8.5

Samsung ArtPC Pulse Review: Artfully Designed, Fully Functional

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Samsung ArtPC Pulse Review: Artfully Designed, Fully Functional

The desktop PC is undergoing a renaissance, with designs that beg to be showcased in a living room or creative space. Whereas you may want to conceal miniature PCs, like Apple’s Mac Mini, computers like the all-in-one iMac and the desktop Mac Pro show us that the utilitarian PC could be a trendy, yet functional, piece of furniture that’s meant to be showcased.

The latest PC manufacturer to enter this space is Samsung, with its aptly named ArtPC Pulse. Lacking the softer cloth-like fabric material of rival HP’s Pavilion Wave desktop, the ArtPC draws immediate comparison to Apple’s machined Mac Pro. With an aluminum build, integrated 360-degree speakers tuned by Harman Kardon— an audio and electronics brand that Samsung is in the process of acquiring— and a modular, expandable design, the ArtPC’s aesthetic is divisive. Part minimalist metal and fully utilitarian, the ArtPC Pulse invites comparisons from passersby to my desk to anything from a futuristic space capsule to Oscar the Grouch’s trash can abode.

But all these comparisons are unfair. Even though the ArtPC may be following in Apple’s trend of bringing minimalism to functional electronics, Samsung’s desktop is targeted at consumers rather than design professionals who need higher end processing and graphics power. As such, it starts out a much more affordable $1,200— with dedicated discrete graphics— compared to Apple’s $2,999 entry configuration.

And for me, the cylindrical design, with its soft glowing LED lights and 360-degree speakers, brings a bit of whimsy and a lot of functionality to an otherwise stale but powerful metal computing tube.

Design


artpc_design1.jpgWith a compact cylindrical body and dark titanium-hued gray finish, the ArtPC will feel immediately at home in any workspace as a desktop computer or placed in a living room as a home theater PC for streaming your favorite shows.

The design is attractive and premium with brushed metal finishing on the surfaces, beveled edges and a solid, yet modular, construction made for expandability. Unlike the Mac Pro’s polished surface, you can easily move the ArtPC from room to room in your home without fear of marring the device’s surface with oily fingerprints.

Our configuration of the ArtPC, priced at $1,599, comes with a modular 1TB hard drive plate and stands just over a foot tall. The device is compact with a diameter of 5.51 inches, which measures favorable compared to the Mac Pro’s height of 10 inches and a diameter of 6.6 inches. Remove the optional hard disk drive space and the ArtPC shrinks down by almost 1.5 inches, bringing the height down to 10.5 inches.

Our top-of-the-line configuration of the ArtPC comes with three components that you’ll need to “assemble” to create your modular PC: a computing base, the expandable hard disk drive and the 360-degree speaker top. Each component is protected with plastic end caps. Once you remove the end caps, you basically screw on each component. While design gives the illusion of a modular PC, most of the ArtPC’s internals are sealed, so don’t expect to be able to swap out graphics cards or upgrade the device’s motherboard, as you would with a traditional desktop tower.

artpc_design2.jpgThe bottom portion, which is the largest disk of the three, measures just over seven inches tall, and is home to the computer. Inside is the processor, graphics, fan, memory and other PC components. On the rear, you’ll find all the ports arranged neatly, like on the Mac Pro. Here, you’ll have access to four USB Type-A ports to connect all your legacy devices— though one of the ports is occupied by a dongle to connect the included wireless keyboard and mouse to the system— a USB Type-C port, Ethernet jack, combo audio jack for headphone and microphone support, power jack and an HDMI port. An SD card reader is also found on the rear, as is the power button.

Even though I understand Samsung’s design to conceal the power button to the rear of the unit to keep the ArtPC’s aesthetics sleek, this placement makes it hard to turn on and off the device when the unit is placed in the corner of a shelf on an entertainment center. But, Samsung’s focus on clean design is a positive in regard to the system’s power. Unlike laptops that require an external power brick, the power supply is built into the ArtPC; all you need is a cord to connect the PC to a wall outlet, minimizing the clutter often found with desktop PCs.

A Bluetooth button on the back allows you to share the Harman Kardon speakers with other devices, like your smartphone, even when the PC is off. You can initiate pairing with the hardware button to the right of the power button, or inside the software on Windows 10.

artpc_design4.jpgThe next plate to go on is the 1TB hard drive, and then the speaker with goes on top. If you choose, for instance, to not use the included speaker plate, you can top off the ArtPC with the plastic cap to keep the design cohesive and clean.

artpc_design3.jpgThere is a 3/8-inch visible gap between the PC and the hard drive space. This gap houses the vents, which is necessary for airflow to keep the unit cool, and also contains a small LED ring light. The pre-installed Control Center app lets you change the color of the ambient light— similar to how you can change the keyboard backlighting colors on a gaming laptop— and set how the light blinks when the system is in standby and you have incoming notifications.

I appreciate the soft glow of the ambient light, and I think it’s a nice added touch to make the ArtPC stand out from other desktops. It also creates a sense of warmth, which would have been missing from a cold machined metal finish. That said, the LED was more ornamental than functional, and I didn’t find myself using the lights to check for notifications. If my PC was in standby and I am in the room, checking my Galaxy S7 Edge for alerts is far easier than looking at the light, walking over to my desk and then activating Windows 10’s Action Center.

If you’re throwing a party, sound produced from the Harman Kardon speakers is loud enough to fill a large room. And even with the music cranked up the the highest volume, the speaker produced clean music with minimal to no distortion, which is quite impressive given how loud the volume gets.

Even though the speakers appear to be integrated into the PC, given the ArtPC Pulse’s modular design, Samsung markets the unit as having “external” 360-degree speakers.

Highs and mids from the speakers sound crisp and clean. There’s a bit of tuning, but it’s not distracting. I found the speakers work best for vocals and instrumental tracks, as the bass was a bit hollow and muddied at higher volumes. Club and dance tracks, rap and hip-hop tracks lack the punchiness produced from a speaker with a dedicated subwoofer. The upside is that there is little artificial tuning to over-emphasize the bass that you’d get with some headphones.

Given that there is more room for the drivers, sound produced from the Harman Kardon speakers is richer than what you’d typically get from an AiO or desktop with integrated speakers.

Specifications and Performance


artpc_specs1.jpgWith quad-core Intel performance and discrete graphics, home users will find plenty to love about the ArtPC. Performance is speedy, and you won’t experience any lags for home, general office and basic gaming use.

The base configuration ships with an Intel 6th Generation quad-core Core i5 clocked at 2.7GHz, 8GB DDR4 RAM that’s expandable to 32GB using two slots, 256GB NVMe SSD and a discrete AMD Radeon RX 460 graphics with 2GB DDR5 memory. The PC comes with 802.11ac WiFi support with Intel’s wireless card along with Bluetooth 4.1. There are two microphones built-in to help improve voice recognition for VoIP calls and using Cortana, but you’ll need to supply your own external webcam for video conferencing.

Our upgraded review unit ships with a few notable differences than the base model, as it includes a quad-core Intel Core i7 processor clocked at 3.4GHz that goes up to 4GHz with TurboBoost technology, 16GB RAM and 256GB internal SSD with an extra 1TB hard drive through the modular expansion plate.

I didn’t try to open up the unit to add in aftermarket RAM memory to further boost system performance, but that’s one of the few upgrades you can make with the ArtPC by unscrewing the bottom of the unit. As such, the unit feels much more like a sealed-in AiO than a desktop.

Even though the ArtPC Pulse doesn’t come with the Mac Pro’s workstation-class Intel Xeon processors, don’t dismiss Samsung’s take on the fashionable desktop as a slouch.

artpc_specs3.jpgIn fact, sporting newer Intel architecture, the ArtPC Pulse manages to best Apple’s pro-centric PC in a number of benchmarks, edging ahead in single-core and multi-core processor tests, processor efficiency scores and integrated OpenCL tests with the integrated Intel graphics, according to a processor comparison published by CPUBoss.

artpc_specs2.pngBoth configurations of the ArtPC rely on Intel’s Skylake architecture, released last year. Our upgraded Core i7 unit scored 4,201 points using the PCMark 8 Home Accelerated Test, which is just shy of the 4,679 average for a VR-ready PC. This isn’t surprising given that AMD markets the discrete Radeon RX 460 GPU as an entry-level VR-ready chip.

I didn’t have a chance to test out any VR software or applications, so I can’t comment to how AMD’s entry-level VR-ready offering fares when compared against Nvidia’s CPU VR-ready family of GPUs.

On the CPU side, the desktop scored 4,323 points using Geekbench 4’s single-core test and 14,624 points on a multi-core test. It also scored 55,263 points on the GPU test with AMD’s discrete graphics and 20,096 with the Intel HD 530 integrated graphics. Using the Cinebench benchmark, the ArtPC Pulse scored 104.39 fps using the OpenCL graphics test and 816 with the CPU test.

The ArtPC’s graphics prowess showed mixed performance when compared against a VR-ready PC using Futuremark’s 3DMarks tests. The 3DMark TimeSpy score of 1,651 points is roughly half of the category average of 3,362. The unit’s Fire Strike result of 4,407 is similarly half of the 9,271 in the VR PC category, but Ice Storm, Cloud Gate and Sky Diver results were significantly better, with the ArtPC Pulse matching or beating the VR PC average.

My workflow generally consists of juggling multiple browser windows (Chrome and Microsoft Edge), each with multiple tabs, and the Art PC never missed a beat. I was also able to juggle Microsoft Office apps (Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook) and some moderate creative work using Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Premiere without lag.

artpc_specs4.jpgAt the end of the day, Intel’s Skylake-based quad-core Core i7 processor delivered workstation-like power at a much lower price than the Xeon-equipped Mac Pro. Home users looking to replicate Apple’s cylindrical aesthetics in a desktop form factor will find a lot of performance with Samsung’s ArtPC Pulse at a much more palatable price.

In my daily use, I found that shutdown, sleep, hibernation and resume times were speedy. I didn’t experience any lags with day-to-day Windows 10 tasks, and the unit is capable of handling playing multiple windows of videos on Samsung’s 4K display without any glitches.

As a laptop user, I found the hardest thing to adjust to when I migrated to the ArtPC Pulse is fan noise. Given its sculpted design that’s meant to be showcased, you’ll want to place the ArtPC pulse on your desk closer to you, whereas most desktops are hidden or placed further away from the user. Given that the fan remains on most of the time, and spins faster and louder with more processor or graphics-intensive workloads, I found the ambient fan noise to be distracting.

However, when using the ArtPC as an entertainment PC in the living room, I wasn’t bothered by the fan noise given that sound from the TV is loud enough to muffle noise generated from the fans, and the unit is located at a farther distance from my ears.

Even though the ArtPC comes with a single USB Type-C port, I would have loved to see Thunderbolt 3 support as well to make the unit more futureproof. At this time, given the limited amount of Thunderbolt 3 accessories, it’s not the worst omission, but it does knock down the potential longevity of the PC.

Accessories


artpc_accessories1.jpgThe ArtPC Pulse ships with a wireless keyboard and mouse, along with a wireless adapter dongle that’s pre-installed in one of the USB Type-A ports out of the box. The keyboard comes with dedicated navigation keys to page through documents, but doesn’t include a number pad. It includes function keys for volume controls, access to Windows 10 functions (Settings, Cortana), media playback keys and a dedicated sleep button.

The keyboard is designed with black keys in an island-styled configuration. The deck is the same dark grey hue as the ArtPC’s finish, and there is a chrome strip at the top emblazoned with a discrete Samsung logo in white to give the accessory a more premium feel. Given Samsung’s aim at the upscale market with the ArtPC Pulse, I wish the keyboard was finished with a metal deck, rather than plastic, and the inclusion of backlighting would’ve made the accessory feel more integrated with the rest of the PC design, given it comes with an ambient LED lighting system.

artpc_accessories2.jpgEven though the keyboard is spacious with full-sized keys, large keycaps and good spacing between each key, I find myself making more typos with it than on the keyboards of my notebooks. I’m not sure if it’s because the ArtPC requires more force with stiffer key actuation when typing, or if the keys don’t have even actuation, resulting in the occasional missed keystroke. Luckily, there is an easy fix to this problem— use your own keyboard.

My biggest gripe with the bundled keyboard is the proximity of the sleep key to the backspace key. The location makes it easy to accidentally put the system to sleep when you intended to just delete a character while typing.

The mouse, like the keyboard, could have benefited from more design attention, but it is comfortable and responsive. It comes with nice ergonomic contouring, two key buttons and a center scroll wheel.

Verdict


artpc_verdict.jpgMarketed as a consumer PC, the ArtPC Pulse packs enviable performance that makes it a worthy alternative to Apple’s workstation-class Mac Pro. Sporting newer Intel processors, the ArtPC Pulse can give the Mac Pro a run for its money on the processing side, and the inclusion of discrete AMD Radeon RX 460 graphics makes it ready for VR applications.

With ongoing discounts of $100, the price of the entry level configuration drops to just $1,099, making it almost $2,000 less than Apple’s base Mac Pro configuration. Best of all, the ArtPC Pulse will surprise you with a number of features, like a soft glowing circular LED ring and robust Harmon Kardon speakers in a modular design.

Without more options for expandable plates for ArtPC aside from the 1TB hard drive, it’s hard to see its modularity as anything more than a gimmick right now. I hope Samsung opens up its modular system for further expansion in the future. Perhaps, if you don’t need the speakers up top, for example, you can replace that with a wireless charging plate to recharge your cell phone. Or, you can add a productivity plate to give you access to even more ports on the ArtPC, which would make it more equipped as a workstation replacement in a design studio.

In spite of its consumer-centric approach, there is still plenty to love about the ArtPC. It comes in a sleek, metal-clad design that’s futuristic and modern with enough touches, like the glowing light, to make it welcoming rather than cold, and you’ll get a lot of computer for your money. If you want an elegant, compact desktop that delivers on good looks and performance, the ArtPC Pulse should be on your short list.