Samsung Galaxy Book S review: Incredible battery life, WWAN options sell this on-the-go PC
- 11 March, 2020 21:00
The Samsung Galaxy Book S is worth a look for several reasons: This ultralight, fanless 13.3-inch clamshell combines superb battery life with WWAN connectivity that compels you to work on the go. Priced at $1,000 on Samsung.com, the Galaxy Book S is affordable, too.
The Galaxy Book S boasts Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 8cx chip, an ARM processor that trades middling performance for a crazy 16 hours of battery life. Samsung’s learned what users like: The laptop adds a decent fingerprint reader, USB-C ports, and a 3.5mm headphone jack.
It’s the best Qualcomm-powered PC we’ve seen in some time, including the Microsoft Surface Pro X, but the standard performance caveats of Snapdragon notebooks remain. Meanwhile, some X86-based machines have improved so much in battery life that they’ve stolen Qualcomm’s claim to fame.
Samsung Galaxy Book S basic features
Samsung’s own site appears to be the only location to buy the Samsung Galaxy Book S, right now, scheduled to ship by April 1. You must select from one of two carriers, Sprint or Verizon. (There is no unlocked version.) While Sprint is charging the full $1,000 price, Verizon’s currently taking $100 off if you pay for it as part of its 0% APR 24-month payment program. Trade-in options are available for both carriers. We were unable to test the purchase via Verizon due to lack of an account; however, we successfully tried the same process using the Sprint link.
Regardless of how you purchase, the Galaxy Book S will have these specs:
- Display: 13.3-inch (1920x1080) 10-point touch
- Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx octa-core processor (2.84GHz, 1.8GHz)
- Graphics: Adreno 680
- Memory: 8GB LPDDR4X RAM
- Storage: 256GB SSD
- Ports: 2 USB-C, microSD/nanoSIM tray
- Camera: 720p HD (user-facing)
- Battery: 39.8Wh (rated), 39.4Wh (as tested)
- Wireless: Wi-Fi 802.11ac VHT80 MU-MIMO, Bluetooth 5; X24 modem for LTE WWAN
- Operating system: Windows 10 Home
- Dimensions (inches): 12 x 8 x 0.24 inches (6.2mm)
- Weight: 2.18 pounds, 2.49 pounds with charger
- Colors: Mercury Gray (as tested), Earthy Gold
- Price: MSRP: $1,000 (Samsung); $1,000 (Sprint); $900 (Verizon)
- Optional accessories: $80 Samsung Galaxy Books S Pouch
The Samsung Galaxy Book S ships with the standard Windows bloatware (Candy Crush Friends, etc.), and a surprisingly light helping of Samsung apps. Samsung Gallery connects to Samsung’s cloud storage for images; Samsung Flow lets you move files between Samsung devices; and Samsung DeX connects a Galaxy phone in a desktop-like environment on your PC. Windows provides comparable apps itself, but the Samsung apps are designed to be more seamless.
At just over two pounds, the Samsung Galaxy Book S lands in tablet territory (including a keyboard). Thanks to its anodized aluminum construction, you’d have to call it one of the most impressive ultralight PCs around. We received the Mercury Gray color from Samsung for review, though the pinkish “Earthy Gold” is also available.
On the desk, the Book S opens with a finger, and the display reclines to about 45 degrees. It’s solid, too: I perceive no keyboard flex while typing, and the display barely flops or wobbles while moving the keyboard around.
Power on the Galaxy Book S by tapping the button to the upper right of the keyboard, a relatively small key that—surprise!—also conceals a fingerprint reader. (You’ll need to power on, then tap again to authenticate.) I was skeptical about such a tiny sensor, and it sometimes required a second tap or the repositioning of my finger. Still, I never had to default to a secondary PIN code or password to access the Galaxy Book S.
Like some of Acer’s Swift notebooks, the Book S is thin enough that the chassis actually bulges to accommodate the pair of USB-C ports (one on either side). They’re not Thunderbolt-enabled, though they are USB 3.1 Gen 2 (10 Gbps). Forget USB-A or any legacy ports, save for a 3.5mm jack.
Samsung’s charger is small enough to confuse it with your smartphone’s. If they both use USB-C you could try to swap them, but the Galaxy Book S will complain. The laptop ships with quick-charging capabilities, but those may go away if you use another charger.
The sparse port selection is supplemented by the hybrid expansion slot drawer on the underside, with trays for both microSD and the LTE SIM.
Because Samsung basically requires you to purchase the Samsung Galaxy S from the carrier itself, an existing T-Mobile or AT&T customer may find it to be prohibitively expensive to add an additional line of service. (While buying wireless service and connecting via the WWAN isn’t required, it’s one of the reasons to buy the Galaxy Book S.) There’s no eSIM option, either. Note that this isn’t a 5G device; the Galaxy Book S includes a Qualcomm X24 modem, which supports CAT20 LTE and a (theoretical) download speed of 2 gigabits.
The Galaxy S display is a 13.3-inch TFT 10-point touch display. It pushes out a generous 355 nits maximum, letting me find a comfortable (though somewhat shady) outdoor site to work. A separate USB-C hub let me output 4K/60-fps video through HDMI to an external 4K display with no issue.
The display bezels are slender on the top and sides (about an eighth of an inch), while the bottom bezel is a chunkier 0.75 inches deep, wide enough to house a 720p webcam. It’s good enough for everyday use, though it lacks special features such as biometrics or a physical shutter.
The glossy display, while beautiful, attracts fingerprints and smudges like an unwatched burrito lures a hungry Retriever. Working outside quickly becomes an exercise in dodging reflected background objects, too.
The quality audio options are an unexpected delight. The pair of downward-facing speakers blew me away—almost literally—as perhaps the loudest I’ve heard in some time. Samsung says the Galaxy Book S is tuned by AKG, with Dolby Atmos software under the hood for audio enhancement. Sure, the bass isn’t great—what else is new—and Dolby appears to downplay portions of the audio soundscape to provide a richer overall sound. The Dolby Atmos software provides built-in presets that detect and auto-adjust the audio to accommodate a streaming movie, say, versus playing a game. There’s also a manual equalizer.
Keyboard and typing: Just okay
I prefer laptop keyboards with fairly substantial travel, something the Galaxy Book S lacks. Each key is firm and resilient, however, and wide enough to provide a comfortable landing space. The three levels of backlighting (plus off), aren’t particularly powerful.
The standard layout offers small touches: The F11 key doubles as a shortcut to the desktop, for instance, minimizing all other windows. Other function keys open the Task View and the alternative “project” options to external displays. There are also dedicated Insert and Delete keys.
The Precision touchpad is large and spacious, located directly underneath the space bar. The top isn’t clickable, although there’s probably enough room otherwise to make up for it.
Keep reading for the performance benchmarks, including battery life.
Real-world performance: Decent, for what it does
I spent the better part of two weeks using the Samsung Galaxy Book S, either tethered to a desk or on the go. I can safely say the Galaxy Pro S works best within Microsoft’s UWP environment of built-in Windows 10 apps, Office work, web browsing and the like.
By asking you to buy the Galaxy Book S through a wireless carrier, Samsung is really playing up the “Always Connected” aspect of Snapdragon PCs. I drove around my hilly small town, sporadically pausing to browse, play back video, and conduct speed tests. I toted along the Microsoft Surface Pro X with a T-Mobile eSIM inside for comparison.
Using Internet speed tests, Verizon’s coverage was consistently solid. Using the Galaxy Pro S, I averaged about 30 to 40Mbps downstream across many locations, while the T-Mobile-powered Surface Pro X ranged from over 100Mbps downstream to just a few hundred kilobytes. In each location, I was able to stream Netflix with no issues, although the stream hiccuped a time or two near the Bay.
Because of the fundamental difference in the ARM architecture underlying Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processor, any PC with one inside also ships with a number of caveats. While the Snapdragon 8cx can run native 32-bit and 64-bit apps encoded specifically for its ARM64 architecture, they’re a rarity in the Windows world. Instead, Snapdragon PCs like the Samsung Galaxy Book S are restricted to 32-bit apps encoded for the X86 architecture used by Intel Core and AMD Ryzen processors, via emulation. At this point, 64-bit X86 apps can’t run on a Snapdragon PC at all.
In the real world, this plays out in odd and exasperating ways. I couldn’t use the 32-bit binary version of our company VPN, as it never installed correctly. I tried Microsoft’s “new” Edge, which supports ARM64, including its curated suite of extensions as well as the Chrome Web Store. Paied with an ad blocker, webpages were responsive.
Also using Edge, I was able to play back a test 4K/60-fps YouTube video on an external display. When I tried to load a 4K video via the Netflix site, however, the previews rendered normally but the video wouldn’t play. The Netflix app via the Microsoft Store played the 1080p version of my movie just fine.
In general, Snapdragon PCs are best for web browsing, Office work, video, and some very minimal game playing. Microsoft Office was a tad slow, as we show in our benchmarks below, but otherwise normal.
It’s refreshing to see playable games show up within the Microsoft Store app, under the Game Pass heading. Unfortunately, the only games available currently were 2D sprite-based games (Blazing Chrome, among others) that ran slowly on an external 4K monitor. On the native Galaxy Book S display, everything ran fine—unsurprising, really, as the graphics were of 1980s arcade quality.
Benchmarks: Its Achilles heel
The limitation on 64-bit binaries hamstrings our ability to benchmark the Samsung Galaxy Book S fully, though a small subset of benchmarks help us define what the Samsung Galaxy Book S can do in terms of Office and graphics capabilities.
We were interested to compare the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx processor to the more powerful semi-custom Microsoft SQ1 chip inside the Microsoft Surface Pro X. Qualcomm announced the Snapdragon 8cx in late 2018, and while it doesn’t include a “prime core” for burst workloads, it maintains the same four “performance” cores running at 2.84GHz, balancing those against four “efficiency” cores at 1.8GHz.
While the SQ1 boasts a more powerful CPU and GPU combination—including an Adreno 685 GPU, as opposed to the Adreno 680 inside the Galaxy Book S—it also has to render the Surface Pro X’s 2880x1920 display, versus the more conventional 1080p display within the Galaxy Book S.
We have three benchmarks for evaluating the Galaxy Book S as a PC. The first, PCMark 10’s Apps suite, uses the actual Microsoft Office suite to measure app loading times, and also how quick and responsive the Galaxy Book S is with spreadsheets, word processing, and the like.
We ran the test on a recent Core i7-based (Whiskey Lake) Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon as well. With a score of 5,951, the X1 Carbon easily surpasses the 4,615 Samsung’s Galaxy Book S recorded. But does this number matter in the real world? Yes, and no.
The PCMark 10 Apps test offers a more granular breakdown of its results. It took the Lenovo X1 Carbon 2.2 seconds to calculate one test, a stock history metric, that the Galaxy Book S required 7.1 seconds to complete. Simply opening Word required 1.9 seconds for the X1 Carbon, 2.5 seconds for the Galaxy Book S. Opening a test document in Excel required 2.79 seconds for the X1 Carbon, and 5.4 seconds for Samsung’s PC.
Another number seemed significant: While the X1 Carbon could play back H.264-encoded video at a full 30 frames per second, Samsung’s Galaxy Book S couldn’t get past 24.6 fps.
We use the PCMark 8 Creative benchmark to evaluate how laptops like the Galaxy Book S will perform in photo editing, video editing, light gaming, and more. The Galaxy Book S posted one of the lowest scores.
A similar test, the WebXPRT 3 benchmark, runs on a webpage to measure how well the laptop can perform in some light editing and multimedia tasks. Again, the Samsung Galaxy Book S performs a bit slower than the Surface Pro X.
Finally, we use 3DMark Night Raid, a cross-platform benchmark that can run on top of ARM as well as X86 systems. Here, the slightly slower Adreno GPU within the Galaxy Book S puts it slightly behind the Surface Pro X.
Performance matters, but battery life is a Snapdragon PC’s strength. We loop a 4K video (rendered in 1080p on the Galaxy Book S screen) and play it back until the battery expires. The Samsung Galaxy Book S achieved a whopping 16 hours of battery life, enough for a whole day’s work and a whole lot more.
I also ran the PCMark 10 Battery rundown test, which loads and runs Office apps periodically until the battery runs down. That generated 9 hours and 51 minutes of battery life. While your mileage will vary, the conclusion we can reach from both is that you’ll receive exceptional battery life from the Samsung Galaxy Book S.
Conclusion: Compelling, but still not enough
With Qualcomm-based PCs, comparing battery life versus price is probably the most relevant metric, as long as performance is adequate. From that perspective, the Galaxy Book S delivers. The Galaxy Book S also packs in features that show Samsung carefully thought through the mobile computing experience: a bright screen, fantastic battery life, ultra light weight, plus the connectivity—all affordably priced. It works well within a limited ecosystem of Office apps, web browsing, Windows’ own UWP apps like Mail and Calendar, and a few other options.
Unfortunately for Qualcomm, it’s no longer the only game in town when it comes to long battery life. The original, outdated Microsoft Surface Laptop outperforms today’s Galaxy Book S, delivering over 11 hours of battery life for $665. But the recent HP Spectre x360 13t delivers almost 16 hours of battery life on top of a similar 1080p screen, with a powerful 10th-gen Core i7 chip under the hood—and for a similar price. (Because of the app compatibility issues, we can’t directly compare the two on more than a single performance benchmark, but it’s still telling: Samsung’s Galaxy Book S generates a PCMark Work score of 2,121, while the Spectre x360 13T is 79 percent faster, at 3,807.) HP’s Elite Dragonfly delivers comparable battery life for $2,199, in a sub-3-pound package.
The great failing of the Microsoft Surface Pro X is that it couldn’t deliver on performance, price, or battery-life. While Samsung’s Galaxy Book S can’t overcome the Snapdragon’s inherent performance deficiencies, it satisfies the other two criteria. As we’ve tried to show, however, there are comparably priced alternatives that do everything well, and you owe it to yourself to look at those too.