There are a lot of perfectly fine, highly portable, premium laptops to choose from, but let's face it: at the end of the day, they're more alike than different. The Dell XPS 13, Acer Swift 7 ($1,499 at Amazon), HP Spectre or MacBook Air ($900 at Best Buy) all have a clamshell hinge the connects a color LCD display to a physical keyboard and touchpad. Some have touchscreens, some have different ports or LTE antennas, but when was the last time you saw a portable PC that was really fundamentally different?
The Yoga Book C930 ($800 at Walmart) from Lenovo is certainly different. Whether those differences are for the better is up for debate. But it's hard not to like a laptop that so gleefully takes industry conventions and tosses them right out the window. What makes the Yoga Book stand out is that it combines one LCD touchscreen with a second E Ink touchscreen, sharing a 360-degree hinge between them. The single available configuration is $999. International price and availability isn't available yet, but that works out to £770 or AU$1,400.
Lenovo Yoga Book C930
|Price as reviewed||$999|
|Display size/resolution||10.8-inch 2,560x1,600 touch display|
|CPU||1.2GHz Intel Core i5-7Y54|
|Memory||4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz|
|Graphics||128MB Intel HD Graphics 615|
|Networking||802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.2|
|Operating system||Windows 10 Home (64-bit)|
On-screen, on-demand keyboard
How does one type on such an unusual device? The E Ink display is considered the lower half of the clamshell. There, a monochrome on-screen keyboard appears on demand, complete with a touchpad. An options menu offers a couple of different keyboard layouts and levels of both fake keyboard clacking sounds and haptic feedback (but it's very generalized buzzing, not specific to the key you're pretend-pressing).
The keyboard choices are a standard design with a full-time touchpad zone, and a version with larger keys plus a touchpad that only pops up when summoned. That larger version certainly makes for a better typing experience, or at least it's more forgiving considering the lack of tactile feedback.
Lenovo says software behind the keyboard app will adjust to your haphazard typing on the totally flat keys. But my biggest issue was that I could never get quite used to calling up and dismissing the touch pad. It led to too many instances of tapping the space bar when was trying to click a button, or else fumbling around when my finger went to where my brain expected the touchpad to be (hitting any letter on the keyboard sends the touchpad away and brings back the space bar).
Actual typing, including most of this review, was surprisingly better than I expected. I'm no expert typist, but I move into a new laptop at least once a week, so I'm pretty good at acclimating to new keyboards. It helps that the keys are generally in the right place with good spacing. But, you also have to keep an eye on the keyboard while you type.
The touchpad is tougher to use. It's way too easy to let your finger slide off the touchpad outline onto the keys, and the auto-hiding version of the touchpad feels like it's never there when you need it, but always there when you don't.
Windows 10 ($158 at Amazon) is still much easier to use with a keyboard and touchpad than with touchscreen controls, so not having a great keyboard/touchpad experience is a mark against this otherwise very clever PC.
The idea of a laptop with an onscreen keyboard is rare, but it isn't new. In fact, this is the second generation of the Yoga Book line. The 2016 original (available in both Windows and Android versions) had two LCD displays, one as a primary screen, the other as either an on-screen keyboard, drawing tablet or secondary screen. The typing experience was subpar, but the idea of being able to use either screen for any app or browser window was great. It was also held back by a sluggish Intel Atom processor. True old-timers will remember the similar Acer Iconia, also with twin LCDs, which I reviewed back in 2011.
Because this new version swaps the bottom LCD for E Ink, it gets some of the battery and readability benefits of E Ink. Flip the screen around to "tablet" mode, and one can use only the E Ink display, which any Kindle owner will tell you is a real battery saver. But with the LCD running streaming video, battery life ran only around six hours, which is poor for a superthin, superportable laptop that's supposed to travel with you.
The most obvious application is using the Yoga Book as a high-end e-book reader. Unfortunately, Amazon Kindle format support is not available, which knocks out one of the primary reasons people might be interested in this system. It currently reads and displays only PDF files (fortunately, many are available in that format).
While this is a Windows 10 PC, one could download and use the Kindle reader PC app, but only on the top LCD. The system doesn't treat its E Ink screen as a true second display, so you can't just move the Kindle app down there. Lenovo appears to be keenly aware of this disconnect and says future software and functionality updates may happen, but if they do, it won't be until sometime next year.
As it is, you can also use the E Ink screen and included stylus for drawing, sketching or note-taking. I found the stylus response on the bottom screen surprisingly good, especially considering how pokey E Ink usually feels. Sketches or handwritten notes from Lenovo's custom E Ink app can be copied and pasted into just about any standard Windows app on the LCD display.
Cool ideas, but a tough sell
Besides its E Ink screen and keyboard, the Yoga Book C930 adds a few other interesting twists. The clamshell stays shut until you rap lightly on the lid twice, at which point it pops open. People I showed that to were genuinely impressed. There's also a Windows Hello fingerprint reader right above the keyboard.
Benchmark testing showed that performance wasn't a standout, but still generally fine for everyday tasks. Even though the sticker on the system proclaims a very mainstream-sounding seventh-gen Intel Core i5, it's part of the low-power Y series, meant for very thin, fanless laptops that need to take it easy on heat and power consumption. Compared to other laptops with Core i3, Celeron or Snapdragon processors, it presented well, but also costs more than those.
The Yoga Book has left me somewhat perplexed. It misses more than it hits, but I could also see a future generation getting closer to something practical and changing how we think about laptops.
I genuinely enjoyed using and testing this very inventive PC, which dared to break some norms in the search for something new and unique. But as a whole, the E Ink keyboard and touchpad just won't work for most typists, and the lack of Kindle format support undercuts what should be the system's biggest selling point.
|Lenovo Yoga Book C930||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 1.2GHz Intel Core i5-7Y54; 4GB DDR4 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 128MB dedicated Intel HD Graphics; 128GB SSD|
|Acer Spin 3||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.2GHz Intel Core i3-8130U; 4GB DDR SDRAM 2,400MHz; 128MB dedicated Intel UHD Graphics; 1TB HDD|
|Lenovo Flex 11||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 1.1GHz Intel Celeron N4000; 2GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,400MHz; 128MB dedicated Intel UHD Graphics 600; 64GB eMMC|
|Asus NovaGo TP370QL||Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit); 2.6GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 Mobile processor; 8GB 1,866MHz LPDDR4x onboard; Adreno 540 Graphics; 128GB SSD|
|Microsoft Surface Pro 6||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-8250U; 8GB DDR4 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 128MB dedicated Intel UHD Graphics 620; 256GB|