When you think about ThinkPad, you might picture businesspeople typing up quarterly reports. But, as it turns out, many of them are using the laptops to work on book reports. Lenovo has long targeted the student market with its durable 11-inch ThinkPads, and now it has added the $455 ThinkPad Yoga 11e Chromebook, which has the same 360-degree, foldable lid as the company's other Yoga laptops and runs Chrome OS. Though Lenovo is primarily selling the Yoga 11e to school districts, you can buy the notebook at Lenovo.com for any use you want. Is this the right Chromebook for you or your favorite student?
Design: Versatile multi-mode
The Yoga 11e speaks the same design language as other ThinkPads, with a sleek, raven black chassis that's accented only by the flashing red light in the ThinkPad logos on the lid and deck. A thin red line also accents the touchpad.
Click to EnlargeThe first hybrid Chromebook we've tested, the ThinkPad Yoga 11e's lid can bend back up to 360 degrees, allowing it to work in four modes: Laptop, Stand (screen facing outward), Tent (both lid and deck edges touching table) and Tablet. Unlike the business-oriented, 12.5-inch ThinkPad Yoga, the 11e's keys do not retract when in tablet mode. The thick hinges felt extremely strong and tight as I moved the lid between modes.
At 11.81 x 8.5 x 0.87 inches and 3.1 pounds, the Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga 11e isn't the thinnest or lightest Chromebook on the block. By comparison, the Acer C720 weighs just 2.6 pounds and is thinner at 11.34 x 8.03 x 0.75 inches, while the ASUS Chromebook C200M weighs just 2.5 pounds and measures 12 x 7.9 x 0.8 inches. However, none of its competitors have ruggedized features.
Built to be durable enough for rough-and-tumble children, the Yoga 11e Chromebook has a number of rugged features, including a rubber bumper around the lid that braces for falls, a thicker bezel that protects the display, strengthened hinges and a smaller gap between keys that makes them harder to pop out.
This Chromebook has also been MIL-Spec tested to withstand high pressure, humidity, vibration, temperature shock and dust. The display is protected by Dragontail Glass, which is meant to withstand up to 132 pounds of weight.
Click to EnlargeThe island-style keys felt springy, requiring a solid 60 grams of force to actuate, which is on a par with the better keyboards on the market. However, the keys only had 1.4mm of vertical travel, which is less than the typical 1.5 to 2mm range of most notebooks. Still, that's a bit more than the 1.27mm on the Acer C720.
Because I hit the bottom more than I'd like while typing, I noticed a mediocre 7 percent error rate on typingtest.com, but I managed a strong 94 words-per-minute. That's faster than my typical 86 wpm, but less accurate than my usual 1 percent error rate.
Touchpad: Smooth, but no nub
Click to EnlargeThe 4 x 2.5-inch, buttonless touchpad provided reasonably accurate navigation around the desktop. However, its surface felt slippery and I had to be very deliberate in my motions when highlighting text or clicking text links. I didn't experience any significant jumpiness and gestures, such as two-finger swipe to go back in the browser or three-finger swipe to see the task list, were always recognized.
Disappointingly, the ThinkPad Yoga 11e does not have the famous TrackPoint pointing stick (aka red nub). I prefer pointing sticks to touchpads, because they provide the most accurate means of navigating around the desktop and don't require touch typists like me to lift their hands off the home row.
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Click to EnlargeThe 11.6-inch, 1366 x 768-pixel IPS display on the ThinkPad Yoga 11e offers solid color, sharpness and brightness for a sub-$500 system. The screen measured 253 nits on our light meter, which is nearly identical to the 252-nit ultraportable notebook category average and a bit brighter than the ASUS Chromebook C200M (244 nits) and Acer C720 (228 nits). Viewing angles were quite good. Colors only started to wash out at greater than 60 degrees to the left or right, and they never washed out completely.
According to our color test, the ThinkPad Yoga 11e's panel is capable of displaying 77.5 percent of the sRGB color gamut, which means that there are a number of shades it just can't show. Perhaps that's why, when I watched a trailer for the Guardians of the Galaxy, Gamora's green skin wasn't that vibrant, Star Lord's red jacket seemed muted and Rocket's yellow jumpsuit didn't pop. However, the C200M (59.7 percent) and Acer C720 (61.5 percent) showed far fewer colors. The Yoga 11e's screen had a mediocre Delta-E accuracy score of 10.9 (0 is perfect accuracy).
The speakers, which are hidden in the spot where the deck meets the lid, provide mediocre and tinny sound. When I listened to Patrice Rushen's bass-heavy "Forget Me Nots," the music seemed accurate, if a little flat and quiet. However, when I put on Sister Sin's heavy metal "One out of Ten," the drums sounded like static interrupting the tinny guitar sounds.
Even at maximum volume, the ThinkPad Yoga 11e cannot fill a room, but in the classroom environments this notebook is intended for, teachers probably don't want a notebook that drowns everything else out.
Despite my listening experience, the Yoga 11e hit 83 decibels on the Laptop Audio Test (measuring a tone from 32 inches), which is exactly the ultraportable notebook category average, but lower than the Acer C720 (87 dB) and Acer Chromebook 13 (91 dB).
Click to EnlargeThe touch-sensitive display was extremely responsive and allowed me to target icons, links and menu items with relative ease. However, the Chrome OS UI looks and feels a lot like the Windows desktop, which means that widgets, buttons and icons are small and not particularly finger-friendly. Hitting the X button to close a window, for example, requires some precision. Unlike the touchpad, the touch screen supports pinch-to-zoom, which worked smoothly in the browser.
When the ThinkPad Yoga 11e was not in Laptop mode, a virtual keyboard popped up any time I tapped on a textbox. The keyboard has large white keys, a separate screen for number and predictive text suggestions. It also conveniently resizes if you hold the device in portrait mode.
Ports and Webcam
Click to EnlargeThe ThinkPad Yoga 11e has a decent array of ports. The right side contains a single USB port, an HDMI-out port and a Kensington lock slot, along with the power and volume buttons. The left side houses an additional USB port and an SD card reader.
The 720p webcam captured detailed, accurate images, even in low light. When I shot some photos of my face in a dark area of my living room, my face seemed bright. However, as in any dark shot, there was plenty of noise.
Chrome OS and Software
Click to EnlargeIf you're familiar with Google's Chrome OS, the user experience on the ThinkPad Yoga 11e will be what you'd expect. Identical on every Chromebook and always up-to-date, Chrome OS provides a desktop complete with Windows, a Start Menu-like application menu and a system tray with a clock and Wi-Fi indicator. However, most of the so-called apps are actually just shortcuts to Web tools and many of the apps run poorly offline, if they run at all.
According to ChromeOSApps.org, Google's Chrome Web Store has more than 33,000 apps as of this writing. However, the "for your desktop" section of the store, which contains the only apps that run natively rather than on the Web, has just 44 titles (as of this writing). Most of those are simple games such as Cut the Rope and Solitaire. However, the offline section does include a couple of useful programs such as Gliffy for drawing diagrams and VNC Viewer for remote controlling your Windows PC.
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There are a lot more apps listed in the "offline apps" section of the store, which has Web tools that are capable of functioning without an Internet connection. However, many key apps don't function as well offline. For example, you have to choose which of your Google Docs you want available offline while you are still online, which requires a fair amount of forethought.
Annoyingly, a number of the apps in the Chrome Web Store -- particularly high-end games -- don't work on Chrome OS. For example, when I went to play Madden NFL, I was presented with a download button requiring me to install a plug-in. Turbo Racing 2 3D wouldn't load because it requires Flash, which Chrome OS doesn't support. You'd think that Google would screen the apps in its store to make sure that they run on its operating system.
Click to EnlargeWith its Intel Celeron N2930 CPU and 4GB of RAM, the ThinkPad Yoga 11e Chromebook offers modest performance that's acceptable enough for multitasking and light gaming, but slower than its competitors. When I played the high-speed game Airmech, I was able to move my character around with ease, shooting at tanks and watching smoke billow, but there was an obvious jerkiness that seemed worse when I decided to play music in a background tab.
While I was able to play some games on it, the ThinkPad Yoga 11e Chromebook offered rather weak graphics performance overall. On the WebGL Cubes test, which renders 150,000 shapes with three lights, the notebook managed a glacial 5 fps, much slower than the Acer C720's 40fps and Acer Chromebook 13's 20 fps.
Battery Life: Below Average
Chromebooks are known for their long battery life, but unfortunately the ThinkPad Yoga 11e doesn't live up to this lofty standard. On the Laptop Mag Battery Test, which involves continuous surfing over Wi-Fi at 100 nits of brightness, the laptop lasted a sub-par 6 hours and 18 minutes. That's well below the 8-hour and 15-minute ultraportable notebook category average and much less than ASUS C200M (12:27) and Acer C720 (7:27). Kids may very well turn up the brightness all the way 253 nits, which would make the notebook die a lot sooner.
Click to EnlargeThe idea of giving Chromebooks to students makes a lot of sense, whether the system is being provided by the school or gifted by the parents, because Google's OS is easy to use, extremely secure and nearly impossible to infect with malware. The Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga 11e Chromebook stands out as a particularly strong choice for kids because of its durable design and springy keyboard. However, Chrome OS isn't touch-friendly, so students may not benefit much from being able to turn the device into a tablet or a stand. You can save $100 by purchasing the ThinkPad 11e Chromebook for $379, which is nearly identical except for the bendable lid.
Adults and older kids looking for a Chromebook would be better off with a system that's lighter and with better battery life, such as the Acer Chromebook 13, which lasts 8 hours on a charge and provides a full HD 1920 x1080 display. Those looking for an inexpensive, 11-inch ThinkPad would be better off with the $529 ThinkPad Yoga 11e with Windows 8.1. However, if you want to give your kids a rugged Chromebook with bend-back ability, the ThinkPad Yoga 11e Chromebook is a pretty good choice.