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Lenovo IdeaPad U310 review: Lenovo IdeaPad U310

Lenovo's affordable, MacBook-reminiscent 13-inch laptop is thin and light and has a large hard drive, adding up to what could be a very attractive package for a lot of students.

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Scott Stein
Scott_Stein.jpg

Scott Stein

Editor at Large

I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets.

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7 min read

The ultrabook revolution of 2011 has become a deluge in 2012, which means one thing: lower prices. If you were hunting for a reasonably thin Windows laptop with good battery life at a reasonable cost, you couldn't have picked a better time. The Lenovo IdeaPad U310 is a perfect example: it's an update of sorts to the IdeaPad U300s, one of the first Windows ultrabooks we reviewed last fall that carried a MacBook Air-like $1,195 price tag. This time, the cost is a mere $799 -- but, with some compromises made along the way.

Lenovo IdeaPad U310 (Summer 2012)
7.5

Lenovo IdeaPad U310

The Good

The <b>IdeaPad U310</b> offers up an attractive design and all the basic bells and whistles of a 13-inch ultrabook for $799, including plenty of USB ports and Ethernet.

The Bad

The thicker, heavier design weighs a bit more than last year's U300s, and there aren't any SSD-only upgrade options.

The Bottom Line

The Lenovo IdeaPad U310 is an all-around decent ultrabook that's perfectly priced for back-to-school shoppers, but there are plenty of alternatives with nearly identically prices and features.

The IdeaPad U310 is a different machine: it's got a significantly heavier and thicker chassis and a standard magnetic platter-type mechanical hard drive instead of a solid-state drive (SSD). However, its internal specs are very good, with a third-gen 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U processor, 4GB of RAM, a 500GB hard drive, and all the ports you'd need (Ethernet, USB 3.0, SD card reader, HDMI). It's still an ultrabook by definition, but not quite as sleek a product.

It's a pretty similar package to what the identically priced Sony Vaio T offers, although the Vaio T is lighter and has a better battery life. It's also similar to what the new Dell Inspiron 14z offers, although the Inspiron 14z also has dedicated AMD graphics.

Sarah Tew/CNET

So, where does that leave the IdeaPad U310? It's not a bad deal for what's under the hood, but the U310 doesn't feel as surprising as last year's U300s. Nor is it. It's really the smaller cousin of the IdeaPad U400: a MacBook-like Lenovo laptop with a good keyboard, a solid set of features, and a pleasing design that could make an excellent back-to-school computer. Students should look into the IdeaPad U310, especially if it's on sale. You might want to comparison-shop the growing landscape of affordable ultrabook-alikes at the time of purchase and see if you can do better, but the bottom line is this: be happy. Ultrabooks have larger hard drives (without SSD), and are cheaper than ever. That's a good thing.

Price as reviewed $799
Processor 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U
Memory 4GB, 1,333MHz DDR3
Hard drive 500GB 5,400 HDD
Chipset Intel HM77
Graphics Intel HD 4000
Operating system Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)
Dimensions (WD) 13.1x8.8 inches
Height 0.7 inch
Screen size (diagonal) 13.3 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter 3.68 pounds / 4.2 pounds
Category ultrabook

At 0.7 inch thick and 3.68 pounds, the IdeaPad U310 is thin and light, but not quite as thin and light as other 13-inch ultrabooks. It's somewhere between "normal" 13-inch laptop and ultrabook, and feels more like the former. It's heavier than the Sony Vaio T ultrabook, and lighter than the new Dell Inspiron 14z.

Unlike the sleek, black IdeaPad U300s, the U310 is both whitish and candy-colored. Its larger cousin that it looks the most like is the IdeaPad U400, a machine that was closer in size and function to a 13-inch MacBook Pro. The U310 is more backpack- and small-bag-friendly, but also ditches the slot-loading DVD drive in the process.

Sarah Tew/CNET

You'd better get used to hearing, "Hey, you've got a new white MacBook!" because you're going to hear it a lot at coffee shops. The IdeaPad U310 is MacBook-like, and there's no way around it. Sure, the outer wraparound Aqua Blue aluminum on the lid and underside (also available in Graphite Gray and Cherry Blossom Pink) is distinctive, but open the lid and the white surfaces, black raised keyboard, and large touch pad -- even the bezel around the screen and keyboard -- practically scream "MacBookalike." The anodized, colored-aluminum exterior sandwiches the slightly off-white plastic interior when closed, giving the laptop a two-tone look and a booklike profile.

It's a comfortable laptop to use, too: the palm rest is spacious, the multitouch clickpad gigantic, and the keyboard nearly as excellent as most Lenovo keyboards.

Why nearly? Because the keyboard's not backlit, and the keys themselves have an ever-so-slightly lower-quality feel compared with the high bar of ThinkPads. It's still good, but I found keys not registering every once in a blue moon, and the column of keys on the right side makes the Backspace key very hard to locate by touch. To make matters worse, the keyboard exhibited some flex on our review model. At least the function keys are reversed (the media-control buttons for volume and screen brightness work without the Fn key held down).

Sarah Tew/CNET

The very large touch pad is the same size as that on a MacBook, but not as good. Pinch-to-zoom and two-finger scrolling are less instantly responsive and more prone to jumpiness. Chalk that up less to Lenovo than to Windows 7.

The audiovisual experience on the IdeaPad U310 is similarly adequate but not outstanding. A glossy 13.3-inch screen has an utterly normal 1,366x768-pixel resolution, but is prone to screen glare. The screen isn't all that bright at its highest setting, and off-axis viewing angles are poor. It's fine for a budget computer. The stereo speakers are louder than you'd expect from an ultrabook, but sounded hollow and flat when playing back music or movie trailers.

On the other hand, the included 720p Webcam looked sharp via the preinstalled Cybervision YouCam software.

Lenovo IdeaPad U310 Average for category [ultrabook]
Video HDMI VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort
Audio Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone combo jack Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks
Data 2 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, SD card reader 2 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0, SD card reader
Networking Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband
Optical drive None None

Most of the bases are covered in terms of ports and features on the IdeaPad U310. USB 3.0, Ethernet, an SD card slot, and HDMI are all present and accounted for. What's missing? Bluetooth and an optical drive. You'll miss the former more than the latter, although you could always use a plug-in USB module.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Lenovo offers several configurations of the U310 on its Web site, with limited upgrade options. The most affordable version has a third-gen 1.8GHz Intel Core i3-3217U processor (currently starting at $719 on Lenovo's Web site), while ours has a higher-end Core i5 CPU. RAM maxes out at 4GB, while hard-drive options are either 320GB or 500GB platter-type mechanical hard drives. Certain configurations offer hybrid hard drives with an additional 32GB SSD for faster booting, but there's no SSD-only upgrade. Our configuration, priced at $799, includes 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive.

Ultrabooks with third-gen (code-named Ivy Bridge, but you'll never see that on the box) Intel Core i3, i5, and i7 processors are, on a whole, a little faster than their counterparts from last year and earlier this spring, but not dramatically so. Compared with the IdeaPad U300s reviewed last year that had a 1.8GHz Core i7-2677M processor (and a faster SSD drive), our IdeaPad U310 with a 1.7GHz Core i5-3317U ran nearly equivalently on single-task tests, and did better at multitasking. That IdeaPad U300s was a $1,599 configuration last year; this ultrabook only costs $799. In just under a year, that's a big leap in value.

Expect that trend to continue. The Sony Vaio T13112FXS, with the same processor and $799 price tag, is an equivalent purchase to consider, as is the Dell Inspiron 14z. All three have the same Core i5 processor, and -- no surprise -- performed similarly on our tests. The new 13-inch MacBook Air was a little bit faster, and all these ultrabooks weren't as fast as those with fuller Core i5 processors, like the Lenovo ThinkPad X230. Still, for everyday use, most users will find this to be a perfect everyday computer.

Your graphics options, however, are limited. Integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics are a nice step up from last year's integrated HD 3000 version, and can play most mainstream games on low to medium settings. However, some ultrabooks are starting to include higher-end graphics, like the Dell Inspiron 14z, whose AMD graphics provide another bump for games and video-intensive applications. Those upgrades will cost you extra, generally: the Inspiron 14z costs a hundred dollars more at $899.

Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Annual power consumption cost

Battery life is good, but not great. An integrated three-cell battery lasted 4 hours and 51 minutes in our video playback battery drain test. That's a minute less than the Dell Inspiron 14z (which also has dedicated AMD graphics in the configuration we tested), and less than the Sony Vaio T. It's also over 2.5 hours less than the 13-inch MacBook Air, and even less than last year's IdeaPad U300s. That's not good enough to convince the average person to ditch an optical drive and go ultrabook, but it's good enough to last a good part of a day before recharging, providing you tweak the battery settings and screen brightness.

Lenovo offers a standard one-year warranty with the IdeaPad U310, but extended warranties can be purchased on Lenovo's site: $99 for a base warranty extension to three years, or $229 for three years plus accidental damage protection. Lenovo's Web site and customer service information are relatively easy to find, but you'll want to make sure you've got your specific configuration and model correct (Lenovo makes a lot of laptops).

The best part of the IdeaPad U310 is its price: $799 is a sweet spot for a thin Windows laptop. You're not getting anything here that a number of competitors aren't also offering for a similar price, and that's the kicker. The U310 is capable, but not especially stellar at anything. As a back-to-school lightweight laptop, however, it's a pretty smart bet.

Lenovo IdeaPad U310 (Summer 2012)
7.5

Lenovo IdeaPad U310

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 8Battery 7Support 7