Lenovo ThinkPad X13s Review

Posted on October 18, 2022 by Paul Thurrott in Hardware, Mobile, Windows 11 with 22 Comments

The Lenovo ThinkPad X13s is a delightful little ultraportable, but it’s limited by the Windows 11 on Arm platform and its lack of expansion. To be fair, the ThinkPad X13s represents another leap forward for Windows on Arm performance and compatibility. But it’s still not enough, not for most people. And while Arm may one day take over from Intel x86 in the Windows world as it has over in the Mac camp, today is not that day.

Design

The X13s is Lenovo’s first ThinkPad based on Windows on Arm, which I suppose sends a message of sorts. And it certainly looks like a ThinkPad with its Thunder Black exterior, as Lenovo calls it. But it feels different, thanks to a soft-touch recycled magnesium and aluminum build on the top surfaces that I find quite pleasant.

It’s also tiny, as small as a 13.3-inch ultraportable can be, I’m guessing, and quite thin and light. It’s a good look, but the X13s is perhaps a bit too small, especially if you have large hands, as I do.

Like other ThinkPads, the X13s has been evaluated against the MIL-STD 810G standard, which involves passing multiple military-grade certification methods and over 20 procedures related to such things as mechanical shock, vibration, sand and dust, humidity, and more.

Interestingly, the X13s isn’t a CNC design. Instead, the bottom is removable and made of a glass fiber-reinforced polymer, which will help with repairability.

Display

The X13s has three display choices, each of which is a 13.3-inch Full HD (1920 x 1200) IPS panel with an ideal 16:10 aspect ratio: a low power panel that supports 100 percent of the sRGB color gamut, is EyeSafe certified, and emits 400 nits of brightness, a panel that supports 100 percent of the sRGB color gamut and emits 300 nits of brightness, and a multi-touch panel that supports 72 percent of the NTSC color gamut and emits 300 nits of brightness.

The review unit came with the latter and while it wasn’t overly bright, it worked fine indoors in all lighting conditions. The display doesn’t lay flat, which I’d prefer, but it leans back to about 135 degrees, which will meet most needs.

In case it’s not obvious, the combination of 13.3-inches and a 16:10 aspect ratio is what makes this laptop feel so small: Most 16:10 displays in this category are 13.5-inches. Back in the day, this system would have sported a 12- or 12.5 display.

Internal components

The ThinkPad X13s is powered by the latest Windows on Arm silicon, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3 system on a chip (SoC) with integrated Qualcomm Adreno 690 graphics. It can be configured with up to 32 GB of RAM, which seems like overkill for an ultraportable, and up to 1 TB of M.2 2242 SSD storage.  The review unit provided a reasonable 16 GB of RAM and 1 TB of storage.

Obviously, performance and compatibility are the big concerns with any Windows on Arm-based PC. And your experience will vary based on what apps—and, as important, how many apps—you use regularly. If you stick with Microsoft Office, OneDrive, Microsoft Edge, and Teams (where you’ll be given the 32-bit x86 version for maximum emulation performance), and don’t have too many Edge tabs open at once, you’ll probably be OK: the Office apps all open in a flash, which is pleasantly surprising, and Edge is fine if you keep it to several tabs or less. This is a nice improvement from my previous experiences with Windows on Arm—clearly, the Microsoft/Qualcomm partnership has made some headway over the past year or so—but performance still falls short of the Intel- and AMD-based laptops I usually review.

Two new improvements to Windows 11 on Arm enabled this improvement: new support for 64-bit x86 (x64) app emulation, which opens up the platform to a much wider range of app choices, and a new technology called Arm64EC that lets developers introduce Arm code into x86 apps, easing the transition from the old to the new. This is all good news, of course, but emulation is still slower than native code, and x64 emulation is even slower on Arm than is x86 emulation. At least the system is smart enough to present itself as a 32-bit platform when downloading app installers from the web. This was the case with Microsoft Teams, for example. Which you’d think would come in a native Arm version. Oh, Microsoft.

Speaking of which, Microsoft’s Xbox app isn’t available on Windows on Arm, even in emulated form. That’s a shame, because this would potentially be a great platform for Xbox Cloud Gaming, Microsoft’s game streaming platform. (You can at least access the service through the Edge web browser.) UPDATE: As a reader pointed out, the Xbox app is now available for Windows 11 on Arm in the Microsoft Store. It was not available during the testing period, as noted, and is not included in the base install of Windows 11, at least not yet. —Paul

And there are other problems. Microsoft Word may open quickly, but I’ve experienced weird pauses where the app won’t respond for several seconds at a time or more. Microsoft Edge starts to pause, hang, and even freeze up entirely as you add tabs. And I also use lots of third-party emulated apps like Notion, Brave, Affinity Photo, and Adobe Photoshop Elements, and the experience across these apps varies but is mixed at best. They all “work,” which is better than the alternative. But most open and perform slowly to differing degrees, too.

Hardware compatibility could also be a concern depending on your needs. Windows provides so-called class drivers to ensure that most peripherals work as soon as they’re plugged in, and Windows on Arm benefits from that work: when I plugged the X13s into my Anker USB-C dock and the attached Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard and Mouse, everything worked immediately. Not being able to install Microsoft’s configuration software for that hardware isn’t an issue, I just need to type and point. Ditto for my Xbox Wireless Controller, which I connected via USB-C. But compatibility could be an issue for more complex peripherals like scanners or all-in-one printers because you can’t install configuration utilities that come with their own, improved drivers. That said, I never used anything like that with the X13s and don’t normally. It’s something to be aware of.

Whatever one thinks of the state of Windows on Arm, the hardware is fanless and runs silently with just a bit of heat on the bottom under load. If the goal is to evolve Windows into a silent, fan-free platform similar to what we see with smartphones and tablets, this is an intriguing peek at such a future.

Connectivity

Connectivity is unsurprisingly modern, given the X13s’s Qualcomm underpinnings, with Wi-Fi 6E and Bluetooth 5.1. And, better still, there’s optional 5G cellular connectivity in both Sub-G and mmWave variants, with both nano-SIM and eSIM capabilities.

That latter capability is available on the review unit, and it saved the day when we arrived in Mexico City to discover our Internet connection was dead and that a service technician would need to come out sometime the next day to fix it: I used the Mobile Plans app in Windows 11 to buy1 GB of data from GigSky, and while the onboarding process was a bit slow—in keeping with the overall Windows on Arm experience—once it was up and running, it worked well and let me get work done normally. (Sharing that connection was another story; it was too slow to be useful for some reason.)

Ports and expansion

The ThinkPad X13s offers only limited expansion capabilities, with just two USB-C 3.2 Gen 2 ports, both of which are found on the left side of the device. Each offers 10 Gbps of data transfer, Power Delivery 3.0, and DisplayPort 1.4a capabilities.

On the right, you’ll find a microphone/headphone jack, a nano SIM card slot (if configured), and a Kensington nano lock slot.

The performance of the X13s’s USB-C ports is a far cry from the 40 Gbps we see with Thunderbolt 4, of course, but it probably won’t be an issue for those who want an ultraportable. And I was able to use the X13s with a USB-C dock successfully. That said, even a single USB-A port would be nice.

Audio/visual

The ThinkPad X13s comes with a decent stereo speaker setup that’s backed by Dolby Atmos audio enhancements. The stereo separation is excellent with both music (check out the new Mammoth WVH single, “As Long As You’re Not You”) and movies, and there’s no distortion, even at 100 percent volume. Oddly, I’m not getting the expected immersive sound from movies, but the experience is still very good.

The hybrid work situation looks strong, too, with a 5 MP webcam and an array of three far-field microphones. That’s especially true if you configure the optional AI camera at purchase time: this augments the webcam with color and brightness calibration for low-light environments, auto-framing, and user presence capabilities. The latter is particularly effective, but it needs to be enabled first in Windows Settings.

That webcam can be outfitted with an optional IR camera that I recommend getting: in addition to Windows Hello facial recognition capabilities, it adds user presence sensing for an even more seamless sign-in experience. (That said, I stick to fingerprint authentication.)

Keyboard, touchpad, and pen

Thanks to its small size, the X13s comes up a bit short of a full-sized keyboard, and I found the typing experience to be cramped and error-prone, especially since I was often switching back and forth with larger laptops or a desktop docked setup with a Microsoft Ergonomic Sculpt Keyboard. I’m sure accuracy would improve if this was the only keyboard I used, but I have large hands, and this system would never be comfortable.

Getting past that, the keyboard otherwise offers the expected ThinkPad quality. The scalloped, island-style keys are spill resistant and support two levels of backlighting, and they provide the standard ThinkPad feel, with medium-short key throws that are nicely below the looser ThinkPad norm. And Lenovo is kind enough to its customers to align the arrow keys in an inverted T shape, with discrete Home, End, Pg Up, and Pg Dn keys as God intended.

Sadly, it also offers some long-time ThinkPad silliness, with the Fn and Ctrl keys swapped. I will never understand this.

On the pointing front, the X13s provides the classic ThinkPad dual pointing system, with a medium-sized Mylar touchpad and a TrackPoint nubbin with discrete buttons. I’m happy to see a reasonably-sized touchpad, but then it’s not like Lenovo could have gone larger, given the PC’s small size. The touchpad is accurate and mostly error-free, and it’s notable that I didn’t have to disable three- and four-finger gestures.

Security

The ThinkPad X13s offers Windows Hello facial recognition and, optionally, a touch-style Match-on-Chip fingerprint reader on the small power button. The review unit included the latter, and I found it to work well. It’s configured by default to pass through your fingerprint authentication when you power up the PC, but I’m not sure I ever experienced that. The X13s also provides keys for disabling the microphone and webcam, which is the desired configuration.

Internally, the X13s is protected by Microsoft’s Pluton security processor, which is built into the Qualcomm SoC. I don’t have anything to report here per se, but Microsoft claims that this configuration offers security features beyond what is possible with TPM 2.0, and firmware updates and new features will be delivered in a timely fashion via Windows Update. The X13s also features Lenovo’s Self-healing BIOS.

Sustainability

The X13s is quite sustainable: the top is made of 90 percent recycled magnesium combined with aluminum, Lenovo reports. And there is 30 percent post-consumer content (PCC) in the battery pack, 97 percent in the speaker enclosures, and 90 percent in the power adapter.

It appears that the bottom can be easily removed via 6 Torx screws but I did not try that. I do know that the SSD and 5G cards are M.2-based and should thus be replaceable.

The ThinkPad X13s has a one-year warranty that covers parts and labor, basic phone support, and on-site repairs. But you can extend that for 2-to-5 years or purchase premiere onsite support for additional coverage.

Portability

With its small 11.76 x 8.13 x 0.53-inch size and feather-like 2.35-pound curb weight, the ThinkPad X13s is the ideal travel companion, and one that is barely felt in a bag.

But with Qualcomm finally making some inroads on performance, it was perhaps inevitable that battery life, once Windows on Arm’s main advantage, would suffer. Still, I was surprised by how poor the X13s performed on battery, compared to my expectations: I averaged just under 6 hours of battery life over the course of testing. I’m sure it gets double-digit battery life if you just loop videos.

The X13s has a smallish 49.5-watt-hour battery that’s charged over USB-C with a standard ThinkPad 65-watt power charger.

Software

Thanks to its Arm-based underpinnings and ThinkPad heritage, the X13s arrives with no crapware at all and very little in the way of first- or third-party utilities. There’s a Lenovo Commercial Vantage app, of course, and that’s pinned to both Start and the Taskbar by default. But beyond that, you’ll find just two hardware-related tools: the Dolby Access app and a Synaptics utility for the fingerprint reader. I wish all PCs were this clean.

Pricing and configurations

The ThinkPad X13s is quite expensive, at least on paper, with prices starting at $1810 and quickly escalating past $2500 depending on the configuration. But at Lenovo, all things are negotiable, and its products are often on sale and at steep discounts. And that is the case at the time of this writing: that base model, which offers 8 GB of RAM, 256 GB of SSD storage, and the 300 nit non-touch display is just $995. That’s reasonable, but I strongly recommend bumping the RAM up to 16 GB for a total cost of $1075 (normally $1960).

You can configure further upgrades to RAM, storage, and display, and spend another $300 adding cellular connectivity. But Lenovo also offers various pre-made configurations that range from about $1300 to $1517 (normally $2170 to $2619).

Recommendations and conclusions

Like many of you, I’ve been waiting for Windows on Arm to be truly competitive, and it’s frustrating to watch Apple succeed so well with its own processor transition to Arm. But WOA is getting there: thanks to the hardware advances in the Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3 and the software advances in Windows 11 on Arm, the ThinkPad X13s provides the best experience I’ve ever had with this platform.

But it sadly still falls short, unless your goal is to spend a lot of money on an ultraportable system that only performs well with a small selection of mostly first-party apps and can’t handle a lot of Microsoft Edge tabs. This isn’t what most are after, of course, and a more mainstream ultraportable like Lenovo’s (non-s) ThinkPad X13 would offer a much better experience for less money.

I feel like even Lenovo understands this. Its description of the X13s notes that it targets travelers, hybrid workers, field technicians, and front-line workers specifically. But I can’t really recommend this laptop to mainstream users. You need to understand what you’re getting into with Windows on Arm.

At-a-glance

Pros

  • Thin, light, ultra-portable form factor
  • Optional cellular broadband
  • Very clean software image

Cons

  • Mixed performance depending on the app type and volume
  • Lingering compatibility issues
  • Surprisingly poor battery life
  • Cramped keyboard with Fn and Ctrl keys swapped
  • Limited expansion, with just two 10 Gbps USB-C ports