Lenovo ThinkPad X13s: The WOA Software Experience

The Lenovo ThinkPad X13s is the first Windows 11 on Arm laptop I’ve tried that’s based on the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3 chipset. And my initial performance experiences across the apps I commonly used was good enough that I started to doubt myself: WOA-based PCs, after all, have always stumbled badly in this crucial area, and current thinking is that we’re just waiting for Qualcomm’s NUVIA acquisition to deliver a new generation of more powerful PC chipsets. And so I decided I’d take a closer look ahead of my formal review and see how this PC really fares in real-world use.

This is important. And while it should come as no surprise that Qualcomm’s latest PC chipset delivers better performance than its predecessors, the real question is whether that performance is good enough to rival that of the mainstream Intel and AMD choices. After all, Qualcomm’s claims—a 40 percent generational improvement in single-core CPU performance, an 85 percent improvement with multiple cores, a 60 percent improvement in graphics performance, and “up to 60 percent greater performance per watt over the competitive x86 platform”—were pretty bold. So what’s it like, really?

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What I’ve found so far is … complicated.

On the one hand, the ThinkPad X13s usually works well enough that most users probably wouldn’t suspect a thing: it is, for the most part, just a typical ultralight laptop and it delivers a commensurate experience. But on the other, the X13s also displays some performance and reliability issues from time to time that collectively make me suspicious that my preconceptions about this platform haven’t been fully addressed. Apps will sometimes freeze, or I’ll right-click the Desktop and wait a few seconds before a context menu appears. That kind of thing.

The problem is quantifying this experience. As you must know if you read my hardware reviews, I don’t rely on benchmarks, which are artificial, specifically targeted by chipset makers, and don’t reflect real-world usage. Instead, I actually use the PCs I review, take notes as I go, and then evaluate them based on what really happened during that time. There are certainly pros and cons to both approaches, I guess. But for purposes of this discussion, I do need a way to at least semi-formally compare what I’m seeing on the ThinkPad X13s to other PCs. Preferably other comparable PCs.

And I think I found a way, albeit an unscientific one. Last year, I reviewed the HP Elite Folio, which originally ran Windows 10 on Arm and is powered by the Snapdragon 8cx Gen 2 chipset, the direct predecessor to the chipset in the ThinkPad X13s. And it has 16 GB of RAM, just like the X13s. So this is a solid generational comparison, an apples-to-apples comparison, if you will. And one I can make because I kept the Elite Folio around specifically so I could test what I was writing in the Windows 11 Field Guide against Windows 11 on Arm.

I’d already installed most of the apps I use each day on the X13s before this occurred to me, so I can’t really compare install times. But what I can do is compare application startup times and describe some general performance experiences. And yeah, the former literally involves queuing up the same app on both PCs via Start search and then pressing Enter on both simultaneously. The non-scientific bit, in case it’s not obvious, is that I can’t really measure the launch times accurately. Well, without recording it on video, which, come on, I’m not a martyr here. I’m just trying to put some data to this notion I have.

And the data, such as it is, shows that the ThinkPad X13s does indeed launch applications materially and noticeably faster than the Elite Folio. In all cases.

The complicating factor here, of course, is that those applications are a largely unknown mix of code that includes 32-bit and 64-bit x86 applications running in emulation, so-called hybrid apps with a mix of x86 and Arm code, and perhaps even the occasional native Arm app. I acquired those apps from the web and from the Microsoft Store, and while it’s remotely possible that some of the apps are native or hybrid, I suspect that almost none are. Indeed, when I tried to install Chrome for the first time on the X13s, I was given the 32-bit version, which makes a bit of sense. But because modern Arm-based PCs can execute 64-bit x86 code now, I manually downloaded the 64-bit version instead and installed that.

Launch times are one thing, but actually using applications is of course more telling: even older Arm-based PCs would often slowly load an app but then offer mostly normal performance once it was up and running, barring any reliability issues. And here, I’ve had mixed results, no doubt due at least in part to my understandable reliance on x86 desktop apps. And while I can’t explain this, these problems are for some reason worse when I’ve docked the X13s to the HP Conferencing Monitor I’ve been using as part of my More Mobile setup. I foolishly considered using it that way for testing purposes but … not so much. Maybe I was getting ahead of myself there.

Et tu, Microsoft Word?

Look, it’s not reasonable to expect an Arm PC to run something like Adobe Premiere Elements at all, let alone normally. And maybe it’s not reasonable to expect it to run Adobe Photoshop Elements, or Affinity Photo, or other prosumer applications. But I’ve had issues with Microsoft Word, of all things, where the app will freeze and not come back until I’ve literally killed every other process I can. And it’s happened multiple times. I’m not sure what to think there.

Given that I’ve had initial performance issues with virtually every 12th Gen Intel Core-based PC I’ve tested this year, I’m not going to overreact here. Instead, I’ll just keep using it and see whether the performance and reliability smooth out over time. For now, I feel comfortable stating that the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3 chipset does indeed deliver better performance than its predecessor and that, overall, the performance is good enough for typical day-to-day productivity tasks. But it appears that there are some weird issues with x86 emulation, and of course, the other issues with Arm remain as well.

I’ll have more to say for the review.

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