Lenovo IdeaPad U400 Notebook Review

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.

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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