Hands on with Lenovo's CES showstoppers: U1 Hybrid, Skylight, and S10-3t up close

We get up close and personal with three of Lenovo's reinventions of the ultraportable laptop, and offer up our quick-take observations.

LAS VEGAS--Lenovo has made an impressive splash at this year's CES and the main halls haven't even opened up yet: its bold new takes on ultramobile notebooks--the IdeaPad U1 Hybrid , Skylight , and IdeaPad S10-3t --have caused a big stir and bigger discussions as to whether each will perform as well as they look. In a one-on-one hands-on today, we got a chance to spend time with all three and their more buttoned-down IdeaPad S10-3, and our impressions are positive but mixed.

To start with, the Lenovo IdeaPad U1 Hybrid is a fascinating idea. The sleek round notebook has a form almost like the old clamshell iBooks from years ago, or a Motorola PEBL as a laptop. Textured surfaces on the inside and a shiny, translucent ruby lid give the machine an instantly eye-catching appeal. The showcase feature of the U1--the undocking of its 11.6-inch screen to become its own handheld Qualcomm Snapdragon-powered tablet--is accomplished via a pin dock at the base of the screen that activates Wndows 7 when attached, or turns on Lenovo's Skylight Linux-based OS when detached. Lenovo representatives handled the undocking for us, and it makes us curious as to how delicate the procedure is and whether the laptop might accidentally disconnect under casual use, but the tablet screen feels solid and attractive on its own.

Meshing a tablet and notebook into one device is conceptually smart, but fraught with questions. Will both devices sync well with each other? Will the battery life be suitable? None of these could be determined in the space of a few minutes, but the tablet's Snapdragon-powered OS had a series of scrolling app-based windows that launched widgets, some of which looked more ready for prime time than others. Windows could be expanded and photos zoomed in on with iPhone-esque multitouch, but the performance was generally choppier and laggier than on an iPhone. Video playback was a mixed bag depending on the size of the video window, but we imagine its performance will be tweaked before release. The tablet's edge-to-edge glass is comfortable and the chromed edges appealing, but the weight and slight heat dissipation on the sides made us wonder about long-term ergonomics.

Intriguingly, Lenovo told us that the base, when detached, can continue to function as its own Core 2 computer independent of the tablet--a monitor would need to be attached, but it opens up possibilities for the U1 to truly act as two devices in one. Separate batteries and Wi-Fi antennas are contained in both the base and the tablet screen, while the tablet has the 3G and Bluetooth antennas, as well as speakers and a webcam. The tablet doesn't have a sensor for switching between landscape and portrait, but apps will allow easy flipping for e-reading, browsing and other functions. The keyboard is flat and somewhat squishy, a far cry from Lenovo's generally excellent raised and tapered keys, but Lenovo said they'll be updating to a raised keyboard before release.

The Skylight, a thin AT&T smartbook, actually runs the same processor and OS as the tablet part of the U1 hybrid, making them cousins of a sort. While the curved flat shape seems awkwardly plate-like at first, the construction is very solid and the keyboard, while thin, is remarkably comfortable and, impressively, full-sized. While one USB port is standard, the other flips strangely out to the side and can fold into a slot above the keyboard. Its function is clever: it docks with USB memory sticks that act as the smartbook's memory, and folds over to tuck away safely inside. The 10-inch screen was bright and crisp, and the trackpad impressively wide. While $499 seems extremely high as a price-point, subsidizing from AT&T should help significantly reduce the cost. However, a data plan will still be needed. This seems like a real sticking point to smartbooks: unless their cost can come down naturally, the need for an additional data plan will likely force many to consider these ultraportables as alternatives to smartphones as opposed to additional devices.

While Lenovo promises compatibility with all major media and file formats via cloud apps, the Skylight seems to function, like Chrome OS, as a web and browser-based computing experience--word processing via Google Docs, and so on.

Finally, the IdeaPad S10-3 and S10-3t offer two different reinventions of Lenovo's S10 series of Netbooks. The S10-3 has a much more compact base than its IdeaPad S10-2 predecessor, with a slightly smaller than full-size keyboard and a 16 x 9 screen. The battery no longer sticks out the back, and is incorporated underneath instead. This makes the S10-3 slightly thicker, but we prefer this to a needlessly thin machine with "battery butt." The S10-3t's capacitive touch-screen has multi-touch and was responsive, but still has some of the same lag we've seen across nearly all touch PCs. The swiveling top lid can rotate in either direction. When folded over in tablet mode, the S10-3t is a little thick, but is comfortable to hold. At $499, it remains an relatively affordable Netbook option.

As for further impressions, check back later in 2010 when we receive review units. It feels like Lenovo has offered up three different visions of portability, like three conceptual essays in physical form. Which would you want to buy?

 

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