The wait for the flurry of Intel ultrabooks is over, and the Lenovo IdeaPad U300S is among the latest super thin and light Windows laptops to come to the fore.
It joins the likes of the Toshiba Portege Z830, Toshiba Satellite Z830, Asus Zenbook UX31 and Acer Aspire S3 in the ultrabook range, a new kind of laptop category that is critically important for the future of the entire market.
Ultrabooks are super-thin, light, sleek and powerful laptops that aim to emulate Apple’s recent gains with the Apple MacBook Air, and finally give consumers a reason to invest in PCs again.
The Lenovo IdeaPad U300S is the last in the current line of ultrabooks to hit the shelves, and with a host of new models rumoured to be released at CES 2012 in January, it needs to offer a potent mix of power, great looks and competitive price to stand out among the early salvos from Acer, Asus and Toshiba.
However, our first impressions are underwhelming.
Lenovo hasn’t obsessed over aesthetics, and this laptop is no Apple MacBook Air clone. It seems chunky next to the wafer-thin Asus Zenbook, which features a wedge-shaped design that tapers off to a thin, blade-like point.
The Lenovo IdeaPad U300S retains its 16mm thickness across the chassis, giving it the impression of being squat.
The body is aluminium, and weighs 1.4kg, the same as the Acer Aspire S3, but much heavier than the Toshiba Portege Z830 and the Toshiba Satellite Z830-10U. If you’re looking for an ultrabook that will turn heads, you will most likely look elsewhere, but can the Lenovo IdeaPad U300S impress with power?
Under the hood of the Lenovo IdeaPad U300S is an Intel Core i5 processor, which we were slightly disappointed to see, when other manufacturers have managed to add Intel Core i7 processors to a smaller, lighter chassis.
The processor is one of Intel’s low-voltage chips, which balances power with decent battery life and enables system builders to keep their laptops svelte, and achieve the standard required for ultrabook branding.
The low voltage family of processors are part of Intel’s Sandy Bridge range, but don’t expect the same performance as on full laptop systems such as the Dell XPS 15z. These processors are clocked at a meagre 1.6GHz, but have some cunning tech built in to keep the system optimised.
There’s Intel’s fast booting technology, which enables the Lenovo to resume from sleep and boot from cold in seconds, and makes a huge difference. It’s one of the best ultrabook features, but it’s not exclusive to the Lenovo.
We have seen better processors elsewhere, such as the Asus Zenbook with its Intel Core i7 processor, and this affects performance.
There’s also 4GB of RAM, which is standard across all ultrabooks and provides enough memory for keeping the system feeling responsive.
Finally, there’s a 128GB SSD drive, which we’re glad to say is becoming standard on ultrabooks, but whether you can live on that is debatable. Yes, you can employ an external HDD, but the question for many is whether an ultrabook can function as a primary machine, or whether it must be complemented by a full-form computer.
The lack of connections on the Lenovo IdeaPad U300S means using this as a primary laptop is difficult, which is a bugbear.
While the whole world goes wireless, and we start to store data in the cloud, 128GB of storage seems plenty. Cloud apps and storage are taking the strain off disc drives, but connectivity is the problem. The Lenovo IdeaPad U300S features just two USB ports, one of these being USB 3.0, and an HDMI port but no Ethernet or VGA.
The Lenovo IdeaPad U300S is also the only ultrabook not to feature a media card slot, and with only two USB slots on offer, connectivity is severely limited.
The result is that it’s harder to get online, and we found it frustrating when hopping between offices and meeting rooms when wireless signal was poor, or non-existent. That’s not a problem for home users, but with the matt screen and less attractive lines, we feel this ultrabook is aimed at mobile workers.
The Lenovo IdeaPad U300S features a 13.3-inch display, and in a nod to true portability, the screen is matt, with a coating to stop reflections in direct sunlight.
Matt screens tend to polarise opinion, with many complaining that it makes the panel dull and lifeless, versus others who love the ability to work outside and near windows with them.
The truth is that both of these statements are true, and the Lenovo is totally unsuitable for those who want to enjoy movies and pictures, but it’s a great choice for people who want to work on the move.
3D Mark: 3,394
Battery Eater: 232 mins
The Lenovo IdeaPad U300S’s less powerful Intel Core i5 processor showed through in our lab tests, and the 7,244 score in Cinebench is on the low side when compared to the Asus Zenbook UX31 and Acer Aspire S3.
In real-world terms, this is more than enough processing power to run advanced programs such as Photoshop, although rendering will take longer than on full-powered Intel Core processors and ultrabooks with the Core i7 model. You’ll have no problem running multiple applications at the same time, though.
There’s no dedicated graphics card, so 3D effects are left to the GPU found on the Intel Sandy Bridge processor. As you might expect, it produces a poor score, and you won’t be playing any of the latest titles on the Lenovo IdeaPad U300S.
There’s enough graphical grunt to deal with HD video, so you can watch a movie on the move, but anything more demanding is out of the question, and the screen won’t make movies look their best anyway.
The battery life was decent, if unspectacular, with 232 minutes of use in our harsh lab tests. This translates to around five hours of web surfing and emailing, which equates to a good day on the move, but nowhere near the seven hours quoted by Lenovo on its marketing literature.
One of the major complaints across many ultrabooks is that they often feature poor, uncomfortable keyboards, and single button trackpads that are frustrating to use, and easy to skip across the page with unintentionally. Unfortunately, the Lenovo suffers here too.
On the plus side the keys are as comfortable and natural to use as any ultrabook here, and they’re well cushioned and well spaced, with isolation-style keys jutting through the aluminium chassis.
However, Lenovo has made the Enter and Backspace keys very small, with the Home, End and Delete key to the far right.
This meant mistakes were common, and it took us a while to get used to the keyboard. The trackpad, however, is terrible, and often clicking and navigating led to chaotic moments, where clicks were mis-registered.
When it comes to weighing up the Lenovo IdeaPad U300S, “average” is a word that crops up too often. It looks average, performance is average despite being thicker and heavier than other ultrabooks, and the keyboard and trackpad are still awkward to use. It doesn’t have the power to turn heads, nor to blow away the likes of the Acer Aspire S3 in terms of performance, and that means it’s hard to recommend, even for particular niches.
The matt screen will make it attractive for business buyers, but the lack of a VGA and Ethernet connection mean that many will overlook this laptop.
Despite our gripes with the Lenovo IdeaPad U300S, it’s still an excellent ultra-portable laptop. If it had come out before the other ultrabooks, we’d be applauding the excellent design and performance, and the Intel Core i5 is plenty powerful enough for image editing and advanced multitasking.
While we’d never recommend the screen for movies, we applaud Lenovo for offering a matt screen, which is great for people who want to work outside.
The keyboard is comfortable and easy to type on, with good travel between the keys, and good cushioning for long working sessions.
Rather than complaining about poor trackpads, we’re going to get down on our knees and beg manufacturers instead. Please believe us that single button trackpads are prone to mistakes and frustrating to use. Stop mimicking Apple and adding them to your laptops.
We also would have liked the Lenovo IdeaPad U300S to be more visually striking. Ultrabooks aren’t just supposed to be thin laptops, they’re supposed to be a new category, where we can get excited about our PCs, take them to Starbucks and sit among our Apple-using friends with our heads held high.
There’s little here to boast about, and that’s a real shame.
The Lenovo IdeaPad U300S is a good ultra-portable laptop, but as an ultrabook, it doesn’t offer any compelling reasons to choose it over the competition.