Lenovo LaVie Z review:

A laptop that's lighter than Air

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Lenovo LaVie Z HZ550

(Part #: CNETLenovo LaVie Z HZ550)
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4 stars

CNET Editors' Rating

The Good The Lenovo LaVie Z is incredibly light, with a powerful processor and a decent set of ports and connections.

The Bad It's more expensive than other premium slim laptops, battery life is merely OK, and a frustrating keyboard makes typing a pain.

The Bottom Line Despite a few design quirks that make it feel less than premium, the Lenovo LaVie Z can't be beat for a combination of light weight and processor power.

8.3 Overall
  • Design 9.0
  • Features 8.0
  • Performance 8.0
  • Battery 7.0

"Is this thing made of plastic?"

That was the most common question I heard after handing the new Lenovo LaVie Z to random colleagues, watching them hold the incredibly lightweight 13-inch laptop with disbelief. In fact, according to Lenovo, it's actually a magnesium/lithium alloy, much lighter than the aluminum that makes up most premium laptop bodies.

But yes, it does feel like plastic in hand, or like the non-functioning hollow mockups occasionally displayed by PC makers before a working unit of a new model is available.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

That makes the internal components and the performance of the LaVie Z all that much more impressive. Inside this 1.9 pound (0.86kg) 13-inch laptop is not one of Intel's low-power Atom or Core M CPUs, or even a standard low-voltage Core i5. The single currently available configuration uses a new fifth-generation low-voltage Intel Core i7 processor, making this the first time we've seen such a powerful chip in such a slim and light system.

That Core i7 is paired with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD at $1,499 in the US (Lenovo is not currently offering the system in the UK or Australia, but that converts to £973 or AU$1,936). That's a premium price, to be sure, but only $200 more than Apple's lauded 12-inch MacBook . Yet the LaVie is lighter than the MacBook at 1.9 pounds versus 2.04 pounds (0.86kg to 0.93kg), and it has a larger screen and a much more powerful processor plus most of the standard ports and connections missing from the USB-C-only MacBook.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Lenovo is also offering a hybrid variation, called the LaVie Z 360, for $1,699. That includes a touchscreen and Yoga-like 360-degree hinge. While perhaps more practical, that model has been criticized for limiting the function of its built-in accelerometer for automatically changing the screen orientation as you fold the hinge into different positions. The Z 360 version will rotate its screen as needed when folded all the way back into tablet mode, but not if you flip it upside down into a tent-like shape. The extra features and limitations of that system will be discussed in the separate review of the LaVie Z 360.

An impressive engineering feat such as this does not come without some tradeoffs. The keyboard is far from Lenovo's usual standards, with misplaced and mis-sized keys making even simple typing a chore, especially because of a small, easy-to-miss right Shift key that seems deliberately designed to frustrate.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Responsibility for that, plus a generally budget-looking chassis, might be chalked up to Lenovo's partner for the LaVie series. The LaVie Z is the product of a partnership Lenovo has had with computer-maker NEC since 2011, where the two companies would sell some Lenovo machines as NEC-branded PCs in the Japanese market. That partnership has now expanded, with this as the first NEC-designed system to be sold outside of Japan with Lenovo branding, although NEC has sold its own branded version of the LaVie Z in Japan for the past couple of years.

Retraining your fingers to use the small, quirky keyboard is the biggest hurdle to what is otherwise an excellent laptop that offers both power and portability. The LaVie is an impressive example of how laptops are continuing to become slimmer and lighter, and there's no doubt we'll see more models from different PC makers break the 2-pound barrier while maintaining decent performance and battery life.

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The frustrating Shift key situation. Sarah Tew/CNET

In that sense, the Lavie Z suffers from first-generation jitters, and simply isn't as fun and easy to use as something like the 12-inch MacBook or the even the 13-inch MacBook Air , that latter of which admittedly now feels like a pile of bricks at a hefty 2.9 pounds.

But for maximum processing power at minimum weight, plus decent battery life, the LaVie Z sets the bar very high, and is quickly becoming one of my go-to laptops for daily travel.

Lenovo LaVie Z

Price as reviewed $1,499
Display size/resolution 13.3-inch 2,560x1,440 screen
PC CPU 2.4GHz Intel Core i7-5500U
PC Memory 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz
Graphics 3839MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 5500
Storage 256GB SSD
Networking 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system Windows 8.1 (64-bit)

Design & features

On the plus side, you can feel a bit safer in crowded coffee shops and airline lounges, as there's little about this laptop that looks like it costs more than a MacBook Pro. The matte black magnesium/lithium alloy looks and feels like plastic, although, it's purportedly one of the lowest-density metallic materials ever invented, and is referred to by engineers as a "super-light material."

But while it's very light, it also flexes a good amount under even modest pressure, so it doesn't feel especially sturdy. The flipside is that, at 1.9 pounds, this is lighter than the 2.04-pound 12-inch MacBook, despite having a better processor and bigger screen (a point worth repeating, as it's the biggest selling point for the system). The hybrid Z 360 version weighs 2.04 pounds, exactly the same as the MacBook.

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The LaVie Z, in between a 12-inch MacBook and 13-inch MacBook Air. Sarah Tew/CNET

Some of the aesthetic and usability limitations come from how the components are put together to be as slim and light as possible. Both the display and keyboard are integrated directly into the housing, rather than being dropped in later, which accounts for the especially shallow keyboard.

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