Lenovo IdeaPad Y500 review: A unique gaming laptop at a great price

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The Good The Lenovo IdeaPad Y500 offers high-end components, including gamer-level graphics, a swappable accessory bay, and the coolest-looking backlit keyboard I've seen in a long while.

The Bad If only the Y500 had a touch screen, which is practically required for the Windows 8 UI, it might be one of my favorite laptops of the year.

The Bottom Line For those looking for something more than a feature-light ultrabook, the gamer-friendly Lenovo IdeaPad Y500 is close to brilliant, and several configurations are currently available at a deep discount -- but I can't believe it doesn't have a touch screen.

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8.1 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 8
  • Performance 9
  • Battery 7
  • Support 8

The current version of the Lenovo IdeaPad Y500 is a laptop that's hard not to like. A chunky, 15-inch Windows 8 machine with some real gaming muscle, sharp design, and a funky red-on-black backlit keyboard, it perfectly embodies the aesthetic Lenovo seems to be reaching for in the consumer-targeted IdeaPad line. It's not as staid as the much more traditional ThinkPad line, but instead takes basic black plastic and brushed metal and adds a sophisticated edge.

The Y500 is represented here by an impressive high-end SLI configuration, which Lenovo says runs $1,299, but this dual-GPU configuration is only available from retailers such as NewEgg. However, Lenovo is offering deep discounts on some single-GPU configurations on its website as of this writing, with a couple under $900. Despite the attractive prices and components, there are still issues. The Nvidia GeForce 650M GPU found here is great for a mainstream laptop, but the lack of a touch screen means the system is not well-suited for all the nongaming hours you're going to spend in the Windows 8 UI. The keyboard is excellent (and the red backlight gives it a nice edge), but the touch pad has an imprecise, floating feel, exacerbated by the lack of a secondary touch input on the screen.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Adding some extra kick is the system's modular Ultrabay concept. Years ago, you would see this occasionally on midsize and larger laptops, but today it's very rare. Where the optical drive would normally go, in right side of the system chassis, is instead a bay that can handle different optional components.

The Ultrabay accessory included in our review unit is a second GeForce GT650M graphics card -- a rarity indeed for a gaming laptop -- but you can also use the bay for an extra hard drive, an additional cooling fan, or an optical drive.

All that makes the Y500 powerful, flexible, and stylish. It's also well-made, looks sharp, and is quite reasonably priced (and a positive bargain, if the current sale prices hold). If it only had a touch screen for a frustration-free Windows 8 experience, this might be my favorite laptop of 2013 to date. As it is, the non-touch screen would be a deal-killer for me if I were reaching into my pocket to buy a new laptop.

Price as reviewed / starting price $1,299 / $849
Processor 2.4GHz Intel Core i7-3630QM
Memory 16GB, 1,600MHz DDR3
Hard drive 1TB 5,400rpm, 16GB SSD
Chipset Intel HM77
Graphics (2x) NVIDIA GeForce GT650M
Operating system Windows 8
Dimensions (WD) 15.2x10.2 inches
Height 0.6 inch - 1.4 inches
Screen size (diagonal) 15.6 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter 6.4 pounds / 8.1 pounds
Category Midsize

Design and features
It's easy to tell at first glance that this is no ultrabook. Unlike the majority of laptops we've reviewed over the past year or so, the Y500 is not trying to be a slim MacBook Air clone. Instead this is a 15-inch portable powerhouse, with a full-voltage Intel Core i7 CPU and not one, but two graphics cards. Even with all that, it's still hardly thicker than the average midsize laptop of a few years ago, proving that it's not just ultrabooks that have slimmed down.

The basic-black design is a matter of taste -- some people would not be caught dead with a goth-looking black laptop. But black gadgets, white gadgets, chrome gadgets, and so forth all seem to have their day in the sun and then go back out of style.

In this case, the back of the lid has a brushed-metal finish, with a flat black wrist rest and black keys. That's unusual, because there's typically some contrast between the key faces and keyboard tray in a laptop. The contrast in this case, however, comes from the keyboard's backlighting.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The outer edge of each raised, island-style key glows deep red, helping the individual keys stand out against the dark background. It's a bit in-your-face, but I have to admit I thought it looked pretty sharp -- although the fact that it's just so different from other backlit keyboards may have put a bit of a thumb on the scale for me.

The keyboard itself is similar to what we've seen on other recent IdeaPad laptops, and even some ThinkPad models. The keys, thanks to copious keyboard research and testing from Lenovo, are well-spaced, deep enough to give a satisfying click, and make the most out of the space offered, with large Shift, Return, and other important keys.

The same cannot be said for the large, clickpad-style touch pad. It lacks separate left and right mouse buttons, as many current laptops do, but the two click zones are hard to hit consistently and the entire pad feels like it's floating on top of the wrist rest -- use too light a touch and your finger slips just enough to miss whatever you're clicking on before the click actually registers.

Compounding this problem is that, because the Y500 lacks a touch screen, that touch pad is going to be your main interface with the Windows 8 UI, unless you plug in an external mouse.

While the finicky touch pad and lack of a touch screen are annoying, I must applaud the Ultrabay concept. Years ago, one would very occasionally run into a laptop with swappable accessories, but I'm glad to see the idea is still around, at least in this system. The bay came with a second Nvidia GPU in our configuration, but sold-separately alternatives include an additional fan, a second hard drive, and an optical drive, which each cost between $29 and $189.

Dan Ackerman/CNET

The devices are not exactly hot-swappable, so don't expect to install a game via the DVD drive, then just pull the drive out and replace it with the second GPU. Instead, you have to flip the laptop over, remove the battery, and then release a couple of latches to pull out the component that's currently in the bay. Still, it's a feature that makes your laptop more flexible, and I could see swapping in the fan, for example, to get longer battery life and better cooling while on the road.

The 15.6-inch display has a native resolution of 1,920x1,080 pixels, which is what you'd expect in a high-end midsize laptop today. The most recent Y-series Lenovo we looked at, the 2012 IdeaPad Y480, was a 14-inch model with only a 1,366x768 screen. At the time, we rightly pointed out that for a $1,000-plus midsize laptop, that was unacceptable. The better resolution on this model is much more in line with expectations.

As mentioned previously, that otherwise-excellent screen isn't a touch screen, which would greatly increase its appeal. Some would no doubt say that you don't need touch for Windows 8, or that with a few tweaks, you can stay in the traditional desktop view most of the time. But Windows 8 is built around that tile-based UI, and for a good out-of-the-box experience, trying to activate the Windows 8 Charms bar by swiping off the right side of the touch pad just doesn't cut it.