The original MacBook Air, released in 2008, was years ahead of its time. At the same time, Lenovo was working on its own new idea. Three years prior it had acquired the ThinkPad line of laptops from IBM, and had been successful in continuing the brand. But in 2008 it went to market with a device skewed more towards consumers. Therein was born the IdeaPad line, which for years has provided quality performance for a considerable discount from the comparable Mac brands. The latest IdeaPad, the Lenovo U310, might be its most competitive model yet.
When it comes to ultrabooks, it’s not just a game of inches; it’s a game of fractions of inches. Small dimensional considerations can make or break an ultrabook, which boasts portability as its greatest feature. In that way the u310 delivers with dimensions of 13.1″ x 8.8″ x 0.7″. Those are all slightly smaller than the MacBook Air, despite their screens measuring the same 13.3 inches.
If the u310 has one downside in terms of size, it is the weight: 3.5 pounds compared to the MacBook’s 2.96 pounds. A half pound might not sound like a lot, but when it comes to laptops and other portable devices it does make a considerable difference. In fact, one of the reasons the iPad Mini has cannibalized sales of the full-size iPad is because of the weight. People care about even slight differences when lugging around equipment.
Traveling with an electronic device works best when you know places you can plug in for a few hours. Unfortunately, that’s not always possible. Not all trains have power outlets. While first-class air passengers get the privilege, most coach fliers do not. And at the airport there is always a scramble for the few open outlets. That makes battery life an enormous consideration for any device designed for portability. On that front the u310 gets a solid average.
With up to eight hours of battery life and a whopping 90 days of standby, the u310 trumps the MacBook Air — not by much, but as with size every little measurement matters when it comes to laptop battery life. That extra hour can make a big difference when you’re on the road without a power outlet in sight.
Of course, even a well-sized and long-lasting laptop is no good if it doesn’t perform to a certain standard. For the u310, that is not a problem. While the lowest-end model, featuring a 2nd Generation Intel Core at 1.4 GHz, is a bit behind the times, the next two steps up, both featuring 3rd Generation Intel Core processors, will do well for almost any kind of use. Combine that with 4GB of DDR3 RAM, and you have the digital equivalent of a well-oiled machine.
In terms of graphics the u310 also delivers with high-end Intel graphics cards — the same ones used in the MacBook Air. The only drawback on that end is the dim screen. It actually rates as one of the dimmest among laptop screens, which certainly affects viewing quality. But if it’s text you’re after, rather than video, the sharpness of the blacks is noticeably better than many other laptop screens.
There are a number of features of the u310 that deserve a mention, but perhaps not an entire section in a review:
- The aluminum shell adds a layer of protection necessary for any portable gadget. It adds considerably to the weight (see above), but it also makes it a more durable product.
- The keyboard is among the most comfortable on any laptop I’ve tested. Users who clack away at their laptop keyboards will come to greatly appreciate it.
- The track pad, which has a glass covering, is more comfortable and more accurate than that of the MacBook.
- Despite the lack of a fan (as with all ultrabooks), the u310 runs relatively cool. You wouldn’t keep it on your thighs for hours on end, but it won’t singe off your leg hair.
- The speakers aren’t particularly loud, but they are crisp and clear. You won’t get that tinny, high-frequency sound you get from most laptops.
For many people, the decision on laptops comes down to operating system. The u310 runs up to Windows 8, while the MacBook Air runs OS X, so there really is no comparison on that front. You either prefer one or the other. But in terms of size and performance, the u310 stacks up very well.
Where it stacks up better is in price. The base model, which is perfectly adequate, runs just $700, while a comparable MacBook Air costs $500 more. It might not give off the same social signals as a Mac, but the Lenovo u310 will provide nearly every bit of performance.