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The Ultrabook concept (ultrathin but powerful laptop) was introduced by Intel in 2011, and the first MacBook Air with default solid state storage came out in 2010. Since then, almost every major computer producer has come out with a thin and fast laptop sporting speedy storage, quick wake times, and a small footprint. For the most part, these computers were high-end devices: they were fast, and they were expensive.

Enter the Lenovo U310, a seemingly perfect laptop for the back-to-school set that needs something light for Facebook and Word, but doesn’t see the need to spend over $1000 on a higher-end laptop. Sure, the base configuration doesn’t have a SSD, and yeah, it’s bulk more closely resembles the MacBook Pro than its svelte cousin the Air. On the other hand, it’s packing Intel’s new Core i5 processor. But does Lenovo’s U310 offer enough value to warrant a recommendation? Let’s take a look…

Industrial Design

lenovo u310 review topdown 640x480Laptop design is a matter of personal preference, but it’s really quite important. After all, you’re potentially going to use this machine every day for the next three or four years–you’d better like the way it looks and feels. It’s fair to say that Lenovo has done a great job with the industrial design on the outside of the U310. Its cover is brushed aluminum, and for the most part the whole machine feels solid–there aren’t any loose parts if you shake it and it feels good in a backpack. The aluminum palm rest has two stickers, one advertising the Core i5 processor inside and the other the requisite Windows 7 sticker.

The Lenovo logo is on the lower right-hand corner on the top as the laptop faces you, and that’s the only adornment that the back of the screen displays.  It’s a pretty minimal design–the kind that looks really good in a coffee shop, if that’s what you’re looking for.

That’s the good. Here’s what’s disappointing: this machine weighs 3.75 pounds–.75 lbs heavier than the Macbook Air and a full pound heavier than the featherweight champion, the Acer Aspire S5. It’s light enough you won’t mind slipping it into your bag, but it’s bulkier than you’d expect from an Ultrabook. The U310 has a physical presence more comparable to a MacBook Pro than a MacBook Air, and hardly looks like other Ultrabooks.

On closer examination you start to see the concessions made to deliver the U310 at a lower price. The bottom of the laptop is made of a high-density plastic, which goes surprisingly well with the mostly-aluminum construction. However, the plastic bottom shows that the laptop chassis isn’t one piece. Worse on a day-to-day basis, the keyboard deck is also made of plastic. It’s painted to resemble the aluminum chassis, but it’s plastic, and you can tell because it flexes. Sometimes vigorous typing feels like your fingers are taking a ride on a trampoline.

Keyboard

lenovo u310 review keyboard 640x480I really wanted to like this keyboard, but I don’t. In addition to the aforementioned deck flex, there are some design issues which are not only baffling but also extremely frustrating for the user.

On the right hand side of the keyboard, Lenovo’s engineers have managed to cram Home, End, PgUp and PgDn keys to the right of the keyboard’s traditional boundaries. This was a terrible decision.

lenovo u310 review right  side keyboard 640x480Maybe an Excel jockey or a programmer has use for those four keys, but I use them rarely. Some keys I do use–almost every sentence!–include the Shift, Enter and Backspace keys. So naturally it wouldn’t make any sense to take large amounts of space from the most used keys to give to some minor keys, but that is exactly what Lenovo has done with the U310. For example, a fast typer could try to hit the backspace key and end up pressing the Home key, which–trust me–really messes up your documents and gets annoying quickly. Miss shift, and your cursor goes up a line.

Sure, someone who uses this laptop daily could add an external keyboard, or simply get used to the key placement, but why? This layout is no better than traditional layouts, and getting accustomed to this one would make it an adjustment to use any other more standard keyboard.

There are some good things about the keyboard: Lenovo’s chiclet keyboards usually have great spacing and feel, and the U310 is no different. The keys are smaller than on most keyboards, but they’re gently curved and there’s a lot of space between keys. It ends up being pretty comfortable. The F keys, which are similar to the MacBook’s F keys, have great functionality and offer one-button convenience for common computer tasks, like adjusting the screen’s brightness or muting your music.

Trackpad

lenovo u310 review trackpad 2 640x480For as many issues as the keyboard has, the trackpad is pretty good, and possibly great. The glass surface is big and roomy. Pressing anywhere on the pad left clicks, and there’s a little space at the bottom right side for right clicks. I found the trackpad to be perfectly placed to minimize accidental wrist brushes while typing. When I did accidentally brush past the trackpad, Lenovo’s included software usually disregarded the cursoring.

Overall, I found the trackpad to be large and reliable and most folks will find it perfectly acceptable for everyday use.

Display

lenovo u310 review screen comparison 640x359The screen isn’t great. Not only is it a soon-to-be-antiquated resolution of 1366 x 768, but it’s also as glossy as a mirror. If the screen’s off, and you’re looking into it, you’ll see your reflection in fairly high resolution. Not only is it glossy enough to make outdoor usage difficult, it also has limited viewing angles. Color reproduction is okay, but nothing special.

Surrounding the intensely glossy screen is an intensely glossy bezel which, honestly, looks pretty cheap.

Performance

In terms of performance, the U310 does well for a computer in the budget category, although the lack of a solid state drive hurts it. We’ve compiled some CPU scores using Geekbench, and the U310 provides a level of performance similar to other Ultrabooks in its category. This makes sense, because they’re all using similar Intel processors.

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lenovo u310 pcmv hdd

In terms of the PCMark Vantage Productivity and HDD tests, the U310 gets smoked by anything packing a SSD. The Series 9, the Retina MBP, and Dell’s XPS Ultrabook all have solid state storage and they all outperform the U310 is a big way on these tests, which simulate day-to-day web browsing and document editing usage. The PCM Vantage productivity score that the U310 produces is comparable to the 2010 MacBook Air, which uses a processor from two generations ago. Lots of performance issues that affect users are storage-based, so the spinning hard drive really hurts the U310 in this category.

lenovo u310 jc2 mps

The U310 does not have a discrete graphics processor, so gaming isn’t really an option. Using the out of the box settings, Just Cause 2 managed a measly 13.55 FPS, but it was playable at the very lowest settings. Gamers generally will not be interested in the U310. Intel’s integrated HD 4000 graphics are more than good enough for day-to-day use–streaming HD video worked fine.

Perceived performance: “Stats don’t mean anything, man! Tell me how it feels!” In terms of feel this machine is pretty good. Web browsing is seamless, it boots in 30 seconds, and you can check Facebook on it. Nobody’s going to call the U310 a screamer, but it doesn’t lag, either. If a student brought it to college, they’d be able to do everything they need a computer to do, unless they were playing graphically intense games or rendering lots of video.

Value

Of course, nobody who is buying the U310 is expecting benchmark greatness; it was meant to be a good value that’s light enough to lug to class every day. So how is the U310’s performance per pound? How much computer do you get per dollar spent?

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CPU performance per dollar spent

You can see by price, the U310 provides respectable processing power. This isn’t surprising–it does have an Ivy Bridge Core i5. But keep in mind that the U310 doesn’t have discrete graphics, so gaming is a no-go, and also doesn’t have a SSD, which offers substantial speed gains for everyday computing. But you do get a lot of processor for your money.

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CPU performance per weight (lbs)

As for processing power by pound, the U310 is surprisingly right up there alongside the Retina Macbook Pro.  It’s a solid computer that’s also portable.

Battery Life

Battery depletion (6:12): in a standard battery depletion test (display 50%, WiFi on) the Lenovo U210 reached 6h12mn before going to sleep at 3%.

This test isn’t very intensive, and doesn’t reflect actual usage like opening 15 tabs in Chrome or running apps like Spotify in the background. However, this score establishes a baseline for what you can expect from low-intensity usage. You could conceivably type or read a document on the U310 for six hours before it falls asleep.

1080p video (3:10): The Lenovo U310 can play a 1080p MP4 video (full brightness, WiFi on) for just over three hours, which is a pretty disappointing score among Ultrabooks. In fact, because the modern Li-Ion battery is a fickle and disposable beast, I wouldn’t be surprised if the battery wouldn’t last through an entire 1080p movie after a year of daily use, but we’ll have to wait and see. (And it’s not user-replaceable!) — We’re also run tests with 50% display brightness: 3:28.

Misc

Crapware: Most non-Thinkpad Lenovo laptops come with a fair amount of crapware pre-installed, and the U310 is no different. Users booting up for the first time can look forward to uninstalling several programs, including Lenovo’s YouCam, McAfee’s Anti-Virus Plus, and Absolute Data Protect.

No optical drive: Typical for an Ultrabook, the U310 doesn’t have an optical drive built in. I don’t need one, but you might. You can always get a USB optical drive, and Lenovo offers one as a configuration option.

Webcam: It’s got a webcam. The webcam is pretty good at being a webcam. It produces images 1 megapixel large, so you could potentially videoconference in 720p.  Here’s a sample image from Skype.

Charger: If you’re hauling the power cord every day, you’re going to appreciate how small and well-designed the Lenovo charger is.

Heat and Noise: The Lenovo U310 makes a lot of noise and gets really hot when it’s doing intensive tasks.

Conclusion (It’s an OK laptop and a good value)

lenovo u310 review kifs choice 640x480The Lenovo U310 laptop is the first of a new breed of Ultrabook that’s a little chubbier and a tinch slower, but much more affordable. Every other major computer maker–Dell, HP, Sony–is going to have an Intel-certified Ultrabook at this price point soon, if they don’t have one already.  Among this group, the U310 is a solid option, even if it’s clearly made some concessions for price.

The Lenovo U310 is a solidly-built, good-looking machine. It has a passable keyboard and a great trackpad.  Our configuration had a fast Ivy Bridge processor, which was a Core i5 running at 1.7 Ghz. However, our configuration also included an old-fashioned 5400rpm hard drive, which is significantly slower than the SSDs other Ultrabooks pack, and as a result the U310’s PCM Vantage Productivity score suffered. The machine’s overall responsiveness suffered too, so if you are considering the U310 I would recommend you strongly ponder upgrading to the 500 GB hybrid hard drive, which adds an integrated 32GB SSD (invisible to the user).

But here’s the real question: is the U310 for you? If you care about the latest and greatest, you already know the answer to that question. The Core i5 processor is fast, but this is not a high performance laptop. As for me, that silly keyboard layout removes this machine from contention. For everyone else, it really comes down to value. If you don’t overpay for the U310–it should be retailing under its $799 MSRP soon and please oh for the love of gosh don’t get this horrible MiFi bundle–it’s a good deal. For those who aren’t picky and want a solid, modern laptop for cheap, the U310 might be just the ticket.

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