When it came out in 2022, the ThinkPad X13s cost $1500 or more, but now, less than two years later, you can get them used for about $500. So, should you buy one?

But before we find out if it’s worth buying, let’s discuss what is so special about the ThinkPad X13s. That little s is a bigger deal than you might think, as this laptop is closer to a smartphone than a PC, when it comes to what’s under the hood. Why is that? Well, instead of your typical Intel or AMD processor, it’s powered by an ARM-based Qualcomm Snapdragon SoC, or system on chip.

This isn’t that foreign of a concept – Apple started replacing Intel CPUs with their M-Series ARM chips in 2020, and Microsoft’s new line of Copilot+ PCs with the ARM-based Snapdragon X SoCs was launched on June 18th of this year. They advertise long battery life, thin designs, and, of course, “AI”, but at a price – the cheapest new Copilot+ Snapdragon PC or MacBooks start around $1000.

For about half that, you can pick up a used Lenovo ThinkPad X13s.

Performance Per Watt

Before we address the Lenovo ThinkPad X13s, let’s discuss these architectures a little bit. x86 has been used in mainstream computers for decades. Pretty much every traditional server, desktop, or laptop uses an x86 processor from either Intel or AMD (excluding newer Apple computers). On the other hand, ARM has traditionally been used to power smartphones and tablets.

Fundamentally different, we need to understand a little bit what makes these processors work. Underneath the abstract layers of software and APIs exposed to the software we use every day lie the instruction set – this tells the hardware what to do.

In x86, a CISC (Complex Instruction Set Computer) architecture, single instructions handle multiple operations across multiple clock cycles. While this generally leads to higher performance with less software development, it has some downsides. These types of CPUs are physically larger, with more transistors, and thus use more power while creating more heat.

On the other hand, ARM, a RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computer) architecture, uses a small set of basic instructions that execute one instruction in one clock cycle. While this generally leads to ARM chips having less overall performance, they are also smaller, cheaper to make, and create less heat.

All those factors come together for one simple fact: while x86 processors offer the best total performance, ARM gives you the best performance per watt. And that’s why so many companies are turning to ARM for more than just smartphones – the potential benefit is huge in the server and end user computer markets. Basically, while a high end workstation PC or gaming PC is best served by x86, where power consumption matters, ARM is the way to go.

There are a few other interesting differences between x86 and ARM, but they are details that don’t really matter all that much, so I’m only going to touch on them. First off, while an x86 CPU is typically used in conjunction with other components like chipsets, network controllers, and more, ARM chips are SoCs – basically everything is in one piece of silicon, including the GPU, WiFi, any LTE/5G radios, and more. Second, while pretty much all x86 processors are designed and manufactured by Intel and AMD, ARM doesn’t actually make any SoCs – they just license the archicture out and it’s up to other companies like Qualcomm, MediaTek, Samsung, etc. to make, produce, and sell the end result.

Now, on to our little ThinkPad…

Lenovo ThinkPad X13s Specifications

There are a few different variants of the ThinkPad X13s, but the one I picked up for $499 on eBay has the following specs:

  • CPU: Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx, 3GHz
  • GPU: Qualcomm Adreno 690
  • RAM: 16GB LPDDR4x 4266MHz
  • SSD: 512GB PCI-E Gen4 NVMe
  • Wireless Connectivity: WiFi 6E, 5G, Bluetooth
  • Ports: 2x USB-C, 3.5mm audio jack.
  • Display: 1920×1200 13.3″ Touch
  • Dimensions: 11.76″ x 8.13″ x 0.53″

Build Quality and Appearance

The X13s is like pretty much every other ThinkPad – well built, with the traditional matte black finish. The laptop is rigid with little to no flex, no matter how you handle it.

At just 2.35 pounds, the X13s is super light – even lighter than a MacBook Air. While the Apple product feels more premium due its aluminum, lighter is better when it comes to ultra-portable notebooks like these.

Display and Features

1920×1200 at 13.3″ is great for crisp, clear text, but I think I’d rather have a free pizza than being able to touch my screen. Color, contrast, and brightness are mediocre at best. If you’re doing color-sensitive design or photography work, or need to work in the brightest environments, this thing may not be for you.

As you’d expect with a ThinkPad, everything works well, and feels good to the touch. The webcam and microphone are serviceable, and the speakers are mediocre at best.

Compared to other ThinkPads I’ve used, the keyboard isn’t the best ever. It’s still far better than the keyboard on my other laptop, a gaming model from Acer, but my previous thin and light laptop, a Dell Latitude 12-incher, had a better keyboard.

While the keyboard isn’t the best ever, the trackpad is very nice. Definitely better than average. And, of course, because ThinkPad, you have a TrackPoint with physical buttons, although my personal preference would be to omit that and make the trackpad larger

Connectivity

When it comes to wireless, the ThinkPad X13s is amazing. WiFi 6E performance is top-notch, the Bluetooth works fine, and the option of cellular connectivity using 5G is incredible useful.

When it comes to WiFi, I have a speed test server on a local server in my home. While my Acer laptop’s Killer AX1650i network card was able to transfer just over 500Mbps in a download test, the Lenovo’s Qualcomm WCM685x managed 600Mbps in the same test, when both were connected to the same Aruba Instant On AP22 access point.

For mobile data, I went with T-Mobile, which offers unlimited 5G data for $50/month. While your coverage and speeds will vary greatly, I managed about 400Mbps down and 20Mbps up while sitting at the local Panera (because their WiFi is absolutely horrific).

On the other hand, physical connectivity is limited, as with most thin and light notebooks. You get two USB-Cs and a 3.5mm headphones jack. A Kensignton lock slot and SIM slot are present as well (although, it’s 2024, you should be using eSIM, which is supported here, and that’s how I’m using my ThinkPad).

Charging is done through one of the USB-C ports, something I’m not a fan of, but this is just the way modern laptops are.

Battery Life

One of the reasons ARM is popular in smaller devices is how efficient it is, and that’s on full display here with the little Lenovo. The 65Whr battery gives this PC truly all-day battery life, like a modern smartphone. Nice!

Performance and Compatibility

This is where it gets complicated. While pretty much any benchmark software will run on Windows on ARM, most of them are simply x86 apps, meaning you’re testing the translation layer as much as the actual hardware itself. And that’s fine, because in the real world, that’s what matters.

However, to get the best performance out of any Windows on ARM computer, you should be using apps built for ARM – and there are more and more of those every day.

I found that most of my software, including most native Windows components, and the programs I installed, was built for ARM. A few stray Windows processes and programs (Discord, I’m looking at you) ran as x86, but still worked fine and performed well.

The only software I couldn’t actually use at all was Malwarebytes Anti-Malware, the anti-virus software I pay for. It’s not the end of the world, as Microsoft’s built-in Windows Defender is fairly competitive, but it was a bit of a bummer. I reached out to them and supposedly an ARM version is coming by the end of the year.

Overall, performance on the Thinkpad X13s is great. It never felt slow or laggy, even with a bunch of tabs open in Firefox, streaming YouTube in Edge (I never have good luck with YouTube and Firefox), and a dozen files open in VSCode. In my daily tasks, I found it felt just as fast as my main desktop with an 11th-gen Core i5 and 64GB of RAM, as well as my gaming laptop with a 12th-gen Core i5 and the same 16GB of RAM as the Thinkpad.

As for gaming, I didn’t even try. Other people have reported issues running games on the X13s’ Qualcomm Adreno GPU, but who cares… that’s not the point of this computer, and MacBook Airs don’t do any better. If you want to play anything more intensive than the most basic of games, you’re going to do it on a gaming computer or console, not a ThinkPad X13s.

SSD performance was good, but not as good as it could be. Using CrystalDiskMark, benchmark numbers were about half as good as the Samsung 980 Pro 1TB I put in my Acer laptop, and far lower than the Samsung 990 Pro 4TB in my main desktop. That said, in daily use, the ThinkPad doesn’t feel slower, and that’s ultimately what matters the most. Really, numbers aside, any NVMe SSD is going to feel fast and handle typical tasks with ease. If you’re doing intensive work with huge files, you probably aren’t doing it on a thin and light laptop with all day battery life.

The SSD can be replaced!

Speaking of SSDs… Six captive Phillips screws and a little prying later, you can pop off the bottom cover, to reveal what sets this laptop apart from the MacBook Air in a big way – you can replace the SSD. Unlike Apple’s soldered-on storage, the X13s takes a standard M.2 2242 NVMe SSD. While that’s a less common form factor than the ubiquitous M2. 2280 size stuff, there are still plenty of readily available options.

The battery is also user replaceable. Overall, easily replaceable storage and battery will significantly improve the usable lifespan of this system. Of course, RAM and GPU are part of the Qualcomm SoC, so no upgrading those, but that’s pretty standard these days.

Why you’d want this instead of a regular Intel-powered ThinkPad X13

There are a few reasons you might pick this over a different computer, or even a comparable used X13 with a normal x86 processor.

  1. You need legit all-day battery life out of your laptop.
  2. You just want something a little different, oh and it happens to have 5G connectivity built in.
  3. You’re a software developer either building ARM apps or porting your existing apps over to ARM.

While 1 and 2 are good reasons to buy an ARM based laptop like the ThinkPad X13s, reason 3 is really where the ThinkPad X13s shines. More and more software will be running on ARM platforms every year, and you need to be ready for it. As a web developer with a focus on PHP web applications, the underlying architecture of the server running my code doesn’t matter to me, but if you’re a “real” software developer, you better be ready for the ARM train – it’s coming. And if you want a device to build and test your ARM apps on, the Lenovo X13s is a way better deal than the (admittedly kinda cool) $599 Microsoft Dev Kit 2023 PC, any of the $999+ new Copilot+ PCs, and of course, any MacBook – because 8GB of RAM in a thousand dollar laptop in 2024 is just a bad joke that’s not even funny.