LG gram 14Z950 ultrabook review

Less bezel means more screen in LG's Ultra PC, the lightest 14 incher ever

LG’s debut laptop is the lightest, most portable 14-inch notebook ever.
LG’s debut laptop is the lightest, most portable 14-inch notebook ever.
LG’s debut laptop is the lightest, most portable 14-inch notebook ever.

Highs

  • Featherweight chassis
  • Excellent keyboard
  • High-contrast, thin-bezel screen

Lows

  • Feels flimsy
  • Mediocre battery life
  • Expensive

DT Editors' Rating

Back in 2014, Digital Trend’s “Best of Computing” award at CES went to a laptop called the LG Ultra PC, a shockingly slim system that introduced a thin bezel display a full year before Dell’s XPS 13 debuted. We were as surprised as we were impressed, because it was built by LG, a company that has no reputation as a PC builder in the United States. And that remains the case – because LG decided the U.S. market was too weak to bring its Ultra PC line to our shores.

Now, almost two years later, LG has changed its mind. The result is the LG gram 14Z950. As the name would lead you to believe, it’s not a 13-inch computer like the LG Ultra PC we saw at CES, but instead a slightly larger 14-inch system, but it has the slim-bezel design seen in its smaller predecessor. The idea seems to be the reverse of Dell’s XPS 13. 

At 2.16 pounds, this LG is almost as light as Apple’s MacBook.

Rather than use small bezels as a way to reduce a 13-inch laptop’s overall footprint, LG has used them to fit a 14-inch display in a system that’s otherwise the size of a typical 13-inch ultraportable.

While different from the Ultra PC we originally praised, one thing remains the same: The LG gram 14 is not trying to win customers with bargain pricing. LG’s North American debut targets the best notebooks available, and its price tag of $1,399 reflects that. Storming in as a luxury option is a bold strategy, let’s see if it pays off.

Thin, but not a head-turner

Pick up the LG 14Z950, and its standout trait is instantly obvious – this sucker is light. It weighs in at just 2.16 pounds, which is about a tenth of a pound more than the MacBook, and a half pound lighter than the Dell XPS 13. And remember, this is a 14-inch notebook, so it’s about an inch wider and an inch deeper than either (it’s half-inch thickness is similar). Only the Lenovo LaVie Z, which has a 13-inch display and weighs 1.87 pounds, can compete with the 14Z950’s feather-weight feel.

LG Ultra PC 14Z950
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Like the LaVie, the LG keeps trim by using Lithium Magnesium and Carbon Magnesium. These materials are extremely durable, yet far lighter than aluminum. They have an unfortunate weakness, however – they don’t feel premium. Their texture and resistance to deformation is similar the average plastic. You can likely predict the consequence. While it’s likely durable, the 14Z950 lacks the beauty of the MacBook or the functional elegance of the Dell XPS 13.

If you look, but don’t touch, the notebook comes across as elegant. Its design is the typical Apple knockoff – champagne exterior, black keys, black display bezels, and a single broad display hinge. The exterior is nearly unmarked, as the sole LG logo is tucked away in a corner and, because it’s silver, blends in. The 14Z950 will blend in well at a meeting, but will disappoint anyone looking to make a statement.

Connectivity includes two USB 3.0 ports, one HDMI, a combo headphone/microphone jack and a MicroSD card reader. This is roughly equivalent to the competition, though some systems offer one additional USB port, and a full-sized SDcard slot is common.

Great keyboard meets mediocre touchpad

The 14Z950’s design offers plenty of room for a full-sized keyboard, which makes it odd that LG has truncated the size of some keys, such as BackSpace and Enter. Even so, the keyboard is spacious and offers generous room between keys. It also provides far better tactile feel than a notebook this thin has a right to. The MacBook’s short-travel keyboard falls short, and even notebooks twice as thick have trouble matching this LG.

While performance is strong, it’s not as quick as the Core i7 processor suggests.

But there is a sacrifice required;backlighting. The keys remain dull and dark, no matter the model you purchase. This is a disadvantage LG shares with the Lenovo LaVie Z. Cramming LEDs behind each key isn’t easy when engineers have just a half-inch to work with, but consumers have come to expect backlighting at this price point.

Below the keyboard you’ll find what is possibly the most generic touchpad ever created. It’s about four inches wide, two and half inches tall, and provides an entirely acceptable navigation experience. I had no problem with unintended input or multi-touch gestures, but also didn’t find the surface remarkably pleasant to use. The only issue is the laptop’s own light, thin design, which results in a hollow feel when the pad is clicked.

Is 1080p enough?

This notebook’s thin bezels encase a 1080p, IPS display that serves up 157 pixels per inch. That’s below a MacBook with Retina, which stuffs in 224 PPI, and far below a Dell XPS 13 with QHD+ display, which crams in an astonishing 276 PPI. That said, the resolution is adequate for most situations; its disadvantage only become obvious when displaying very fine fonts or high-quality photos.

Quality is mixed. Contrast is high, with a maximum ratio of 680:1 – almost identical to the Dell XPS 13 and just behind class-leaders like the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, which boasts a ratio of 770:1. The LG’s maximum brightness of 306.5 lux is also strong, and gamma came in at a perfect 2.2, which indicates proper grayscale rendering. But the system falls behind in color gamut, as it can display only 83 percent of the AdobeRGB gamut. Most competitors exceed 90 percent.

To my eyes, the good ultimately outweighs the bad. High contrast and proper gamma is more immediately noticeable than mediocre color gamut and accuracy, which is only easy to see when it’s very poor or compared with a superior display. I found the LG well suited to high-resolution videos and games because it provides deep blacks and excellent shadow detail in dark scenes.

The speakers are a different matter. Recessed in the bottom of the chassis, they don’t make much of an impression even at maximum volume. Even moderate background noise can make podcasts or video calls impossible to hear. External speakers or headphones are for the best.

Powered by Core i7

Despite its weight and profile, the LG 14Z950 doesn’t make do with an Intel Core M processor. Instead it uses a fully armed and operational Core i7-5500U clocked at up to 3GHz, just like Lenovo’s LaVie Z. This provides obvious performance perks.

GeekBench-LG-14Z950

GeekBench painted a clear picture, putting the LG above the Dell XPS 13, which we tested with a Core i5 (the system can also be purchased with a Core i7). It demolished the MacBook, exceeding its multi-core score by more than 800 points and single-core score by almost 700 points.

On the other hand, the 14Z950 isn’t playing at the top of this league. Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Carbon with Core i7 processor defeats it handily.

The display’s thin bezels let LG fit a 14-inch screen in a 13-inch chassis.

Our review unit arrived with a generous eight gigabytes of RAM and a 256GB solid state drive built by Hynix. CrystalDiskMark reported it hit sequential reads of 477.7 megabytes per second, and sequential writes of 336MB/s. HDtune reported access times of .68 milliseconds, which is towards the high end of modern SSDs. It’s not a bad drive, but also far from the quickest. A MacBook Pro or MacBook can easily exceed reads of one gigabyte per second.

While the Core i7-5500U has an edge over its sister chips in processor speeds, it doesn’t have much advantage in graphics performance. The Intel HD 5500 is used to power games, and it is clocked the same as when paired with a Core i5-5200U.

3D-Mark-Cloud-Gate-LG-14Z950

When put to the test, the LG under-performs, coming behind most the notebooks we’ve recently reviewed (the MacBook is not included, because it’s not compatible with 3DMark).  It’s a full 20 percent slower than the ThinkPad X1 Carbon, the quickest of the trio represented here. In fact, the LG 14Z950’s 3DMark score is lower than any other Core i3, i5 or i7-powered notebook we’ve tested this year.

Sipping juice from a small glass

The LG 14Z950 doesn’t look or feel like any 14-inch laptop you’ve ever handled before. It’s far smaller and thinner than anything in the category, and as mentioned, it weighs just a tad more than two pounds. I literally forgot it was in my bag, which led to a hair-raising moment when I carelessly dropped it on a hardwood floor.

Of course, such slim design means there’s not much room for the battery. The system is equipped with a tiny two-cell unit rated at just 35 watt-hours, far less than most competitors. Predictably, this led to mediocre endurance.

The Peacekeeper web browser benchmark, which places heavy load on the system, chewed through the battery in three hours and 49 minutes. Our more forgiving web browsing macro, which includes significant idle time between page loads, extended that to six hours and 17 minutes. That’s not bad – but the Asus ZenBook UX305 nearly doubles the 14Z950’s result in Peacekeeper, Dell’s XPS 13 lasts nearly 10 hours, and the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon hit 10 hours and 13 minutes on a single charge.

At idle, the LG 14Z950 needed no more than seven watts of juice, and at load that figure expanded to only 23 watts. Only the Asus Zenbook UX305 is as miserly; the XPS 13 and Thinkpad X1 Carbon need several more watts, even at idle. Clearly, the small battery is the reason of the LG’s modest runtime.

Get ready to sweat

While it is not a passively cooled system, the 14Z950 often behaves as if it is. The upshot is minimal noise. A fan does whirr away inside the LG, but its volume was not detectable above ambient on our decibel meter, and it’s only noticeable in a very quiet room.

That silence meant significant heat, however. At idle the system’s maximum external temperature was 88.6 degrees Fahrenheit – warm, but not bad. But load spiked that figure as high as 116.2 degrees, making this the second-hottest system we’ve reviewed this year, just behind the Samsung ATIV Book 9, which hit 119.7 degrees.

You’ll notice the heat, too, because the system’s hottest spot is located along the top-center of the keyboard. Using the LG 14Z950 at load is a sure-fire way to suffer sweaty palms.

Warranty

LG’s warranty includes one year of parts and labor. This is standard for the category, so there’s not much to remark on. If you’re buying a new laptop this is probably what you’ll end up with, unless you splurge on an extended warranty.

Conclusion

A laptop is probably the most difficult consumer electronics device any company can build. Not only because it packs incredibly powerful hardware into a small form factor, but also because profit margins are razor-thin. The trend has been for companies to exit the market, rather than enter it, so LG’s effort is surprising. Not just because it exists, but also because it’s competent, and shows little sign of penny-pinching. The company decided to enter the North American market with a great laptop, and put its full efforts behind it.

The resulting ultrabook offers flashes of brilliance. Its size is excellent, combining the portability of a 13-inch system with the extra screen real estate of a 14-inch display. Performance is strong, if not exceptional, and the keyboard proves thin notebooks can be great for typists. LG’s gram 14Z950 is functional, yet also elegant, and for that reason it could be a great business notebook.

At the same time, LG’s first effort also shows signs of inexperience. At $1,399, it’s not an inexpensive notebook, but its materials don’t feel premium. Lithium-magnesium is light, but that can make it easy to mistake for cheap plastic; some treatment is needed to make it feel worth the price. The touchpad is ho-hum and the thin-bezel display could use an optional QHD or QHD+ upgrade. Finally, the battery needs to last longer, as its current capacity falls far short of the best competitors.

None of the 14Z950’s faults are absolutely critical, but together they do knock it down a few pegs. It’s still a phenomenal way to introduce LG laptops to North America, and easily the most portable 14-inch notebook on the market. Until LG can work out a few kinks, most buyers should eye Lenovo’s more capable ThinkPad X1 Carbon, or sacrifice a bit of screen size and grab Dell’s affordable XPS 13.

Highs

  • Featherweight chassis
  • Excellent keyboard
  • High-contrast, thin-bezel screen

Lows

  • Feels flimsy
  • Mediocre battery life
  • Expensive
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