Lenovo IdeaPad U300s ultrabook

If there’s a laptop that deserves the moniker “Ultrabook”–a term that Intel introduced (and trademarked) earlier this year for a class of very slim and light laptops — it’s the Lenovo IdeaPad U300s. Not because it’s faster or beefier than the competition (it’s not), but because it actually looks like a thin coffee-table book when closed. It’s also the Ultrabook that many in our labs gravitated toward due to its luxuriously minimalist styling and superior input ergonomics. At least they did until they heard it cost US$1595, a price tag that reflects the expense of the U300s’s large (256GB) solid-state drive, or SSD.

Despite an Intel Core i7-2677M CPU, 4GB of DDR3 system memory, and that aforementioned 256GB SSD on board, the U300s performance lagged behind the Asus Zenbook UX31e. Still, a WorldBench score of 114 indicates plenty of power for everyday chores. Gaming frame rates delivered by the integrated Intel HD Graphics 3000 max out at 31 frames per second at 800 by 600 resolution — with the details turned way down low, which doesn’t cut the mustard for modern games.

On the other hand, battery life is 6 hours and 34 minutes, which compares nicely with the rest of the Ultrabook crowd. At 2.9 pounds it’s one of the lighter Ultrabooks, though you won’t notice much difference between the heft of the U300s and the Zenbook or the Acer Aspire S3, all of which weigh close to 3 pounds.

Video playback at any resolution is smooth as can be, though you get the usual down-converting issues with 1080p playback on the 13.3-inch, 1366 by 768 display. The colors rendered by the display are rich, but the shiny surface is prone to glare–one of the few questionable design decisions on the U300s. Audio is stellar through headphones, but sounds slightly muffled through the speakers. Tweaking the included SRS sound enhancement software helps tremendously.

The U300S’s keyboard is “breathable” (to use Lenovo’s term), which is a friendly replacement word for “ventilated.” This trick is now used on a number of laptops (notably Apple’s) so that no ventilation holes are required on the bottom of the unit where they can be blocked while sitting on your lap. It also means that the unit feels quite cool on your thighs. A ventilation port is on the left edge of the laptop, though.

The keyboard itself has a very nice feel for having such a short stroke (a common problem with ultrathin laptops). That’s partially a textural impression–the entire unit has a luxurious feel due to the fine grain on the aluminum case’s paint job (available in Clementine Orange and Graphite Gray). The glass, buttonless touchpad is equally satisfying–in lieu of scroll areas, it uses two-finger swiping. So there’s no inadvertent straying into the scroll area–nice.

Depending on your needs, you might find the port selection on the U300s lacking. It has a USB 3.0 port for quick data transfers and backup, an HDMI one for video output, plus an additional USB 2.0 port, but that’s about it. There’s no VGA for older displays, no SD/MMC card slot, no eSATA, and — probably most surprising — no ethernet. The lack of eSATA isn’t remediable, but is ameliorated by the presence of USB 3.0. For VGA, SD, and ethernet you’ll need USB adapters. Connectivity consists of 802.11b/g/n and Bluetooth 3.0, as well as WiDi for wireless display.

The U300s is the first laptop I’ve handled that ships with Microsoft’s free Security Essentials in lieu of a trial of pay security software. MSE is just as effective for most users, but stays out of your way unless there’s an issue, unlike most pay options. There’s no array of junk software either; just Cyberlink’s YouCam utility for the 1280 by 720 webcam, a free subscription to Absolute Data Protect for encrypting data and remote disabling of the laptop, Google Chrome, and Cyberlink’s OneKey recovery for backing up your system. The latter works in conjunction with a button on the left rear of the U300s that initiates recovery if the bundled Windows 7 Professional operating system stops booting correctly.

No matter which way you cut it, the U300s is a pricey laptop, though only moderately more so than the similarly configured competition. It’s available in a slower, less capacious configuration with a Core i5-2457M CPU and a 128GB SSD for US$1195, and Lenovo’s U260 and its recently released U400 are only slightly thicker and heavier, with cheaper configurations. The missing ports are a bit of puzzler, but otherwise the U300s delivers a very satisfying Ultrabook experience.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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