Power when you need it, efficiency when you don’t. So goes the premise behind Lenovo’s new IdeaPad U550, a mid-size notebook with a CULV processor and switchable ATI graphics that could serve as both a desktop replacement, and a makeshift travel machine. Throw that together with a $799 price tag (as equipped) and the U550 makes an appealing pitch to computer buyers looking to make one purchase for all their computing needs. Can it follow through? We give Lenovo’s perfect porridge a taste test.
Patterns and texture have become a staple of the IdeaPad aesthetic, and the U550 is no exception. An extremely fine checkerboard pattern molded into the lid feels almost like the texture of knurled metal to the touch. Unfortunately, that’s about where the analogy ends. There’s no metal to speak of here, and a rap on the surface with a fingernail returns an cheap, hollow feel. And it is cheap. Closing the screen and carrying the notebook around, the lid bows visibly under the thumb. To its credit, the texture lends more visual appeal and resistance to fingerprints than a plain sheet of the same cheap plastic would, but we can’t abide by the otherwise flimsy feel of the whole display enclosure.
Inside, the checkerboard carries over to a thin stripe at the top edge and a diamond crosshatch on the speaker grilles, but the rest has been left clean and smooth. The plastic has a silky feel in between the rubbery texture of a ThinkPad and the polished, almost sticky gloss of a Sony Vaio. It works. The same can’t quite be said of the bizarre vents cut into the bottom, which look like decorative woodwork from a Chinese restaurant. However discreet, they give the notebook a confused sort of styling that makes us think Lenovo designer’s still aren’t totally sure what and IdeaPad should look like, short of covering it in patterns.
As a full-size laptop, the U550 comes equipped with the standard array of inputs and outputs you would expect on a notebook. No more, no less. The right-hand side offers a tray-loading DVD drive, a single USB port, Ethernet jack, and room for the DC power jack. Around the other side, you’ll find both VGA and HDMI connections for video, dedicated headphone and microphone jacks, and two USB ports, which are thoughtfully separated to front and back for easier access, and to prevent devices overlapping. The front has an SD card slot, a Wi-Fi switch, and a dedicated switch for activating and deactivating discrete graphics, which we’ll elaborate more on later.
Buyers can order the U550 as cheap as $679, but at that level, you’re getting only Intel’s GMA 4500MHD integrated graphics. Our U550 came with the far more desirable ATI Mobile Radeon HD4330 and 512MB of dedicated RAM under the hood, along with 4GB of DDR3 RAM, a 320GB hard drive, 1.3-megapixel webcam, fingerprint scanner, and an 1.3GHz CULV Intel Core 2 Duo at the helm. Of course, true to the switchable graphics premise, the Intel GMA chip is still there and ready to play when you want to stretch the U550’s battery life for the long haul.
Despite the relatively beefy 15.6-inch screen and substantial 14.8-inch by 9.9-inch footprint, the U550 weighs a reasonable 5.3 pounds. While that doesn’t make it the most outstanding globetrotter, most owners should have no problem tossing it in a backpack or messenger bag without breaking a sweat, and the power adapter – which is about the size of a Wii controller – will tag along nicely, too.
The U550’s 15.6-inch display uses a rather low resolution, 1366 x 768 panel. That’s the same number of pixels Sony managed to stuff into the tiny 11.1-inch screen on the Sony Vaio X, which means it starts to look a bit stretched on this much, much larger screen. For desktop applications, like surfing and word processoing, that means a smaller sandbox to fit all your applications in. However, as we’ll see in the performance section, it also makes an otherwise mid-spec machine more viable for gaming.
Unlike Lenovo’s immaculate business machines, IdeaPads seem to come burdened with just about every type of software imaginable. From Cyberlink Power2Go to Lenovo ReadyComm 5, the desktop has been strewn with over a dozen shortcuts to pre-installed clutter. Some applications, like Lenovo Idea Central’s “Decision Center,” actually serve as hubs to even more garbage, barraging you with offers for online backup solutions, identity theft monitoring programs, and more. Some of it is useful. Most of it isn’t. In either case, we wish Lenovo had moved confined it to a single folder on the start menu, rather than spreading it all over the system and even building it into utilities. As a matter of personal preference, we would probably just reinstall Windows rather than attempting to disassemble the junk pile Lenovo has heaped into this machine.