ThinkPad Yoga 11e review: A hidden Chromebook gem

With its exceptional build quality and outstanding (and flexible) display, Lenovo's new Chromebook is a meaningful notch above the rest.

Chromebooks are quickly becoming a dime a dozen -- but for all the hardware options out there, we've yet to see a Chrome OS product that offers an elevated experience without a sky-high price tag.

Sure, you've got the top-of-the-line Chromebook Pixel, but it costs a whopping $1,300. If you're looking to spend any less than that, you're pretty much limited to a low-end device with a lackluster display, mediocre build quality and/or poky performance.

Lenovo is ready to deliver something different. The company's ThinkPad Yoga 11e Chromebook, on sale only directly from Lenovo for $455, is the first Chromebook to truly target the midrange market. Hardware quality aside, the device offers some interesting and unusual features -- like the ability to function as both a touch-enabled laptop and a fully flattened-out tablet (an ability that is already available from several Windows devices).

So what's the ThinkPad Yoga 11e Chromebook like to use in the real world and is it worth the higher-than-average asking price? I've been living with the product for the past week to find out.

Body, design and display

Let's get one thing out of the way first: The ThinkPad Yoga 11e Chromebook is not a sleek or particularly pretty laptop. The system is more rugged than sexy, with a 3.3-lb. reinforced frame designed to withstand all sorts of wear and tear.

Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga 11e Chromebook

The Yoga 11e Chromebook was originally created for use in the classroom and it shows: The laptop feels extremely durable and well constructed, with none of the flimsy surfaces or cheap-feeling materials you frequently see on lower-end devices. From the rubber bumper around its lid to strengthened ports and hinges, the Yoga 11e Chromebook is built to last. Lenovo says the system is even MilSpec-tested and certified for its durability.

Don't let that scare you, though: While the Yoga 11e Chromebook is a bit on the clunky side, it's actually quite pleasant to use. Aside from the high-end Pixel, it's by far the sturdiest Chromebook I've tried -- the level of quality was apparent from the moment I picked it up. This thing is really just in a different league from almost every other device out there.

Beyond the frame, the Yoga 11e's keyboard is exceptionally good, with firm, deep keys that provide just the right amount of give. And its trackpad is no less impressive: The surface feels strong and smooth, and is as responsive as can be. It's what you'd expect from a ThinkPad, not from a Chromebook -- and I mean that in the best possible way.

Then there's the display: The ThinkPad Yoga 11e Chromebook has an 11.6-in. screen that'll spoil you for most other Chrome OS products. The reason is that the display uses an IPS LCD panel, which is a significantly higher-quality screen technology than the TN panels built into most Chromebooks today.

The system's 1366 x 768 resolution may not be extraordinary, but the Yoga 11e's screen looks very good, with clear text and rich, realistic colors. It's bright with excellent viewing angles and remains visible even in glary conditions.

The display is much easier on the eyes than any TN panel I've experienced -- even a 1080p TN panel like the one on Samsung's Chromebook 2. Compared to pretty much any Chromebook other than the Pixel, in fact, it looks fantastic. It's a reminder that the quality of a screen depends on more factors than simply its resolution.

The many states of the Yoga 11e Chromebook

Image quality is only the start of what sets the Yoga 11e's screen apart. The display is touch-enabled and tilts back a full 360 degrees, which really opens the device up to some interesting possibilities.

You can push the display back about 300 degrees to use the system as a stand-supported slate.

You can push the Yoga 11e's display back about 300 degrees to use the system as a stand-supported slate, much as you can with the lower-end Lenovo N20p Chromebook that I reviewed last week. You can also take things a step further and push the screen all the way around to form a flat (though somewhat thick) tablet.

Either way, you end up interacting with the device solely by touching its display. The physical keyboard is automatically disabled in those scenarios and a virtual keyboard appears on-screen when you need it.

As I noted when reviewing the N20p Chromebook, Chrome OS isn't entirely optimized for touch -- and you probably wouldn't want a standalone Chrome OS slate at this point -- but having a touch-centric option is a remarkably useful complement to the traditional laptop form.

As with the N20p model, I've found myself frequently using the Yoga 11e Chromebook in its regular laptop mode when I'm working or doing any intensive typing -- then tilting the screen back and moving into a slate-like setup when I'm doing something less input-oriented. Getting the keyboard out of the way and bringing the screen up close feels quite natural, and the tablet-like configuration is especially appealing with more casual tasks like scrolling through websites or watching videos.

You can also take things a step further and push the screen all the way around to form a flat (though somewhat thick) tablet.

It's not the type of feature you need, by any means, but it's a luxurious addition that's very nice to have.

Performance

A big question for me coming into this review was how well the ThinkPad Yoga 11e Chromebook would fare in terms of performance. Like Lenovo's N20p Chromebook, the Yoga 11e uses one of Intel's new Bay Trail processors. Those are typically considered to be more efficient but less powerful than the Haswell-based alternatives used in many current Chrome OS devices.

While the N20p proved to be somewhat limited in performance, though, the Yoga 11e is surprisingly capable. It's not quite at the level of a comparable Haswell-based system, but with its higher-end quad-core Celeron N2930 CPU and full 4GB of RAM, the Yoga 11e Chromebook is more than able to hold its own.

In general use, the system felt snappy and responsive; even with numerous tabs and processes running, things never seem laggy or slow. When I did a side-by-side comparison with a Haswell-based Asus Chromebox loaded up with the same 4GB of RAM, the two systems were almost neck-and-neck in terms of page-loading time.

The Chromebox occasionally pulled ahead and finished loading something a second or two before the Yoga 11e, but we're talking about the type of difference you'd notice only in a closely controlled comparison. Even with the level of abnormally intensive multitasking I tend to do in my day-to-day work, the Yoga 11e had no problem keeping up.

And that's what's most important: No matter how I've used the device, I've never felt frustrated or held back by its speed. The extra resources put into this system seem to give it the fuel it needs to keep up with Chromebooks from outside of the Bay Trail family.

The one area where the ThinkPad Yoga 11e Chromebook comes up slightly short is in the realm of stamina: The system is listed for "up to eight hours" of use, but I've been able to squeeze only five to six hours out of it per charge. Five to six hours is by no means horrendous, but it also isn't spectacular and is well below what many other Chromebooks provide (I've seen 8.5 to 10 hours on some of the recent systems).

The Yoga 11e ships with 16GB of onboard storage. You can add more space via a four-in-one card slot on the side of the device.

Bottom line

Lenovo's ThinkPad Yoga 11e Chromebook is a standout device with a lot of compelling qualities. It's the most sturdy and well-constructed Chromebook you can buy for under $1,000 today, with an exceptional keyboard and trackpad, an outstanding touch-enabled IPS display and respectably solid performance for both casual and power users.

At a Glance

ThinkPad Yoga 11e Chromebook

LenovoPrice: $455Pros: Well-constructed; extremely durable; exceptional keyboard and trackpad; outstanding IPS display; touch-enabled screen; converts into stand-supported slate or fully flattened tablet; solid performanceCons: Somewhat clunky and heavy; lower-than-average battery life

If all of that isn't enough, the Yoga 11e Chromebook also offers the unusual opportunity to use your laptop as a stand-supported or fully flattened tablet. While I wouldn't consider that a reason in and of itself to buy the system, it's some very tasty icing on an already sweet cake.

The only real downside to the Yoga 11e Chromebook is its battery life, which is manageable but subpar. The device is a bit clunky, too, but that's all relative: Aside from the pricey Pixel and the pretty but poky HP Chromebook 11, most Chromebooks aren't exactly pinnacles of design. While it may be a bit heavier than some of its lower-end contemporaries, the Yoga 11e is also far less flimsy and cheap-feeling.

Lenovo's ThinkPad Yoga 11e Chromebook costs more than any of the entry-level systems, but remember: It isn't meant to be an entry-level system. You get what you pay for -- and if you've got the cash to spend on a midrange Chrome OS device, the Yoga 11e will give you an awesome overall experience that's a meaningful notch above the rest.

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 Twitter.

This article, ThinkPad Yoga 11e review: A hidden Chromebook gem, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

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