Not long ago, I posted about Microsoft’s Surface Laptop SE: the company’s affordable, Surface-branded laptop designed for students. We took one of these well-made-yet-affordable laptops and via the power of ChromeOS Flex, turned it into a functional Chromebook. It was a fun experiment both for the hardware’s sake and for the purposes of testing out Google’s verified status for ChromeOS Flex-ready laptops.
But after that was all finished, 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 specifics like I did in my previous post, but the TL;DR is this: using the Surface Laptop SE makes me want better, more-considered low-cost Chromebooks and I think it is not only reasonable, but also possible.
My suggestion in that earlier post? Google needs to make an affordable, low-cost Pixelbook to light the way for manufacturers. Like they’ve done in various other sectors of the ChromeOS market, Google needs to set the example of what can be done with low-cost materials when handled in a thoughtful way. The Surface Laptop SE sure manages this, so Chromebooks can as well.
Lenovo’s Flex 3i is a breath of fresh air
And just like that, without me knowing about it, Lenovo dropped a relatively unassuming Chromebook on us in their pre-CES press event that might just be the first steps in this particular direction. Before we get into this, though, just know I’ve not yet held this Chroembook; nor do I have any info outside of what was provided by Lenovo. I just like where this whole thing is going.
Let’s start with the price: $349 MSRP. That will likely get you the model with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage, and I’d assume the upgrade to 8GB/128GB will likely run $400+. With the always-on-sale nature of the older Flex 3i’s of the past, I’d assume this device won’t sit at those prices for long, and getting this Chromebook for under $300 could end up being the right fit for a ton of users.
The reason for that is simple: this Chromebook comes with some nicer features that we generally don’t see in this price range. First up, there’s the 12.2-inch 16:10 FHD screen that will feel plenty room on this smaller device. It is also coming in at 300 nits of brightness, a spec we almost never see in affordable Chromebooks.
Then there’s the great port selection, giving users a USB Type C, 2x USB Type A, HDMI and microSD card ports alongside the headphone/mic jack. For a small Chromebook, that’s a lot of I/O. Add in the fact that it is convertible, weighs less than 3 pounds, has a 1080p webcam, and a 12-hour battery and immediately there’s far more upside on paper with this Chromebook than I originally thought when we heard the announcement.
Cost-cutting Chromebooks with great features
My hope is this is the beginning of a new trend at the cost-effective end of the Chromebook spectrum. Perhaps Google doesn’t need to go full Pixelbook on this situation after all. Perhaps manufacturers like Lenovo are ready to step up and start really thinking about their affordable Chromebooks all on their own.
With the Lenovo Flex 3i and its yet-untested N100/N200 Alder Lake N processors from Intel, I think we’re on the right path. My hope is other manufacturers have taken the same course and we’ll see far more competition in this space in 2023. Everyone makes affordable Chromebooks at this point, but few set themselves apart in any meaningful way.
If no one else steps up to battle Lenovo on this, I could see the Flex 3i absolutely running away with the affordable Chromebook market in the upcoming year. Replacing the usual 11.6-inch 16:9 screen with a better size, form factor and brightness is a big move all by itself. But the N100 and N200 processors show promise, and paired with Lenovo’s usually great keyboard and trackpad, this little Chromebook could be an absolute joy to use; especially knowing you don’t have to pay much to get it.
We’re hoping this one will be on display at CES 2023 in a couple weeks and that we’ll get some real hands-on time with it. If it isn’t a bendy mess and delivers a solid chassis and good performance to go along with all the other great features on offer, here, this could be a massive, sneaky win for Lenovo in the Chromebook space. I’m very interested to see if others follow suit or if this will play out like it did with the original Duet tablet, seeing Lenovo get out ahead of everyone else and dominating the affordable segment for the better part of a year. We’ll know soon enough, I suppose.