Chuwi Lapbook SE review: A lot of laptop for very little money

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  • Editors' rating
    7.5 Very good

Pros

  • Excellent build and design
  • Good backlit keyboard
  • Large precision trackpad
  • Easy-access bay for an SSD
  • Fully laminated FHD display
  • Decent battery life
  • Plays nice with Linux
  • Very good value

Cons

  • No USB-C port
  • Reflective display could be brighter at maximum
  • New Gemini Lake SoC still rather puny
  • Speakers are poor
  • Has to be bought from China

Go shopping for a budget Windows laptop with a decent-sized screen and you could end up with something like HP's Stream 14 -- a plastic disappointment with a low-res display, a feeble chipset and more flex than a trampoline.

However if you peruse the offerings of the smaller Chinese manufacturers like Teclast, Jumper and Chuwi, then for about the same price as HP's offering you could get a notebook that's altogether better.

The latest and best of the breed is Chuwi's Lapbook SE, a 13.3-inch affair sporting Intel's new Gemini Lake system-on-a-chip, a 1,920-by-1,080 display, a backlit keyboard and a sleek metal body. You can pick it up for around £200.

For a cheap laptop, the Lapbook SE is surprisingly svelte. The actual dimensions of 31.7cm by 21.5cm by 1.6cm make it slightly more compact than the current but long-in-the-tooth 13.3-inch MacBook Air. At 1.44kg it is 90g heavier though.

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The illuminated Chuwi logo lets other coffee shop customers know you've bought cheap and Chinese.

Image: Alun Taylor/ZDNet

According to Chuwi, the Lapbook SE's body is made of an aluminium magnesium alloy. Be that as it may, the metal shell is very solid and very well finished. The illuminated Chuwi logo on the lid is -- like the overall design -- stylistically beholden to Apple's laptops, but I can't really blame Chuwi for aping what are generally regarded as design classics.

The keyboard surround and palm rests are actually plastic, but still feel solid and there's very little flex evident in either the keyboard or the lid. The one-piece hinge feels comfortingly robust and lets the screen tilt back to around 135 degrees.

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The Lapbook SE's lid could perhaps lean back a bit more for on-lap use.

Image: Alun Taylor/ZDNet

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The fully-laminated Sharp-made IPS display doesn't fill the inside of the lid as much as I'd like -- the top and bottom bezels in particular are rather thick. But otherwise it's a fine effort; sharp and colourful with a minimal amount of light bleed at the edges.

Due to the reflective finish and somewhat limited maximum brightness (around 215 lux) the SE is not an ideal machine for outdoor use. And remember, it's not a touch-enabled display -- that would really be an ask at this price.

The keyboard is very impressive for the price. The full-width layout is spacious and the 1.5mm travel keys are pleasant to touch and have a firm and precise action. It's quiet too. A real bonus is the adjustable backlight, which is something you don't usually find on sub-£400 machines.

One gripe for British users is the 'international' keyboard layout, which means the £ sign and a few other symbols are not where you'd expect.

Another more universal foible is that, in the absence of a dedicated key, disabling the number lock involves opening up the virtual keyboard. I've engaged the number lock twice by accident, but have yet to discover exactly how.

Above the keyboard sit three small but bright LEDs to show the status of the caps lock, power and touchpad.

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The keyboard is excellent for a budget machine and it's backlit, while the precision trackpad is large and reliable.

Image: Alun Taylor/ZDNet

Chuwi's laptop touchpads have traditionally been rather temperamental, but the large one-piece affair fitted to the Lapbook SE proved entirely consistent and reliable and has a satisfying 'click' on both front corners.

The trackpad also conforms to Microsoft's 'precision' standard, so you get the full complement of Windows gesture controls.

Another traditional Chuwi weakness is sound quality, a failing the SE does little to address. The noise produced by the four speakers situated under the keyboard is tinny and lacking bass. There's volume aplenty, but you really won't want to take full advantage of it.

The 2MP webcam is a bit dull and grainy, but who cares? We all use our smartphones for video calling these days.

The first batch of Lapbook SEs came fitted with a 128GB Foresee SSD and a 32GB eMMC 5.1 module with Windows 10 Home installed on the latter. A strange setup to say the least, and one which didn't give Windows enough space to perform major updates.

SEE: 20 pro tips to make Windows 10 work the way you want (free PDF)

Newer models, including my review unit, dispense with the SSD but have a 64GB eMMC card. With this change Chuwi has dropped the 'official RRP' from $280 (£215) to $240 (£185).

At the time of writing, only the original version is showing up on Chuwi's official AliExpress Express store, but hopefully that will change soon. As, I hope, will the erroneous claim that the Lapbook SE has an RJ-45 port.

With 120GB SSDs costing less than $40 (£30), the end user is no worse off financially for the reconfiguration and is now free to choose a larger-capacity SSD. Conveniently the bay for a M.2 2280 SSD (512GB maximum) is beneath a hatch in the underside of the SE, so installing additional storage doesn't involve any disassembly.

After fitting a SSD I cloned Windows 10 onto it and then installed Ubuntu 18.10 onto the eMMC. That made Windows load and run faster and established that the Lapbook SE plays very nicely with Linux.

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The SSD bay is easy to access and takes a M.2 2280 card.

Image: Alun Taylor/ZDNet

Incidentally, unlike Xiaomi's laptops, the Lapbook SE ships with an English version of Windows so you can start using it out of the box. The BIOS (accessible via the Delete key) is unlocked too.

Performance is good for a budget machine, but keep in mind it's built around a passively cooled chipset so don't think that it will give a Core M or a Core i3 notebook a run for its money. It wont.

The new chip uses an evolution of Intel's Goldmont architecture called Goldmont Plus, so the move from Apollo Lake to Gemini Lake hasn't resulted in a massive leap in performance.

The same goes for the integrated 600 Series GPU, which features a revamped media engine and new display pipeline. All good stuff, but basically incremental rather than step-change improvements.

Still, with four cores, a turbo boost clock speed of up to 2.4GHz and 4GB of DDR4 RAM the Celeron N4100-based SoC does give a pretty good account of itself.

In use the Lapbook SE subjectively feels quicker than any Apollo Lake machine I've used. Most of the common benchmarks like Geekbench -- the SE scored 1805 single-core and 4382 multi-core -- suggest a performance improvement of around 20 percent.

The Lapbook SE's gaming abilities are obviously limited, but given the price and specification this should come as no surprise. For all other everyday uses, this is all the laptop most people will ever need.

Chuwi reckons a full charge of the SE's 37Wh battery is good for eight hours of mixed use. That matches my experience: looping a YouTube video fullscreen in Chrome with the brightness set to 75 percent put the lights out after 6.5 hours, which wasn't a bad showing.

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Top: MicoSD card slot, 3.5mm headphone jack, USB 3.0. Bottom: USB 3.0, power in, HDMI.

Image: Alun Taylor/ZDNet

For connectivity you get two USB 3.0 ports, a MicroSD slot good for cards up to 128GB, a 3.5mm audio jack and an mini-HDMI 2.0 socket. I'd have liked to see a USB-C rather than a proprietary charging jack, but that's a small cavil. Bluetooth 4.0 and dual-band 802.11ac wi-fi radios cover the wireless side of things.

I have read that some Lapbook SE users have experienced issues with wi-fi reception and throughput speed from the Intel AC 3165 card, but I experienced no such problems.

No review of a Chinese laptop would be complete without one odd niggle. Every now and again the keyboard on my SE would jump into shortcut mode, so that every keystroke initiated an action rather than the character I was trying to type. Typing Windows+v fixes this in an instant, and to be fair it's a problem that seems to have randomly affected Windows machines for years.

The only real downside to the Lapbook SE is that you will have to buy it sight-unseen from a Chinese reseller like AliExpress. But when you are getting so much laptop for so little money, that's a hurdle I'd be prepared to jump over.

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