|Introduction and Specifications|
|The recent rise and fall of the netbook as a computer category made one thing clear: consumers are willing to sacrifice some screen size and power in the name of portability, but not as much as a netbook requires. On the other hand, many shoppers are willing to pay a premium for a thinner, lighter notebook, and that's where the ultrabook comes in.
As the Windows-based competitor to Apple's popular MacBook Air, the ultrabook category has been reasonably well-received. Intel created the term "ultrabook" last year and stirred up plenty of buzz about it at CES this January, promising systems that would be powerful (compared to netbooks) and svelte (compared to notebooks). You'll turn heads if you fire one up at your local coffee shop, and you won't need to quietly suffer through sluggish performance to look so good.
One area that has been a challenge for manufacturers is the ultrabook's price point. Intel's $1,000 goal (not to mention their recent Ivy Bridge ULT-based $799 target) has been hard to hit, given all the pricey tech that goes into making these slim systems sing. Most have come in at well over the $1K mark – until recently. That brings us to the Lenovo IdeaPad U310, which has a price tag that, depending on the configuration, slides the machine into mainstream notebook territory. Today, we're taking a look at the U310's Core i5-3317U model, which weighs in nicely at Intel's current even more aggressive utltrabook price target of $799.99.
For manufacturers, there's always some risk to sending us anything less than the top of the line model. Generally speaking, a computer makers wants its best system to be reviewed. That's a reasonable approach, and it means that because so many review systems have the best tech that their lines carry, a lower-priced model is likely to look a little pale by comparison in performance analysis. That's something worth keeping in mind as we dig into the U310: the ultrabooks you've seen recently may have more power, but they're also much more expensive. Whether the U310 strikes a solid price-for-performance balance is what we're setting out to learn. Can an $800 ultrabook take you through a day of hard work and a little play?
Lenovo sent us a U310 with an Intel Core i5-3317U processor, which runs at 1.7GHz and can reach 2.6GHz with Turbo Boost and HD 4000 graphics. The ultrabook includes a reasonable amount of DDR3 1600MHz memory at 4GB, but it's all on a single DIMM. We noticed the single-channel memory when reviewing the Lenovo IdeaPad U300s and we were surprised that Lenovo didn't go for the extra performance of dual-channel memory at the time. It looks as though Lenovo hasn't changed its game plan here.
SSD cache. The combo is designed to approximate SSD speeds and helps the U310 provide a faster boot-up time (about 26 seconds in our test) along with faster overall speeds than you'll see from a standard hard drive. The combo isn't likely to be quite as fast as a dedicated SSD, but it's a way to balance price and performance, which is what this ultrabook is all about.
The U310 doesn't have space for an optical drive, but it does have an SD card reader, which is handy of course. It also has a LAN port and built-in Wi-Fi, as well as Bluetooth. An HDMI port, three USB ports (two of which are USB3.0), a 720p web cam, and standard mic/headphone ports round out the package.
|Design, Construction and Layout|
|Thanks to its aluminum body, the Lenovo IdeaPad U310 gives the same metallic vibe that the MacBook does. But you wouldn't mistake the ultrabook for an Apple product, and that's not a dig by any means. The U310 is a good looking machine with a great mix of rounded corners and sharp edges. Take the body, for example. The top, which houses the keyboard and touchpad, has sharp edges that create eye-catching lines. But all four corners of the notebook's sides are rounded. The result is a sophisticated, clean look.
Like its older sibling, the U310 is a slim, sleek device. It measures 13.1 inches long by 8.8 inches wide, giving it a smaller footprint than most notebooks on your desk. (Or, more likely, your lap.) But the number that matters most is the height: the U310 is a mere 0.7 inches tall. That's a little thicker than the U300s (which is 0.58 inches high), but it passes Intel's bar for ultrabook status. In fact, it's so thin that the LAN port sticks out a little, breaking up the curve of the bottom edge just a bit.
The screen bezel is unobtrusive and darker than it was on Lenovo's earlier IdeaPad model, the U300s. There's no latch on the top, so you can open it by simply lifting it up, but the top stays shut when you close. I didn't have any problems with the lid opening while I carried the ultrabook.The keyboard is Lenovo's AccuType style, which emphasizes typing accuracy over saving space. Each key is visibly separate from the next, something you don't always see in laptops, or even desktop keyboards. The result is aesthetically pleasing and physically comfortable. The U300s ultrabook didn't have keyboard backlighting, and neither does the 310. That's too bad: the brightly-lit power button is easier to see in dimly lit environments and makes us wish the rest of the keyboard had received the same treatment.
The touchpad is also roomy – in fact, it's enormous. But a palm rejection feature keeps you from accidentally activating it while typing. During the length of my review, I bumped the touchpad regularly, but never once knocked my cursor somewhere random. Beyond knowing the difference between your palm and your fingers, the touch pad is actually capable of handling strokes from all five fingers, including swipes, pinches, and pulls. Lenovo went with a glass touchpad this time around. It makes for a surprisingly smooth surface. The touchpad's sensitivity is great when it comes to double-tapping to double-click, but it took me awhile to master the art of dragging and dropping on the touchpad without making my cursor stop.
Interestingly, the U310 comes in a few different colors. You can choose from Aqua Blue, Sapphire Blue, Graphite Grey, Cherry Blossom Pink, or Metallic Red, depending on the model you choose. There are plenty of laptop skins out there for people who want a customized system, but it's hard to beat a shell that's already your favorite color.
|Software and User Experience|
|When we first fired up the Lenovo IdeaPad U310, we were faced with a clean Desktop. There are a few freebies, of course, but we didn't come across any programs that were unnecessarily wasted space.
Your system's initial security is brought to you by McAfee AntiVirus Plus, which encourages a paid subscription without going over the top. Some other get-you-started freebies are Microsoft Office Starter 2010 and Absolute Data Protect. The latter is a three-month trial of security software that you can use to lock your ultrabook or wipe sensitive files in the event that it's stolen.
CyberLink's YouCam taps the U310's built-in camera to let you record videos. As with the other software, you'll need to upgrade to YouCam Deluxe 5 if you want the whole shebang, but the light version has a decent array of tools, including surveillance capabilities. If you're worried that your ultrabook might get lifted, you can set YouCam to motion-detection recording and have it email its captures to you.
OneKey Recovery is a real perk. Lenovo put a button for OneKey on the side of the ultrabook so you can press it to access the program even if Windows is toast. If you press the button while Windows is operating, you'll see a very clean, very simple interface that lets you create a backup on the internal drive or an external USB drive or recover Windows from a backup you already made. The software also has a feature aimed at creating a recovery disc, but the U310 doesn't have an optical drive.
Side note: Using the IdeaPad 310, we found it to be warm, but not hot, on most surfaces. On a lap, it tends to get a little toasty after a good half hour. And as thin as it is, the U310 is sturdy enough to handle the uneven surface your lap creates.
|SiSoftware SANDRA and ATTO Disk Tests|
|We kicked off the Lenovo IdeaPad U310's testing with SiSoftware Sandra 2012 and ATTO Disk Test, which are good tools for assessing a system's computing power. The scores are also handy for comparing the ultrabook to other laptops, but it's important to keep in mind that these are not quite apples-to-apples comparisons. Beyond having different hardware, the systems are running different drivers, have different applications installed, and may even have different Windows settings. So, look at the benchmark scores here as way to get a feel for the U310's general place in a range of notebooks, rather than as a rock-solid marker of its performance.
Also, we test each system with few changes to the configuration that the manufacturer selected when it sent us the device. In the case of laptops, we disable security software, which can trip up benchmark applications, and turn off power-saving features that would turn off the screen or put the system in sleep mode in the middle of a test.
SANDRA Memory Bandwidth and Physical Disk Performance
We ran the Processor Arithmetic, Processor Multimedia, Physical Disks, and Memory Bandwidth tests. The scores were mostly as you'd expect them to be: competitive, but not overtaking the scores of systems that have high-end hardware. There were a couple surprises, though. The U310 really held its own in the Processor Arithmetic benchmark, even against systems with faster processors. The U310's drive also offered excellent access times and data transfer rates. On the downside, the U310's memory bandwidth scores are decidedly lower than we've seen with similar ultrabooks. This is due in part the single channel memory setup in the U310. The bottom line is the U310 didn't wow SANDRA in these tests, but it's competent. In fact, that about sums up our take on the U310's multimedia capabilities as a whole, which we'll elaborate on a bit later.
ATTO Disk Benchmark gives us a good look at how your system's storage drive handles data transfers. Because there is a sizeable performance range among the SSDs on the market today, this test is particularly handy when you're looking at a laptop that has one.
Lenovo IdeaPad U310 - ATTO Test
Dell XPS 13 - ATTO Test
Lenovo IdeaPad U300s - ATTO Test
Asus Zenbook UX21
Comparing the U310's ATTO Disk score to those we've collected from similar systems, we can see that the U310 is noticeably faster (when reading data) than the Lenovo U300s. The U310's drive clocked in at about 342MB/sec when reading and wrote data at about 85MB/sec. That write speed is much slower than the U300s' SSD, though. However, the U310 writes faster than the SSD in the Toshiba Portégé Z835 that we reviewed earlier this year. All told, once again the U310 offers middle of the pack but respectable performance.
|PCMark Vantage and PCMark 7|
|We also put the Lenovo IdeaPad U310 through two of Futuremark's comprehensive benchmarks. We started with PCMark Vantage, which simulates the usage of a typical user. The test includes HDTV playback, movie playback, image and video editing, and music compression. It also puts the system through its paces with productivity applications.
Here, the U310 sits squarely in the middle of the systems in our comparison pool. At an overall PCMark score of 6572, the U310 lags behind the U300s. That's understandable, as the U300s that we tested had a Core i7-2677M processor at 2.1GHz (with Turbo Boost).
Next, we fired up PCMark 7, which is a more recently updated suite than PCMark 7. The software has different tests that cover many of the same types of activities. In our experience, PCMark 7 weighs graphics and processor performance a little more than PCMark Vantage does, while PCMark Vantage considers storage performance to a higher degree.
As you can see, the U310 again lands between the more powerful U300s and the Core i3-based Toshiba Portégé, but much closer to the U300s. In fact, there's only a 1% difference between the U310 and its more powerful sibling in PCMark 7.
|Cinebench and Gaming|
|If you're planning to do heavy gaming, an ultrabook is not what you're looking for. That said, an ultrabook user may well want to take a break and blow off some steam with light-duty gaming, so we loaded a few graphics intensive apps onto the Lenovo IdeaPad 310 and took it for a spin.
The U310 had a strong showing in Cinebench with its OpenGL score of 12.91, which handily defeated scores from similar systems. Keep in mind however, that the U310 is sporting Intel's latest Ivy Bridge chip here versus previous generation Sandy Bridge processors in the other machines. The U310 has Intel HD 4000 graphics in its arsenal as well. We threw in our Intel whitebook score here to give you a sense of where other similarly equipped Ivy Bridge machines might weigh in. Regardless, the U310 didn't fare as well in the CPU test, with a score of 2.39, but even that is one of the better Cinebench scores for the category.
Far Cry 2 uses a power graphics engine to bring a tropical island to life – an extremely dangerous island. The game includes a benchmark tool, which we paired with the build-in "Ranch" demo to get a feel for what the U310 can do.We knew going in that Far Cry 2 was going to be rough on the 310, as it would be on any ultrabook. Even so, the U310 put up a frame rate of 17.18, which, while arguably very slow, wasn't a bad score for the category. The single-channel memory may have been a factor here. If the U310 had dual-channel memory, we may have seen better game performance.
We also ran a benchmark in Left 4 Dead 2, the popular zombie-bashing game. Left 4 Dead 2 isn't nearly as graphically intensive as Far Cry 2, so you're more likely to be running it on your ultrabook when you take a break.
We ran the Left 4 Dead 2 benchmark at a few different resolutions and found that the U310 can handle the game reasonably well at a resolution of 1280x600. Not surprisingly, the frame rates dropped quickly as we moved into better resolutions, but the test establishes that you can get a little gaming going even with a productivity-oriented ultrabook. If there's a particular game you'd like to play, you may want to check Intel's list of games that have been tested with the Intel HD 4000. Intel points out that the list isn't comprehensive and that many games that are not on the list are still playable, but it ought to give you some reassurance to know that you're not giving up your secret Counter-Strike addiction if you pick up the U310.
|Battery Life Testing|
|Battery performance is important for laptops in general, but particularly for the ultrabook category. You buy the ultrabook for its portability – and portability means more than being light and easy to carry. It also means not needing to be tethered to a power outlet. If an ultrabook can't give you more than two hours of work time, it may hamper your productivity. We have two battery-draining tests that will give you an idea of what your workday with the Lenovo IdeaPad U310 might look like.
As you can see, the U310 has strong battery life, even under heavy workloads. At 148 minutes (nearly 2.5 hours), the U310 lasts quite a bit longer than its predecessor. It also handles light-duty work as well, which makes it a good companion for a long flight. Here, you'll get almost 7 hours of use on a single charge. Keep in mind that the system has performance settings that we don't touch, which means you're almost certain to see slightly better battery life in real-world use, especially if you tweak a little.
|Performance Summary and Rating|
|Performance Summary: The Lenovo IdeaPad U310 is a capable, portable, and classy ultrabook. As we discussed briefly in the beginning of our benchmark discussion, the system isn't meant to wow you with unrivalled performance. It's not a heavy-duty gamer, for example, and the graphics benchmarks reflect that. But the U310 is meant to be competitive in the price/performance arena, and it is, despite the single-channel DDR3 memory. We're still of the opinion that dual-channel memory could provide a little extra performance for Lenovo's ultrabooks.
As a machine you would use for everyday school, home, or business productivity, the U310 offers solid performance at just under the sweet-spot price of $800. And if you're willing to go with an Intel Core i3 processor, you can pick up the ultrabook for as little as $750. If you have a bit more budget, the new Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon or Dell Inspiron 14z both offer more robust performance and other component level upgrades as well.
For connectivity, we found the 310's Wi-Fi reception to be strong where we expected it to be, and decent in our network's known trouble spots. From a design standpoint, the U310 has a clean, polished style that makes it look like a more expensive laptop than it really is. And, more importantly, the U310 is very light and thin. Where a typical notebook can be somewhat unwieldy, the U310 is light enough that ultra-portability will be a nearly effortless affair for most users, without sacrificing style or performance. To boot, at it's MSRP of $799 as tested, you can bet you'll find deals at street prices that might even run a bit less. If you're looking for a competent slim laptop, we're very comfortable recommending the Lenovo IdeaPad U310 to you.