ThinkPad Chromebook 13 i3 User Review

I'm now the owner of a Thinkpad Chromebook 13 with the i3 processor and the 1080p IPS screen. Lenovo didn't send this to me in exchange for my review; I bought it from them with my own money. I was lucky enough to have a discount which knocked the price down quite a bit. As the reviews I could find before purchasing were somewhat limited, I wanted to put together some information for folks curious what the device is like in everyday use.

Build Quality

Compared to the creaks that emanate from my old C720 every time I pick it up, the solid frame of the ThinkPad Chromebook 13 is a wonderful change of pace. The screen stays pretty secure where I put it, and the whole package just feels nice and secure. My only build quality complaint is about my particular touchpad (see touchpad section below).

Keyboard

Every ThinkPad I've ever used has had an nice keyboard, and this one is no exception. The chicklet style keys are spaced in the same way as the T450 that I use at work. They have good travel, are pretty quiet, and they're responsive even when I get typing at a very fast rate. Keys have a smooth textured feel to the top of them instead of of the glossy plastic like on my T450. After a few days of use, I think I prefer the texture on the Chromebook to the glossy T450 keys. Zero complaints here. It's really one of the best keyboards I've ever used.
That great keyboard

Touchpad

A manufacturing defect with this touchpad almost made me send this computer back. Or rather, it's not a defect so much as poor assembly. Out of the box mine was functional but with a loud and definite rattle whenever I swiped or tapped to click. It's similar to this video. (I realized after I fixed mine that I neglected to take a recording of what was actually happening). Ever other review I'd seen all said the touchpad was pretty sturdy and functional, even though it wasn't glass like the Pixel or Dell 13. Research into touchpad rattling on other machines indicated that a metal support inside might be bent or loose. Not wanting to send back my brand new ThinkPad, I went against my better judgment and popped the bottom off of a less than 24 hour old machine. I found that not only were the screws of the support loose, but part of the edging material was not properly cut out. The combination had been making my touchpad rattle all over the place. With the extra material removed and the screws properly secured, all of my touchpad woes were corrected. It's a nice smooth material, seems accurate, and is handling multitouch guestures just fine.
Touchpad (showing some finger grease)
On the lack of Trackpoint on this ThinkPad: In over 11 years of using ThinkPads, I've very rarely ever utilized "the nub." I know there are some ThinkPad diehards who view the elimination of it from this Chromebook as a travesty and say it shouldn't have the ThinkPad name, but I don't have a problem with it being gone. I like how they've blended the traditional ThinkPad design with the Chromebook guidelines.

Screen

I've got the 1080p version. It's easily the nicest ThinkPad screen I've ever used and it's plenty bright. The IPS is a big step up from my previous TN screen. I've usually been running around 75% brightness. Resolution looks great at this screen size and I'm able to put a great amount of information on my screen. It's a matte non-touch screen (the touch version hasn't been released yet). It works fine even in sunlight on my back porch.

Performance

This thing is fast. When I've run Octane tests I've been floating around 23000. The 4GB of RAM has allowed me to keep multiple tabs, a Chrome Remote Desktop session, Google Play Music, and a few ssh terminals going without any slowdown or reloading of pages. Startup time feels fast even for ChromeOS. No difficulties running crouton sessions either. I'm usually running about 10 extensions including an adblocker.

Storage

With the knowledge that Android apps are on their way, the fact that a Chromebook is launching in 2016 with only 16GB of internal storage is terrible. The only way to kick up to 32GB is by upgrading all the way to the Core i5 variation which also includes 8GB of RAM. I wasn't willing to pay to kick it up that next level, but it's definitely something to keep in mind if considering this Chromebook. By installing my croutons on external storage, I've been fine in the past, so I decided I'd be OK chancing it with the 16GB onboard storage. It's EMMC storage, so even though it's easy to open the case there is not opportunity to upgrade down the road.
SD card locked into the slot
While I was previously using a micro USB 3.0 drive previously for external storage, the SD card slot on the Chromebook 13 is of the click-in variety that lets the drive essentially sit flush so I can leave it in all the time. I've been attempting to research the speed of the bus handling the connection as the SD card slot was always abysmally slow on my C720. From what I can gather of testing with a 512MB file of data, I can read at 50MB/s and write at 20MB/s from a Class 10 Samsung card. I did manage to get a 90MB/s read the day I took it out of the box with it formatted as exfat. That was prior to fiddling around with the formatting to get set up for my croutons. With the same card on my C720 I top out at 15MB/s read and about 5MB/s write. I'd previously gotten another card on my C720 to write at 10MB/s, but never any higher. At this point I'm inclined to say the SD card slot might be hooked up to the USB 3.0 bus. At the very least it's significantly faster than the reader on my C720. If someone has more information or a better testing technique to use though Linux I'd be happy to try it, but it seems the challenge with testing is getting actual read speeds as opposed to the cache read speeds interfering. I'm happy with the speed so far and I've had no trouble loading up my croutons.

Sound

The speakers work. They're downward driving, but reasonably loud. They will get mostly drowned out if I'm doing dishes and the water is running. They're not the fullest sounding, but I wasn't expecting much here. If I'm looking for a more quality listening experience I use headphones or bluetooth earbuds which both seem to work just fine. The bluetooth audio range actually seems improved over some of my other devices and rarely cuts out.

Battery / Charging

I'm really liking charging with USB-C so far. My Chromebook charges quickly, when I need to charge it. The battery life with me running the screen around 75% has been quite solid. I don't have any hard numbers, but I'd say that Lenovo's 10 hour estimate is fairly realistic. From a full charge yesterday morning I've had about 4 hours of actual use, with it sleeping in my satchel in between. Currently showing 66% battery and estimated 6:23 left which is right in line with estimates. The charger is set up with essentially a big wall wart and then a cable out to the USB-C connector. The cable is 5 and a half feet long. I wished it was a little longer on the first day when I was using the Chromebook while plugged in, but now I throw it on the charger about every other day and never bother bringing the charger with me when I head out for the day.
The 45W USB-C charger

Other Notes

  • There isn't an HDMI port. That's not really an issue for me since I've only ever used the one on my C720 when traveling to hotels, but I haven't gotten a chance to try a USB-C video adapter on the 13 yet.
  • Twice when I've closed the lid to sleep the machine, the fan has whirred up to full speed. I opened it back up and closed it again and it went back to proper sleep. Otherwise I'd forgotten it even had a fan unless doing something intensive with a crouton.
  • The plastic on the lid isn't textured in the same way most of my other ThinkPads have been. It's a bit of a fingerprint magnet.
  • Again, I really shouldn't have had to open up a brand new machine to fix an improperly installed touchpad.

Overall Assessment

I'm a little biased as a Thinkpad user for over 11 years, but I'm really happy with my purchase. I had been previously considering a Pixel 2 or a Dell Chromebook 13, but couldn't justify the price on the Pixel or the hardware concessions (one USB 3.0, no USB-C, and no full size SD card) on the Dell. The ThinkPad Chromebook 13 has been a significant upgrade from my C720 and I feel like I got a lot for my money. If you have more questions or want me to test something on the ThinkPad Chromebook 13, I'd be happy to try.

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