Beyond the popularity of portable technology, clouded by the hype of Ultrabooks, desktop replacements remain. These stalwart systems with large displays and chunky bodies have long been out of fashion, yet they still sell – and sell well. It seems many still crave a laptop that can (nearly) do it all.
Lenovo’s Y-Series multimedia laptops have long been among the strongest entries in this segment. Though rarely the most elegant, these brawny systems carved a niche by offering a lot of laptop at a low price. Recently, Lenovo updated the model line with new graphics options and several unique “Ultrabay” options that replace the optical drive with accessories like an extra graphics card or second hard drive.
Our review unit is a decked out Y500 with Core i7 quad-core processor, two Nvidia 650M discrete graphics chips in SLI (one via Ultrabay), 16GB of RAM, and a 1080p display. That’s a lot of kit, yet Lenovo sells this configuration for an impressively low $1,249. Is this the king of bang-for-your-buck, or just a bust?
Back in black
The Y500 is a dreary machine. Black is not an unusual color for laptops, but most that choose this hue offset the somber look with chrome trim or a colorful lid. There’s no such effort here. If you own a funeral home, you’ve found your laptop. Everyone else will wish for more flair.
Depressing exterior aside, the system is well-built and makes extensive use of quality materials. Most of the interior and lid is covered by brushed aluminum, and even the plastics on the lower chassis feel durable. We didn’t notice any flex when handling the laptop roughly, nor did we hear creaks and groans of protest. Even the display lid is sturdy enough, though twisting it does slightly change the way the display’s image looks.
Connectivity comes via two USB 3.0 ports, one USB 2.0 port, HDMI, VGA and dedicated headphone and microphone jacks. Though adequate, the system could offer more. Some competitors have three or even four USB 3.0 ports, and the Y500 is certainly large enough to handle them.
Keys to your heart
Lenovo is known for having stellar keyboards, and the Y500 is no exception. The laptop’s spacious size provides room for a full-sized keyboard with numpad, and there’s plenty of key travel thanks to a thick chassis. Both users who touch-type and users who hunt-and-peck will find the experience a pleasure.
Our only complaint is the lack of space between the keyboard and the numpad. They butt up directly against each other, which means some right-side keys (like Shift and Backspace) are small.
Backlighting is standard and activated via a keyboard shortcut. Two brightness settings, not counting “off,” are available. The backlight is red, rather than a more friendly white or blue, but this has no impact on functionality.
The touchpad is less impressive. Though large, the surface lacks definition from the surrounding palmrest and is plagued by a cheap, hollow sound when tapped. We had no problem with multi-touch gestures and found the physical left/right buttons adequate.
Can you see the light?
We immediately noticed a problem upon booting the Y500: Backlight bleed. When viewing a dark image, all four edges of the display were noticeably brighter than the surrounding area. We watched several movie trailers to confirm the issue, and the problem was apparent in most dark scenes.
This problem is unfortunate, as the 1080p display is otherwise excellent. In our tests, we found the display capable of rendering 91 percent of sRGB with high contrast ratios and low black levels. The display is bright, which means it’s useful even in a sunlit room.
In many situations, the backlight issue is not obvious. Any brightly lit or colorful image won’t show the problem. But when visible, it’s hard to miss, and this flaw seems a major oversight given the laptop’s focus on media and gaming as well as productivity.
At least sound quality suffers no distractions. During our music and movie testing, we found it loud and capable of reproducing bass sounds without distortion. Even at full blast, audio remained clear in the majority of music. Many users will find external speakers unnecessary.
Tied to a desk
The Y500 ships with a massive 72 watt-hour battery, yet even this proved no match for the system’s powerful processor and dual GPUs. Battery Eater gobbled up the battery’s stores in just 1 hour and 26 minutes, and the light-load Reader’s Test extended life to only 3 hours and 31 minutes. Peacekeeper, our Web browsing test, killed the battery in 2 hours and 52 minutes.
These results may seem terrible, but remember, the graphics solution in this laptop is extremely powerful. Laptops capable of gaming usually don’t last more than 4 hours even under ideal conditions.
In power tests, the Y500 ate 28 watts at idle, 75 watts during the 7-Zip benchmark, and 89 watts when running the Furmark graphical stress test. Only hardcore gaming laptops like the Samsung Series 7 Gamer and Origin EON17 use more.
Battery life woes are acceptable if performance is excellent, and here the Y500 shines thanks to its Core i7-3630QM processor. In SiSoft Sandra’s Processor Arithmetic test, the system cranked out 93.86 GOPS. Our 7-Zip test resulted in a score of 18,052. Both numbers are among the best we’ve recorded from a laptop.
PCMark 7 was less forgiving, however, and turned out a disappointing score of 2,839. Hard drive performance is the issue. Though it does use a solid-state cache drive, the Y500 is ultimately reliant on a big, slow 1TB mechanical unit. We noticed that games load slowly, and even mundane apps, like Internet Explorer, sometimes need four or five seconds to open.
Graphics performance is provided by two Nvidia 650M GPUs in SLI (one of which is in the Ultrabay slot). This configuration scored 9,156 in the 3DMark Cloud Gate test and 1,598 in the Fire Strike test. These figures are excellent for a laptop and represent a system with serious gaming chops. We enjoyed Diablo 3 at 1080p and Skyrim at maximum detail without issue, though the latter did drop frames on occasion.
A warm breeze
Cramming so much power into any laptop will inevitably place a strain on cooling. The Y500’s maximum external temperature measured 96.7 degrees at idle, which is already high; and that number rocketed to 113.2 degrees at load.
Though the high temperatures are found along the bottom of the system, the keyboard is also warm to the touch, which can make extended use uncomfortable. The laptop’s warm operation is no doubt due to the second graphics chip.
At least the Y500 is (relatively) quiet. Our decibel meter couldn’t detect the laptop over ambient noise at idle and pegged a maximum of 46.8 decibels at full load. This number is very low for a system with discrete graphics.
Lenovo’s Y500 has its flaws. There’s no beauty to it and no standout feature worth getting excited over. Portability, today’s mandatory measure of cool and hip, is a serious shortcoming. And then there’s the backlight bleed.
Yet there’s no denying the value this laptop provides. For $1,250, you can have a system with a great keyboard, powerful processor, and amazing graphics. You even get a 1080p display. That’s not a bad deal.
And it gets better. If you drop the 16GB of RAM and settle for just 12GB (which is still far more than necessary) you can grab this configuration for $1,149 on Newegg or Amazon. There’s no comparable system sold within $200 of the Y500 – it’s an absolute steal.
Our issues with cooling and backlight quality aside, we have a hard time arguing with the value Lenovo provides. This is an incredibly fast system sold at bottom dollar. We recommend the Y500 to users who want maximum the bang for their buck and don’t mind sacrificing portability to get it.
- High build quality
- Good keyboard
- Beautiful 1080p display
- Excellent performance
- Unrivaled value
- Dreary exterior
- Severe backlight bleed
- Poor battery life
- Runs warm
- Ultrabay graphics card replaces optical drive