Design and Build Quality
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.
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.