Rethinking the Notebook Computer: Lenovo Yoga 900 and Acer Chromebook C910
As the traditional PC market continues to decline, it is imperative that manufacturers create devices that offer differentiated features, and that they completely nail design details. It’s also time to reimagine the PC, not as a tablet, but as a next generation computing device. With combination devices (PCs with detachable keyboards) being a bright spot, the market seems to agree. It is far from clear that “innovations” like detaching the computer from the keyboard go far enough to reimagine the platform.
I recently received review units of the Lenovo Yoga 900 ultrabook and the Acer Chromebook and found them both to be power houses in their respective classes.
There is a lot to like about Lenovo’s Yoga 900 (priced from $1,199.00). It is fast and beautiful. But it isn’t without a couple of major quirks, though, that detract from what could have been the ultimate ultrabook.
The Acer Chromebook C910 (priced from $299.00) is a big, relatively heavy, notebook form factor but is very well designed and constructed for its audience. If you live on the web, and are primarily a member of the Google App Universe, then the Acer Chromebook is an ideal companion for long hours of creation and consumption.
In essence, the Yoga 900 offers convertibility, while the C910 gives added substance to the Chromebook.
Yoga 900 (13”)
12.75 x 8.86 x 0.59 inches and 2.8 pounds
From $299.99 with Celeron. From $449.99 with Intel Core i3. From $499 with Intel Core i5.
15.1 x 10.1 X 1 and 4.85 pounds
What they did right
Both of these devices did a lot of things right, including solid construction and fast CPUs. For business use, there isn’t an app out there on Windows 10 that the Yoga 900 can’t crush, and the same holds true for web apps on the Acer C910, which offers the snappiest web experience I’ve ever had.
Other key things that the companies got right include:
Lenovo Yoga 900
Multiple viewing use cases. The “wrist watch band” style connector makes for an elegant look and a flexible display that can be flipped open 360º from closed tablet mode (with the keyboard open on the back of the device). This literally offers flexibility from creation to consumption to display.
Good screen. The 13.3″ QHD+ (3200 x 1800) IPS screen is bright and expansive, despite the 13” footprint. If touched too often to control Windows, it picks up fingerprints like any monitor, but when clean it is a solid display.
4 USB ports, including 1 USB Type-C. good count for an ultrabook, many of which have dropped to one or two ports. One is proprietary, and acts both as a USB 2.0 port and a charging port. (see The charging block and proprietary charging approach in Needs to improve).
Intel Core i5. While low-end CPUs keep prices down, they do nothing to make Chromebooks legitimate for daily use machines. The Intel Core i5 is a great choice for a machine that is never going to be CPU intensive, but must be responsive. And that’s the key. If the machine feels sluggish even on basic tasks, then the CPU is underpowered.
Great high definition screen. This Chromebook feels more like a desktop than a notebook, and the screen plays no small part in that. The excellent 1080 HD screen looks great from multiple angles. While the Chromebook Pixel sports a higher resolution display, it does so in a smaller package at a much higher price. When open on a desk, the C910 feels much more immersive than smaller machines.
Good speaker placement. Speakers should be front facing in order to maximize their performance. The Lenovo puts its speakers upfront, on the bottom though, but within curve of the devices bottom plate so sound can “move around.” The C910 puts the speakers right next to the keyboard, facing the user. It would be even better if they were top-line branded speakers with some custom drivers to shape the sound, like the Skullcandy partnership on the Toshiba Chromebook 2.
Needs to improve
Good design is in the details, and I always find it frustrating when a device has a clear design imperative that it delivers perfectly, and then introduces annoying anomalies that detract from the positive perception of the design.
The Yoga 900 suffers from two major design flaws, and a minor one: its keyboard layout is very poor for touch typists, its charging block, while innovative in function is poor in design, and it has a loud fan.
The keyboard. I am a touch typist and Lenovo has committed the ultimate sin against touch typists with truncated shift and backspace keys on the righthand side of the keyboard.
The charging block and proprietary charging approach. This isn’t a completely negative feature, since charging through USB offers another option. But it means that if you lose or damage the charging unit, you won’t be able to use a universal power supply solution. The charging block itself is poorly designed, and takes up two wall sockets, or two power strip sockets. A cord extender would address the problem, as Apple does with its power block. Despite those negatives, one positive aspect of this charging block comes from its ability to accommodate lower-powered USB charging situations, which includes charging a phone or tablet. The positives, however, don’t outweigh the negatives.
Loud fan. Not really loud, but noticeable in a not completely quiet space, which makes it too loud.
Lack of USB-C to HDMI adapter. This isn’t a design flaw as much as a packaging issue. Most computers don’t ship with video adapters but they were common in the past. Most computers, however, include a port that can accommodate common adapters. USB-C is still an emerging standard, and some third-party devices aren’t working well, so a basic USB-C to HDMI interface would have been a better option on a relatively high-end machine.
Compared to the general laptop market, improving a couple of things would make the C910 truly exceptional.
Short SD card slot. For a device of this size, I would expect the SD card to slip all the way in so that it becomes part of the device, complementing the internal memory for videos or music storage. The Yoga doesn’t support full SD card insertion either, but that is slightly more forgivable on a smaller device.
Weight. This was clearly not a computer designed to be picked up and carried from place to place like a tablet. This is an enterprise and education play so being rugged, and substantial are key.
Roomier keyboard. There is a lot of real estate on the surface of the C910 so there’s no excuse for the slightly cramped keyboard. That doesn’t mean cramming in a 10-key pad, but make room for bigger hands, perhaps pull it closer to the front so those with little hands, like kids in a classroom, don’t have to reach so far to type. That also implies redesigning the trackpad and the speakers, but both of those features would not likely suffer if they were each a bit smaller.
Lessons Learned and recommendations
Design is important, and the design of computers needs to balance between technical capabilities and end user expectations. While these devices both offer a solid design aesthetic, they don’t nail all of the details. Collectively, the two devices suggest some general mobile computing design issues that manufacturers and designers should consider.
SD Card slot. Nobody wants things sticking out of their portable devices unless that is part of the intended design (USB sticks, for instance, are meant by design to stick out from the USB port. But SD cards should always be flush with the case edge unless the device is simply too small to accommodate that. For the C910, that should not be an issue.)
Keyboard. regardless of any other constraints, keyboards should always be made for touch typists. That means at minimum full-sized shift keys and delete keys, with plenty of room between special functions along an edge so wandering fingers don’t accidentally invoke “delete” or “home.” This should not be a mystery and no high-end computer should pass its first design review without a commitment to a viable primary user interface, in other words, a good keyboard with an ergonomic and user-centric layout.
Touchpads and trackpads. Touchpads have become a design challenge with multiple technologies in play. While mice may have some options, the basic features usually work pretty universally, but that isn’t true for trackpads. Some manufacturers have tried to do too much with trackpads to emulate direct touch, even pen-based input. It is time to return to a simple is better. All of the options confuse users, many of whom switch quickly to a mouse when they can. Make them quiet, make them work and make the keyboard is the star, not the trackpad.
Touch screens. Touch screens remain oddities as interfaces in notebook computers. Because of the ubiquity of tablets, there is an expectation that when you touch a screen, something will happen. For a device with a keyboard, the need to touch the screen is relatively rare, and usually results in smudges and fingerprints that require cleaning. That said, Microsoft has migrated much of Windows and Office to a touch aware configuration so if you choose to use it that way, it works better than trying to emulate a mouse with a finger. The problem is, that Windows and Office aren’t really touch applications and they never will be. Touch, as Apple made abundantly clear, is a break from tradition, not an extension of it. Thus, touch screens, which the Lenovo Yoga 900 includes, is a nice-to-have, not a must have in an ultrabook, unless of course, you can bend the ultrabook back on itself and transform it into a tablet. Thus the problem. There is a clear use case built into the Yoga’s design for touch, but that use case in unconvincing (Tablet transformations). Given the increased cost associated with touch, manufacturers should very clearly scope the downside of not including it regardless of reviews that may ding them for not including touch when a rival does. Good design must include an eye toward utility, and if the utility is marginal compared to the cost. Is the extra $50 or so for touch worth loosing the customers on increased, cost, or has touch become such a ubiquitous expectation that it must be included regardless of how often it is used? That’s a question the market needs to grapple with in the near-term. In the long term, touch is likely going to be important, but it is probably going to be disconnected from the compute environment as displays morph into “things” that connect to various compute resources.
Tablet transformations. I don’t want to lay the back-folding conversion of the Yoga into a tablet at the feet of Lenovo. That is a Microsoft vision, and it is flawed. The thick feel of that experience, along with the exposed keys, always makes that transformation awkward and unwieldy when compared to thin tablets like the Apple iPad Pro or the HTC Nexus 9. Granted, the Yoga is a powerful, full-function computing platform, but it is not what people have come to expect from a tablet. The removable keyboard is a much more tablet-appropriate response to convertible Windows devices, and will be even more so as components continue to shrink. The notebook or ultrabook isn’t dead, but it isn’t clear that its future is one of transformation or, as the C910 demonstrates, serving niches where the value is clear..
Battery Life. While battery life may be a big issue for some, most people often don’t test the limits of battery life. It’s pretty rare these days to find a meeting space without enough power for the attendees, making it rare to run the battery down unless there is a power outage. We should be designing devices for common use cases, not rare ones, and I wonder how many PC designers make the weight trade-off on the battery.
The Cost of Good Design
Some of these issues are design/cost tradeoffs. A spring-loaded SD slot is more expensive than one without a spring mechanism, but that is a marginal issue compared to battery life or the inclusion of a touchscreen. Every computer breaks down into a bill of materials that doesn’t reflect the design concerns in its disaggregation. Manufacturers need to make sure they create a balance and a context that recognizes design imperatives throughout the process. It isn’t good enough to ship a computer that pays homage to a good design, or looks good but doesn’t deliver an enjoyable user experience. There are plenty of computers to choose from, and the market does not need any more sub-par devices that fail quickly or discomfort users.
We need fewer, better-designed computers. Rather than generalized utility, the best lessons from evolution suggest that differentiating into niches, and adapting quickly to new pressures or opportunities as they occur, is a better long-term survival strategy. A large brain and the ability to make tools have enabled humans to adapt to multiple niches. Computers don’t yet possess adaptive abilities, so we should start thinking more about small markets to drive growth than dominating a big, aggregate, undifferentiated markets. Isn’t that the kind market of visibility big data promises?