At this point, I’m beginning day 3 of my review period with the Samsung Galaxy Chromebook. While we weren’t able to get a reiew unit, this is one Chromebook I was excited enough about that I went out and got my hands on one the minute it became available from Best Buy on Monday morning. We’ve done our initial unboxing and I, like many of you, have read each review already published about this Chromebook. Since we weren’t able to have a review done and ready for the April 6th launch (Samsung only had a handful of devices to get out early), I’m going to continue dropping posts about my experiences along the way in a lead-up to our full review.
Today, we need to talk about the one universal downside this Chromebook has in all the reviews thus far: battery life. If you read the handful of full reviews already published, you’re going to see small issues here and there (no device is perfect, especially not to a reviewer), but you’ll universally see one glaring problem in the form of the device’s paltry battery life. 100% across the board, reviewers are getting about 4 hours of real-world use from the Galaxy Chromebook, and that’s just not good.
To put things in perspective, it’s not abnormal to get about 8 hours or more of actual use from nearly all Chromebooks at this point. When you factor in down time for lunch, a stray conversation here and there, a trip to the water cooler, etc., 8 hours of actual usage off a charger is more than plenty to carry nearly all users to the end of a work day without need of a charge. Different things obviously factor into battery life, but the primary fluctuation comes from your screen brightness preferences. We all know that cranking the display brightness up to 100% while off the charger isn’t recommended, but everyone has a different brightness level that works for them in actual, real-life settings.
I tend to lean towards the brighter end of the spectrum and I understand that it will cut into my usage time when away from the charger. Ultimately, if I can find a sweet spot with about 6 hours of usage for the day, I can get what I need done without reaching for a charger. I’d rather sacrifice a bit of battery to reduce the effective glare on my screen, so that’s a trade I’m willing to make. Not everyone behaves this way and thus, battery life isn’t completely consistent on any device from user to user. In the end, what we’re after is a general sense of whether or not our battery is reliable for our use cases.
With all that said, it seems that the primary issue with the Samsung Galaxy Chromebook’s battery lies almost completely with the screen and its max brightness. While I know that’s not exactly a bombshell announcement, there are some things we all need to consider when talking about this device and it’s power-hungry display. Taken into consideration all together, there are takeaways that may make the battery life debacle a bit more tolerable for some of you and put your mind at ease if you are considering getting this otherwise-amazing Chromebook.
I spoke to a Chromebook Product Manager on Twitter yesterday about the concerning battery life, and he clued me into a few things. First, Chromebook battery baselines are measured with indoor usage at 80 nits. While I feel that is too low for real world usage, it is only by a bit. I feel 100-120 nits is the spot where the screen dimness doesn’t bother me for extended periods of work. If you were in a dim coffee shop or room at home, however, this 80 nit brightness is passable. Knowing that all Chromebook battery life numbers are collected at these dim settings across the board helps ground the claims of 8-12 hours on battery most Chromebooks proudly display these days. Crank that display up a bit and you’re likely to blow through your reserves much faster than you realize.
Putting this 80 nit measure to the test, I worked all morning off the charger at a notch under 50% brightness (where I was told the device was tested) on the Samsung Galaxy Chromebook and was pacing for about 8 hours of real usage. For my office and its large windows, this was a bit of a challenge, so I bumped it up to 50% brightness (closer to about 120 nits by my measure) and worked for another hour or so. That trended me towards about 6-6.5 hours of real usage and that feels more workable. It’s not good, but it is passable.
Next, I took the Samsung and the Pixelbook Go into a dark room and used a lux meter to set them at basically the same brightness (measured around 120 nits). I then spent a good hour working from the Pixelbook Go in the same room under the same conditions and it paced itself around a whopping 12 hours of use. That’s a far cry from eking out 6 hours on the Galaxy Chromebook and it is precisely why this whole thing is so frustrating.
Another point that was emphasized in my conversation with the Chromebook Product Manager is the difference in LCD and AMOLED displays regarding power consumption. AMOLED displays get exponentially more power-hungry as they brighten. You would think that reducing the brightness to 60% would improve battery drastically, but that isn’t the case. I worked yesterday between 60-70% brightness and only managed about 3 hours and 45 minutes of use. Today, moving that down to 50% I was pacing for 6 hours. A notch under 50% was pacing me towards 8 hours, proving that a 10% reduction in brightness is not equivilant to a 10% bump in battery.
It seems LCD screens adjust in a more linear way with power consumption and most of us are more used to that behavior with regard to brightness and battery use. If 100% brightness gets me 6 hours of use, 50% should give me 12, right? While it isn’t that simple with LCD, it is not even close to that linear with AMOLED.
Finally, all those pixels are causing part of the problem, too. Regardless of panel type, when the processor has to push around 4X more pixels (comparing the Samsung’s 4K to the Pixelbook Go’s 1080p), there’s more power consumed for every single action on the screen. When you combine the resolution bump with AMOLED’s exponential power consumption at higher brightness, the result is the problematic battery life we’re seeing on the Galaxy Chromebook.
So, there’s at least a bit of explanation, but is there anything that can be done about it? Unfortunately, I don’t think so. If a solution could be implemented like we see in Samsung’s smartphones that allows users to affect the actual screen resolution (not display scaling) so that the panel only fires at 1920×1080 when off battery, then there are things that could be done to mitigate this. We’ve not seen any indication that this is in the works for Chrome OS at this point, but it could happen I suppose. While this wouldn’t solve AMOLED’s power consumption curve, it would definitely help the situation by a long shot. It all makes me wonder why Samsung didn’t just opt for a QHD or FHD AMOLED screen to begin with, but that’s a discussion for another time, I suppose.
For now, what we’re looking at is a trade-off for potential buyers of the Galaxy Chromebook. It’s really that simple. If you want a searingly bright, color accurate, super-high-density display, you’ll pay not only at the cash register, but in battery life as well. The advertised 8 hours on the Samsung Galaxy Chromebook is only possible under very specific settings, and that is really a shame. For many of you out there, you’re going to be looking at 4-6 hours. While it isn’t quite as bad as the reviews have stated, it isn’t good, either.
For a few years, now, I’ve become accustomed to Chromebooks with 10+ hours of battery life and I’ve become equally spoiled by the ability to crank up the brightness when I choose and ‘sacrifice’ a bit of that substantial battery reserve to get a more comfortable working setup. With Samsung’s latest, that luxury is gone. Sure, you are getting one of the best-built, beautiful and marvelous devices on offer. You just may need to invest in an external battery for the longer, brighter sessions you’ll need it for. I’ll close with this: for the rest of my time reviewing this Chromebook, I’ll be using it just like I use any other device I review to get a better grip on how my preferences impact battery when I’m not obsessing over it for obsession’s sake and I’ll be sure to talk about that when we publish our final review.