Top 10 ultraportable laptops

With screen sizes under 14 inches and weight under 4 pounds, ultraportable laptops strike an appealing balance between portability and performance

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Rating:

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Pros:
Good performance for the price
Small, slim, and light

Cons:
Display isn't as good as we expect from Samsung
Poor touchpad rocker button

Bottom Line: Samsung packs impressive performance into a small, light, and affordable laptop.

REVIEW:
Samsung is on a roll with its new "Series X" line of laptops. The Series 9 is an expensive, high-style ultraportable that provides real competition for the Macbook Air. The Series 5 was the first Google Chromebook to go on sale, and while we're not fans of Chrome OS and don't recommend it, it's a nice piece of hardware and an aggressive release by Samsung. Now, the Series 3 rounds out the line as a nice everyday laptop for everyone. It's highly portable, performs well, and the price is right at just $750.

Our test configuration (full model name: NP350U2B-A01US) comes equipped with a 2.3GHz Core i5-2410M processor, 4 gigs of RAM, and a 500GB, 5400-rpm hard drive. The system is sleek -- less than an inch thick in most places -- and less than 12 inches wide and 8 inches deep. In fact, it's thin enough that there is no optical drive. Samsung puts the screen at 12.1 inches diagonally, but our measurements show it to be 12.6 inches -- a little bigger than a larger netbook's screen. At this diminuitive size, with a weight of only 3.1 pounds, it's easy to toss it into a bag and forget about it until you need it.

The design is a cut above most laptops in this price range. The bottom is a single smooth plastic base (the battery is not meant to be easily replaced), and the lid has a nice brushed aluminum look. The inside keyboard deck looks like a mix of metal and plastic. While Samsung's more-expensive laptops rely on premium materials more than the Series 3 does and the overall feel of this ultraportable is a little on the cheap side, I'm accustomed to seeing a lot worse in systems of this size and price.

The keyboard is quite large, filling up the entire width of the inside deck. The island-chiclet-style keys are spaced well and allow for quick and accurate typing, but there's very little "travel" to them; they activate on a very short press. It takes a little getting used to. The touchpad is a decent size for a very small laptop, and it tracks smoothly and evenly, but I'm no fan of its button bar. It's a single wide bar that acts as a rocker switch -- press the left side for a left click, and the right side for a right click. The problem is, pressing near the middle is like pushing down on the center of a teeter-totter: It doesn't move, and nothing happens. A two-button design might not have looked as slick, but it would have aided usability.

Ports and connection options are fairly standard for really small, lightweight laptops. The power plug, HDMI, and a single USB port (with sleep-and-charge capability) are located on the left. Along the right edge, you'll find another USB port, an SD card slot, a single headset/mic jack, and a small proprietary connector for an included dongle that lets you plug in a VGA monitor. The Series 3's base, I presume, is too thin to accommodate a VGA plug, so this is a good compromise.

Performance is impressive for a three-pound system under $800. Our Series 3 test unit scored 110 on WorldBench 6. That's not nearly at the top of the range of scores we've seen, but it's higher than most laptops of this size and weight. The integrated battery lasted just under 6 hours in our run-down test. Don't expect to use a Series 3 for any games you play outside a Web browser, though. 3D gaming frame rates from the Intel integrated graphics are too slow for serious games. Video, on the other hand, plays smoothly and looks great.

Samsung's included software is unobtrusive, and even handy. Rather than a ton of I-didn't-ask-for-that apps, you'll find only some Norton trialware, Skype, Cyberlink YouCam, and Samsung's suite of apps. The Eco Mode software from Samsung is worth mentioning. It gives you control over basic power management (which wireless features to enable, when to dim the display, when to put the computer to sleep, and so on), but it presents these options with ecologically-minded names. "Nature Conservation" is the low-power mode. "Energy Saving" is sort of the middle ground, and "Work-Nature Balanced" is the least aggressive mode. While this software doesn't present any options you can't configure with Windows' basic power options, it does show you the current total watts used for the system and the total number of grams of CO2 emissions that power represents. I have no idea how Samsung computes this, because actual CO2 emissions from power use vary widely depending on how you get your electricity. Still, it's a neat idea.

A few other features are worth calling out. I love the Silent Mode toggle on the F11 key, which kills the fans entirely at the expense of the laptop getting a bit warmer. Intel's Wi-Di wireless display tech is supported, making it easy to play content on your TV if you happen to have a Wi-Di-enabled set-top box or HDTV.

While the Series 3 doesn't exhibit the polish and craftsmanship of the Series 9 and doesn't have the sort of really high-quality display we're used to seeing from Samsung, it still reaches above our typical expectations for laptops of this size, weight, and price. If you want a highly portable laptop and don't have a big budget, you could do a lot worse.

Samsung Series 9
Samsung Series 9 Review, by Jason Cross April 7, 2011

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