|Introduction and Specifications|
|The thin-and-light market is seriously heating up, and with CES 2012 just around the corner, Lenovo's hoping to sneak some sales in during the last few weeks of the 2011 holiday season. The IdeaPad U400 is a sleek, sexy machine, understated from top to bottom and aimed at mid-range buyers who have never had so many options. You can't really call this an Ultrabook (you'll need to ogle at Lenovo's IdeaPad U300s for that honor), but it's still super slick. And in its roomier 14-inch weight class, you actually have fewer options to pick from. We're happy to see Lenovo continuing to serve this in-between market actually.
The U400 is machined from a single slab of aluminum. This unibody approach has become more and more popular in recent years, but Lenovo has truly exceeded in producing a stunner in design. As far as PC notebooks go, there may be none more stunning than this on the market. As for internals, it offers mid-to-high range specifications, utilizing Intel's latest line of Core i3, Core i5 and Core i7 CPUs, up to 8GB of DDR3 memory and an optional AMD Radeon HD6470M GPU. Speaking of specifications, here's a look at what's inside our test machine:
Perhaps most interesting here is just how premium the U400 looks and feels. It's surprising actually, that this notebook is priced and specified like a mid-range machine. In a way, we wish Lenovo offered this very hardware with higher-end specs, a higher-res display, etc. But on the other hand, we're just happy to see Lenovo is taking design seriously, integrating a premium fit and finish into a machine that's squarely aimed at mid-range buyers. Of course, looks are only half of the story; is the entire package worthy of consideration this holiday season? Let's dig in and find out.
|Design and Build Quality|
|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.
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.
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.
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.
|Software and User Experience|
|The first thing we look at when it comes to software is bloatware. There's a 64-bit copy of Windows 7 Home Premium here, which is fairly standard for this class of machine. But much to our surprise, we weren't bothered by a nasty Norton pop-up or anything of the like. In fact, it's a mostly untouched installation of Windows 7. There are a few Lenovo-branded apps onboard, as well as OneKey Recovery, Cyberlink Power2Go and Lenovo YouCam. OneKey is there to back things up, and if things go south, a dedicated button on the rear side of the laptop can get you back to a useful state.
There's also a software layer that connects with the multi-touch trackpad, enabling a master window to pop up when you gesture upward with four fingers, and an Easy Notepad to pop up when you gesture with three fingers on the desktop. When you're in Internet Explorer, multi-finger gestures can switch between tabs or scroll up and down a page; nifty.
There's also a majorly great feature onboard that you certainly won't find on too many sub-$900 machines: WiDi. Intel's Wireless Display is built right in here, enabling you to wirelessly transmit HD footage to receivers and set-top boxes that also support the protocol. The UI onboard is easy to understand, but there's no receiver bundled in, so that's on you to procure as an option.
Out initial boot-up took 53 seconds to go from dark to useable, but there's a built-in boot optimizer that made things a touch faster (it improved to just over 45 seconds). The 5400RPM hard drive could stand an upgrade maybe, but overall, the machine was adequately quick, particularly considering the price tag.
HD videos played back smoothly and without jaggies, and multi-tasking went over well. It even loaded up rather heavy-duty gaming titles in fairly quick fashion. Not everything was perfect, though. Initially loading up heftier applications like Photoshop definitely took a number of seconds, and even Internet Explorer took around three to four seconds to load up and become usable. Not unexpected given the price, but there's occasionally some noticeable handling everyday tasks.
On the other hand, we did also notice that waking up from sleep took merely a second; that's quite the feat compared to most Windows-based laptops, which can easily take five to ten seconds to regain conscientiousness after being asleep for any length of time. Overall, using Windows on this machine was a pleasant experience, but we were reminded from lag here and there that we weren't on an SSD-equipped super-machine. Still, for the price, it sailed along quicker than we expected.
|SiSoftware Sandra and Cinebench Performance|
We started off our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA 2011, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests (CPU Arithmetic, Memory Bandwidth, Physical Disks). All of the scores reported below were taken with the processor running at its default clock speeds of 2.4GHz with 6GB of DDR3 RAM running in dual-channel mode.
Sandra didn't reveal anything surprising; the U400 posted strong
scores in all categories.
Cinebench R11.5 benchmark is based on Maxon's Cinema 4D software used
for 3D content creation chores and tests both the CPU and GPU in
separate benchmark runs. On the CPU side, Cinebench renders a
photorealistic 3D scene by tapping into up to 64 processing threads
(CPU) to process more than 300,000 total polygons, while the GPU
benchmark measures graphics performance by manipulating nearly 1 million
polygons and huge amounts of textures.
Here's where we start
to see some chinks in the armor. While the innards are impressive for
medium-duty gaming, multimedia and conventional chores, it's clear that the U400
isn't cut out for heavy duty computational work. Or, it can cut it, but it'll
cut far slower than workstation type notebooks. But you knew that.
|Futuremark 3DMark 11, 06 and PCMark Vantage|
We continued testing and fired up Futuremark's system performance benchmark, PCMark Vantage. This synthetic benchmark suite simulates a range of real-world scenarios and workloads, stressing various subsystem in the process. Everything you'd want to do with your PC -- watching HD movies, music compression, image editing, gaming, and so forth -- is represented here, and most of the tests are multi-threaded, making this a good indicator of all-around performance.
The full Vantage score is below.
Here we see the U400 spring back with a relatively robust score, leading our test pack in this general purpose and multimedia benchmark suite.
3DMark 11 is still a new benchmark, and we're still building up our database of machines that we've ran through this test. These four were set on the "Performance" setting, just to give you a vague idea of comparisons. The full score is below.
|Gaming Benchmarks and Battery Life|
Let's not beat around the bush: Metro 2033 is an intense game. And we aren't just talking about gameplay. It's a title that seriously taxes a machine, and it requires serious hardware to run this title well. The CPU on the U400 was mostly ready for the task, but its lower-end AMD Radeon isn't exactly a powerhouse. That said, the score for this class of machine, was respectable for the U400.
Unlike Metro 2033, the somewhat dated Far Cry 2 benchmark isn't as hard on systems, and we were able to squeeze out a few more frames-per-second here. Things were plenty playable at even higher resolutions.
BatteryEater Pro tends to measure worst case scenarios, in that it doesn't really take into consideration power saving features, instead working the system's hard drive, CPU and graphics moderately until it dies out. We kept our test machines with Wi-Fi on, and screen brightness hovering at 50% for the life of the test.
A 54Whr, 4-cell battery is included here, and Lenovo makes the claim that you can get up to seven hours of productive use. With all due respect, we aren't buying it exactly. Yes, our specific battery test is tough on machines, but we didn't even see two hours of use. Even with brightness on the lowest possible setting and Wi-Fi turned off, there's just no way this machine is going to last over three times longer than what we saw here. Two hours of hard usage is fair for a machine of this stature, and you could probably squeeze 4 hours of usage if you really tried, but it seems unlikely you're getting seven hours of uptime with the U400, regardless of workload.
|Summary and Conclusion|
Performance Summary: Performance-wise, the U400 is a solid option, speeding through basic Windows 7 chores without too much lag. Multi-tasking is a fairly smooth affair as well, but expect a few seconds of load lag during the initial boots of heavier apps. When it comes to gaming, though, there isn't much to write home about. You'll need to use lower resolutions and image quality settings in order to get newer titles to be playable. Of course, Lenovo doesn't market this machine as one that gamers should take interest in. Looking deeper, the trackpad performance was a mixed bag. We loved having support for multi-gesture input, and the sizable pad was great to work with, but the response was definitely lagged from time to time. Finally, we can't finish this section without mention the thermals. Lenovo's new cooling system kept fan noise at a minimum, and it kept the palm rest and underside as cool as a cucumber even after hours of benchmarking. Impressive.The IdeaPad U400 is a super classy machine. The design is just beautiful, and for all the complaining we do about palm rest stickers, we couldn't have been happier to find that not a single one was applied here. We really can't scream this from the rooftop loud enough. No palm rest stickers = happier consumers.
We did have a few gripes with the design; there's no SD card slot, and only one of the three USB ports are of the USB 3.0 variety. The HDMI port is also aligned strangely, though we did appreciate the inclusion of WiDi on a sub-$900 machine. Too bad you need to provide your own receiver, though. Also, the inability to order a U400 with a screen resolution above 1366x768 is a bummer. Also, the U400's tighter viewing angles is one of the only non-premium design aspects of the entire rig.
Lenovo deserves credit for keeping bloatware to a minimum, and for implementing a large, comfortable trackpad. The machine's design, all-around, is high quality, but we will say that the "book-style" edges are unnecessarily sharp. All in all, the biggest issue faced by the U400 is that it's not particularly memorable. It's entirely like so many other machines on the market from a performance standpoint, and while the design is a leap ahead, it's still going to be tough for a mid-range machine like this to cut through the noise.
In total, Lenovo's U400 is an interesting option to be sure. However, it's not drastically cheaper than the competition, the screen isn't drastically better than any rival machines, and the performance-to-price ratio isn't mind-blowing. That said, if you have a "thing" for the design, or you stumble upon a great coupon, mid-range users won't be let down by what this system offers. Just don't expect it to be a powerhouse in the gaming department and be aware of its somewhat unusual keyboard layout. We will say, however, that this machine is on the edge of greatness. Toss in a high-res display option, a few more ports (SD card slot please) and it would certainly be a top-tier machine in the price range.