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Lenovo Chromebook Duet review: this has no business costing so little

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Lenovo’s Chromebook Duet is far from flawless. But when you’re evaluating a device that starts at $279, the question isn’t “Is this a perfect device?” The question is: “Is this better than other stuff you can get for that price?”

Chromebooks in that price range tend to be clunky and cheap, like HP’s Chromebook 14 or Chromebook x360 12b. If you want a Windows alternative, you’re looking at the lowest end of the Acer Aspire or Acer Swift lines or other extremely bare-bones options like the Motile 14. And, of course, there are entry-level iPads and other basic Android tablets, but those don’t come with a keyboard.

Lenovo has certainly cut some corners to shave the Chromebook Duet down to that price point. And since I’m employed as a professional griper, gripe I shall. But at the end of the day, they feel like cut corners — not like major missteps that significantly hamper the device. And after several days using the Duet as my primary driver, I feel comfortable saying it feels much more like a Surface Go with some concessions than it does an ultra-budget PC.

Next to the latest iPads or higher-end Chromebooks like the Pixelbook Go, the Duet Chromebook has significant drawbacks. But those devices are a step up in price (especially when you include the keyboard covers). If you’re looking for a convertible in the sub-$300 range that kind of has a foot in both doors, the Duet is the best you will find.

The Chromebook Duet’s base model has 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. The price includes the keyboard and kickstand, which isn’t the case with the Surface Go or any iPad model. I tested the $299 version, which has the same processor and RAM but 128GB of storage. Twenty dollars isn’t a huge difference, so I recommend that you go for the extra storage if you can afford it — 64G will fill up quickly if you plan on downloading lots of apps, videos, or other media.

It’s easy to change the screen’s angle.

Aside from its head-turning price, the big thing to know about this Chromebook is that it’s small. At 10.1 inches, it’s a typical size for a tablet, but if you’re trying to use it the way you’d use a work laptop (with dozens of tabs and Windows side by side, for example) things get cramped. I was able to write this entire review on the Duet, but going back to the 13-inch 3:2 screen on my personal computer felt like a whole new world.

The display does have a 16:10 aspect ratio, which I appreciate — and if you’re used to using 16:9 panels, you’ll notice the extra vertical space. I still feel slightly less constricted on a 13-inch 16:9 screen, but it’s close.

As a consequence, the detachable keyboard is also tiny. Most of the keys aren’t terrible to press; they’re actually a bit larger than the Surface Go’s keys, with about 1.3mm travel. The cramped setup took some getting used to, but after a day or so of using the device I was able to hit my typical typing speed (around 130 words per minute).

Where Lenovo has had to compromise, however, is on the keys on the outskirts of the deck (tab, backspace, enter, colon, apostrophe, dash, etc.). These are minuscule (just over half the size of the letter keys) and hitting them was a chore. Even after using the device for several days, I was still only correctly tapping backspace about 75 percent of the time — I can’t tell you how many times I ended up slamming the equals sign instead. Similarly, I very often hit enter when I meant to hit the adjacent apostrophe key. Hitting dash, which is squeezed to the left of the equals key, felt like a needle-in-haystack scenario, and I found myself instinctively avoiding using dashes in my writing. I imagine you’ll get used to all this if you buy the Duet, but expect a steep learning curve.

You won’t be shocked to learn that the touchpad is also small, at 3.4 x 1.9 inches. It feels fine and scrolls competently (though I have small hands). I did have some trouble clicking and dragging (I often resorted to doing that on the touchscreen), and two-finger clicks occasionally registered as regular clicks. Additionally, when the keyboard was uneven in my lap, it sometimes twisted into a position where the clicker stopped working (an ailment you’ll be familiar with if you’ve used cheap keyboard covers before). If you prefer to use the screen, the Duet is also compatible with USI styluses.

If you were hoping to connect a bunch of peripherals in lieu of the included keyboard, make sure you have splitters and dongles in tow. The Duet has all of one USB-C port, which will be occupied whenever the device is charging. It would be nice to have at least an audio jack, though Lenovo does include a headphone dongle. (While we’re making wish lists, another USB-C port, so we could plug in a mouse while charging the thing, would be welcome).

The Lenovo Chromebook Duet

The Duet includes a kickstand and keyboard.

The Lenovo Chromebook Duet.

The screen had substantial glare outside.

At this price point, though, I don’t see the cramped peripherals as missteps on Lenovo’s part; they’re trade-offs you’re making. In exchange, you get a device that’s quite compact and portable. The tablet alone is .99 pounds (449g), and with the keyboard and kickstand attached it’s only 2.03 pounds (921g).

And despite the corners that have been cut with the keyboard and touchpad, no part of the Duet looks or feels cheap. The tablet itself is made of an aluminum alloy, which is sturdy and nice to hold. The cover is made of a chic gray fabric — it looks like a classy notebook when closed. Both the keyboard and the kickstand reliably stayed in place while I was using the device. The Duet does lack the two-part magnetic mechanism that the Surface Go uses to keep both covers in place, meaning the keyboard tends to slide around when the laptop is closed. Again, corners.

Another area where the Duet is punching above its weight class: battery life. Lenovo claims 10 hours; I got close to 11 and a half, running the device through my typical workload of Chrome tabs and apps including Gmail, Twitter, Slack, Asana, Facebook, Docs, and Sheets, as well as the occasional Zoom call and Spotify streaming, with the screen at medium brightness. On a day where I only used Chrome, I got just over 12. (Lenovo has, however, skimped on the charger; the included 10W USB-C brick only juiced the device up 24 percent in an hour.)

There’s a clear (at least, partial) explanation for that result: the low-end processor. Lenovo is using an octa-core, 2.0GHz MediaTek Helio P60T. Power-wise, it’s closer to a budget Snapdragon smartphone processor than the Intel chips you’ll find in nice Chromebooks.

With that understood, the Duet’s performance was surprisingly decent. If you’re browsing in a couple tabs, streaming Netflix, or running an app or two, you shouldn’t have a problem. I was even able to run a daily dose of eight to 12 Chrome tabs and six to eight Android apps without much trouble. Docs and Spotify each crashed once or twice, but it wasn’t a rampant problem. It was near impossible to get anything else done while a Zoom call was running (though that might be a blessing in disguise for my co-workers). I also ran the Duet through a day of just Chrome use, and things started to slow down at around 15 tabs. But again, heavy multitasking isn’t what this device is for (and the 4GB of RAM is likely as much of a limiting factor as the processor).

Speaking of Zoom, the Duet has two cameras, including a 2MP front shooter and an 8MP rear shooter. Both were actually better than the webcams I tend to see on laptops. My face on video calls was clear and not particularly washed out, and the rear camera doesn’t take incredible photos but will do just fine if you need to snap a picture of your notes or a PowerPoint slide. The dual speakers (located in the top bezel) delivered surprisingly well-balanced audio that was clear at higher volumes. They don’t get as loud as many full-sized laptops do — that’s understandable given their size, but that’s another reason there really should be a headphone jack on this thing.

Gaming was also a good experience. Flipping Legend and Monster Legends occasionally stuttered but were generally pretty smooth. They also looked sharp on the 1920 x 1200 screen.

The Duet even did a good job with photo work in Lightroom. Editing, both of singular photos and batches, wasn’t instantaneous, but it also wasn’t agonizingly slow; the experience was about on par with midrange Intel-powered Chromebooks I’ve tested in the past. (The panel is a bit dim for anyone doing serious creative work; the glare was substantial enough that the screen was hard to see outdoors).

The Lenovo Chromebook Duet.

The letter keys are fine, but the outer ones are a struggle.

Moving on to the software: the things Chrome OS people like about Chrome OS are all here. The Duet boots quickly, the interface is simple, you get automatic background updates every six weeks, you have access to your favorite Android apps (including Microsoft Office) through the Google Play Store, and Google Assistant can answer your queries and keep you company.

The OS is well-integrated with the rest of Google’s ecosystem, and there’s a slew of cute ways you can use it with your Android phone. The Duet supports instant tethering, meaning you can automatically hitch it to your phone’s data connection without having to dink around with hotspots. You also use Android to sign in and out of the Chromebook remotely, as long as it’s nearby. And you can use Click-to-Call to send contact numbers from the Duet to your phone.

The usual Chrome OS caveats also apply; Android apps are hit-or-miss, with some being well-optimized for Chromebook, some being okay but worse than their browser equivalents, and some (hello, Facebook Messenger) being absolute disasters. It’s still much harder to sideload apps than it is on Android. Once you’ve gotten the hang of what apps you can safely use and what you should keep in Chrome, you should be able to navigate the operating system just fine. But if you’re new to Chromebooks, there’s a learning curve.

The exciting thing here is that Google has also made a few tweaks to Chrome OS to optimize it for the convertible form factor. Google says the Duet is the first device ever to launch with a version of Chrome that’s actually optimized for tablet use. (RIP Pixel Slate). There are three “modes”: Type Mode (when the keyboard is attached), Watch Mode (when the kickstand is open and the keyboard is detached), and Browse Mode (when it’s just a tablet). (Watch Mode and Browse Mode are essentially the same, as far as I can tell).

Browse Mode’s headline feature is a new gesture-navigation system. A long swipe up sends you to the home screen, a short swipe up summons the app shelf, swiping up and holding shows all of your open app windows. Swipe up, hold, and drag a window to one side to split the display; swipe right to return to a previous screen. I wouldn’t say these gestures were necessarily fluid — at least, not compared to what you’ll see on an iPad. But they’re the start of a system I can see becoming quite polished in the future, and they did make browsing in tablet mode a bit easier.

Nothing about the Chromebook Duet is perfect; I could nitpick all day about various suboptimal qualities of the keyboard, touchpad, performance, or screen. But the Duet isn’t trying to be perfect. It’s not for power users, and it’s not meant to accommodate heavy multitasking.

With that in mind, this is the closest to perfection that I’ve ever seen from a $300 laptop-slash-tablet. If you’re looking for a fun device for kids that can also handle homeschooling work, or a portable 2-in-1 for watching Netflix and sending emails on the go, the Duet should do just fine. It’s a solid midrange 2-in-1 Chromebook that has no business being as cheap as it is.