Lenovo N20p Chromebook: An affordable dual-mode device

Lenovo's latest Chromebook functions as both a regular laptop and a stand-supported tablet. But what is it like to use in the real world?

When you think of a Chromebook, you typically think of a keyboard-centric laptop -- but Lenovo's hoping to shake up that mindset with some versatile new devices.

The company has come out with a couple of convertible Chromebooks that can act as both traditional laptops and touchscreen tablets. The first, the Lenovo N20p Chromebook, costs $330 and offers a 300-degree tilting display. The second, the ThinkPad Yoga 11e Chromebook, costs $479 and features a higher-quality screen that bends back a full 360 degrees.

I've been living with the N20p model to start with, and one thing's for sure: It offers a Chrome OS experience like no other.

Body, design and that tilting display

At first glance, Lenovo's N20p Chromebook looks like any run-of-the-mill laptop: The computer has a matte-plastic gray casing with Lenovo's logo and the Google Chrome logo at its top. Open the lid and you're greeted by an 11.6-in. screen and a chiclet-style Chrome OS keyboard.

In that mode, the N20p Chromebook is pleasant enough to use: It's one of the higher-quality devices in its class, with sturdy construction, a commendable keyboard and a smooth-feeling and responsive trackpad. If you press on the center of the lid, you do feel a little give -- almost a slight springiness -- but by and large, the N20p seems well-built and less flimsy than some of the cheaper options in its price range.

The N20p is comfortable to hold on your lap, too: The laptop is 11.6 x 8.3 x 0.7 in. and 2.9 lbs. -- slightly heavier than some of the less sturdy devices of its size but still quite light and easy to carry.

As with other touch-enabled Chromebooks, you have the ability to tap, scroll or zoom the N20p's screen with your fingers, which I find to be a surprisingly useful feature. It's even more interesting, though, when you push the N20p's display back beyond the standard stopping point -- past the flattened-out 180-degree mark and all the way around to its fully tilted stand mode.

In that mode, you actually end up with the keyboard upside-down -- in other words, with keys facing downward -- serving as a base. The keyboard is automatically disabled in that state, so you don't have to worry about accidental key presses. Instead, what you get is a tablet-like experience, complete with a virtual on-screen keyboard that appears when you need it.

Coupled with the N20p's touch input, this setup works incredibly well. It opens up a whole new range of uses for the device while still leaving its traditional operations in place.

I've been using the N20p Chromebook in its laptop mode for work, for instance, then flipping the screen around and shifting into stand mode when I want to do something less input-oriented and more browsing-based -- catching up on articles I've opened throughout the day, scrolling through my social media streams or watching videos with the device resting comfortably on my lap.

It's reached the point where shifting between the system's two modes feels effortless and natural to me, and I've really grown to appreciate having that option. Chrome OS itself isn't entirely optimized for touch, so certain things are still a little awkward -- like trying to tap the small "x" to close a tab with your finger, for example -- but all in all, the touch-centric stand experience is quite pleasant. You just have to think of it as a complement to the traditional laptop environment rather than a replacement for it.

When the N20p is in its stand mode, the user interface does change a bit: All windows appear maximized, while a button shows up in the bottom-right area of the screen that allows you to switch between opened windows using a graphical interface. (Those already familiar with Chromebooks will note that it's the same task-switching command also present on the top row of the regular Chrome OS keyboard.)

The on-screen keyboard works well enough, too, though if you're typing anything more than a few words, you'll almost certainly want to flip the system back around into its laptop mode for easier text input. Given the choice on any device, I think a full-size physical keyboard is always going to be preferable for heavy-duty typing.

Because the screen can be adjusted to any position while the N20p is in its stand mode, you can flip the laptop into a tent-like arrangement if you want -- or even onto its side for a vertically oriented portrait view. I haven't found a need to use either of those orientations, but the possibilities are there if you want them.

As for the display itself, it's the same 1366 x 768 TN panel found in most lower-end Chromebooks these days -- but even within those parameters, it's one of the better screens I've seen. It's glossy, bright and less grainy than the displays on many similarly priced systems. Viewing angles aren't great and it's no match for a higher-quality IPS display, but I've been able to use it for full days without being annoyed or feeling any significant eyestrain.

On the left edge of its frame, Lenovo's N20p Chromebook has a proprietary charging port along with a USB 3.0 port, a dedicated HDMI-out port and a 3.5mm headphone jack. The laptop's right edge, meanwhile, holds a USB 2.0 port and a physical power button -- something slightly different from most Chromebooks, where the power button exists on the keyboard.

The N20p Chromebook has two speakers on either side of its bottom surface. The speakers are pretty decent, with loud, clear and full-sounding audio. They're not the best you'll ever hear, but for this class of device, they're actually quite impressive.

Performance

So far so good, right? Unfortunately, there is one asterisk with Lenovo's N20p Chromebook -- and it's on the subject of performance.

The N20p Chromebook uses one of Intel's new Bay Trail processors -- the Intel Celeron N2830 -- along with 2GB of RAM. In real-world use, it feels like a meaningful step backward from the level of performance I've grown accustomed to seeing with the recent crop of Chrome OS devices, most of which are powered by Intel's speedier Haswell-based chips.

To see the difference between two Chrome OS devices that use Intel processors, I compared the N20p to an Asus Chromebox, with a Haswell-based Cerelon 2955U processor and 2GB of RAM. The N20p Chromebook was consistently slower at loading pages -- by as much as two to six seconds, depending on the site -- and just seemed significantly less zippy overall.

At a Glance

Lenovo N20p Chromebook

Lenovo

Price: $330 (Intel Celeron N2830 processor) or $350 (Intel Celeron N2930 processor)

Pros: Good build quality; commendable keyboard; responsive trackpad; reasonably good display for its class; touch-enabled screen that tilts back into tablet-like stand mode; impressive speakers

Cons: Low-resolution display with low-quality TN panel; performance not as good as that of other Chromebooks in its class

In fact, even without a side-by-side comparison, the N20p just doesn't feel terribly snappy. I noticed its limitations the most in situations where I had several browser tabs running; there, the device really seemed to struggle and reach levels of sluggishness I haven't experienced on Chrome OS in quite some time.

All things considered, I'd say this: If you're like most people and tend to keep only one or two tabs open at a time, the N20p should be fine for your needs. It's still a noticeable step down from the level of performance you'd get from other similarly priced or even less expensive systems -- which is disappointing, to say the least -- but for basic levels of use, it's acceptable enough and may be a worthwhile tradeoff for all of the device's positives. If you do any resource-intensive multitasking, however, you're going to find yourself frustrated by the relatively low performance ceiling.

Lenovo does offer a model of the N20p Chromebook with a slightly higher-end Bay Trail processor, the Intel Celeron N2930; that model is sold only via Lenovo's website and costs $20 more than the regular base model. While I haven't had an opportunity to test it firsthand, the promise of enhanced performance seems to make the extra $20 a worthwhile investment.

The N20p does do reasonably well in terms of battery life: The laptop is listed for eight hours of use per charge, which is pretty much in line with what I've gotten. As for storage, the device comes with 16GB of onboard space along with the option to expand with your own SD card.

Bottom line

Lenovo's N20p Chromebook offers a compelling experience that goes beyond what the typical Chromebook provides. The tilting display really is a nice touch that expands the device's potential and opens it up to new and interesting types of uses.

The system is held back, however, by lower than average performance -- something we'll probably be seeing more of as Intel's Bay Trail chips make their way into more Chrome OS devices. That's a factor you'll have to closely consider in determining whether the N20p Chromebook is right for you.

The N20p Chromebook is a standout device with lots of attractive qualities. For folks in the power-user camp, it's just a shame it's not available with the more robust internals that other similarly priced products provide.

JR Raphael is a Computerworld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. For more Google-centric tips and insights, follow him on Google+ or on Twitter.

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