Lenovo Thinkpad Z13 just has this certain Macbook Air about it...
World's largest laptop vendor releases whizzy x86 - but we could do with a better Windows rescue party
Hands-on The Thinkpad Z13 is quite different from any other Lenovo machine that we have seen recently. It's a similar thin, ultra-light design to the Arm-based X13S, but this is not an unusual RISC computer: this is in some ways a relatively conventional X86 laptop.
However, rather than the Intel processors typical of most Thinkpads all the way back to the initial IBM models, this one uses an AMD Ryzen 5 Pro system-on-a-chip, with no less than six high performance X86 cores, alongside an integrated Radeon GPU. A Ryzen 7 Pro version of the Z13 exists, too. This is very much an X86 machine — and a fast one at that.
Much like the last X86 based Thinkpad that we reviewed, out of the box, the Z13 had a considerable list of outstanding Windows updates which had to be installed before we could start using it. And also like the X1 Carbon, unfortunately, while experimenting with a pre-release Linux distribution, we managed to overwrite the machine's EFI System Partition (ESP). This, it appears, is a category of error which Microsoft's "startup repair" process is unable to handle. Even copying the Windows 11 boot files from a working computer's ESP wasn't enough: it helped to the very limited degree that a Windows 11 boot medium was now able to find the existing Windows 11 installation – but it couldn't fix it.
The experience continued very much like on the X1 Carbon. First, we had to reinstall Windows 11 from scratch. Second, just as before, Windows 11 was not able to recognize the machine's Wi-Fi chipset, so it couldn't go online to fetch updates and drivers… such as network controller drivers. Third, we had to use a USB-C hub with an Ethernet port again. We do have a perfectly good USB-3 Ethernet dongle, but the Z13 has no USB-A port.
There ain't no party like a Windows rescue party
In part, this process demonstrates the uselessness of Microsoft's "rescue" partition: it's absolutely no help if your computer can't boot, which is a common category of problem. The same can be said of "safe mode" in recent versions of Windows: to access it, you must choose it before shutting down. An emergency boot function is no use whatsoever if you need to be able to boot the OS normally in order to enable it.
Windows is nearly 40 years old now and has had over a dozen major releases. That this kind of fooling around is still needed is ridiculous. The Recovery partition should be able to handle a corrupted or missing ESP, and boot itself even without one, as if it were a removable medium. There should be a documented and automatically-discoverable repository of essential drivers inside the recovery partition, so that a fresh install of Windows can find them and use them to get online without needing additional hardware or media. Macs use UEFI, and since 2009, any Mac with a blank drive can boot from Apple's servers over the internet without needing a valid ESP.
This is not Lenovo's fault – but there's a lot of room for it, and other vendors, to significantly improve the customer experience here.
The Z13 has only got USB-C ports, and just two of those. They're actually USB 4 ports, and as such, considerably faster than the more normal USB 3 speed USB-C ports. However, to use this machine with existing peripherals, you will need a USC-C docking station. Once we put it on the Internet with a good old fashioned Ethernet cable, it was happily able to fetch updates, which led to Windows recognizing all of its hardware and starting to work normally. If these ports aren't built in, we feel that a minimal dock should be included in the box, or the ports built into the PSU brick as with the M1 iMac.
Mainstream Linux distributions were much happier. The big-name ones we tried – Ubuntu 22.04 and 23.04, Fedora 38, and Linux Mint 21.1 – all installed without a hitch and ran perfectly. We saw no display glitches and no hesitancy. The Ryzen Pro 6650U chip has six dual-thread 2.9GHz CPU cores, and they're all high-performance ones, unlike Intel 12th or 13th generation devices' "efficiency" cores. The GPU is a 1.9GHz Radeon 660M with six cores, and graphics ran smoothly with both Wayland and X.org.
However, trying some slightly less-standard distributions didn't go so well. We tried vanilla Debian 11.7, in the form of an Xfce live medium with non-free firmware, and FreeBSD 13.2, plus a couple of non-systemd distributions: Devuan Chimæra 4.0.3 and MX Linux 21.3. Not one of them booted successfully. Both Devuan and Debian started but hung before getting to a GUI, while MX Linux failed with a GRUB error. We also noted that using our trusty Ventoy, on two different keys, we had to choose boot in "grub mode" for all the Linux distributions we tried, otherwise the machine just froze with a blank screen and blinking cursor (as, incidentally, did FreeBSD, which doesn't have the option of GRUB).
We've never seen a machine before on which no distribution could boot in normal mode. We also saw intermittent failures to boot from both USB 4 ports, which meant we needed to swap the hub and the power cable.
Windows is nearly 40 years old now and has had over a dozen major releases. That this kind of fooling around is still needed is ridiculous
Physically, the machine is unlike a standard Thinkpad, too. Although it has the usual combination of a Trackpoint plus a separate trackpad, it's a buttonless design, similar to the unloved trackpad on the Thinkpad X240. A narrow strip at the top of the trackpart is demarcated from the main part by a glossy (but intangible) line and a row of eight raised dots in the middle. This region acts as the three buttons for the Trackpoint. If you're not a Trackpoint user, though, you can turn this off and have an entirely buttonless trackpad. We found the clickable zone difficult to locate without looking - or rather, mostly, we didn't find it. This in turn rendered the Trackpoint much less useful than we normally find them.
Tinkling the keys
The keyboard design is slightly different from the Intel (and indeed Arm) Thinkpads, too. There's no power key above the keyboard on this model; instead, it's on the right edge of the chassis. Although it does have an embedded power LED, you can't see that while looking at the machine from the front, which seems like a fairly obvious oversight. The machine does have a fingerprint reader, but rather than being in the power button as on other models, here, it's disguised as a dummy key, sitting between the cursor-left and right control key.
This two-thirds width fake key (and thus bigger than the actual function keys) doesn't move, but bears upon its surface a representation of a generic fingerprint, so that you know where to place a phalange to prove your identity. The right Windows key, which normally opens a context menu, is totally absent. Overall, this seems like a very strange (OK, let's be blunt: bad) decision to us. The combined power button and fingerprint scanner, plus separate power LED, of the non-AMD models seems like a much better compromise.
Otherwise, the keyboard is a modern Lenovo keyboard: it's very flat, the keys have extremely short travel, and the top row, which holds Escape, the function keys, and Home/End/PrtScr/Delete, is half the vertical size of the main keys. So are the up- and down-cursor keys, which with Fn also serve as PgUp and PgDn. We feel increasingly convinced that laptop input-device designers these days must simply not know how to type, let alone how to use the middle mouse button. Presumably, they regard physical keyboards as an awkward legacy encumbrance, and if they continue making keyboards and trackpads that are ever more cumbersome and inconvenient to use, eventually customers will just stop asking for them and they can go away.
Apple's designers used to act the same way, and that company even removed the whole function-key row and replaced it with a very shallow touch-sensitive display. It's interesting to note that Apple listened to its customers, reverted the decision, put back physical F-keys and scissor switches, and reinstated multiple ports to its pro-level kit that it had previously removed. Lenovo really needs to learn from this.
The keyboard is backlit, which you can turn on and off with function+space. One slightly unusual detail is that the control and function keys are in the typical location found on most laptops: Control is in the bottom-left corner, with Fn between it and the Windows key. Other Thinkpads switch these around, putting Fn in the corner. We actually prefer the Z13's arrangement, although as a habitual Thinkpad user, it confuses our muscle memory. As usual for most modern Windows 11 laptops, the function keys default to working as media control keys, volume control, brightness control and so on. However they can be turned into conventional function keys with Fn+Esc. If you do this, a FnLock LED on Esc lights up. Interestingly, this persists across reboots.
It's also worth saying that unlike most Thinkpads, the Z31's lid isn't black, although the rest of it is. The back of the screen on our review unit is a matte brushed-effect silver. It's not unpleasant – indeed it's quite an elegant-looking machine – but it reinforces the impression that it's trying to resemble a MacBook. Like the Thinkpad X13S, the top-centre part of the lid has a small raised portion containing the webcam, which also serves as a handle to make it easier to open the machine. It was also good to see that the webcam worked fine under Linux this time around.
The red dot of the "i" in the lid's Thinkpad logo is also a power LED. To be honest, as a confirmed Thinkpad fan, the Reg FOSS Desk has absolutely no problem with the Lenovo trying to promote its iconic brand in this way – we rather like it.
What we don't like, and again this is like the X13S, is the paucity of ports. We don't think we've seen any device with USB4 before. If you have any compatible hardware, we understand that they're very fast. Sadly, we have none. Either port will power the laptop, but leaves you a single port for connecting to a screen or a hub or dock. We only have one USB-C hub, a Planet Computers one, and its single USB-C port can't drive a display. Thankfully, the Gemini hub is able to power the machine, if we connect a power cable to the hub's USB-C port. In theory, that leaves the other port available for a cable to lead to a display.
Our review Z13 has 16GB of DDR5 RAM and a 256GB nVME SSD with the aforementioned Ryzen 5 Pro processor. At the time of writing, according to Lenovo's website, this spec sells for £1,432.50 ($2,259.00). This is not a budget laptop. Frankly, for this kind of money, we would expect it to have a few more ports: the four USB-C ports of the 13-inch model Framework would be more reasonable. Above and beyond that, a micro-HDMI and fold-out Ethernet port would not go amiss. The Z13 does at least have a conventional 3.5 mm (¼ inch) headphone socket. The system firmware is the same, slightly clunky, mouse-driven pseudo-GUI affair as seen on other recent Thinkpads.
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The 13.3 inch screen is a 1920×1200 (16:10) display, which is very bright and clear. It's just about usable at 100 per cent scale, so for example with a desktop such as Xfce, which has poor support for fractional scaling, the screen is fairly comfortable on the eyes. One of the advantages of a Radeon GPU, as opposed to the nVidia ones common on many other machines – including other Thinkpad models – is that AMD's graphics drivers are fully open source. This means that pretty much any Linux distro is able to drive the screen to its full ability without any fussing around installing proprietary drivers. In fact our only complaint about the screen is that it doesn't fold flat.
Lenovo offers faster AMD chips, higher-res screens, more RAM and storage, and touchscreen options, but our machine was the base model. For a road warrior who wants an ultraportable but eschews macOS, this is a lovely machine. It's a very similar size, weight, and even color to a MacBook Air, and has a comparable battery life, too. It's fast, quiet, and should be good for a whole day off the mains. Unfortunately, though, it also has as few ports as the MacBook Air. We do prefer its pointing devices to a MacBook's, though – at least on this machine it's easy to middle-click. ®