Lenovo IdeaPad U310 ultrabook review

The Lenovo IdeaPad U310 is a portable notebook with a 13.3 inch display, an Intel Core i5 processor, and a case which measures about 0.7 inches thick. Outfitted with a 500GB hard drive and a 32GB solid state disk, the IdeaPad U310 fits Intel’s definition of an ultrabook — and Lenovo markets it that way.

But it’s not the smallest or lightest ultrabook you’ll find. It also doesn’t feature the best build quality — it has an aluminum lid, but the rest of the chassis is mostly plastic.

What the Lenovo IdeaPad U310 has going for it is a reasonably low price tag combined with many of the best features of an ultrabook: it’s reasonably small and light, but offers a speedy processor, decent graphics, and pretty good battery life.

The laptop also has a rather stylish appearance, and Lenovo finally seems to have decided that the Ctrl button on the keyboard should be to the left of the Fn button — although the keyboard has a few other quirks.

Overall the Lenovo IdeaPad U310 is an interesting entry into the low-end ultrabook space. It doesn’t offer premium features such as a high capacity solid state disk or a high resolution display. But if you’re not already using an ultrabook, it’s probably smaller and more responsive than your current laptop — and with a starting price of around $749, it might not cost all that much more either.

Lenovo also offers the U310 without the 32GB solid state disk, calling it a laptop instead of an ultrabook. That model starts at $699.

Lenovo loaned me an IdeaPad U310 for the purposes of this review. It features a 13.3 inch, 1366 x 768 pixel display, 1.7 GHz Intel Core i5-3317u Ivy Bridge processor, and 4GB of RAM. The model featured in this review sells for $799.

Design

With the lid open, the Lenovo IdeaPad U310 looks more like a traditional laptop than an ultrabook: it seems kind of large for a 13.3 inch ultrathin model. The white plastic case and the rather large bezel around the glossy display are reasonably attractive, but they don’t really look all that special.

When you close the lid, on the other hand, the U310 looks quite sleek. Unlike some ultrathin laptops which are thicker in the back than the front, this Lenovo ultraportable is 0.7 inches thick from front to back. The edges of the lid and base are curved a tiny bit, but front, back, left, and right sides of the laptop are a little concave, but they look nearly flat.

The lid and display are very, very thin, so most of the bulk is in the base of the notebook, but with the lid closed, basically the computer looks like one slab of material.

Lenovo offers three different color options: gray, blue, and purple, although the company calls these graphite gray, aqua blue, and cherry blossom. The colors apply tot the lid and bottom of the computer, while the keyboard area, palm rest, and screen bezel are white on all three models.

The bottom of the laptop features a single panel with a large cooling vent in the middle. There’s no easy way to disassemble the IdeaPad U310 to replace or upgrade the battery, memory, storage, or other internal components.

From an aesthetic standpoint, I’m pretty pleased with the IdeaPad U310. From a functional standpoint, the design leaves a little more to be desired.

The notebook has a 13.3 inch display, but the keyboard feels like it was designed for a notebook with an 11.6 inch screen. There’s unused space to the left and right of the keyboard which Lenovo could have used for larger or additional keys.

The glossy display has a resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels — which isn’t exactly unusual, but I’ve come to hope for more from ultrabooks. The viewing angles are also pretty bad. If you tilt the screen back to far, colors will start to wash out, and if you stand too far to the left or right of the screen, pictures and videos will start to look like photo negatives.

I also found the keyboard a little disappointing. While a little flex doesn’t normally bother me, you don’t have to press down very hard on the f, g, h, or j keys to see (and feel the entire keyboard move downward a little bit. It feels like the thin plastic membrane surrounding the flat black keys isn’t very rigid.

Lenovo did get a few things right with the keyboard. The company has a long history of putting the Fn key to the left of the Ctrl key — which is the exact opposite of the layout almost every other PC maker users. So if you’re used to using another keyboard, it can take a while to get used to touch-typing on a typical Lenovo keyboard if you’re a regular user of the Fn and Ctrl keys

But the Lenovo IdeaPad U310 has the Ctrl key to the left of the Fn key, so that’s not a problem.

The company also included a dedicated row of keys on the right side of the keyboard for home, end, page up, and page down functions, as well as full-sized arrow keys. These features might not sound that impressive, but I’ve learned not to take them for granted when reviewing ultraportable laptops.

Some of the keys are a little awkwardly placed. The Home key is right next to the Backspace button, for instance — so I repeatedly found myself moving the cursor to the start of line of text when I meant to delete the last character.

Below the keyboard is a rather large touchpad. You can lightly tap your finger anywhere on the touchpad to register a left-click, or push down on the surface to actually hear it click. There’s also a small section in the lower right corner which you can use to right-click.

The touchpad might be a little too large for its own good. I found myself accidentally swiping my palm against it regularly as I typed, which caused the cursor to move around the screen erratically. On more than one occasion I found myself accidentally deleting entire sentences or paragraphs of text because the cursor jumped quickly just before I hit the delete button.

While the Lenovo IdeaPad U310 doesn’t have the worst keyboard or touchpad I’ve ever used, both input devices are a little quirky and take a little getting used to.

On the left side of the laptop you’ll find 2 USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI port, an Ethernet jack, and a vent. From time to time when the internal fan kicks in to help keep the laptop cool, you’ll hear a little noise coming out of that vent, but the laptop isn’t nearly as noisy as the HP Pavilion DM1 or some other notebooks I’ve tested.

There’s one USB 2.0 port and a combination mic/headphone jack on the right side of the laptop. That’s also where you’ll find the power jack.

The front of the ultrabook features an SDHC card slot, and two status lights that display power and battery charging status. One of these LED lights flashes rather brightly when the computer is in sleep mode, so you might not want to go to sleep in a dark room with your laptop turned off unless it’s strategically positioned so that the status light is pointed away from you.

Lenovo tucked the speakers into the space in front of the hinge that holds the lid to the base of the computer. This means they’re never really blocked by a table, lap, or other obstruction.

So they’re reasonably loud, although they still sound like laptop speakers — which means they’re good enough for watching some YouTube videos or listening to a little music, but if you want to hear the full range of sound, you’ll probably want to plug in some headphones. These speakers are a little light on bass frequencies.

Performance 

With a 3rd generation Intel Core i5 dual-core mobile processor, the Lenovo IdeaPad U310 is a pretty snappy device. The 500GB hard drive may not be able to handle data transfer speeds as well as the 128GB solid state disk on a MacBook Air or a pricier ultrabook like one of the Asus Zenbook models. But the 32GB solid state cache disk allows the laptop to boot and resume from sleep pretty quickly.

The notebook has a Windows Experience Index of 4.8, with the CPU grabbing a score of 6.9. The weak link in the test is the integrated graphics, which scores just 4.8.

Liliputing benchmarks (Lenovo IdeaPad U310)

The notebook also scores pretty well in benchmarks. It was far and away the fastest computer I’ve ever tested at transcoding video files and compressing 2,186 files into a single ZIP archive. Bear in mind, I tend to test affordable portable computers rather than blazing-fast PCs, but the IdeaPad U310 is pretty fast.

It’s not exactly a gaming laptop, but it also got some of the highest scores of any computer I’ve tested in the 3DMark and Street Fighter IV benchmarks, even though it has integrated graphics while some of the other systems I’ve tested have dedicated graphics.

That’s at least partially because Intel has greatly improved the performance of its Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics, but a lot of it also has to do with the speedy processor. Up until recently most of the notebooks I reviewed for Liliputing featured low power and low-to-moderate performance chips such as Intel Atom processors or AMD Ontario or Brazos chips.

Other computers featured in the charts above include the Asus Zenbook UX31 with a second-generation Intel Core i5 processor, the Samsung Series 7 Slate with a 2nd generation Core i5 CPU, and the HP Pavilion DM1 with an AMD E2-1800 processor and Radeon HD 7340 graphics.

This is actually the first Ivy Bridge notebook I’ve reviewed, so I can’t tell you how it compares to other devices with similar processors — but this $799 notebook outperforms the $1100 Asus Zenbook UX31 I reviewed half a year ago in most tests.

But not necessarily every test. The Asus Zenbook has a 128GB sold state disk and no hard drive, while the Lenovo IdeaPad U310 has a 32GB SSD and a 500GB hard drive. While the extra storage space is nice to have, it slows down a few common activities.

For instance, while the U310 boots to the Windows 7 desktop in just 25 seconds (and connects to WiFi in another 7 seconds or so), and resumes from sleep in about 2 seconds, thing slow down a bit if you leave the computer in sleep mode for more than 10 minutes or so. That’s when it enters a sort of deep sleep mode that can take about 6 seconds to recover from.

That might not sound like a big deal — most older laptops take much longer to resume from sleep or hibernate mode. But in a world filled with smartphones, tablets, and ultrabooks that you can start using as soon as you press the power button or open the lid, 5 or 6 seconds can feel like a long time.

But given the overall speed and performance of this computer, it’s a forgivable error — especially since hard drives are much cheaper than solid state disks, which is part of the reason Lenovo can offer the U310 for $799 and up when many other ultrabooks cost much more.

Battery

Lenovo claims you should be able to get up to 8 hours of battery life from this laptop. Lenovo is being optimistic.

In daily use, I’d say 5 hours is a more reasonable estimate. That’s about what I got while using the laptop mostly for web browsing with the display brightness set to 50 percent.

Watching videos or playing games will wear down the battery more quickly.

It’s certainly possible to get more than 5 hours of run time, depending on usage. At times I got closer to 6 by avoiding the YouTube videos calling my name. But if you’re looking for all-day battery life you might need to look elsewhere – especially since the IdeaPad U310 doesn’t have a user replaceable battery. You’ll need to carry around the power cable and stay close to a wall jack if you need more than 5 hours of power at a time.

Software

Normally I don’t bother talking about the software on Windows 7 laptops I review. Most companies include some “value added” programs which may or may not make the computer more useful. You can usually uninstall them if you don’t like them.

But Lenovo includes a couple of useful tools, and one or two odd apps that I wanted to point out.

The computer comes with Microsoft Office 2010 — but you’ll either need to purchase a full license and enter a key to use all the features, or use Office 2010 Starter, a limited version of Office.

You also get CyberLink OneKey Recovery — a tool that lets you create a bootable recovery disk or restore your computer to its factory default settings using an image stored on a recovery partition. As a reviewer, I love this sort of thing because it lets me wipe a computer before sending it back to the manufacturer.

As a user, it’s nice to have a sort of nuke button in case you want to sell a computer, or just restore it to its original state to clear out any gunk or problems that have accumulated since you first brought the laptop home.

There’s a Lenovo Easy Notepad app which feels like it was designed for a tablet… or Windows 8 computer. It runs in a full-screen window, unlike almost every other Windows 7 app. You can launch it by placing four fingers on the touchpad and swiping to the right.

If you plant to take a lot of notes in comic sans, I suppose it could be useful.

What’s less useful is the full-screen photo app that pops up when you hit Ctrl+Shift+T. That just happens to be the same key combination you use to re-open the last browser tab you closed in Google Chrome — which means that every time you try to re-open a window while surfing the web, you instead open a photo viewer.

I didn’t realize how often I used that key combination until Lenovo took it away from me.

Both the notepad and photo viewer appear to be part of the Lenovo TouchZone app — which you can kill using the task manager. But it doesn’t show up in the list of install Windows apps, which makes it difficult to uninstall.

Other preloaded software includes Windows Live Essentials, McAfee Antivirus, Adobe Reader, and Veriface facial recognition software for unlocking your PC by gazing into the webcam.

Lenovo also includes Dolby Home Theater software that lets you use a graphic equalizer, access a series of presets for music, movies, and games, or create custom profiles.

Verdict

The Lenovo IdeaPad U310 is a good looking ultrabook with a reasonable price tag. It would be nice if it weighed a little less than 3.7 pounds, if it had a higher resolution screen, or a better keyboard.

But you get what you pay for — and if what you want is a fast laptop that’s reasonably light and which won’t break the bank, you could do a lot worse than the IdeaPad U310.

If there was one thing I’d really love to see though, it would be better battery life. Since the battery is not user replaceable, a battery that might not make it all the way through a flight from New York to Los Angeles is a little disappointing.

  • BertrandsBox

    Is it just me, or is that screen bezel pretty huge?

    • CyberGusa

      It’s a little big but it’s harder to make the bezel thinner on Ultrabooks because of the thin casing design. The screen needs good structural support or you’ll get flexing that can damage the screen for example.

      Also light colors can make it stand out more but there are laptops with even larger bezels.

      Bezels also get extended a bit to accommodate more full size keyboards that would otherwise require a even wider screen to cover the same space when the lid is closed.

      While some bezels also just seem larger with smaller screen models with basically only the same thickness as on larger models.

  • NoOne

    Brad, I love you, and thank you for the review. One thing,
    Unlike some ultrathin laptops which are thicker in the front than the bac is a phenomenon I’ve never seen a ultrabook, I usually see the reverse, do you have any examples :)

    I was really enthusiastic about Ultrabooks when they first came out, and my enthusiasm is being tempered as I see the trade-offs. They are more extreme than the thin-and-lights of a few years back. I actually bought a UL30vt, and honestly the windows score here isn’t that much better after I upgraded the ram and put in a SSD, which I’d likely have to do with this system to. The processor is better than the SU7100, which gets 4.9 or 5.2 when overclocked… but everything else is very similar. Then again that has a separate Geforce 210, and this is all integrated, but the graphics don’t appear to be any better, and the Desktop graphics of the HD4000 seems to be about the same as the old 4500HD, i.e. not good.

    I guess maybe it’s because I have the UL30vt to carry around, but I’m not exactly thrilled with the trade offs I’ve already made in what has ended up becoming my primary system, so I’m especially nervous looking at the ultrabook class of products. They seem great as companion PCs, but less so as primary ones, especially since for the most part they’re not user upgradeable or serviceable, and given the way batteries degrade over time, It’s like they’re building laptops with even more intentional obsolescence than normal.

    • http://www.liliputing.com/ Brad Linder

      Yeah, the new processors are the main reason to switch. Even the low power Ivy Bridge CPUs blow away older ULV chips — but if you’ve got a UL30VT, I’d hang onto it for another few years… or until it dies.

      By the time you’re ready for a new model, hopefully even the cheapest ultrabooks will have better battery life and higher resolution displays… although I wouldn’t hold my breath on the battery life.

      As for the thicker in the front… that was a typo. I meant thicker in the back than the front. :)

  • Amit Vachharajani

    The wifi reception on the 310 sucks. A whole lot of customers in India and other countries are complaining on the forum. See this http://forums.lenovo.com/t5/IdeaPad-Y-U-V-and-Z-series/My-new-u310-gives-really-low-speeds-on-wifi/td-p/790527/page/6