Google’s Chrome OS has been around for a few years now, long enough to establish itself as a real alternative to Windows and MacOS. But the ThinkPad 13 is perhaps the truest test for the platform, a new laptop in the much-loved Lenovo line that features both Windows and Chrome OS models, offering consumers a direct comparison. Does the simplicity and cost savings of Chrome make up for, or even surpass, the versatility of a Windows 10 machine, when it’s running on an otherwise identical device?
This particular model is well-suited for the challenge. The ThinkPad 13 can be had for under $400 or up to almost $900, depending on processor, screen, and memory options. But at each level the Chromebook model is cheaper, and at the low end there’s about a $300 difference. Our review unit had a Core i5-6300U processor, 1080p screen upgrade, and 8GB of memory. That added up to $845, versus $953 for the similarly-equipped Windows version.
It’s a difference that’s worth considering, especially for someone who wants the reliability and typing experience that the ThinkPad line is known for in a more budget-friendly package. But justifying it versus the Windows model, not to mention cheaper competing Chromebooks, is more difficult than we hoped.
No surprises, but that’s okay
The ThinkPad 13 combines some of the brand’s classic, no-nonsense visual elements with a few concessions for its budget-focused market segment. It’s a fairly vanilla laptop with a single-hinge design, no touchscreens or tempered glass, no Bang & Olufson speakers, no fingerprint reader. Just a screen, a keyboard, a keypad, and a few ports to connect whatever you’ll need. The utilitarian design won’t turn any heads, but fans of the ThinkPad line will appreciate its understated geometry and Mil-Spec toughness. The body offers a 180-degree hinge and an appealing sturdiness.
Physically, the Chromebook version of the ThinkPad 13 has some important differences from the Windows model. One, there’s no fetching silver option – you can have any color you want, so long as you want ThinkPad-standard flat black. Secondly, the Chrome OS version uses a keyboard layout that’s typical of Chromebooks. That means that the iconic ThinkPad Trackpoint device (the red nub pointing stick) is absent. This alone will be enough to send some ThinkPad faithful running to the Windows model.
The Chromebook also comes with two USB Type-C ports instead of one, one of which replaces Lenovo’s proprietary, rectangular laptop charging port. The Chromebook has two standard USB Type A ports, but omits the DisplayPort video option – external monitors can be hooked up via the Type-C port directly or with an adapter. You’ll need one, since there’s also no HDMI port. The lack of a dedicated video out is a definite ding against the Chrome OS version of the ThinkPad 13, if only because business users may need to connect to projectors or televisions for presentations.
The laptop also features two standard USB 3.0 ports, a headphone/microphone jack, a full-sized SD card slot (oddly moved to the other side of the chassis), and a Kensington-compatible locking port. Air intake for the cooling fan is on the bottom with small exhaust ports on the left side. Unlike some of the more expensive ThinkPad models, neither RAM nor storage is accessible to the user.
Aside from the deviant keyboard, the laptop is a fairly unremarkable ultraportable, omitting extensive connectivity options and a removable battery for a lighter, simpler design. At 3.2 pounds and .78 inches thick it’s not notably large or small, and its most remarkable external features are the USB-C charging port and the red notification LED built into the classic ThinkPad logo on the lid. It’s a small, tough, nondescript little box of a laptop, which is what you’d expect from a budget ThinkPad.
Where the TrackPoint go?
The keyboard is one of the most important selling points of a ThinkPad machine. IBM’s legacy of excellent typing continued when Lenovo acquired the brand, and though some purists might bemoan a move to chicklet keys and a more compact layout, the experience on the ThinkPad 13 is as comfortable as ever. Transitioning from a much larger ThinkPad T450s to the smaller 13 was effortless, because the only notable difference in the boards are the modifier and function keys. The well-spaced and slightly dished keys, with solid travel and no rattle or flex, are a pleasure to use.
Users who lament the loss of the Trackpoint won’t be thrilled with the rather dull trackpad. It gets the job done, but the integrated buttons (no separate left or right sections) feel like something from a cheaper IdeaPad notebook. Chrome OS tends to rely on multi-finger gestures rather than a conventional left- or right-click anyway, but the option for a more conventional and comfortable mouse-style setup would have been appreciated. Scrolling is functional, if not as smooth as some of the glass-based trackpads adorning more premium models.
Plenty of pixels, but mediocre quality
In Digital Trends’ review of the Windows ThinkPad 13 we noted that the optional 1080p screen was serviceable, but not outstanding. An identical screen was included in this review unit, and the verdict remains the same. Business users and constant travelers will appreciate the matte anti-glare finish (never a given in the current market), but its 220 nit brightness and unspectacular contrast won’t make this laptop a go-to media machine.
Justifying this laptop against the Windows model, not to mention cheaper competing Chromebooks, is difficult.
It’s also worth noting that the default scale and text settings in Chrome OS require a bit of tweaking to comfortably use a 13-inch screen with this resolution and density. By default, some elements appear too small to read easily.
The speakers are bottom-firing, like most similarly-sized laptops, and about as good as you would expect at this price range — which is to say, not very. ThinkPads have never been focused on sound quality, but at least this model is loud enough that users can listen to music or videos in a quiet room without needing headphones to pick out lyrics and dialogue. The mid tones and bass notes remain flat, though. Thankfully for fans of high-fidelity audio, a standard headphone jack and Bluetooth 4.0 are included.
Up and running
The ThinkPad 13 running Chrome comes with three processor options, a low-end Celeron 3855U, a Core i3-6100U, and a mid-range i5-6300U. Chrome OS doesn’t offer the same bevvy of benchmark options as Windows, but those aren’t really necessary – the browser-based operating system doesn’t currently have any crucial programs that need intense processor cycles to function. No one’s trying to get 60 frames per second in Overwatch on this thing.
The i5 processor handles all but the most ill-formatted websites with ease, even with a dozen or more tabs/apps open. Having used similar Chromebooks with Celeron processors, we’d recommend the $130 upgrade to the i3 over the whopping $350 bump to an i5 – it simply isn’t required with Chrome OS’s low processor overhead. Unfortunately, the pricey i5 upgrade is also the only way to get 8GB of RAM and 32GB of storage. The latter isn’t essential for a Chromebook, but Chrome eats through RAM incredibly quickly, and a cheaper way to upgrade the standard 4GB DDR3 DIMM would be very much obliged.
Not a road warrior
The ThinkPad 13 isn’t as svelte as some of the flagship ultrabooks out there, including the members of Lenovo’s own X series. But the lower entry price and generally agreeable ergonomics mean that, unless you need to slip your computer into a manila envelope, you won’t be unduly burdened by its presence in a bag or briefcase. At 3.2 pounds it’s neither the lightest not heaviest in its class, but it’s fine for its display size.
The experience of using the ThinkPad 13’s keyboard is as comfortable as ever.
Longevity from the included 42 watt-hour battery is mediocre. In the Peacekeeper benchmark the ThinkPad 13 averaged just over four hours, which is okay for a budget notebook, but behind the best Chromebooks. Surprisingly, the Chrome OS version of the laptop actually scored quite a bit lower than the Windows version, which almost made it to five hours.
To provide some perspective, Acer’s Chromebook 11 R hit six hours and 33 minutes of endurance in this test, and Lenovo’s IdeaPad 100S hit seven hours and 29 minutes. Both had less powerful processors, however. Toshiba’s Chromebook 2, which we tested in 2015 with a Core i3 processor, hit four hours and 16 minutes.
Our browser loop test showed five hours and thirty-eight minutes, almost the same score as the Windows version. Again, not outstanding, but not terrible either. Unlike some other ThinkPad models, the battery is not user-removable.
Keeping it cool
Like most Chromebooks, the ThinkPad 13 is an undemanding companion in terms of noise and heat. Opening a dozen tabs and applications in Chrome’s web-based OS caused the laptop’s fan to engage, but not to an annoying or distracting degree. Despite the mid-range i5 processor, heat wasn’t a problem either, and the bottom of the laptop never felt more than slightly warm.
Can you get by with Chrome OS?
Chrome OS is, well, Chrome OS. The build on the ThinkPad 13 is exactly the same as the one you’ll find on any other Chromebook, barring a few tiny differences in hardware features. Anyone familiar with the Chrome web browser on Windows or OS X can take to it like a duck to water, with only a few minutes needed to acclimatize to the barely-there desktop environment.
Apps are limited to those available in the Chrome Web Store, which are almost exclusively web wrappers, and extensions are all based on the core browser functionality. Offline functions are lean – it’s possible to write emails and Word-style documents offline, but not especially comfortable to do so. Chrome can play just about any kind of streaming video or audio, plus local DRM-free files — but not very many of them thanks to a slim 32GB storage limit.
To be fair, Chrome OS’s limitations are hardly a secret, and the platform isn’t trying to be anything more than heavily web-dependent. If you can use Chrome OS without any difficulty (or alternately, if you currently rely on something like a tablet or smartphone for most of your work), it’s lean and functional. But if you depend on any third-party programs, particularly Adobe’s Creative Suite, or any of the more advanced Microsoft Office functions, you’ll often find yourself wishing the keyboard had a familiar Windows key.
Since the ThinkPad line is so business focused, it’s almost strange to see a Chromebook model sold alongside a Windows alternative. But that doesn’t mean it’s unwelcome. If you’re unsure whether or not you can live outside the Windows world, try getting a day’s work done in Chrome on a Windows desktop or laptop without opening any other programs. You’ll soon see if you can manage on Chrome OS
Lenovo offers a standard one-year warranty on the ThinkPad 13 Chromebook, with the typical free repair or replacement in case of manufacturer defect. Accidental damage is not covered. Service may be performed by a remote Lenovo depot or at a carry-in retailer.
The DT Accessory Pack
The Windows version of the ThinkPad 13 is a solid machine that doesn’t excel in any one area, leaving it in the middle of the pack. The Chromebook version shares most of its DNA, and what’s taken away in terms of hardware and software flexibility is accounted for with a cheaper price. We’re left with a lukewarm take on both the ThinkPad line and a Chrome OS machine, neither particularly thrilled not overtly disappointed.
Most prospective ThinkPad 13 buyers will want to spend an extra hundred or two for the Windows version, which offers more connective options and literally millions of desktop applications (including the Chrome browser itself) without a hit to battery life or portability.
For Chrome OS fans, meanwhile, the problem is price. Lenovo’s Chromebook 13 starts around $380, which is towards the high end of Chromebook prices. That is unfortunately without the 1080p display, or a Core i3 processor. Adding those raises the price to about $550, which is well above the best Chromebooks, like Toshiba’s Chromebook 2 and the Acer Chromebook 15.
The ThinkPad 13 with Chrome OS might just be worth it for someone who wants the legendary durability and best-in-class typing experience that the line is known for, specifically paired with Chrome OS. But with prices rising quickly for essential screen and RAM upgrades from the base model, that very particular user is a fast-moving target for Lenovo.