The rise of the netbook brought along with it the nettop, a small computer using an Intel Atom processor that could fit in a desk drawer. Products like the Acer Aspire Revo, Asus Eee Box and Lenovo Q110 promised a new era of thin-and-light desktop computing that would be less expensive and less obtrusive than the big beige boxes of old.
The idea sounded great, but the nettop never took off. Lenovo is one of the only companies that remains committed to the concept. Its latest effort has taken the form of the Lenovo Q180, a desktop that claims to be the world’s smallest fully functional PC.
It features one of Intel’s most modern Atom processors, the dual-core D2700, which runs at 2.13 GHz. Also included is AMD’s Radeon HD 6450A discrete graphics chip. Both of these components are standard – upgraded models only include more memory and a larger hard drive. Our review unit came with 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive. It also arrived with an MSRP of $449 on Lenovo’s website, but you can usually find the product for under $400.
Lenovo intends the Q180 to serve as a small general-purpose desktop, a media center or both. The system ships with a unique media remote and can optionally even include a Blu-ray drive. A video on the company website even claims that the system will “take your gaming to the next level.” That’s big talk for a small system.
Small and solid
We aren’t sure about the legitimacy of Lenovo’s claim that the system is the smallest fully functional PC – it depends on what you call fully functional, we guess – but the Q180 certainly isn’t large. Exclude the optional optical drive and it’s less than an inch thick, and adding the drive only increases thickness to 1.5 inches. It’s also no more than 8 inches long and barely 6 inches wide. A small hardcover book is about the same size and weight.
Poor build quality is sometimes the penalty for paying less, but that’s not the case here. The Q180 is sleek and attractive thanks to a color scheme that combines glossy piano black with reserved silver. Picking up the system communicates a robust, cohesive feel. Only a cluster of stickers on one side of the system interrupt the otherwise excellent aesthetics.
A PC this small can be easily hidden behind a monitor, and Lenovo ships the Q180 with a VESA mount for that purpose. Also included is a small plastic stand that can be used to hold it upright. While this is attractive, the system is light and easy to tip over. Make sure you keep it out of arm’s reach to prevent any accidents.
There’s no shortage of connectivity here. Rear ports include four USB 2.0, Ethernet, VGA, HDMI and S/PDIF out. At the front, hidden behind a removable plastic cover, you’ll find two USB 3.0 ports, audio jacks and an 8-in-1 card reader. While larger desktops usually offer more, this is a nice selection for a small computer, and the inclusion of USB 3.0 is a plus.
Still, a problem exists. If you select an optical drive, it connects via a U-shaped USB adapter that plugs in to the back, eliminating one USB 2.0 port and cluttering those around it. We find it strange that Lenovo would design the product with an optional optical drive, yet could not design a better way to connect the drive than this amateur solution. It looks like something a user would rig, not a configuration that would ship from a factory.
Usually a computer designed with price in mind ships with few or no peripherals. That’s not the case here. Lenovo provides a standard keyboard and mouse with scroll wheel as part of the package. Users will likely find the mouse to be adequate, but the keyboard feels extremely cheap and is quite possibly the worst desktop keyboard we’ve ever encountered. You’ll want to replace it if you plan to use the Q180 for document editing.
Also included is the previously mentioned media remote. It’s a small T-shaped device that includes a miniature keyboard, a trackpointer and a touch-sensitive scrolling surface. Using the remote is initially awkward thanks to a keyboard layout that does not replicate a computer keyboard (the keys are arranged in straight rows) and an overly sensitive trackpointer.
After an hour of use, we grew more tolerate of these quirks and after several hours we were navigating the desktop easily. It’s an imperfect solution, but better than using a keyboard and mouse. The included media buttons can play and pause video and control volume, eliminating the need for any other media remote.
Atom still struggles
The Atom processor in this tiny PC is the fastest we’ve ever tested of its kind. It’s a dual-core model that runs at 2.13GHz and is based off Intel’s latest Cedarfield hardware revision. The bump in clock speed over earlier 1.66GHz and 1.8GHz Atom dual-cores is substantial. But does it significantly improve performance?
Not really. SiSoft Sandra’s Processor Arithmetic benchmark returned a score of 9.71 GOPS and 7-Zip returned a combined score of 2,232. These results are relatively good when compared to older Atom processors, which often scored between 7 and 8 GOPS, but raw processor power is still well short of an Intel Core processor.
PCMark 7 did this PC no favors, reaching a score of just 1,026. That’s the lowest score we’ve recorded since we started to use PCMark 7 a little less than a year ago. Even the HP dm1z, a budget ultraportable based of the AMD E-Series APU, posted a slightly higher score of 1,083.
Intel still ships Atom processors with the nearly useless Intel Media Accelerator IGP, so Lenovo added a Radeon HD 6450A to beef up the system’s capabilities. It does offer better results, but this GPU is still small and designed to sip power rather than crank out frames. 3DMark 06 offered a score of 3,054 and 3DMark 11 scored 498. Both of these are low and represent a system that will have difficulty playing modern 3D titles even at low detail settings.
Lenovo states on its website that the Q180 can be used as a media center. The inclusion of a media remote in the package certainly indicates that Lenovo is serious about this claim. Our testing revealed that there were few problems with playing locally hosted 1080p content through a lightweight player, such as VLC.
Not many people view content this way, however. Most use a service such as Netflix or iTunes – and this is where the Atom processor and Radeon GPU become entirely inadequate. Netflix was unwatchable due to dropped flames and audio synchronization issues. Using iTunes was a bit more pleasurable, but there were frame-tearing issues visible in fast scenes and infrequent bursts of dropped frames.
YouTube was unwatchable at 1080p due to stutters and pauses that would sometimes last for several seconds. Reducing the quality to 720p offered some improvement, but the experience was still poor overall.
Even in this latest, most refined form, Atom remains a poor choice for a media center and offers disappointing performance overall. It’s clear that the processor which made netbooks popular is also one that is fundamentally flawed. If Lenovo wants to continue making nettops that could double as media centers, it should consider an AMD E-series APU.
At least its efficient
The poor overall performance of even a modern Atom processor is no surprise. Its problems are in the architecture, which is designed for low power consumption rather than speed. A modest boost in clock speed is not going to change the fundamentals.
While that is bad news for the system’s speed, it’s good news for its efficiency. Though small, the Q180 doesn’t put off much heat and requires only a tiny, low-speed fan to cool it. You’ll be able to hear the fan whirr away in a dead-quiet room, but its noise is difficult to pinpoint in any other setting. It doesn’t become a whirlwind when the hardware is stress, either. This means you can stick the system in a home theater and never have to worry about it distracting from the movie soundtrack.
Unfortunately, this benefit is irrelevant because most HD media is beyond the capabilities of this computer. Still, its cool operation and low noise levels are a notable benefit for people who are considering it for a simple desktop PC. If you use the included VESA mount to hide the computer behind your monitor, the hardware becomes an install-and-forget solution.
The Lenovo Q180 is one of the best nettops we’ve ever tested. It is small, quiet, attractive and comes with a buffet of peripherals that add value to the system. If you’re going to buy a nettop this is likely to be your best option.
Yet this mini-PC can’t escape the problems shared by all nettops. The hardware is barely adequate for modern computing. Tasks that are simple on other computers, such as playing back HD YouTube clips, are too much for this system to handle. Not even price can be used as a selling point. Though certainly inexpensive, many manufacturers will sell you an Intel Pentium or Core i3 system for the same chunk of change.
Using this computer as a media center is out of the question unless you plan to only view downloaded content in a player designed for maximum performance. Using any other service will result in an unacceptable experience. A Roku, by contrast, can easily stream 1080p content – and it only costs $99.
We can’t blame Lenovo for anything besides its willingness to offer hardware that isn’t up to snuff. The company has designed an attractive product with numerous ports, and even thrown in a decent media remote. But the fate of this system is sealed by the hardware. Without a quicker processor, this nettop can’t hope to perform the duty Lenovo claims it will.
- Small and attractive
- Numerous ports
- Ships with useful peripherals
- Inadequate processor performance
- Can’t handle many HD video sources
- More powerful systems are priced the same