The Samsung Series 7 in Practice

My initial impressions of the Samsung Series 7 were extremely positive; it has a very nice aesthetic and uses aluminum for the screen lid and palm rest rather than plastic (though the bottom of the chassis is still a plastic shell). I actually received the Samsung and Dell XPS 15 laptops at the same time, and I opened the Samsung first, and there are many similarities. In terms of materials, however, it must be said that the XPS 15 chassis is still clearly a step ahead, with a solidity that the Samsung chassis just doesn’t have. In fact, the Series 7 reminds me a bit of Dell’s XPS 15z in terms of build quality—it looks good and feels good, but there are aspects that still feel a bit out of place (e.g. the plastic shell on the bottom). The CPU and GPU are also similar (quad-core Ivy Bridge and GK107 Kepler), though Samsung uses slightly faster chips for both areas.

With such similar components and design elements, and having tested the XPS 15 already, there’s one thing that I need to immediately point out as being in Samsung’s favor: the CPU/GPU don’t throttle to extreme levels while gaming. That's not to say the CPU and GPU can run at maximum turbo speeds under a maximum 100% CPU and GPU workload, but at least typical gaming sessions won't trigger throttling. We'll get into the details later, so let's move on.

While there are similarities with the Samsung Series 7 and Dell XPS 15, like the thin (less than one inch thick) chassis and slot-loading optical drive, there are also plenty of differences. Samsung makes a 15.6” Series 7 (NP700Z5C), but we’re looking at the 17.3” model, so this is a larger notebook for sure. Interestingly, despite the extra 1.8” in screen size, the NC700Z7C is only about 0.6 pounds heavier (likely thanks to the use of thinner aluminum and some plastic). Samsung’s chassis exhibits a bit more flex than the XPS 15, but not anything I’d worry about, but when we get to some of the primary interface elements we encounter the most important differences.

Dell’s XPS 15 is a good laptop for the most part (assuming Dell can fix the throttling issues), but the LCD is merely good as opposed to great, and the keyboard layout isn’t quite ideal. Samsung one-ups the Dell in both areas, with a beautiful matte LCD that delivers far better colors overall, and Samsung nails the keyboard layout in almost every way. We’ll have the LCD metrics later, but suffice it to say that short of IPS panels and Apple’s Retina MBP, it’s about as good as you can find in a consumer laptop right now. It’s a bit odd to find a high quality Chi Mei LCD in a Samsung notebook, but by now it should be apparent that Samsung notebooks are more about delivering a quality notebook rather than just loading up with Samsung components everywhere they can. Still, I wish Samsung would take things a step further and start building and using IPS laptop and notebook displays; Samsung TVs and displays are generally well regarded, and if there’s a company other than Apple with the ability to move laptop displays forward it should be Samsung.

As for the keyboard, Samsung appears to understand how to do a keyboard layout properly, with a dedicated 10-key that has all the buttons in the correct locations and no half-size Zero keys or anything of that nature. The keys are also full size, though we’d expect no less from a 17” or larger notebook. The action can feel a bit soft (similar to most membrane-based keyboards), but key travel is good, you get LED backlighting, and the 10-key layout is perfect. The only item missing from the keyboard in my opinion is the context key, and you can use Fn+[Num0] as a shortcut instead of Shift+F10 so it’s a bit more accessible. There’s also one other very minor complaint with the keyboard, and that’s the backlighting; as far as I can determine, it’s always controlled by ambient lighting, so it doesn’t turn on if you’re in a well-lit area. That’s actually not a big deal, but I did have some moderately dark areas where the backlight wouldn’t turn on, or would turn on and off periodically; I wish I could just disable the ambient light sensor for the keyboard and assume manual control.

Despite a couple minor quibbles, as I’m sitting here typing this I find that Samsung’s keyboard is probably one of the best keyboard experiences I’ve had on a laptop in quite a while (though desktop keyboards are still preferable). Other OEMs take note: this is exactly how you should do a keyboard on a 15.6” or larger notebook. Apparently for some things, bigger is better. (YMMV)

The touchpad experience unfortunately isn’t quite as favorable. It’s large and supports all the latest gestures, but it’s also of the clickable variety with integrated left and right buttons, and I continue to find the experience less than perfect. It’s something I can adapt to and live with, and I haven’t had any inadvertent activation of the touchpad while typing so far, but clicking, dragging, scrolling, etc. all just feels a bit less precise than I’d like. Samsung is using an Elan touchpad with customized Samsung drivers, and you can configure nearly all of the typical features like gestures and multi-touch options, but I still feel like I’ve had a better overall touchpad experience with some of the Synaptics hardware and drivers. My personal feeling is that this current fad of integrated buttons and clickable pads can stop now, please.

Wrapping up the subjective evaluation, let’s quickly discuss performance before we get to the benchmarks. Not surprisingly, for the vast majority of tasks the Series 7 feels more than fast enough. The quad-core CPU has plenty of number crunching prowess, and the GT 650M is about as fast as we can get from GK107 before we hit the GPUs that are only of interest for the dedicated gamers. The GT 660M would be perhaps another 10% faster, while the GTX 680M roughly doubles the performance—along with the power and cooling requirements; meanwhile, the Fermi-based GTX 670M and 675M are recycled variants of GTX 570M/580M and are no longer very compelling.

The only problem with performance comes when we get to the storage subsystem; simply put, the 8GB ExpressCache with a 1TB 5400RPM hard drive winds up feeling like a 5400RPM hard drive. I’ve been using laptops with SSDs for the past year or more, and while I wouldn’t say SSDs are required, when you start talking about $1400 notebooks I would say that they ought to be. It’s especially noticeable when you first boot up a laptop, or resume from hibernation. While I appreciate having 1TB of storage in a notebook, I appreciate the responsiveness of an SSD even more. If Samsung had used Intel’s HM77 chipset and SRT with a 32GB (or even 64GB) SSD, I could live with the end result and be content, but for $1400 there are many times where this Series 7 performs more Acer’s $800 V3 notebook (albeit with a much better display, keyboard, speakers, and chassis).

At this point, most of you should know whether the Samsung Series 7 is something you want or if it’s going to fall short. After years of testing and using laptops, I’ve come to the conclusion that for many users, the subjective aspects of our reviews are often more important than the objective performance metrics. From that perspective, Samsung delivers one of the better consumer notebooks out there with very few shortcomings; the only catch is that, like a MacBook Pro or Dell’s XPS 15 (or other premium quality notebooks like Dell’s Precision workstations, Lenovo’s ThinkPad W-series, etc.), it’s going to cost you. The three main aspects to look for in laptops are performance, overall quality, and pricing; when it comes time to buy, you get to choose two of those. Now let’s get to the objective performance evaluation.

Introducing Samsung’s Latest Series 7 Notebook Samsung Series 7 General Performance
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  • creed3020 - Thursday, August 16, 2012 - link

    "Dell XPS 15 results in yellow"

    The yellow bars show the Aver V3 and not the Dell. The Dell laptop has the standard ark blue colour.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, August 16, 2012 - link

    Fixed, thanks. Reply
  • npaladin2000 - Thursday, August 16, 2012 - link

    I own a 15 inch version of the previous generation, these are excellent machines, but yes, an enthusiast will not be satisfied with it as-is. I ended up throwing in a 512 Gb SSD and an Intel A/B/G WiFi card. Getting into these is NOT easy, so I'm not looking forward to any equipment failures, but these things are solid, compact, quiet, with a good layout, blowing all the exhaust to the BACK, as it should be. And I have to say the keyboard is the best one short of a Thinkpad that I've ever used.

    Never knock sleek and thin, particularly if you have to travel with the thing. I went from an Asus N53SV to this, the Asus was a real pain anywhere except at home on my desk, and on the occasional hotel desk (took up a lot of room there). The Series7, even the 17 inch, is a much more desirable travel companion.

    Samsung just needs to make service easier somehow.
    Reply
  • knekker - Thursday, August 16, 2012 - link

    Right now i am just waiting for a 17inch laptop with ips panel, that actually offers nvidia 680m in it, instead of those insanely overpriced quadro graphic cards. along with the Maximus technology.

    Zzzz Zzzz
    Reply
  • aravenwood - Thursday, August 16, 2012 - link

    I have an Alienware M17x R3. I bought primarily for the keyboard (best in class, in my opinion) and the screen secondarily, for the build quality tertiary. How does the Samsung stack up against the M17x R3 keyboard? All the keyboards I used before the Alienware caused pain in my fingers after five minutes of use programming. The two sore points for me are where I interact most with the machine - the keyboard (fingers/wrist/hand) and the screen (eyes). Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, August 16, 2012 - link

    Dustin did the M17x reviews, so I'm not sure personally how they compare. The Alienware is more of a traditional style key shape as opposed to chiclet, though, so I could definitely understand people preferring Alienware's keyboard. Interestingly, it's also missing the "context key" -- am I like the only person that uses that key? Also, anyone know if it's possible to remap something like right Alt to the context key? Might make me happier.

    In general, I prefer the size and weight of the Samsung to the M17x, and I think Samsung has a better display (matte for one). Alienware obviously has more GPU performance and better cooling, as it doesn't have as much difficulty with throttling under maximum load (AFAIK -- correct me if I'm wrong). Cost is also clearly in favor of Samsung, but if you play games I'd say it's an easy choice to go with Alienware. For those that just want a good keyboard, it's a personal opinion thing so you'd probably have to try both laptops out if possible. I still want to play with an MSI GT7 series with the Cherry MX switches (I think that's the one, right?) just to see how it feels.
    Reply
  • durinbug - Thursday, August 16, 2012 - link

    I have the 15" version, love it for the most part. The one thing that really bugs me is the trackpad. I constantly have issues with it misinterpreting a quick lift of the finger and move back to center as a left click, as when scrolling or going from one side of the screen to the other, something I haven't encountered with any other trackpad I've used. It also often doesn't manage a tap-to-doubleclick, instead selecting and then dragging things. Yes, I could push harder for the physical button click, but that just isn't very intuitive - and the pressure required often results in inadvertent movement of the cursor anyway.

    (I was also annoyed because they gave me inaccurate information about the hard drive; I was looking at two similar-but-slightly-different model numbers at two different retailers, one advertising 750 GB 7,200 RPM hard drive, the other advertising 1 TB HD. Contacted Samsung to find out how fast the 1 TB drive was, as the retailer couldn't tell me, and was assured that it was also 7,200 RPM after a very long wait for him to look up information. Turns out it's not, it is a slower 5,400 RPM drive. I'd have preferred less space w/ a faster drive, but oh well - some day I'll stick a large SSD in. Only after getting it did it occur to me to look at HDs offered separately, and it turned out no one was selling 7,200 RPM 1 TB laptop drives - should have clued me in).
    Reply
  • abrowne1993 - Friday, August 17, 2012 - link

    Anand said you'd be handling the UX31A review, Jarred. Any idea when that'll be out? Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, August 17, 2012 - link

    Next up on my hot list. :-) Short story: it's the best 13.3" Ultrabook, but it's still an Ultrabook. Keyboard key travel is better than any other UB I've used/tested, and the IPS display is obviously the huge selling point. Build quality is good as well. Only real issue is the price, battery life is decent but not exceptional, and you're still getting basically Ultrabook levels of performance -- fine for most apps, but not for serious number crunching or gaming. Reply
  • abrowne1993 - Friday, August 17, 2012 - link

    Thanks, good to know! I've got a desktop for gaming and other heavy usage, so performance isn't too much of an issue. Build quality, portability, and that wonderful screen were my main interests. Reply

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