The biggest hardware trend marking the launch of Windows 8 is the proliferation of touch-screen laptop/tablet hybrids. Some have screens that pull apart to become separate tablets, while others have screens that flip, twist, or rotate to give you a tabletlike shape to hold. We call those latter models convertible laptops, and one of the best examples to date is the new Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13.
The name Yoga is suggestive of the system's big selling point, that the display flips fully over to become a tablet. In fact, it has four basic usable positions -- clamshell laptop, tablet, stand, and tent.
The reason the Yoga stands out from the suddenly crowded touch-screen laptop scene is that it does something other convertible or hybrid laptops do not. When set up as a traditional laptop, the 13.3-inch Yoga doesn't compromise the all-important clamshell experience. The excellent double-hinge design means that it looks and works the same as any other ultrabook laptop, unlike the complex and often clunky mechanisms in systems such as the HP Envy x2, Sony Vaio Duo 11, or Dell XPS 12.
The Yoga works best as a full-time laptop and part-time tablet, because when it's folded back into a slate, you still have the keyboard pointing out from the back of the system. Although the keyboard and touch pad are deactivated in this mode, it's still not ideal. Plus, despite the hype, Windows 8 is still not a 100-percent tablet-friendly OS, and there are some frustrations that span all the Windows 8 tablet-style devices we've tested.
The Yoga certainly seems to be everyone's choice for a great Windows 8 ambassador -- both Microsoft and Intel have touted it as a best-in-class example, and Best Buy is currently featuring it in a television ad. At $1,099, you're paying a bit of a premium, but not outrageously so, for an Intel Core i5/8GB RAM/128GB solid-state drive (SSD) configuration (note that our early review unit had only 4GB of RAM installed), but a less expensive Core i3 version starts at $999. If I had to pick a single first-wave Windows 8 convertible touch-screen laptop, the Yoga would be at the top of my list.
|Price as reviewed / starting price||$1,099 / $999|
|Processor||1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U|
|Memory||4GB, 1,600MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||500GB 5,400rpm|
|Graphics||Intel HD 4000|
|Operating system||Windows 8|
|Dimensions (WD)||13.1x8.9 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||13.3 inches|
Design, features, and display
Despite its reputation as a maker of buttoned-down business laptops, Lenovo can always be counted on to produce intriguing designs. Most of those end up, like the Yoga, as part of the company's consumer-targeted IdeaPad line of products.
We've seen similar attempts at laptops that can double as tablets over the years, usually with a rotating center hinge that swivels around to let the device change forms (or more recently with a screen that slides down over the keyboard). Before Windows 8, most of these experiments weren't particularly successful, thanks to a combination of poor design, underpowered components, and an operating system that wasn't touch-friendly.
The other problem with those traditional convertibles has been that the single rotating center hinge was a potential weak point in the design. Lenovo says the Yoga's full-length hinge has been rigorously tested and is stronger than the older rotating convertible design, and in practice that definitely seems to be the case.
When opened into its clamshell position, the Yoga would be tough to pick out of a lineup of recent ultrabooks. The minimalist interior is dominated by a large buttonless clickpad, along with a island-style Lenovo keyboard, which means the flat-topped keys have a small curve along their bottom edges for easier typing.
As good as Lenovo's reputation is for excellent keyboards, I had a surprising amount of trouble with the Yoga's keyboard. I narrowed most of my issues down to the half-size right Shift key, which meant I often hit the up arrow when aiming for Shift. The end result was a lot of frustration and retyping, but after a few days one would naturally adjust to this specific layout. The touch pad is the same as you'd find in other clickpad Lenovos, including the recent high-end X1 Carbon. It offers plenty of space for multifinger gestures, but isn't as effective for manipulating the touch-centric Windows 8 UI as a finger would be.
When you flip the Yoga's screen back, the physical keyboard doesn't disappear from view, as it does on most other convertible laptop/tablet combos, but it does get automatically disabled. A slightly raised layer of leather over the wrist rest and keyboard tray lets you rest the tablet on a table, keyboard-side down, without worrying too much about damaging the keys. Some buttons have been moved to the sides so they can be accessed no matter how the system is folded, and the outer shell has a soft-touch coating for easy gripping. While the Yoga isn't particularly comfortable to hold in tablet form, as your fingers are pressing up against the exposed keyboard and the touch pad, you do get easy access to a volume rocker along one edge and a rotation lock button along the other.
Beyond the slate mode, I especially liked the stand or sharing mode, where the screen is folded back 270 degrees or more, turning the system into something like a small touch-screen kiosk. It's great for sharing video or presentations in a group setting, or for just getting closer to the screen while keeping the keyboard out of the way.
Its fourth position is standing upright like a tent, but I can't think of too many reasons you'd want that.
In any of these positions, the Yoga is well-served by its 13.3-inch display, which has a native resolution of 1,600x900 pixels. That's arguably the perfect resolution for a 13-inch laptop, giving you plenty of screen real estate without making onscreen text appear too small, as can happen with 1,920x1,080-pixel resolutions on smaller systems. Off-axis viewing angles are great, and unlike with some Windows 8 convertibles stuck with 1,366x768-pixel screen resolutions, you don't feel like you're paying a premium price for a substandard feature.
|Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13||Average for category [13-inch]|
|Video||HDMI||HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, combo headphone/microphone jack||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||1 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, SD card reader||2 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
|Optical drive||None||DVD burner|
Connectivity, performance, and battery life
Even for an ultrabook, this is not among the most connected laptops you'll find. There's a pair of USB ports, one 3.0, one 2.0, and it has an HDMI port, a combo audio jack, and an SD card slot. The lack of built-in Ethernet is understandable, but this is the first laptop in a long while I've seen with only one USB 3.0 port.