Chuwi MiniBook X and Linux

Chuwi MiniBook X and Linux

Never did I feel this reluctant to write up my impressions of a device.

Chuwi is a China-based manufacturer of computers, primarily focused on smaller desktops (ie. the "NUC-like" category), along with laptops and tablets. Generally speaking they tend to focus more on affordable hardware rather than the highest-end or premium options.

One of their products is called the MiniBook, an 8" ultra-compact laptop, not unlike the GPD Pocket 2 from a few years ago. I have a fascination with these types of devices that try to find the very limits of pocketability and usability, and after having sold the GPD Pocket 2 years ago I was curious to see how well Chuwi's option would work with Linux.

When I had decided to bite the bullet and place an older, the company quickly reached out to me that the product had, unfortunately, been discontinued and is no longer available. This was really unfortunate, but what can you do.

Its slightly larger brother, the MiniBook X, was still available. At 10.8" it definitely moved beyond literal pocketability, but it still looked like it would be small  and very usable as a secondary (or tertiary) companion to your main work machine.

Photo of the MiniBook X showing standing on the edge of a wooden porch of a traditional Korean homestead.

Specifications

One of the first things you'll notice when taking the MiniBook X out of its box is just how positively tiny a 10.8" device really is. The second thing you'll probably notice is it's very nice display with punch-out camera. Quite an unusual sight on a laptop, and if you were to stick with Windows you'd also soon realize why that is; Your "My Computer" icon will hide nicely behind the camera.

Speaking of the display, it's a nice, crisp, 2560x1600 (16:10) display with vivid colors. I don't know how accurate its color representation may be, but it certainly looks nice.

Internals wise we're working with a low-powered quad-core Intel Celeron N5100 with a TDP of 6 watts. The laptop is passively cooled, there are no moving parts to be found in this laptop. More on heat later.

The device comes with 12GB of LPDDR4 RAM, a somewhat peculiar amount, along with a 512GB SATA SSD.

Model Chuwi MiniBook X (Pre-2023 version)
CPU Intel Celeron N5100, 4 cores @ 1.1GHz (2.8GHz boost)
RAM 12GB LPDDR4X
Displays 10.5" 2560x1600 IPS
Graphics Intel UHD Graphics
Storage 512GB M.2 NVMe
Connectivity WiFi 6 (802.11ax) + Bluetooth 5.1
Battery 28.8WHrs

The body is fully made of aluminium and feels very nice, there's no flex to be found. This is especially nice as the 360 "yoga" hinge is possibly a bit too sturdy, so you need to put some force into it if you want to flip the thing all the way around. On the bright side, that means the display will stay put wherever you place it, even at extreme angles.

Photo of the MiniBook X standing on a table outside a coffee shop, with earphones laying on its keyboard and a music player shown on-screen.

The keyboard feels absolutely fantastic to type on. Even though it's smaller than full-size —a necessity at this physical size— I found it to be incredibly usable, allowing me to type at my full typing speeds with ease. It's one of the nicer laptop keyboards I've had the pleasure of using. Which, sadly, adds to why it was so difficult to write this up. More on this in a bit.

Lastly, the battery is perhaps the biggest downside of this unit; at just 26.6Wh capacity, even with such a low-powered CPU you can't really squeeze anything beyond 4-5 hours of usable time out of it, less if you need to push the hardware in any way.

They definitely could've fit in more battery in the device, but sadly they chose not to. Internally there are suggestions that show they might've had plans to add optional add-ons to the unit — a 4G modem or secondary SSD, perhaps. These are left unpopulated though, so there's relatively a lot of empty space in there.

If this device had actual all-day battery life, it could've really made this a fantastic choice. Well, perfect besides the one, even bigger flaw I'll mention in just a moment.

Photo of the MiniBook X standing on a table alongside espresso cups, with GNOME seeing running on-screen.

Linux

As you may or may not know, I don't use Windows at all. So whenever I get a new device, I always start by wiping Windows off of it and putting Linux on it. The past few years my primary choice for this has been Fedora, and so with the MiniBook X that's also what I chose.

The out of the box experience with the Live USB is actually great, with pretty much every single part working just as you'd expect. Only the display auto rotation when flipping the screen around wouldn't work, but this is mostly due to GNOME's decision to stick with what's technically right, rather than what's practically good.

While it's not a show-stopper if something isn't quite working right in the Live USB environment, it does give extra confidence if things work as well as they did with the MiniBook X. So I proceeded to wipe Windows 11 off of its internal SSD and install Fedora onto it.

A nice happenstance of the GNOME UI at 2x scale (I had a hard time reading the small text at 1x, this is definitely a retina-like display) is that the punch-out camera isn't really blocking anything important; just the "Activities" button in the top-left hand side.

Fortunately for me I always disable/hide that button using a GNOME extensions anyway. Instead of fully hiding it, I used this extension to replace its contents with a few spaces. That shifted the rest of the menu UI to just next to the punch-out camera, making it all look very slick.

Photo of the MiniBook X held up in front of the camera by my one hand, giving a sense of how portable it is.

The problem

And here we get to the reason why I felt so reluctant to write this up. This device was pretty much exactly what I was looking for. Sure, it was a bit more expensive than I think is reasonable for this form factor, and the battery should've been larger, but these are issues that you can choose to live with.

What you cannot live with, however, is the keyboard not working right. Let me explain.

Under Windows this issue does not seem to show up much, or if it does, I suspect Chuwi's driver or perhaps just Windows handles it in a way that it doesn't really result in anything more than maybe a key momentarily feeling "sticky" or unresponsive.

Under Linux, however, the behavior is different, and results in at times a certain key getting "stuck" in a way that pressing it again may "unstick" it. Other times a key gets "stuck" in such a way that the laptop thinks you're hammering down on that one key and nothing you do can make it stop doing that — short of rebooting or putting your laptop to sleep.

I tried everyhing I could think of to try and see if this could be fixed. From trying different kernel versions to booting up with different kernel parameters to even patching the Kernel myself with different i8042 timeouts, just to see if anything could help. A thread in Chuwi's forum has other people reporting the same issue with varying degrees of impact.

I even opened up the device and applied interference protecting tape between the battery and keyboard ribbon cable, as one theory was that the heat coming off of the battery could cause interferance. While that might have helped a tiny bit, I was still able to reliably re-introduce the issue just by using the laptop for a bit.

Photo of cup noodles and the MiniBook X playing an episode of The Office.

I also attempted to run FreeBSD on the MiniBook X to see if it would yield any different results. This was somewhat challenging as the chipset the MiniBook X has is quite new, and at least at the time of my tests wasn't fully supported yet under FreeBSD. Regardless, with a bleeding edge release and external monitor I was able to try out the keyboard.

Surprisingly, with FreeBSD it did behave differently, but not in a way that's better; input was extremely slow. Almost like you're typing over a very flaky and slow SSH connection. You could type out a few words and it would only have registered the first maybe two or three characters, skipping over many others you entered too.

This, to me, felt like more proof that the issue was with the hardware implementation surrounding the keyboard. I don't know if it's the keyboard controller, or (just) with its pulse frequency, or something else in that general direction.

All I know is that so far no-one has been able to find a way to have the MiniBook X keyboard behave reliably, sadly.


I had reached out to the company and tried to get someone internally to help by looking into this. They did end up saying an engineer looked into it, but as the problem did not occur (or not as visibly, I suppose) under Windows, and that being the only operating system they officially support, it didn't really go anywhere.

The side of the retail box showing both Windows and Linux as operating system choices, with Windows checked.

The original box the MiniBook X comes in lists out some specs on its side. It also has two checkboxes, one for Windows, and one for Linux. I had hoped that they would be willing to spend a bit more effort on this to see if it was fixable with a firmware update or so, but at the time at least the company seemed busy figuring out some bigger challenges internally.

Fixing a compatibility issue with something they don't even officially support fell to the bottom of the list of priorities, and that's where it seems to have remained.

Photo of the MiniBook X folded closed, standing on its side against a wooden window frame.

And this is where it stands today. I still have the MiniBook X in my bookcase. I sort of am half hopeful that a solution will magically present itself one day. I've tried a few more times to see if more recent kernel releases would yield any different results, but sadly the problem persists.

This is actually a really fantastic device. It's nicely built, feels solid, is a dream to type on (from a hardware point of view, that is), and could be a solid choice for writers, casual browsers, or DevOps or system administrators looking for a lightweight device to carry with them that they can use to remote shell into servers or so.

The fact that it all feels so nice makes the keyboard software issue sting so much more. It's so close, but the one issue it has makes the whole thing unusable.

2023 Refresh

Chuwi released not one but two 2023 refresh models of the MiniBook X. Both lose the punch-out camera display and, speaking of the display, based on user reviews the new model's display is noticeably worse. The only other difference is that the 2023 model now has active cooling, and there is a model with Intel N100 CPU. This should bring a nice performance boost as compared with the N5100 models.

I do not have first-hand experience with either 2023 model. The contact I had within the company has since moved on to work elsewhere, and I've not seen any information on whether or not the 2023 model modified anything with how the keyboard works. I'm not willing to risk purchasing another device that might just not work. Not to mention getting a noticeably worse display does not seem very appealing to me, and its battery is still (too) small.

💡
Update: A reader emailed me and shared a link to a Reddit post about the 2023 model. A comment under that post does seem to suggest that a similar if not identical problem might exist on the 2023 model too. Please proceed with caution if you are considering one of these devices with the intention of using Linux on it.

Sadly my attempts to work with the company to try to figure out and solve whatever was causing this keyboard issue failed. But maybe a smart person out there  with an oscilloscope can figure out exactly what is causing this.

Wouldn't that be nice?