Lenovo IdeaPad S940 review

The Lenovo IdeaPad S940 has its flaws, but the presentation won us over

Lenovo IdeaPad S940

“The IdeaPad S940’s couple of compromises don’t detract from the attractive aesthetic, lovely display, and tight design.”
  • Very small, thin, and light design
  • Solid build quality
  • Bright and colorful 4K display with good HDR support
  • Useful auto-lock and unlock feature
  • Lovely aesthetic
  • Thin chassis limits performance
  • 4K display takes a toll on battery life
  • No touch display

Thin bezels are all the rage these days, and Lenovo has joined in on the fun. Its newest laptop, the IdeaPad S940, comes with a whopping 90 percent screen-to-bezel ratio, meaning its 14-inch display fits into a standard 13-inch chassis.

We looked at a midrange IdeaPad S940 configuration that’s built around an 8th-gen Whiskey Lake Core i7-8565U, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB PCIe solid-state drive (SSD), and a 4K (3,840 x 2,160) IPS display with Dolby Vision and HDR VESA400 certification. That’s a decent configuration that comes in at a distinctively premium price, specifically $1,600 from Lenovo.com.

Carrying less laptop around without giving up display size is a good thing. But did Lenovo have to make any compromises to fit everything inside?

Wow, that really is a small laptop

Picking up the IdeaPad S940 is a singular experience (at least, until the next tiny-bezel laptop comes around). Seriously, this is a small laptop, coming in at 12.57 inches wide by 7.77 inches deep by 0.55 inches thick. It’s not the smallest around, though. The Asus ZenBook 14 is almost the same size, at 12.56 inches by 7.83 inches, but it’s slightly thicker than the IdeaPad S940 at 0.63 inches. They weigh roughly the same, at 2.64 versus 2.62 pounds.

The IdeaPad S940 cheats, though, by including its cameras in a notch the extends above the display. Think of it as the reverse of a smartphone notch, and it performs the same function of making everything fit into an otherwise very tight space. On the laptop, though, that notch is useful – it’s easy to grab and open the lid with just one hand. You’ll want to watch out for fingerprints, though. The hinge helps by being very smooth and offering just enough pressure to keep the display in place while you’re typing.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention a standout feature of the IdeaPad S940’s design. If you look at the left and right sides of the display, you’ll find another similarity to some modern smartphones: The edges are curved, making the bezels appear to be even smaller. We like the look, but we’re less impressed that Lenovo didn’t equip the laptop with a touch display – those smooth edges just beg to be swiped.

In terms of its aesthetics, the IdeaPad S940 is conservatively striking. Unlike the Dell XPS 13 with its multiple colors or the HP Spectre x360 13 with its gem-cut edges, the Lenovo achieved a very attractive look that doesn’t stand out quite as much. The IdeaPad S940 sports a similarly understated design as the Lenovo Yoga C930 and, oddly enough, the same forward-sweeping lines of the Dell Latitude 7400 2-in-1. It’s a darker color, which Lenovo dubs “Iron Grey,” and we like it as much as the Dell’s dark (but lighter) silver.

Picking up the IdeaPad S940 is a singular experience – it’s a very small laptop.

Of course, we need to be concerned about build quality with such a thin laptop. And here, the IdeaPad S940 excels. It’s a very solid laptop, with no give in the lid, the keyboard deck, or the chassis bottom. It’s nearly as rigid as the Yoga C930, which is our standard for robust consumer laptops.

Connectivity befits the laptop’s thickness, meaning that you’re limited to USB-C ports. One is a USB-C 3.1 Gen 1 port while the other two support Thunderbolt 3. Any of the ports can be used to power and charge the laptop, and Thunderbolt 3 means that external display support is optimized and external GPU enclosures can enable vastly improved gaming. Unfortunately, there’s no SD card reader. Wireless connectivity is provided by an Intel gigabit adapter providing fast 2X2 MU-MIMO Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 5.0

The S940’s nifty security trick is powered by AI

The IdeaPad S940 doesn’t benefit from the excellent keyboard that Lenovo uses in its ThinkPad line. Instead, it’s the keyboard on the company’s premium consumer laptops. That means it’s not deep, but it has a nice snap and good spacing. We prefer the ThinkPad keyboards, as well as the ones on the XPS 13 and Spectre x360, but the IdeaPad S940’s version will be a good performer for most users.

The touchpad is a better experience. It fills most of the available space on the keyboard deck, and its plastic surface is smooth without being slippery. Microsoft Precision touchpad support means Windows 10 multitouch gestures work perfectly, and generally, we liked the touchpad as much as one of our favorites, the XPS 13.

Lenovo IdeaPad S940 review
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

As we mentioned earlier, Lenovo chose not to equip the IdeaPad S940 with a touch display. That’s disappointing, not only because the curved bezels beg for touch but also because using a laptop with a touchscreen is so much more pleasant than using one without. Sometimes you want to just grab the display and use your thumb to swipe through a long web page, and we miss that here.

Lenovo did pay some extra attention to security, though. Included in the reverse notch is a set of cameras that support Windows 10 Hello via infrared facial recognition. That’s not all, though – like the significantly more expensive Latitude 7400 2-in-1 and the Lenovo ThinkPad X390, the IdeaPad S940 can also recognize when a user steps away from the laptop and turn off the display and put the machine to sleep. When the user returns, the screen turns back on and Windows 10 Hello kicks in.

Lenovo chose a sharp, colorful, and bright HDR display with average contrast and color accuracy.

The IdeaPad S940 performed just as well here as did the Latitude 7400. There’s some artificial intelligence built into Lenovo’s solution, including the ability to automatically set the right distance sensitivity, and it can also turn video on and off as the user leaves the area. As with the Dell, we find this to be a useful feature that helps ensure you don’t inadvertently leave your laptop open to snooping. We didn’t specifically test to see if the feature impacts the battery life, but we discovered the effect on the Latitude and suspect it will be the same with the Lenovo.

Lenovo also included Glance software that moves your cursor from window to window and from display to display, in multi-monitor configurations, just by glancing. As with the ThinkPad X390 that featured Glance, the software keeps the webcam light turned on – which we found to be a real annoyance.

An incredibly bright 4K screen

Our review unit sports a 4K (3,840 x 2,160) IPS display that features high dynamic range (HDR) support, both Dolby Vision and VESA40 certification, and that boasts 500 nits of brightness. There’s also a more mundane Full HD (1,920 x 1,080) IPS display available for anyone who wants to save on cash and battery life.

Our colorimeter provided mostly good news about the display. To begin with, it’s indeed very bright at 470 nits, which is well above our 300-nit preference and much brighter than most laptop displays we’ve tested. And, it offers 83 percent AdobeRGB and 100 percent sRGB color gamut coverage, both of which are again significantly better than average.  Accuracy was just okay at 2.0 (less than 1.0 is excellent), and contrast was also rather average at 850:1 – we like to see modern displays at 1000:1 or better.

Those metrics compare favorably to most of our comparison group. The IdeaPad is significantly brighter and its color gamut is much higher – in fact, the average color gamut support in premium laptops runs closer to 73 percent of AdobeRGB and 95 percent of sRGB. That would make the IdeaPad S940’s display more attractive to creatives who value a lot of colors if the accuracy were a bit higher – like the Dell XPS 15 4K display that comes in at 97 percent, 100 percent, and 0.68, respectively.

Where the IdeaPad S940’s panel shines, though, is in its HDR performance. Windows 10 support for HDR is still in its infancy, and so we’ve found a great deal of variation in quality among laptops that support streaming HDR video on the internal display. The IdeaPad S940 does a very good job with HDR content, enhancing details in darker scenes without completely blowing out brighter scenes. That compares favorably to the Dell XPS 13 Full HD display, which while being Dolby Vision certified did a much worse job – to the point where much Netflix content, for example, was easier to watch on the Dell with HDR turned off.

Lenovo IdeaPad S940 review
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

The IdeaPad S940’s display isn’t as good at handling HDR as the HP Spectre x360 15 version with an AMOLED display. And as we noted in that laptop’s review, the AMOLED display was even better at streaming Netflix with HDR turned off. The two are more evenly matched, though, when playing HDR YouTube videos, although the AMOLED display still wins out.

What all this means in practice is that Lenovo chose a very sharp, very colorful, and very bright display with average contrast and color accuracy. It’s a weird mix, therefore – it’s not quite a great choice for creative professionals, and it’s not the best choice for productivity users. But it’s very good for both. And if you like watching Netflix TV shows and movies, then it’s better than most laptops.

Sometimes, being too thin can slow you down

We reviewed a high-end configuration of the IdeaPad S940 complete with a quad-core “Whiskey Lake” 8th-generation Core i7-8565U. It’s a fast processor that can usually churn through productivity tasks and even handle some demanding chores like video encoding.

Once we started running our benchmarks, though, we found a discrepancy.

First, in the Geekbench 4 synthetic benchmark, the IdeaPad S940 scored a slightly low 5,011 in the single-core test and a very low 13,467 in the multi-core test. The ZenBook 14 was slightly faster with the same CPU at 5,245 and 14,353, respectively, and the less expensive Acer Swift 3 14-inch scored 5,231 and 15,117. Even so, the IdeaPad S940 didn’t perform terribly in the synthetic benchmark

Things got more concerning when we ran our usual real-world test, using Handbrake to encode a 420MB video file to H.265. Our first run saw the IdeaPad S940 take a full 411 seconds to complete the test, where other laptops with the same CPU take less than 300 seconds. We ran it again, and it completed in 320 seconds. We then ran it a few more times and arrived at an average of 367 seconds.

Acer confirmed that the IdeaPad’s thin chassis results in some thermal throttling.

Those results stand out for two reasons. First, they’re significantly slower than our comparison group, including the ZenBook 14 that was very quick at 237 seconds. Second, most laptops we review are very consistent in this test, varying by only a few seconds between runs. We suspected that the IdeaPad S940 was thermally throttling as a result of its very thin chassis, and Acer confirmed as much when we put the question to them. We tried turning off “Intelligent Cooling” in the Lenovo Vantage app, but it made no difference.

The Samsung PCIe SSD that Lenovo selected provided strong results, scoring 2,077 megabytes per second (MB/s) in the CrystalDiskMark 5read test, and 1,462 MB/s in the write test. That’s much faster than the Kingston SSD in the Acer Swift 3 that scored 857 MB/s and 764 MB/s, and just slightly slower than the Toshiba SSD in the Latitude 7400 2-in-1 that managed 2,160 MB/s and 1,774 MB/s. In real-world use, the IdeaPad S940 was plenty quick at booting, opening apps, and loading and saving data.

During our testing, we found the IdeaPad S940 to be a good performer in our usual productivity work. It seemed as fast in normal use as most laptops we’ve tested with the same processor. But the thermal throttling would be a concern if we needed to perform more intensive tasks like video editing, where the IdeaPad S940 would be slower than it should be.

Being so thin, the IdeaPad S940 also gets a bit warmer than some other laptops we’ve reviewed. Temperatures during a 3DMark stress test reached 111 degrees F on the top row of the keyboard and underneath the chassis in the same place. And so while the CPU is throttled, that doesn’t stop the chassis from heating up. A positive is that the fans aren’t very loud, and so while they spin up they’re not obnoxious.

Even less of a gaming laptop than usual

The IdeaPad S940 starts as an unlikely candidate for anyone who wants to do more than the most casual gaming. It’s limited to Intel UHD 620 integrated graphics, and adding in the thermal throttling had us even less excited than usual.

According to the 3DMark Fire Strike test, the IdeaPad S940 is indeed slower than similarly equipped laptops. It scored an 899, while most laptops with the same graphics score over 1,100. Then, when we ran a few runs in Fortnite, the IdeaPad S940 managed just seven frames per second (FPS) at 1080p and high graphics and six at epic graphics. That’s around half of the other laptops we’ve tested with the same Intel UHD 620 graphics.

Given the 4K display, we didn’t get our hopes up for record-breaking longevity.

The IdeaPad S940 is therefore not any kind of gaming laptop – the Acer Swift 3 14-inch with an Nvidia GeForce MX150 is a better option. If you go with the Lenovo, then stick with casual Windows 10 games and indie titles if you need to get a gaming fix.

The 4K tax on battery life

The IdeaPad S940 has 52 watt-hours of battery packed inside that small and thin chassis. That’s not a lot for a 14-inch laptop, but then again most have more room inside. Given the 4K display, we didn’t get our hopes up for record-breaking longevity.

We’re not at all surprised, then, to see the IdeaPad S940 falling short against its competition. In our most demanding Basemark web benchmark test, the Lenovo made it just past three hours, similar to the Swift 3 14-inch. The ZenBook 14, though, lasted for almost four and three-quarter hours and the also-expensive Dell Latitude 7400 2-in-1 lasted for close to seven hours.

Next, we ran the IdeaPad S940 through our web browsing test that loops a series of popular web pages. Here, it lasted for just over six hours while the next closest comparison machine, the ZenBook 14, lasted for almost eight hours. Again, the Latitude 7400 was the standout at a whopping 14.3 hours. We’ll note that the latest Dell XPS 13 with a 4K display lasted for 30 minutes longer in this test, highlighting the impact of high resolutions on battery life.

Lenovo IdeaPad S940 review
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Finally, when repeating our 1080p Avengers local test video, the IdeaPad S940 just barely made it to 10 hours. The ZenBook 14 lasted for 11 hours, the Swift 3 for 15.3 hours, and the Latitude 7400 a spectacular 21.8 hours. The IdeaPad S940 did last three hours longer than the XPS 13, which shut down after just seven hours of video looping.

The IdeaPad suffers from too little battery capacity for too power components and a very power-hungry 4K display. It’s unlikely you’ll get a full day’s work on a single charge of the battery, and so you’ll want to carry your power adapter with you if you’ll be away from the office for a while. That does tend to reduce the value of such a thin and light laptop.

Our Take

The IdeaPad S940 is a great laptop to carry around – literally, it’s nice in hand and doesn’t take up much room wherever you need to use it. Lenovo did a remarkable job of packing a very nice 4K 14-inch display into a very small chassis.

Unfortunately, the company also made it very thin, which limited performance due to thermal throttling and didn’t leave room for enough battery to satisfy that power-hungry display. The IdeaPad S940 has a very attractive aesthetic and tight design, but its svelte frame comes at a real cost.

Is there a better alternative?

We’ve reviewed a couple of 14-inch laptops that compete with the IdeaPad, and one very relevant option is the Asus ZenBook 14 UX433. It’s also very small thanks to even tinier bezels, and while it’s not as thin as the IdeaPad, it provides better performance – especially if you buy the version with the MX150 GPU. It’s also much less expensive, at $1,200 for a Core i7-8565U, 16GB of RAM, a 512GB PCIe SSD and a Full HD display. You’ll pay $100 or so more for the faster graphics.

Next up is the Asus ZenBook S13. It, too, features spectacularly tiny bezels and a very small chassis. It’s not quite as thin as the IdeaPad S940, but it’s also faster and doesn’t suffer from the same kind of thermal throttling. It also comes standard with the MX150, meaning it’ll provide better gaming and creativity app performance in basically the same footprint. And, it’s similarly priced at $1,400 including a larger 512GB SSD but with a Full HD display – that affords it much better battery life.

Finally, you could consider the IdeaPad S940’s business cousin, the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon. It, too, is a pricey laptop $1,682 for a similar configuration. It’s also not as small or as thin, but it’s very light with a better keyboard. It also sports the iconic ThinkPad design, if that’s something that appeals to you.

How long will it last?

The IdeaPad S940 is very well built and provides some confidence that it will keep up with the usual productivity-worker wear and tear. It also enjoys up-to-date components, including Thunderbolt 3 connectivity that will keep up with new peripherals. The 1-year warranty is disappointing, as usual.

Should you buy it?

Yes, if you’re looking for an extremely small 14-inch laptop with a very nice display. But beware the performance and battery life tradeoffs.

Editors' Recommendations