Lenovo IdeaPad U400 Notebook Review - HotHardware

Lenovo IdeaPad U400 Notebook Review

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Lenovo suggests that the IdeaPad U400 is actually modeled after a bound book or paperwork of some sort. That's to say, there are tapered edges with a flat side edge, and if you look at it while closed, it does indeed look as if the pronounced edges are the cover, and the body itself are the pages. But more than all of that, the U400 is just beautiful. It's crafted from a single sheet of aluminum, and while the overall body isn't quite as rigid as a newer MacBook Pro -- the palm rest and display flex a bit more when mashed on, it still outclasses nearly every PC in the same price range.

Some have said that Dell's new XPS line, and perhaps even the newer HP multimedia machines, are trying awfully hard to rival Apple's classically styled MacBook and MacBook Pro lineup. But honestly, the U400 may be even closer to mimicking that style. The major difference is that the U400 is a very dark silver, almost bronze in the right light, and there are no speaker grilles alongside its chiclet keyboard. Also, the keys on the U400 aren't backlit.

The entire machine measures in at under one inch thick, and the aluminum is as smooth as a baby's bottom. It's sandblasted from the factory and anodized; it's a process that Lenovo claims will keep the exterior tough despite daily wear and tear. Perhaps most unusual about a familiar unibody experience is the cooling system. The company talks up a "breathable keyboard technology," which allows air to be sucked in around the keys and then shoved out via a left-side vent and a slot vent along the back. There are no underside vents to speak of; quite odd for a machine in this segment.

While that may all sound like a lot of hot air (pun firmly intended), it's actually not. Even after hours of benchmarking, the palm rests remained downright cool. We aren't sure if Lenovo will ever get the credit they deserve for this one facet, but we're here to make a big deal about it. Evidently, the company teamed up with Intel's Advanced Cooling Technology (which is exclusively licensed to Lenovo, at least for now) in order to create the first major breakthrough in notebook cooling that we've seen in a decade. The only sad thing about it is that "exclusive" bit. We really wish this could be rolled out to every other laptop maker post-haste. We've finally found a powerful notebook that doesn't melt your palms or lap -- it's seriously something you have to feel to fully appreciate.

The chiclet keyboard is a strange mix of good and bad. The texture and travel are ideal; it's wonderfully comfortable to type on, but it takes a good deal of getting used to. Why? Because the right side of the keyboard is truncated in a number of ways. The right Shift key is about half of the normal size, so frequent users of that will be frustrated at first by "missing" a key that they expect to be there. Once you get used to the slightly atypical layout, it's a great keyboard to type on. The lack of a backlight, however, is a downer for us. At this point in the game, all self-respecting laptops should have them; particularly ones knocking on the $1000 door.

We will say, however, that we love how the Function keys respond to system functions first, and Function keys second. In other words, the F1 key Mutes the sound by default; you have to press Fn + F1 for F1 to activate. Given that we can't even recall the last time we needed to use F3 or F4, we're in favor of this. The only downside is a subtle one.  The UI to the graphics that correspond to volume levels, screen brightness, etc., are just plain ugly, and look nothing like the Aero elements present in Windows. It makes us wonder if Lenovo even gave this detail a second thought. They really should -- with hundreds of similar laptops, it's the details that make one stand out over another.

While we're in the area, it's worth talking about the glass trackpad. If you're familiar with the feel of a MacBook trackpad, you'll understand how this one feels. It's slick, smooth and huge. There's no left/right click buttons; you simply press in that area of the trackpad. It's the trackpad that we wish all PC notebooks had. There's robust multi-finger gesture support, and the touch response is exemplary. Our only complain is this: it's still not as good as a MacBook trackpad. It's as good as it gets for a PC, but why can't PC trackpads match those on Apple machines? It's hard to know how much of the problem lies within the trackpad and how much is due to Windows' inability to really make use of a multi-touch pad, but regardless, we can't help but wish it was just a bit more finely tuned. Four-finger gestures take a fraction of a second too long to respond, and two-finger scrolling on webpages only works instantly around 80 percent of the time. That's just not good enough.

The really perplexing thing about the hardware is the display. There's a 14" LED display, but the resolution is capped at 1366 x 768. That's the same resolution as most 13" laptops. So, unless you like a larger image, not screen real estate (seriously, we can't think of a great reason why you'd want to buy a larger, less portable machine), Lenovo really should've offered a true high-res option.  We're used to seeing 720p on tablets; seeing a similar resolution blown up on a large 14" display just looks subpar these days, at least to the enthusiast in us. Again, we're asking for the option of a high res display here. To keep cost down, plenty of prospective consumers would opt for the system as we tested it of course.

At just over 4 pounds, the U400 isn't what we'd call "light." But it's sturdy, making the weight more justified. It's a seriously solid hunk of metal, and it feels premium from top to bottom. Its weight is nicely distributed as well. As for the ports, you won't find much of interest in the front or rear, and sadly, few things were of interest even on the sides. The upside is that there's a CD/DVD writer (slot-loading), which is extremely useful for those who routinely need to burn data or read DVDs and don't want to opt for one of the many thin and light machines who are ditching optical drives these days.

Also, there are only three total USB ports available, and only one of these is USB 3.0; the other two are USB 2.0. That's a bit of a letdown, although not too unexpected. There's also a full-size HDMI port, but it's located in a really weird spot. It's near the front of the machine, crammed between USB ports and a DVD drive. It'd make a lot of sense to have the HDMI port on the rear, but alas… There is also no flash card slot at all. No SD slot, nothing. This seems like a poor choice. Nearly every other laptop out today, regardless of price, has one; we're certain a lot of users will miss having one here.

The U400's audio solution is decent; about as good as you'd expect from a mid-range notebook, but of course, there's no low-end response to speak of.

The bottom line on the U400's design, though, is that all the niggles fade when you remember just how cool this machine stays even after extensive usage and how good it looks doing it.

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Although I'm a big fan of Lenovo, U400 has many drawbacks. I'm really dissapointed with poor keyboard on the U400 and absense of SD card reader. It looks like cheap copy of macbook pro.

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I've seen the machine and worked with it myself and can tell you it's definitely not a cheap copy and has design quality/features of its own merit as well.

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That's reassuring dave. i have a few skeptical points, first of all there was no listed price point, not a good sign, second the specs were good but not fantastic, but the only thing selling this computer is the price and the mention in the same breath as the ultrabook. That is not really a good basis to be on.

However i am sure this is an awesome product. lenovo does great work, and i don't doubt they have a cult of die hard supporters.

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Thanks for the great review, Ray. I only wish that an AMD A6 or A8 platform had also been included in the benchmarks for comparison purposes!

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I second that, Please include A6 and A8 machines.

Secondly, how is mid-range defined? To me entry/budget is under $500, mid is $5-800, high end $800-1200, and performance/ boutique above that. Having said that, while the aluminum body is nice, at this price point I expect a card reader, 7200 rpm drive, and at least the option of a hi res screen. Pretty only does so much for me : ).

Keep up the good work Ray!

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To all who are considering ordering from Lenovo directly --- DO NOT!! You have been warned. I originally ordered a Z570 i5 on June 18th. It wasn't until July 10th (after many phone calls, emails and LIES FROM LENOVO REPS) that I finally found out that the configuration I ordered had sold out and they wouldn't be making any more of them. I was then offered two substitute laptops (both with inferior specs -- one even had "Better graphics" where the graphics card information should have been). I refused both offers and finally said that I would like to upgrade to the U400 i7 for the same cost or I was going to cancel the order. I was told that would be fine and that it would be put on "the priority list". The back and forth with the foreign reps ate up another few days. By this time the ship date on the website for the U400 said July 18th. I said fine and was given a new order number. Checking the order status a couple days later showed a ship date of the 19th. One more day, no big deal. The 19th comes and goes, then the ship date changes to the 23rd. Now I am being told the 3rd of August due to LCD supply issues. So almost 2 months to even get a laptop to ship. Its not worth the hassle having to deal with Lenovo directly. I have loved their products for many years (starting back when they were IBM products) and have been a loyal customer. No longer. Sad for them. I own a technical services/consulting company and have also recommended their products to my clients, family and friends. I can easily account for hundreds if not thousands of sales through my company and my customers. All that good faith gone in a matter of weeks. I am going to wait until the 3rd of August to see if my laptop actually ships. But only because I am getting it for about 60% off. If it ships then MAYBE Lenovo could still retain a portion of my business (but only through other 3rd party suppliers).

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