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Lenovo ThinkPad 13 Chromebook review: Lenovo's dead-serious ThinkPad goes Chromebook casual

The famously buttoned-down ThinkPad brand trades its no-nonsense vibe for a less-expensive Chrome OS version.

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Xiomara Blanco
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Xiomara Blanco

Associate Editor / Reviews - Tablets and monitors

Xiomara Blanco is an associate editor for CNET Reviews. She's a Bay Area native with a knack for tech that makes life easier and more enjoyable. So, don't expect her to review printers anytime soon.

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4 min read

Chromebooks are often unremarkable laptops, but they have to be if they're going to offer the basic utility of a notebook at temptingly low prices.

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7.0

Lenovo ThinkPad 13 Chromebook

The Good

The Lenovo ThinkPad 13 has a comfortable and responsive keyboard, battery life that'll last a work day and an adjustable screen with sturdy 180-degree hinges.

The Bad

Audio is muffled thanks to poor speaker placement, the display doesn't pop, and the keyboard isn't backlit. Chrome OS has limited software options.

The Bottom Line

This Lenovo ThinkPad 13 takes a lot of the design and quality we like the ThinkPad brand for, and transforms it into a more casual Chromebook, ideal for schoolwork and writing.

One of the best you can buy for work or school is the Lenovo ThinkPad 13 Chromebook. Not to be confused with the Lenovo ThinkPad 13, which runs Windows 10 and costs about $600 (AU$900, £360), this variation of the Lenovo ThinkPad 13 is a Chromebook, which means it runs Chrome OS and has a starting price of $439 (converts to £360, AU$610) with different configurations featuring:

  • 13.3-inch screen with either HD (1,366x768) or full HD (1,920x1,080) resolution (touchscreen optional)
  • An Intel processor, either Celeron 3855U, Core i3-6100U or Core i5-6300U
  • 2GB or 4GB of onboard memory
  • 16GB or 32GB of storage (eMMC)

Though it's not as cheap as some other Chromebooks, the ThinkPad 13 makes up for it with solid battery life, a comfy keyboard and smooth performance.

Lenovo ThinkPad 13 laptop goes Chromebook casual

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Major keys

The ThinkPad 13 has an impressively spacious keyboard that feels incredibly comfortable when typing, especially for a budget laptop. Individual keys are quick to respond, springy and slightly concave to comfortably fit your fingertips. The trackpad, located below it, is also very responsive and accurate.

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The keys are slightly concave, making them comfy to use.

Josh Miller/CNET

It feels very roomy for a 13-inch laptop; after using it awhile I much preferred it over my MacBook Air for any prolonged writing sessions. My only pet peeve is that the keyboard is not backlit, and it's missing the classic ThinkPad trackpoint from the Windows 10 model.

Not built for Netflix

Do you want your Chromebook to become your new Netflix binge-watching buddy? The Lenovo ThinkPad 13 is not the one.

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While the screen is fine for most activities, it lacks the oomph that makes HD videos pop.

Josh Miller/CNET

First of all, its screen, while fine for Word documents and spreadsheets, lacks the brightness and colorful pop you want from a device for watching TV and movies. It's worth the extra money to upgrade to the better screen than the default 1,366x768-pixel resolution TN screen that comes with the entry-level model.

Secondly, the speakers are better left unused. If you didn't already plan on primarily using it with headphones, you should. The speakers are located on the bottom of the laptop, directing sound downward towards your lap, table, or whatever surface the laptop is placed on. In turn, audio is inevitably muffled and makes for a lackluster listening experience.

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A typical ThinkPad design with Chrome OS inside.

Josh Miller/CNET

Drab design

If a sleek design, like the HP Chromebook 13 (which runs $499 and up) and Acer Chromebook 14, is a priority, you won't be impressed by the Lenovo ThinkPad 13's homely, all-black, plastic design. To be fair, that hiding-in-plain-sight look is a longtime ThinkPad hallmark and makes it a popular corporate computer. At 19.8mm thin and weighing 3.2 pounds (1.4kg), it's portable and easy to carry around, but not as compact as the slim, featherweight Chromebooks noted above.

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I've seen sleeker Chromebooks.

Josh Miller/CNET

It's not a hybrid, meaning its screen isn't designed to flip 360-degrees into a tablet-like device, but it can fold to a flat 180-degrees. The strong and sturdy hinges steadily keep the screen at your angle of choice. I never needed to fold it flat during my time with it, but its flexible hinges allowed me to adjust the screen for a perfect viewing angle no matter how or where I was sitting.

Performance is king

The Lenovo ThinkPad 13 is one of the best performing Chromebook models we've tested. However, it's important to note that our review unit had all of the high-end specs (sixth-gen Intel Core i5-6300U CPU, 8GB of memory and 32GB of storage) that make the laptop's price balloon up to $845. For not much more, you could get a very nice laptop with Windows 10, such as the entry level Dell XPS 13.

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If you can upgrade the processor on the base model, you'll get smoother performance.

Josh Miller/CNET

While using the ThinkPad 13, I experienced no lagging or slower performance when multitasking. I surfed the web and had multiple tabs open at once, while streaming music or YouTube videos, without any noticeable lagging when switching between tabs. The laptop never got too warm for comfort, either, and the fans weren't loud enough for me to notice.

The ThinkPad 13 Chromebook can charge via USB-C, and while that gives you some flexibility, using the AC adapter that it comes with is the best practice, since USB-C standards are still being sorted out. (The wrong charger could do serious damage to your laptop.)

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It has a total of four USB ports.

Josh Miller/CNET

Lenovo claims that it can last 10 hours of battery life. In our battery tests, it lasted 8.25 hours. Though it doesn't last as long at the X, which lasted 13 hours in our testing, that's enough battery life to power you through the work day.

Specs

  • Two USB Type-C ports
  • Two USB 3.0 ports (four USB ports total)
  • Intel Integrated Graphics
  • 720p front-facing camera
  • 802.11ac Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • SD card reader

A solid choice for work or school

Chromebooks like the Lenovo ThinkPad 13 run Chrome OS, a free but simplified operating system that can't run heavy-duty programs like Photoshop or Final Cut, or download apps like an Android device --yet.

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Simple and affordable, just like every Chromebook should be.

Josh Miller/CNET

This lack of OS functionality is why Chromebooks are cheaper than a Windows or Apple laptop, but this shouldn't be a deal-breaker if your computer activity is cloud-based and revolves around using a browser.

While it's not the best for watching movies and TV, the Lenovo ThinkPad 13 Chromebook is a great pick for simple work or school tasks. Admittedly, the Lenovo ThinkPad 13 Chromebook is expensive compared to the dirt-cheap Lenovo IdeaPad 100s (only $160 at Walmart right now), but the it's bigger, faster and an overall better performer than most Chromebooks or budget Windows laptops.

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7.0

Lenovo ThinkPad 13 Chromebook

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 9Battery 8Support 0
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