By some lucky circumstances I received a Chuwi Minibook 8 from Chuwi’s mothership company Zwide. Wondering what this is? Well, it looks like this:
Which one? Well, kind of all four because it has this “yoga” hinge so that you can bend the display over by 360 degrees. But the most striking thing about the Minibook 8 is its size – the screen has a diameter of just 8 inches! The whole thing is thus really really tiny.
The version I got here is the seemingly older Intel N4100 based model with 8GB RAM and a 128GB eMMC. The case is made from some magnesium alloy and feels really well made and solid. The display is a pretty bright IPS panel with 1920×1200 resolution – more than enough on 8 inches. Because of the sheer size of the whole thing the keyboard requires some love to get used to, the layout is unusual. And since there is no space to include a touchpad the space bar is broken in two halves and in between sits a tiny infrared finger sensor – basically an optical mouse turned upside down. To the left side of the are a 720p web cam and a hole for a microphone. The display also features a capacitive touchscreen. For connectivity there is one USB 3 type-A port, one USB 2 type-A port and a full function type-C port, i.e. supporting data, power delivery for charging and video alt mode output. Network connectivity is established using an Intel IWL3165 featuring 2.4GHz and 5GHz as well as 802.11a,b,g,n and ac. For storage expansion there is a M.2 2242 slot under a cover on the bottom side as well as a microSD slot o the side of the base unit. The unit has stereo speakers built-in as well as a 3.5mm headphone jack. The little bit awkwardly laied out keyboard also features a backlight.
The Chuwi Minibook 8 obviously was only in the beginning sold with the Intel N4100, later on with the Intel Core M3-4100Y and M3-8100Y processor. There are also options for 16GB LPDDR4 RAM (wow!) and 256GB eMMC. So my sample here is rather on the lower end.
Apart from the fact that the device, like most laptops, comes with WIndows 10 its firmware is really pretty bad. The Embedded Controller (EC) turns on the internal fan (yes, there is a fan!) pretty much right from the start which causes a constant ugly background noise. I do not understand why they didn’t implement some higher threshold for turning that thing on? Or why they have a fan in the first place!? I have other N4100 based devices and they happily work even without any fan at all! The other badness of the EC firmware is that it always starts to charge the battery to full whenever you connect a charger. This quickly kills the battery and you can find a number of report and complaints about this in the Chuwi forums. Why does someone do that? This is totally avoidable.
The AMI BIOS it comes with is not much better. It works, kind of, especially after installing an updated found in the Indiegogo campaign page for the Minibook. With the update finally all chipset option were presented which allows to tune at least some thing to more power conserving settings. But this AMI BIOS is only badly customized for the device. The ACPI tables still contain a lot of Intel reference cruft which should not be in there. Also obviously something is missing in the build because if you select Linux as OS in the BIOS the machine will not start up anymore – like not at all. You have open the bottom case and disconnect the battery in order to reset the NVRAM – of course loosing all your other settings during the process.
And finally a M.2 2242 SATA SSD I put into the tiny drive did kind of work but only until it threw out weird SATA error on write I have never seen before. Looking at the Chuwi forums this also seems to be a known issue with certain SATA SSDs, others seems to work. Well, good luck then.
Let’s look at running Linux on it. I took a Debian Buster (11) USB install with live system and non-free firmwares – without that no Intel WiFi networking. The installation went smoothly, the installer from the live system was able to resize the Windows 10 partition and happily installed Linux alongside. Reboot and – oops!
Everything is sideways because the display is a native portrait display, i.e. turned 90 degrees to the left. Luckily GNOME/Wayland supports display rotation. The little mouse trackpoint thing works out of the box, t is a pretty normal USB HID device. But the touchscreen did not work. The touchscreen in this older model is a Silead MSSL1680 touch controller which seems to be a little bit of a beast. There is a driver in the mainline Linux kernel for it (siliead.ko) but it requires a firmware! And to make it even worse it seems this does not seem to be a firmware (i.e. code) but more a large parameter file specific for a certain screen setup. So you need to extract this somehow from the Windows system which is very obviously using it and working. To save you the headache, here it is, after a night of searching I came across this Github project explaining the steps to extract it from the Windows driver. But even then it does not work correctly, the Y axis is swapped and for some reason the absolute coordinates emitted do not match the display, i.e. maximum X is 1600-something but the display has 1920 pixels in the X direction.
It also seems that the newer Core M3 based Minibooks use a different touchscreen controller by Goodix which then also features support for an active stylus. I need to get in touch with the factory about that and why they sent me such an obviously outdated sample? Maybe due to the chip shortage they have to go back to the older model? Weird.
The other bummer is the pretty nifty fingerprint sensor in the power button. This actually works pretty nicely in Windows to quickly unlock your device but for Linux there is exactly nothing. The chip is an SPI attached Focaltech FTE3600 and you find pretty much nothing about it on the internet. Pretty sad.
First of all the mechanical build quality. This thing is really solid! It looks and feels like really good mechanical engineering. The keyboard is in terms of typing quality really good too, excellent pressure point. The layout though is a little distracting. Maybe one can get used to it? Let’s see. The display is very bright, has excellent colors and contrast. Really nice! To get rid of the fan noise I have pretty brutally pulled the plug on the fan – beautiful silence! From my experience with the other N4100 devices I am pretty sure that nothing bad will happen and even if the CPU gets too hot thermal throttling will take of it. Performance of the N4100 CPU is of course a matter of use cases. For web surfing, emailing and office stuff it is perfectly capable enough. It is of course not a gaming machine. On my other N4100 mini laptop I usually also did software development while traveling – compiling can take a bit longer but hey, it does work!
I have not yet put it under real test but if the battery gauge is correct then the battery life in pretty much idle mode, WiFI on and connected, display on at low brightness, will be way beyond 10 hours! Average power consumption goes down to about 2W – this is truly amazing! Of course this goes up quickly when doing something and the CPU can not idle anymore, but nevertheless this is really amazing! I have never seen such low power consumption on an Intel device, lowest I got so far was about 4W.
Working with it is pretty OK, the screen is great but let’s be honest, I am almost 51 now, my eyes aren’t that good anymore and a fullHD 8 inch screen!? Come on! With 20 I would have happily turned down all fonts to 8pt and would have four terminals on it. But today I can only fit one to still be able to read it. So honestly that screen is a tad too small for me. The tiny mouse track point work nicely and has two separate physical mouse buttons. Also nice! But ever since I switched away from Thinkpads with the trackpoint to laptops with touchpads I got so used to two finger scrolling in windows that I don’t know how to work without it anymore! And here this mouse track point falls short too of course and the touchscreen, I haven’t got it to work with Linux correctly yet.
The super nice thing about the Minibook is still its size and weight. It’s less than 800 grams and fit super nicely into my purse – which then is a bit heavy but hey, I have a complete laptop with me, in my purse! How cool is that!?
I think it is a matter of taste, really. This thing is just for the ones that really love tiny computing. For the average user looking for a laptop this is for sure not the right choice. Also not for the power user looking for a pocket laptop for games on the road – nah, will not work. Linux runs mostly with smaller caveats. At least the touchscreen should be possible to get working with some love, let’s see. But to be honest I am not sure if I want to invest that much time and work into it since the EC could have killed battery until I’m done with the touch driver. Bummer.