From my earliest days as a technology user, and in particular since I began reviewing products over a decade ago, I have taken joy in experiencing various different versions of the modern computing concept, whether that means different types of hardware, different operating systems, different interaction concepts such as touch screens, and so forth.  The latest aspect in this journey brought be from the land of souped up personal laptops to the humble ChromeBook – in this case Lenovo’s IdeaPad 5i ChromeBook – here are my thoughts.

Overview: What’s in a laptop?

At its most basic, a laptop or notebook is simply a way to make a person’s computing experience portable. And on that definition, Chrome OS meets the status quo – it does provide basic computing and web browsing, but by substantially changing the way those users compute, and by limiting their access to access popular mainstream software, Google walks a fine line with the concept.

  • Chrome OS and Modern Computing

Chrome OS has evolved significantly from it’s earliest days, having originally been conceived as a system built entirely around Google’s cloud platform of various productivity and office apps, however, over time, calls for increased functionality have brought further enhancements to the platform, most notably the use of Google Play and Android apps (more on that later). The core concept however is: affordable and highly accessible computing with a minimal learning curve an a connected approach. In theory, this concept works well – until you want to truly multitask. ChromeBooks, almost by default, tend to be far less powerful and contain far less memory, which can be a significant stumble when users start becoming more proficient and wanting to use their device for more.

  • Android Inside

One core concept within today’s Chrome OS is that it brings users the ideas and applications they use the most (web access, office apps, etc), and pairs those with many of the possibilities that come from using the Android platform – but it also breaks down in a number of critical ways that make me question the usability of the Chromebook concept for most serious users (any maybe many casual users as well). For instance, in my testing with a random sample of apps known to be available on Android apps (I tested approximately 150 popular apps), I found that only about 70-75% of those apps were available at all, and of the one that were, many did not work as expected on a desktop environment.

In short: while having an Android subsystem is useful for many things, it’s not something that can be relied on in force, or something you should depend on for a specified usage without checking.

  • Hardware Compatibility

Another foible I arrived at regularly was that many external devices, such as keyboard fobs, external Bluetooth controllers, and so forth, either do not work at all, or only work after a significant amount of setup, which takes significantly away from the plug and play appeal that one might expect to find. Managing devices was also more cumbersome than on either Windows or MacOS, and finding as something as simple as a spec sheet that fully detailed the hardware being used also proved to be extremely unintuitive and cumbersome.

  • The Long and Short

While I am well aware that ChromeBooks quickly became a trend and saturated the market, some of which caught keen glances from the tech community (Google Pixel, I’m looking at you), I unfortunately can’t see enough merit in the platform for most types of use to make it worth the cuts you take compared to an Apple or a Windows notebook. At the “budget” price point, ChromeBooks are too slow and inhibited to serve much beyond a basic user. This doesn’t prevent establishments from saying things like this, however (source, WireCutter):

A good Chromebook can do almost anything a regular laptop can do, and the best ones feel better to use than their similarly priced Windows counterparts. 

The problem is: similarly-priced Windows counterparts also aren’t so great in the long run – and buying units with specs built to last a number of years (a modern core i5 or better, acceptable integrated graphics, and 16GB RAM, for instance), pretty swiftly places a Chromebook out of the running for any type of serious application beyond basic web browsing, light application use, and light photo editing (if you get lucky). Google also doesn’t provide an easy way to see the storage, RAM, CPU, and other specifications of your Chromebook. But it’s possible to dig all this information up, just as you can on a traditional computer operating system.

On the plus side: A ChromeBook can make a fair “emergency computer” as long as you don’t expect to run any specific applications that you haven’t already sought on the platform and tried (many applications, such as textbook-specific programs or program-specific programs that a college student might need are typically not going to work very well). And that’s about as far as I can go with the concept to be as charitable to the ChromeOS platform as possible – it simply doesn’t do much. And what it does do, it tends not to do very well, in addition to having more of a learning curve than Google tends to advertise.

In the ChromeOS concept, specs, frills, and features are decidedly an undertone, with the main advantage being that it does work well for the main intended use case (light web browsing and writing) as long as you carefully control the number of things you have open at once, or the number of browser tabs in your open session.

The Hardware Itself – The Lenovo IdeaPad 5i Chromebook

  • Build Quality and Battery Life

As usual with Lenovo, the IdeaPad 5i Chromebook knocks it out of the park in terms of build quality, with a durable, thick full metal chassis, an ample battery capable of providing for up to a couple of days worth of casual use, a very responsive keyboard and trackpad/pointing hardware, exceptional sound, and so forth. The 51wh battery lasts an exceptionally long time on a Chromebook even under intense usage – which, given that it is mainly running the equivalent of a web browser and maybe a mobile app, seems to make a lot of sense.

In terms of the usability, design, and functionality of the hardware, I couldn’t ask for more. Having a full-size keyboard is also a very welcome feature on any lower-cost computer, and Lenovo’s innovative LED light on the front of the chassis is designed to keep you constantly aware of your available battery life – a fine innovation, which I can appreciate.

  • Performance

Unfortunately, the limitations of Chrome OS, coupled with a push from Google to keep ChromeBooks available at absolute minimum prices means that many ChromeBooks suffer in the performance department, and unfortunately, the IdeaPad 5i was no exception. With fewer than 20 browser tabs open, I routinely experienced freezing, some of which rendered the machine unusable for several minutes at a time, and sometimes required forcing the device to reboot. Given that the machine only comes with 4GB of RAM – again, due to a push to keep prices of ChromeBooks as low as possible – this is not surprising.

What it is, however, is a dealbreaker for me for Chrome OS. It hasn’t been an isolated experience, as I have seen it on other budget grade ChromeBooks as well – but if an operating system cannot perform well on the hardware that it shipped on, that’s a problem, and one which both Google and manufacturers need to resolve. Yes, there are higher end ChromeBooks that are more functional, and have more hardware resources – but these are typically priced more like their Windows competitors, or competing mobile devices. The idea of “Chrome is Cheaper” fails as soon as it begins by defaulting to hardware specs that are less than sufficient to do it justice.

Conclusion

While Lenovo’s hardware design, as always, represents a beautiful and functional piece of modern computing, unfortunately, the limited specs and the severe limitations of Chrome OS prevent it from being something I can, in good conscience, recommend for most types of use. Having well-designed hardware is pointless if the specs and software drag it down. While there is a version of the IdeaPad ChromeBook available with 8GB of RAM, the version we evaluated for this review with a total of 4GB arguably should no longer exist in today’s modern computing market.

While Lenovo’s Window’s-based IdeaPad 5 might be a far better option, the Chrome version of this hardware lacks on every level. Overall, we rate the IdeaPad 5i Chromebook 2.5 out of a total of 5 stars. For more information on the current IdeaPad 5 lineup, visit the official Lenovo website.