Critics' Report: Lenovo IdeaPad U260 Notebook Computer

by Gerry Blackwell

Read our one-stop report as we poll five tech journal reviewers for their verdict on Lenovo’s gorgeous new ultraportable small business notebook.

Working at Home

Lenovo, known for computers that fall into the realm of solid-and-businesslike rather than sleek-and-sexy, has pleasantly surprised tech industry reviewers with the 12.5-inch-screen IdeaPad U260. This ultra-mobile small business notebook lists for about $1,000 (but at the time of writing is available for $900).

This is a notebook computer for busy, on-the-go small business owners and road warrior executives, not for power users. It’s main virtues are portability and good looks, which are definitely important if you carry your laptop everywhere and routinely use it in client meetings.

But a small business notebook with good looks and portability may not be enough for some people -- or this panel of reviewers.

Vital Small Business Notebook Statistics

Before we get into what the various reviewers have to report, let's start with what's under the U260's hood. Here's a rundown of its crucial specifications:

  • Processor: 1.33GHz Intel Core i5 U470
  • Screen: 12.5 in. diagonal (1366 x 768 pixels)
  • Memory: 4GB of 1,066MHz DDR3 RAM
  • Hard drive: 320GB (5,400rpm)
  • Graphics: Intel GMA HD
  • Operating System: Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)
  • Dimensions: 12.5 x 8.0 x 0.7 in.
  • Weight (with AC adapter): 3.5 lbs.
  • Battery: 4-cell Li-Polymer (4 hours)

Small Business Notebook Reviews: Group Consensus

Our reviewers are unanimous on a couple of points: the U260 looks fabulous, but blows it on battery life. Most of them also praised the small business notebook's ergonomics.

Some reviewers are less enthusiastic about performance, although an ultraportable is not the type of small business computer you expect to be a hot machine. All of the experts condemn the IdeaPad U260's short battery life.

A Beautiful Design in a Small Business Notebook

Everybody is ecstatic about the magnesium-aluminum alloy top and base, in mocha brown or clementine orange (the chassis includes some plastic too). They also love the leather-like palm rest, the smooth, glass touchpad, and the super-thin styling and detailing that gives the U260 the look and feel of a leather portfolio.

“We mean this with no disrespect to Lenovo, but when you first lay eyes (or hands) on the incredibly attractive IdeaPad U260, it's pretty hard to believe that it was made by the company,” said Engadget’s Joanna Stern, alluding to Lenovo’s reputation for clunky-looking designs. She even admits to having “a real crush on the U260's bronzish, mocha exterior…”

 Lenovo IdeaPad U260; small business notebook
Five tech journalists weigh in on the Lenovo IdeaPad U260 small business notebook.
(Click for larger image)

Laptop magazine’s reviewer sounds a similar note. “The IdeaPad U260 has the kind of flair we wish ThinkPads had,” Kenneth Butler says, referring to Lenovo’s mainstream business laptop line. Butler adds that the design “lends the notebook a sense of smooth, minimal professionalism…”

Lenovo receives a backhanded compliment on the U260’s looks from ZDNet reviewer James Kendrick. “It’s not often you can call a notebook ‘sexy,’and never one by Lenovo," he writes. “But it’s an adequate description of the IdeaPad U260. The U260 is the thinnest and lightest Windows notebook I have used, and the bronze casing looks and feels nice.”

CNet’s Scott Stein makes the inevitable comparison to Apple’s MacBook Air, but implies that the Lenovo notebook holds its own, being “thin, light, and very easy on the eye…” He also praises the U260 for “beautifully textured surfaces, a great keyboard, and other quality finishing touches…”

“There are two kinds of laptops,” writes MobileTechReviewer editor Lisa Gade, “Those dedicated to function and those dedicated to form (rarer). The Lenovo IdeaPad U260 is in the latter camp... To see it is to love it, much like Apple's notebooks.”

Rating Laptop Ergonomics

Some reviewers aren't quite as crazy about the ergonomics -- keyboard, touchpad, screen, etc. -- although CNet’s Stein judges the keyboard-touchpad combination “better than any other ultraportable outside of the MacBook Air,” and Gade says they are “ergonomic delights.”

Kendrick, at ZDNet, referred to the keyboard as “a typically good Lenovo keyboard…,” also noting that it's spill resistant and that it "breathes," letting air in to the chassis to help with cooling. “The U260 doesn’t run hot as a result, even being so thin.” (Others commend the U260’s relatively cool running temperatures as well.)

Kendrick also praises the touchpad, and adds, “Working with the U260 is simply a delight, it feels great in the hand and the light weight makes it the notebook to grab for quick sessions.”

Engadget’s Stern likes the feel of the keyboard but complains about undersize Shift, Tabs and Caps Lock keys that slows touch typing. She likes the touchpad better, noting it “receives our highest stamp of approval. The smooth surface, which feels similar to a piece of sea glass, was incredibly soft on our index finger and just let the cursor glide along.”

Laptop’s Butler also dislikes the too-small special keys, but writes, “…we still found them easy to find by feel.” He too likes the touchpad, but notes that “…multitouch gestures such as pinch-to-zoom felt somewhat sluggish.”

The View on Display Screen Quality

MobileTechReview offers high praise for the matte glass display. It’s “bright (around 220 nits) and has better than average color saturation,” writes Gade. “It's noticeably easier on the eyes than competing gloss displays and contrast is good even without the gloss layer that increases apparent contrast.”

Engadget’s Stern notes the lack of annoying reflections, good performance in bright sun -- as does the ZDNet review – along with “good viewing angles.”  

Small Business Notebook Performance

The ultra-low voltage (ULV) version of Intel’s i5 dual-core chips used in the U260 are not as fast as the versions used in full-size laptops, but Gade opines that, “the i5 used in the Lenovo U260 is more than fast enough for streaming video full screen, productivity work, Internet apps, Photoshop and more.”

ZDNet’s Kendrick says much the same. “It has good horsepower under the hood and handles all typical tasks with ease. Video playback is quite good…”

CNet’s Ackerman is’t as impressed, noting that he “…found the IdeaPad U260's boot-up time and general responsiveness to be sluggish compared with other laptops…” He blames the slower clock speed of the ULV chip.

Laptop magazine and Engadget both use PCMark benchmark tests and compare the U260’s performance to similar ultraportable small business notebooks, including the 11-inch Apple MacBook Air.

In Laptop's comparisons, the U260 did better than one HP notebook, but not as well as some other small business notebooks, including some that cost less. And it fell well below the performance of the MacBook Air.  

But Butler adds, “In terms of real-world use, the U260 is an able multitasker. At one point, we were downloading Skype, editing a Word document, and playing an episode of Dexter in the background, all without any hiccups.”

Engadget selected comparison notebooks that, with one exception -- an earlier Lenovo ultraportable -- did not perform as well as the U260, but it failed to include some of the models used in Laptop's comparison.

“As one would expect, the machine handled the brunt of our usual computing tasks, including simultaneously writing this review in Microsoft Word, chatting with friends in Trillian, checking our Twitter feed in TweetDeck, and surfing the web with multiple tabs open in Chrome,” writes Engadget’s Stern. “Even when we threw a 720p [HD video] clip into the mix the system was able to keep up.”

Below Average: Battery Life

All of our reviewers condemned the U260’s poor battery life. Two referred to it as the product’s “Achilles heel.”

Laptop magazine, using standardized testing, measured battery life at slightly more than four hours, but noted this was well below the average for the ultraportable category of almost 5.5 hours. ZDNet and MobileTechReview had at it between 3.5 and four hours.

Engadget, using a different standardized test, measured battery life at only 2 hours and 56 minutes. Stern called the poor battery life “simply unacceptable” and judged it a deal killer.

“It's a sad story of an amazingly attractive and solid performing laptop brought down by a single fatal flaw,” she concludes. “But if you can get past the battery life, nearly everything else about the U260 is almost perfect.”

Bottom Line

Most of our reviewers regretfully came to similar conclusions, but for some people, battery life may not be a deal killer -- if you mainly travel between sites where you can plug in, don’t need to work at the computer very long while in transit; or use your car as a traveling office (where you can generally plug in a laptop with the appropriate adapter.)

In that event, the Lenovo IdeaPad U260 appears to be a natural for status- and image-conscious small business owners and senior executives who aren’t willing to make the switch to Apple’s MacBook Air.

Gerry Blackwell is a freelance technology writer based in London, Canada. Read his blog, AfterByte

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This article was originally published on Tuesday Feb 1st 2011
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