If you need evidence that the Ultrabook fad isn't impressing everybody, look no further than our inboxes. More than a few of you have been inquiring about the Lenovo IdeaPad U400, the 14-inch big brother to the IdeaPad U300s. And we think we understand why. Starting at a more palatable price of $800, it offers the same understated design as the U300s, except it brings an extra inch of screen real estate, along with an optical drive and discrete graphics. The best of both worlds, right? Beauty and a little more brawn? Not exactly. Though it looks the same, the U400 trades various components, starting with the storage disk and continuing on to the touchpad drivers. (Specs, schmecs, are we right?) So how much of a difference does this new set of innards make? Meet us past the break to find out.

Lenovo IdeaPad U400 review

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Lenovo IdeaPad U400

Pros

  • Elegant, understated design
  • Lightweight, even for a 14-inch laptop

Cons

  • Jumpy touchpad
  • Cramped keyboard for a laptop this size
  • No SD slot
  • Graphics switching isn't fully automatic
Summary

The U400 combines a lightweight design with discrete graphics -- something we rarely see -- but its flaky trackpad, crowded keyboard and lack of truly automated graphics switching make it tedious to use.


Look and feel


Before we begin, let's be clear on what the U400 is, and what it isn't. Yes, it is has the same industrial design as the U300s, and at first blush it does indeed look like the same machine, scaled up in size. But make no mistake: the U400 is not a 14-inch Ultrabook, and if you tell yourself it is you'll be sorely disappointed when you lift it out of the box. Now it's true, the idea that Ultrabooks have to weigh less than three pounds is arbitrary -- after all, we made an exception for the 3.3-pound HP Folio, didn't we? Even so, the U400 makes room for a slot-loading optical drive, and is markedly heftier as a result.

Make no mistake: the U400 is not a 14-inch Ultrabook, and if you tell yourself it is you'll be disappointed.

That's not to say it's not a pleasure to hold, though. At 4.37 pounds (1.98kg) and 0.89 inches (22.6 mm) thick, we had no problem slipping it into a tote bag and carrying it around on our shoulder -- much less shuttling it from room to room in the office. It doesn't have the same wedge profile you'll see on lots of other laptops. Instead, Lenovo used good old-fashioned paper books as its inspiration, and designed the laptop so that the top and bottom side extend a tiny bit past the sides, like covers on a novel. The result is some razor-sharp edges, along the sides and front edge.

All told, the U400 is one of the lightest 14-inchers you'll find. One exception is the Dell XPS 14z, but with a starting weight of 4.36 pounds, the difference is basically negligible. And certainly, the U400 feels noticeably less dense than either the 13-inch MacBook Pro (4.5 pounds) or the soon-to-be-discontinued HP Envy 14, which tips the scales at 5.7 pounds.

Beyond that, though, this is, for better or worse, the same design we first showed you when we reviewed the U300s. Like its little brother, it's fashioned entirely out of sandblasted, anodized aluminum, and is available in the same graphite gray (but not that rust-colored orange offered on the smaller model). That smooth material covers the lid, extending onto the palm rest, keyboard deck, bottom side and even the bezels. As ever, the metal lid picks up scratches easily, though it at least does a good job masking fingerprints. Overall, we're as smitten with the understated design as we were the first time around.


Other charming details have carried over as well: a discreet, spun metal power button, along with equally low-key branding on the lid and corner of the palm rest. Lenovo also once again painted the Intel, Windows and FCC labels on the bottom side, instead of plastering the palm rest with stickers. There's also that chiclet keyboard and spacious glass trackpad, which we'll of course tell you about in a moment.

In addition to that slot-loading DVD burner, Lenovo added an extra USB 2.0 port, bringing the total to two. Lenovo also added an Ethernet jack, while keeping the HDMI port, USB 3.0 socket, audio port and 1.3 megapixel webcam. Shockingly, though, the SD slot is still MIA. If you never use yours, feel free to skip the rest of this paragraph entirely and meet us back in the section where we talk about the keyboard. But for anyone who takes a lot of photos, it's an annoying omission -- why travel with an external memory card reader when you could just as easily find a laptop with that feature built in? Given that even inexpensive netbooks have it, we just don't see a good reason to leave it out.

Keyboard and trackpad


When Lenovo blew up the Ultrabook, it forgot to expand the keyboard along with it. This feels like the same, slightly cramped panel we tested on the U300s, which is a shame given that Lenovo had a larger 13.4-inch wide chassis to work with. As with the U300s, the keyboard doesn't come close to the edge of the deck -- a waste, since every major key remains shrunken. The keys also have a fair amount of travel, though they still manage to feel bouncier than other chiclet 'boards we've tested recently (we're looking at you, Zenbooks). Even after several days of testing, we regularly stumbled trying to find the Tab, Left Shift and Backspace buttons while touch typing. Similarly, the arrow keys are painfully undersized as well. And while that might not bother everyone, it's a nuisance if you're the kind of typist who prefers to highlight text using the keyboard.

Also like the U300s, this is not offered with a backlit keyboard. As always, this won't be a big deal for everyone, though it is an amenity you'll find on the Dell XPS 14z and 13-inch MacBook Pro. (As it happens, we prefer these keyboards anyway because they're better spaced with cushier keys.)

We do have some happy news to share, and that's that the keys are every bit as sturdy as the ones you'll find on the U300s (and every other Lenovo laptop, really). Once again, Lenovo went with flat caps instead of the scooped shape that makes ThinkPad keyboards so comfortable to use. And while that might disappoint the purists out there, they have a nice, soft finish and emit a pleasant, low-pitched sound, even when you're typing furiously.


Unfortunately, we don't have many nice things to say about the trackpad. And what a rude surprise this is, too: after all, it looks just like the one we liked on the U300s. But as any geek knows, drivers are everything and the U400 we tested uses a different touchpad supplier than the U300s we reviewed. This go 'round, it's powered by Cypress, not Synaptics, and the result, dear readers, is absolutely maddening. Though we stuck it out and typed a sizeable chunk of this review on the U400, we frequently lost patience as the cursor jumped to random lines in the document. Sometimes, the cursor went rogue even when we were just using the keyboard. As it turns out, you can press F6 to disable the touchpad, though we would have preferred that this happen automatically.

The U400 also runs into many of the same pitfalls as other laptops with giant, clickable trackpads. At times, it mistook left clicks for right clicks. Two-fingered scrolling requires a little pressure, but with a little practice, we were able to carefully page through long Wikipedia entries and dozens of Gmail labels. Unfortunately, though, we never quite got the hang of pinch to zoom. This, too, forces you to bear down a bit with your fingers, but even once you master that motion the transitions are choppy, and it can be difficult to scale the text exactly to your liking.

It's worth noting that as unreliable as the touchpad is, it supports some other, more surprising gestures. As with the U300s, you can use four fingers to open a master control window with floating aero cards, showing all the windows and docs you have open. Additionally, you can swipe left or right with two fingers to scroll through wallpaper, and move four fingers left or right to scroll between items.

Display


The U400's display is exactly what you'd expect to find on a $900, 14-inch system, which is to say it has a reflective finish, 1366 x 768 resolution and limited viewing angles. With the laptop resting on your legs you'll have pretty narrow visibility -- dip the screen forward even a little bit and it'll suddenly become washed-out. Place it farther away, though -- say, on a coffee table -- and you might have better luck. For our part, we were able to follow along with Breaking Bad with the screen dipped forward slightly (but only slightly). Viewing from the sides is doable, too, though the screen darkens soon as you start watching from an off-kilter angle, which means some shadow detail is going to get lost in the mix.

Like the U300s, the U400 packs Intel Wireless Display, a technology that for whatever reason isn't that easy to find on other laptops, even though it's been available for almost two years now. If you've managed to escape it all this time, here's a quick primer: Wireless Display (WiDi, for short), lets you mirror your display on an HDTV or monitor, and that includes streaming 1080p video. To make this happen, you'll need a small adapter (like this) that plugs into your TV via HDMI. By now, we've tested the technology several times, both in its first and second generation, and we've always been impressed by how easy it is to initiate streaming, which typically entails pressing a launch key on the laptop. In general, 1080p video plays fluidly, though you'll want to keep your host laptop out of sight, since the notebook and TV are usually at least slightly out of sync.

Sound

The U400's twin single-watt speakers produce predictably hollow sound, courtesy of SRS, but unless you're a discerning audio snob, we're guessing it won't bother you much. Percussions and other low notes tend to sound subdued, but on the flip side, at least, nothing ever sounds too tinny. Our biggest complaint was that some of the music we sampled had a contained, distant sound. A shame, we know: you really wanted Celine Dion's rendition of "O Holy Night" to fill the room, didn't you?

We suppose if you had the right PC handy for side-by-side comparisons the U400's audio, as innocuous as it is, wouldn't be acceptable. Lenovo simply hasn't honed in on speaker quality the way ASUS did with the Bang & Olufsen-equipped Zenbook UX31, or the way HP does with its Beats-spangled laptops. Still, you'll find worse audio in machines like the Dell XPS 14z, whose sound gets buzzy and distorted as you crank the volume. Truth be told, as far as audio goes there isn't even that appreciable a difference between the U400 and a MacBook Pro, a machine that'll cost you at least $300 more.

Performance


PCMark Vantage
3DMark06
Battery Life
Lenovo IdeaPad U400 (2.4GHz Core i5-2430M, Intel HD 3000 / AMD Radeon HD 6470M 1GB) 7,281 4,463 4:18
Dell XPS 14z (2.8GHz Core i7-2640M, Intel HD Graphics 3000 / NVIDIA GeForce GT520M 1GB) 7,982 5,414 4:54
HP Envy 14 (2.3GHz Core i5-2410M, Intel HD Graphics 3000 / AMD Radeon HD 6630M 1GB) 6,735 7,214 3:55
Sony VAIO SB (2.3GHz Core i5-2410M, Intel HD Graphics 3000 / AMD Radeon HD 6470M 512MB) 5,129 (stamina mode) / 5,636 (speed mode) 3,609 (stamina) / 5,128 (speed) 3:39 (speed) / 5:11 (stamina)
Extended battery: 9:49 (speed) / 12:21 (stamina)
Dell Inspiron 14z (2.3GHz Core i5-2410M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 6,177 4,079 6:37
HP Pavilion dm4 (2.4 GHz Core i5-520M, Intel HD Graphics) 5,459 1,930 4:25
Lenovo IdeaPad U300s (1.8GHz Core i7-2677M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 9,939 3,651 5:08
Toshiba Portege Z835 (1.4GHz Core i3-2367M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 5,894 3,601 5:49
ASUS Zenbook UX31 (1.7GHz Core i5-2557M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 10,508 4,209 5:41
Acer Aspire Ultrabook S3 (1.6GHz Core i5-2467M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 5,367 3,221
4:11
13-inch, 2011 MacBook Air (1.7GHz Core i5-2557M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 9,484 4,223 5:32 (Mac OS X) / 4:12 (Windows)
Samsung Series 9 (1.7GHz Core i5-2537M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 7,582 2,240 4:20
Notes: the higher the score the better. For 3DMark06, the first number reflects score with GPU off, the second with it on.

We tested an $899 version of the U400, configured with a 2.4GHz Core i5-2430M CPU, 6GB of RAM, a 750GB 5,400RPM hard drive and two graphics cards: Intel HD 3000 on the integrated side and AMD's Radeon HD 6470M on the discrete, coupled with 1GB of video memory. Getting those raw numbers out of the way, it steamrolls the Core i5-packing Sony VAIO SB we reviewed a few months back, and even lands in kind of the same neighborhood as the Dell XPS 14z with Core i7. It's even more or less on par with the entry-level 13-inch Samsung Series 9, which packs an SSD and costs $450 more. The U400's 43-second boot time and 100 MB /s transfer rates are respectable, too, though hardly anything to write home about either.

Still, it's a far cry from what you'll get from an Ultrabook -- including the IdeaPad U300s. Though the U400 and its little brother both make use of Lenovo's RapidDrive technology, the SSD-packing U300s pulls off an insane 18-second boot, making the U400's 43-second startup time seem common. And it should go without saying that the U300s' Micron solid-state drive runs circles around the Western Digital 5,400RPM HDD inside the U400 we tested. Go with the U300s and you'll enjoy real-world read / write speeds of 250 MB /s and 200 MB/s, respectively. If you opt for the U400 you'll save yourself a few hundred bucks, but the transfer rates will drop by half, if not more. And that's not even getting into the fact that the U300s is thinner, lighter, longer-lasting and has a more reliable touchpad. Shall we go on?


Benchmark scores aside, its 5,400RPM hard drive didn't stop us from multitasking, juggling email, chat, web surfing and a good deal of streaming. Like its brethren, the laptop also runs cool, thanks largely to Lenovo's "breathable" keyboard, which is designed to draw air in through the sides and push it out the bottom. Also like other Lenovo laptops, including the U300s and last-gen IdeaPad U260, it makes good use of Intel's Advanced Cooling Technology, which you'll only find in Lenovo systems. The result is a machine that stays cool to the touch, even when you settle into long, full-screen streaming sessions. For us, that's a relief, given that we've seen laptops get toasty as soon as you fire up TweetDeck. Still, solid real-world performance means little when a flaky touchpad and cramped keyboard make everyday computing a chore. Look around, even in Lenovo's product line, and you'll find laptops with smoother touchpads and faster performance that are simply more pleasant to use.

As for those two graphics cards, while you might assume they kick in automatically, depending on the task at hand, the hand-off here isn't nearly as smooth as what we've seen with NVIDIA's GPUs. To make the most out of that 6470M, you'll need to open AMD's Catalyst Control Center and manually specify which apps trigger which graphics card. A fun challenge for the tinkerers among you, but a pain in the rear for the rest of us who don't have much time to spare for tweaking.

Battery life


The U400's four-cell, 54Wh battery is rated for up to seven hours, but in our (admittedly taxing) rundown, it lasted four hours and 18 minutes with WiFi on and a video looping off the hard drive. To be fair, we were able to squeeze out closer to five hours of use when all we were doing was writing in Google Docs, checking email, talking in GChat and running the occasional web search.

That's respectable for a 14-inch laptop, though we've certainly seen better. Take the Dell XPS 14z, for instance, which squeezes out an extra 25 minutes or so. If you can settle for integrated graphics, the Dell Inspiron 14z lasted more than six and a half hours in the same test, though even the Sony VAIO SB with switchable graphics managed five hours and change when we flipped it to the power-saving "stamina" mode. The only recent 14-incher we can recall with worse battery life is the HP Envy 14 with Sandy Bridge, and that's about to disappear as HP ushers in new (larger-screened) models.

Software

It's such a relief to kick off the software section of a laptop review and not have to rattle off a long list of pre-installed programs. Indeed, the bloatware load is light and unobtrusive, with just a few innocuous apps on-board. These include: Google Chrome, Microsoft Security Essentials, Microsoft Office 2010, Windows Live Essentials 2011 and CyberLink Power2Go, Lenovo PowerDVD and YouCam webcam software, both rebadges of widely used CyberLink programs.


As with the U300s, Lenovo also threw in its Easy Notepad software -- a sticky notes app that lets you use three fingers to cycle through different scraps of virtual paper. As ever, we appreciate that the notes are all collected in one place, instead of peppered randomly about the screen, and we also like that by default the stickies have different colors, making it easier to distinguish between different notes to self.


Also on tap: Lenovo's idiot-proof One Key software for backing up and recovering your data. And, like its little brother, the U400 has Computrace's LoJack module built in so that you can potentially track and remotely wipe your laptop if it goes missing. Of course, it's up to you to activate the service yourself, even though the hardware component is already baked in.

Configuration options

The U400 starts at $800 with a 2.2GHz Core i3-2330M, 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive. Like other IdeaPads in Lenovo's stable, it's not configurable, meaning the specs aren't negotiable (unless you want to seek out a different pre-built model, that is). In addition to Core i3 and i5, it's available with a 2.7GHz Core i7-2620M. Depending on the market, you'll find configurations with 8GB of RAM and either 1TB in HDD storage or a 64GB solid-state drive. You only get one choice as far as graphics go (ditto for the battery and optical drive).

Right now, there are three models for sale in the US, specifically: that $800 Core i3 model, the $900 Core i5 configuration we reviewed and a higher-end one with a Core i7 processor and 8GB of RAM. This particular model costs $1,449 (or $1,299 on the web), with a promotional online discount that brings the price to $1,039 at Lenovo.com. If you've been paying attention, you may have noticed that though this is the highest-end model available in the states, it's not the most tricked-out Lenovo has to offer. Indeed, the company confirmed that the 1TB hard drive and 64GB SSD simply aren't offered in the US, though they're available in other regions.

The competition


We get it: as much as Ultrabooks make for eye-catching status symbols, they're not for everybody. We know Darren isn't the only techie out there reluctant to part with his optical drive, even for occasional backups. For those of you looking for a lightweight laptop with a DVD burner (and maybe even discrete graphics if you're lucky), you've got a few options.

Starting with one of our favorites, the Sony VAIO SB series is our favorite 13-inch laptop with a built-in optical drive, though we like it so much it might trump its 14-inch competitors too. Starting at $800, it offers a bright, matte display, impossibly lightweight design, solid performance, discrete graphics and long runtime, even without the optional slice battery. Step up to the VAIO SA series ($1,000 and up) and you'll get a higher-resolution 1600 x 900 display and a slightly thinner design. Either way, these machines are highly customizable, with a Blu-ray player and sheet battery for those of you with extra cash to burn.

We also have a soft spot for the HP Envy 14 ($1,000 and up), though it's soon to go bye bye as the company ushers in new, redesigned models, with the smaller of the two sporting a larger 15-inch display. If you pull the trigger while you still can, the Envy 14 offers one of the most stunning designs we've seen on a laptop, along with discrete graphics and damn good performance. However, the display on this model isn't what it used to be, and as you can see, the battery life is even shorter than what you'll get on the U400. The other big trade-off: it's markedly heavier, at 5.7 pounds, and you're only getting an extra half inch of screen real estate in return.

The U400 isn't just bulkier; it has shorter battery life, less impressive performance and a flaky touchpad, thanks to a wholly different set of drivers.

If you'll recall, we also had a great time testing out the XPS 14z ($900 and up): its battery life is among the longest you'll enjoy on a laptop this size, and the keyboard and trackpad are remarkably comfortable to use. And remember that this weighs almost the same as the U400, so you won't be sacrificing anything in terms of portability (design, sensibility, is a different story).

Not to be outdone, Samsung has the new 14-inch Series 7 Chronos, which costs $1,099. We hope to test this soon, but in the meantime, the 4.3-pound Chronos at least matches -- if not beats -- the U400 on paper. For $1,100, it has the same Core i5 processor and 6GB of RAM, along with a 750GB hard drive, more powerful 1.5W speakers and slightly beefier Radeon HD 6940M 6490M graphics with 1GB of video memory. It has a higher-resolution 1600 x 900 display and yes, it includes an SD card. Again, we haven't reviewed it yet, so we can't speak to battery life or performance, though it certainly looks promising.

And finally, there's the 13-inch MacBook Pro, which starts at $1,199. As always, a few caveats apply: it's a durable, well-built machine with long battery life and solid performance (though it doesn't have discrete graphics). Still, for the money, you might want a display with more pixels than the 1280 x 800 this has to offer. You might also crave more ports than the Ethernet jack, Thunderbolt port, FireWire 800 and dual USB 2.0 sockets. And lastly, it's heavier than the U400, VAIO SB or XPS 14z, at 4.5 pounds. It's an attractive, well-performing machine with a comfy keyboard and trackpad. Still, to the extent that specs and ports are part of the equation, this is hardly a bang-for-your-buck kind of deal.

Wrap-up


We know what a lot of you are thinking: the U300s looks nice, but you really had your heart set on discrete graphics (you can take or leave the optical drive, we reckon). So you figured the U400 would include everything you loved about the U300s, along with a few beefier specs thrown in to make geek hearts sing. Wrong. The U400 isn't just bulkier; it has shorter battery life, less impressive performance and a flaky touchpad, thanks to a wholly different set of drivers. If you're also considering the U300s, just take a deep breath, resign yourself to spending a few hundred more and choose that: it's simply a better deal, and if you were considering the U400 at all, then the U300s' lack of an SD slot and backlit keyboard shouldn't be a problem.

But if an optical drive and more robust graphics are key, you can do better than the U400. We'd sooner steer you toward the Sony VAIO SB series or Dell XPS 14z, each of which combine good performance, long runtime and sound ergonomics. (We're optimistic about Samsung's Chronos, too.) Heck, even Lenovo is capable of something better.

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