Samsung Galaxy Book 2 review: the Surface Amateur

Samsung’s latest 2-in-1 has a lot of promise, but it comes up short

About two years ago, Microsoft announced that Windows 10 would be compatible with ARM processors, including Qualcomm’s Snapdragon line of chips found in mobile phones. At the time, I wrote that this gave Microsoft a perfect opportunity to produce the ideal Surface Pro: a computer that’s thin, light, always connected via built-in LTE, and has tremendous battery life. Microsoft has released several new Surface computers since then, including models with built-in LTE, but it has yet to produce one powered by an ARM chip instead of Intel’s more power-hungry processors.

That’s where Samsung’s new Galaxy Book 2 comes in. The $999 Galaxy Book 2 is essentially the same kind of machine as Microsoft’s popular Surface Pro: a tablet with a detachable keyboard and pen that runs the full Windows 10 experience. But the Book 2 is also one of the new Always Connected PCs that are powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 850 processor.

On paper, the Book 2 is the Surface Pro I’ve been looking for: an always-connected, ultraportable computer that will last more than a full day away from an outlet. But, as is often the case, what’s on paper doesn’t always line up with reality.

To the untrained eye, the Galaxy Book 2 is virtually indistinguishable from Microsoft’s Surface Pro. It’s a thin tablet with a built-in, infinitely adjustable kickstand, a keyboard that magnetically attaches to the bottom, and a pressure-sensitive pen for writing and drawing. The Book 2 is roughly the same dimensions as the Surface Pro, right down to its 1.75-pound weight (without a keyboard).

One thing that is different is the display: the Book 2 has a 12-inch, 3:2 OLED touchscreen (with Samsung’s Super AMOLED branding) that’s pixel-dense and color-rich. It also gets bright enough to use the tablet outdoors. The screen is a little smaller than the Surface Pro’s, but I didn’t notice the size difference as much as I noticed the giant bezels that surround it, which are considerably larger than the Pro’s already big bezels.

Other differences can be found on the sides, where the Book 2 has two USB-C ports, either of which can be used to charge the computer, and a fingerprint scanner in the upper right corner behind the screen. I prefer a face-recognition camera over a fingerprint scanner for logging in to a laptop, but it is fast and reliable.

Samsung has equipped the Book 2 with side-firing AKG-tuned speakers that sound rather thin and flat. They work well for conference calls, but using them while watching video or listening to music isn’t very pleasant.

Included in the box is a full-sized keyboard with backlit keys and a large trackpad. It’s a nice keyboard that’s easy to type on, but its plasticky finish is nowhere near as nice as the Alcantara keyboards that are available for the Surface Pro. However, Microsoft doesn’t include its keyboard in the box, which costs an additional $159 on top of the price of the Surface.

The same can be said for the Book 2’s included S Pen stylus: it’s a perfectly functional, pressure-sensitive stylus, complete with an eraser on the back, that’s not quite as nice as Microsoft’s $99 Surface Pen, but Samsung includes it in the box.

Overall, the Book 2’s hardware is best described as competent: there are no major flaws or glaring issues, but the fit and finish of the materials are a step or two below what Microsoft offers. Given the price differences between the devices (an LTE-equipped Surface Pro with a pen and keyboard will run many hundreds of dollars more), most of this can be excused in favor of the Book 2.

Inside, things are a bit different. As I noted, the Galaxy Book 2 eschews the traditional Intel processor options for a Qualcomm Snapdragon 850, a modified version of the Snapdragon 845 found in many smartphones, that’s specifically designed for Windows computers. It’s paired with a scant 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. (There are no other options or spec levels to choose from with the Book 2.)

The Book 2 is one of the first devices to hit shelves with the 850, and it’s the first one I’ve used. My initial experience with the prior generation Snapdragon 835-powered Always Connected PCs was less than positive: I ran into a number of app compatibility issues, and the performance was sluggish and frustrating.

Unfortunately, while the 850 is improved over the prior-gen chip, it still suffers from many of the same issues. The Galaxy Book 2 ships with Windows 10 in S Mode, which limits the apps you can install to what’s in the Microsoft Store by default. But even then, I ran into several utilities I couldn’t use because they aren’t compatible with the ARM platform. Other apps that I could install, such as LastPass, wouldn’t run and just crashed on launch.

It also doesn’t take long to find the performance limits of the Book 2. While it can certainly work fine for light, casual work, as soon as I try to juggle multiple tasks and flip between a browser with a dozen or so tabs open, email, Slack, Word, and other productivity apps, the Book 2 starts to buckle under the pressure. Performance in Slack is so laggy and frustrating that I ended up ditching the desktop app and using a browser tab to access it.

The Book 2 will also hang and stutter when switching between virtual desktops or even when just trying to open the start menu and perform a search in Cortana. I’m guessing the 4GB of RAM is a big limitation here — even Samsung’s own Galaxy Note 9 smartphone has more RAM on board — but it’s also likely due to the processor just getting overloaded.

On the plus side, the Book 2 is silent because it has no fans, and it stays cool, even when I’m juggling a lot of tasks. And its battery life is great: while it doesn’t hit the 20 hours that Samsung claims, I am able to use it all day at work and on my commute home without having to plug it in. I’ve never used an Intel ultraportable PC with this much battery stamina.

All of this makes the Samsung Galaxy Book 2 rather frustrating. It has a great, super portable form factor, long battery life, and built-in LTE, which should make it a great computer for road warriors. But then it’s hampered by its processor platform and lack of RAM, which make it hard to work efficiently on. Those who only have to do a handful of tasks for their work might not have an issue with the Book 2’s performance, but anyone that juggles a lot of web browsing with other productivity apps will likely hit the Book 2’s wall rather quickly.

Samsung may have come the closest to making my dream computer, but the Book 2 just doesn’t have enough of the pro I need to be my everyday computer.

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