Inside the Ultrabook factory
Sasha Muller is given rare access to Samsung’s Korean HQ to find out what challenges were faced in making the slimmest laptop in the world
In a meeting room on the 37th floor of Samsung’s Seoul headquarters, Kevin Lee, the vice president of the company’s R&D department, is clutching a touchpad ripped from a once-working laptop.
The proud father of a team that ushered the Series 9 from the wild imagination of Samsung’s designers to Ultrabook reality, he’s showing a small group of journalists from around the world how the Series 9 came into being – and, thrillingly, tearing a trio of Series 9s to pieces to show what goes into making the world’s thinnest laptop.
As Mr Lee speaks, the expressionless row of faces that sits behind him tells its own story. It would be easy to mistake the veneer of quiet Korean reserve for exhaustion; Kevin beams with pride as he recounts the fact that the team crammed three years of R&D into only one year. One of his colleagues seems to wince visibly as he mentions it.
A year doesn’t sound like an eternity to develop a landmark laptop, so Mr Lee stresses the point – they normally would have needed roughly 40,000 man-hours of work to complete the task, and they delivered the final Series 9 in around 9,000 hours, or one year non-stop. His English occasionally falters, but it’s clear to see that he doesn’t begrudge the effort – his grin stretches from ear to ear.
At least the effort wasn’t in vain. We were duly impressed with the Series 9 when it made its way into PC Pro’s labs – it not only leaves many of its Ultrabook rivals looking decidedly ordinary, it feels unerringly stout for a laptop that’s barely thicker than this magazine. And it’s no slouch either.
So how did Mr Lee’s team shoehorn so much power into such a slender frame? That’s what we’re here to find out.
Stripping a Series 9
We enter the room to find a trio of dismembered Series 9s scattered across the desks. The chassis, once rock-solid, looks vulnerable. Dainty, delicate sheets of aluminium lie side by side, accompanied by logic boards, LCD panels and an assortment of fans and cables.
As he tumbles the components between his fingers, the enthusiasm on Mr Lee’s face paints a picture of a man who loves his job. Every component in the Series 9 has been whittled down to its barest essentials; the mSATA SSD squeezes hundreds of gigabytes into something little bigger than a postage stamp; the motherboard is split into three to make room for the heatpipes and fans required to cool the Core i7 Ivy Bridge processor; the RAM soldered to the motherboard uses more densely populated memory chips to save space. Even the fans seem dainty: weighing only a few grams, these are a world’s first, measuring an impossibly slender 4mm in depth.
Mr Lee calls for the next slide in his PowerPoint presentation. With every Series 9 starting life as a solid brick of aluminium, CNC machining hollows out the laptop’s body to within an accuracy of one-thousandth of a millimetre. It leaves a metal skeleton with just enough room inside for the essential componentry. There’s no flab, no excess, not a fraction of a millimetre to spare.
One of Mr Lee’s colleagues picks up a keyboard, itself already detached from the rest of the chassis, and yanks insistently at its corner. One of the Scrabble-tile keys pops off as he wrestles with it, swiftly followed by another, before the keyboard gives way, peeling into its composite parts, a paper-thin strip of electrical contacts flopping to and fro.
The keys are self-explanatory, but the perforated sheet of plastic underneath is more mysterious. It’s a prime example of the several design challenges faced, and eventually surmounted, by the team. The original Series 9 was already slim, but improving on the old model while making the laptop more than 25% thinner required a drastic rethink.