The Lenovo Duet 3 Experience

I recently acquired a Lenovo Duet 3 Chromebook, and I like it enough as a solution to my specific needs / problem that I wanted to share. I’ve used it heavily since I got it a few days ago, and I think I’ve now accumulated enough experience to give a balanced review.

To start with, what did I want? I wanted something:

  • Extremely compact, so I can take it away with me for work etc., especially since I normally travel with just a carry-on bag and already have a beefy work laptop to carry.
  • Usable as a secondary device for documentation creation using LaTeX, programming in a lightweight editor or IDE etc., without too much hacking or too many awkward solutions
  • Also useable as a media consumption device as a replacement for an old Android tablet
  • Inexpensive

The last point was the trickiest. I didn’t want to spend the best part of a thousand pounds on a secondary device. I looked at the Surface Go as an option, but Windows needs decent specs and the speediest Surface Go with the keyboard sold separately takes you above £500. I looked at ultracompact laptops, but again it was quite hard to find something that felt like a no regret purchase and would be compact enough to just sling into a backpack that already had a work laptop in it. I looked at Android and Apple tablets with bluetooth keyboards, but apart from the price, the Apple walled garden limits what you can do without outsourcing to online services or other limited third party options. Android is a bit more hackable, but also not ideal. And finally, I looked at micro-PCs which could be plugged into hotel TVs, but that also seemed like a messy solution.

Which brought me to the Duet 3, a convertible 11″ mini laptop-tablet hybrid Chromebook made by Lenovo.

This is not the fastest laptop, or even tablet, in the world by any stretch of the imagination. It has a Snapdragon 7c ARM processor, 4 GB of RAM, and a 128 GB SSD, which means you’re not going to be using it for gaming. But it’s enough to do what I want it to do. Modern chromebooks come with Crostini support, which effectively allows you to run vanilla Linux applications in a local VM and, if they are desktop applications, use them transparently from the main Chromebook desktop. I can install VS Code or TeXstudio and use them as if they were native GUI applications. On it, I can view media, edit documents, and compile or run some Python, Rust, LaTeX etc. You can also install most Android apps from the Play store, presumably via another compatibility layer. Functionally, it ticks off all of the requirements I listed above.

The hardware also seems well designed. The tablet is extremely sturdy and feels well-made, the backstand is firm and strong, the screen looks good, and the magnetically attached keyboard is easy and enjoyable to use. Battery life is good enough, somewhere in the range of 10-12 hours in my experience. The keyboard also acts as a protective case and snaps shut firmly, making it look like a very small, thin laptop when closed (magnets again… this thing has strong magnets on three sides to hold the backstand, tablet and keyboard together).

So what are the cons? So far, I’ve found a few:

  • It is quite heavy, especially in laptop mode, even though it’s compact. This makes it feel solid, but it also makes it feel a bit like a brick if you’re lugging it around by hand instead of in a bag.
  • Performance is definitely a bit worse than even a good Android tablet. Sometimes you can see it respond a bit more sluggishly than you’d expect, especially when you’ve had Twitter open for days at a time and that one tab has eaten all the RAM. Incidentally, some markets do have an 8GB version available that would be preferrable if you can get it, but it seemed impossible to get in the UK.
  • The onscreen keyboard in tablet mode is not great. It’s not as responsive as you’d expect, and not as responsive as the physical keyboard. The fact that taps on the physical keyboard elicit an instant response, as does swiping and other touchscreen actions, while virtual keypresses lag enough to be frustrating shows it’s not a problem with the OS or the available processing power, it’s literally a coding problem. Further, installing keyboards from the Play store doesn’t seem to quite work well, so you’re mostly stuck with the default. This means that tablet mode is great for media consumption or reading, but if you’re going to do a lot of typing, then you definitely want the physical option.
  • ChromeOS itself is not as stable on this device as Android. It stays up fine during actual use, but there is some issue where fairly long hibernation (e.g. >12 hours) sometimes causes a crash and restart when you wake the device up again. For me it’s more of a minor frustration than a major issue, but it feels like something that should have been fixed. OSes crashing was supposed to have gone out with Windows ME.

Overall, I still love the Duet 3. For the price, it’s an incredible option if you want a secondary, extremely portable computing device with a physical keyboard and a lot more easy, hack-free software flexibility than you get out of the box with an Apple or Android device. I think the gold standard for this kind of two device is still probably the Surface Pro, but it comes with price tag that’s much more regrettable and an operating system that’s getting less and less touch friendly. The Duet 3 is the kind of device that someone on a fairly typical salary can just buy without any agonising or guilt.

The main reasons not to buy it if you’re in the market for this class of device are if you really really need better computing performance, or if you want to do a lot of data entry in tablet mode. That on-screen keyboard really is a dealbreaker if you want to leave the detachable keyboard behind and also be constantly typing. But if what you really want is a cheap, well-made, tiny, ultraportable laptop where you can also just tear off the screen to read or view something, then the Duet 3 is a no regrets recommendation.