3 August 2017

Samsung Galaxy Book Review

Samsung Galaxy Book review

I've always wanted a convertible/hybrid laptop. I remember when Microsoft revealed the original Surface 'laptop' back in June 2012 and I was in awe. I'm still in awe: the Surface Pro or Surface Book are still on my wishlist. The idea of having the power of a laptop and portability of a tablet has a vice-grip on me and I very nearly purchased a Surface Book before getting my iMac. But they're costly things. Can other companies, offering less expensive machines, compete with the sheer weight and magnitude of Microsoft and the Surface brand? How does Samsung's latest convertible laptop, the Samsung Galaxy Book, stack up against Microsoft's own Surface Pro?

The Galaxy Book comes in two main variants, a Wi-Fi only version and the 4G/LTE model. My particular model is the Wi-Fi one and 'near top of the range': 12" AMOLED display, Windows 10 Home, 7th gen Intel Core i5 processor (7200), 128GB storage and 4GB of RAM. The top of the range 12" model with 4G LTE support has increased storage and memory (256GB/8GB RAM) and Windows 10 Pro.

Neither are cheap: my review unit retails for £1,099, the top Wi-Fi model sits at £1,269 whilst the top 4G/LTE model comes in at £1,439. That is a considerable amount of money but so is Microsoft's Surface Pro. A similarly specced Surface Pro to my review unit with keyboard and Surface Pen is £1,229. Up against its closest and best competitor, is the £200~ saving worth it?


Samsung Galaxy Book review keyboard dock S pen

The best thing about the Galaxy Book is its large and beautiful screen. That screen, despite being a lower resolution than the Surface Pro (2160 x 1440 compared to the Pro's 2736 x 1824), is incredibly vibrant thanks to its AMOLED screen technology and is still very sharp. Watching 4K movies and videos on YouTube demonstrated its sharpness and at no point was I lamenting the use of a lower resolution panel. The display also has HDR which is certainly very impressive meaning any you can watch any HDR enabled content the way it was meant to be viewed. The screen can get pretty bright, especially indoors but I wish it would get a bit brighter when being used in bright sunlight outdoors. It's just about usable but doesn't always make for the easiest of experiences.

I wouldn't say it's a beautiful machine. It's not ugly but it looks almost the same as every other tablet/hybrid device out there. It is very well built though being very strong and sturdy with no flex or give that I could detect. There's none of that garish plasticky material that Samsung had a propensity of using earlier in it's smartphone and tablet history with the whole Book being made of metal asides from the greyish plastic speaker grills.

Flanking the screen are two stereo speakers which give a decent listening experience with distortion only materialising when the volume is maxed. At normal volume, lower tones can get a bit muggy and trebles aren't always striking but for built in speakers, the volume and overall clarity are very good and will serve the majority of users the majority of the time. And there's a headphone jack.

The S Pen is a delight being very seamless when used on the display. It's 0.7mm tip makes it accurate and its 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity is the same as the Surface Pro's; for the artists amongst you, this is a huge deal and allows for a much higher degree of intricacy. Latency lag is virtually nonexistent; I couldn't detect any moment of lag whilst writing or drawing. The S Pen also doesn't need to be charged unlike the Surface Pen or even Apple Pencil. It's easy, comfortable and intuitive to use and has a handy button on it which, when the pen is hovered over the screen and the button pressed, brings up a selection of annotation tools very similar to Samsung's software in their Galaxy Note smartphone range. It doesn't have the cool clicky button at the top like the Surface Pen (which instantly brings up Microsoft OneNote) but it's still a very welcome addition. Of slight annoyance is the fact that the pen is not magnetic meaning you cannot not magnetically attach it to the display like the Surface. As a result, to stop yourself from losing it, there's a pen loop attached to the keyboard dock. It's not the prettiest option but I guess it is serviceable and does the job.

As mentioned in my first impressions, the keyboard dock gives a nice tactile and fast typing experience with minimal unexpected mistakes. There is enough travel to make typing for longer periods of time comfortable and the size and spacing of the keys is very good - touch typing is not an issue. It is has a backlit keyboard making for an easiest typing experience in darker situations. You cannot control the brightness of the keys but it is there which is a nice feature. The keyboard dock is a good thickness but it is not the sturdiest. On a solid surface, typing is no problem but when typing on your lap, the keyboard is a little flimsy resulting in some up and down movements every now and then, especially at the edges of it.

The trackpad can be frustrating to use: at times it is too vague and at times too sensitive. Most of the time it is fine but it's those unexpected moments when it decides to play up that can get rather annoying. Changing the sensitivity settings didn't really alleviate the problem.

The biggest hardware complaint though regards the inputs, or lack thereof. You get two USB Type-C ports, either of which can be used for charging, a headphone jack and a microSD card slot, and that's it. Yes, fast charging is available through the USB Type-C port (more on that later) but seriously, what? You can buy a USB C multiport adaptor but it sells for £55 on Amazon and I hate this obsession with dongles that manufacturers are trying to enforce (I'm looking at you Apple). This is (one of) the biggest problems with the Galaxy Book: it's looking towards the future with the USB C ports which is great but it hasn't done enough to bridge the gap between the present and the future. A full sized SD card slot or just one USB A port would make using the Book more manageable but it does not; transferring files between devices is therefore convoluted and, thus, slow(er).

Software and Performance

Samsung Galaxy Book review software Windows 10

In my initial impressions, I mentioned the inconsistent performance of the device with some very noticeable stuttering and occasional freezing. Strangely, most of the occurrences happened whilst using Google Chrome but since switching to Microsoft Edge, internet and overall performance has been good; I wonder if Microsoft's own first-party software is better optimised for Windows 10? That's probably the case.

I haven't been doing any intensive gaming on this (the Galaxy Book, being a hybrid/convertible, is not really for hardcore gamers) but I've had several programs open, 10+ tabs open in Edge and watched 4K YouTube videos and it has executed tasks smoothly on the whole. Scrolling quickly down web pages with numerous interactive content will bring about some stuttering and at times, there can be a split-second of lag when switching between tabs in Edge but overall performance is solid. It's what you'd expect from a new laptop with an i5 and 4GB RAM: does the job, no major stutters, very occasional hiccup. For the average user carrying out average tasks, it performs them all without a hitch. 

Being a 'proper' laptop, you can install practically any piece of software made for Windows on it, making it a much more productive machine than any tablet including the iPad Pro and even the Surface Laptop which runs on Windows 10 S (only apps from the Windows Store can be installed on it out of the box although that can be upgraded to Home/Pro for free within a certain time period). 

S Pen responsiveness is super quick with no discernible latency delay and the inclusion of software to utilise the pen has been implemented pretty well. Windows Ink Workspace has permanent residence in the taskbar and quickly allows you to access sticky notes, sketchpad and screen sketch. Microsoft OneNote has numerous tools and options to leverage full use of the pen. As mentioned earlier, the button on the pen also opens up more options and Edge has a built in web note tool allowing you to quickly annotate and share whatever is on screen at the time. Being able to use the S Pen to quickly relocate the cursor, for example in a Word document, is really handy and helps speed up productivity.

With each day of testing, I found myself using a combination of the keyboard, touchscreen and Pen (resting in my right hand fingers whilst typing) more and more. Of course, you can do pretty much most tasks with just the keyboard (obviously not drawing or writing) but the two additional interaction methods make for a faster, smoother and more productive experience whatever you may be doing. Quickly scrolling down with the pen, pinching to zoom in or out or just selecting options/links are just some of the ways to navigate and interact faster. I really like this combination and see why there has been a drive and increase in the number of products offering a touchscreen laptop/pen. 

Be prepared to have your typing/writing/swiping accompanied by the now all to familiar sound of a fan humming. It's not incredibly distracting but it is constantly there and the more intensive the tasks you ask the Book to perform, the louder it gets. Even whilst charging the Book, the fan was humming! The Surface Pro, with the i5 processor or lower, doesn't even have a fan. My iMac, with its 3.1GHz i5 pushing a 4K display, runs completely silent. Come on Samsung, you could have done better to manage this.

Windows Hello (which allows the user to login in with their face) is strangely absent from the Galaxy Book as is a fingerprint scanner; both are available on the Surface Pro. Cortana, much like Google Assistant and Siri, is embedded well into the OS and saying 'Hey Cortana' works, even over music, although only at around medium volume or lower. I didn't find myself using it that often (I'm embedded into Google's services) but the functionality is all there and when I have used it, it has performed well. 

Windows 10 is Windows 10: it is what it is. Performance has been strong, stability has been there and it generally does/offers all that you need. But it is a computer OS not a tablet OS so definitely don't buy this expecting the simplicity of a tablet OS like Apple's iOS running on iPads. 

Portability and Usability 

Samsung galaxy book review lap

A laptop like this, one which has a flexible keyboard and can be detached to create a tablet experience, is primarily aimed at those who want the increased flexibility over a standard laptop by being able to use it as a 'tablet' on the sofa, in bed etc, on the train etc.

Just like a tablet, the Galaxy Book boots up insanely quickly. I timed it at approximately 8-9 seconds from switch on to login page and it only takes a couple of seconds after inputting your PIN/password for everything to be up and running. Standby to fully on is also as quick as a tablet making the Book a much more enticing device to pick up and use compared to a standard laptop or desktop due to its speed.

With the keyboard dock attached, it's not the lightest device around but certainly lighter than all laptops (probably). At 753g and 7.4mm thick, it's definitely easy enough to hold in your hand or put in a bag. It is thinner and lighter than the Pro (770g/8.5mm) and it is only marginally heavier and thicker than an iPad Pro (713g/6.9mm) which is more of a tablet than laptop. Prolonged use of just the display in one hand, i.e. when in bed, will tire your arm after a while but considering the screen size, it's a good and acceptable weight, especially considering it is a fully fledged laptop with an i5 processor inside it.

Using the dock allows you to prop up the screen whilst typing and though the three different angles on offer can generally get the job done, it pales in comparison with the Surface Pro and its kickstand which can be set to any angle up to 165 degrees. From my overall experience, I found that I could work with a combination of the three available angles but it would be so much nicer to have the option to pick practically any angle you want for practically any environment, bright or dark, cramped or spacious.

There is a tablet mode which can be automatically enabled when you detach the screen or flip the keyboard dock behind the display. I didn't really see the point of it though. When enabled, it replaces your icons in the bottom left of the taskbar with back, Cortana and task view buttons which are made slightly larger. Tapping the Windows logo brings up the full screen live tiles dashboard whilst the task view button is handy for quickly switching between apps but asides from that, I don't really see any other benefits from using the tablet mode. I was expecting more but I have to remember that it's running a computer OS, Windows 10.

I did find myself using the Galaxy Book as a tablet when sitting on the sofa and I didn't need the keyboard.. It is light enough and not too heavy to rest comfortably on your lap/knees or hold in your hands, but only for a short-ish period of time. If there was no S Pen, the experience would have been somewhat cumbersome as trying to tap small buttons or icons with your fingers would have been trickier but thankfully, the pen makes for a much easier and faster navigating experience.

Final note, if you have the keyboard dock attached and then flip the laptop into tablet mode with the keyboard faced down on your lap, the Book is clever enough to detect this and so will not register any accidental key presses on the dock. 

Battery Life

Samsung galaxy book review

Battery life has been mediocre to average. I tested battery life by using the laptop like I normally would: Wi-Fi on, location on, brightness at 50%/suggested brightness, normal web browsing, Amazon music playing, document work and a few YouTube videos (some in 4K). My average results showed approximately 10-12% of battery being used every 30 minutes meaning a fully charged device would last you roughly 4-5 hours; this is well below the 11 hours advertised by Samsung but obviously conditions and circumstances are different. I would say though that my use of the Galaxy Book reflects the average consumer.

The Galaxy Book has fast charging via the USB C port and included adaptor but it didn't seem to offer as fast a charging experience I was expecting. It took two hours to charge from 25% to 100% so it would take approximately 2hrs 40 - 3hrs to charge from 0-100%. This is decent but I was expecting more and considering the mediocre battery life to begin with, it's a bit too time consuming if you're always looking to bring your Book on the go.

Final Thoughts

Samsung Galaxy Book review

This was a particularly hard device to review primarily because of the competition, but I'll get to that in a moment. On its own merits, it's a very good hybrid laptop, not excellent but still very good.

I've been using it as my main computer for two weeks and overall, I have enjoyed the experience. The display is just about the right size, is HDR enabled, has gorgeous colours and plays 4K content with ease. Build quality is excellent (albeit slightly plain), internal hardware is new and impressive, performance is solid, S Pen usability and functionality a worthwhile inclusion and it's compact and lightweight enough to be used as a portable device. It performs very well as a laptop when working at my desk and does a pretty good job when I just want to browse or consume media on my sofa.

But battery life, for a laptop hybrid designed to be used almost always on the go, is mediocre and charging performance middling. Factor in the lack of sufficient/useful ports, the constant fan noise, inconsistent trackpad and okay typing experience on your lap and it doesn't quite add up to the £1100~ price tag. Furthermore, take it out of its vacuum and put it up against its primary competitor, the Surface Pro, and its issues are magnified.

The keyboard dock kickstand is nowhere near as solid, functional or innovative as the Pro's nor is the keyboard as sturdy as the Microsoft Type Cover. The AMOLED display is not quite bright enough for bright outdoor use and not as sharp as the Pro's. The Pro also a displayport and 2 USB-A 3.0 ports and comes installed with Windows 10 Pro with Windows Hello making it more useful for professional work. Surface Pro battery life is stronger and its i5 processor is clocked slightly faster than the Galaxy Book's equivalent (3.5GHz vs 3.1GHz). Finally, Microsoft offers a wealth of customisation options selling Surfaces with an Intel m3 processor from £799 up to an i7 with 1TB of SSD storage and 16GB of RAM. For a slightly higher price (and to some people, a price that is near as makes no difference), the Surface Pro offers almost everything the Galaxy Book does and more (minus a AMOLED, HDR display).

Would I recommend buying this? Surprisingly yet unsurprisingly, no. My overall feel for the device has been largely positive; the Galaxy Book is a very good laptop and will serve you well. I would happily own and use one if someone gave it to me but I wouldn't buy one, not for the price that Samsung is asking and for the laptop you'd be getting, it's just not worth it - if only it were priced around £800-900. But alas it is not so I'd recommend spending the extra money and get yourself a Surface Pro. That's what I would do.

You're getting closer Samsung but Microsoft is still just out of reach and sitting pretty at the top. 

*Disclaimer* The Samsung Galaxy Book was sent to me for review by The Insiders UK.

What do you think is the best feature of the Galaxy Book?

What would you change?

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