say about how the new Ativ Book 9 feels other than that it's smaller in all the best and worst ways. A 12.2-inch display is scratching at my personal limit for screen real estate, but it's easy to appreciate such a thin, light and luxurious machine.

And while the keyboard and touchpad feel as comfortable and tactile as they have on Samsung's 13-inch and 15-inch models, the remarkable decrease in size will take some adjustment. But that's pretty much the story with the new Ativ Book 9: the most premium features inside the most premium build for the most premium price you can find in a Windows 8.1 laptop.

A cynical look at the new Ativ Book 9 could easily be seen as Samsung showing its hand too early, but someone has to go first, right? Besides, the Ativ Book 9 is more prepared to offer the MacBook experience in a Windows device than any of its rivals short of, well, BootCamp on a MacBook Air. The 12.2-inch Ativ Book 9 will be available for pre-order sometime in Q1 2015 -- until then, keep an eye on this space for our full review.

What is a hands on review?

'Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.