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Lenovo LaVie Z review: A laptop that's lighter than Air

The full-power 13-inch Lenovo LaVie Z weighs less than 2 pounds.

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Dan Ackerman
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Dan Ackerman

Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming

Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a semi-regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times

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6 min read

"Is this thing made of plastic?"

lenovo-lavie-z-01.jpg
8.3

Lenovo LaVie Z

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

That keyboard is the single-biggest strike against the LaVie Z. The key faces on the island-style keyboard are very small. Especially on the right side, a confusing pile-up of the right Shift key and the directional arrows mean you'll constantly be jumping up a line when trying to hit Shift. A very small Backspace key sits next to a key labeled FWD Space, which is the complete opposite of what the missing Delete key does.

In contrast, Apple manages to take the limited space for its 12-inch MacBook keyboard and find hidden advantages to take the edge off of the tradeoffs, making each key face wider and more stable, despite being even shallower than the keyboard here.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The basic clickpad-style touchpad below the keyboard works surprisingly well, even when using multi-touch gestures such as the two-finger scroll for navigating long web pages. As this model lacks a touch screen, that's especially important for navigating Windows 8.

There has been a trend in premium laptops over the past two years to shoot past the standard 1,920x1,080 resolution, in some cases all the way up to 4K, although that's usually of dubious usefulness for a small laptop screen. In this case, the LaVie Z sits at a happy medium, with a 2,560x1,440 native resolution.

The display in this model has a matte finish, which we always appreciate, and off-axis viewing from the side is decent, although colors lack the punch of some glossier consumer laptop displays. The hybrid LaVie Z 360 version has the same resolution, but in a touchscreen with a glossy overlay.

Ports & connections

Video HDMI
Audio Combo headphone/microphone jack
Data 2 USB 3.0, SD card reader
Networking 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Optical drive None

Connections, performance and battery

After the single USB-C port in the 12-inch MacBook, one might think overly connected laptops were a thing of the past, especially for the thinnest and lightest models. Fortunately, Lenovo shows us this doesn't need to be the case. Both the LaVie Z and LaVie Z 360 make room for two USB 3.0 ports, a full-size HDMI port, and an SD card slot, which should be enough for most users.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Bumping up to an Intel ULV Core i7 processor, both LaVie Z systems performed well in our standard benchmark tests, and felt fast and responsive in everyday use. Offering similar performance was the latest generation of Toshiba's Kirabook premium 13-inch laptop, which uses the same processor. Apple's 12-inch MacBook, with a slower Core M processor, fell well behind, as did a premium Windows laptop with a current-gen Core i5 CPU. Note, however, that the recently updated 13-inch MacBook Air, also with a current-gen Core i5 processor, was surprisingly a bit faster in our multitasking test, thanks in part to its operating system advantages in some of our testing apps, and its lower-resolution display.

Battery life was decent, considering the high-power i7 processor, but if this was a standard 13-inch Core i5 laptop, we'd expect more. The non-hybrid LaVie Z ran for 7:51 on our video playback battery drain test, while the LaVie Z 360 hybrid ran for 7:40 on the same test. The 12-inch MacBook ran longer, at around 12 hours, as did the Kirabook, at 8:50. In a harder battery test, continuously streaming HD video from the internet, the LaVie Z ran for 5:19.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Conclusion

The LaVie Z is an amazing laptop to show off to friends and colleagues, because it packs so much power into such a lightweight package, and even has decent battery life.

But it also suffers from an inelegant design and a frustrating keyboard. There's a real disconnect between what Apple, Samsung and others can do with slim 13-inch laptop aesthetics, and what we're seeing here.

Should someone be able to successfully combine serious design with Core i7 power, and at under two pounds, we might hit a kind of laptop design singularity. As it is, in this price range, I'd steer towards the 12-inch MacBook for casual websurfing and simple tasks, but give the LaVie Z the nod for heavier workloads.

Handbrake Multimedia Multitasking test

Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2015) 370Toshiba KiraBook (2015) 382Lenovo LaVie Z 390Lenovo LaVie Z 360 409Dell XPS 13 (2015) 441Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2015) 465
Note: Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test

Lenovo LaVie Z 360 221Lenovo LaVie Z 227Toshiba KiraBook (2015) 228Dell XPS 13 (2015) 243Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2015) 268Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2015) 307
Note: Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)

Apple iTunes encoding test

Lenovo LaVie Z 101Lenovo LaVie Z 360 101Toshiba KiraBook (2015) 101Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2015) 107Dell XPS 13 (2015) 113Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2015) 130
Note: Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)

Video playback battery drain test

Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2015) 1080Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2015) 747Toshiba KiraBook (2015) 530Lenovo LaVie Z 471Lenovo LaVie Z 360 460Dell XPS 13 (2015) 422
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance (in minutes)

System Configurations

Lenovo LaVie Z Windows 8.1 (64-bit); 2.4GHz Intel Core i7-5500U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 3839MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 5500; 256GB SSD
Lenovo LaVie Z 360 Windows 8.1 (64-bit); 2.4GHz Intel Core i7-5500U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 3839MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 5500; 256GB SSD
Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2015) Yosemite OSX 10.10.2; 1.1GHz Intel Core M-5Y31; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 1536MB Intel HD Graphics 5300; 256GB SSD
Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2015) Yosimite OSX 10.10.2; 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-5250U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 1536MB Intel HD Graphis 6000; 128GB SSD
Toshiba KiraBook (2015) Windows 8.1 (64-bit); 2.4GHz Intel Core i7-5500U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 3839MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 5500; 256GB SSD
Dell XPS 13 (2015) Windows 8.1 (64.bit); 2.2GHZ Intel Core i5-5200U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 3839MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 5500; 256GB SSD

lenovo-lavie-z-01.jpg
8.3

Lenovo LaVie Z

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 8Battery 7
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