How much work can you really do on a cheap computer?

Computing power has never been so cheap, so they say. So I decided to put that to the test by seeing how much of my work I could do on a $119 Chromebook.

It’s been a while since I’ve given myself a self-imposed challenge. Last week, I was idly browsing the Internet when I noticed a post over on OzBargain, touting the fact that JB Hi-Fi was selling off a suspiciously cheap laptop.

How cheap, I hear you ask? $119 all up, which is by any measure, suspiciously cheap.

I’ve paid more than that for RAM expansions in the not-too-distant past. Or mice, or keyboards, or any other peripheral you might care to name.

Hell, I’ve paid more than that for family meals under certain circumstances.

The idea that you could sell me an entire working computer at that price felt like an interesting proposition, but also one that was probably going to end in disaster.

Still, I’m in lockdown for what feels like perpetuity right now, so I wanted a challenge.

$119 later, and an order for a Lenovo Ideapad 3 CB was placed and on its way.

Not that you get a lot of Chromebook for that price point.

This is a computer you build for a price, not so much a purpose.
This is a computer you build for a price, not so much a purpose.

Specifically, you get an 11 inch Lenovo Ideapad 3 running ChromeOS on an Intel N4020 1.1Ghz CPU with just 4GB of RAM and a 32GB eMMC. That’s not a lot of storage on a small laptop with a terribly mediocre processor.

So how slow is that, really? To give it some context, I ran Geekbench 5’s CPU test over the IdeaPad, which returned a single core score of 444, and a multi-core score of 861.

That’s on the very low side for any Android device, even a budget one. I checked against my files and the most comparable Android device I’ve tested that I could find was a Motorola Moto e7. Not a great phone that one — or a particularly new one, either.

This Ideapad is, essentially, a very cheap Android phone with a larger screen and physical keyboard that also happens to be rubbish at making phone calls.

Also, the screen is quite awful; an unevenly lit LED backlit 1366×768 pixel display that shows off just how cheaply it’s possible to build a screen.

Still, I was keen to think about positive uses for this machine, so I got to working on it for a couple of days, using it as much as feasible.

Now, before I start writing about that, a few ground rules. The IdeaPad was to be used as much as feasible, but I didn’t want to actively harm my working situation just for sheer masochistic principle.

But my daily writing work? I reckoned i could get that done without too much drama. Here’s what I found — both good and bad.

Can you really work on a cheap computer?

Yes, you can. It’s actually fine for basic web tasks.

This did rather surprise me, because my expectations were that I’d be struggling to do anything of any substance at all on it, simply due to those generally woeful specifications.

Realistically, however, it managed simple apps like Google Docs just fine, which meant I could get on with writing — still the core part of what I do day in, day out — without much in the way of an issue.

Indeed, I found myself reaching for the Ideapad more than once simply because it was light, compact and easy to open up to jot down a few notes in the middle of a reviewing session, happy in the knowledge that those notes would be replicated without issue on my primary working machine.

Which, for the purposes of comparison is an Apple M1 MacBook Pro.

Funny thought: You could buy about 20 of these Ideapads for the price of that M1 Macbook… but I suspect the M1 Macbook will still be ticking along when the Ideapad has given up the ghost.

I can also waste my time with Android games… sort of.

The vast majority of Android games are written with ARM cores in mind, not Intel ones, and that does mean that not every Android app will be directly installable.

I suspect there’s all sorts of malarkey that one can get up to with side loading — take your own risks there — but what you end up getting is a subset of apps that the developers have flagged as theoretically compatible.

As an example, one of my favourite Android pinball games, The Pinball Arcade is compatible, but it took some working through the interface to get it to do more than launch a ball or shake the cabinet until it inevitably tilted on me.

It’s not a fast way to play the game, and the mediocre screen makes it less fun than playing on even a basic Android phone… but it does work.

One factor that did (pleasantly) surprise me was how easy it was to integrate into my existing keyboard, mouse and monitor setup.

Out of preference, I use an M1 MacBook connected to a USB hub for power, but also to connect up to a keyboard, external mouse and widescreen monitor. The Ideapad has USB C for power… but would it work?

The answer was a very direct yes, at least for essential functions. My keyboard of choice is a mechanical gaming keyboard. I like the actuation and they tend to survive my rather brutal typing speed well.

If I wanted to muck around with its RGB lighting I’d be straight out of luck, but for actually getting the words on the page — no problem.

Likewise, I could easily sidestep the Ideapad’s lousy display for a much sharper one with no problems.

The Ideapad's screen only just qualifies. As a screen, that is.
The Ideapad’s screen only just qualifies. As a screen, that is.

The one downside of this approach from a reviewing perspective is that I can’t say much about its battery endurance. It’s meant to have “up to” 10 hours of battery life, and I have my doubts about that. But the reality of living in lockdown with a laptop that never once left my home meant that power was never that far away, and I never really tested that function because I didn’t need to.

Zoom — which I use both for business meetings and my online Japanese university course — does run on a Chromebook as a progressive web application, and it’s… OK.

Again, the hardware limitations of the Ideapad come into play here, because the supplied webcam is ordinary at best, as is the display.

I did try to work out if it was feasible to do image editing work on this system, and the answer was… sort of, but not really.

Google Photos exists for very basic work, and Snapseed can be quite flexible when you need to slightly fine-tune a photo.

However, working with any photo of any appreciable size and quality I very quickly hit the limits of what the Ideapad could manage in terms of processing.

It was slow, and it was rather tedious because so many apps assume you have a touchscreen. It may well be possible to get an effective image (or I guess video) workflow on a more powerful Chromebook — but I’d only do so on the Ideapad if I was desperate.

This keyboard won't win any awards. You could write an award-winning novel with it though... in theory.
This keyboard won’t win any awards. You could write an award-winning novel with it though… in theory.

There were tasks I wasn’t quite going to throw over to the Ideapad, including recording and producing my weekly podcast Vertical Hold: Behind The Tech News (subscribe today!).

For a start, my co-host Adam Turner would probably have had me killed for mucking with the workflow without consultation on a low-powered device in the middle of a pandemic… and he would be well within his rights to do so.

Still, I was able to produce a lot of written work, research fully and even enjoy a little downtime on this remarkably cheap computer. Yep, I’m writing what you’re reading on it too, although that shouldn’t be that much of a surprise.

After all, what a Chromebook really does is just access existing web apps, and beyond the need for screen elements the core computing isn’t really that intensive for the most part.

You don’t need a screamingly fast PC for web apps for the most part; you just need the basic interface elements and some kind of local processing capabilities.

There are still things that I can’t do on the Ideapad, and I’m certainly not dropping the MacBook into a dustbin.

But where I will get my $119 worth out of it is as a digital, no distractions notebook. The limitations of its processing power become positives when

I can’t as easily get distracted by dozens of open tabs or the lure of additional applications. It’s rather good in fact at being a blank page, waiting for my creativity to pour out onto it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some writing to do.

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