Lenovo's S21e laptop is a sleek, portable laptop that's not a bad option for budget-minded business travelers. It offers decent bang for your buck, with an Intel Celeron Processor with 2GB of RAM and a 54GB hard drive, all for the low price of $269. On the other hand, its keyboard is shallow, and its short battery life means it might not make it through long flights. So does the S21e have what it takes to beat out other budget-priced work notebooks?
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The all-plastic S21e is a nice-looking notebook, with a silver lid that's sleek and professional. The matte finish paint job also wards off fingerprints and smudges, so the notebook keeps a clean look. Meanwhile, its black plastic interior looks basic but gets the job done.
Like most budget laptops, the S21e feels a bit cheap and flimsy. But at just 2.5 lbs., it's also lighter than many competing systems, including the 2.74 lb. HP Stream 11. That makes the S21e a decent option for commuters and travelers, but it's not the lightest laptop in its category. That distinction goes to the featherweight Asus EeeBook X205TA, which feels considerably lighter at just 2.16 lbs.
The S21e's 11.6-inch, 1366 x 768-pixel display is colorful and bright, compared with other budget offerings. The notebook's screen topped out at 220 nits of brightness, which beats competitors like the EeeBook X205TA (217 nits) and the Stream 11 (165 nits). Bright displays are easier to view outdoors or in direct sunlight.
Viewing angles are a bit limited, though, and colors start to wash out when the display is tipped or turned by a few degrees. Plus, the 11.6-inch display is pretty cramped, especially for split-screen multitasking. Many workers might be better off with a 13-inch budget system like the HP Stream 13, though the smaller display is serviceable for travelers who prize portability above all else.
As is typical for 11-inch systems, the S21e's keyboard is smaller than standard, which makes it feel a bit cramped. The keys themselves are also a bit on the shallow side, with a travel distance measuring about 1.2mm (compared to the 1.5mm laptop average). Deeper keys would have provided a more comfortable, desktop-like typing experience. It's not a terrible keyboard, though, considering the size and price of the S21e.
The surface of the touchpad is nice and slick, which let my finger glide along easily. Cursor control felt a bit finicky, but gestures like two-finger scrolling worked well.
Expect budget performance from the budget-priced S21e. The laptop runs on a low-power 2.16-GHz Intel Celeron N2840 processor with a meager 2GB of RAM. Overall performance was serviceable for basic business tasks, but often felt sluggish, lagging for several seconds while switching between apps, and even hanging when I opened a new tab in my Web browser.
Test results back up that experience. The S21e racked up a modest score of 1,694 on the Geekbench 3 test, which measures overall performance. Competing notebooks performed slightly better, including the EeeBook X205TA (2,212) and the HP Stream 11 (1,804).
The S21e performed better in other tests, though. It finished our OpenOffice test ─ which tasks the machine to match 20,000 names and addresses – in 15 minutes and 33 seconds, which easily beat the EeeBook X205TA (21:36) and roughly matched the Stream 11 (15:31). The S21e also edged out the competition in our file transfer test, which measures how fast a notebook can copy 5GB of mixed-media files.
Test results aside, my subjective experience was that all three notebooks felt relatively sluggish, which is what you'd expect in a laptop under $300. Multitaskers and other serious business users should invest in something more powerful, but users with only basic computing needs can get by with what's offered here.
You get a pretty basic selection of ports with the S21e, including one USB 2.0 port and one USB 3.0 port for connecting accessories, a mini HDMI port for linking the notebook to larger monitors or projectors, and a microSD card slot for expanding its modest 64GB of internal storage. If you need an Ethernet port to connect to a secure work network at the office, you'll have to invest in a USB adapter.
Battery life might be the S21e's weakest point. It died after just 5 hours and 36 minutes during our battery test, which simulates continuous Web browsing over Wi-Fi. That's bad if you need a notebook that can last through the end of the workday, or survive through long work flights. The Stream 11 ran for about an hour longer (6:34), but the Asus EeeBook X205TA is the real battery champ in this category, running for an incredible 12 hours and 5 minutes.
The S21e ships with a pretty clean installation of Windows 8.1, though it's eligible for a free upgrade to Windows 10. To install the upgrade, simply run the standards Windows Update utility when you start up the computer. Windows 10 adds a bunch of new features, including a voice-activated personal assistant app, virtual desktops and a redesigned Start menu.
A handful of productivity apps from Microsoft also come pre-loaded, including OneNote for saving and organizing notes, and Skype for basic videoconferencing. You also get a free one-month trial for Microsoft Office, though you'll have to pay for the software if you want to use it after 30 days.
Lenovo's $369 S21e-20 is a middle-of-the-road option for business travelers on a tight budget, with a lighter design but slightly shorter battery life than the HP Stream 11. But I'm hard-pressed to recommend either of those machines when the excellent Asus EeeBook X205TA exists. It outclasses both in several key areas, with double the battery life and similar performance, for just $199.
The bottom line is that while I still like the S21e's slick silver design and bright display, good looks can't cover up the fact that there are more capable options at a better price.