Not long ago, I posted information about Microsoft’s Surface Laptop SE: the company’s affordable Surface-branded laptop designed for students. We took one of our well-made but affordable laptops and through the power of ChromeOS Flex, turned it into a functional Chromebook. It was a fun test for hardware and for the purposes of Google Verification Case Testing for ChromeOS Flex-ready laptops.
But after all that was done, we were left with a laptop that had Windows removed and ChromeOS Flex in place, and I started using it here and there. I won’t go back into all the details like I did in my previous post, but TL; DR is this: Using the Surface Laptop SE makes me want the best budget Chromebook out there, and I think it’s not only affordable, but possible.
My suggestion in this previous post? Google needs to produce an affordable, low-cost Pixelbook to light the way for manufacturers. As they’ve done in many other segments of the ChromeOS market, Google needs to set an example of what can be done with low-cost materials when handled in a thoughtful way. The Surface Laptop SE certainly manages that, so can Chromebooks, too.
The Lenovo Flex 3i is a breath of fresh air
And just like that, without my knowledge of it, Lenovo dropped a relatively modest Chromebook on us at their pre-CES press event which might just be… The first steps in this very direction. Before we get into this, though, just know that I didn’t carry around this Chromebook; I have no information outside of what was provided by Lenovo. I just love where this whole thing goes.
Let’s start with the price: $349 MSRP. That model with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage will probably get you, and I’d assume that upgrading to 8GB/128GB would likely run you $400+. Given the older Flex 3i’s always-for-sale nature, I’m assuming this device won’t stay at those prices for long, and getting this Chromebook for under $300 might end up being a good fit for a ton of users.
The reason for this is simple: this Chromebook comes with some great features that we don’t generally see in this price range. First, there’s a 12.2-inch 16:10 FHD display that’ll feel like a lot of space on this smaller device. It also comes with a brightness rating of 300 nits, which is a spec we almost never see in affordable Chromebooks.
Then there’s the impressive port selection, giving users USB Type C, 2x USB Type A, HDMI and microSD ports along with a headphone/microphone jack. For a small Chromebook, that’s a lot of I/O. Add in the fact that it’s a convertible, weighs less than 3 pounds, has a 1080p webcam, and a 12-hour battery life, and right away there are a lot more positives on paper with this Chromebook than I originally thought when we heard the announcement.
Cost-effective Chromebooks with great features
I hope this is the start of a new trend in the cost-effective end of the Chromebook spectrum. Google probably doesn’t need the full Pixelbook in this situation after all. Maybe manufacturers like Lenovo are ready to step up and start thinking about really affordable Chromebooks on their own.
With the Lenovo Flex 3i and the yet to be tested N100 / N200 Alder Lake N processors from Intel, I think we are on the right track. I hope other manufacturers have taken the same path and we’ll see more competition in this space in 2023. Everyone makes affordable Chromebooks at this point, but few set themselves apart in any useful way.
If no one else steps up to fight Lenovo on this matter, I could see the Flex 3i completely escaping with the affordable Chromebook market next year. Replacing the usual 11.6-inch 16:9 screen with a better size, form factor, and brightness is a big step in itself. But the N100 and N200 processors show promise, and combined with Lenovo’s slick keyboard and trackpad, this little Chromebook can be just as fun to use; Especially knowing that you don’t have to pay a lot to get it.
We’re hoping to show this off at CES 2023 in a couple of weeks and get some real hands-on time with it. If it weren’t a hot mess and provided a solid build and good performance to go along with all the other great features on offer, this could be a huge, misguided win for Lenovo in the Chromebook space. I’m very interested to see if others follow suit or if it plays out as it did with the original Duet tablet, seeing Lenovo get ahead of everyone else and dominate the affordable segment for the better part of a year. We’ll know soon enough, I think.
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