The ultrabook category has clearly taken the market by storm – initially started as a standard defined by Intel as an answer to Apple’s Macbook Air, most PC manufacturers were very quick to build their own versions. The idea is simple – very light, subnotebook class machines which cost a little more than a standard machine. Most of these ultrabooks are now on their second generations, so they are better than ever.
But the problem with a standard like “Ultrabook” is that very quick manufacturers need to think of ways to differentiate their own products. A few ingredients are found everywhere – low power Intel processors, speedy solid state storage, and very thin bodies.
So what makes the Series 5 Ultra unique?
The Samsung Series 5 Ultra is built from a mixture of plastic and aluminium paneling, resulting in a very solid feeling notebook. While not as light as the Macbook Air, it definitely feels very solid. Closing the laptop also give a very reassuraing thunk sound. Kind of like the door of a German car.
The keyboard is amongst the best I have come across on a Ultrabook. Most Ultrabooks tend to have keyboards with very shallow travel, which makes it not great for long typing sessions. The Series 5’s keys are decently sized with no shrunken buttons you sometimes find on smaller machines.
The trackpad works well enough, and is decently sized. Seeing as Windows 8 is heavily dependent on gestures , it recognizes multiple finger sweeps without any problems.
The bottom of the machine is very simple and clean for a PC, and Microsoft has kept their stickers to a minimum on it (but Icasa did insist on sticking their regulatory on as well). But the bottom also has a removable panel which is not something you typically find on most Ultrabook devices. And one of the great advantages to this machine lies behind that panel.
The specs of the Series 5 Ultra (as tested) was a Core i5 3317-U processor running at 1.7 GHz, 4GB of RAM, and a 500GB hard drive. But the hard drive is technically not part of the Ultrabook spec, so Samsung uses a very clever trick. It uses a 24GB solid state cache storage that stores often accessed files for faster access. This means thing like booting Windows 8 happens very quickly – in our simple testing it booted up in 18 seconds flat.
The advantage to this setup is that you have a full 500GB of storage available for storing your movies, music and larger files. Compare that to other ultrabooks (Macbook Air, ahem) that only arrive with 64GB, 128GB or 256GB of storage if you are willing to spend a lot.
The other part we really like is that panel on the bottom of the machines. The user can upgrade the RAM easily to 8GB of RAM in 5 minutes. On our last check a 4GB RAM chips comes in at around R300 – R400, so it’s a pretty cheap upgrade as well.
The specs as shipped is pretty decent – in our tests we found that it performs admirably for a Windows 8 machine. In everyday use you hardly ever notice that the machine does indeed use a hard disk drive as well, except if you use applications that later get stored outside that 24GB flash storage. While not as fast as an all-flash drive, we found it a good compromise for the much needed extra space.
The screen is a 13.3 inch 1366 x 768 pixel screen which works well for everyday use, but the screen’s viewing angles are not up to the same standard as the Macbook Air. But then this screen is also behind a gorilla glass panel which is scratch resistant, but more importantly, touch enabled.
And therein lies one of my chief complaints of this machine – while some might view a touch screen laptop as a great idea, in practice it very loses its appeal. While flicking tiles around Windows 8 is great at first, a few things start to bother you. Firstly, your hand gets tired after using it a lot. So you quickly switch to the trackpad or do an awkward move with your elbow on the table, and finger on your screen. Not ideal.
Secondly your screen gets dirty – very quickly. If you are someone who gets irritated by people touching your computer screen, this time round you will only irritate yourself.
But finally I arrived at the part that bothered me most. Even with a soft (non-aggressive) touches, the screen bounces back against your finger and does a quick to-and-fro action.
So even though touch screens give an excellent demo, I quickly gave up on the touch idea on this machine. Your mileage might differ.
The other are where the Series 5 Ultra differentiates itself is with actual decent connectivity buttons.
Where machines like the Macbook Air dropping the Ethernet plug, the Series 5 Ultra has a cool flick down door that makes a network cable snap in without any trouble. Great for the business crowd who cannot quite convince IT yet to go Wifi only.
There is one USB 3 plug on the left, and two USB 2 plugs. In modern fashion the Series 5 Ultra also does away with the optical drive, but does still include a SD card reader.
The Samsung Series 5 Ultra Touch is a great machine with some fair compromises that aims to improve upon other Ultrabook standards. While Samsung has stuck to the Ultrabook specifications, they have made good design choices with things like the hybrid hard drive and the upgradable memory.
The problems is that in South Africa the Series 5 Ultra carries a steep price – RRP is around R14,000. Right now the machine comes in above its chief rival – the Macbook Air, but in the US the Series 5 actually significantly undercuts Apple’s offering.
While the Series 5 Ultra might suit many users a lot better than the Macbook Air, the Series 5 Ultra was clearly designed to be cheaper than the Macbook Air.
If you are adamant on having a touch screen, upgradable Ultrabook, the Samsung Series 5 Ultra Touch remains a great buy, despite the higher SA price.
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