Yesterday, I reviewed a Thinkpad X13, finding it almost not terrible.

Today, surprise! Shortly after buying the X13, I got a screaming deal on an X13s, a device with virtually nothing in common with the X13. The X13s is almost good.

So, let's talk some generalities to begin, because this laptop (like all really enjoyable hardware) is pretty weird. The X13s is an ARM laptop with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3 processor and a bunch of other hardware which is bog-standard for a PC laptop and therefore not worth discussing. It actually is, despite the model name, completely unrelated to the X13; the two devices don't share any chassis components, or (obviously) any major internals.

The Good

The headline feature of pretty much every ARM device muscling into what has historically been x86's territory is battery life, and the X13s's battery life is… really good. Twelve to fourteen hours of light usage good. The other headline feature is silent operation, and the X13s is fanless (and successfully devoid of other noises like coil whine, too) and makes no noise.

The chassis design of the X13s is a substantial improvement over the X13. It's smaller, with less footprint wasted on bezels, and lighter. The wrist rest edge is chamfered, making it much more pleasant to type on than the X13 (though still a far cry from the X62).

Performance is easily good enough that I don't care. It's notably faster than the X62. If you've ever tried to use a Raspberry Pi as a desktop (an experience I do not recommend), the X13s is nothing like that.

The Bad

The X13s duplicates a lot (though not all!) of the bad design decisions in the X13, including but not limited to rear-mounted display hinge, crippled user-servicability, and atrocious keyboard and mouse buttons. Read the X13 review if you want those rants. But the X13s manages a few additional misfeatures all its own.

The keyboard is worse on the X13s than the X13. Travel is shallower (presumably since the laptop is so thin), though the actuation force is similar at just barely high enough. But the big issue is that the keyboard is part of the case. Replacing it requires completely gutting the laptop. It's also, as far as I can tell, not spill-resistant, meaning we're edging perilously close to Apple levels of fragility.

The port selection is extremely bad. Two USB-C ports on the left, a 3.5mm audio jack on the right (wrong) side. Technically there's a Kensington lock port, if you want to count that. This is too few ports; not enough variety; and not distributed widely enough over the laptop's chassis. (It is also precisely the inadequate port distribution of the Macbook Air, which I suspect is not a coincidence. Stop fucking copying Apple, they're not actually good at designing computers!)

The X13s only ships with 1920x1200 screens. The screen is fine (pretty nice other than the aspect ratio, really), but an upgrade to the 2560x1600 display available on the X13 gen 2 would have been nice. On the other hand, Lenovo dropped that option for subsequent generations of the X13, so I guess this is just the best we can get resolution-wise now. The X13s also lacks the physical shutter on the X13's camera, which was a nice touch.

No I'm Obviously Not Running Windows On This Thing, Why Do You Ask

So, yeah. The X13s ships with Windows ARM, managing to subvert possibly the one actually compelling reason to use Windows: Wintel binary compatibility going back to approximately the '80s. I have no interest in running Windows, and lots of interest in running a Linux distro on it. It's been “technically possible” to get Linux installed and running on the X13s for quite some time now (the earliest successes I found were from late 2022), but since October 2023, it's supported by the vanilla Debian installer. There are some workarounds required, but the situation is no worse than installing Linux on a random laptop in 2007.

Debian install tips

Definitely follow the instructions on the Debian wiki page for installation. Especially do run off a Windows recovery drive (and probably then image the drive, yes even though it's 16GB for some ungodly reason); as far as I can tell, there's no real way to walk this one back except maybe begging Lenovo for recovery media.

A couple of extra notes from my install experience:

  • If, like me, you decide to totally wipe the drive and recreate the ESP, don't forgot to replace the DTB in the new ESP. Recovering from this mistake is a huge pain in the butt, since it renders the Debian install image unbootable. I ended up actually restoring Windows and starting over from scratch (though in hindsight, I should have grabbed one of the other Linux distro images for the X13s and used that).
  • If you do full disk encryption (or possibly even if you don't), you may need to generate a generic initrd. There are several lists floating around of which modules are needed to operate the internal NVMe drive, but none worked for me.
  • The system firwmare doesn't include an EFI shell, and it also doesn't expose EFI variables to a booted OS. This is… unfortunate. I definitely recommend installing efi-shell-aa64 and configuring a boot menu item for it.

What works

Almost all the hardware is supported at this point, actually. Some of the things that used to not work but now do:

  • Bluetooth actually does work, but the wireless adapter doesn't know its own MAC addresses. Windows presumably sets these from values stored elsewhere in the firmware; Linux doesn't, and while the wifi subsystem will assign a random MAC (which mostly works fine), the bluetooth subsystem notes the obviously bogus default address and refuses to come up. Assigning an acceptable bluetooth MAC will get it to work fine.
  • Driving an external display works, but can't push 3840x2160 for some reason. I can run my external 4k monitor at 2560x1440 (incurring awful scaling) or 1920x1080 (incurring pixels as big as my fingernail) just fine. Windows supports driving 3840x2160, so I suspect support for that will materialize eventually.
  • Sound apparently actually can be made to work with some custom ALSA config, which I haven't tried. To be honest, with functioning bluetooth for my headphones, I almost prefer the onboard audio disabled; I never want my laptop to make noise.
  • The WWAN modem apparently does work, but I've never used this stack and don't have a real use for it, so I can't evaluate. I was able to successfully run the FCC unlock script.

What doesn't work
  • The camera. No support whatsoever so far. It's being worked on, though.
  • Suspend. The device technically goes into a sleep state, but it's not actually turning anything off and power usage is basically indistinguishable from idling with the screen off. Don't plan on leaving the laptop “asleep” overnight.


One thing I haven't talked about is the price. It's been speculated that Lenovo designed the X13s as a Macbook Air-killer, and it probably could serve that purpose—except that, new, the X13s costs almost twice as much as a similarly-specced Macbook Air. I would sooner rub chili peppers into my eyes than use Apple hardware, so that would be an easy choice for me, but most people will blindly make the cheapest possible choice (even ignoring Apple's ridiculous status cachet). I actually don't know who's buying X13ses new—I guess it could be businesses looking to equip traveling employees with an ultraportable, though I'd think one of the x86 ultraportables like the X13 or X1 Carbon would be more suitable—but they can be had used for well under half the new price, and prices are still falling. For less than US$500, I would say the X13s is an excellent deal for anyone looking for an Interesting™ laptop, or anyone looking for a Linux ultraportable and willing to overlook some jank.

My bottom-line judgement is that the X13s is almost good. It's kind of frustrating, actually. It needs so little to actually be good (just an overhaul of the keyboard to be slightly deeper and have non-chiclet keycaps would probably get it over the line), but alas, we apparently still can't quite have nice things.

Unlike the X13, which I planned to hold onto until my X62 died as a replacement, I may proactvely switch to the X13s. It's much less pleasant to actually use, but much nicer to schlep around (including just around the house). I'm not thrilled about this, but I'm much less grumpy about it than I was about the thought of eventually having to switch to the X13.