For more than a week now we've been testing the Lenovo IdeaPad U300s and, at the risk of spoiling this review altogether, it's made it even tougher for us to stack up one imperfect Ultrabook against another. What to do with a well-made, speed demon of a machine that boots in less than 20 seconds but starts at $1,095 without an SD slot, high-res display or backlit keyboard? Are the U300s' stately looks, brisk performance and sound ergonomics enough to make up for a handful of absent features? Find the answers to that and more in our full review after the break.
- Tasteful design, well-madeComfortable keyboard, smooth trackpadInsanely fast boot time, runs cool
- No SD slotNo backlit keyboardLow-res display
Look and feel
The thing about the U300s is that it's not trying to be sexy, per se. Your first clue might be that instead of tapering to a razor-thin point, all MacBook Air-like, it narrows only slightly, taking on the shape of a closed book. In fact, the lid and bottom side jut out a little farther than the edges -- a design choice that evokes pages stuffed between two covers. While we can't say that translates to any kind of ergonomic advantage when you're gripping its 2.95-pound frame in one hand, this is indisputably an understated, carefully thought-out design.
But the U300 is also pared-down and tasteful where other Ultrabook makers (we're looking at you, ASUS) perhaps went overboard. Like the Air, it's fashioned out of a single piece of aluminum -- a smooth sheet that blankets the lid, bottom, bezels and interior. Other than a small metal logo on the lid and four tiny feet on the bottom, it's completely unadorned: no screws, no doors, no superfluous branding. Just a discreet, spun metal power button, a small, engraved IdeaPad logo, a sprawling trackpad and a bunch of perforated dots on the front edge that glow white when you turn on the machine and plug in the AC adapter. If you wanted to spice things up you could get the U300s in "Clementine Orange," though we like it even in staid charcoal ("Graphite Gray," officially).
One caveat: we learned the hard way that despite being anodized and sandblasted, the aluminum shell is actually quite susceptible to scratches (a longstanding gripe we have with the Air and other Macs, by the by). If you plan on slipping this inside a bag like we did, consider buying a sleeve to go with it.
Other than that, the U300s is as well-made as the MacBook Air or UX31 (and much more so than the chintzy Acer Aspire S3). It just appeals to a different sensibility. If the Air is a trendy status symbol and the UX31 is for fashionistas daring enough to rock a spun metal lid, the U300s falls into a third, safer category: it's timeless, about as classic as a cashmere sweater or stainless steel watch. It's simple, but not plain; premium, but far from gaudy. And while that might not be enough to satisfy people who get off on superlatives like "thinnest" or "lightest," we're going to come out and say we're pretty smitten.
Except for this: it's the only Ultrabook we know of that doesn't have a memory card slot. Yes, it has all the other ports you'd expect on a machine this size, including USB 2.0 and 3.0, HDMI and a dual headphone / mic port. Still, every other system in this class has one. Even worse, we already dinged Lenovo once for omitting an SD slot (and backlit keyboard) from last year's IdeaPad U260. Why, Lenovo, why?
Keyboard and trackpad
Though the U300's keyboard doesn't look any more promising than the other shallow, chiclet-style 'boards we've seen on recent Ultrabooks, it's obvious that Lenovo put its ThinkPad know-how to good use here. Now before you get too excited, we have to tell you that the keys have flat caps, and won't mold to your fingertips the way a ThinkPad's would. Still, as you'd expect from a Lenovo keyboard, it's sturdy, well-spaced and cushy enough that you needn't worry about whether you're pressing the buttons hard enough. We've recently tested a lot of laptops with shallow keyboards that left our wrists tense -- it takes work, after all, to make sure each and every key press registers. Here, our hands felt relaxed, and our fingers almost always hit the right keys -- a feat, since the Tab, Caps Lock, Shift, Backspace and Enter buttons are all undersized.
Like the Air, the U300s somewhat justifies its high price tag by doting so much attention on something as unavoidable as the keyboard. Still, for the money, it should have been backlit. The MacBook Air
The U300s has an expansive glass, Synaptics-powered trackpad that at first blush matches the MacBook Air's in both size and smoothness. We took to it quickly, but then again, we'll be the first to admit that our standards sank a little after suffering the Zenbook UX31's wonky drivers.
The U300s' has a low-friction surface that makes it easy to drag the cursor across the screen and pull off multi-touch gestures. Lenovo also worked in some more unique gestures besides plain old pinch-to-zoom. You can also use four fingers to open a master control window with floating aero cards, showing all the windows and docs you have open. You can also swipe left or right with two fingers to scroll through wallpaper, and move four fingers left or right to scroll between items.
All in all, it has the best touchpad of any of the new Ultrabooks we've tested.
All in all, it has the best touchpad of any of the new Ultrabooks we've tested. Then again, that's not the most ringing endorsement, now is it? More than a few times, we felt some drag, and the cursor didn't go exactly where we wanted it to. Two-fingered scrolling works reliably, but you have to learn to apply a little pressure -- more, certainly, than you would on a Mac trackpad. (Pinch-to-zoom, at least, is comparably easy.) We hate to say it, but as good as it is, it doesn't quite unseat Apple here. Which is a shame, because with several well-made, high-performing models hitting the market, the biggest thing holding these upstarts back continues to be ergonomics -- shallow keys and flaky trackpads.
Display and sound
Lenovo stuck the U300s with a 13.3-inch, 1366 x 768 panel, which is likely to rub some shoppers the wrong way, given that the MacBook Air has a 1400 x 900 display and the Zenbook UX312 steps up to 1600 x 900 pixels. Truth be told, the pixel count wasn't a problem for us as we scrolled through different websites and watched 720p videos at full screen. Still, all of the other Ultrabooks with such low-res displays (namely, the Aspire S3 and Toshiba Portege Z830) start at two hundred dollars less.
As for viewing angles, we had more luck dipping the display backward than we did forward. If we were on an airplane and the guy in front of decided to lean all the way back, we'd be stuck with an almost unwatchable washed-out picture. We did have an easier time watching from off-kilter side angles, though the contrast ratio grew too severe as we got close to a 180-degree angle.
And, Lenovo included Intel Wireless Display, something we hadn't seen on an Ultrabook until now. In case you haven't been following along, it allows you to mirror your display on a TV or monitor, which includes streaming 1080p video. While we've seen Best Buy bundle some laptops with the necessary adapter, in this case you'll have to pay $100 or so for a box like this that will interface between your TV and WiDi-enabled laptop. Without re-treading old ground too much, we'll remind you guys that every time we've tested WiDi we've been impressed by the fast, painless setup and fluid streaming. If you were to put your laptop right next to your TV you might notice that the images on the two screens don't match up, but assuming you keep your notebook out of sight, you enjoy some pretty smooth video playback.
The SRS speakers on this machine deliver acceptable, innocuous sound. Rap songs sound slightly tinny, sure, but the sound system handles other genres, such as pop music, well. Still, it doesn't come close to the alarmingly loud Bang & Olufsen speakers on the UX31. The speakers here will get you through a Lost marathon and a one-person dance party, but it won't rise above the din of your next house party.
Performance and graphics
If you get the same $1,495 configuration we tested, you'll be treated to a 1.8GHz Core i7-2677M CPU, 4GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. And we think it's pretty fair to say this guy plays in the same league as other Ultrabooks like the MacBook Air and Zenbook UX31. Its PCMark Vantage score of 9,939 is sandwiched between what we saw from these other two laptops, and the margin is less than 600 points in both cases. On the other hand, while its 3DMark score of 3,651 nearly matches what we're seeing on the Portege Z830 (full review coming soon), the Air and UX31 are in a class of their own, with respective scores of 4,223 and 4,209. This despite the fact that all of these Ultrabooks pack Intel's integrated HD 3000 card.
And how does that JMicron 616 SSD fare? In the disk benchmark ATTO, read speeds peaked around around 250 MB/s, while write rates topped out at just under 200 MB/s. In practice, the system felt plenty fast, though benchmark junkies might not be inclined to shrug off the fact that the UX31's SATA III hits read / write speeds of 550 MB/s and 500 MB/s, respectively. Rest assured, though, that's still worlds better than what you'll get with the S3, whose 5,400RPM drive maxed out at 80 MB/s reads and 75 MB/s writes.
|Lenovo IdeaPad U300s (1.8GHz Core i7-2677M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)||9,939||3,651||5:08|
|Toshiba Portege Z830 (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|
Lenovo IdeaPad U260
|Notes: the higher the score the better. For 3DMark06, the first number reflects score with GPU off, the second with it on.|
So is the U300s the fastest? Perhaps not. Nevertheless, numbers don't tell the whole story and in any case, it feels zippy. Lenovo promises it boots in about 20 seconds thanks to RapidDrive SSD technology, and indeed, we timed an incredible 18-second boot. With that kind of horsepower, it's no surprise that the U300s had no problem keeping up while we carried on with our usual routine of juggling browser tabs, downloading and installing programs and streaming web video. With that kind of real-world performance, we're not sure how many people will be able to tell the difference between the U300's high four-digit PCMark score and the UX31's five-digit accomplishment.
Before we sign off on performance, we'd be remiss if we ignored the U300s' heat management: it stayed cool, even once we started playing 720p videos at full screen. That's thanks to the same kind of breathable keyboard found in the last-gen U260, as well as Intel's Advanced Cooling technology, which Lenovo gets to use exclusively. We also didn't find ourselves distracted by fan noise, as is sometimes the case with laptops we praise for expelling heat so effectively.
When it comes to battery life, too, the U300s performs similarly to its competitors, though it's by no means the most longevous. In our standard rundown test (movie looping, WiFi on, brightness fixed at 65 percent), it lasted five hours and eight minutes. That's better than the S3's runtime of four hours and eleven minutes. Hell, it tramples the U260's pathetic three-hour runtime, but still, the Air, UX31 and Z830 all last at least 25 minutes longer, if not 40. Again, not a bad showing, but if you buy this it's not going to be because you heard this thing offers out-of-this-world runtime.
The U300s also borrows the same RapidCharge technology used in the ThinkPad X1, and promises to recharge to 50 percent capacity in just 30 minutes. That sounds about right, and dovetails with the lightning-fast rebound we observed with the X1. And here, you'll get 90 minutes extra battery life to begin with, which makes this tech feels like less of a crutch to compensate for weak runtime.
We're happy to say Lenovo didn't saddle this thing with much bloatware. Aside from Google Chrome and a trial version of Microsoft Office 2010, it's refreshingly devoid of unwanted programs. It doesn't even come with security software, save for Microsoft's spartan Security Essentials software. That's only bad news if you're the kind of Darwin Award winner who spends $1,500 on a Windows laptop and then lets it roam around the cesspool of the interwebs, sans prophylactics. We suppose you'll download your security suite of choice pretty soon after unboxing it anyway.
In addition, Lenovo bundled some apps of its own. There's the sticky note program Easy Notes, in which you can swipe up or down with three fingers to cycle through different notes. Personally, we appreciated having them in a neat, color-coded list as opposed to having them pepper the screen like chicken pox. It's especially nice that you can see the first few characters of each note, even if it's not the one you have open, and it's also helpful that these virtual scraps of paper come in assorted colors by default (in Mac OS X, for instance, the notes are all the same color until you change it, which can make all those miscellaneous pieces of information bleed together).
Then there's Lenovo OneKey Recovery for backing up data and restoring it in the event something goes terribly, terribly wrong. What can we say? It's idiot-proof, holding your hand through either the back-up or recovery process. Then again, this is the entire kit and caboodle you're backing up here; if you want to cherry pick certain folders, you may as well sign up for a service like Mozy. Another perk: the U300s comes with Computrace's LoJack module embedded, though it's up to you to activate the service if you want to use it to track your missing laptop and wipe the contents remotely.
Configuration options and the competition
The U300s is available in two flavors, starting at $1,095 with a 1.6GHz Core i5-2457M CPU, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD. Then, of course, there's the $1,495 number we tested, which keeps the integrated Intel graphics and 4GB of RAM, but steps up to a 1.8GHz Core i7-2677M CPU and 256GB of solid-state storage.
For those who want a bit more oomph, there's the IdeaPad U400, which can be configured with twice the RAM and either a Core i5-2467M or Core i7-2667M CPU. It's rated for up to seven hours of battery life, can accommodate up to 1TB in storage and has a slot-loading DVD-RW drive. Then again, if you need an optical drive on your slim laptop, the U300s and its brethren probably aren't exactly what you're looking for anyway.
And here comes the part where we stack all that up against what the other Ultrabooks have to offer. Needless to say, it's a fairly small fraternity right now, with the Air, UX31, Aspire S3 and Portege Z830 being among the only other models this thin, powerful and affordable.
As far as specs go, we've already made our feelings known: the U300s should offer more features for the money, or perhaps Lenovo should just react to the market and cut the price. The 13-inch MacBook Air starts at $1,300 with a backlit keyboard, and both it and the UX31 have high-res screens (1440 x 900 and 1600 x 900, respectively). And again, most other laptops -- even the cheapies -- have SD slots.
The U300s should offer more features for the money, or perhaps Lenovo should just react to the market and cut the price.
Other than that memory card reader, the U300s has a strong selection of ports. With USB 2.0 and 3.0, HDMI and an audio socket, the only thing it's missing besides the SD slot is an Ethernet jack. And really, the only Ultrabook we know of that combines all that is the Portege Z830. Otherwise, the UX31 has mini-HDMI and mini-VGA and ships with Ethernet and VGA adapters. The Air has two USB sockets discrete headphone and mic ports and Thunderbolt, which is hard to get that excited about when there aren't that many peripherals compatible with that standard.
But if we're talking intangibles, the U300s still manages to mop the floor with much of the competition. The company got both the keyboard and trackpad right, and that counts for a lot. And while its performance and battery life don't best the competition, they're at least similar -- virtually indistinguishable in real-world situations, to be honest. If it were us, we'd rather spend hours working on the U300s than the UX31 or the S3, thanks to the superior keyboard and touchpad. And yes, the U300s' pad could still use a touch of fine-tuning, but it's far closer to matching the experience you'll get on the Air.
At its current price ($1,095 and up), the IdeaPad U300s isn't the best value, but it is one of the better Ultrabooks we've seen. People comparing this side-by-side against other skinny laptops will note that it doesn't have a high-res display, backlit keyboard or memory card slot -- things Lenovo left out of last year's U260, too. By those metrics, both the MacBook Air and UX31 win, handily.
Like Apple, though, Lenovo is inviting you to pay more for what it knows is a polished, painless experience. In that sense, your $1,095 will be well spent -- the U300s is fast with good battery life, Intel Wireless Display and the best keyboard / trackpad combo we've seen on an Ultrabook. That doesn't mean Lenovo's off the hook: the Air has a slightly more fine-tuned trackpad and it brings an SD slot, sharper display and backlit keys. Still, the U300s is a success where it really counts, and in areas where other Ultrabooks have struggled. We'll keep our hopes up that Lenovo adds an SD card and backlit keyboard the next go 'round, and in the meantime, we suspect the company will sell a few more of these if it trims the price to undercut all the other guys who offer better specs for your buck.