- Review Date: 01/11/2012
- Bottom line:
The Lenovo IdeaPad U400 laptop combines solid performance with a design you won't be able to keep your hands off of.
Design looks good and feels great. Keyboard and mouse are top-notch.
Mediocre graphics performance.
Lenovo is known for its high-quality business laptops, the plain black looks of which users have been able to recognize for years. The Lenovo IdeaPad U400 ($899.99 direct), on the other hand, looks and feels like it was designed to attract mainstream users. In addition to being well equipped, with an Intel Core i5 processor, discrete AMD graphics, a spacious hard drive, and forward-thinking features like USB 3.0 and WiDi 2.0, its sandblasted aluminum chassis and glass touchpad make it a system you'll literally want to get your hands on.
It's hard to do justice to the design of the U400 using words alone, because this laptop is one you have to touch and feel to fully appreciate. The chassis is made from a single sheet of gray aluminum, molded seamlessly like the unibody design of the Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch (Late 2011) ($1,799 direct, 4 stars). It's been sandblasted to create a "warm" finish that isn't just smooth but is a pleasure to touch.
The underside of the chassis is as smooth and clean as the lid, without even a vent to disrupt the surface. That's because Lenovo has used a new cooling system that utilizes a breathable keyboard as the primary air intake. A small vent on the left side of the chassis is the only one you'll see, but there are others concealed in the hinge. The result is what Lenovo calls a "pillow-proof" ventilation system—with no bottom vents to obstruct, you can set the laptop on a pillow without having to worry about it overheating.
The U400 utilizes the same book-cover design seen on its ultrabook sibling, the Lenovo IdeaPad U300s ($1,495 list, 4 stars). Instead of the wedge or clamshell shape seen on so many laptops, the IdeaPad U400 has a flat profile, with the edges of the top and bottom lids protruding slightly, like the covers of a book. Measuring 0.89 by 13.38 by 9.05 inches (HWD) and weighing 4.25 pounds, the U400 has roughly the same dimensions as the Dell XPS 14z ($1,299 direct, 4 stars) and weighs a bit less.
The Lenovo IdeaPad U400 has a 14-inch screen, with 1,366-by-768 resolution. That doesn't top the 1,440-by-900 screen of the recent 15-inch Apple MacBook Pro, it's more than sufficient for browsing the Web, streaming 720p video, or multitasking with side by side windows.
The features found on the Lenovo IdeaPad U400 are on par with the best mainstream laptops we've seen recently, like the Apple MacBook Air or Dell XPS 14z. Like these other thin laptops, the IdeaPad omits a few ports to maintain its thin profile, but most people won't miss the VGA or eSATA ports. What you will find are three USB ports, two USB 2.0 and one faster USB 3.0, along with a headset jack and Gigabit Ethernet port. A slot-loading DVD±RW burner maintains the chassis' clean lines, and an HDMI port lets you connect the laptop to a monitor or HDTV. If you want to ditch the cable entirely, the IdeaPad U400 also has WiDi 2.0, a wireless streaming technology that uses the Netgear Push2TV adapter (a $99 extra). Other wireless technologies include 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 3.0.
Our review unit came equipped with a 750GB 7,200rpm hard drive, which is similar to the 750GB drives found in the recent Dell XPS 14z and the HP Envy 14 (Sandy Bridge) ($1,079.99 direct, 4 stars), and larger than the 500GB drive provided in the Apple MacBook Pro. There is software preinstalled on the drive, but it can hardly be called bloatware. Aside from Microsoft Office Starter 2010, you get full versions of everything, like Microsoft Security Essentials, Absolute Data Protect, and Google's Chrome browser, plus utilities like Lenovo Enhanced Experience Boot Optimizer and Lenovo OneKey Recover. Lenovo covers the IdeaPad U400 with a one-year parts-and-labor warranty.
Lenovo has outfitted the IdeaPad U400 with 6GB of RAM and a 2.4GHz Intel Core i5-2430M, a dual-core, four-thread processor similar to those found in the Dell Inspiron 14z (Core i5) ($750 direct, 4 stars) and HP Envy 14, with a slight bump up in speed. In CineBench R11.5, the IdeaPad U400 scored 2.65, edging ahead of both the Inspiron 14z (2.58) and Envy 14 (2.24). Even when stacked against Core i7–equipped systems like the MacBook Pro 15-inch (Late 2011) and Dell XPS 14z, the Lenovo produces strong overall performance. In PCMark 7, the IdeaPad U400 scored 2,309, compared with the MacBook (2,235) and XPS 14z (2,261).
The IdeaPad U400 will also make a good addition to the arsenal of anyone who works with photos, video, or graphic design. It made short work of our Handbrake (1 minute 59 seconds) and Photoshop (4:08) tests. These aren't the fastest results of the bunch—those belong to the MacBook Pro (Handbrake 1:30) and XPS 14z (Photoshop 3:27)—but they're within spitting distance.
One of the few areas where the IdeaPad U400 fell behind was 3D graphics. Equipped with switchable AMD Radeon HD 6470M graphics processing, the Lenovo produced 3DMark 06 scores of 4,835 at 1,024-by-768 resolution and default detail settings, and 3,478 when turned up to 1,366-by-768 resolution and enhanced details. Even with discrete graphics, the IdeaPad couldn't match the high-octane results seen in the Samsung Series 7 (10,807 points at 1,024 by 768) and MacBook Pro 15-inch (11,180 at 1,024 by 768). The IdeaPad U400 also fell behind in gaming, turning out barely playable frame rates in Crysis (31.5 frames per second, or fps) and unplayable frame rates in Lost Planet 2 (15.6fps). There's a lot you can do with the Lenovo IdeaPad U400, but high-performance gaming isn't on the list.
One method used to keep the chassis slim is to seal the battery within, with none of the bulk added by a release mechanism. It's a design decision we've also seen on the Apple MacBook Pro and the Dell XPS 14z, and just as with those laptops, you won't be able to access the IdeaPad's battery to swap it out. Thankfully, the U400's 54Wh battery lasted a full 6 hours in our MobileMark 2007 battery test. This time is comparable to both the Dell XPS 14z (6:03, 58Wh) and HP Envy 14 (5:15, 56Wh), but it's easily beaten by the larger, longer-lasting Dell Inspiron 14z (8:38, 65Wh).
The Lenovo IdeaPad U400 brings luxury to the mainstream laptop, combining a design that looks good and feels even better with solid performance and features like USB 3.0 and WiDi 2.0. In terms of performance, it's an excellent alternative to our Editors' Choice Dell Inspiron 14z (Core i5), but it can't compete on price. You'll be hard pressed, however, to find a more touchable competitor.
This review is in partnership with Ziff Davis Media.