Lenovo's Yoga 3 Pro is so close to perfect that its shortcomings feel all the more frustrating. In terms of form and usability, this is easily my favorite new laptop design of the year. The iconic 360-degree fold-back Yoga hinge has been radically reimagined as a thin strip of watchband-like metal, allowing the body to be especially thin, while still just as flexible as previous versions for transforming into a kiosk or tablet.
It's remarkably thin and light, and feels just different enough from every other slim 13-inch laptop or hybrid to really count as a major step.
The other half of that step forward was supposed to come from Intel's new Core M CPU, a chip designed to be a perfect fit for thin, upscale tablets and hybrids that needed just the right mix of performance, battery life and energy efficiency. The big pitch for Core M is that systems using it can run with minimal cooling, or even without fans at all, allowing them to be thinner and lighter than ever.
The Yoga 3 Pro is the first consumer PC with the Core M CPU, and at least for now, the victim of some early growing pains. As the only Core M product we've been able to fully benchmark, it's hard to say if the issues are with the CPU itself, or Lenovo's implementation of the platform.
What we're left with is performance that's good enough for everyday use, but not as robust as competing products -- and not the kind of multitasking performance one might expect from a $1,300 laptop (£1,300 in the UK and AU$2,099 in Australia). Battery life is also below what a portable system such as this needs, optimistically hitting around six hours, while most of the PCs we compared it with add at least two hours to that, and the 13-inch MacBook Air more than doubles it.
Lest this sound like an unenthusiastic take on this new hybrid, remember, there's more to judging a computer than just on-paper performance numbers. If I were simply using the Yoga 3 Pro without seeing any of those application performance or battery life numbers, I'd be very impressed. For the type of work most of us do, running a few Web browsers, streaming video and music and working on office documents, the Yoga 3 Pro felt fast enough. But advanced tasks such as gaming or HD video editing are better served by more powerful PCs.
Battery life was close to Lenovo's promised 7 hours during casual use, although even that feels skimpy by today's standards. Playing video seemed to hit the Core M, designed to throttle computing power to fit your usage, particularly hard, draining the battery in under six hours.
The 2.6-pound (1.18kg) body, about 13mm thick, feels amazingly light in the hand, and shows up not only previous Yogas, but even the MacBook Air. Like last year's Yoga 2 Pro , the 13.3-inch (33.8cm) touchscreen is boosted to a very high 3,200x1,800-pixel resolution -- not quite 4K, but close. Although considering the performance issues, perhaps a standard 1080p display might have helped goose the battery life and performance a bit.
The Yoga 3 Pro isn't the universally perfect-for-almost-anyone hybrid it might have been. The physical design is superb; updating and adapting the Yoga just enough to stay ahead of the competition. But the performance is better geared toward casual use than complex multitasking -- the Intel Core M platform isn't blowing anyone away in its initial public outing -- and the battery life is disappointing for such a lightweight system clearly meant for on-the-go use. In the end, it requires a real judgment call about whether this amazingly slim and light design is worth the trade-off in performance and battery life.
Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro
|Price as reviewed||$1,299|
|Display size/resolution||13.3-inch, 3,200x1,800 touchscreen|
|PC CPU||1.1GHz Intel 5Y60|
|PC memory||8,192MB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz|
|Graphics||3,839MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 5300|
|Storage||256GB SSD hard drive|
|Networking||802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||Windows 8.1 (64-bit)|
Design and features
The Yoga line of hybrid laptops kicked off a major trend in mobile PC design, starting with the original version from 2012. Since then, the idea of a clamshell laptop with two 360-degree fold-back hinges has appeared on not only several subsequent Yoga products from Lenovo, but also systems from Dell, Toshiba, HP, and others.
If you're not familiar with how the Yoga line works, it starts off as an ordinary thin clamshell laptop, but the lid and display fold back a full 360 degrees to form either a thick tablet, or a stand/kiosk device when only folded partway back. That basic hook applies to several generations of Yoga systems, including more recent ThinkPad and Chromebook variations.
For the Yoga 3 Pro, the hinge still folds back a full 360 degrees, taking the chassis from a traditional clamshell laptop to a folded over tablet, with many possible stops along the way. The difference is that the new hinge is a single mechanism running the full width of the system.
Instead of two hinges, typically plastic or aluminum, this new hinge has the look and feel of a long section of watchband material and is constructed of more than 800 individual pieces of steel and aluminum, with six points of attachment across the 13-inch display.
Besides being visually striking, the new hinge allows the Yoga 3 Pro to be, according to Lenovo, 17 percent thinner and 14 percent lighter than last year's Yoga 2 Pro . In our hands-on time with the system, it certainly felt like the thinnest Yoga yet, at 12.8mm thick. While the percentage difference may seem small, the difference from an older Yoga was striking.
The keyboard retains much of what we love about Lenovo keyboards, including the slight outward curve to the bottom edge of each key, which makes it harder to accidentally miss a keystroke. But, in order to make the system as thin as it is, compromises were required. The keys are especially shallow, with a little bit of a plastic clack to them. Other thin laptops, such as the MacBook Air, have much deeper key travel, and feel better suited for long-form typing. Despite this, Lenovo manages to fit a backlight in behind the keyboard, which is a very welcome feature.
The keyboard tray is covered with a thin rubbery material. Some people who have seen and handled our tests system have commented that it felt less premium than a traditional metal surface, but it's actually there to provide a cushioned pad when the system is folded into a position that puts the keyboard face down against the table. The soft-touch surface is elevated just ever so slightly above actual keyfaces, so the keys don't scratch against the table surface.
The clickpad-style touchpad works well for two-finger gestures, but you may have to fiddle with the touchpad settings to get the feel just right for you. No matter how good a Windows touchpad is, no one has yet come close to the natural-feeling ease of use from an OS X touchpad and its two-, three- and four-finger gestures.
As in the previous Pro version of the Yoga, the Yoga 3 Pro is built around a better-than-HD display. The 13-inch screen has a native resolution of 3,200x1,800 pixels. That's better than standard 1080p screens, but we're seeing more and more true 4K display displays in laptops, so these higher resolutions are not quite as special as they were even a year ago. Still, the screen looks great, even from extreme side angles, which is especially important when using this as a kiosk or tablet, where you're likely to have a group audience.
Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro
|Audio||Stereo speakers, combo headphone/microphone jack|
|Data||2 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
Connections, performance and battery
For a slim laptop, the only real compromise for the ports is the use of Micro-HDMI for a video output. You'll need a special cable or dongle to take advantage of that. The power connector can work as a USB 2.0 port when not plugged in, and there are two normal USB 3.0 ports besides.
The variations available from Lenovo share the same display, CPU, RAM, and other features. The only differences are in the chassis color, and the size of the internal SSD flash drive. The default $1,300 configuration, also the one available at Best Buy and other retailers, has a 256GB SSD, while an upgrade to 512GB is $1,500.
The Yoga 3 Pro is a clear example of design and performance falling into two different categories. As forward-looking and dynamic as the design is, the performance, both in applications and battery life, feels like a step backward. In our multitasking test, the Intel Core M processor in the Yoga 3 Pro performed slower than a host of comparable systems, including last year's Yoga 2 Pro , Apple's MacBook Air and Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 , each of which use a more common Intel Core i5. Except for the Surface Pro, none of these come close to the Yoga 3 Pro's slim size.
In single-app tests, the Yoga 3 Pro was much more competitive, and even in informal use, streaming HD video, or having multiple browser tabs open, it only felt occasionally sluggish, far better than the many hybrids and laptops we've tested with Intel Atom or Pentium chips do (although none of those come close to the Yoga's premium price). Short version, the hands-on performance of the Yoga 3 Pro and its Intel Core M platform feels robust enough for everyday use, but it also doesn't feel like a $1,300 laptop should.
Battery Life is where the my biggest concerns lie. The steady march of Intel's last several generations of laptop processors has been pitched largely on battery life. Or at least on efficiency and power consumption, which is all directly related to battery life. In our video playback battery drain test, the Core-M-powered Yoga 3 Pro ran for 5 hours and 46 minutes. That's a low number compared with the Surface Pro 3, which ran for 7 hours and 28 minutes, and even last year's Yoga 2 Pro, which ran for 7 hours, 30 minutes on the same test. Outstripping them all is the most recent 13-inch MacBook Air, at 16 hours and 26 minutes (although the MacBook is especially efficient at video playback, your real-world usage time would be lower).
In hands-on use, the system ran for a bit longer, around 6 hours, in near-constant office and online use, while set to the default "balanced" battery settings. That's not a full work day, but it is a big chunk of one. A few years ago, this would have been considered a good score, but we've come to expect so much from laptop, tablet, and hybrid batteries that it's a letdown. Until we have more Core M systems to compare it to, it's hard to pin down the responsibility, but it is worth noting that the Yoga 3 has a relatively small 44 watt-hour battery, while the previous Yoga 2 Pro has a 54 watt-hour battery.
Some computers come off better on paper than in person. The specs and performance scores sound great, but the real-world, hands-on experience is lacking, thanks to poor ergonomics or lackluster design. This is a case where the Yoga 3 Pro paints an unimpressive picture on paper, thanks to its lagging benchmark scores and battery life, but also feels great to actually use. As long as you stick to mainstream computing tasks and don't spend more than six hours away from the power plug.
The application performance of the Intel Core M processor is not as big of a deal as you might think, as most people don't actually need all the power in those mainstream Core i5 and Core i7 processors. The battery life is more of a problem, and if Lenovo and Intel can tweak that, through BIOS updates or a larger battery, this could become my favorite Windows laptop.
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Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro
Windows 8.1 (64-bit); 1.1GHz Intel 5Y60; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 3,839MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 5300; 256GB SSD
Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro
Windows 8.1 (64.bit); 1.6GHZ Intel Core i5 4200U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1,792MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 4400; 128GB Samsung SSD
Microsoft Surface Pro 3
Windows 8.1 (64.bit); 1.9GHZ Intel Core i5-4300U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1,792MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 4400; 256GB SSD
Toshiba Kirabook 13-17s (2014)
Windows 8.1 Pro (64-bit); 1.8GHz Intel Core i7-4500U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1,792MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 4400; 256GB Toshiba SSD
Apple MacBook Air (2014)
Apple OS X 10.9.3 Mavericks ; 1.4GHz Intel Core i54260U; 4GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 1,536MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 5000; 128GB SSD