Sunday, August 2, 2009

Lenovo IdeaPad U350

Key Specs

Processor: 1.3GHz Intel Pentium SU2700
Memory: 3GB RAM
Storage: 320GB hard drive
Optical Drive: None
Screen: 13.3 inches (1,366x768)
Graphics: Integrated Intel GMA X4500
Weight: 2.8 pounds
Dimensions (HWD): : 0.78 x 12.9 x 8.8 inches
Operating System: Windows Vista Home Premium


Reviewed by: Jamie Bsales
Review Date: July 2009

Depending on how you look at it, the 13.3-inch Lenovo IdeaPad U350 is either a step up from a netbook or a step down from an ultraportable. Like a netbook, this 2.8-pound machine is easy to carry, but it’s faster and more comfortable to use than any netbook we’ve seen to date; of course, the $749 price also makes it more expensive than a netbook. Coming at it from the other direction, the U350 is much less expensive than just about any 13.3-inch ultraportable or thin-and-light, but it delivers about half the performance and battery life. The bottom line: If you want an affordable, easy-to-carry laptop without the screen and keyboard trade-offs of a netbook—and can live with merely adequate performance—the U350 is worth a look.

Picking up the IdeaPad U350, it’s like déjà vu all over again: It is so similar in design to the MSI X340, we can’t help but think there’s some platform sharing going on here. That’s not a bad thing, though, as we appreciate the ultra-slim profile (only about three-quarters of an inch at its thickest) and incredibly light weight (2.8 pounds). The physical design is similar to the groundbreaking MacBook Air, although the IdeaPad U350 (and the MSI X340 for that matter) can’t match the Apple’s modern aesthetic or sleek aluminum. Still, the IdeaPad U350’s black plastic lid has a subtle squares-in-squares texture (set on the diagonal) that looks and feels good, while also hiding fingerprints.

Under the lid, a silver plastic surround (made to at least mimic brushed aluminum) sets off a basic black keyboard. The full-size keys have a comfortable amount of up-down travel, though we sensed a small but noticeable amount of flex when typing on the center keys. We would also prefer to see dedicated multimedia-control keys, since the keyboard surround has plenty of spare room. The touch pad is large (3.25 inches by 2 inches) by ultraportable standards, and the pad’s pebbled surface makes mousing comfortable. More importantly, it is a new-generation pad that supports two-finger gestures for zooming, rotating images, and more.

In addition to the next-gen touch pad, Lenovo has included some welcome features given the price. The spacious 320GB hard drive has an active protection system, which parks the drive heads when the machine is jostled or dropped to prevent possible data loss. An ambient light sensor can adjust the screen’s brightness automatically as lighting changes, and there’s even an HDMI port for connecting to an external display. You also get a VGA port, Ethernet jack, three USB ports, Bluetooth, and headphone and mic jacks. Lenovo has included an SD/MMC memory card reader but couldn’t find space (or budget) for an ExpressCard or PC Card expansion slot. And as with other sub–3-pound notebooks (with the notable exception of the $2,999 Toshiba Portégé R600), you’ll need to provide your own external optical drive.

The U350’s 13.3-inch glossy widescreen is very bright, and the LED backlighting makes colors in Windows programs and photo images pop. The panel also did well with video, exhibiting natural, well-saturated colors and little motion blur. The screen’s 1,366x768 resolution makes for sharp, legible text. We were also impressed with the U350’s stereo speakers. At first, we thought music sounded a bit tinny but still acceptable for a machine this thin. But the included Dolby Sound Room utility let us boost the bass and expand the sound stage, delivering downright decent audio quality for the class and among the best we’ve heard from a 13.3-inch platform.

The 1.3-megapixel Webcam delivered pleasing images under bright light, with natural colors, good detail, and just the typical amount of motion blur. In a dim room, however, the camera struggled; you’ll need to have at least light from a table lamp to get a usable image. Lenovo preloads its EasyCapture utility for use with the camera. The icon-driven user interface makes capturing stills and recording video or audio easy. You can add frames or animated cartoon characters to your captures, or apply one of nine special effects such as black-and-white, negative image, and pixilated.

The U350 employs an Intel Pentium SU2700 processor working with 3GB of RAM (or just 2GB in the $699 configuration). The 1.3GHz single-core processor is an order of magnitude faster than the Intel Atom CPUs found in most netbooks but is woefully underpowered compared with the Core 2 Duo chips that power most ultraportables and even $750 budget laptops these days. The U350 scored just 1,512 on Futuremark’s PCMark Vantage benchmark, which measures overall system performace. That number is about half the average score of ultraportables we’ve tested to date—though it should be noted that the average price of those machines was north of $2,000. A closer comparison is to the HP Pavilion dv2 and the aforementioned MSI X340, which cost the same and delivered marginally better Vantage scores of 1,566 and 1,628.

Similarly, the U350’s score of 1,356 on Cinebench 10 was close enough to the HP (1,406) and MSI (1,514) competitors to be a nonissue in real-world use, but that score is half of what we saw from ultraportables on the whole. On the other hand, the U350 score was about double what we see from the typical netbook. For multimedia work, the U350 is overmatched when it comes to demanding video-plus-audio encoding. It needing nearly 22 minutes to complete our Windows Media Encoder 9 trial—about 5 minutes less than an average netbook, but twice as long as an average ultraportable (the HP dv2 took about 23 minutes, the MSI X340 about 19 minutes). The U350 fared better with straight audio encoding, requiring 9:44 for our iTunes trial; again, that’s in between the averages of a netbook (27:16) and an expensive ultraportable (5:45) and a bit slower than the HP (8:52) and MSI (8:51) competitors.

As for 3D graphics, the integrated Intel GMA X4500 graphics are fine for Windows Vista’s Aero effects and some slow-action 3D games, but its score of 670 on 3DMark06 shows it—like most ultraportables, which average 888 on this test—is not suitable for gaming. The U350’s slender 4-cell battery keeps weight down, but the machine’s runtime of 2 hours 26 minutes on our streaming-video test is well short of the 4-hour average time posted by netbooks.

Other software is fairly scant. You get Windows Vista Home Premium as the OS, plus Lenovo VeriFace for using facial recognition to log in and Lenovo Idea Central, which combines a news reader and system tools with a heavy dose of ads for third-party services. You also get a 60-day trial to Microsoft Office 2007, 60 days of Norton Internet Security protection, and a 30-day trial for the excellent Carbonite automatic online backup service.

Lenovo backs the machine with a one-year warranty with 24/7 tech support. If you’re a glass-half-empty type of person, you’ll probably focus on the U350’s low performance and dismiss it. That would be a shame, since you’d be missing out on a smartly designed, super-slim, feather-light machine with a gorgeous screen and some decent features for $750. If a netbook is too much of a toy but $2,000 is too much of a stretch, the IdeaPad U350 may be just right.

Price (at time of review): $749 (direct)

1 comment:

  1. You said the u350 weighs 2.8 pounds.

    Lenovo says 3.5 pounds.

    Did you weigh the machine yourself? Is lenovo including the adapter in the weight?

    Or is it just an error.

    2.8 is a lot better than 3.5