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Review – Chuwi Minibook Mobile Workstation

If there’s one thing that I know, its convertible notebook hardware. I’ve had nearly every Surface Pro convertible since Surface Pro was introduced back in 2012. I’ve also have Surface Book 1 and Surface Book 2 notebooks.  Prior to that, I had a Fuji branded TabletPC.  To say that I’ve got experience with pen-based Windows machines for both personal and corporate productivity and creativity tasks would be an understatement. I’m all about and all over OneNote 2016; and find that ANY pen-based PC experience is wasted without it.

… And no.  The Universal Windows Platform (UWP) version of OneNote that comes preinstalled in Windows 10 machines… doesn’t count.  That version of OneNote absolutely sucks.  Microsoft seems to be recognizing this as of this writing, and has reinstated OneNote 2016 as a part of Office 365 and Office 2019, at least according to Neowin.

So when it comes to Windows 10 convertibles and other pen based hardware, I’m usually very interested. There have been a couple ads on Facebook that I’ve used to try to buy 8″ “Yoga” styled tablets.  I’ve actually “purchased” three for anywhere between $35.00 to $40.00 USD each, depending on the ad.  For my hard earned US dollars, I’ve received 1 Louis Vuitton wallet and two Apple Air “branded” clam-shell functioning (with a mirror for computer screen), white, plastic computer magnets (about the size of a cigarette lighter).

When I ran across Chuwi’s Minibook campaign on Indiegogo, I pretty much jumped on it immediately.  The device is pretty much everything that was also offered via the ads I responded to on Facebook.  So the $64,000 question is, is it everything that it claims it is?  Is it usable?  How well does its digital ink functionality work? Is the keyboard usable with its compact size and unusual key placement?  Is it a Windows 10 PC for everyone? Let’s take a look and find out.

 

Hardware Specs & Photos

The Chuwi Minibook Mobile Workstation is an interesting device. Due to its size and hardware configuration, the use cases are specific, as its size and specs don’t lend it to as many uses as you might think, especially at its (roughly) $450-$540 USD price tag (price variations due to product configuration and currency fluctuations.  The Chuwi Minibook is sold in HK dollars.)

I did an unboxing of the device. If you’re interested, you can see it here.  The device’s specifications, as reviewed, are directly below.

Specs

  • Intel® Core™m3 1.6gHz-3.4gHz 8100Y Processor or Intel Celeron N4100 Processor
  • 8GB-16GB LPDDR3 Memory
  • 128GB-512GB SSD Storage
  • 360° Yoga Design
  • 8.0 inch FHD, 16:10, 1920×1200 Screen
  • M.2 2242 SSD Expansion
  • microSD Card Expansion Slot
  • Full-Function Type-C Port, 2 USB-A ports: 1 Type 3.1, the other Type 2
  • mini HDMI Port
  • 2.0 MP Front Camera

Chuwi says that the device is good for just about any and every possible use case; but to be honest, based on the processor type, you’re likely NOT going to find this to be the case.  While the Intel Core m3 processor in mine is duel core with four threads, you’re going to find that it doesn’t have as much of the punch as any other Intel Core processor.  The Core m3 processor is meant for low powered, very portable, very mobile devices.  As such, despite the 8GB-16GB of RAM in the device, it just isn’t going to be a great choice for any real gaming, or any prolonged media consumption; at least not with Windows 10.

On the good side of everything, you will find that the device has pretty decent battery life, lasting a solid 4-5 hours before it starts to complain that its about to die.  The standard USB-C battery charger that comes with the device worked well in my US-based AC plugs.  For non-US users, the device comes with the appropriate, geo-correct adapter.  I have both an iPad Pro and Early 2017 15″ MacBook Pro. Both USB-C based chargers for those devices work well as potential replacements with the Chuwi Minibook, so I don’t necessarily have to take the Chuwi adapter with me when I stick it in my gear bag.

 

The Full 360

Below are shots of the Chuwi Minibook Mobile Workstation from all sides and angles. I’ve tried to show the location of all ports and vents so you can clearly see the design and engineering involved in the construction of the device.

 

 

The front facing view of Chuwi Minibook Mobile Workstation.

You can just make out the HiPen3 in the upper right corner.

The rear view of the Chuwi Minibook MobileWorkstation.

Note the HiPen3 magnetically clinging to the edge of the device.

 

The front edge of the Chuwi Minibook Mobile Workstation. The rear edgeof the Chuwi Minibook MobileWorkstation. Note the rear vent.

 

The left side of the Chuwi Minibook Mobile Workstation. All ports are labeled The right side of the Chuwi Minibook Mobile Workstation. All ports are labeled

 

The top of the Chuwi Minibook Mobile Workstation.  Its smooth and stylish and shows how solid the device truly is. You wouldn’t thing its as solid as it is. The bottom view of the Chuwi Minibook Mobile Workstation. Note the M2.2242 compartment at the top left.  One of the rubber feet on the device is also missing.

One of the most annoying problems (for me) I have had with the Chuwi Minibook is the rubber feet on the back of the device.  As you can see in the photo of the bottom of the device, above, I’m missing one. Putting and pulling the device in and out of my gear bag (a Nomatic Travel Pack) has removed nearly every rubber foot from the back of the device. I finally lost one permanently and don’t have a replacement.

 

Build Quality

The device itself appears to be well built.  Its solid. Its even a bit heavy for its size. It definitely weighs a lot more than I thought it would.  Sadly, a number of different users are reporting a number of hardware quality related issues.  Thankfully, I don’t seem to be experiencing any of these; though this is clearly just pure, dumb luck.  Those interested in following some of these can check out the Facebook Group for the Chuwi Minibook to learn more.

Display Issues

A number of users are complaining of either dead pixels or black/ dark colored dust particles on or in the screen. The only way to fix this issue is to send the device back to the manufacturer so they can either clean or replace the screen.

Dongle & Port Issues

A number of users are reporting issues with the USB-C port related to charging and connectivity.  Some users are not able to charge correctly with the included AC adapter. Others are unable to get the USB-C port to push 1 HD monitor, let alone 1 or 2 4k displays.  Others can’t get it to connect to any external device. Its still unclear if this is a driver issue or an issue with the USB-C ports in question.

Misaligned Top and Bottom Case

A number of users are complaining that the two halves of the device don’t line up appropriately.  In many cases, the halves either overlap badly or are askew and misaligned.

Driver Issues

A number of users are also complaining about screen flickering, screen blackout and fingerprint sensor reader failures.  These are more software driver issues where the display and power saving drivers are either poorly written and don’t work correctly together when waking the device from sleep or there may actually be issues with the hinges, display connectors, graphics board or solders on the pin-outs… or any combination of the above.

Fan Noise

There’s either an issue with the choice of fans that were used, an issue with thermal pads or an issue with thermal paste in the device.  The device runs hot, and the fans are constantly going… and they’re LOUD. They often make the device sound as though its going to lift off the table and fly around the room.  However, some users are installing replacement thermal pads or using replacement thermal paste on some of the components. They’re apparently getting some decent results; but to be honest, most consumers won’t bother with any mods like this. They’re going to use what ever options and components come with the device.

Battery Discharge Issues

A number of users are reporting drastic power retention and battery discharge issues.  Some users are indicating that their battery stays at 100% until its nearly empty, then drops to nearly 0%, before shutting the device down due to lack of power.  Some users are reporting large charge level declines while the device is off, resulting in reduced use, when the device is actually on and running. Other users – including me – are not reporting any of these power issues.

Software

The performance of the device isn’t bad, per se. However, you will find that the device is better suited for productivity work and apps than any other type.

Yes. As a Windows 10 machine, it can do a lot. However, the device’s performance and specs make it better suited to a mobile productivity device than anything else. Yes. The Minibook can handle high performance tasks in short bursts. It can do the processor intensive stuff for a moment or two; but don’t count on it to do more than that. The Core m3 processor while versatile, doesn’t have the engineering or power behind it to get the job done.

Windows 10 Home vs. Windows 10 Pro

The device comes with Windows 10 Home.  If you’re going to try to do ANYTHING corporate or work related at all, you’re going to need Windows 10 Pro.  In fact, you’re going to want to get rid of Home and just upgrade to Pro, period.  Windows 10 Home is terribly limited, and I found that I am so used to being able to do simple things like connect to SMB networks; and if you’re going to do that at all (never mind wanting to get access to AD services or other corporate resource), you’re going to need Windows 10 Pro. For example, I couldn’t get access to my company’s Office 365 email services through Outlook.com, without Windows 10 Pro, which to me… made no sense at ALL.  Its OWA for cryin’ out loud.  Why I needed Windows 10 Pro to get access to that email, doesn’t make sense to me.  At best, those are web services that are being called and answered.  There’s no reason why I have to have a Professional version of Windows to do that. I’m not certain what is going on with that…

Microsoft Office 365

The device is especially well suited to productivity apps like Microsoft Office 365.  However, the device’s screen is somewhat of a problem here, especially when it comes to apps like Excel, PowerPoint or Visio.  For these apps, you might seriously want to consider the use of an external monitor.

However, the device truly shines with Microsoft Word and as a digital notepad.

With Microsoft’s most recent revival of OneNote 2016, and the device’s ability to swing its screen back 180 degrees with its Yoga-like features, its perfect as a pocketable notepad.  While the keyboard leaves a bit to be desired (as you’ll see below…), once you get used to it, the device works well as a word processing machine; and Microsoft Word runs very well on the device.

Once connected to an external display, the device handles the rest of the Office 365 Suite fairly well, too. Though to be honest, if you’re going to do any real kind of productivity editing, AND you’re using an external monitor, you’re likely going to want an external mouse, too.  The touch mouse is very much like the touch pad on a Blackberry device; and honestly about the same size.  While good for small hand held mobile devices, I am struggling to see or understand how it is appropriate as a long term solution for the Minibook.  It doesn’t offer enough surface space to really be a good track pad and is either too sensitive (as the cursor often moves up when you pull your finger off to tap it) or not sensitive enough (as the cursor often has issues finding the edge of windows and other objects so you may grab/ adjust them).  At least, this has been my experience.

Keyboard

While the keyboard is English and the keys are full sized, the keyboard itself leaves a great deal to be desired. Because of the device’s size AND the fact that the keys are full sized, full travel, key placement is… well, odd.

If you’re an experienced touch typist, like me, this keyboard is going to feel strange, and you’re going to have to watch what and how you type.  The text you create may not actually be English you expect it to be. I’ve found a number of strange words and typos that were just wrong.  Very wrong.

 

 

This picture of the whole, Chuwi Minibook keyboard shows how odd the keyboard on the device truly is.

Key placement here is very strange.

The top row of keys, except perhaps for the Escape key, seems to be a dumping ground for all the keys that they couldn’t find the right place for.  The Tab key, which is normally above the Caps Lock key, is just to the right of Escape… And speaking of the Caps Lock key, the A key is doing double duty as the caps lock key, and is somewhat over sized to account not only for the extra labeling of the function, but so you can find it.

 

A close up of the top two row of keys. The Tab key is on the top, when it should be just above the Caps Lock key (which also doubles as the “A” key, here.

Let’s talk about key size again, for a bit.  The keys are full size.  If you look at the keyboard from my SurfaceBook 2, below, you’ll see that its also got full sized notebook keys.  Their placement, spacing and travel help enable true touch typing. If you look at the keyboard from the Minibook, you’ll see that the keys are, again, full sized, have the expected spacing (which I give Chuwi credit for).

 

SurfaceBook 2 Keyboard by comparison.  Notice all of the standard sized, shaped and placed keys. Touch Typing here is much easier

However, due to the devices diminutive size, it can’t truly accommodate full sized keys well.  Because of this, you get the odd keyboard placement and in some cases, off-sized, or strangely shaped or sized keys. Touch typing is NOT easy here. I normally type 85-90 words a minute.  When using the Chuwi Minibook, my typing speed is less than half this speed.

Keyboard Closeup 2 bottom Rows

Screen & Pen

As noted above in the Build Quality section, the screen does have some issues with dust and/ or dead pixels. Thankfully, I don’t seem to be one of the unlucky few that seem to be having those issues. However, I really wanted to talk more about inking and the pen that Chuwi has made available for use with the Minibook.

The Minibook uses the HiPen3 as its native inking accessory.  The pen looks very much like Microsoft’s Surface Pen, with a key difference.  The pen doesn’t have any type of eraser function on the blunt end.  With the Surface Pen, you can flip the pen over and use the rear end of the device like a graphite pencil eraser.

 

The Chuwi HiPen3

With the HiPen3, you can’t do this.  The back end of the pen doesn’t have any functionality built into it.  Instead, the pen has a two function button near the front end of the pen.  Pressing down on the front end of the button activates the lasso select function. Pressing on the back end of the button activates the ink eraser.  While this isn’t bad, its not natural and not very intuitive.  It definitely takes some getting used to.

Unfortunately for Chuwi, the only real comparative experience I have for the Minibook is the Microsoft Surface Pro 6, the Surface Book or the Surface Book 2.  Comparatively, inking on the SB2 is a much easier and legible experience than on the Minibook; but based on the technology in the SB2, I’d expect that to be the case. However, while the inking experience on the Minibook isn’t as good, its honestly, and truthfully, merely, just an OK experience.

Minibook Inking Compare

Inking on the Minibook isn’t very fluid. Part of this is the size and resolution of the screen. Some of it is the pen. Some of it is the accuracy of your writing. At the end of the day, the experience isn’t horrible; but it is somewhat disappointing.

Conclusion

Ok… So… Let’s get down to brass tacks – Is the Chuwi Minibook worth the $450-$530 USD you’ll pay for it?  Like anything having to do with perceived value, YMMV (your mileage may vary).  For example, not everyone will have the same use cases, or experience the same challenges as others.  However, what I can say is this – the Minibook Mobile Workstation is a very usable PC… with the right accessories. As you might expect with a device this size, there are compromises you’re going to make nearly everywhere.

The keyboard is difficult to use and get used to.  The keys are oddly placed and some are oddly shaped or sized or all of the above.  Its difficult to touch type on as a result, and I usually end up writing gibberish rather than US English.

The Minibook’s screen is great for productivity apps like Word or OneNote; but don’t think that apps like Outlook, PowerPoint, Excel, Visio or Publisher are going to be ok on a screen this size.  It just doesn’t have enough real estate to handle the screen size requirements of these other apps.  However, you won’t have any issue with those apps if you decide to plug in an external monitor into either the USB-C or mini HDMI ports.  Size aside, there may be other issues related to the screen that may be an issue for you.  There are reports of dead pixels or dust under the glass by some users.  The only way to fix these is to send the device back and either request a replacement or screen repair.

A number of users are reporting battery drain and other power related issues. This makes using the device away from a power source difficult and unreliable; and totally kills the idea of this device being an uber-ultra portable workstation that goes anywhere and gets the job done.  Some in either of the Facebook Groups for the Chuwi Minibook are speculating that the battery drain issues are actually build or component quality related.  I completely disagree.  Most of the issues that are being experienced are likely traceable back to use of either Sleep or Hibernate, and are as such, power driver related.  I don’t use either of these features on ANY Windows PC that I own or use regularly, and have never experienced any issues like this, especially on the Chuwi Minibook.

With the nearly 25 years of tech journalist experience I have with publications like AOL/ CompuServe, Computer Power User Magazine, WUGNET (The Windows User’s Group Network) and BYTE.COM (the online reincarnation of BYTE Magazine, where I was Managing Editor), I am convinced this isn’t a hardware issue, but instead a driver/ software issue that has existed since 1996.  Microsoft has NEVER been able to get power/ACPI (Advanced Configuration and Power Interface) drivers right.  Issues with Sleep, Hibernation and other power related starts and stops have existed since laptops officially began running Windows 95/98.  The fact that many users are experiencing them here with the Minibook, is no surprise to me at all.  The best work around is to stop using those features and simply restart/shutdown as needed.

If you can live with the inking issues and some of the build quality issues, the Minibook Mobile Workstation by Chuwi could be a decent PC for you. Unfortunately, there are a number of build quality and driver related issues that are going to plague the device with problems until Chuwi gets them resolved, if they can at all… The issues may actually be cost prohibitive for them, based on component and supply chain costs.  Based on what I’m seeing, The Chuwi Minibook Mobile Workstation is never going to be your daily driver. It just isn’t reliable or powerful enough.  However, it may be a good travel or secondary machine, provided you can live with the quality, functionality, performance and usability issues that make its extensive use challenging.

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