Review

Samsung Galaxy Book2 review: Windows on ARM gets a lot better

Announced last week at an event in New York City, Samsung's Galaxy Book2 is the first PC on the market to be powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon 850 Mobile Compute Platform. I had a lot of questions, as the first-generation Windows on ARM devices are awful.

Even though it's an ARM processor, it does run full Windows 10. It ships in S mode, but you can upgrade for free. Apps that are compiled for x86 processors are run in emulation, and the big difference now is that those apps are usable, where previously they were just bad.

The Galaxy Book2 itself is nearly identical to a Surface Pro, right down to the keyboard and the kickstand. It's a tested form factor, but the Snapdragon 850 adds better battery life and 4G LTE connectivity, among other things.

Specs

CPU Qualcomm Snapdragon 850
GPU Adreno 630
Display 12 inches, 2160x1440, Super AMOLED
Body 288x200x7.6mm (11.34"x7.87"x0.30"), 0.79kg (1.7 pounds)
RAM 4GB
Storage 128GB SSD PCIe NVMe
Ports
  • Two USB 3.1 Type-C
  • 3.5mm combo audio
  • Micro-SD
  • Nano-SIM
OS Windows 10 Home in S mode
Price $999


Design

As I mentioned earlier, the form factor of the Galaxy Book2 is exactly the same as a Surface Pro, right down to the keyboard and kickstand. There are some key differences though, such as that the attachable keyboard and the S Pen actually come bundled with the device.

And of course, rather than a USB Type-A port and a proprietary Surface Connect port, the Galaxy Book2 keeps up with modern standards and has a pair of USB 3.1 Type-C ports. Both of them are located on the right side of the device, with the 3.5mm combo audio jack placed above them. Unfortunately, the 3.5mm jack is about two-thirds of the way from the bottom, making it awkward to use while in laptop mode.

On the left side, there's a slot for a nano-SIM and a micro-SD card. Unfortunately, it requires a pin to open the slot, which can make for a cumbersome experience with the micro-SD. Unfortunately, the smartphone-style method of assuming that a memory card is going to stay in the device forever doesn't work as well on PCs, as you might be swapping out cards from a digital camera or something.

While the left and right sides are flat, the top and bottom are rounded, with the bottom only having pins for the keyboard connection. On the top, there's a power button, and to the right of it, a volume rocker. If you've used a Surface Pro, you'll be familiar with the idea.

The aluminum body comes in a pretty standard metallic gray color, and the hinge has a slightly different feel due to the different materials from a Surface Pro. But still, you can fold the hinge to any angle you want and use it to draw.

One design decision that really bothers me is the placement of the fingerprint sensor. For some reason, it's placed next to the rear camera. I don't know; I guess Samsung just has a thing for placing fingerprint sensors next to cameras in awkward positions. It's easier than expected to get used to, but it's just weird.

Display

The Samsung Galaxy Book2 uses a 12-inch 1440p 3:2 Super AMOLED display. If it's not obvious, the screen looks stunning. It's the same type of display that the firm uses for its flagship Galaxy smartphones, so if you've ever looked at one and said "wow", you'll get the same feeling from the Galaxy Book2.

OLED displays differ from LCDs in that individual pixels can be turned off, meaning that you get true blacks. When colors are rendered on top of the true black, they tend to be more vibrant, whereas when rendered on an LCD backlight, they might look more washed out. And Samsung makes some of the best OLED panels.

Another thing that I love about it is that OLED PCs are pretty rare, so it's refreshing to see one. Lenovo replaced OLED with Dolby Vision HDR in its ThinkPad lineup, so it's really just some of the Dell Alienware PCs that have it.

One thing that I don't like though is that the bezels are really large, especially given the price point of $999. At that price, I expect more of the immersive experience that comes with slim bezels, especially since that's the trend for devices these days. If you take a look at what else is being offered at that price point, these bezels seem out of place.

But again, the screen is beautiful, and since the device has 4G LTE, you can stream HDR movies and TV shows on the go. As with a Galaxy handset, you can choose between AMOLED Standard, Photo, and Cinema for different settings.

Keyboard

Once again, the keyboard is very similar to a Type Cover. In fact, the connectors are so similar that I briefly thought I'd be able to attach a Surface Type Cover to this device, but they're slightly different. There's no Alcantara either, as this is made of plastic.

You have the choice of laying the keyboard flat or propping it up against the device with the built-in magnet. The reason that Microsoft designed it this way, beginning with the Surface Pro 3, is to the keyboard is more sturdy when you're trying to use it on your lap. Before that, it was too wobbly.

The keyboard is pretty comfortable to type on, and I've been using it all week. There's really nothing new in this department. If you've tried a Surface Pro Type Cover, then you know what it's like. As far as its "lappability" goes, meaning how comfortable it is to use on your lap, it's also the same.

What I mean by that is that it's usable on my lap, but it's not nearly as comfortable as a full laptop.

I actually don't care for the trackpad at all. There's a bit too much resistance there, and it feels like I have to press it a bit too hard to click. Personally, I'm a mouse user, so this didn't affect me too much.

Ultimately, everything we've talked about so far is pretty par for the course. So far, we have what amounts to a Surface Pro with a much more impressive display, and USB Type-C. The form factor is the same, and the keyboard feels the same, and that's a good thing.

So let's dive into new territory.

Performance, Windows on ARM, and the Snapdragon 850

I like to make comparisons in reviews, because it helps to draw parallels between the device we're talking about and the rest of the landscape. Up until this point, we've been comparing the Galaxy Book2 to the Surface Pro, due to obvious similarities. Now, it's time to compare it to the Miix 630, the last Windows on Snapdragon device that I reviewed.

Microsoft and Qualcomm first announced Windows on ARM in December 2016. Unlike previous efforts to run Windows on the CPU architecture like Windows RT and Windows Phone, Windows 10 on ARM promised full Windows. That means that it would run x86 apps through an emulation layer.

There are some limitations to this though, as x64 apps cannot be emulated, and drivers need to be native ARM. Microsoft released an ARM64 SDK at Build this year, so developers can compile their apps to run natively, and that's your best bet at getting the 64-bit apps that you want. The company has said that it doesn't have plans to do 64-bit emulation, so you're stuck with 32-bit x86 apps. If there's only 64-bit versions out there like with Photoshop Elements, you're out of luck.

The first Windows 10 on ARM devices - with a Snapdragon 835 - were the HP Envy x2, ASUS NovaGo, and the Lenovo Miix 630. I reviewed the Miix 630, and it was awful. And when I say awful, I mean unusable, even for basic tasks.

I'm happy to say that the Samsung Galaxy Book2 is in much better shape. I'm not going to say it's perfect, but I was able to use it regularly for a week without any headaches, and that's really all I wanted from a device with this form factor.

Of course, it ships with Windows 10 Home in S mode. The original devices shipped with Windows 10 Pro in S mode, as Home in S mode didn't exist yet. This was a bit confusing because some Pro features don't work on ARM, like Hyper-V.

S mode pretty much guarantees that all of your apps come from the Microsoft Store. Pretty much all UWP and Windows 8 apps are already compiled for native ARM, and Microsoft says that even emulated x86 apps will run better from the Store.

In fairness, this is pretty true. Unlike with the first generation of Windows 10 on ARM, I found a noticeable difference in performance between Microsoft's native Edge browser and Google's Chrome, which runs in emulation. Edge is definitely better in terms of performance now.

As always, there's a free upgrade out of S mode, and you can install any apps you want after that, including Chrome. Like I always do, I used it for a few days in S mode, and a few days in full Windows. I do think that full Windows 10 is going to be necessary for most users, but the benefits to S mode are certainly there.

I'd say the biggest difference in this generation is that Chrome is usable now, and that's huge. For me, and I assume many others, the ability to use Chrome is what makes or breaks the experience.

Presumably, this is why Samsung wasn't involved in the first generation of Windows 10 on ARM devices. It simply wasn't good enough for real-world usage. Now it is.

Unfortunately, I still wasn't able to use the benchmarking software that I usually use, as the apps crash just like with the Miix 630.

I think that the important thing to remember is that the Galaxy Book2 is meant to be very portable. It has 4G LTE, great battery life, it's always on, and it's super thin and light, which is great if you're always on the go. You lose a bit on performance, but Windows on ARM has gotten good enough that it's OK, as long as you don't think you're going to be editing videos or playing serious games on this thing.

Battery life, and always on

Samsung says that the Galaxy Book2 gets up to 20 hours of battery life. This is from a combination of S mode and the ARM processor, as I was told that when you switch out of S mode, you lose 15% of battery life.

The best that I can figure it, the battery savings while you're using it come from S mode, and the battery savings in standby come from the ARM processor. ARM chips use big.LITTLE architecture, with more powerful cores for tasks that require it, and less powerful cores for tasks that don't require it. That means that while the device is in standby, it can use the cores that consume less power, while still syncing background notifications and such.

It's also what Microsoft considers to be an "always on" PC, which is different than always connected. Always on means that it awakes from standby nearly instantly, similar to what your phone does. And it's absolutely lovely. Ever try to wake up your laptop and go through that cycle where the keyboard lights up, you assume it's coming on, you wait, it doesn't come on, you press the power button, it turns off, and you start over? That's because Intel PCs take so long to wake up, and you won't have that problem with Windows on ARM.

The whole power consumption experience is quite pleasant. It's just such a relief to wake up a PC and it just works. There's plenty of battery life left, even if you haven't used it in a day or two, although I wouldn't go too far beyond that.

In general though, you really don't have to worry about bringing a charger with you. I'm not so sure that I'd go as far as to say I wouldn't bring a charger with me on vacation, but if I'm going out for the day and I know the battery isn't fully charged, I don't worry about it like I would with an Intel PC, and that's the peace of mind that you get here.

4G LTE, and being always connected

Cellular connectivity is my favorite feature in a PC. Come on; it's 2018 and everything should be connected to the internet all the time. Of course, 4G LTE isn't exclusive to ARM devices, but the Snapdragon X20 modem is integrated into the chipset.

That means that LTE comes standard, where on Intel PCs, cellular comes at a premium. Also, a Snapdragon X20 means that it supports download speeds of up to 1.2Gbps, although it's unlikely that your carrier supports those speeds in your neighborhood. You're pretty future-proofed in that sense though.

Back in July, I reviewed the HP EliteBook 840 G5, and I loved it, with 4G LTE, a Core i7, a 4GB AMD Radeon GPU, 32GB RAM, and a 1TB SSD. Indeed, it's a beast, and I still love it, but there are still pros and cons. I feel like a machine like that targets a different market than an always connected ARM PC. The Galaxy Book2 gets everything that I mentioned in the last section. It's always on, and it has much better battery life. It's also super thin and light.

One of the greatest feelings for me is being out in public and not having to worry about connecting to Wi-Fi. Even if there is Wi-Fi, I don't have to try to get the password, or go through some overly complicated sign-in procedure for public networks.

On the way home from the Samsung event where the Galaxy Book2 was announced, I watched Jessica Jones on Netflix, and it looked beautiful on the Super AMOLED display. It's that convenience of the connectivity you get with your phone, but with the big screen and the keyboard that adds more dimensions to the experience.

S Pen

As I've mentioned, it comes with both the keyboard and the S Pen. Interestingly, it actually supports Air Command, which shows you shortcuts if you hover the pen over the device. It only shows Samsung apps that let you do Samsung things. For example, there are features like Screen Write, which takes a screenshot and lets you write on it, and it saves everything to Samsung Notes.

The good news is that there's a Galaxy Book settings app that will let you open Windows Ink instead of Air Command, which offers much of the same functionality. The problem is that there really isn't a OneNote-centric option. You can easily create a new note in Samsung Notes with Air Command, or you can launch OneNote from Windows Ink, but there's no quick shortcut to create a note in OneNote.

S Pen and Air Command functionality aside, Windows is a great operating system for inking. It's not great for general tablet functionality, but when it comes to pen use, it's great. You can use it to mark up photos, draw routes in Maps, sign PDFs, and more.

I like how Samsung and Windows have come together here. Samsung has always done great work with pen input with its Galaxy Note series, and I appreciate what the firm has done in bringing that expertise from Android to Windows 10.

One thing that's a real bummer is that the magnet that attaches the S Pen to the device is very weak. I lost mine within a day. I spoke to Samsung about this, and was told that it's being clear that the magnet is not for S Pen storage. It's really meant as a place to put your pen while you're typing. While carrying the device around though, the pen should be in your pocket or somewhere safe.

Conclusion

I've always been a sucker for cellular devices. I absolutely love having a Windows 10 device that's always connected to the internet. It's a thin and light tablet so I can watch movies on the train, and I can attach a keyboard to it and work from wherever I am. And I don't have to deal with the hassle of setting up my phone as a hotspot.

Also, I just love the display so much. If you want to win me over, give me LTE and OLED. Samsung has always used awesome displays, and this one lives up to the name.

You are taking a big performance hit though. I want to compare it to a Core i3, but there's really too wide of a range of apps to make a judgment like that. There are native apps, emulated apps, and apps that don't work at all.

I do think that if you use this as your mobile PC frequently, it will change your behavior. You don't have to worry about having your charger with you when you go out, and you don't have to think about connecting to a network when you wake your PC. In fact, in using this product, I got used to not turning off my PC at all. That stuff is huge.

All in all, I do think that the Samsung Galaxy Book2 is worthwhile. I'd have liked to have seen more RAM and storage, but I think it's an excellent portable PC for entertainment and productivity.

 

Report a problem with article
1540552413_xbox_all_access
Next Article

Xbox All Access goes live online, but only in the U.S. and for a limited time

1498038778_protonvpn
Previous Article

ProtonVPN opens four new VPN servers in Brussels, Belgium

13 Comments - Add comment

Advertisement