Samsung built a laptop for its fabled S Pen, but it's no Galaxy Note

 digitaltrends.com  2/15/2018 2:15:52 PM   Luke Larsen

Everyone knows the name Samsung, but probably not for laptops. The company has had a hard time gaining much momentum with its laptops — at least compared to its smartphone business.

The Notebook 9 Pen is the newest addition to Samsung’s lineup, though now it is a full-fledged 2-in-1, featuring the beloved (by some) S Pen from the Galaxy Note smartphones. This $1,400 PC isn’t inexpensive, but it comes with an 8th-gen Core i7 processor and the S Pen packaged in to sweeten the deal.

Samsung has built on lessons from past devices in designing this PC, leaning on both the S Pen and its bundled software. Yet, when it comes down to it, this 2-in-1 isn’t the machine that will turn the tide for Samsung laptops.

A little effort in design would have gone a long way

The Notebook 9 Pen is new, but you might not be able to tell from the look of it. It’s nearly identical to the other Notebook 9 laptops, including the ones from 2017. The only real difference is the switch to a black, glossy display, and the repositioning of the power button to the side.

While it’s not a bad looking computer – it has small bezels and simple, silver color scheme — it’s not beautiful. Compared to machines like the HP Spectre x360 or Surface Book 2 13, the Notebook 9 Pen looks downright bland. Samsung needs to add a bit more flair to make its laptops stand out.

The same goes for the construction, which is good enough, but features a magnesium alloy as the basis for the chassis. We’ve seen this material many times before, and it’s always challenging. Technically, it’s both sturdy and light, but it feels like plastic. That makes the Notebook 9 Pen feel less luxurious than its price promises. There’s some flex in the palm rests and keyboard, but nothing too noticeable. The lid feels strong, which is good given that you’re encouraged to flip it around and put it in tent mode.

Portability is where the Notebook 9 Pen does stand out. While it’s not as featherweight as the insanely light Notebook 9, sans-pen, this 2-in-1 comes in at just 2.19 pounds. PCs like the MacBook Pro, HP Spectre x360, and Surface Book 2 feel downright heavy in comparison. It’s one of the lightest 2-in-1s you can buy.

It’s no slouch in thinness either, measuring up at just 0.64 inches. As a means of comparison, the Notebook 9 Pen is almost identical to the size of the 13-inch MacBook Pro. It’s lighter and nearly as thin as its closest competitor, the HP Spectre x360, and feels tiny next to the Lenovo Yoga 920.

The thin, light design isn’t just for show. It makes using it as a tablet much more comfortable. While it’s not down to the size of an iPad or Surface Pro (without the keyboard), it’s still one of the better 2-in-1s to use as a tablet, and particularly good for its 13.3-inch display.

Full size ports in a small size frame

Samsung’s strategy with ports seems to be ‘simpler is better.’ It hasn’t changed anything around this year in terms of ports, featuring the same selection of USB-C, USB-A, HDMI, and one microSD slot. It’s not a bad set of ports — in fact, it’s likely everything you’ll ever need. We’re impressed that Samsung managed to keep in legacy ports like full-size HDMI, and a USB-A port, on this super-thin machine.

As we noted in our review of the 2017 Notebook 9, we wished Samsung had ditched the AC adapter for another USB-C port. It still doesn’t make much sense to keep that old source of power around when Samsung could have easily thrown in another versatile USB-C port.

The S Pen makes its notebook debut

The S Pen is, without a doubt, the star of the show — so much so that Samsung awkwardly tacked it onto the end of the name. This is where fans of the Galaxy Note smartphones are going to get excited. The stylus is very similar-looking to the Note 8’s — nearly identical, in fact. It’s small, light, and extremely responsive, and even features a spring-loaded end tip that fakes the clicking sound of a retractable pen, for the fidgety among us. With 4,096 levels of sensitivity and a tiny 0.7mm tip, basic navigation feels smooth, as does drawing — and overall, you can tell Samsung has experience in this department, unlike a lot of Windows PC manufacturers.

A tiny pen makes sense on a smartphone, but less so on a laptop.

The S Pen comes with a suite of software options that help you get right in to using the stylus. The five mini-apps are basic — things like making quick notes, selecting parts of the screen, and writing on the screen — but they spring up every time you pop out the S Pen and do work well. Again, they’re like the options on the Galaxy Note, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Samsung has also brought over its suite of apps and features, giving you quick access to screen grabbing, drawing on the screen, and sketching notes. It’s easy to pull out the S Pen and begin using it. And yes, the pen is held within the chassis of the machine. Unlike the Pixelbook, which doesn’t have a holder, the S Pen disappears into the body of the laptop in the same way it does on the Galaxy Note.

However, there are two problems with the S Pen on the Notebook 9 Pen. First, the size. Because it was taken directly from the Galaxy Note, it feels a bit too flimsy and thin to be comfortable to use for very long. Unlike the Surface Pen, Apple Pencil, or even the Pixelbook Pen, the S Pen isn’t the size of a normal pen. It was clearly designed for making quick notes and sketches, not working on in-depth creative projects. That’s fine, but serious artists will want to look elsewhere. A tiny pen makes sense on a smartphone, but less so on a laptop.

Samsung wants you to think it’s all about the stylus, but the truth is that you’ll spend much more time with the keyboard and touchpad. Unfortunately, Samsung hasn’t paid as much attention to these. The Notebook 9 has a decent 1.5mm of travel, but the keyboard’s soft bottoming action makes it feel imprecise and squishy. Like most keyboards, we eventually became used to it, but there’s a bit of a learning curve. To add to the mediocre feel, the backlighting has a nice white glow, but it’s uneven, especially near the function row of keys.

The touchpad doesn’t fare much better. As with a lot of Windows touchpads, palm rejection (or in this case, thumb rejection) is a problem. This makes activities like ‘click and drag’ unpredictable. It has Windows Precision drivers, so gestures like two-finger scroll and three-finger app switching feel accurate. Yet it’s smaller than your average touchpad, which means you’ll constantly be feeling the edges of the area. We also found the click to be a bit too stiff and loud to be used often, so if you’re not a fan of tap-to-click, you’ll want to check out a Yoga or Dell XPS 2-in-1 instead.

Average on the eyes, bad on the ears

The Notebook 9 Pen offers a standard 1080p display that measures 13.3 inches. It’s conventional in every sense of the word, including how it benchmarked in our tests. It’s not the best in terms of contrast ratio, lagging behind 2-in-1s like the Surface Book 2 and Dell XPS 13 2-in-1. On the other hand, the Notebook 9 Pen does a great job with colors, scoring the best among its competitors in terms of average color error. It’s a shame that Samsung hasn’t offered a 1440p or 4K option, especially since the Notebook 9 Pen tops the price range at $1,400.

As for the speakers, they’re nothing to write home about. They’re down-firing and haven’t seen much of an improvement over the Notebook 9 we reviewed last year. Bass is virtually non-existent, and distortion happens at higher volumes. You’ll want to have external speakers or headphones on hand if you want good audio.

A fast processor, and a fast hard drive

The Notebook 9 Pen is powered by the Intel Core i7-8550U, which is one of the fastest CPUs you’ll find in mainstream laptops. Unlike the Notebook 9 laptops, it’s the only option for the 2-in-1, but that’s not a problem considering what you get. Its Geekbench 4 performance is in line with other 8th-gen Core i7 processors we’ve tested like the HP Spectre x360 13 or Dell XPS 13. These 8th-gen CPUs do significantly better in multitasking and processing heavier loads, seeing a 74 percent increase in multi-core performance from the 7th-gen Notebook 9 laptop.

In real life usage, we found the Notebook 9 Pen quick and nimble, deftly handling productivity, including some photo editing. Our configuration came with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of SSD storage, which is standard at this price range. The SSD was fast, just as you’d expect from PCIe storage, making reading and writing files quick and painless. It’s a good upgrade over the 2017 model Notebook 9, which featured slower SATA storage.

One issue we found throughout, however, was cooling. The Notebook 9 Pen consistently became hot and loud, when it really shouldn’t have. The second you open a heavier application like Steam, the fans started spinning. That might have been expected, but even with just a basic productivity setup like 10-15 Chrome tabs, Slack, and Spotify — the device became loud and uncomfortably hot near the vents by the hinge. It may have something to do with the corners Samsung had to cut to make it as light as it is, but it’s definitely noticeable.

Gaming on the go? The Notebook 9 Pen says no

The Notebook 9 Pen was not made for gaming, especially not for graphically intense games. Using just the onboard Intel HD graphics, you won’t be shocked to hear that it struggles in all but the simplest graphical challenges. In 3DMark it scored well below systems that have discrete graphics cards like the Dell XPS 15 or the Surface Book 2 13, thought it was on par with systems of its own caliber.

We tested out Rocket League at 1080p, and it held up well with the lowered “Performance” settings, getting around 40 fps (frames per second). Yet with the settings turned up passed that, the framerate dipped down to an average of 13 frames per second.

Battery Life

Unlike game performance, battery life is something the Notebook 9 Pen is expected to excel in, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s got a 39Wh battery inside, but don’t judge it by the size alone. Samsung has done some magic to ensure that the Notebook 9 Pen is as portable as possible.

In our video playback test, which loops through a 1080p video until it dies, the Notebook 9 Pen performed well, lasting over 14 hours. In fact, it beat every score we’ve ever taken outside of the Surface Book 2. In our two web browsing tests, the Notebook 9 Pen was closer to average, but you should expect to get good mileage out of the Notebook 9 Pen — especially if you aren’t pushing your system too hard. We didn’t have a problem getting through most of a workday without having to plug it in.

Our Take

Samsung did a lot of things right with the Notebook 9 Pen, but it also cut corners on some of the most important aspects of a 2-in-1 laptop. With a price cut, the Notebook 9 Pen could have made a case for itself, but as it stands, it’s not competitive with what else is out there.

Are there any alternatives?

The 2-in-1 space is crowded with lots of great options, some of which offer a better value than the Notebook 9 Pen.

First, we’d direct you to the late HP Spectre x360 13. It matches the Notebook 9 Pen in hardware, but does it for less, and with way more flair. It might not be as light as the Notebook 9 Pen, but it’s a more luxurious device for less money. Lenovo’s Yoga 920 falls into a very similar category as the Spectre x360, though it has a bigger screen, which makes it harder to use as a tablet.

The other important alternative is the 13-inch Surface Book 2, which you’ll end up spending a bit more money on. When configured to match the $1,400 Notebook 9 Pen, the Surface Book 2 will cost you upwards of $2,000. In return you get a better pen, longer battery life, and the ability to detach the screen to use as a tablet. Unlike the Notebook 9 Pen, you can also spec the Surface Book 2 down to $1,200 for a Core i5 system and 128GB of SSD storage, if price is an issue.

How long will it last?

The Notebook 9 Pen should last quite some time, considering how fast of a processor it has. It also comes with a standard one-year parts and labor warranty

Should you buy it?

No. For all but the most die-hard S Pen lovers, there are better 2-in-1s available.

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