Back in March I reviewed the Toshiba Portege Z830-S8301, one of the new Ultrabook PCs that will flood the market this year as Intel and manufacturers take on the Apple Airbook. Over the last few months, a steady stream of these highly portable PCs has been coming into my office from different PC makers. This week, I take a look at the Lenovo IdeaPad U300s.
The Lenovo press packet I received with the U300s starts off with this statement: “The IdeaPad U300s designer Ultrabook exudes style and quality….” Like the Portege Z830, I would classify the U300s as being more utilitarian than stylish. This, in my opinion, isn’t a bad thing. I don’t get too caught up in the styling of electronics until they become an eyesore.
The U300s has a full aluminum shell that comes in either graphite gray or clementine orange (thankfully my review model was graphite gray). The aluminum lends a sense of durability, something you want in a device you are likely to carry around. The IdeaPad does not feel as flimsy as the Portege. The U300s, like all Ultrabooks, is incredibly compact, measuring less than 0.6 inches thick and weighing less than three pounds. The IdeaPad is a little heavier than the Portege, but it does sport a slightly larger 256G solid-state drive (SSD) versus 128G for the Portege. The 13.3-inch HD display has a 1366 × 768 resolution, similar to that of the Portege Z830. However, this falls short of the MacBook Air’s 1400 × 900 resolution. I wouldn’t classify the U300s’ display as a matte finish, but it is definitely not the high-gloss I have run across on other systems and monitors. As a result, the viewing experience is quite nice, without any annoying glare, especially in bright-light situations. Colors came across as somewhat muted, but text was sharp.
The integrated touchpad mouse is responsive, almost to the point of being too much so. Unlike the Portege, the touchpad on the IdeaPad is perfectly centered with the wrist rest. As a result, I found the number of accidental bumps to be greater than with the Portege. Unlike the Portege, there is no touchpad “on/off” button. The right and left mouse buttons are also integrated into the touchpad; a feature that I, personally, do not like. The aluminum case does help cut down on fingerprints, something the Portege’s case attracted in abundance.
The IdeaPad lacks a fingerprint reader, something I used for the first time with the Portege Z830. I got used to simply swiping my thumb to bring it out of sleep mode or when logging in at startup.
The IdeaPad’s built-in speakers with SRS Premium Surround Sound audio enhancement did more than an adequate job when listening to audio and video. I actually found them to be slightly better than the Portege Z830, as there was not as much distortion at higher volumes.
The “breathable keyboard” of the IdeaPad, according to Lenovo, has Intel Advanced Cooling Technology. Supposedly this allows air to flow up through the keyboard to keep your legs cool when using it on your lap. The keyboard is not backlit, a feature I think all laptops and Ultrabooks should have. Typing was a pleasant experience, for the most part. The tactile experience was different that some of the other Ultrabooks I have used—and in a good way. Lenovo calls the keyboard “AccuType” because the lower portion of each key is rounded. According to the company, this makes typing more comfortable and accurate. At first I thought this was a marketing gimmick, but after a while I found that I was making fewer mistakes with the U300s, no matter what the reason. The keys were responsive, making extended typing easier on my fingers. My only complaint with the keyboard was that the finger grease left on the keys transferred marks onto the display when I closed the cover. This explains the piece of felt included with the IdeaPad: You place it over the keyboard before closing to protect the screen from the keys.
The IdeaPad is a little light when it comes to input/output features, compared to the Portege Z830. First off, the U300s only has an HDMI port, but not a VGA port. Furthermore, there are no speaker jacks— although there is a headphone jack.
While there are two USB ports (one 2.0 and one 3.0), one on each side, the U300s does not have an SD card slot. I wish there was an extra USB port, first because I use a wireless mouse with a USB adapter and secondly I like to have side-by-side USB ports to plug in USB-powered devices. Since, like all Ultrabooks, the U300s does not have an internal CD/DVD drive, you will need to attach an external drive to install software from a CD or DVD, or if you want to watch a movie. Some of these devices require two USB connections.
For wireless connectivity, the IdeaPad U300s has Bluetooth, 802.11bg/bgn Wi-Fi and 10/100/1000 LAN. Interestingly, it is missing an Ethernet connection for wired networking. In addition, the U300s supports Wireless Display WiDi Technology, which allows you to stream video to wireless-enabled HD TVs.
For internal storage, the U300s comes with a 256G solid-state drive (SSD). This is on the high end as far as internal storage goes with most of today’s Ultrabooks. With the RapidDrive SSD technology I was able to be up and running in less than 20 seconds from a “dead” start. Furthermore, the U300s awakes from sleep mode in roughly three seconds.
The IdeaPad also comes with the obligatory 1.3M integrated webcam with 720p HD resolution.
The U300s I reviewed came with Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit. Also pre-installed on the U300s is a variety of security and productivity software, including Microsoft Security Essentials 2.0, Adobe Reader, Google Chrome, IE 9.0 and Microsoft Office Starter.
My U300s review model comes with a second-generation Intel Core i7 1.8GHz processor and 4G of RAM. This is one of the fastest processors currently shipping with an Ultrabook and I was able to tell the difference when doing processor-intensive tasks such as reindexing data files and recalculating custom fields with AAII’s Stock Investor Pro fundamental screening and research database program. Also, the reboot and “awake” times were slightly faster than what I experienced with the Portege Z830. Like most Ultrabooks, it has integrated graphics, meaning the main memory and video memory are shared. This doesn’t matter too much when doing “typical” computing, such as Web browsing and word processing. If you were to attempt graphics-intensive activities, such as gaming, you would definitely notice a drop in performance.
One other item of note is the cooling fan, mainly because of what you don’t notice. The Portege Z830’s fan was rather loud, compared to other laptops I have used. With the U300s, even after prolonged use, you hardly ever notice the fan, even when it is running.
The built-in four-cell battery is supposed to provide eight hours of “productive” usage or up to 30 days of standby time. Using some rather extreme power-saving settings, I was able to extend the battery life to nearly 10 hours, a noticeable improvement over the seven or so hours I was getting with the Portege Z830.
In general I was pleased with the IdeaPad U300s. It is a good, solid entry in the Ultrabook universe. It isn’t the lightest or the heaviest Ultrabook I have looked at, but when you are dealing with three pounds, an extra few ounces here and there are not that big a deal. What I am more interested in is performance and battery life. Compared to the Portege Z830, it is the clear-cut winner. It also has twice the internal storage space of the Z830.
Like everything in life, this added performance adds to the price tag. As equipped, my review model has a suggested price of $1,999, nearly 70% more than the $1,199 cost of the Portege Z830. What is frustrating, however, is that this price doesn’t include an SD slot or backlit keyboard. However, with special Web pricing and a current promotion, the cost comes down to $1,549. While this is still not an unsubstantial premium over the Portege Z830, it is still slightly cheaper than a comparably equipped MacBook Air.
Unless you are a real power user, I am not sure if the improved performance and battery life justify the price premium over the Portege, especially given the features that are missing. While the Lenovo IdeaPad U300s is nice, a seeming lack of attention to detail and a somewhat inflated cost has it falling short of the Portege Z830.
Lenovo IdeaPad U300s
$1,999 (currently $1,549 from Lenovo.com)
Wayne A. Thorp, CFA, is the author of "Gadget Corner." All reviews are based on firsthand experience of the product or service. No third-party compensation is received for opinions on products, services, websites or topics. However, sometimes the author is not required by the manufacturer or their PR firm to return the product under review. In such instances, it is our policy to convey this within the review. The views and opinions expressed in these reviews are strictly those of the author. Any product claim, statistic, quote or other representation about a product or service should be verified with the manufacturer or provider.