Solid performance in a neat package. Buy it if you don't mind ship-in costs to China (if it breaks) and a non-standard USB-C port.
Looking for a small tablet and a laptop? The Chuwi SurBook Mini 2-in-1 tablet combines both into a 10.1-inch package. While the SurBook’s build quality and specifications are very good for $250, is it worth your money? Read on to find out what we thought of the Chuwi Surbook Mini, and to enter our competition to win one for yourself!
Chuwi has a reputation as a fairly reliable manufacturer of low-cost 2-in-1 tablets, laptops, and other niche electronics. Their product line includes the Hi Box Hero mini-PC, HiBook tablet, Lapbook laptop, Hi13 2-in-1, and others. They’re not as established a brand as, say, Asus or Dell, but their products are generally good quality. Overall, Chuwi’s brand receives a rough average of 3.5 stars on Amazon.
At MakeUseOf, we’ve rated their products somewhere between six and eight (out of 10).
Competitors to the SurBook Mini
The competition in the tablet market is intense. However, for small form factor Windows 2-in-1 devices, there’s only one other direct competitor from a mainstream manufacturer: the Asus Transformer Mini. I’m not sure why, but few companies sell 10-inch hybrid devices. The Asus Transformer Mini offers similar specifications, but with a weaker and older Cherry Trail processor and Windows Hello compatibility. However, there are a few competitors from China-based manufacturers, such as the Teclast Tbook series.
But most of these — to my knowledge — aren’t comparable to the SurBook Mini, particularly in terms of hardware.
If you need a larger 2-in-1 at a similar price point, consider the Acer Switch 3. The Switch 3 offers the same Apollo Lake processor, a larger form factor, all for $450. And, finally, for those looking for simply consuming media — like streaming video — your best bang-for-your-buck is an Android tablet. There are around a million Android tablets out there, so I won’t get into details — but our recommendation is the Amazon Fire HD 10. It’s impressive, provided you don’t need the Google Play Store out-the-box.
Chuwi SurBook Mini Hardware Specifications
SurBook Mini comes with the standard hardware that you’d see on a budget, 10-inch hybrid tablet: a fanless, Atom-based system-on-a-chip (using the Apollo Lake series, with Goldmont CPU cores), a gravity sensor, both front-facing and rear-facing cameras, and a Surface-style kickstand.
This particular device includes a keyboard (retail $50). Overall, it’s very similar to the Asus Transformer Mini, except that it’s lighter and includes a more modern processor.
- System on a chip: quad-core Apollo Lake N3450 clocked at 2.1GHz
- Screen: 1920 x 1280 LCD IPS screen
- RAM and storage: 4GB RAM with 64GB eMMC drive
- Battery size: 27.38Wh Li-ion purportedly an 8,000mAh Li-ion polymer (Li-Po)
- Cameras: 2MP front and rear cameras
- Microphone: Single microphone
- Ports: USB-C (non-standard), microSD card, 2x USB 3.0, 3.5mm headphone jack
- Sensor package: Gravity sensor,
- Wireless: 802.11ac Wi-Fi modules along with Bluetooth 4.1
- Weight: 746 grams for the tablet and 980 grams with keyboard
- Dimensions: 10.55 x 7.2 x 0.35 inches or 26.8 x 18.30 x 0.88cm
Note: the SurBook Mini does not include a fingerprint sensor or an infrared camera for Windows Hello.
Apollo Lake Versus Cherry Trail
Intel produces a low-power, low-cost processor which we refer to as Atom processors. These trade speed for low price and energy efficiency.
Of particular interest is how Apollo Lake compares to Cherry Trail. Cherry Trail ended Intel’s flirtation with low-cost processors in the $20-40 price range. Since then, Intel has focused on the $100+ market segment. Apollo Lake represents Intel’s return to more expensive devices.
The specific system-on-a-chip (what’s an SoC?) used in the SurBook Mini is the Intel Celeron N3450. It’s by no means a cheap SoC, like its forebearer, Cherry Trail. The N3450’s MSRP is $107. According to Intel’s spec sheet, the N3450 lacks Hyperthreading, meaning its performance for certain applications and background tasks isn’t great. It’s also an in-order execution style processor, which uses less power than out-of-order processors — but with a performance penalty. Overall, there’s nothing new here that we haven’t seen in the hardware of a dozen other tablets and laptops.
Could Atom Processors Be Defective?
Cisco Systems announced in November of 2016 that a component on its systems was defective. They did not name the manufacturer of the component, but some analysts speculate, based on compelling evidence, that the component is related to Intel’s Atom SoC and that it will fail after 18-months of operation – approximately 6-months after the warranty has expired.
I believe that this hardware fault will not affect more expensive processors, like the Atom N-series. Rather, this more than likely impacts Intel’s $20-40 mobile and embedded processors, such as Cherry Trail.
The Chuwi’s screen ranks among the best screens that I’ve seen on a budget 2-in-1. The brightness scales in intensity from eye-burningly bright to fairly low intensity — although I’ve seen devices with better brightness scaling. On a 10.8-inch screen, the 1920 x 1280 pixel resolution screen looks great at all angles. I’m not an expert on screen quality, but overall, it’s a good panel with 450 nits of backlighting for very good outdoor visibility.
In the image above, you can see a comparison between the Acer Switch Alpha 12 on the left, with a matte display, and the SurBook Mini on the right. As you can see, the screen is brighter.
Performance and Benchmarks
Apollo Lake Performance
The SurBook performs about as well as Intel’s Core series for basic computing tasks. For mobile games, like Fallout Shelter, and Asphalt 8, the SurBook runs both games fluidly and seamlessly. There’s no framerate drops, no choppy gameplay, and overall, it feels just a Core series processor.
The SurBook’s eMMC drive is the SanDisk DF4064 which is eMMC 5.1, the latest technology. It’s fast, as far as eMMC drives go. Unfortunately, I can’t find its exact hardware specifications for the DF4064, but I believe it’s part of SanDisk’s newest drives. I’m not sure what controller it uses or its NAND type.
Compared to older eMMC drives, the DF4064 should be more performant. CrystalDiskMark partially bears this assumption out. The SurBook’s DF4064 drive performs at around 37% faster than older eMMC drives (like the DF4032) for sequentially writing to disk. For random writes, though, it’s actually slower compared to drives we’ve seen on other budget tablets. For example, random writes are generally the best indicator for how snappy a drive feels. Overall, though, it’s clear that Chuwi isn’t using parts off the bottom shelf and its 4k random read and write performance may be an error.
Another possibility is that Chuwi has either intentionally or unintentionally disabled the faster performance of the DF4064. Don’t get me wrong, though. For an eMMC drive, the read and write speeds are very good.
The SurBook’s battery life is solid for a 10.1-inch 2-in-1. Its 5,000mAh lithium-ion battery gives it enough juice to run for two hours 45 minutes while playing Fallout Shelter. While playing Asphalt 8, the battery lasts for two hours and 30 minutes.
When used purely for reading, it gets around six and a half hours — making it among the longest lasting 10.1-inch tablets on today’s market. Although Apollo Lake gets around 25% better performance, it also seems to provide better battery life for most tasks.
Used purely as a reading device, the SurBook Mini gets around six and a half hours of battery life.
Using the provided Power Delivery charger, the Chuwi goes from discharged to full in about three hours and 45 minutes. Other chargers do a poor job of getting the battery back up to full charge.
As noted prior, because of the non-standard USB-C port, you cannot use most third-party USB-C chargers. A regular length USB-C charging cable will end up not fitting and that kills a big advantage of having a USB-C port. For example, if you wanted to output video over its USB-C port, you’d need a special adapter (which I can’t find online).
Keyboard and Touchpad
The biggest weakness of the SurBook Mini is its keyboard and touchpad. Like many other 10.1-inch tablets, the accompanying keyboard comes with compromises. First, the keys are slightly undersized. Second, Chuwi chose to rearrange or eliminate some of the keys, such as Print Screen. Overall, though, the keyboard isn’t going to be difficult for touch typists. While compact, it’s not difficult or irritating to use — if you have average sized hands. For those with very large hands, though, you may want to stay away from the SurBook.
A slightly irritating feature of the keyboard is that it doesn’t disable itself when folded behind the tablet. While users can simply remove the keyboard when they want to use the SurBook in tablet mode, it’s an unfortunate feature if you often switch between laptop and tablet configurations.
There’s also no keyboard backlight. While most users probably don’t care, keyboard backlighting is always a nice — although unnecessary — feature.
Speakers, Audio, and Webcams
The Chuwi’s speakers only emit audio out of the left side. Fortunately, they’re not the abominable rear-facing speakers we’ve come to expect from budget tablets. Their audio quality is serviceable, although not particularly amazing.
Its telecommunications performance isn’t perfect — but it’s good. Like most budget tablets, it uses a single microphone, meaning it’s not noise canceling. Overall, if you’re looking for a tablet, primarily aimed at chatting, you can find better devices out there.
The Chuwi SurBook uses a 1×1 Intel 3165 802.11ac Wi-Fi card which also includes Bluetooth 4.2. It’s not a high-end card — it’s designed to bring Wireless-AC to the budget market.
Using the Wi-Fi Analysis app, the SurBook gets around -51 dBm (a measure of Wi-Fi signal strength). However, it’s a 1×1 device, meaning it uses two antennas but it can only transmit and receive one spatial stream from each. At equal distance from the router, the 2×2 802.11ac card inside of my Acer Switch Alpha 12 gets -43 dBm. That’s a substantially better signal strength. While in the budget market, the Intel 3165 series is on most dual-band devices, if you often use a distant access point, you may want to consider a higher end 2-in-1.
How Does the Chuwi SurBook Mini Feel?
Usability is the Chuwi SurBook’s strength. At just under 800 grams, the SurBook Mini is light enough to use as a reader. It’s not nearly as light as a Samsung Tab S2 or S3. But its compact size and wieldy form factor make for an ideal platform for consuming media, surfing the web, doing research, and writing papers.
Warranty and Reliability
Judging from the USB-C’s extra long tip, I would guess that the SurBook wouldn’t be easy to disassemble. However, Chuwi published a teardown and, believe it or not, the SurBook Mini is extremely easy to tear down, particularly for a 2-in-1 tablet. This should have the impact of making repair costs cheaper.
Unfortunately, that’s offset by the high cost of shipping. Also, the motherboard configuration uses an eMMC drive and soldered on RAM. That means if any part goes bad, the entire motherboard — and its $107 processor — would need to be replaced.
While Chuwi warrantees their products for a full year, most warranties for similar electronics tend to require return shipping to China. For a $250 device, that cost is almost prohibitive.
Possible Deal Breakers
Overall, the Chuwi SurBook looks like a strong contender in the ultraportable 10-inch 2-in-1 marketspace. It’s by no means perfect, though.
- Non-standard USB-C port requires a longer USB-C charging tip.
- Some design elements suggest a lack of quality control.
- Weak warranty requiring shipping costs to China.
- Amazon is charging $100 above what its Gearbest pricing is.
- Folding the keyboard behind the tablet doesn’t disable the touchpad or keyboard. This leads to accidental mouse and keyboard activations.
Should You Buy the Chuwi SurBook Mini?
It’s a tough call. In most respects, the Chuwi SurBook beats its nearest competitor, the Asus Transformer Mini. That owes mostly to its lower cost and newer hardware components. Particularly of note, the SurBook’s Apollo Lake processor makes it without question faster than the Asus Transformer Mini.
That leaves one big weakness: Chuwi doesn’t operate an official repair center in the United States. That means if you purchase it from Amazon, your warranty may be equal to Amazon’s return period. And if you buy from GearBest, you would need to pay shipping costs to China.