Lenovo Thinkpad Yoga 11e Chromebook - First Impression

As you may know a little more than a year ago I traded in my Apple Macbook Air 11 for a $300 (now $200) HP Chromebook .  That machine demonstrated (for the lowest possible cash outlay) that I could not only get by, but thrive using an inexpensive Linux-based laptop as my “daily driver”.  There were a few challenges making the jump, and while significantly less powerful than the MBA, performance rarely held back my ability to get work done.

However over the course of a year the inexpensiveness of the machine began to show.  While somewhat durable along the way it picked up a display issue that caused the screen to “wink out” after coming in from the cold or under other seemingly random conditions, and even after disassembling the device (something the designers made no affordances for) I was unable to identify and resolve the cause of the problem.  It was around this time that I came across the Thinkpad Yoga 11e Chromebook .

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There were a few key ingredients that I found appealing about the Thinkpad. It was designed to be tough (targeting the education market) and having owned several Thinkpads in my consulting days I believed this claim more than I would have from say Dell or HP.  It had a build-in SD card reader, which anyone who works with embedded hardware knows comes in handy (I’ve also wanted to compare performance of running chroots on SD vs. USB flash storage).  The Thinkpad also sports a fold-around design that allows the laptop to be turned inside-out into something like a tablet, and this coupled with a touchscreen opens up the possibility of using it as sort of an incredibly over-built e-reader or kiosk interface (folded like a tent it could be great for running Octoprint next to a Reprap ).  Interestingly enough it also featured a wired Ethernet port, which is something that I still need often enough that it was an attractive addition (and something rarely found on machines in this class anymore).  This coupled with a sub-$500 price tag made the machine very attractive, and as I was finding myself increasingly on the lookout for a successor to my HP Chromebook, it seemed like the right way to go.

Now that I’ve had the device in my hands for a few hours I thought I’d capture my first impressions.  I’ll start with the good stuff:

It is built like a tank.  There is zero flex whether you hold it by the keyboard or the screen.  The hinge feels so strong that you’re afraid you forgot to unlock the lid the first time you open it (there’s no lock).  When placed on a solid surface there is no bounce, rock or flex while typing.  I can’t say enough good things about how solid this thing is, it feels like you could drop it two meters and all it would do is bounce

Speaking of typing, the keyboard is excellent, easily the best keyboard I’ve used on a laptop for as long as I can remember.  It’s not quite as epic as my Das Keyboard Model S Ultimate , but it’s as close to it as anything else I’ve used, and while audible, it’s not as likely to get me dragged out of a coffeeshop and beaten for typing at full speed for hours. The trackpad is solid and feels good as well, the HP’s trackpad always felt a bit twitchy and almost like it “stuck” when released.  The palmrests, along with the entire case seems to have a texture to it that isn’t as slick as the HP, and so doesn’t seem to be as tacky against your skin (and will probably resist fingerprints better as well).

The screen is very sharp, colors vibrant and bright.  The resolution is the same as the HP’s so there’s not a lot to report there.  I haven’t spent a lot of time using the touchscreen, but it’s definitely multi-touch capable and there seems to be some support in ChromeOS (soft keyboard shows up when in tablet mode, two-finger zoom, etc.) but I’m unsure how it will behave under a Linux window manager.

Performance should be a considerable step-up from the HP, with twice the RAM and a faster Intel processor, but here again I haven’t spent enough time with the machine to really notice a difference, which I suppose is a testament to just how optimized for typical web tasks the HP machine was.

Now on to the areas where things could be improved.  The first thing I noticed is that the tab key is unimaginably sensitive, so much so that at first I thought it was telekinetic.  Just laying a finger on the tab key issues a tab, you don’t even have to depress it.  This is a significant concern since tab plays a big role in my terminal-and-vim world, so I’m a little worried about this.  Once I understood that it wasn’t necessary to depress the key I’ve adapted fairly quickly, but it’s absurd to have a problem like this on a new machine, and if not for the fact that it would take a month to get a replacement, I’d probably return it based on this alone.

That’s right, it takes a month to get one of these.  I’m sure it’s a function of supply and demand, or perhaps because Lenovo expects these to be ordered in big batches for schools, but whatever the case it took a good four weeks for the machine to show up after ordering it direct from Lenovo.  It might be possible to get one faster through another distributor, but I was unable to find another source for this specific model (Amazon carries similar ones that ship with Windows but since ChromeOS is a prerequisite for the way I run Linux that was a non-starter).  So to get this specific model, you probably have to order direct, and Lenovo’s website is now stating a five week wait for this model.

That leads to the next disappointment.  The model I received isn’t exactly the model I ordered, and it’s not clear to me the one I wanted is still available at all.  The key difference between the two is that in the one I received the Ethernet jack has been deleted, replaced with one of those plastic “you didn’t get the luxury package” plugs found in so many 1980’s American cars.  This was particularly frustrating to me since it was such a differentiator compared to other Chromebooks, and furthermore the no-Ethernet model lists for almost $100 less than the one I ordered on the Lenovo website. I attempted to address this issue by contacting Lenovo which started with a web chat where I was directed to contact the sales department via telephone, who then directed me to tech support, whom I was eventually able to convince that the two different models exist, who then directed me to post-sales who was supposed to remedy the situation, but instead instructed me that they could help me return the machine, issue a refund and then re-order the correct model.  Since that would involve waiting at least another month I asked if they could simply cross-ship me the replacement and they were completely baffled by the concept.  After almost two hours of this I gave up, wrote down my case number and hung up the phone.

More than anything else about the experience, this made me second-guess selecting this machine, and I was very close to throwing in the towel and returning it.  After taking a few hours to chill out I decided instead to write this review and spend some more time with the machine before deciding to give up on it just because it had bad parents.

Also it has those ugly, uncomfortable “Intel inside”, etc. stickers, yuck.

After tonight I should have my regular development tools up-and-running and I’ll be able to give the machine a proper work-out.  After that I’ll decide if it’s going to be worth keeping around, warts and all, or if it’s worth trying to keep the HP alive long enough to find a suitable replacement.  If it stays I’ll write a follow-up once I’ve had a chance to explore some of the areas glossed-over in this review and decide if I can recommend it to others in spite of the shortcomings described above.

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- Jason

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