If you think Lenovo can only make boring, brick-tank ThinkPads, think again. The company’s new IdeaPad notebooks are its first foray into stylish, consumer-friendly notebooks, and we have to say, Lenovo has done a heck of a job on the style front. We looked at the ultra-portable U110 and came away very impressed by its small size, thin stature and excellent extras. Its display and keyboard hold it back somewhat, but there’s still a lot to like about this highly portable and sexy notebook.
Features and Design
The new IdeaPads from Lenovo come in several different sizes, including 15.4” and 17” as well as the 11.1” ultra-portable we’ll be reviewing. Though a lot of media attention was heaped upon Lenovo’s brilliant X300 for being so thin and light, the IdeaPad U110 is even thinner and lighter at .72 inches thick and weighing just 2.4lbs.
This is an incredibly thin and light notebook, though it’s not an anemic machine by any standards. It’s powered by a low-voltage Intel Core 2 Duo “Merom” processor running at 1.6GHz that plugs into an Intel 965 “Santa Rosa” motherboard. It sports 2GB of DDR2 memory and uses onboard Intel X3100 graphics to run Windows Vista Home Premium.
Pieces of Flair
As you may know, Lenovo’s ThinkPad notebooks have as much flair and style as sheet rock, so we were very pleasantly surprised to see so many small touches of elegance and style all over the IdeaPad. For starters, the LCD lid is covered in an interesting pattern that causes the lid to have a unique texture and appearance, and Lenovo put some of this pattern on the underside of the notebook as well. Second, above the keyboard there lies a hidden row of customizable hotkeys. During normal operation the keys are invisible, but if you apply a small bit of pressure anywhere along the area the keys softly come into view, as if a soft orange lamp was slowly illuminating. The buttons even have orange “flowers” wrapped around them, if that makes sense. Finally, the keyboard keys have the same glossy black sheen as the rest of the notebook, giving it an overall elegant look and feel.
Another interesting feature of the U110 is its 11.1” display. It runs at a widescreen resolution of 1366×768 and has an interesting design in that there’s no bezel on top of the display like you typically see. Instead the display is completely flush and rests behind the glossy cover of the display, making it totally smooth all the way to the edge of the display on all sides. Lenovo has also placed the activity lights inside the lower portion of the LCD bezel, so rather than seeing a light flash somewhere on the edge of the notebook you see a soft blue light illuminating underneath the display. It also features an integrated 1.3MP webcam that ties into the system’s facial recognition software to let you log into Windows with your face.
Ports and connectors
A lot of ultra-portables skimp on ports and connectors due to size constraints, but the IdeaPad shows you can make a notebook thin and still maintain maximum connectivity. Not only does it feature an Ethernet port, but it also has three USB 2.0 ports, a multimedia card reader, an ExpressCard port, FireWire, headphone/mic jacks and VGA out.
Lots of extras
Like most ultra-portables, the U110 does not include an optical drive in the main chassis due to its size, however Lenovo has thoughtfully included a USB DVD-R/RW/CD-R/RW burner. There are also two batteries included in the package, with both a super-slim 4-cell battery and a “sticks out the back” 7-cell battery. Lenovo also throws in a cleaning cloth and a nylon carrying case as well.
Lenovo did an outstanding job with the U110’s design. It’s very sleek and stylish and now what you’d expect from Lenovo.
Use and Testing
Remember that cool pattern we mentioned earlier that adorns the laptop’s LCD cover and a portion of the undercarriage? Lenovo put it on the box too, tying the whole package together and making it seem like you’re in for something special before you even take it out of the box.
Once we did remove it from the box we were surprised by how small it was. It’s not tiny like the Asus Eee PC but it’s certainly much smaller than a bigger ultra-portable like the X300, which is pretty much a full-sized notebook.
Our review unit is the black model, but you can order a similar version with a red LCD cover that we think looks a bit cooler than the black model. We also found out quickly the textured LCD cover is a magnet for fingerprints, as is the rest of the glossy black chassis.
After we removed the notebook from the box we were surprised to find so many goodies in the box, as we typically find just the power adapter, software CDs and the unit itself, but as we mention earlier the U110 includes two batteries, a carrying case, cleaning cloth and an external USB optical drive.
We pressed the power button and watched the unit come to life. It took 1 minute and 6 seconds to boot to Vista Home Premium, which is average. When it came to the Vista log-in screen we saw the facial recognition software at work, which is called VeriFace. Since we hadn’t registered our face yet we just bypassed it and logged in normally. We eventually registered our face and had no problems using our mug to log into Windows.
At the desktop things were pleasingly clean. Lenovo has never really been known for massive bloatware violations, and we’re happy to report the IdeaPad continues this trend. The only trialware present was Norton AntiVirus and Office 2007; both of which could be potentially useful to customers. There was an Earthlink ad on the desktop in the form of a Macromedia Flash file, but aside from that the rest of the icons were for Lenovo apps and Cyberlink Power2Go for burning media. While idling at the desktop we checked memory usage and found only 37 percent was consumed, leaving us with over 1.5GB of available memory.
Something we complained about in our review of the X300 was that the size of the Windows installation was gigantic, taking up almost half of the available hard drive space. The IdeaPad thankfully doesn’t suffer from this. Its 120GB 4,200rpm hard drive ships from the factory with a decent-sized 16GB Windows installation, leaving 51.4GB free on the main partition. Lenovo has also created a second partition that is 27GB in size and includes all the drivers for the U110, such as LAN, audio, graphics, etc. It’s a nice touch that would be very helpful if a full reinstall of the OS were to be required at some point in the future.
Like any ultra-portable, you’re not going to be setting any benchmark records with a low-voltage processor-based machine like the U110. It’s Windows Vista Experience Index score is a middle-of-the-road 3.5, and its 4,200rpm hard drive is also not going to set the world on fire either. However, as we’ve stated before, for a machine this small we don’t have unrealistic expectations, and as long as it can open programs, a web browser and boot in a decent time it’ll be fine for its intended purpose, which is simple emailing and web browsing. In that regard we have no complaints about the U110 – it felt responsive enough to satisfy our basic needs, and was always very quiet even when we could feel a bit of heat coming out of the left-side exhaust. We attempted to run our desktop performance benchmark – PCMark Vantage – on the U110, but once again it was unable to run so we are most likely going to ditch it since it has proven to be extremely unreliable.
A rather nice feature of the U110 is that it includes two batteries – a slim 4-cell unit that rests flush with the chassis when inserted, and a larger 7-cell battery that pokes out the back of the unit a bit when in use. We tested both batteries by connecting to the Internet and playing music (4-cell) and a DVD (7-cell). Overall the battery life was about average, as we netted 56 minutes of uptime with the 4-cell battery and 2 hours and 47 minutes with the 7-cell battery. These times are decent and could easily be extended by shutting off various components and setting the display to shut off after a few minutes, which is a setting we disabled.
Several of the notebook’s we’ve reviewed in the recent past have included soft-touch media keys, most notably Gateway and Toshiba. While the Toshiba’s buttons worked well, the Gateway’s were hit-and-miss, especially the volume control which basically didn’t work at all. On the IdeaPad, there is a soft-touch volume control on the far-right of the area under the LCD that can always be seen by its faint glow, and it actually works very well. Lightly pressing it brings up an onscreen menu showing the volume moving up and down, and we found it to be accurate and easy to use. When you press anywhere along the media bar (that’s what we’re going to call it) the other customizable soft-touch buttons slowly illuminate and require very little pressure to activate. Overall, Lenovo’s implementation of the soft-touch keys is a slick way of keeping the interface uncluttered while still making the keys easy to access. .
The Bad Stuff
As much as we like the U110, we do have a few gripes. The biggest disappointment is the display, which has a very grainy look to it. We’re not sure if it’s the display itself or the glossy cover, but it’s not pretty and was tough on our eyes. Our second semi-big gripe is the keyboard. We’ve stated repeatedly that the keyboards that come with Lenovo ThinkPad notebooks are the best in the business, bar-none, but this keyboard is not even in the same ballpark. The problem is that rather than having keys with tapered edges to distinguish a key from the one next to it, all the keys are totally flat and line up right next to each other, making it difficult to tell where your fingers are located and ultimately making typing more difficult than it should be. We were also nonplussed by the lack of support for the emerging 80211.n wireless standard. In our minds anyone buying a notebook these days should take the N-factor into consideration. At least it has an ExpressCard port so you could always buy an N adapter in the future.
The IdeaPad is an excellent freshman outing from Lenovo, especially in the style category; who would have thought Lenovo had it in them? Certainly not us, that’s for sure. We also like the form-factor a lot too, as mini-PCs like the Asus Eee PC are a bit too small for practical use, and 13.3” notebooks are basically full-sized, so the U110 fits perfectly into its own niche called “very small and very portable.” It’s a shame about the screen though, and hopefully Lenovo will fix this issue as we can see it bothering a lot of people. The keyboard is less of a concern to us, simply because this is a notebook for web surfing and emailing, not major productivity. And for that purpose, it does a better than average job and includes all the accessories you’d ever need including a big battery and a USB optical drive.
• Very small and light
• Lots of great accessories
• Face recognition
• Display is very grainy
• Keyboard is difficult to type on
• No 80211.n capability