An Ultrabook with a higher-capacity mechanical hard drive? While not strictly following the “Ultrabook” formula set out by Intel (solid-state drives only), the Lenovo Ideapad U310 fits the category as a sleek, thin laptop that you can’t help but to stare at. It’s a simple, clean design that incorporates several newer technologies such as a line of low-voltage Ivy Bridge processors, hybrid SSD + HDD solution, and Lenovo’s updated Enhanced Experience 3. While the Ultrabook market is starting to flood with designs from nearly every major OEM, this Ideapad stands out with its affordable pricing, starting at $720 from Lenovo’s website.
The IdeaPad U310 under review comes with the following specs:
Ports: HDMI, two USB 3.0, one USB 2.0, combo microphone/headphone port, SD/MMC card reader, RJ-45 Ethernet 10/100
Dimensions: 13.1 x 8.8 x 0.7 in (33.3 x 22.4 x 1.8 cm)
Weight: 3.75lbs (1.7kg)
Warranty: 1yr standard depot warranty
Build and Design
Like most Ultrabooks, the Ideapad U310 is small, lightweight, and has a simple design that derives from Lenovo’s previous 13.3” Ultrabook, the Ideapad U300s. The display is attached to the laptop’s body via a large center hinge that spans nearly the entire width of the body and is surrounded by a glossy black bezel, a la the MacBook Pro. The lid and the bottom of the U310 are both made from aluminum, though the palm rest is constructed from plastic, which is both a plus (in that a user will not have cold hands when first using the laptop) and a slight negative. Overall, I like the way that the U310 is built and it certainly feels much sturdier than laptops typically sold at big box stores for the same price. The only issue I take up with the construction is that there is a slight flexing issue with the keyboard if a user presses down with modest pressure; however, with normal typing this is not very noticeable and a user would have to go out of their way to discover this flex. The same goes for the area bordering the keyboard plate, mostly near the side edged (near the Caps Lock and PgUp keys) and between the keyboard and hinge, though these require that a user press down with a lot of pressure to notice.
Moving on from the negatives, there are only two other buttons on the U310, one being the power button on the upper-left corner and the other a OneKey Recovery button, just to the side of the power button on the left edge of the laptop. No dubious media keys lining the upper edge, any speaker grills, nor an excess of marketing stickers (the only stickers present are the WIndows 7 and Intel Core i5 stickers). Lenovo aimed, successfully may I add, for the U310 to convey a sleek, modern design that’s meant to appeal to a fashion-conscious demographic. One of my favorite features of the U310 is the “Loop” design around the edge of the laptop. When the lid is closed and a user wants to open the laptop, it’s very easy to use a single finger to lift up the display thanks to the lip around the body and the weight distribution — the U310 will not lift up from the force it takes to open the lid.
Keyboard and Touchpad
Like the rest of the new Lenovo line up, the U310 has what they refer to as the AccuType keyboard. As I have stated in my Ideapad Y470p review, the AccuType keyboard is a great version of the island-style keyboard. A lot of these new keyboards have flat keys that are uncomfortable to type on, but Lenovo’s version has curved keys that fit a user’s fingers well, making it about as comfortable as traditional-style keyboards. I still have my reservations on Lenovo’s decision to place the special function keys (Delete, Home, End, and PgUP/PgDn) on the right side of the keyboard instead of in the top-right corner like in other keyboards. This new layout causes the Shift, Enter, and Backspace keys to be of a shorter length despite this being a full-sized keyboard. For a touch typist, using the AccuType keyboard requires that they slow down their typing and make sure that they hit these buttons instead of something else; this is especially a problem with the right Shift key because there’s an equally likely chance an end user will hit the Question key or the Up Arrow key instead.
While the keyboard is good, the trackpad is what really shines on the U310. Its massive area (12 square inches – 4” x 3”) and glass construction make it an absolute joy to use. While my favorite laptop mouse system is still the TrackPoint seen on the ThinkPad, this low-friction glass touchpad is certainly a step up from the typical laptop trackpad. Basically, this is a Windows version of the Macbook trackpad, including many of the same features in a less expensive competitor to the MacBook Air. Two-finger scrolling is smooth and instant, zooming in and out work as expected and also in a smooth fashion, and the whole trackpad is a physical button. A user can click anywhere on the trackpad and, save for the bottom-right corner, left-click from any position.
Lenovo configures all Ideapad U310 Ultrabooks with a glossy 1366 by 768 TN panel, common in many laptops sold on the market. As such, the quality of the display is pretty much run of the mill here. For people buying this laptop as a replacement for another laptop that was bought at a big-box store for the same price range, this display doesn’t feel too different for what they’re upgrading from. The glossy coating helps the colors pop out and blacks are nice and dark. While the screen looks good while viewing it at an angle perpendicular to the user’s face, colors start to darken when the screen is tilted back to its maximum angle (140 degrees), and tilting the laptop back by a few more degrees will cause the colors to invert. Tilting the display in the opposite direction causes the colors to fade away to white. Viewing the U310 from either side is fine if there’s a document on screen (black text on a white sheet is clear and readable), but colors will darken, invert, or fade to white, depending on where the eyes are located relative to the display. While this sort of behavior is normal for most laptops, those coming from higher-end displays (such as Full HD 1920 x 1080 displays, the ThinkPad X230’s IPS displays, etc.) won’t be too impressed by the quality. Still, the display is good enough to get work done and it performs well enough for entertainment purposes (movie watching, photos, etc.).
Even with the small amount of room to spare in the Ultrabook design, Lenovo has included all the ports a user will need about 99% of the time. On the left side, you get two Super Speed USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI port, and an Ethernet port (10/100). Also on the left are the internal microphone, vents, and the OneKey button.
On the right, you have the combination microphone/headphone jack, a USB 2.0 port, and the DC power connector.
Only the SD/MMC card slot and two indicator lights (power, battery charge) occupy the front of the U310
The back is completely clean, with no ports to speak of.
Speakers and Audio
The Lenovo U310’s speakers are hidden inside the laptop with sound coming from the back of the case, near the display hinges. Lenovo includes Dolby Home Theater v4 software with this Ultrabook, which allows the user to control several sound qualities. Features included are the Intelligent Equalizer, which has several presettings that target different combinations of high, mid, and low frequencies, a Graphic Equalizer, Volume Leveler, Surround Virtualizer (which adjusts directional bias in either the speakers or headphones), and a Dialogue Enhancer (useful for movies). There are three preset profiles (Movie, Music, and Game) and the software includes six spaces for custom profiles. While the default Intelligent Equalizer profile for Music is “Open” (which “Dynamically enhances low and high frequencies”) is fine for most rock and jazz titles, dubstep lovers will want to use the “Focused” profile (which enhances mid frequencies), as tested with Chrispy’s “Kung Fu King”; bass is pretty good for a laptop without a subwoofer inside. Trying to listen to music on either the Movie or the Game profiles tends to make it sound tinny, so remember to check profiles before extended listening sessions.
As for the headphone jack, the sound quality boils down to what earphones or headphones are being used. Using a pair of inexpensive JVC Gummies earphones, sound quality is fine, whereas a pair of Sony MDR-NC7 headphones has issues reproducing bass (though that’s the fault of the headphones, not the U310 or the Dolby software). Upgrading to more powerful headphones, which typically require a USB port in addition to an audio cable, produces audio that sounds better than the internal speakers (in this case, a Turtle Beach Earforce X12 gaming headset). Even so, the internal speakers sound better than the majority of other laptops old today, and fall just short of some branded speakers (such as JBL and Harman Kardon).
Just like a lot of laptops sold on the market, the U310 includes several pieces of software pre-installed from the factory. Aside from the already-mentioned Dolby Home Theater v4 audio software, there is McAfee AntiVirus Plus, ooVoo, Intel WiDi, Microsoft Office Starter 2010, and Absolute Data Protect. ooVoo is Cisco’s chat software that competes with Skype, while Absolute Data Protect is something new seen in Lenovo computers. It is a 90-day free trial of software that, in combination with Intel’s Anti-Theft technology, promises to safeguard information on the computer by allowing the user to remotely delete files, locate the laptop, and lock the laptop with either a timer or on demand. This is possible through a web interface via lojackforlaptops.absolute.com, a configuration webpage where the user sets up and manages the service. With the rise of BYOD policies (using personal computing devices in the workplace), Absolute Data Protect looks to be a good step in the right direction for securing a personal computer that contains corporate data.
The U310, like other Ideapads, comes with Lenovo’s usual suite of software titles that are OEM branded. Energy Management, just as the name suggests, manages the amount of power used by the laptop (it’d be power [W] and not energy [J], but that’s just the engineering student in me complaining of word usage). Unlike Lenovo’s Thinkpad Power Manager, Energy Management is just a GUI interface to Window’s built-in power manager (so the user can select Power Saver, Balanced, or Performance). Lenovo Smart Update is an application that can update information (such as “instant message software, Sina microblog, e-mail, etc.”) while the computer is in sleep or hibernation. By default, monitored items include Tencent QQ, Windows Live Messenger, Outlook, Live Mail, Facebook, and Twitter, though a user can choose to change the latter four as unmonitored (unfortunately, Tencent QQ and Windows Live Messenger are required to be monitored, since they are locked under the “Monitor” category). YouCam (developed by CyberLink) uses the U310’s 1MP camera to record the user (or anyone else in front of the camera) and give the ability to upload the snapshots and/or videos to Youtube, Facebook, or email. Image quality is decent. Images are slightly dimmed (and somewhat blurry, from a distance) and some colors are a little washed out (my beige walls are closer to gray in videos in a sun-lit room). Included with Youcam are several effects, including action blurbs such as “BAM!”, “WOW!”, and “ZZZ…”, silly add-ons (such as a witch hat, gas mask, police cap, etc.), frames, and image distortions. Another feature included is a tab which includes different faces (such as an alien, Statue of Liberty, Abe Lincoln, a dog, etc.) that follow the user’s face movements fairly accurately (head position, lips, eyebrows and eyelids).
The two Lenovo applications that don’t feel gimmicky to me are the OneKey Recovery software and the Veriface 4.0 software. OneKey, also developed by CyberLink, is an alternative to Window’s native backup and recovery system. Both Windows and OneKey function similarly, though OneKey has a simple user interface that would feel more comfortable to people not used to the native function, as well as the physical OneKey button included on the side of the laptop that launches the program. Veriface 4.0 works just like a fingerprint login, except that it uses the image of the user’s face instead of their fingers. It also works with website logins (something I wished Thinkpad fingerprint login would do by default) as well and all images are password protected.
The sealed 3-cell Li-Poly battery included with the Ideapad U310, rated for 46Wh, will run for five hours and twenty-two minutes under Window’s “Power Saver” (at display brightness set to a little under half power) and four hours under “Balanced” (display set at roughly 80% power) with light computer usage (Office, internet browsing, and one or two Youtube videos). While not the advertised seven hours claimed by Lenovo, I still consider the nearly 5.5 hours of battery life to be great for such a tiny battery, thanks in part to the ULV processor. With a TDP (max. power) of 17W, putting the CPU on full-load while using battery should reduce battery life to around 2.5 hours.
With a Cinebench R10 score of 7024.4, the i5-3317U delivers slightly more power than the i5-540M full-voltage CPU and just a few points behind the i7-2637M ULV CPU (7068.7). For the average Joe or Jane, this means that the processor is more than powerful enough to handle daily computing tasks without issue, despite the processor only sipping power from the battery or wall outlet. The real change that will be noticed is Intel’s new HD 4000 graphics, which is comparable to AMD’s Radeon 6620G found in the A-series APUs; this means both GPU options perform similarly to the Radeon 5650 dedicated GPU. In a nutshell, this laptop will be able to handle most modern games at high detail at native resolution (768p), including Fifa 12, Dirt 3, CoD: Black Ops, and StarCraft 2. This is an Ultrabook however and not a gaming machine, so some more demanding titles (Battlefield 3, Skyrim) will not perform well with the HD 4000 graphics, even at low detail.
The most noticeable performance point is the combination HDD + mSATA SSD cache. Just a brief run-down of storage options before moving on though. Data saved by a user is stored in one of several ways: via mechanical hard drive (common in nearly all laptops and desktops), removable media (flashdrives, DVD, etc.), and solid-state drives (just now becoming commonplace). While mechanical drives offer massive amounts of storage (ranging from 320GB to 1TB in current notebooks), they are typically slow and this becomes the most common bottleneck in computer performance (games and files load slowly, Windows takes a long time to boot, etc.). Solid-state drives are orders of magnitude faster than other types of permanent storage, but the issue with SSDs is that they are too expensive (per GB) to be the sole storage device for many computer users (for example, a person could buy a 1TB notebook HDD for around the same price as a 120-180GB SSD). Lenovo and other OEMs are trying to bring the best of both worlds to the user by offering optional HDD + mSATA SSD cache combinations. In the U310’s case, this means either a 320GB or 500GB (both 5400RPM) HDD combined with a 32GB solid-state drive acting as a cache drive. While this offers both large amounts of storage space (the user only sees the 320GB or 500GB from the mechanical drive) and SSD-like loading times, the SSD cache has to “learn” the end-user’s computing behavior first before offering such speeds. What I mean by that is that if a user normally boots up Windows, often opens up Firefox, and typically uses Microsoft Office products such as Word or Excel, the cache drive will allocate its hardware to accelerate the loading times of Windows, Firefox, and Office software to SSD-like times. Windows boots up in around 21-22 seconds (ignoring the time needed to log in), which is similar to solid-state drive boot times, and resuming from sleep takes only a second or two; both measures of performance a user will love. Loading up files and programs not commonly used will still only load as fast as a typical 5400RPM mechanical drive will allow, but for users who typically have the same computing pattern every day, the U310 (with optional cache drive) will feel as though they have an actual solid-state drive (without actually paying for one).
We’d of course be remised not to include some of the Futuremark performance scores we usually cover for the sake of comparison to other laptops. Below are the scores the U310 achieved running PCMark Vantage:
While the IdeaPad U310 is not intended to be used for gaming purposes, with its Intel HD 4000 graphics it can run a few games, here’s the score it achieved in 3DMark Vantage and how it compares to other laptops:
3DMark Vantage – Measures 3D graphics performance, higher scores are better
Lenovo IdeaPad U310 – Intel Core i5-3317U ULV 1.7GHz, 4GB RAM, Intel HD 4000, 540RPM HD
HP Pavilion dv6t Select Edition – Intel Core i5-2410m, Intel HD 3000 Graphics, 6GB RAM
For those wanting a lightweight, thin laptop without breaking the bank, the Lenovo IdeaPad U310 offers a great design that buyers should consider. The metal construction adds to both the structural strength (I feel comfortable picking up the laptop by the edge) and outward appearances, and the plastic interior (save for the keyboard plate) even looks like bare aluminum. At only 3.75lbs, the 13.3” laptop will not weigh down a bookbag or laptop bag while traveling and the 3-cell battery allows a user to stay away from outlets for a decent amount of time. While I’d rather see a 900p display than 768p (even if only as an optional choice for extra cash), for a starting price of $720 for such a slim laptop I can’t really complain. What I can complain about is the keyboard layout, specifically the right edge of the keyboard and the shorter right Shift, Enter, and Backspace keys. Just like with the Y470p I tested, often times I find myself hitting the Up Arrow key or the Question key instead of the desired Shift or the Plus/Equal key instead of Backspace; at least I’m able to hit the right Enter key a lot of the time. As a touch-typist, I’d rather see the special function keys back in the top-right corner of the keyboard instead of lining the right edge. It would also be nice if an end-user was able to upgrade some parts of the laptop themselves (HDD, RAM, battery), but due to the limited internal space I understand why this isn’t possible. Still, I think that the Lenovo Ideapad U310 is a strong contender in the slim, lightweight laptop market commonly known as the Ultrabook market, combining just the right amounts of price, design, and power to satisfy a buyer.
Sleek metal design
Five and a half hours of battery life
USB 3.0 and HDMI ports
Stays cool to the touch
No 900p display option
Odd keyboard layout
Somewhat narrow viewing angles on the screen
Where to Buy
[button link=”http://www.lenovo.com/products/us/laptop/ideapad/u-series/u310/” bg_color=”red” window=”yes”]Buy the Lenovo U310 for $720 at Lenovo.com[/button]