musings > technology
27 Feb, 2016 | 12 min read
Something terrible has happened. My trusty Chromebook is dead.
Well, not entirely — the battery has died, or its connection has come loose from the motherboard, or something. I didn’t really want to dismantle it to find out. I figured the guys at Currys could do that for me. Turns out they couldn’t. They have to send it back to Toshiba. They reckon it’ll take 28 days. The rant about how anything can take 28 days in 2016 is for another time.
For the present, as my Chromebook is the only laptop I had and 28 days is an absolute age, I needed a substitute. Ever on a budget, my options were limited. However, one (potentially rash) purchase later, I was £130 poorer, but one Lenovo MIIX 300 better off. Given this is my first foray into the world of Windows Netbooks, I thought it would be a good opportunity to compare the Lenovo to my (temporarily) departed Toshiba CB30.
For reference, the Toshiba costs £199 from most retailers, and the Lenovo £129. The Toshiba is the more powerful machine, but the Lenovo has the benefit of a full Windows OS and a touch screen.
The Lenovo MIIX 300 is an 11 inch 2 in 1 netbook. What that means is that it has a touchscreen and a keyboard, and the two can separate, turning the small laptop into a medium sized tablet. Despite its diminutive size, the device runs the full version of Windows 10 — in other words, there shouldn’t be any difference between my experience on this device compared to a full-sized Windows laptop (hardware differences notwithstanding).
On the face of it, the Lenovo seems like a fairly robust choice. The device itself feels study enough — though, as I’ve never had a 2 in 1 before, the hinging does feel a little disconcerting. Because all of the hardware is in the screen (meaning you still get the benefits of a full OS even in tablet mode), it does mean that the screen is heavier than the base — which is basically just a plastic keyboard. As a result, the balance of the device takes a lot of getting used to; I have already set the machine down on the table awkwardly and had it topple back a number of times.
Hardware wise, its pretty standard for the price tag. In the keyboard section it has 2 full-sized USB ports (though not USB3, which is irritating), and on the screen/tablet section a microUSB port, a mini-HDMI port, a microSD card slot, and a headphone jack, as well as the power socket. All of the above are sensibly placed (its a shame you can’t use a USB pen while in tablet mode, but that’s hardly anything to cry about). The same cannot be said for the power button and volume rocker, which are on the back of the screen. This makes sense when you remember is basically a glorified tablet, but in laptop mode it does make changing the volume irritating — especially when you hit the power button by mistake, which is very easy to do and instantly locks the device.
That said, I’m not sure I’ll be using the volume buttons much, as the sound quality is terrible. The speakers are very tinny, and the volume itself doesn’t go particularly loud. Its a bit of a shame, but at that price something has to go. If working from home I tend to use external speakers anyway, and otherwise I’d use headphones, so for me it isn’t the end of the world.
The mini-HDMI port is a life saver — I’d have preferred a full-sized port, but at the price I’m just glad it has the ability to connect an external screen. While the ‘built-in’ screen is pretty good (more on that below), it is only 10 inches and so gets cramped pretty quickly.
One thing I found irritating was that while there is a 32Gb SSD, it seems to be half full with Windows crap. That, I haven’t missed. By the time I’d installed everything I needed, and synced up my essential Google Drive and Dropbox folders, I’ve barely got any space left on the device. I do have a 64Gb microSD card in the post though, so I’m hoping that will solve that problem.
There is both a rear and front facing camera on the screen — neither of them will make a David Bellamy of you, but they are good enough for Skyping people who don’t really want to look too closely at you.
The keyboard itself is very nice to use — though being such a small device (10 inch screen, 11 inch device) it did take a bit of getting used to. The laptop also opens up at a good angle, so if you’re using it on a flat surface it doesn’t feel as cramped as it actually is.
The touchpad, sadly, does not match the keyboard. Its fine — in the same way that Tesco’s finest pizza is fine; they’re perfectly edible, but once you remember that Dominos is a thing… The most irritating part about the touchpad is that it seems to confuse the actions for scrolling with the action for zooming quite a lot. If there is a setting to stop it from doing that, I haven’t found it yet.
The screen is very nice for the price range. Being a glorified tablet, in this case, seems to work in the Lenovo’s favour. The resolution is crisp, and the brightness is good. The only downside, as I’ve mentioned already, is the size of the thing. Without the capability to plug in an external monitor I’d have really struggled with this as my only laptop.
One obvious plus for the Lenovo is the touchscreen. Initially I really didn’t care, but I’ve actually found this very useful (especially considering the lacklustre touchpad). Windows 10, to its credit, does a pretty good job of being both a ‘normal’ OS and a touchscreen OS.
I do quite a lot of reading on my laptop, which is surprisingly pleasant on the Lenovo — particularly as I can remove the keyboard and tilt the device into portrait mode. (Sidebar: I’ve got back into Flipboard as a direct result of this, and that alone is almost worth the new laptop. Almost.)
I’ll admit, with 10 hours of battery life in a standard working day on my Chromebook I was a little bit spoilt. By comparison the Lenovo out of the box is promising me 5 hours on a full charge. I’ve been pretty taxing on it in the first few days, and it seems to be true to its word. This is disappointing for something that claims to be a tablet, though it seems par for the course with budget 2 in 1s. Also, it lacks a quick charge feature — which is one of those things I didn’t know I’d miss until I didn’t have it.
The upside of the Lenovo basically being a glorified tablet is that the charger is much more discreet. It basically looks like a phone charger (though not, sadly, USB), and the lack of a bulky transformer pack means it adds little weight to your bag. A small consolation for a poor battery.
In terms of the usability, the Lenovo runs full Windows 10. It’s been a while since I’ve used Windows — before my Chromebook I was on a Mac (and before that I mostly used a Chromebook anyway). I joked with the guy in the shop that I’d have to wait 2 hours to use it while it loaded all the updates. It was less funny when it actually happened…
Despite that, I had forgotten how nice it is to have actual applications on a laptop. Standalone applications seem to warrant more care in their development than their web versions, so even services like Flipboard and Evernote — which you would expect to be fairly similar regardless of platform — are nicer to use on Windows than ChromeOS. The flipside is that I’d forgotten how long it takes to set everything up as you want it. Between the Windows updates, setting up the security, and downloading and installing Dropbox, Evernote, Skype, et al, it took the better part of 3 hours to get everything as I wanted it. Of course, for a lot of those things I could have just used the web version, but I figure if I’ve got a ‘full’ OS, I may as well make use of it.
Once I did have everything set up, things seemed to work pretty well. It does struggle under the weight of too many things open at once, sometimes noticeably, and is particularly tetchy if I’m using Spotify and I have a lot of tabs open in Chrome. Considering that’s basically all I do with my laptop (hence the original switch to a Chromebook) it’s a little frustrating at times. On the whole though, it usually behaves itself.
What do I get on my Chromebook for the extra £70? The sound quality is much higher on the Toshiba 2 (courtesy of its SkullCandy speakers), the screen and the keyboard are considerably larger, and the machine in general runs noticeably quicker (I don’t know if that’s ChromeOS vs Windows, slightly better hardware, or a little of both — though I guess that’s by-the-by). Its also worth reiterating that neither laptop is a direct replacement for a Macbook, or a high powered Windows laptop. (Though I maintain that, for the average user, the performance difference is close to negligible — particularly on the Toshiba).
The Toshiba has over double the battery life, which for someone who likes to work on the move is a huge bonus. Also, despite being larger, the Chromebook is not much heavier, and doesn’t have the weight distribution issue. While the touchscreen on the Lenovo is a nice feature, I’d take the touchpad on the Toshiba any day of the week.
All that said, for £130 I can’t really grumble at the Lenovo too much. I do think the Toshiba Chromebook is better though, and if pushed I would say it is worth the extra £70. That’s especially true if you are already embedded into the Google ecosystem. If not though, it’s a close thing. On paper the processor in the Toshiba alone should knock this out the park, but my day to day usage isn’t particularly CPU-heavy, so while it’s noticeable it might not be a deal breaker for some.
All-in-all I will switch back to the Chromebook as my main device once it’s fixed, but it’s nice to know that I’ll have a usable Windows machine to fall back on if I need it. It’s also worth mentioning that while it took me 3 hours to get my Windows machine to a usable state, through the glory of the cloud it’ll take me roughly 3 mins to get my Chromebook back to normal. (Seriously. If it takes me 4 minutes, I’ll be disappointed.)
If you are reading this because you’re thinking of buying a laptop, I do have two other things to say. Firstly: what are you doing here? Go and read a proper review! Secondly: If I had the option of buying a ‘proper’ laptop in the £300-£450 range, I still think this was a better choice — at least for my needs. I’ve used plenty of Windows laptops in that price bracket, and have hated every single one of them. They aren’t as powerful as the price tag suggests, and they all age horrifically. For me, if I was to go back to a ‘proper’ Windows machine, I’d have to be looking at something in the £650+ range.