UPDATED 5/13/2020 @1:49PM – updated the current possible outputs available over USB Type C in the 3rd paragraph.
From the moment I laid eyes on the Lenovo Chromebook Duet, I gave little thought to unforeseen limitations it would ship with when it finally became available. As a matter of fact, my main concern at the time was whether or not it looked good, felt good, and performed decently. After all, with a price point of $279 with a keyboard, I was expecting cheap hardware and a super-sluggish processor. Instead, when we had our chance to really get time with the tablet at CES 2020, I found it to be attractive, well-built, and fast enough for general use purposes.
Not one time did I give a passing thought to whether or not things like account syncing and extended monitors would work as expected. Sure, the Duet is a tablet, but it is a device running Chrome OS like all other devices running Chrome OS, right? Even with under-powered, slow devices like the Lenovo S330, I can successfully output to 1440p screens with no issue whatsoever. Additionally, I’ve never run into issue with my apps installing just as expected and arranging themselves on my shelf just the way I had them previously. These are things Chrome OS just does consistently well across the board.
So, when the app strangeness happened with the 10e, I chalked it up to unfinished software. That clearly isn’t the case and it doesn’t matter how I try to get the Duet to save my installed apps and their locations, when I powerwash it, everything goes back to the stock layout with oddball things like Google Docs pinned to my shelf. It’s strange and a bit of an annoyance, but this is far from the Duet’s biggest issue for me and other users who would love – LOVE – to use this little guy as a portable workstation. The absolute most confusing and mind-boggling setback on this tablet for me right now is the lack of usable display out over USB Type C. As it stands right now, the best possible output is 1440×900, but as most monitors are of the 16:9 variety, that quickly gets reduced to 1280×720 as your only real 16:9 option.
Again, I never gave this issue a thought over the past 5 months as we’ve waited for this device to arrive. Not one time did I ever worry about how well the display output would behave. Sure, there have been Chromebooks in the past that could only manage a 1080p extended display, but even that feels OK in a package this small and affordable. For most users, an additional display at 1080p is plenty to extend the long-term usability of a small-screen device. For me, it is exactly what I was planning on doing with the tablet during my testing: use this device as a tablet in the evenings and attach a larger display for getting work done during the day alongside a keyboard and mouse.
Those hopes were quickly shot down as my initial testing shows that, like the 10e before it, the display output of the Duet is hamstrung for reasons we simply can’t understand at this point. We’ve done a bit of digging in the Chromium repositories and have found a missing bit of hardware for both ‘Krane’ and ‘Kodama’ (the Duet and 10e, respectively) that is present in upcoming ‘Kukui’ devices and absent on these two tablets. For reference, ‘Kukui’ is the unibuild baseboard for all of the MediTek Helio P60T devices on the way this year like the Duet and 10e.
This missing little bit of hardware is the Analogix ANX7625 MIPI-DSI/DPI to USB Type-C™ Bridge (Port Controller with MUX). Sure, that’s a mouth-full, but here’s some plain speak for us to see exactly what this little part does in other, upcoming MediaTek P60T Chromebooks or tablets:
The ANX7625 is an ultra-low power 4K Mobile HD Transmitter designed for portable devices. It converts MIPI DSI/DPI to DisplayPort 1.3 4K.From a commit adding it to another ‘Kukui’ device: ‘Jacuzzi’
ANX7625 is a mobile HD transmitter designed for portable devices such as smartphones, tablets, Ultrabooks, docking stations, sports cameras, camcorders, and so on. It enables a mobile device to transfer audio, video, and data simultaneously. The ANX7625 converts MIPI™ to DisplayPort™ 1.3 high-performance video with the resolution up to 4K UHD.via the ANX7625 product page
While this transmitter is being added to some ‘Kukui’ boards, it seems it is absent from ‘Krane’ and ‘Kodama’. To this point, we’ve not been able to track down what – if any – transmitter is being used in the Duet and 10e. It is also unclear whether or not this is a bug, misstep, oversight, or poor choice by Lenovo to simply skip out on this addition. As the device is capable of a handful of display outputs, I’d assume there must be some transmitter present that is allowing the USB Type C port to even consider outputting a video signal. Could there be a workaround or fix to leverage the existing hardware on board to correct this oversight? Maybe.
I’ve created a bug report for this and at least one developer has acknowledged it so far. The bug is still unconfirmed and has not been assigned to anyone, but the fact that the same developer who led the charge on Virtual Desks has left an empty comment on the bug tells me at least someone is aware of the issue now. I don’t want to game the system or create a manipulative situation, but if you would like to star this bug to draw a bit more attention to it, you can do so here or the link at the top of this paragraph. Hit the link, sign in, and click the star up top. The more stars, the more likely some response will happen from the developers.
In the end, Lenovo is holding the line that this device is meant as a secondary unit and a tablet first and foremost. While I understand this, it is still a Chromebook through and through, so I can’t begin to understand the thinking that left off the aforementioned ANX7625 that is clearly being added to future Chrome OS devices built off of the exact same baseboard. Emails have already started pouring in and comments on the unboxing video have begun pointing out this deficiency in the tablet, so I’m really hopeful the developers, Google, and Lenovo can figure out a workaround to at least get us to a 1080p extended display.
This otherwise-great little tablet is set to get updates for over 8 years, so I’m still hopeful a fix will arrive to this strange misstep. For me and I’m sure many of you, the fact that I can’t spend a ton of time really working from this tablet is a bit of a black eye on the whole experience. It has changed my use cases for sure and it has ultimately altered the way that I’m going about the review process for this one. Aside from that, it just makes me a bit sad. While I don’t think the Duet has enough muscle to be my only laptop, I did feel like it had enough to be that for many potential users over the course of its long life. Being forced to always use it as a Chromebook with a 10.1-inch screen drastically changes that, however, and you can count me among the many that are severely disappointed by this whole situation right now.