Lightweight, sleek and powerful - ultrabook s are laptops' answer to tablets. We get hands on with the Lenovo U300s and Acer Aspire S3, the first of the ultrabooks to hit the market.

Despite Lenovo's success with the ThinkPad, the company still hasn't created that ‘wow' product that's really aspirational. While some companies focus on trendy looks and innovative features, Lenovo has roped in a big fan following by offering reliability and good build. However, though the company's maiden ultrabook offering, the Ideapad U300s, may look relatively bland at the outset, it surprised me by packing in a punch with its performance.

First look

Most ultrabook s are opting for the ultra-thin, tapering design. While the U300s doesn't really conform to that and goes for a more uniform thickness, it still manages to be pretty thin at just 13.99mm. The U300s is internationally available in two flavours – Graphite Gray and Clementine Orange. Although the latter makes more of a style statement, I was pretty happy with the sleek grey unit I had for review. Like the Macbook Air, the U300s is also sculpted from a single piece of aluminium, making it quite light at 1.32 kg but also quite sturdy. You won't find a big selection of ports on this one - the U300s ships with two USB ports (includes a USB 3.0), an HDMI port and a 3.5mm jack. Unfortunately, there's no SD card slot, something even the more budget friendly Acer S3 has. The ports are conveniently located at the sides, so you don't have to fiddle about to plug in your external devices.

The good news is that Lenovo hasn't compromised on the trackpad and keyboard, something a lot of other manufacturers tend to do. The island-style keyboard is becoming a popular choice among laptop manufacturers, but few get it right. Although ThinkPad users might miss the slightly sculpted keys, I found it extremely comfortable to type on the U300s' keyboard for long stints. A few keys like Shift and Tab have been downsized a bit, which takes some getting used to. My only real problem with the keyboard is the fact that it's not backlit. Lenovo says this is because backlighting adds another layer to the thickness, but having used the Macbook Air, I beg to differ.

I liked the spacious trackpad, which Lenovo says is made of unbreakable glass. It supports a number of multi-touch gestures, including pinch to zoom, two finger scroll and four finger swipe to bring up all open apps. Overall, the trackpad was smooth and accurate most of the time, barring the fact that you have to use a fair bit of pressure with the multi-touch functions.

The finish on the ultrabook is really smooth, and Lenovo has uniformly used the same finish for the palmrests on either side of the trackpad and the gaps in the keyboard.

Media and software

Unlike the Macbook Air and the ASUS Zenbook, the U300s compromises a bit on the display, which offers a 1366x768 resolution, a tad lower than the Air's 1400x900 display. I watched a few 720p videos on the screen, and while clarity and sharpness is not an issue, videos did tend to look a bit washed out, and lacked the vibrancy of the Air's display. Thankfully, the screen isn't too reflective, and it was visible from a number of ‘sideways' viewing angles, giving it the seal of approval for group-watching.

It was a relief that the speakers provided loud and clear sound quality, but at high volume levels, sound often tended to be ‘tinny'. Those were the only occasions I felt the need to use headphones.

The 1.3-meg webcam comes with YouCam software with the standard bunch of effects, but was very poor in artificial lighting. Thankfully, the laptop isn't pre-loaded with bloatware, but you do get Google Chrome pre-installed as well as Microsoft Office Starter (Trial version), both useful. There's a really handy program called Easy Notes, which lets you jot down thoughts and reminders on colour coded notes. You can bring up the program with a four finger swipe to the right, and scroll through the notes using three fingers. Another handy addition is Intel Wi-Di, which lets you wirelessly stream content up to 1080p from your ultrabook to a compatible television or monitor.

Performance

The unit I was reviewing was running a 1.6GHz Core i5-2467M CPU and had 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD. There is a higher-end variant with the same amount of RAM, but a more powerful 1.8GHz Core i7-2677M CPU and 256GB of SSD storage, which will be available in India early next year. The U300s is powered by RapidDrive SSD boot technology, which promises super-fast boot speeds. My timer showed a very impressive 15 second boot – one of the fastest I've seen on any laptop so far. The U300s is also an incredibly zippy machine, and didn't slow down even when I ran Google Chrome, streamed YouTube videos and downloaded large files simultaneously. That's the kind of machine most of us would like to have – no hanging and no slow starts. The great part about the U300s is that it doesn't heat up – it actually cools through vents at the side and air dissipates even through the keyboard – though that's not visible. Battery life is pretty good too, lasting close to 5 hours. The NovaBench benchmarking score for the Lenovo Ideapad U300s hovered at 473, which seemed to be the average for the ultrabooks we tested.

Our verdict

Lenovo's first attempt at a relatively young product is pretty impressive. What it lacks for in snazzy looks is made up by solid hardware, great performance and good battery life. The price is a bit on the high side, but if you're looking for a cheaper version of the Macbook Air that can match its performance, the U300s is the best option right now. Expect to see future versions that will give the competition some serious migraines.

Love: Sturdy build, fast boot-up, good keyboard

Hate: Average screen, no SD card slot, no backlit keyboard

Rs 67,990

ketaki@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on December 27, 2011)
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