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The best 13-inch laptop I've tested in 2024 is not by Apple or Microsoft

Lenovo's ThinkBook 13x Gen 4 has a long-lasting battery, durable form factor, and added versatility with the new Magic Bay, which lets you swap peripherals with ease.
Written by Kyle Kucharski, Editor
Lenovo laptop
Kyle Kucharski/ZDNET

ZDNET's key takeaways

  • The Lenovo ThinkBook 14x Gen 4 starts at $1,580, with upgrades that push the price closer to $2,000.
  • It's surprisingly versatile for its 13-inch size and comes with a powerful processor and impressive battery. 
  • However, it's not cheap, and that ultraportability means it only has USB-C ports.

Despite its bite-sized form factor, the ThinkBook 13x Gen 4 is a powerhouse. Lenovo first showed off this ultraportable at CES 2024, and initial impressions were focused around the return of Magic Bay, a mix-and-match family of peripherals that connect to the laptop via magnetic pogo-pins (think MagSafe, but for laptops). 

But even though the Magic Bay products might be the most attention-grabbing, this Lenovo laptop has a lot more going for it under the hood. In fact, this laptop is surprisingly versatile.

Also: One of the most powerful laptops I've tested has MacBook written all over it (but isn't one)

The ThinkBook 13x Gen 4 comes with the Intel Core Ultra 5 125H processor (2.4 Ghz) but can be supercharged with the Intel Core Ultra 9 -- an option I was surprised to see for this laptop -- which propels it to be in line with other performant enterprise machines (raising the price over $400 in the process).

View at Lenovo

The review unit I tested was snappy enough with the Ultra 5 and had absolutely no problems multitasking with a handful of productivity apps and multiple browser tabs across two displays. Also, this laptop is compact enough to make transporting to and from the office a breeze, making me question why I chose to have a 16-inch as my primary driver.

Also: How we test laptops at ZDNET in 2024

But then I started working on the 13.5-inch display, and I remembered. Don't get me wrong, the display on the ThinkBook 13x Gen 4 looks good. Really good, actually, with 500-nit brightness and a 120Hz variable refresh rate. But its size, even at max resolution, results in a screen that can seem a little cramped if you're used to more real estate. Ultimately, it's a tradeoff that comes down to personal preference.

The performance and versatility of this laptop tips the scale toward the positive, however. In my benchmarking of this laptop, I got solid read and write speeds from the SSD in PCMark 10, and slightly better performance out of the Intel Core Ultra 5 in Cinebench than I expected. 

The memory on the ThinkBook 13x is also some of the fastest you can get in an ultraportable of this size, as the 8400MHz dual-channel RAM is soldered in with the intent of future-proofing the laptop. But if you opt for the Intel Core Ultra 5, the maximum amount of RAM you can get is 16GB. In order to bump it up to 32GB, you'll have to spring for the Core Ultra 9 chip. I would have liked to see the 32GB option available with the less expensive processor. 

Also: Our favorite lightweight laptop for work is not a MacBook or ThinkPad

Following in that vein, this is a laptop looking toward the future, not trying to be backward compatible, and that's evident in its selection of ports. You get three USB-C ports on this machine, all of which are Thunderbolt 4 compatible. With three Thunderbolts, you don't really need an HDMI or USB-A, but it does come with a 3.5mm headphone jack, and the power button is also a fingerprint reader. 

Despite its small size, the keyboard feels spacious and crisp. Its unique design extends the keyboard all the way to the very edge of the device with virtually no bezels, resulting in satisfyingly thick keys equal in size (or even bigger) than you'd see on a 16-inch. The lack of a right-side number pad compounds this fact further. 

Lenovo ThinkBook 13x Gen 4
Kyle Kucharski/ZDNET

This laptop's chassis comes in a metallic "Luna grey" colorway and a limited edition white color called "Seashell" that I wish I could have seen up close and personal, as the default grey is thoroughly corporate in appearance.

That said, the ThinkBook 13x feels extremely solid -- iron-clad, I would even say -- with virtually no bend or give to the chassis. Its durability is measured against 12 military-grade certification methods, earning it the MIL-STD 810H standard. If you favor this style of laptop, you'll love the laptop, which despite its size, is nothing if not sturdy.

Also: One of the best laptops you can buy for less than $700 is not what you'd expect

Okay, let's talk about the Magic Bay. If you're into laptop accessories or have a drawer full of webcams, definitely take a look at this. The modular versatility of the Magic Bay ecosystem gives this laptop (and other Lenovo machines that support it) the ability to wear many hats, depending on the accessories you're into.

For example, the Magic Bay Light could act as a ring light if you're taking calls in sub-optimal lighting, or the Magic Bay LTE Hotspot can secure your internet connection if the Wi-Fi is spotty. There are also more obvious add-ons, like external storage, fans (for you, not the laptop), or even a second display, although these are in various phases of development and availability. 

It's the Magic Bay Studio, however, that is the most immediately useful add-on. It's a 4K webcam with built-in speakers, and it elevates this laptop into pro-creator territory. It's yet to be seen how far Lenovo will take the Magic Bay products, but it's something that I think could work well if executed smartly.

Lenovo ThinkBook 13x Gen 4

The Magic Bay pogo pins on top of the laptop's display.

Kyle Kucharski/ZDNET

If you're wondering how all these add-ons relate to the battery life, luckily, the Thinkbook 13x is not lacking in that department. It comes with a 74WHr battery, which is a pretty large capacity for a 13-incher.

Also: I went hands-on with Lenovo's new Snapdragon X Elite laptops, and they're scary thin

In my testing, I got well over 10 hours in PCMark 10's battery test, and slightly less than that running my own test with a YouTube livestream at 50% brightness and 50% volume over Wi-Fi. This is definitely a laptop that can handle a day of heavy work with ease and extend into the second day with light or intermittent use. 

The last thing that surprised me about this laptop was the sound quality. The Harman-Kardon speakers have impressive bass and volume, particularly for such a small machine, adding further to its versatility.

ZDNET's buying advice

If you're looking for a 13-inch laptop that is powerful and versatile, take a serious look at the Lenovo ThinkBook 13x Gen 4. It's not cheap, but it has powerful processor options and strong battery life, and the Magic Bay adds a whole new level of versatility. 

If you want a 13-inch laptop with similar specs but is a little easier on the budget, MSI's Prestige 13 AI Evo is a solid alternative that starts at $899. If you like ThinkBooks but are looking for a larger screen, check out the Lenovo ThinkBook 14 2-in-1.

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