Lenovo IdeaPad U400 Review

Lenovo’s IdeaPad U400 is a fantastic combination of performance and design.
Lenovo’s IdeaPad U400 is a fantastic combination of performance and design.
Lenovo’s IdeaPad U400 is a fantastic combination of performance and design.

Highs

  • Sturdy, attractive design
  • Large touchpad
  • Runs cool
  • Small for a 14” laptop
  • Excellent overall performance

Lows

  • Glossy, mediocre display
  • So-so battery life
  • Gaming performance could be better

In the eyes of enthusiasts, Lenovo is still known primarily for its ThinkPad line which has carried on IBM’s legacy of rugged, affordable laptops. Lenovo has not neglected its consumer division, however. Instead, the company has aggressively pursued new designs and new products, one of which is the IdeaPad U series. Case in point is the Lenovo U400 which we are reviewing.

The U series is Lenovo’s take on the trendy, high-end laptop market that is dominated by Apple’s MacBook Pro. We reviewed a couple older models in this line over a year ago and found that design and build quality was lacking. Fortunately the tech world moves rather quickly. The entire line has moved on to new models, one of which is the Lenovo U400. While high-end models are priced at well over $1000, the mid-range model we received for review currently is sold on Amazon for $899.

For that reasonable chunk of change you’ll receive a Core i5 processor, Radeon HD 6470M discrete graphics, 6GB of RAM and a 750GB hard drive. Not mind-blowing specifications, but certainly more than your average consumer laptop offers.

It’s not the hardware that will make or break the U400, however. Design and user interface is where the balance of the battle will be fought against Apple’s products as well as Windows laptops like the HP Envy line.

By the Book

The most interesting design decision made by Lenovo in recent U series models is the book-like appearance they’ve been given, which is accomplished by providing them with color-matching lids and bottoms that are rounded along the edge where the display hinge is located.

You’ll have to look at the photos to understand the effect in full, but I can say that it is impressive – though perhaps more sensible on the smaller U260 than on this larger U400 which ends up looking more like a hard-cover magazine. Still, the U400’s exterior is a portrait of elegance and nearly trumps the MacBook in exterior beauty. If only Lenovo’s logo, which is plastered on the lid, was something more interesting than the name of the company.

lenovo-ideapad-u400-review-silver-rear-lid-up-2

Opening the U400 does nothing to end comparisons to the MacBook. Most of the chassis is metallic, which is cold and uninviting at first touch but warms quickly in response to your palms. All of the vertical corners are rounded, but there are hard horizontal edges that can (literally) be a pain.

Typing on the Chiclet keyboard quickly feels natural. It’s a little stiff, but there’s plenty of space between each key, which makes touch-typing a breeze. There’s a wealth of palm rest space as well, which means a comfortable long-term typing position isn’t hard to find. My only complaint is the layout which includes some rather small function keys. The right-side Backspace button is particularly small for example.

lenovo-ideapad-u400-review-silver-keyboard

Touchpad quality is similar – almost perfect, but with a minor issue or two. Plenty of space is available, and the glass material used to coat it is pleasing. However, the typical Windows multi-touch skittishness is present and actually a bit worse than some other recent laptops; and at default settings I found the touchpad was so sensitive that it often registered minor movements as mouse input. A little tweaking of the settings largely eliminated this issue, however.

You won’t find many ports spoiling this laptop’s waistline. USB 3.0 is included, along with two more USB 2.0 ports, HDMI and a combo headphone/microphone jack. There’s no card reader, but there is an optical drive which, like a MacBook, ejects via a keyboard function key.

Should’ve Gone Semi-Gloss

At first glance the display seems colorful and bright, two qualities that are always a boon. Though the panel is very glossy, the backlight’s brightness is usually high enough (at maximum) to prevent reflections from being a serious annoyance. Watching several HD YouTube videos left me with a good impression of color reproduction.

However, closer inspection revealed that black level performance is poor. Though gradient test images were mostly smooth, a sudden drop-off in color levels near the extreme dark end of the image reinforced this impression. In most cases this isn’t noticeable, but in dark scenes of movies and dark photos it can be an issue.

lenovo-ideapad-u400-review-silver-display-windows

Viewing angles are limited on the vertical axis. That’s a normal characteristic of a laptop display, but it seemed more noticeable than is typical.

Audio quality, on the other hand, was solid for a laptop. There’s not much bass (of course) and this can cause distortion at high volume in tracks that use a lot of it. However, most music is at least tolerable and volume levels are high enough to fill an office or small bedroom. Long-term desktop use will be much improved by a pair of external speakers, but if you’re taking the U400 with you on a trip, its sound is adequate.

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