What's hot: Super light and thin, beautiful design, excellent quality, lovely display.
What's not: Battery life just OK, could use more ports and slots.
Reviewed January 3, 2011 by Lisa Gade, Editor
There are two kinds of laptops: those dedicated to function and those dedicated to form (rarer). The Lenovo IdeaPad U260 is in the latter camp, paying much attention to design, look, feel and weight. To see it is to love it, much like Apple's notebooks. The magnesium alloy body is minimalist and modern. It's covered in a delicious soft touch finish that's even grippier than that used on ThinkPads. It's available in mocha brown (a bronze-like look) and clementine orange that's subtle rather than the signal orange used on Sony's second gen Vaio P super-small ultraportable. The look works well as a piece for the Museum of Modern Art, and at 3 pounds, even a waifish supermodel can handle the weight. Lenovo states that the design is inspired by a bound journal, and indeed it looks like something you could slip on the shelf of a wood paneled study.
The U260 is thus the polar opposite of the Lenovo U160 that entered the market in January 2010-- it had decent specs but was not at all a luxury piece. The U260 sells for only $50 to $200 more, and you are indeed paying 1) for the high end design and materials, 2) the larger 12.5" matte display. The U260 runs on the Intel Core i5 U470UM, the ULV (ultra-low voltage) version of the full Core i5 used on larger notebooks. It's clocked at 1.33GHz and can Turbo Boost to 1.86GHz. There's a Core i3 ULV version available as well ($200 less and available only in mocha), but we suggest the i5 for better performance. As of this writing there is no i7 option-- a shame. But then most folks who buy ultraportables aren't looking for extreme processing power.
ULV CPUs are clocked lower than standard notebook CPUs, so the i5 in the Lenovo U260 isn’t equivalent to the i5 used in the ThinkPad X201, for example. That said, the ULV Core i CPUs are much faster than prior generation Intel ULV CPUs and benchmark better than Core 2 Duo CPUs. The i5 used in the Lenovo U260 is more than fast enough for streaming video full screen, productivity work, Internet apps, Photoshop and more. It’s no 3D gaming machine since it relies on Intel HD integrated graphics, but that integrated solution is actually a solid performer for multimedia, 2D gaming and older 3D gameplay.
Intel Core i5 470UM at 1.33GHz with 2 cores and 4 threads plus Turbo Boost
4 gigs DDR3 RAM (in 1 DIMM slot)
320 gig, 5400 rpm hard drive (7mm height)
12.5” 1366 x 768 LED backlit matte display
Intel WiFi 802.11b/g/n
Bluetooth 2.1 +EDR
2 USB ports
HDMI and VGA ports
3.5mm headphone combo mic jack
Windows 7 Home Premium 64 bit
4 cell Lithium Ion Polymer battery, tiny charger included
1 watt stereo speakers
Deals and Shopping:
Those are very solid specs for an ultralight, and only Acer puts the Lenovo U260 to shame with their TimelineX 1830T running on a ULV Intel Core i7 with more ports (but a smaller display, smaller trackpad and no metal casing).
Drawbacks, besides the price? When you go after the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro (in theory not in looks because the U260 looks unique and nothing like the Air or MacBook Pro), you inherit designer-induced drawbacks. At least Lenovo did: the battery isn’t removable, the underside gets warm because metal casings transfer heat (it’s not alarmingly hot thanks to the overzealous fan) and there are only 2 USB 2.0 ports and no SD card slot. Really? Even an 11.6” netbook manages 3 USB ports and a card reader these days. At least there’s an Ethernet port (take that, MacBook Air).
Keyboard and Trackpad, Ergonomic Delights
The U260 has a magnesium alloy casing that’s covered in a soft touch finish that’s a tactile delight. It just feels wonderful, and better yet makes the notebook nearly immune to fingerprints, accidental drops from slick hands or unintended slides across the table. So far, the exterior coating seems durable and hasn’t marred in normal use. The palm rest deck is textured to look and feel like leather, and the roomy glass trackpad is one of the best we’ve used on a Windows machine. It supports gestures, multi-touch and has the usual side scroll zone.
The keyboard is Lenovo’s usual excellent island style keyboard with good key separation and travel. The full sized keyboard has chiclet keys that click just a bit when typing. It’s spill resistant and “breathable” (the CPU and components take in cool air through the keyboard which then exits through the rear and bottom vents). Keys are in their normal places and the somewhat smaller right shift key didn’t bother us terribly. Should the trackpad interfere with your typing, you can disable it. The trackpad is offset to the right to keep your hands centered on the home keys (this drives me crazy on a small machine but it’s standard fare). Brightness, volume, trackpad enable/disable, wireless, monitor out, sleep and multimedia controls are embedded in the Fn and arrow keys, but oddly there’s no Fn key for mute.
Speaking of heat, the U260 gets warm (up to 92 F) on the bottom but not hot. The fan isn’t terribly quiet and it comes on more often than we’d expect. In fact, it comes on when the CPU is reading a relatively cool 40 Celsius and runs until the system is a downright chilly 29-30 degrees, unlike most notebooks with similar CPUs. We suspect Lenovo was over-cautious and set conservative fan settings to avoid complaints about bottom panel heat. And like the MacBook Pro, the rear-firing main vent is partly blocked by the open display panel—a less efficient design than side-firing vents. The upside is that your hands aren’t toasted by hot air exiting a side vent. Though the U260 is unusual in that the air exiting the vent is quite cool unless the notebook has been playing video for an extended period of time.
Design and Ports
The Lenovo’s minimalist design is lovely to look at, but we wish they’d thrown in a few more ports and slots. After all, this 12.5” laptop’s chassis isn’t terribly small compared to 11.6” machines like the IdeaPad U160 and Acer TimelineX 1830T. Yet it has just 2 USB 2.0 ports (one on each side) and no card reader. Thankfully it has a gigabit Ethernet port, HDMI and VGA. There’s a 3.5mm stereo headphone jack on the left (with combo mic input), a Kensington lock slot and a wireless on/off slider. There's a mystery rectangle of plastic on the right side that looks like an ExpressCard slot but alas it's not (the piece of plastic isn't removable).
There’s an Apple level of attention to detail and ergonomics: the leather-styled wrist rest area feels inviting and somehow resists grime and gunk, while the display lid has a beveled edge that’s easy to catch with a finger for quick angle adjustments. The hinges feel smooth and almost hydraulically assisted—they’re firm enough but also smooth enough to close with one hand.
The 1 watt stereo speakers live above the keyboard rather than firing down at your lap or desk as they are on some 11.6" ultralights and netbooks. With 1 watt speakers you won‘t get lots of bass but they're good enough for YouTube videos.
The display lid’s lower edge drops down below the top of the keyboard deck, and that means you can’t tilt the display back flat; it goes back to approximately 130 degrees. The display itself is bright (around 220 nits) and has better than average color saturation. It's noticeably easier on the eyes than competing gloss displays and contrast is good even without the gloss layer that increases apparent contrast. Blacks are deep and text is easy on the eyes thanks to the larger display relative to the 11.6" competition running at the same 1366 x 768 resolution. This is one of the few consumer Windows notebooks that can hold its own against the MacBook Pro and Sony Vaio Z matte displays. Viewing angles are quite good, especially when brightness is turned up. The machine has an ambient light sensor but we found it favored dim settings too much so we disabled the feature.
Here's our 8 minute video review of the Lenovo IdeaPad U260:
Ultraportables aren’t meant to be desktop replacements, but today's technology means that they can be more than adequate as main computers if you use your PC primarily for MS Office, Internet apps, image editing and video playback. They aren’t gaming rigs suitable for the latest 3D titles and they’re good for occasional video editing rather than as a full time occupation. Thus the U260 with Intel’s Core i5 470UM clocked at 1.33GHz is suitable for web, productivity, Photoshop and light development work. We had no trouble manipulating 15 meg RAW files from our dSLR camera, nor did software installations bog it down thanks to a respectable 8 meg cache on the U260’s 320 gig hard drive (2.5”, 7mm slim Hitachi). The drive is partitioned into a large C drive and small D drive that has recovery folders for drivers and software. Storage space is reduced due to a recovery partition that's accessed by the Lenovo OneKey recovery button or Windows utility.
PCMark Vantage Benchmarks:
Lenovo IdeaPad U260, Intel Core i5 470UM
TV and Movies: 2597
We found the Lenovo a pleasure to use for MS Office work, image editing and all things Internet. Unlike a netbook, the U260 won't leave you waiting. In mixed productivity and video playback, it felt as fast as the Acer TimelineX 1830T with a Core i7 ULV and PCMark Vantage score of 4905. Why? Because the Core i5 470UM's power is more than adequate for the tasks listed. You won't see a difference until you do more demanding chores like MP3 encoding or video production. Then the Lenovo is adequate but not a class leader like the Acer.
Streaming YouTube 720p and Hulu full screen was no problem for the Lenovo and we got strong frame rates without too much heat. The Intel HD graphics with a variable clock of 166 to 500MHz handle video well.
Designer machines aren't generally easy to open for upgrades. It's easy enough (assuming you have a torx screwdriver) to remove 3 torx screws and pop up the keyboard for access to the single SODIMM RAM slot and mini PCI slot where the Wi-Fi card lives. But if you want to access the hard drive or battery, you must remove the entire top deck by unscrewing approximately 15 torx screws from the bottom.
Here's the big hurt: the Lenovo U260 has just a 4 cell, 39Wh Lithium Ion Polymer battery-- quite small. To make matters worse, the battery is sealed inside and you must remove top deck to access the battery. Lenovo says the battery is good for 600 full charge cycles (topping up doesn't count as a full charging cycle), and we'd expect the battery to last 2 years before it degraded significantly. But still, we're not fans of non-swappable batteries.
Runtimes when doing productivity work, email and web surfing with WiFi on and brightness set to 50% averaged 3.5 to 3.75 hours in our tests (Lenovo claims up to 4 hours). Playing a movie stored on the hard drive brought that down to 2.4 hours and streaming Hulu lasted 2.2 hours. For an ultraportable, these aren't good numbers. The Acer TimelineX 1830T lasts an amazing 7 hours thanks to impressive power management and a 6 cell battery, while the Lenovo U160 with its standard 6 cell battery lasted 5 hours.
We don't break down our star ratings into categories, but if we did, the IdeaPad U260 would get a perfect 5 for design and quality and a 3 for horsepower and features. We love a beautiful and light machine as much as the next designer-clad geek, but we do weight performance and features above good looks and a fine build. So we rate the notebook as the best Windows alternative to the MacBook Air we've seen so far, but it's a little lacking on the ultramobile front. We wish for more battery life and a 3rd USB port as well as a card reader. And it's a shame that Lenovo doesn't offer this high end showcase notebook with a Core i7 ULV.
Complaints aside, the U260 is a more than adequate performer that rips through business work as well as streaming video. It's truly in the notebook class being much, much, much faster than a netbook and a better performer than last year's Intel SU series-based ultraportables. It should age well in terms of real world performance and only those who obsess on specs will find it wanting after a year. And the display, keyboard and trackpad are simply marvelous.
Pro: Simply gorgeous notebook with exacting attention to detail and ergonomics. Top notch build and quality. Super thin and light. Good LED backlit matte display (goodbye glare). Great keyboard and trackpad. Grippy exterior finish is both attractive and practical.
Con: Battery isn't
user replaceable, only 2 USB ports and no card reader slot. Battery life is low for an ultraportable, fan comes on more than necessary. Must remove many torx screws to access hard drive and battery.
Display:12.5" LED backlit matte display. Resolution 1366 x 768. Intel HD integrated graphics. Has VGA and HDMI ports.
Ion Polymer 4 cell, 39Wh battery. Sealed inside notebook (must disassemble notebook to replace). Compact 40W world charger included.
Core i5 470UM 1.33GHz CPU (Arrandale) with 2 cores, 4 threads and Turbo Boost. Core i3 380UM 1.33GHz version available for lower end model. 4 gigs DDR3 RAM, 1066MHz (1 DIMM, 1 DIMM slot). 320 gig SATA hard drive, 5400 rpm (2.5", 7mm height).
x 8.05 x 0.7 inches. Weight: 3 pounds 0.8 ounces.
Camera:VGA webcam and integrated mic.
in stereo speakers (1 watt each), mic and 3.5mm stereo headphone combo mic
Intel Wi-Fi Link 1000 802.11b/g/n (2.4GHz, 2 antenna design) and Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR (Broadcom).
7 Home Premium 64 bit. Lenovo utilities including VeriFace, OneKey Recovery, webcam utilities and system security and updaters. Trial version of McAfee antivirus and MS Office 2010 in user selectable free mode and paid mode.
Ports:Two USB 2.0 ports, HDMI, VGA, Ethernet and 3.5mm headphone.