Lenovo IdeaPad U310 £599
17th Jan 2013 | 11:53
An affordable, attractive Ultrabook - but is it compromised in other areas?
Since the introduction of Ultrabooks, Lenovo has been at the forefront of thin and light machines. We've seen it do well at both ends of the pricing scale with the Lenovo U410 and ThinkPad X1 Carbon, but those are both 14-inch machines.
The IdeaPad U310 is a 13-inch Ultrabook, more in keeping with the likes of the Asus Zenbook UX32A, Lenovo's own IdeaPad Yoga (but without the touch capabilities, or the flexible spine), or the MacBook Air.
Though it trims down on screen size from the IdeaPad U410, it keeps the funky design sensibilities. With a choice of finishes for the outside, including the fetching blue colour we had, and stark white (with slightly sparkling finish) on the inside, it definitely looks like more of a home laptop than the usual dour business fare.
There's a spacious trackpad, and a good-sized keyboard too, with simple black keys. It's definitely a handsome computer, and one that manages that special trick of looking friendly, rather than like a serious work machine.
Inside the model we tested, you'll find silicon fairly comparable to other machines at the lower end of the Ultrabook market. There's a 1.8GHz Intel Core i3 processor, a 500GB hard drive with a 24GB SSD for rapid booting and waking from sleep, 4GB of RAM and Windows 8 powering it all.
The model we had has a full recommended price of £599 in the UK (around AU$912) or US$729 in the US, but can be found a bit below that online.
The Lenovo U310 comes in a few configurations, which can affect the price. You can also find it with a more powerful Intel Core i5-3317U processor, or even an Intel Core i7-3517U, for more money (we'll touch on the processor differences on the Specification page).
Though a quick glance at the specs and price of the Lenovo IdeaPad U310 leave it looking pretty middle-of-the-road in the lower end of the Ultrabook range, it's an incredibly appealing thing to see in the flesh. Something like the Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A is designed to be severe and sexy; this is designed to be fun and inviting.
At 18mm (0.7 inches) thick, it's hardly the thinnest of Ultrabooks, and at 1.6kg (3.5lbs) it won't win any portability awards. But it's still slimmer and lighter than most home computers, so the advantage isn't something to be ignored.
As we mentioned, this isn't a touchscreen laptop (although a Lenovo IdeaPad U310 Touch is "coming soon", it has been announced), so if you're looking for a more hands-on way to use Windows 8, you're better off with the aforementioned Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga or something like the Asus VivoBook S200.
It comes with three USB ports (including two that are USB 3.0), an Ethernet port, an SD/MMC card reader, an HDMI video output, and a headphone jack.
Colour options for the Lenovo IdeaPad U310's cover are Aqua Blue, Graphite Grey or Cherry Blossom Pink.
The Lenovo IdeaPad U310 isn't really aimed at power users, so it's hardly surprising not to find high-end components inside it. Ultrabooks are fairly homogenous when it comes to the guts, and the U310 is no different - there's nothing like the surprise discrete GPU of its brother, the Lenovo U410.
The Intel Core i3-3217U features in various other lower-end machines, including the oversized Ultrabook Asus S56CA, and the touch-friendly Asus VivoBook S200. It's a dual-core chip, though it's Hyper-Threaded, giving it four virtual cores for some uses.
It runs at 1.8GHz, which is actually slightly faster than the 1.7GHz Core i5-3317U in the higher-end version of the Lenovo U310. However, the i3-3217U used here can't use Intel's Turbo Boost to overclock itself, which the more expensive chip can.
Put simply, this is the lightweight contender of Ultrabook chips, but that should be fine - as we always say, Ultrabooks aren't designed for animating the next Pixar film on. They're for doing general computing tasks quickly and conveniently, and the processor should offer plenty of juice for that.
It's a similar story for gaming. The Ivy Bridge Core i3 processor comes with Intel's integrated HD 4000 graphics, which are much improved over what Intel offered in the past, but aren't really up to what a dedicated graphics chip can produce.
Basically, for casual gaming, and lighter or older 3D gaming, it's fine. Portal 2 will run on it, for example. But if you're into new flashy games, you shouldn't be looking at a low-end Ultrabook.
One thing that will keep the Lenovo IdeaPad U310 from matching higher-end Ultrabooks for speed is the hard drive. There's a fast solid-state drive for Windows, so that it comes on quickly when you boot or bring the laptop awake from sleep. In this, it works fine - press the button to wake it up and it's near-instant.
The speed trade-off comes because Windows is pretty much the only thing the SSD stores - all your files are kept on a regular hard drive. The advantage of this is that it means you get more storage for your money, because hard drives are cheaper than SSDs - 512GB of SSD storage would easily double the cost of this machine.
But it means that snappy operation often goes out the window when you need to dig around for a file, or open something like iTunes, which collects thousands of files together for you. For storing lots of media, though, a larger drive is always handy.
The 4GB of RAM should be plenty for keeping lighter applications as fast as possible, but again isn't what pros tend to look for. For your average user, it should be plenty, though.
The 13.3-inch screen has a resolution of 1366 x 768, which is normal for Ultrabooks in this price range. The Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A boasts a crisp 1080p screen, but it also boasts a four-figure price tag, so what we've got here seems reasonable.
As far as connectivity goes, you're also looking at a pretty typical list. The two USB 3.0 ports are good (lots of rivals at this price only offer one), as is the built-in SD card reader.
Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n is also as expected, though the inclusion of Bluetooth 4.0, so it'll work with Bluetooth Low Energy devices, is good to see.
There doesn't tend to be much variation in Ultrabook performance, because they all tend to be made with roughly the same parts. That's what comes from having a mandated specification, and it's both good and bad. It's good because it rules out performance lemons, but also stops much in the way of pleasant surprises.
And so it's with an even voice and an abundance of credulity that we say that the Lenovo IdeaPad U310's speed benchmarks are in line with the likes of the Toshiba U920T, Asus VivoBook S200 and Asus S56CA, which use the same processor.
3D Mark 06: 4194
Cinebench R10: 6682
Battery Eater 05: 132 minutes
For comparison, the more powerful Core i5 processor used in the more expensive Lenovo IdeaPad U310 model score around 9,000 in Cinebench tests, so you'd be looking at a roughly 30% increase in performance, at least in benchmarks.
As we've already said, though, the processor in this Lenovo U310 is more than capable of powering office suites, internet browsing, music and movies, so is great for home use.
And again, the GPU benchmarks are in line with what we'd expect, and real-world performance is about the same. On this screen size, at this price, games run perfectly acceptably.
As we said, the SSD keeps the Lenovo IdeaPad U310 speedy when it comes to turning it on and off - it very much lives up to the promise of Ultrabooks in that respect.
However, the hard drive does indeed slow things down a bit - you can really feel tripped up when opening large programs or installing something. It felt to us slightly slower than even other Ultrabooks using the same chip and, ostensibly, the same speed hard drive.
If you're used to using a cheaper laptop with the same kind of hard drive already, it won't make much difference to you. But compared to SSD-based Ultrabooks, it's definitely a weak point, even if it does bring the price down.
The Lenovo IdeaPad U310's screen is another area where corners seem to have been cut. The backlighting appeared uneven on our review unit - it was noticeably lighter at the bottom, especially if you strayed off the perfect viewing angles.
Speaking of which, it was also easily washed out when going off centre. Even at the right angle, the colours are merely decent - not as bright or vibrant as in more expensive laptops.
However, it's crisp enough for its size, and though some of the app names in Windows 8 are a little small by default, they're easily readable - as is text everywhere else.
Battery life is, similarly, a little below what we'd like, but isn't the worst we've seen. We consider 200 minutes to be a good score in our benchmarks, and 132 minutes is a good chunk below that. This isn't an all-day machine for road warriors, but it should last for several hours on your lap for watching a movie.
The Lenovo IdeaPad U310's keyboard should - should - be excellent, but it it'll have to settle for merely being rather good. The problem isn't with the keyboard itself, but the build quality underneath it - the panel flexes whenever you type anything.
Still, the keys are a great size and have a nice sharp travel, providing plenty of feedback under the fingers for touch typists.
The trackpad is nice and large, but has its own annoyances - the gesture controls. The two-finger scrolling is sluggish and inconsistent, for a start, but it's the Windows 8 gestures that drove us mad. Instead of requiring you to swipe from the left or right with two fingers, as some other laptops do, to bring up the Charms or switch apps, you only need to it with one here.
Convenient? No. Really no. It means that you frequently bring up the Charms menu instead of simply moving the mouse left. It's a case of the interface getting right in the way of what you're actually doing, and it's a really poor show.
It's damn hard to find a way to turn them off, too - it's buried deep in the Settings. But you don't necessarily want them off, just mapped to two or three fingers or something. Sorry, no can do - it's the crazy one-finger configuration or nothing.
The Lenovo IdeaPad U310 is also pretty loud with fan noise - not something that affects performance, but it gets annoying if it's near your bed, say, or you're trying to watch a movie on it. On the other hand, it runs fairly coolly even while performing our battery tests, so it's swings and roundabouts.
And at least Lenovo has avoided the more egregious bloatware. McAfee will still pop up and get in the way, but the other utilities stay hidden unless you intend to use them, so that's a small mercy.
It might be a little unfair to suggest that the Lenovo IdeaPad U310 is skirting by on its looks, but that's definitely where it stands out from the Ultrabook crowd.
Looks might seem like a small thing in the scheme of computers, but when you consider how close Ultrabooks are to one another in terms of specs, it's one of the few ways to stand out. The IdeaPad U310 looks great, but that really is its only notable feature, ultimately.
Like quite a few lower-priced Ultrabooks, it's really more worth considering as a replacement for a home laptop than as a travelling or working companion. It still offers a size and weight advantage over something similar, but you could get better value for money from something a little less size-conscious.
The Lenovo IdeaPad U310 really does look the part of a friendly small laptop, with bright colours, a clean white look and rounded edges. You can imagine using it in the living room or with someone at university, instead of on a desk or hidden in an office.
Its speed at coming on from standby and its great keyboard mean that it's a natural thing to grab when you do some quick surfing, while a good range of ports means it definitely isn't lacking as a computer.
Aside from looks, there's very little to make this stand out. The components and performance are average, the screen is thoroughly middling, the battery life is a bit low, it's a bit heavy and thick, but it all falls within the realms of what you'd expect for its price…
The trackpad gestures are a major annoyance, though, especially since the silly way they've been implemented means that they can either be turned off or lived with, not improved, as far as we can see.
Compared to the laptops you'll find it next to in a PC shop, it may be that the fun looks are all that can make the Lenovo IdeaPad U310 stand out. It's not any worse than its low-priced Ultrabook peers, and the keyboard is good for those who want to do a lot of typing on a small machine.
For a 13-inch Ultrabook priced at £599/US$729 (around AU$912), it's perfectly acceptable. You'll get something a fair bit snappier if you can stretch to something like the Asus Zenbook UX32A, though.