For the past few days, I've been testing a new $150 laptop. It's a no-frills, thin-and-light model with an 11.6 inch high-definition screen. It has decent battery life, and weighs just 2.2 pounds.
If that sounds like a Chromebook, one of the increasingly popular low-cost laptops from Google that are a essentially a web browser for using apps in the cloud, think again. This is a full-fledged Windows 10 machine, from Lenovo, one of the premier brands in computing. It can handle a wide variety of both local and cloud-based apps.
And yet, Best Buy is selling this machine, the IdeaPad 100S, for $149.99. That's less than what Lenovo charges for some replacement batteries for its famed ThinkPad laptops, which mainly live blissfully in well-over-$1,000 world. And Microsoft is even throwing in a free year of its Office 365 Personal program, which includes all the Office programs and a terabyte of cloud storage, a package that normally costs $70 a year.
Over time the Windows laptop market will gradually fragment into the very low-end and very high-end
I see this new Lenovo, while hardly the company's flagship, as more than a one-off curiosity. I see it as part of an important new trend.
In fact, I predict that, over time, the Windows laptop market, which has long clustered in the $400-700 range, will gradually fragment into very low-end and very high-end segments -- the former to take on Google and the latter to take on Apple. I expect the middle to thin out, as customers on a budget go for the cheaper models and those who want and can afford the latest and greatest go higher.
Microsoft, eager to push Windows 10 and presumably concerned about Chromebooks, also appears to be giving companies like Lenovo a hand with deals like the free year of Office with hefty cloud storage. Lenovo wasn't the first big PC maker to sell a Chromebook-priced Windows PC. HP last year started selling a $200 Windows laptop with an 11.6" screen called the Stream. Asus has one, too.
While the Lenovo is the only non-refurbished Windows laptop I could find on the Best Buy website for $150 or less, there's reason to think that more and more PC laptops will find their way into Chromebook price territory, typically $295 or under. That's mainly because Microsoft is on a core corporate mission to convert the masses to Windows 10. And its hardware partners, who have been struggling for years, need good relations with the software giant to sell more of the machines they really want to push: the $1,000 class of laptops long dominated by their common adversary, Apple.
Also, let's face it: the basic PC laptop, the one that doesn't try to act as a tablet as well, has become commoditized. And Windows 10 can run acceptably on a surprisingly wide range of hardware.
So what do you really get in a $150 Windows laptop from a solid company?
the bright red machine worked surprisingly well in my tests
Well, first of all, while Lenovo is best known for its pricey ThinkPads, it has long sold lower-priced Windows laptops, and even a Chromebook (coincidentally also called the 100S) starting at $179. But the IdeaPad 100S Windows laptop I tested is its first Windows machine priced new below $200, according to a Lenovo spokesman. (While Lenovo's web site charges $199.99 for this laptop, Best Buy is the exclusive retailer and is expected to sell the majority of units at $149.99.)
That Lenovo spokesman says the $150 IdeaPad is best thought of as a secondary PC, or a laptop for a kid. The company's official Reviewer's Guide (issued for people like me) says it's "for buyers shopping on a very limited budget who require a Microsoft Windows environment." (In other words, people who don't have much money to spend but don't want to settle for a Chromebook.)
I could clearly see the places where Lenovo cut corners to slash costs. For instance, this is a plastic laptop that runs on Intel's low-end Atom processor and not the standard Core type found in mainstream laptops. It has 2GB of memory, rather than the standard 4 or 8GB. And its SSD storage is just 32GB, more akin to that of a smartphone than to the minimum of 128 GB typically found in costlier laptops. Also, there's no touchscreen.
And yet, the bright red machine worked surprisingly well in my tests. To my surprise, I was able to run multiple programs, like the Chrome web browser, the built-in email app, and Slack simultaneously with no noticeable lag. Playing HD video from YouTube went fine, without stuttering, though the screen is neither the brightest nor the most vivid and the laptop doesn't support the fastest flavor of WiFi.
I had no trouble quickly transferring videos, music and photos from a USB flash drive, even though the two USB ports on the IdeaPad 100S are the older, slower Type 2 kind, rather than the newer, faster Type 3 kind.
The only really bad, really annoying feature on the machine was the trackpad
The keyboard, a historic Lenovo strength, is well-spaced and large for an 11.6-inch machine, and was easy and accurate to use. And the body, while not exactly sturdy, felt well-built, not fragile, and unlikely to succumb easily to a little knocking around.
Overall, most of the features, including the speakers, aren't the greatest, but they aren't the worst I've seen either.
The only really bad, really annoying feature on the machine was the trackpad. You cannot swipe on it to scroll anywhere with two fingers, or even to scroll with one finger in a special "scroll zone". Lenovo says there's no fix for this; it's a hardware limitation, part of the cost-cutting that allows the laptop to sell for so little. In order to scroll, you have to do it the really old way — place the cursor in a window's scroll bar, and click, or use the arrow keys.
Battery life was surprisingly decent, perhaps because of the power-sipping processor and so-so screen. In my traditional test — where I turn off all power saving features, crank the brightness to 100 percent, keep WiFi on to collect email and tweets, and play an endless loop of music — the 100S lasted about 6 hours and 20 minutes. Lenovo claims 8 hours, and I believe that, in more typical use, it could approach that.
My bottom line here is that, for basic tasks, and with appropriately limited expectations and liberal use of cloud storage, this laptop could be a very good tool for a student, or the second computer you don't worry about dropping or losing.
And, as the PC laptop market regroups, I think we're gonna see more of these.