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Lenovo Ideapad U110: Style and Usability

Round Up: Five Powerful, Light Ultraportables
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Style

Have you ever seen a ThinkPad? If so, you know how Lenovo (nee IBM) defines style: black, drab, and utilitarian. But if the ThinkPad line is the corporate drone of mobile computing, the IdeaPad line is the entrepreneurial artiste, and the IdeaPad U110—the smallest and most stylish IdeaPad to date—is the quick-witted fashionista. You need only glance at the U110’s closed lid for a first impression of the design theme here: delicate, spiraling, floral, shimmering, yet subtle "tendrils" (Lenovo’s word, not mine). Before we go any further, I’ll simply express my belief that the U110’s crimson runic patterns will more likely appeal to women than men. That’s not based on a survey, but the odds are in my favor. Red is not among my favorite colors—the unit also comes in black and navy blue—but I adore this computer’s style cues; you may not.

The pattern on the lightly textured (etched) lid, with the darker solid-stripe lip and silver reflective Lenovo branding, repeats itself twice more on this computer. Before opening it, flip it over and notice a gray-on-black version of the tendrils, nearly invisible on the lower left corner of the underside.

Also on the flip side are other exotic-looking patterns carved into the plastic in a scattered fashion—these are somewhat functional, revealing vents that allow heat to escape. The final iteration of the tendrils can be found on the inside, at the top of the keyboard where the chassis meets the screen hinge. We’ll get to this more later on, but a finger swipe across a patch of seemingly empty black plastic reveals red-lit subcutaneous LEDs in the shape of curlicue tendrils that can serve as multimedia buttons.

The last style-oriented feature of the U110 is the abundant use of the currently trendy shiny piano black lacquer on the inside—the flat screen-bezel, the keyboard, wristpad, trackpad and buttons are all coated in the slimy stuff. It feels great to the touch, but if you don’t apply the included chamois every ten minutes during use, the chassis starts to look dull and icky. The sides, battery and bottom of the computer are rubberized instead of lacquered, which makes the machine easy to grip.

Even though it is, overall, the smallest machine in this roundup in terms of size (not thickness or weight), the U110 is hearty. The lid is very solid, and as noted earlier, the bottom is ruggedized with rubber (though the little feet on the bottom can sometimes seem a bit slippery on a flat surface). The lid is actually bent at about a 130 degree angle at the last inch closest to the hinge. This bent portion of the metal offsets the screen from the hinge, and strengthens the hinge, which seems to improve viewing angles. Like the Asus U2E, the lip of the lid has no hinge—it stays shut solely via pressure from the hinge.

Lenovo even includes a leather carrying case for the U110—this machine is just that fancy.

Size and Weight

The larger of the two batteries that come with this computer protrudes only slightly from the rear; its curved shape adds to the compact form factor of the machine. The unit’s dimensions are 10.8” wide by 7.7” deep, and 0.88” thick, which is thinner than the Apple MacBook Air. The smaller battery sticks out even less; here you can see the difference:

The U110 weighs only 2.4 pounds, but doesn’t include a built-in optical drive; a solid, rubberized black and perforated-metal external drive is included. The Toshiba Portege R500, while a good deal wider than the Lenovo, includes an internal optical drive and maintains the same weight and thickness as the U110. The power supply brick is a featherweight at 0.67 lbs.

Will you miss the internal optical drive? I didn’t, but I didn’t take any long distance flights while testing it. DVD entertainment is the only crucial use of an optical drive I can think of; I can’t ding the U110 too much for leaving it out.

Ports

Switching FireWire for HDMI/Micro-DVI, the U110 has a very similar port configuration to that of the Asus U2E. On the left hand side, the computer has a power port, VGA port, angled fan, two USB ports, and at the edge, a Wi-Fi on/off switch. Along the front bottom lip, Lenovo has placed nothing but a glowing blue LED icon in the shape of a power button, to indicate the computer’s status.

On the right hand side there is an ExpressCard slot, an SD (and other format) card reader, a headphone and microphone jack, Firewire port, one final USB port, and a gigabit Ethernet port. There’s no modem, and there’s no internal broadband card—use the ExpressCard slot to get either function if necessary. Speaking of wireless communications, the Lenovo meets all the usual standards except Draft-N. It’s the only one in this roundup to lack N compliance, but perhaps is has been left out because very few consumer router and products actually feature N, and this is a very consumer-friendly machine.

Style score: 5

Usability

Display

In terms of specifications, the U110’s 11.1” screen is identical to the Asus U2E’s—it’s an LED backlit glossy number. But something about the Lenovo’s is just glossier. When I stare into the screen for a while, it seems to be a bit distorted by an extra layer of glass, and the content of the screen looks shimmery and textured; there’s also some glare and distortion. Color vibrancy is spot on, however. The entire display piece—the underside of the lid—is completely smooth, as though made from one piece of plastic, with the exception of the small notch in the top center for the tiny webcam.

Keyboard

Each key on the smudgy piano black keyboard of the U110 is big—bigger than any key on almost any other ultraportable—but size alone does not a comfortable keyboard make. Each key depresses smoothly and evenly, too, but that also is not enough. For a keyboard to be efficient, it needs to maintain a typist’s speed and keep the error rate low. This keyboard decreased my speed and increased my error rate because of the lack of space between the keys, which are practically flush against each other. They are also completely flat, which means there is no texture or shape, other than a slight concavity, to teach my fingers where each key is. More often than not, I hit a neighboring key by accident because each key is so flat and slick. I didn’t live with this computer for months, and if I did I would surely adapt to its quirks, but why should a keyboard force a user to deal with a steep learning curve?

Trackpad

The U110’s trackpad is perfectly smooth and matte—it doesn’t have quite the same lacquering as the rest of the chassis, but it does have a little. It is very responsible and slick, and the seam between the trackpad and wristpad is obvious without feeling jarring when you reach it with your finger. The mouse buttons are similar, but received the full piano black paint job. They’re even, only slightly raised from the trackpad, and not too springy when clicked. Some people might prefer a bit more response from the buttons, though.

Hardware Controls

The "magical" swiping action that activates scrolling the soft keys above the keyboard is one the most whimsical and cutting-edge features of this computer. It might seem inefficient to have buttons that aren’t always visible, but how many people even set up the physical multimedia buttons that grace a typical laptop? One of the buttons launches an audio manager, and two of the other buttons can be tied to a macro that activates just about any other application. There’s also a visible volume control light (up, down and mute). On the left side there is a power button and a "Novo" button. This latter button performs many tasks: generally, clicking it activates power settings to conserve battery life. But if something’s amiss with the machine, clicking it when the computer’s off can activate a system restore the next time the machine is powered on (let’s hope you never have to use it!) Behind these keys are the small "Dolby Home Theater" speakers, one on each side. Perhaps they produce better than average external sound, but it’s still nothing to write home about.

Heat and Noise

I never felt this machine get warmer than room temperature, nor make any noise at all. That’s surprising given the U110 has a weak hard drive (only running at 4,200 RPM), though the processor never seemed to struggle with any typical tasks, except perhaps upon startup, which took an above average of 90 seconds. I also lost a bit of time every time the facial-recognition software popped up when starting; it works, but steals at least 15 seconds every time you open up the machine. Remember, this is a consumer machine, and it does media well—better than most of its suit-and-tie ultraportable competitors. Check out the Performance section below for more details.

Usability score: 3

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