What do you do if you’re a computer manufacturer and the past few laptops you’ve released have been panned for cheap-looking designs and shoddy build quality? If you’re Samsung, you do research. A lot of it.
That’s what the company claims it did for the new Notebook 9 Pro, which is hitting Best Buy stores and Samsung’s online store on March 17th for $1,099. The new 9 Pro was designed specifically for the US market using research from consumer focus groups on what they preferred in a premium-level laptop.
The result? A laptop with a much improved, but painfully generic design, and with most of the features you’d expect in a premium Windows 2-in-1 laptop.
My colleague Chaim Gartenberg called the Notebook 9 Pro “a reference design” when it was first announced in January, and I have to agree wholeheartedly with his assessment. It’s a sterile-looking, blocky aluminum laptop with sharp corners and a black keyboard. It looks a bit like a store-brand MacBook Pro.
The most unusual things about the Notebook 9 Pro’s design are the ridges along the side, which Samsung told me are “three distinct diamond cuts.” Aside from aesthetics, they don’t serve any real purpose and I think the laptop would look better without them.
The generic design doesn’t mean it’s bad, though, and the Notebook 9 Pro is much nicer to touch and use than last year’s Notebook 9 Pen. It’s solid (at 2.84 lbs it’s over half a pound heavier than the prior model) and doesn’t have any flexing or creakiness when I pick it up. The aluminum finish is miles better than the cheap-feeling alloy Samsung has used in the past, and the sharp corners help distinguish the 9 Pro from Samsung’s line of inexpensive Chromebooks.
I would have loved for Samsung to have kept the extremely light weight of prior models while improving the rigidity and tactile experience, but if I have to choose between the two, I prefer this more solid-feeling laptop. Even with the extra weight, the Notebook 9 Pro is still within the range of most other premium 13-inch laptops.
Samsung does other things right, as well. The 13.3-inch touchscreen has only a 1080p resolution, but at this size it’s plenty sharp enough. It also has a respectable 350-nits brightness and narrow bezels on the top and sides. My main frustrations with it are common to many Windows laptops: it has a giant “chin” bezel at the bottom and a cramped 16:9 aspect ratio. A 3:2 aspect, like that found on Surface computers or Huawei’s line of MateBooks, would provide more vertical space while also getting rid of the unsightly bottom bezel.
The Notebook 9 Pro is a 2-in-1: it has a 360-degree hinge that allows the screen to fold all the way back into a tablet mode. It’s too heavy and unwieldy to really use as a tablet, but the hinge is nice for watching the occasional movie or video in its “tent” mode.
The 9 Pro’s HD (720p) webcam is located where it should be, in the top bezel above the screen, and it’s perfectly adequate for video chatting. It unfortunately doesn’t have Windows Hello facial recognition features, but the power button on the right side of the laptop has a fingerprint scanner built into it. That’d normally be sufficient, but in use, the scanner frequently stopped working after the computer went to sleep and woke back up, forcing a reboot to get it functional again.
The sides are also home to a microSD card slot and three USB-C ports, two of which support Thunderbolt 3. There are no USB-A ports at all, which means you’ll need a dongle to connect most accessories, and Samsung is not including one in the box with the 9 Pro.
Samsung is throwing in an Active Pen, which has 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity and lets you write, doodle, and draw on the 9 Pro’s screen. It’s not as advanced a stylus as the S Pen that comes with the Notebook 9 Pen, nor is there anywhere to store the pen on the laptop when you aren’t using it, so it mostly feels like a tacked-on afterthought. It’s nice that it comes in the box, though.
The MacBook Pro-like appearance of the 9 Pro is most apparent in the new keyboard design, which feels like a photocopy of Apple’s keyboards. The keys have the same shape, size, and feel as those on the latest MacBook Pros, and they even have the same shallow travel, which isn’t particularly great to type on. They are quieter than Apple’s rather loud keyboards, but if there was one thing to copy on Apple’s latest laptops, the keyboard certainly wasn’t it.
All of that said, the 9 Pro’s keyboard is still better than the one on the 9 Pen from last year. The backlight is much nicer and more effective, and even with their short travel, the keys are more comfortable to use. My biggest frustration with it is the logic of the function row keys: by default they are set to the standard F1-F12, which requires me to hit the Fn key to change things like brightness or volume. There is a Fn Lock button that will switch the operation to the system controls, but that also will switch the arrow keys to their secondary functions and inexplicably cause the Esc key to launch Samsung’s support app.
The trackpad below the keyboard fortunately doesn’t have any glaring issues; it’s wide and smooth and uses Windows 10’s Precision drivers for scrolling and gestures. It’s obviously not as big as what you get on Apple’s laptops, but it’s above average for Windows devices.
Inside, the base model of the 9 Pro that I’ve been testing has a Core i7-8565U processor, 8GB of RAM, and 256GB of NVMe storage. You can increase the RAM to 16GB and the storage to 512GB for $200, which seems like a reasonable price for those upgrades.
Even if you don’t spring for the higher-end model, performance on the 9 Pro is quite good. It has no issues handling multitasking or typical productivity tasks. I can run dozens of tabs in my browser of choice (Vivaldi), while switching between Slack, email, Word, and other productivity apps, without making the 9 Pro sweat. The fans rarely kick on, and when they do, they are quiet enough to be barely audible. The 9 Pro is not suited for gaming — it just has Intel’s UHD 620 integrated graphics instead of a discrete chip — nor will it fare well for video editing without the help of an external GPU, but it can certainly hold its own for editing photos and doing most any task an average user will ask of it.
Samsung claims the 55Wh battery is good for up to 14 hours of use, but as with any Windows laptop maker’s battery claims, the reality is far from it. Still, the 9 Pro is able to last about seven hours between charges with my typical workflow and using the screen at a comfortable brightness setting (on this laptop, that’s about 70 percent). That’s not exceptionally good, nor is it exceptionally poor; it’s about average for most Windows laptops I’ve tested. It’s also far better than the four to five hours I saw from the Notebook 9 Pen last year.
Overall, Samsung has managed to produce an entirely competent laptop in the Notebook 9 Pro, with no show-stopping flaws. It may not be the most exciting computer on the market, but for the asking price, it provides good performance, a solid build quality, and almost all of the features you’ll find on competing laptops like the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 or HP Spectre x360 13.
Design by focus group might not be how the absolute best products are produced, but for Samsung, it seems to have resulted in a better laptop than the company could manage on its own.
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