Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Lenovo N20 review: Lenovo's N20p Chromebook is half a hybrid


Good - The Lenovo N20p has good battery life, a touchscreen and a better keyboard than most other Chromebooks. The half-hybrid hinge offers additional flexibility for presenting videos or slideshows.

Bad - Many other basic Chromebooks cost less, and the 300-degree hinge here seems needlessly limited, considering how many similar systems fold back a full 360 degrees.

Bottom Line - Lenovo's N20p is long-lasting touchscreen Chromebook with a design on the nicer side of budget, but its semi-hybrid hinge feels like a half-measure.
The recently reviewed Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga 11e Chromebook received high marks from us for its sturdy hybrid design and for pairing a touchscreen with Google's Chrome OS. But, that was a laptop intended for educational use. Built to withstand the rigors of the classroom, it was just too heavy and bulky for casual everyday commuting (and much more expensive than other Chromebooks).

The Lenovo N20p is a consumer-friendly alternative, and Lenovo's first Chrome OS not aimed at either business or education buyers. It's a slim, lightweight ultraportable laptop that takes the central idea of a Chromebook -- a low-cost, simple clamshell for online use -- and adds better keyboard and touchpad than Chromebook users may be used to.

At $330 for a configuration with an Intel Celeron processor, 2GB of RAM and a 16GB SSD, the N20p is still more expensive than many other Chromebooks, which usually run $250 to $300. For that extra investment, you get a touchscreen, still a rare feature for Chromebooks, and a hinge that's less flexible than Lenovo's Yoga line, but more so than a standard laptop.

The system will be coming to the UK as well, and is listed on Lenovo's UK site, but without price or availability information, but converted pricing would be about £200. As for Australia, no price or release information was available, but converted pricing would be about AU$370.

Much like the Windows laptop line Lenovo calls IdeaPad Flex, the hinge on the N20p folds back past 180 degrees. Unlike fold-back hybrids, it doesn't go all the way back a full 360 degrees, allowing you to use it as a tablet. Instead, like the Flex, it stops, somewhat abruptly, at 300 degrees. That allows you to fold the screen back for use in what we call a kiosk mode, with the screen facing out and the base, keyboard facing down, as a kind of kickstand. It's marginally useful, more so if you're playing videos or presenting PowerPoint presentations, but unlike the Yoga hinge, it's probably not a system-selling feature.

Despite the trick hinge that might not get much use, the N20p is one of the better Chromebooks we've tested. The body is well-made and slim, the keyboard and touchpad are excellent for a budget-priced ultraportable, and the touchscreen, while not as useful in Chrome OS as in Windows 8, is still an occasionally handy extra. Yes, you could pay less for a Chromebook, but you'll be getting less, too.

The 11.6-inch 1,366x768 display is bright and has decent off-axis viewing angles, but the edge-to-edge glass over the front surface invited glare (but also adds to the system's sharp look). Having a touchscreen on the N20p has uses, but at the same time, Chrome OS is not designed with touch in mind in the same way that Windows 8 is (or Google's other OS, Android). It will be interesting to see how Google or Chromebook makers try and adjust the OS to make better use of touch. I found myself primarily using it for webpage scrolling and closing Chrome windows.

Connections, performance, and battery

Even a few years into the USB 3.0 era, we're still seeing a lot of slower USB 2.0 ports. In this case, you actually get one of each, which is better than some other ultraportables, and with only 16GB of internal SSD storage, it's not like you're likely to need fast data transfer speeds anyway. Having faster 802.11ac WiFi is a plus, but the idea of fishing out a dongle or special cable every time to use the micro-HDMI port doesn't appeal to me.

We've seen some differences in Chrome OS performance over the past year between systems with Intel Celeron processors, such as this one, slower ones with ARM chips such as the Samsung Exynos and faster ones with Core i3 CPUs. Nvidia and Acer upended the apple cart a little but with the recent Acer Chromebook 13, which uses the Nvidia K1 processor for average overall performance scores, but excellent 3D scores (as one might expect from Nvidia).

The N20p was middle-to-top of the pack in most tests, but keep in mind that much of your Chrome OS experience is going to be based on using online tools, most of which are pretty lightweight and easy to run. The N20p felt faster and easier to use than some other Chromebooks, but a lot of that also comes from the better-than-average keyboard and touchpad, making interaction less of a hassle.

One area where the system did especially well is our online video streaming playback test. The N20p ran for 8:19, just a few minutes longer than the Nvidia-powered Acer Chromebook 13, and well ahead of Lenovo's own Yoga 11e Chromebook, which ran for 5:36 on the same test.


Chromebooks have become common enough that shoppers can now expect either a rock-bottom price or one or more special features. The Yoga 11e has a hybrid hinge that transforms into a tablet, the Acer Chromebook 13 does mainstream-quality graphics, and the Acer C720p (a long-time favorite) packs a touchscreen into a very inexpensive system.

The N20p straddles that line. It's not the least-expensive, not the most expensive, and it adds a touchscreen and decent design. But its main calling card, a semi-hybrid 300-degree hinge, is of dubious practical use. Much like the IdeaPad Flex line of Windows 8 PCs that preceded it, the N20p still stands on its own as a very good clamshell laptop, even if you'll never use its fold-back hinge.

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