Still, if you’re looking for a cheap, light, and portable notebook but don’t want to compromise on the screen resolution and keyboard you could do worse. Lenovo also offers a version with the VIA Nano processor instead of the Intel Atom, and an NVIDIA ION-based version is expected soon, with a more powerful graphics processor.
The unit reviewed has 1GB of RAM, a 160GB hard drive, 802.11.b/g WiFi, a 6 cell battery and runs Windows XP Home Edition.
The characteristic that defines the Lenovo IdeaPad S12 is the fact that it’s larger than a typical netbook. That means it has room for a larger display, full sized keyboard, and a few additional features including an ExpressCard/34 slot on the side and a few extra quick-launch buttons above the keyboard.
Yet, the S12 takes the rest of its design cues from netbooks. In order to keep costs down, Lenovo hasn’t just used a cheaper processor and other internal components. The computer is also made of plastic with a few chromed elements to give it a classier look. But as cheap plastic computers go, the S12 is something of a looker.
The company sells the netbook in black or white, and both versions feature a pattern of circles on the lid. Personally, I’d prefer a solid color, but that’s not an option.
There’s plenty of room around the sides of the netbook for 3 USB ports, an SD card slot, the ExpressCard slot, mic and headphone jacks, a VGA port, Ethernet jack, and a switch for toggling the WiFi on and off. There’s also a vent on the left side. The fan noise is audible when you’re running CPU-intensive tasks, but not obnoxious.
Above the keyboard is a power button, quick start button, and hardware buttons for adjusting the audio volume or launching backup and restore software. There’s also a built-in mic above the keyboard.
The speakers are on the front edge of the laptop, below the keyboard, but not stuck on the bottom of the computer where the sound will easily be muffled by a table or your lap. There’s also a 1.3MP webcam located above the display.
Underneath the unit, you’ll find a few access panels. I was pleasantly surprised to note that there’s a free RAM slot, which should make it easy to upgrade the RAM to 2GB simply by sticking throwing in a 1GB stick. There’s no need to remove the existing memory to upgrade. If I’m not mistaken, the other panel has a spot for a SIM card slot, and perhaps a 3G module, which isn’t included in the unit reviewed here.
Display and Graphics
The IdeaPad S12 features a bright, glossy, 12.1 inch, 1280 x 800 pixel widescreen display. While larger than most netbook screens, the S12 display is also significantly sharper. I don’t feel the need to squint as much as I did with the HP 2133 Mini-Note, which had a 1280 x 720 pixel 8.9 inch display. But if your eyesight isn’t perfect, you might want to adjust the system fonts and page zoom settings in your web browser in order to make the display more comfortable.
Of course, the best thing about a higher resolution display is that it lets you cram more material onto your screen. Here’s a shot of the Lenovo IdeaPad S12 and an IdeaPad S10-2 viewing the same web page:
As you can see, you can fit a whole lot more web page on the S12, thanks to its higher resolution screen. But all those extra pixels do take their toll. The 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270 processor is more than capable of handling 720p video in a variety of formats, as well as Flash video content — when paired with a typical 1024 x 600 pixel netbook screen. But it has to work much harder to pump out video on a higher resolution screen. As a result, 720p video playback is choppy, as is some Flash video content from sites like Hulu when played in full screen mode. Standard definition video, on the other hand, looks fantastic.
Lenovo plans to offer a version of the IdeaPad S12 with NVIDIA ION, which basically bundles the same Atom N270 CPU with an NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics processor. This version should be able to handle 720p and 1080p video playback with ease. But until Adobe and NVIDIA build hardware acceleration into Adobe Flash, higher quality web video will still look choppy when played in full screen.
In other words, while you would think that the higher resolution screen would make the IdeaPad S12 a better multimedia machine than netbooks with lower resolution displays, the opposite is true… for now. I’m looking forward to testing the ION powered version once it becomes available. It’s worth noting that Lenovo also offers a version of the S12 with a VIA Nano CPU instead of the Intel Atom processor. I can’t say for certain how this affects video playback.
On the other hand, when it comes to normal tasks, like editing office documents, viewing or editing photos, or surfing the web, the higher resolution display is absolutely a welcome addition.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The laptop doesn’t just feature a larger screen than a typical netbook. It also has a larger chassis. And that means there’s room for a 100% full sized keyboard. Typing on the IdeaPad S12 keyboard is virtually the same experience as typing on a laptop with a 14 inch or larger display. Of course, the keyboard is still smaller than a typical desktop keyboard, which means that some keys have to serve double-duty.
For instance, you can hit the Fn key plus a series of alphabet keys to simulate the experience of typing on a numeric keypad. The Home and End keys are combined with the PgUp and PgDn keys. The Fn keys at the top row of the keyboard let you perform actions such as putting the computer to sleep, toggling the WiFi, disabling the touchpad, and controlling media playback in some applications. The arrow keys in the bottom right corner of the keyboard can also be used to adjust the screen brightness and volume.
Some of these keys might be overkill, since there are also dedicated buttons above the keyboard that let you adjust the volume, and there’s a hardware button on the left side of the computer for toggling the WiFi. But I suppose it’s better to have too many choices than not enough at all.
I do have one pet peeve with the keyboard. I find the location of the Ctrl and Fn keys frustrating. I’m used to working with keyboards where the key on the far left side of the bottom row is Ctrl. On the IdeaPad S12, the Fn key is located in that spot, and the Ctrl key is to its right. I constantly find myself hitting Fn when I mean to hit Ctrl. But I know Lenovo isn’t the only computer maker to use this layout, so you may already be used to these key positions. I’m not.
The touchpad is reasonably wide, although I noticed that the Asus Eee PC 1000H, which is a 10 inch mini-laptop actually has a slightly wider touchpad. Underneath the IdeaPad S12’s touchpad are two distinct buttons, which are quite easy to press. The touchpad has a scrolling section near the right side, allowing you to scroll up and down in most applications, much the same way you would with a mouse scrollbar.
Lenovo packs the IdeaPad S12 with a number of interesting applications. First is a quick-start environment based on Splashtop. If you hit the QS button above the keyboard instead of the power button, the Quick Start menu will launch in about 10 seconds. It includes a web browser, music player, photo viewer, instant messenger, and Skype.
Honstly, I’m not that impressed with the Quick Start software. The first problem is that there’s no way to add or remove these applications, or even install add-ons for the Firefox-based web browser. Second, while it takes 10 seconds to load the interface, it can take another 10 to 20 seconds to load an application. Considering it only takes about 45 seconds to boot into a fully functional Windows XP desktop, I don’t see the advantage to using the Quick Start menu.
Finally, and this may not be a problem for everyone, I couldn’t for the life of me connect to my home wireless network using the Quick Start WiFi configuration utility. I had no problem getting online using Windows XP, so I know this is a software issue, not a hardware one. I was also able to login to a neighbor’s unsecured network, but not my password-protected network. Shh… don’t tell him.
The computer also includes the VeriFace Recognition III utility which lets you log into Windows by pointing the webcam at your mug. If you’re a slow typist, this can be faster than entering a password on the keyboard, but it does take a few seconds for the facial recognition software to load, so you might find it’s more trouble than it’s worth.
I put the software to the test by registering my own face and then trying to trick the software by pointing it at my wife and a few photographs of other people’s faces. I was able to login each time, while my attempts to fake the software out went unrewarded. I also found that I couldn’t login using my own face in a poorly lit room.
Smiling also fools the program, since I registered my face without smiling. In other words, if you really want to prevent someone from logging into the computer by holding your unconscious head up to the screen after you’ve passed out after having one too many, trying setting up the software only to let you login while making a particularly funny face. Then try to remember that face next time you need to login. Fortunately, the facial recognition software only works if you’ve already established a written password for your computer, so even if you find yourself unable to login using the webcam for one reason or another, you can always type the password the old fashioned way.
Here’s a short video of the facial recognition software in action:
The computer also comes with OneKey recovery software which lets you backup your files and settings and restore them by clicking the restore button located over the keyboard.
There’s also a Energy Management utility that lets you quickly adjust your power settings. These seem to be limited to things like screen brightness and how long your computer needs to be inactive before shutting down the display, hard drive, or other components. The power schemes don’t seem to give you any control over your CPU speed or other advanced hardware settings.
In other words, the Energy Management software isn’t much more powerful than the built in Windows power management tools, but the Lenovo software does have the advantage of letting you automatically adjust your power schemes when your computer is unplugged.
The computer also ships with Norton Internet Security software and a trial version of Microsoft Office 2007.
Aside from the performance issues mentioned in the graphics and display section, the Lenovo IdeaPad S12 functions exactly as you would expect an Intel Atom powered netbook to. I had no problems opening 6 or more tabs in Firefox while playing music in the background without the computer slowing down.
If you plan to use the computer primarily for surfing the web, creating and editing documents, or performing other tasks that don’t require a great deal of graphics performance, the Atom-powered version of the IdeaPad S12 can get the job done. If you need better graphics, you might want to wait until the NVIDIA ION version is available.
The speakers are reasonably loud, if a bit tinny.
The laptop comes with a 6 cell, 52Whr battery. It sticks out from the back of the computer a bit, but I’ve seen worse.
The battery lasted for 4 hours and 27 minutes when I ran the Battery Eater Pro test. The test is designed to put constant strain on the battery. In real world settings, you’re likely to get between 5 and 6 hours of run time.
While a number of other netbooks, including the Asus Eee PC 1005HA, get better battery life, 5+ hours is pretty good for a 12.1 inch notebook.
If you judge the Lenovo IdeaPad S12 by netbook standards, the computer has an excellent screen and keyboard. While the laptop is still small by conventional notebook standards, it should be large enough to placate some folks who find the typical netbook to be too small to make for a comfortable typing or reading experience. And weighing in at just 3.4 pounds, the notebook is barely heavier than the Asus Eee PC 1000HE.
As much as I love a 10 inch netbook, I find myself frequently grabbing the larger IdeaPad S12 when I’m on the go because it has many of the benefits of a netbook including long battery life and relatively small size and light weight, with the added advantage of a screen that can display significantly more information.
But the basic model with an Intel Atom N270 CPU and integrated graphics balks at HD video playback and other tasks that require greater graphics processing power than the computer can provide. That can make the S12 feel slower than many smaller netbooks, and much slower than a cheap 14 or 15 inch laptop.
If you really need better graphics performance, you might want to hold out for the NVIDIA ION version. But be aware that even that version isn’t going to be able to handle high quality Flash video in full screen mode until Adobe and NVIDIA work out hardware acceleration for the platform.
The Lenovo IdeaPad S12 is available for $499 from Lenovo.com.