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Lenovo N20p Chromebook review: An affordable dual-mode device

Lenovo's latest Chromebook functions as both a regular laptop and a stand-supported tablet. But what is it like to use in the real world?

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The on-screen keyboard works well enough, too, though if you're typing anything more than a few words, you'll almost certainly want to flip the system back around into its laptop mode for easier text input. Given the choice on any device, I think a full-size physical keyboard is always going to be preferable for heavy-duty typing.

Because the screen can be adjusted to any position while the N20p is in its stand mode, you can flip the laptop into a tent-like arrangement if you want -- or even onto its side for a vertically oriented portrait view. I haven't found a need to use either of those orientations, but the possibilities are there if you want them.

As for the display itself, it's the same 1366 x 768 TN panel found in most lower-end Chromebooks these days -- but even within those parameters, it's one of the better screens I've seen. It's glossy, bright and less grainy than the displays on many similarly priced systems. Viewing angles aren't great and it's no match for a higher-quality IPS display, but I've been able to use it for full days without being annoyed or feeling any significant eyestrain.

On the left edge of its frame, Lenovo's N20p Chromebook has a proprietary charging port along with a USB 3.0 port, a dedicated HDMI-out port and a 3.5mm headphone jack. The laptop's right edge, meanwhile, holds a USB 2.0 port and a physical power button -- something slightly different from most Chromebooks, where the power button exists on the keyboard.

The N20p Chromebook has two speakers on either side of its bottom surface. The speakers are pretty decent, with loud, clear and full-sounding audio. They're not the best you'll ever hear, but for this class of device, they're actually quite impressive.

Performance

So far so good, right? Unfortunately, there is one asterisk with Lenovo's N20p Chromebook -- and it's on the subject of performance.

The N20p Chromebook uses one of Intel's new Bay Trail processors -- the Intel Celeron N2830 -- along with 2GB of RAM. In real-world use, it feels like a meaningful step backward from the level of performance I've grown accustomed to seeing with the recent crop of Chrome OS devices, most of which are powered by Intel's speedier Haswell-based chips.

To see the difference between two Chrome OS devices that use Intel processors, I compared the N20p to an Asus Chromebox, with a Haswell-based Cerelon 2955U processor and 2GB of RAM. The N20p Chromebook was consistently slower at loading pages -- by as much as two to six seconds, depending on the site -- and just seemed significantly less zippy overall.

In fact, even without a side-by-side comparison, the N20p just doesn't feel terribly snappy. I noticed its limitations the most in situations where I had several browser tabs running; there, the device really seemed to struggle and reach levels of sluggishness I haven't experienced on Chrome OS in quite some time.

All things considered, I'd say this: If you're like most people and tend to keep only one or two tabs open at a time, the N20p should be fine for your needs. It's still a noticeable step down from the level of performance you'd get from other similarly priced or even less expensive systems -- which is disappointing, to say the least -- but for basic levels of use, it's acceptable enough and may be a worthwhile tradeoff for all of the device's positives. If you do any resource-intensive multitasking, however, you're going to find yourself frustrated by the relatively low performance ceiling.

Lenovo does offer a model of the N20p Chromebook with a slightly higher-end Bay Trail processor, the Intel Celeron N2930; that model is sold only via Lenovo's website and costs $20 more than the regular base model. While I haven't had an opportunity to test it firsthand, the promise of enhanced performance seems to make the extra $20 a worthwhile investment.

The N20p does do reasonably well in terms of battery life: The laptop is listed for eight hours of use per charge, which is pretty much in line with what I've gotten. As for storage, the device comes with 16GB of onboard space along with the option to expand with your own SD card.

Bottom line

Lenovo's N20p Chromebook offers a compelling experience that goes beyond what the typical Chromebook provides. The tilting display really is a nice touch that expands the device's potential and opens it up to new and interesting types of uses.

The system is held back, however, by lower than average performance -- something we'll probably be seeing more of as Intel's Bay Trail chips make their way into more Chrome OS devices. That's a factor you'll have to closely consider in determining whether the N20p Chromebook is right for you.

The N20p Chromebook is a standout device with lots of attractive qualities. For folks in the power-user camp, it's just a shame it's not available with the more robust internals that other similarly priced products provide.

This article, "Lenovo N20p Chromebook Review: An affordable Dual-mode Device," was originally published on Computerworld.com.

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