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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  • lbell - Friday, August 17, 2012 - link

    It seems to be a PERFECT laptop if the user replaces the HDD with a SSD, plugs a gaming mouse and uses it in ACed room.
  • nerd1 - Friday, August 17, 2012 - link

    I think the biggest drawback of this laptop is the lack of secondary HDD bay. Many laptops now provide mSATA slot where user can easily put 128GB boot drive (and they cost as low as $100 nowadays too) while keeping ~1TB data drive. With a single 2.5" bay such setup is not possible. Small SSD cache is just a gimmick and generally not comparable to true SSDs. And they should provide slower 35W CPU option as well - which should help overheating a bit.

    Anyway I think this laptop is actually one of the best 17" laptops out there for general public, and one good replacement for 17" MBP which is now discontinued.
  • .Hg. - Friday, August 17, 2012 - link

    Hi Jarred,

    thanks a lot for your review. Since we cannot trust specification sheets anymore when we choose a laptop, the work of good reviewers is essential.

    If manufactures decide that performances don't really matter, we will gladly spend more on the monitor and less on the CPU/GPU, or we will buy tablets instead of notebooks.

    I hope you'll improve your testing methodology about the impact of the cooling system on the performances, because if when a laptop "falis" the stress test, it "doesn't really matter", then the stress test doesn't really matter itself.

    I'd like to suggest testing an heavy CPU load with the GPU turned on but idling. This is the Adobe Premiere Video export scenario or generic cpu load using an external monitor. My XPS15 throttled badly with the A04 bios after 2 min during this test, because the heat from the CPU triggered the GPU temperature threshold. Manufacturers should find a clever way to balance TDP than temperature thresholds.

    Also, please keep in mind that a CPU at 1.2GHz has a lot of impact on the gaming experience, much more than average fps shows, and that a GPU continuously throttling between 800 and 200 mhz has higher average fps than a GPU fixed a 400 Mhz, but it gives a lot worse gaming experience.
  • nerd1 - Friday, August 17, 2012 - link

    No, CPU power rarely affects gaming experience, as most of the games are now developed multi-platform and ivy bridge@1.2Ghz is still WAY better than any console out there. On the other hand, GPU power directly affects framerate.
  • .Hg. - Friday, August 17, 2012 - link

    It does, I experienced an awful control lag with Assassin Creed II and Prince of Persia.

    Games that are not properly multi-threaded will suffer the low frequency. Ivy Bridge can't do miracles.

    And games that are properly multi-thread will show much greater power absorption even at low frequency because of the higher load, and if the cooling system is not good, the system will try to reduce the GPU frequency.
  • nerd1 - Friday, August 17, 2012 - link

    No, I don't think such an ancient game can load CPU to maximum. It ran fine with core 2 duo processor, which has much lower power-per-clock than new ivy bridge processor. The only cpu-consuming task I can imaging for computer game is heavy physics simulation, which is done with GPU now.
  • JarredWalton - Friday, August 17, 2012 - link

    It's not that the stress test doesn't matter at all, but I would say it's not a make or break situation for most people. Obviously (I would think, but maybe not?), a laptop that runs cooler right now should hold up better over the long term than a laptop that is hitting thermal limits right from the start. The XPS 15 is horrible when it comes to throttling; the Samsung is only throttling under extreme loads -- in a rather warm 80-85F environment, I might add (curse my lack of AC).

    If you happen to live in a place like AZ and take your laptop outside where it's 105F, and then you put a 100% load on the GPU and CPU, I'm not sure any laptop would cope with that sort of testing without throttling. It's the way things are supposed to work. The real question -- and it's a question that's difficult to answer -- is how much a laptop can handle before it starts to throttle. That's what the stress test is there to help evaluate.

    If you need a notebook that can run both CPU and GPU at 100% simultaneously in a 70F AC regulated environment, that's fine. In that case, the Series 7 falls short, but it's still a lot closer than the XPS 15. If you're a typical user that plays games, on the other hand, then that's the metric you should look at, keeping in mind that certain titles will likely stress the CPU/GPU more than others.
  • nerd1 - Friday, August 17, 2012 - link

    I think the only laptop that can withstand full load for a long time is thick gaming laptops.
  • seapeople - Friday, August 17, 2012 - link

    Jared has it right here, the only way to really fail a stress test is for the computer to overheat and brick itself. Everything is a gray area.

    If the Samsung did so poorly that it throttled instantly to ultra poor performance levels the moment a game was started *cough Dell cough* then it would deserve a thrashing, but it handled high performance gaming with only limited throttling issues, so therefore deserves better than a unilateral no vote.

    Besides, if the computer throttles during gaming too much to suit you, then you can reduce the settings/CPU speed to suit. You would lose performance, sure, but we're still talking about something that would destroy ultrabooks or entry level graphics cards.
  • gandralf - Friday, August 17, 2012 - link

    My company has bough four samsungs (expensive, supposed high end series 9 ultrabook). Three of them had problems. Terrible built, mega fragile.

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