Aside from feeling a bit generic, we have no complaints about the U550’s matte black keyboard, which makes good use of the notebook’s long form factor and even includes a (slightly condensed) numeric keypad. Backlighting would have made a nice addition, but most typists will find little or no learning curve. The same goes for the medium-sized touchpad: Its matte finish with subtle dimples elimates finger drag nicely, and a strip of orange dots provide a nice clue where pointing surface ends and scrolling surface begins.
The 1.3-megapixel webcam built into the top of the display delivers acceptable picture quality for basic teleconferencing, but seemed to have a lot of digital noise even in well-lit situations, like an office, and colors seemed somewhat washed out and muted. However, it worked fine in conjunction with Lenovo’s own Veriface facial-recognition software for password-less logins.
The Lenovo IdeaPad U550 uses two postage-stamp-sized speakers located above the keyboard, rather than the less practical down-firing arrangement (which can get pretty muffled when you use it in a lap). Together, they muster enough volume for a movie trailer and YouTube clip here and there, but like most notebooks, the complete lack of bass will have you reaching for earbuds as soon as it’s time for some music.
Continuing with the trend we’ve seen in most Windows 7 laptops, our U550 went from power-on to desktop in a little under 50 seconds, and managed to pop open a browser window about 20 seconds later. Average, but acceptable, and we can’t help wondering if it wouldn’t be better without all the bloatware.
After booting into Windows 7, switching from ATI’s Radeon to the power-saving Intel GMA chip can be done in about five seconds, which is an important aspect for any feature users will actually hope to take advantage of on the fly. A hard switch on the front of the notebook will switch the graphics manually after confirming with an on-screen OK, and also indicates when the ATI is blazing away with a white LED. You can also switch cards through software by right clicking and choosing “Configure Switchable Graphics.” Advanced options like automatically activating the Intel chip when running on battery power also make it easier to take advantage of power savings without investing much thought. However, keep in mind that all applications need to be closed prior to switching, so the process can be more tedious if you’re already wrapped up in something (nowhere near as bad as Apple’s MacBook Pro, though, which requires users to actually log off OS X and back in).
Around the desktop, users won’t notice all that much of a difference between the U550 running on four cylinders or running on eight. Even HD YouTube video and high-quality 480p content from Hulu played well without invoking power of the ATI. Fire it up, however, and you open up a whole new level of performance.
Like most hardware, we pushed the ATI to its limits with Crysis, which remains one of the most demanding PC titles available, even in 2010. With the game set to match the display’s native 1366 x 768 native resolution, it yielded perfectly fluid motion with all settings on low. Frame rates consistently remained in the lower 30’s and upper 20’s, although some brief moments of action or other intense effects could push it into the teens. Stepping everything to medium immediately dropped frame-rates unacceptably low, but players who want more compelling visuals should be able to bump certain settings up with the headroom available, without damaging playability.
Running PCMark Vantage, the U550 hit a score of 2905 PCMarks, a bit under similar laptops like Sony’s Vaio NW, which achieved 3,142. 3DMark Vantage refused to run on the system, but 3DMark06 returned a score of 2,653 3DMarks. That’s nothing to brag about in gaming circles, but considering it’s using a CULV processor and still deals with Crysis at minimal settings, we would say the U550 could make a fair-weather gamer happy enough.
What difference does all that swapping make in battery life? A fairly significant one. With GPU on and brightness all the way up, you can expect about three hours on the desktop, and of course, significantly less once you start tearing away at games. Switch to the Intel GMA chip, and that number soars to five-and-a-half hours, which should make all the difference for extended trips away from outlets.
As a do-it-all notebook in this price range, you could do worse than Lenovo’s U550. But where other notebooks stand out by paying attention to the details, Lenovo earns itself demerit after demerit by rummaging through the bargain bin in places it doesn’t think we’re looking. Cheap materials and confused styling make the outside something to be tolerated more than appreciated, and a low-resolution screen and pile of cruddy software waiting on the desktop for new owners carries that cheap feeling right over to the inside. The power and flexibility of switchable ATI graphics coupled with a CULV processor provide some redemption in both performance and battery life, but you’ll have to look past the rough edges to appreciate them.
- Respectable battery life on Intel graphics
- Reasonably portable form factor, weight
- Easy-to-switch graphics
- Modest gaming performance
- Solid touchpad and keyboard
- Loaded to the gills with bloatware
- Below-par webcam quality
- Low-resolution screen
- Cheap-feeling plastic lid
- Weak speakers