|Introduction and Specifications|
|It's easy to understand why the fledgling ultrabook market is exploding with new offerings from virtually all of the major players. The new class of notebooks, seemingly reinvented by Intel's vision (and a $300 million dollar marketing fund) are designed to offer robust performance for everyday tasks and multimedia, in a wafer-thin and feather-weight footprint. These are MacBook Air competitors from the PC side of the fence, driven by Windows 7 and at least the goal of dropping in under the $1000 mark. Unfortunately, we haven't seen many ultrabooks hit that mark, save perhaps for a slightly lower-end Toshiba model we looked at recently, but there are many machines dropping in at Apple's MacBook Air $999 price point, offering all the build quality performance and even a few more features versus the svelte Mac machine.
In fact, with Dell's XPS 13 and the Asus UX21 that we tested recently, we felt you definitely get what you pay for, but we all know the up-sell to an ultrabook, versus a standard 13 or 12-inch notebook, would be a lot easier if we could dance closer to that $800 mark. Unfortunately the Lenovo IdeaPad U300s that we'll be looking at today doesn't get us any closer to clearing that magic $799 psychological MSRP hurdle, but like its brethren that we've put through their paces thus far, this ultrabook is a premium product through and through.
We ended up receiving the $1495 top-of-the-line model from Lenovo, configured with an Intel Core i7-2677M dual-core Sandy Bridge processor that will Turbo Boost up to 2.9GHz and has 4MB of L3 cache. Our U300s also has a 256GB SSD to round out the premium package. Make no mistake, that SSD is what makes most ultrabooks feel "ultra" we can assure you.
In fact, it's surprising more premium notebooks don't have options for SSD configurations. No other component upgrade currently will offer a better, more noticeable performance and responsiveness increases than an SSD.
In addition to that SSD, Lenovo's IdeaPad U300s is similarly configured versus the other ultrabooks we've looked at thus far, with a pair of USB ports (one of which is USB 3.0 capable) a headphone jack and Lenovo's OneKey Rescue System button. The OneKey Software and button combination feature is a nice touch for quick recovery from non-operational Windows crashes etc. More on this later. For now, let's get a better look at the U300s from a hardware design point of view.
|Design, Constuction and Layout|
|Dell decided to make a point of highlighting the display in the XPS 13 ultrabook with edge-to-edge glass, while Lenovo takes a more traditional approach here, with a thin metal trimmed bezel. That said, the IdeaPad U300's display easily measures-up from an image quality standpoint and we were appreciative of its slightly wider opening hinge. It really helps when you're standing over the machine when set on a counter top, for example. Also, the display seemed to have slightly brighter output and modestly better viewing angles. There's more bezel here, sure, and as a result it's a slightly wider machine by a little over a quarter of an inch. Right, not much, and we were okay with that.
Ahh but here's where the rubber meets the road for Lenovo's U300s, it's the keyboard. If there's another area almost as critically important as a notebook's display, the keyboard would have to be it and Lenovo delivered in spades. If the U300s' keyboard was backlit, we would have been overcome with geek joy. The keyboard on this machine is really that nice. In fact, I took the machine in hand specifically to write a good portion of this review, just because the learning curve was non-existent for me and that's coming from a high quality Deck mechanical desktop model. Lenovo offers just the right amount of key travel and the key caps seem to almost cradle your finger tips. Typing on this machine was a real pleasure, so much so that I almost wouldn't need the backlight at all.
The U300s' touchpad supports gestures and has a clean tactile feel when actuating its two button controls. Gesture support was also surprisingly fluid. Pinch and zoom controls in a web browser were actually somewhat useful, not something we can say for so many notebooks that just can't seem to pull this off for some reason.
The U300s' main body construction is a straight-up aluminum slab that is machined with very few separate pieces. Venting on the side of the system emits a very faint whine under load that is completely dismissible. Under less workload, this ultrabook is virtually silent. Part of the reason for the U300s' low audible profile is its breathable keyboard area. The palm rest also remains completely cool under extended use as well. However, keep in mind, a breathable keyboard obviously isn't air-tight, so it's certainly not water-tight. In other words, don't accidentally tip that happy hour special in its general vicinity, if you catch our drift.
At .58 inches thick, the U300s is without a doubt a razor thin machine. Regardless, Lenovo was able to squeeze not only a USB 3.0 port but also a full-sized HDMI port into this machine, in addition to a standard USB port; but alas, no SD card slot. We have yet to see an SD card slot in an ultrabook actually and it's perplexing.
|Software and User Experience|
|Lenovo's software setup of the IdeaPad U300s is nicely trim and light on bloat. What is installed (things like Microsoft Security Essentials, CyberLink YouCam, Adobe Reader, and OneKey Recover), you'll agree are welcomed and in most cases almost needed accompaniments.
CyberLink YouCam 3.0 and OneKey Recovery 7.0 Software
CyberLink YouCam 3.0 is fairly representative of the web cam software suites that are being issued with ultrabooks these days. Some manufacturers have gone the private label route, with the company name stamped on as window dressing but Lenovo left it untouched. YouCam 3.0 is good enough to get the job done for your own local side usage but for conferencing, you'll want to enlist the help of third party software like Skype etc. Lenovo's bundle OneKey package offers a really nice implementation of an automated system back up and recovery solution. You can start the software by clicking the desktop short cut or pressing the OneKey button on the left edge of machine. It's a solid safety net, so backup early and often as they say.
Lenovo's Energy Management interface, surprisingly configurable and intuitive...
The other software trimmings of the U300s that we'll discuss are small utilities that start up in the system try upon boot and you can get access to these panels by left or right clicking on the icon in the tray. Lenovo's Energy Management package offers a lot of knobs and sliders to play with in an effort to dial in a power profile that fits you best. For testing, in battery mode, we used Lenovo's preset Energy Star profile and as you'll see later, it offers a nice balance of performance and battery conservation when untethered.
Lenovo's SRS surround sound audio software offers a three different sound customizations, depending on the source material you're listening to and your output device type. In action, the settings performed as suggested, with the Music setting offering a fuller bottom end sound when we plugged in a set of ear buds to try it out. The internal speaker system in the U300s isn't bad either but this is an ultralight notebook, so you should set your expectations accordingly.
|SiSoft SANDRA and ATTO Disk Tests|
|Test Methodology: As you'll note in the following pages of benchmarks, we've compared the Lenovo IdeaPad U300s versus a few different machines, both standard notebooks and ultrabook class products. In every test case, we tried to leave each notebok as delivered to us from the manufacturers. This meant, after any pending Windows updates were installed, we disabled Windows update and also disabled any virus scanning software that may have been installed, so it wouldn't kick in during benchmark runs. That said, it's virtually impossible to ensure identical system configurations between notebooks; so we'll caution you that reference scores from the various test systems are listed in order to give you a general feel for performance between these similar class of machines and not for direct, apples-to-apples comparisons.
SANDRA Processor Arithmetic and Multimedia Performance
SANDRA Memory Bandwidth and Physical Disk Performance
The IdeaPad U300s performed about as expected in the CPU and Multimedia tests but there were two shortcomings here that were significant. First, the Memory Bandwidth test reports memory bandwidth for the U300s that is almost half of what we've seen from competitive Sandy Bridge-based ultrabooks. Offerings from Asus, Dell and Toshiba dropped in at around 16GB/sec versus Lenovo here at 9GB/sec. The reason? Lenovo has a single channel 4GB DDR3-1333 memory installation in this machine, versus the other dual channel configurations. Why? We have no idea but we've reached out to Lenovo for insight. We'll advise on details as they're available but it's really a shame to see the machine setup this way.
The other, less significant shortcoming is its SSD performance, which only pulls about 234MB/sec or so in the read test that SANDRA runs on a formatted drive. This isn't a bad score by any means; a standard 2.5" hard drive could barely break 100MB/sec in this test. However, we've seen SSDs in Dell and Asus machines breaking the 500MB/sec barrier. Let's look a bit closer at SSD performance with ATTO.
Lenovo IdeaPad U300s - ATTO Test
Dell XPS 13 - ATTO Test
Asus Zenbook UX21
Toshiba Portégé Z835-P330
As you can see, the Lenovo U300s' SSD pulls in 3rd place essentially here versus the other ultrabook SSDs. It's significantly faster than Toshiba's rather pokey drive in the Portégé Z835 and ATTO reports roughly 150MB/sec write and 250MB/sec read performance for the 256GB JMicron-based drive in the U300s. In contrast, the best SSD performance we've seen to date in an ultrabook is delivered by the AData SSD in the Asus Zenbook line at 500/550MB/sec write and read, respectively.
|PCMark Vantage and PCMark 7|
|Next up, we ran our test systems through Futuremark’s previous generation total-system performance evaluation tool, PCMark Vantage. PCMark Vantage runs through a host of different usage scenarios to simulate different types of workloads including High Definition TV and movie playback and manipulation, gaming, image editing and manipulation, music compression, communications, and productivity. Since we have a large database of scores for this test, we felt it would be good to give you additional reference points to compare to.
Since the workloads in the tests that comprise this benchmark are relatively disk sensitive, the U300s slid right in about where we expected. Keep in mind though, these scores are actually VERY good in general for most all of the ultrabooks represented here. The other standard thin and light machines listed in the field simply can't keep up.
Futuremark's PCMark 7 is the latest version of the PCMark suite, more recently released. It has updated application performance measurements targeted for a Windows 7 environment. It combines 25 individual workloads covering storage, computation, image and video manipulation, web browsing, and gaming.
Here the groupings are bit tighter for the ultrabooks in our test and we've come to realize that PCMark 7 is less disk sensitive and weights CPU and graphics performance slightly more heavily than PCMark Vantage does. Here, Lenovo's IdeaPad U300s pretty much keeps pace with the top two ultrabooks in our test, within a 5 - 8% margin.
|Cinebench and Gaming|
|Maxon's Cinebench R11.5 benchmark is based on the company's Cinema 4D software used for 3D content creation 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.
In the CPU component of this test, the U300s is right in line with the other ultrabooks in its class. However, in the OpenGL test, which excersizes the graphics core in its Core i7 processor, we see that memory bandwidth issue cropping up again. Conversely, the U300 still manages to outpace Toshiba's lower cost offering and doesn't trail the other ultrabooks all that much.
If you're considering an ultrabook primarily for gaming on the go, you had best reconsider. That said, it's not like a little light duty action is completely out of the question. The U300s trails the Asus and Dell machines by a hair, again likely due to that memory bandwidth issue. Again, however, the difference is negligible and at these resolution and image quality settings, none of the machines shown here are putting up playable frame rates. Drop the resolution and/or IQ settings and things should smoother out a bit more.
Left 4 Dead 2, though it has reasonably good visuals, is a bit easier on the graphics subsystem. This was a game engine that the Lenovo IdeaPad U300s could handle a bit better as well.
Here we see playable frame rates right up through 1280X720 and almost playable at native res of the U300s panel. We only had reference numbers from the Dell XPS13 but, as you can see, Dell's advantage is on the order of about 10% or so.
Again however, we're certain you're not as concerned with a lot of gaming results with an ultrabook, so we'll move on to something more critical, battery life performance.
|Battery Life Testing|
|Let's face it, if you're shopping for an ultrabook, you're less concerned with gaming performance and more interested in what kind of battery life you can squeeze out of these featherweight systems. This is perhaps the most important metric, at least for some, and what we have below are examples of worst case and best case scenarios under light and heavy workloads.
Now here's an area where the IdeaPad U300s really excels. In our worst case Battery Eater Pro test, we only realized about 2 hours of uptime. However, with light duty web browsing, we saw something around 6 hours of untethered freedom. The U300s was second best in our battery life test, only pulling up behind Dell's XPS 13. Incidentally, Dell does some fairly aggressive dialing of their machine, as delivered from the factory, in terms of power savings settings, beyond display brightness. So if you're willing to tweak on the IdeaPad's settings a bit here and there, you could likely realize even more battery life. As a side note, we were able to extract about 4 hours of continuous 1080p HD video playback on the U300s as well.
|Performance Summary and Rating|
Performance Summary: The Lenovo IdeaPad U300s scored fairly well in all of our standard benchmark suites, but did come up a little short in a couple of areas, due to its single channel DDR3 memory configuration. Storage subsystem performance testing showed the machine to offer solid, although perhaps not best-of-class throughput, though definitely more than enough to satisfy most any user requirement. In terms of battery life, the U300s is one of the better utlrabooks we've tested to date under light duty workloads, like web browsing, email and video playback.
When it comes to fit and finish, design styling and build quality, the U300s is one of our favorite ultrabooks we've tested thus far. And did we rave about its keyboard enough? It really is that nice; it's easily our top choice in ultrabook keyboards so far.
At its $999 price point for the base configuration (with a 128GB SSD and Core i7-2457M), you really can't go wrong with this machine. At our as-tested configuration and price of $1495 (256GB SSD and Core i7-2677M), there are other ultrabooks you might want to consider, depending on your own personal criteria in some of the key areas we noted here. Regardless, the Lenovo IdeaPad U300s is an ultrabook we feel more than comfortable recommending to anyone looking to get in on "the new thin" in notebook PCs.