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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  • mbishof - Thursday, August 16, 2012 - link

    I know it's probably not as sleek or thin, but then neither is the ASUS N56VZ that you suggested for the "technology addict" or "gamer." I want a laptop that acts as mobile workstation by day and gaming laptop by night. What do you think of the lenovo Y580? Right now they have a model with a 1080p screen for under $1k . Pop in a 128GB msata SSD for an additional $150 or so and it seems like that's quite a compelling choice. I'd love to see an in depth review of that machine.
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, August 16, 2012 - link

    Honestly, it's extremely similar to the ASUS N56VZ but with a couple minor differences. First is that the ASUS appears to get slightly better battery life, which is related to the second aspect: the Y580 comes with a GTX 660M GPU. It's only a slight clock speed increase from the GT 650M, and I'm not sure I'd call the 660M worthy of the GTX branding, but it's still faster.

    The keyboard on the Y580 looks nearly identical to the ASUS layout, they both come with Blu-ray, and most of the specs are about the same elsewhere. It's really just a preference for the LCD (ASUS has a matte 1080p display whereas the Lenovo is glossy), plus the ASUS is cheaper, and lastly ASUS isn't afraid to send us review units so I've actually had hands-on time with the N56VZ. I should also mention that Lenovo uses a 5400RPM HDD with a 32GB SSD cache, where ASUS uses a 7200RPM HDD with no cache. If you're going to replace the HDD with an SSD, there's not much point in having the 32GB mSATA SSD hanging around IMO (or as you note, you could look for an mSATA SSD).
  • mbishof - Thursday, August 16, 2012 - link

    Unfortunately my retailers of choice do not offer a N56VZ in the US with a 7200RPM hard drive. Also, the N56VZ uses a GT650 with DDR3 memory which a trustworthy site has informed me will not perform as well as the DDR5 version (although they did point out the boost in clock frequency will compensate the slower memory somewhat). Lenovo does offer a variant of the Y580 with a 500GB 7200RPM drive and no mSATA SSD so my plan is to just do a fresh install on a 128GB mSATA that I pick up from crucial. Sounds like a driver installation nightmare waiting to happen but who knows, it could work.
  • sigmatau - Thursday, August 16, 2012 - link

    I'm not sure I'd buy a Lenovo after I found a survey they did about matte vs glossy displays.... 6 years ago. I guess it didn't matter that 86% of the participants voted for matte and spitted on glossy. They removed the survey from their forums... probably from shame.

    I mean who cares what the customer wants.
  • JarredWalton - Friday, August 17, 2012 - link

    One problem with that Ars article is this line: "There are some advantages to having a glossy screen: in particular, outdoor visibility is greatly increased." WTF? Outdoor visibility is increased by glossy? Where are they using such screens "outdoors"? Because all I get on glossy screens outside is a nice reflection of my face. :-\
  • Dribble - Thursday, August 16, 2012 - link

    It should never throttle on a brand new laptop - if it gets that hot then the cooling is insufficient. This means inconsistent performance, noisy cooling as the fan is maxed out, and the cpu/gpu dying young due to being run so hot all the time.

    Remember that laptop is new, the fan is clean, it's as good as it will get. Use it for a few months and the cooling system will have dust in it and be significantly less efficient - the laptop will be continuously throttling. Sure you can clean it out, but most people don't want to have to clean out the fans every month to keep their machine usable.
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, August 16, 2012 - link

    I'm not sure how you consider about three pages worth of discussion on throttling and a conclusion that says "gamers and enthusiasts should probably look elsewhere because of the throttling issues" as being accepting. There are many people who would only occasionally game, and if you want a nice looking notebook with a good display and keyboard there aren't that many options. Certainly the Series 7 looks nicer than the ASUS and Lenovo laptops mentioned elsewhere, with a better keyboard layout as well. For everyday use, I'd take the Samsung over the other two, but I'd do it knowing that gaming/graphics are going to have thermal issues at times. That means you're spending about $250 on hardware you won't use much, but people have done worse things.
  • bennyg - Saturday, August 18, 2012 - link

    I would think the issue is more longevity rather than performance.

    Remember, most people don't even think to blow out fans/grilles with air, let alone pull the thing apart and clean it properly. Add dust to something that can't cool itself properly to start with = problems.

    Or am I just old-fashioned in wondering what the product's use will be like in 1 or 2 years' time. All I'm supposed to consider is looks and price and maybe a few spec tags like "i7" and "8gb ram". Ugh I hate 'consumers'.
  • MadMan007 - Thursday, August 16, 2012 - link

    The temperature graphs have MHz for the vertical axis instead of degrees.
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, August 16, 2012 - link

    Ugh... I hate it when I do things like that. These are all manually created charts as well (for the clocks/temps), so I have to go into Excel, edit the chart, then take a screen capture, paste into Photoshop, crop, save, and upload the result to our CMS engine. What a pain! Anyway, the charts are all fixed now (I hope!)

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