Note: This article was first published on 3rd August 2017 and republished again as it's our Tech Awards 2018 winner of the Best Ultraportable Notebook category.
LG notebooks: The story so far
LG marked the return to the local notebook scene with a bang last year with the incredible LG gram 14 and 15 notebooks. We reviewed the original gram 15 and found it to be a very good notebook. Even though it has a 15-inch display, lightweight materials used in its construction means that it weighs a scant 980g. That's even less than most 13-inch Ultrabooks. It’s even less than an 11-inch MacBook Air!
For 2017, LG has dutifully refreshed its gram line-up to include the latest seventh generation Kaby Lake processors from Intel. In addition, LG has also expanded its gram offerings locally to include the 13-inch gram 13 alongside the 14 and 15-inch variants. We have gathered all three in our labs to put them to the test, so let’s dive straight into the review.
LG gram 13
The baby of the trio is the gram 13. This is also the first time that LG is making the gram 13 available in Singapore.
The gram 13, as you might have already surmised from its name, has a 13-inch display. The entire chassis is made out of magnesium alloy, giving it an overall weight of just 840g, which makes it one of, if not the lightest 13-inch notebook on sale right now. True enough, in the hands, the gram 13 feels incredibly light and it's just 15mm thin. And when I showed it around to colleagues, they couldn’t believe that they were holding on to an actual working notebook - they thought it was a dummy unit. In fact, that's also the exact same response we got when we showed the original LG gram 15 to a different set of colleagues last year - it just feels impossible.
That said, the decision to go with magnesium does have some trade-offs. Unlike aluminum, our experience with magnesium notebooks tells us that they exhibit more flex and they feel more plasticky. And sadly, this is the case with the new gram 13. The chassis flexes noticeably when you apply pressure, and one of the reasons why many of my colleagues thought they were handling a dummy unit was because the notebook felt like it was made of plastic. Unfortunately, this seems to be a problem that faces many magnesium notebooks such as the gram 15 that we reviewed last year as well as the Lenovo Lavie Z that we got to handle at CES some years ago.
In any case, LG assures me that the gram notebooks have all been extensively tested for rigidity, and that the flexing has been intentionally designed into the notebook to help it absorb shocks more effectively. Moreover, LG also said that the notebook's panel can withstand up to 200 kgf of external force with breaking. To prove it, they have even made a video here:
The video does allay much of my fears, but even so the amount of flex is still disconcerting and it still doesn't detract from the fact that the plasticky feel of the notebook makes it feel less like a premium notebook.
The first generation gram notebooks were available in gold, but this time round, LG is only offering them in dark gray for now. It looks more gunmetal than gray, and fortunately, it doesn’t look as dull as its name might suggest. Personally, I very much prefer gold but LG says that its customers prefer something more discreet and understated.
Unfortunately, the gram 13 only comes with a Full-HD display. It is not bad by any means, but in today’s world of ultra-high resolution displays, a Full-HD display looks a bit dated. Its saving grace is that the display uses an IPS panel so images and text still look pretty crisp and sharp, and viewing angles are quite good. That said, I noticed that colors look a tad washed out especially at higher brightness settings.
The display also features a couple of useful viewing modes. The first is Reader Mode, which adjusts the display by reducing blue light and turning the display warmer to make it less fatiguing to read. It reminds of iOS’ Night Shift mode. The second is Daylight Mode, which increases the contrast to make the display more usable under harsh lights. It seems to work quite well, but activating it does throw off the colors somewhat, so make sure you aren’t editing photos with Daylight Mode turned on. It is worth noting also that the top and side bezels are really thin, which contribute to the overall compact design of the gram 13.
Underneath the proverbial hood, the gram 13 is powered by Intel’s newest Kaby Lake processors. Two configurations are available and users can choose between the Core i7-7500U processor (2.7GHz, 4MB L3 cache, Intel HD Graphics 620) and the Core i5-7200U (2.5GHz, 3MB L3 cache, Intel HD Graphics 620). Regardless of the processor you choose, the gram 13 will come with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. The unit that we are testing is the one with the faster Core i7 processor.
As for connectivity, the gram 13 has just about all the ports anyone would need. There are two full-sized USB 3.0 ports, a single USB Type-C port that supports the USB 3.1 standard, a microSD card reader, a 3.5mm audio jack, and a full-sized HDMI port. Sadly, Thunderbolt 3 is nowhere to be seen here. Wireless connectivity comes in the form of an Intel Wireless-AC 8265 adapter which supports Bluetooth 4.2 and wireless 802.11ac with speeds of up to 867Mbps.
One of the features that LG is keen to highlight is that the gram 13 has a DAC from Cirrus-Logic and also DTS Headphone: X, which is a virtual surround sound technology. I have never been a fan of virtual sound technology and I’m still not. Nevertheless, some users might find the bundled DTS Audio settings panel quite useful as it lets you play around with EQ settings, virtual surround, and Bass Boost. Also, the built-in speakers of the gram 13, like so many other notebook speakers, sound tinny and uninspired.
The gram 13’s keyboard and trackpad are both very usable. One of the complaints of the first generation gram notebooks was that the keys did not have backlights, so guess what, LG has put backlights on all of the new gram notebooks this time round. The keys are well-sized and offer a good amount of feel and resistance, but they aren’t quite as satisfying to type on because every press on the keyboard reminds you of how easily the chassis flexes. And this is especially obvious if you happen to be like me and type with heavy forceful keystrokes. The trackpad is sufficiently wide and spacious. It is also responsive and accurate, so no complaints here.
LG gram 14
The gram 14 is the middle child of the trio of gram notebooks in terms of size and weight. The overall design of the gram 14 is similar to the other gram notebooks. It just looks like a bigger version of the gram 13 or a smaller version of the gram 15, take your pick. Like the other gram notebooks, the gram 14 is only available in dark gray.
The gram 14 has a 14-inch display, and so it is slightly bulkier than the gram 13. It weighs 970g and it is around 16mm thin. Even so, 970g for a 14-inch notebook is still very remarkable. Remember, most Ultrabooks with 13-inch displays are typically around 1.1kg to 1.3kg. ASUS’ ultra-light ZenBook 3 Deluxe, which also has a 14-inch display, is 1.1kg. So yes, the gram 14 is remarkably light.
The light weight of gram 14 is thanks to its all magnesium construction. So once again, it suffers from the same flexing problems as the gram 13. Exert any kind of pressure on the chassis and it will flex. It doesn’t inspire confidence even if LG has videos to prove that its gram notebooks are sufficiently strong. Plus, it makes the gram 14 feel less like a premium product.
Though the gram 14 has a larger 14-inch display, it retains the same Full-HD resolution as the gram 13. The display panel is also IPS, so even though it is just Full-HD, images and text still look pretty good. Colors, however, do look a little washed out at higher brightness levels.
Similar to the gram 13, the gram 14 display also comes with Reader Mode and Daylight Mode. The former adjusts the display by reducing blue light and turning the display warmer to make it less fatiguing to read, while the latter increases contrast to make the display more usable under harsh lights.
As for specifications and features, it is identical to the gram 13. There are two processor options users can choose from, there’s the Core i7-7500U processor (2.7GHz, 4MB L3 cache, Intel HD Graphics 620) and the Core i5-7200U (2.5GHz, 3MB L3 cache, Intel HD Graphics 620). Regardless of which processor you pick, the gram 14 will come with 8GB of RAM and a capacious 512GB SSD. The unit we are testing has the more powerful Core i7 processor.
In terms of connectivity, the gram 14 has the exact same ports as the gram 13. This means two USB 3.0 port, a single USB Type-C port that supports USB 3.1 standards, a 3.5mm audio jack, and a full-sized HDMI port. No Thunderbolt 3, as well. Wireless connectivity also comes in the form of an Intel Wireless-AC 8265 adapter which supports Bluetooth 4.2 and wireless 802.11ac with speeds of up to 867Mbps.
Inside, the gram 14, like the gram 13, relies on a Cirrus Logic DAC for digital-to-analog audio conversions and it features DTS Headphone: X, which gives you an audio control panel that lets you play around with various sound settings. It can be useful, provided you use them with headphones or external speakers because the built-in speakers are very average. That is to say they sound like most other notebook speakers: thin, hollow, and dull.
The gram 14’s keyboard and trackpad are identical to the gram 13. It is well-sized, very usable, with a good amount of feel and resistance. The keys have backlights too, useful for typing in dimly lit places like an aircraft cabin. However, the gram 14’s keyboard suffers from the same problems as the gram 13. If you type forcefully, the chassis flexes a little. The trackpad is one of the better ones I have used on a Windows notebook. It is large, but more importantly, it is responsive and accurate and doesn’t exhibit any erratic tracking behaviors.
LG gram 15
Like the gram 13 and 14, the gram 15 is now only available in dark grey. In terms of dimensions, very little has changed. The gram 15 remains about 17mm thick, but weight has gone up slightly to 1,080g - that’s 100g more than last year’s gram 15. The additional weight is due to the substantially larger battery. Despite the extra weight, the gram 15 is still remarkably light for a 15-inch notebook. Lest you forget, 1,080g is still less than what most 13-inch Ultrabooks weigh.
Sadly, the gram 15 suffers from the same flexing issues that I have mentioned earlier with the gram 13 and 14. It doesn’t really affect the functionality of the notebook as LG has assured us that extensive tests have been done to ensure that the chassis can stand up to external forces. However, it is unnerving to see the chassis flex and it does make the notebook feel somewhat less of a premium product.
The 15-inch display uses an IPS panel and still only supports Full-HD (1920 x 1080 pixels) resolution. Fortunately, if you don’t squint, it still looks pretty crisp. Colors are quite nice, but like its predecessor, could use more brightness. Compared to the gram 13 and 14, the gram 15’s display is noticeably less bright. It is not a big problem when you are indoors, but using it under direct or harsh lights can be problematic. The glossy type display doesn’t help. Plus, unlike the gram 13 and gram 14, the gram 15 oddly doesn’t have a Daylight mode that boosts contrast to improve legibility in bright environments. The gram 15 does, however, come with the Reader Mode.
Unlike the gram 13 and gram 14, the gram 15 is available only with the more powerful Core i7-7500U processor (2.7GHz, 4MB L3 cache, Intel HD Graphics 620). There are still two configurations to choose from, but they only differ in the amount of storage. Users can pick between a gram 15 with a 256GB SSD or a 512GB SSD. Both gram 15 models come with 8GB of RAM.
Connectivity is great. The gram 15 has all the ports that the smaller gram 13 and 14 have and that means a microSD card reader, two USB 3.0 ports, a single USB Type-C port supporting USB 3.1 standards, a full-sized HDMI port, but it trumps the two smaller gram notebooks with an additional USB 2.0 port. Sadly, support for Thunderbolt 3 is missing. Wireless connectivity is handled by an Intel Wireless-AC 8265 adapter which supports Bluetooth 4.2 and wireless 802.11ac with speeds of up to 867Mbps.
Like the gram 13 and 14, the gram 15 also features a Cirrus Logic DAC and DTS Headphone: X technology. An audio control panel, accessible through the Windows taskbar lets you play around with EQ settings, surround sound settings, and Bass Boost. However, the built-in speakers themselves are uninspired, and sound hollow and thin.
The gram 15 retains mostly the same keyboard as last year’s model. As a result, it suffers the same issue as last year's model and that is keys like "Backspace" and "Enter" are a little small considering their position next to the number pad. This isn’t a problem with the smaller gram 13 and gram 14 as they don't have a number pad so it is easy for touch typist to find keys like "Backspace" and "Enter". That said, I think most users can adjust to this without too much issue.
The bigger issue, however, is with the flexing that comes about when you type too forcefully. It doesn’t feel as solid as it should. But if it is any consolation, the general feel of the keyboard is actually quite good, with just about the right amount of resistance to create a tactile typing experience. Pity about the chassis flex.
The three LG gram notebooks have very similar specifications so I’m expecting them to put up similar numbers in our benchmarking tests. That said, performance throttling can be an issue with ultra-thin notebooks, so I’ll be keeping a close eye to see if this condition affects the LG gram notebooks.
As for comparisons, it will be interesting to see how much performance increase the new gram notebooks with their Kaby Lake processors will yield over last year’s LG gram 15 which is powered by a Skylake processor. It will also be interesting to see how the new gram notebooks perform against other Kaby Lake notebooks like ASUS’ ZenBook 3 and ZenBook 3 Deluxe.
Here’s a list of all the benchmarks used:
- PCMark 8
- 3DMark (2013)
- Tomb Raider
- Far Cry 2
|LG gram 13 (2017)||LG gram 14 (2017)||LG gram 15 (2017)||LG Gram 15||ASUS ZenBook 3 Deluxe UX490UA|
|Launch SRP||—||—||—|| || |
|Processor and Chipset|| || || || || |
|Operating System|| || || || || |
|System Memory|| || || || || |
|Video & Display|| || || || || |
|Storage|| || || || || |
|Connectivity|| || || || || |
|Audio|| || || || || |
|I/O Ports|| || || || || |
|Battery Type|| || || || || |
|Dimensions|| || || || || |
|Weight|| || || || || |
|Optical Drive||—||—||—||—|| |
PCMark 8 tests a system’s performance by putting it through different tasks that reflect the workloads of various kinds of users, for instance the casual home user or the working creative professional. Looking at the PCMark 8 results, the three LG gram notebooks recorded scores that were quite close to each other. Their scores were also comparable against the ASUS ZenBook 3 and ZenBook 3 Deluxe, which are also powered by new and slightly more powerful Kaby Lake processors. It is also clear that the new gram notebooks have a performance advantage over last year’s gram 15, especially in the Creative, Work, MS Office, and Adobe workloads.
As noted in previous reviews, Intel’s new Kaby Lake processors do provide a noticeable graphics performance boost, and this was clearly recorded in our 3DMark test. All three gram notebooks performed significantly better than the gram 15 from last year. Curiously, however, the three notebooks posted wildly different scores on the less intensive Cloud Gate scenario. The gram 15 posted the highest score, which about 4% greater than the gram 14 and 11% better than the gram 13. On Fire Strike, all three gram notebooks recorded nearly identical scores.
However, compared to the ZenBook 3 and ZenBook 3 Deluxe, the three gram notebooks scored noticeably lower. The ZenBook 3 Deluxe performed notably better than all three gram notebooks. On Cloud Gate and Fire Strike, the ZenBook 3 Deluxe was about 10% and 25% faster respectively, which is quite a big margin.
Far Cry 2
On Far Cry 2, the three gram notebooks were, once again, faster than the gram 15 from last year. Overall, the new gram notebooks were about 12% faster than the Skylake-powered gram 15. That said, the three gram notebooks’ performance was slightly below that of the ASUS ZenBook 3 and ZenBook 3 Deluxe. The two ZenBooks were about 10% to 12% faster than the three gram notebooks, which confirms our earlier findings in 3DMark that the gram’s graphics performance is slightly disappointing. In fact, the new gram notebooks were outclassed even by the older HP Spectre and Dell XPS 13, which are both powered by Skylake processors.
Tomb Raider is much more graphics-intensive game compared to Far Cry 2, which explains the overall poor performance of all the notebooks. Even so, one thing was clear and it was that the three gram notebooks were severely outclassed by the two ZenBooks, even though they were all powered by the same Intel processor. With the graphics settings turned to Normal, the ZenBooks were about 50% faster than the gram notebooks. On High, the ZenBooks’ advantage increased to about 58% overall. The gram notebooks were also surpassed by the older HP Spectre and Dell XPS 13. Clearly, the gram notebooks’ graphics performance leaves much to be desired.
Battery life & power consumption
One of the major improvements to the new gram notebooks is a larger battery. The gram 14 and gram 15 now have 60Wh capacity batteries, whereas last year’s models only had a 34.6Wh battery. The larger battery, coupled with the improved efficiency of the Kaby Lake processor, means that the new gram 15 notebook lasts over 2.7 times as long as the older gram 15 model. In all, the new gram 15 lasted 499 minutes or 8 hours and 19 minutes.
Even more impressive is the gram 14, which lasted a whopping 572 minutes or 9 hours and 32 minutes. This is way longer than other any notebook here. Even the MacBook Air, which has a pretty good battery life of 323 minutes is no match for the new gram 14. And even though the gram 13 has a smaller 34.6Wh battery, it still lasted a very decent 296 minutes - just shy of 5 hours.
Looking at the power consumption figures, we can also see that three gram notebooks are incredibly efficient. Their power consumption figures hover around the 7W mark, which is considerably lesser than the other notebooks. Even the ZenBook 3 and ZenBook 3 Deluxe, which have similar Kaby Lake processors, are not as power efficient. This could be a reason for the graphics performance discrepancy seen earlier and if so, the trade off has no bearing for a true mobile office warrior.
Our Portability Index factors in battery life, weight and volume so you can see which notebook is the most worthwhile to carry around. Given the long battery life of the new gram notebooks, it was unsurprising to see that all three of them scored very highly in our portability index. An interesting thing to note is that while last year’s gram 15 managed a score of only 2.276, this year’s new gram 15, with its improved processor and larger battery, managed a much higher ratio of 6.605.
And expectedly, the gram 14, with its lightweight compact chassis and super long battery life, has the highest ratio here of 7.910.
The gram 13 fared well too with a ratio of 4.609, which is better than other comparable ultra-portable 13-inch notebooks like the Dell XPS 13 and HP Spectre.
Extreme portability, but with compromises
The new gram notebooks are slightly improved versions of last year’s models. There’s much to like about them, but there are also a couple of issues that are a cause for concern. Let’s begin with the not-so-good stuff since I’m the kind that likes to hear the bad news first.
Like its predecessors, the new gram notebooks suffer from the same problem of chassis flex and plasticky feel. But like I said before in the review of the gram 15 last year, this is one of the trade-offs of using magnesium alloy. The alloy itself feels like plastic and flexes when put under pressure. Compared to other premium notebooks, the gram notebooks do feel like they are less well put together, even if they are not. That said, LG has assured us time and time again that extensive tests have been carried out to ensure that the notebook is sturdy enough for everyday use, and there is now even a video to prove it. Nevertheless, it doesn't detract from the fact that the way the gram notebooks feel still leaves much to be desired.
Another issue that we have with the new gram notebooks is the display. Full-HD resolution displays aren't a deal-breaker, but they do look less sharp and slightly fuzzy, especially when compared to rivals like Dell’s XPS 13 and Lenovo’s Yoga 910 that have ultra-high resolution QHD (3,200 x 1,800 pixels) and 4K displays (3,840 x 2,160 pixels) respectively. In addition to the Full-HD resolution, the gram notebooks’ displays were also a tad dim. That said, the displays do have some redeeming qualities. The Reader and Daylight modes are quite useful, and colors themselves do look sufficiently natural and vibrant.
But perhaps the most pressing issue about the new gram notebooks is its below average graphics performance. Looking at the scores achieved across 3DMark, Far Cry 2, and Tomb Raider, it is clear that the gram notebooks were not as fast as ASUS’ ZenBook 3 and ZenBook 3 Deluxe - both of which are also powered by Intel’s new Kaby Lake processor. But perhaps more worryingly, the gram notebooks were not as fast even when compared to the HP Spectre and Dell XPS 13 - both of which are powered by older Intel Skylake processors. On the other hand, general computing performance seems to be all right for the gram notebooks as their PCMark scores were quite good.
Pricing is another thorny point for the new gram notebooks as prices have gone up significantly across the board. For example, the gram 15 notebook we tested is priced at S$2,399, which is actually quite decent for a notebook with its design, features, and specifications. However, a similarly spec’ed gram 15 notebook would have cost just S$1,899 last year. That’s an increase of S$500, which is over 26%. In other words, a lot. In fact, the price increase puts the new gram notebooks in the same pricing bracket as other premium notebooks like Dell's XPS notebooks, HP's Spectre notebooks, and Lenovo's flagship Yogoa notebooks.
Here’s a rundown of the pricing of the various gram SKUs:
|LG gram 13|
|Intel Core i5-7200U||8GB||256GB SSD||S$1,899|
|Intel Core i7-7500U||8GB||512GB SSD||S$2,199|
|LG gram 14|
|Intel Core i5-7200U||8GB||512GB SSD||S$2,199|
|Intel Core i7-7500U||8GB||512GB SSD||S$2,499|
|LG gram 15|
|Intel Core i7-7500U||8GB||256GB SSD||S$2,399|
|Intel Core i7-7500U||8GB||512GB SSD||S$2,599|
Fortunately, this is where the bad stuff ends. There are lots to like about the gram notebooks, but their portability trumps all. In case you have already forgotten, the gram 13 is 870g, while the gram 14 and 15 are 970g and 1080g respectively. That’s amazing and they feel almost unreal in your hands. The gram 13, in particular, is crazy light for a notebook and feels more like an oversized tablet.
But more importantly, the gram notebooks do not sacrifice on connectivity nor battery life like some of its rivals. No need to worry about getting adapters and dongles because all gram notebooks have full-sized USB Type-A and HDMI ports. The only downer is that they don’t support Thunderbolt 3, but that shouldn’t be considered an absolute deal-breaker, in my opinion, since devices that can take full advantage of Thunderbolt 3 are still few and far between. More importantly, the larger batteries outfitted to the new gram 14 and 15 notebooks make them the longest-lasting notebooks that we have ever tested.
Overall, the new gram notebooks are easily the lightest and most portable notebooks that we have ever tested. Some old problems still remain, but if portability is your utmost priority, the gram notebooks are pretty hard to beat. They offer a lot of portability, but with relatively very little compromises.
That said, our pick of the trio has got to be the gram 14 because it offers the best blend of performance and portability. It is just about the right size, slightly bigger than the gram 13, but not too big as to become cumbersome like the gram 15 could be. But perhaps more crucially, it benefits from having a larger 60Wh battery, giving it a whopping battery life of over 9 hours in our intensive test - or over two times as long as other comparable notebooks. If you have to constantly be on the move, this is the ideal notebook for you.