James Cridland

Review: A month or so with a Lenovo Chromebook Duet

(First off: this isn’t one of those reviews which lethargically go through the features of a product. I’m assuming you already know all of that; but are more interested in how it actually works. And if you don’t know all that, there are plenty of pages that are product descriptions disguised as reviews for you.)

(This is an updated review from April 2021. I bought this in November 2020).

I knew what I was hopefully letting myself in for. I have a Samsung Chromebook Plus, a beautiful piece of hardware with a lovely screen, a pen, and it folds back to be a tablet. It’s brilliant, but as a tablet it’s really heavy and a little too large. I’d like something that I can use as a tablet rather more than a little laptop these days.

I tried an iPad, a purchase partly out of necessity (I needed a backup machine to record a podcast onto) and partly out of curiosity. The iPad has certainly improved since 2014 or so, when I bought my last one. But the lack of a proper browser with an ability to view-source, or see the Javascript console, or run plugins, etc, frustrated me, and the Apple-ecosystem lockdown is annoying.

So, when the Lenovo Chromebook Duet was on its third special offer in two months, and having looked at the device twice in the store beforehand, I bit the bullet and bought one, for AUD$479 (US$335, £265).

You’ll want to know if it’s any good now, won’t you?

The hardware

The build quality of the device is great, kind of. It looks nice, and the tablet itself feels sturdy and decent. The keyboard is less so. My device had a very spongy 1 key, which simply didn’t register half the time I pressed it. This wasn’t a good start. I considered taking it back, but then something went crunch inside the 1 key when I pressed it, and everything works now. The touchpad is a bit sprightly, but I’ve managed to calm it down in the settings.

When carrying it, you carry three bits: the keyboard, the tablet, and a surprisingly thick and heavy magnetic back/stand for the tablet (which actually doubles the weight of the unit). It’s OK. Unlike the iPad Cover, it’s able to sit at whatever angle you want. I’m worried about the fabric cover, which seems to me to be destined to look grubby, and the magnet is strong but not as accurate as you’d want it to be in terms of placement. But it’s OK. And it isn’t grubby yet.

The tablet itself… it’s clearly built to a budget. It has one USB-C port as the only port on the device, which worries me slightly because these things do break. I’d have been happier with two. The lack of a headphone port doesn’t worry me (and kudos to Lenovo for chucking a USB audio adaptor in the box). Further evidence of the cheap build is the charging light, which appears off-centre to the hole it’s supposed to shine through; and a lack of a fingerprint reader is surprisingly irritating, given my reliance with it on my Android phone. The speakers work (in stereo in laptop mode; in left-ear-mono in tablet mode), though they’re unremittingly shite.

The screen is fine and high-enough resolution for reading off; this was the reason for checking it in the store. The DPI isn’t as high as the iPad, but it is still crisp and clean. The battery lasts forever, but one reason why is the display’s auto brightness. I didn’t like it at first, thinking it was always too dim, but it appears to have learnt now what brightness I’d like it at.

The back of the unit had a horrid little sticker with the model number and the serial number and a random QR code. It lasted about a month before I peeled it off.

In every day use, though, the tablet is good, with smooth corners and a nice feel — it doesn’t feel cheap at all. It isn’t as light as the iPad, but isn’t also very heavy either.

As a laptop, the keyboard is fine, if small and a bit spongy; the back case works fine too. It doesn’t work well on a lap, though, but on a table it’s fine, and the magnetic back is good at being relatively fluid in terms of the angle you want to use.

The software

ChromeOS is very capable these days, and I’m continually impressed at the speed of development, with a new release every few weeks (in the stable channel) and every few days if you want to live dangerously (in the beta channel). In laptop mode, it acts just like a normal Chromebook — a great experience.

Tablet mode, which was once virtually nonexistent, is now well supported. Chrome undergoes a subtle metamorphosis to widen the gaps between the toolbar buttons, and make everything possible to control by touch. The tab bar disappears, replaced by thumbnail images of your open tabs, available with a swipe. Everything turns full-screen, and it works really nicely.

ChromeOS itself is an excellently good system. A proper browser, with proper extensions, is a good thing. I missed “view-source” more than you’d think on the iPad, for one. Android apps work perfectly, and if you want to, you can turn on a full Linux container for those apps, too. It sounds as if it’s a Frankenstein of an operating system, but everything works well: an Android VPN works across the entire system, Chrome can hand off to an Android app, etc. It feels a mature, well-designed whole.

I use it for mainly emails (in laptop mode); and reading RSS, digital magazines and newspapers (in tablet mode). It’s an excellent device for all this.

The device seems faster and more reactive than the Chromebook Plus, both for opening new apps and tabs, but also the little things like scrolling. I wasn’t expecting that. And while it isn’t iPad-smooth, it’s certainly iPad-fast.

Chrome OS has good integration with my Android phone, too: on-demand data connections have been available for a while (just touch one button on the Chromebook and it instructs your phone, in your pocket, to share its data connection), but now they’ve added notifications as well, so your phone can share its notifications to your Chromebook screen when it’s on.

The initial review I wrote, after 30 days, was very critical about the onscreen Chrome OS keyboard. It was awful. Just dreadful nonsense, with keys often not registering at all, and a massive source of irritation. But the good thing about Chrome OS is that it is regularly updated: every two weeks or so if you’re running the stable software, every two days or so if you’re running the beta version. The crappy onscreen keyboard is no longer crappy. It’s absolutely not brilliant, either, but is certainly not as rage inducing as before.

The pen

I bought a pen for it. The pen is quite decent. It seems to work kind of well. The on-screen keyboard also has a handwriting mode which is quite fun, and it kind of works most of the time. It’s a decent gimmick, and the pen itself was quite cheap too. Here’s a quick demo of the pen if you’re interested in how laggy it is. It doesn’t seem to be.

…except, not very long afterwards, the pen started to misbehave: by being too eager to work. Hover the pen above the screen, rather than actually touch the screen, and you’re still drawing with it. This makes writing with the pen impossible. I gather it’s a design flaw with the Lenovo USI pen, and I’ve eagerly ordered an HP USI pen (which charges via USB-C rather than using batteries) to see if that fixes the issue. I hope so: the software has been updated since, and now has much better handwriting input. And, given USI is going to be ChromeOS’s stylus standard in future, it sounds as if I’m unlikely to regret purchasing a USI pen for whatever comes down the line.

So in conclusion

You’ll probably be able to get this device pretty cheap: some are reporting less than US$249. It’s a steal for that price: a great and flexible machine, running a great OS. For a developer, someone who’s spends most of their time on the web, or someone who’s not to keen to be part of Apple’s ecosystem, it’s a great device.

And, as is often said about Chrome OS devices, it gets better over time. Because this device is particularly popular, it appears to get the good stuff first (in the beta channel), and I’ve been impressed at how much it has improved.

After a month I would have given this unit about 5 out of ten. Now, with a keyboard on-screen that works, it gets an 8.

Great value, and works very well.