(Editor’s note: we’ve adjusted the score of the U350 down a star for two reasons that appear to be indicative of potential quality control issues, both mentioned in this review. First, the heat. The fan is on almost constantly, noticeably loud, and warms the palm rest above 90F. Secondly, the 13.3″ LED panel appears washed out compared to the S12. This also appears to be the case with other 13.3″ models such as the Acer Timeline series. We realize this is a “budget” model, nevertheless the panel on the lower priced S12 provides better contrast which results in significantly less eye fatigue. To many people these issues won’t matter, but we wanted to make you aware of them.)
Is this new Lenovo model leading the charge of next generation thin-and-light notebooks, the netbook evolved?
On paper, it looks right—no doubt, a sweet deal. A new energy efficient processor (CULV), combined with light weight (under 3.5 lbs), a vibrant 13.3″ LED screen and a full-size keyboard. All starting for about $679. “Ultra-portable” notebooks typically cost twice that, if not even more. Granted, they come with better specs including beefier Intel processors. Lenovo’s push into this market segment, given its premium brand and position, could be risky.
Would the discounted price yield quality issues? And would this new U350 live up to its promise?
Lenovo almost hits a home run here. But at least three issues prevent it from achieving true greatness.
First the specs on our test unit: 13.3″ HD WXGA LED (1366×768) display, Intel Pentium SU2700 processor (1.30 GHz), 2GB ram (expandable to 8GB), 250GB hard drive, 4-cell lithium ion battery, Wi-Fi 5100, Bluetooth 2.1, HDMI-out, VeriFace face recognition security, webcam, and built-in shock protection for the hard drive.
The most unique aspect of the U350 is the SU2700 processor which promises increased performance over the basic Atom chip found in most netbooks, but with energy efficient operation for longer battery life. As far as I know, the Acer Timeline is the only other major manufacturer currently shipping product with this chip.
My first impressions of the design and build quality: very good. Chunky ThinkPad this is not. Svelte, thin and modern, it may provide flashes of MacBook Air. Less than an 1″ thick. Designer pattern on the lid. Brushed metal keyboard surround. It makes for a quality aesthetic, but keep in mind it is still plastic (albeit sturdy). Not surprisingly, given the price, you are not going to find high end metals or composites here.
The U350 boots up quickly, and after a quick Lenovo splash screen, Vista Home Premium (eligible for Windows 7 upgrade) boots up quickly. The 13.3″ screen is bright and vivid. The glossy finish provides for some reflective challenge outdoors, but we found it on par with others. Compared to the Lenovo S12, the screen was less bright, and contrast was not as strong, but just slightly. I don’t think there will be any complaints here.
The keyboard is full-size and immediately offers a premium Lenovo-style typing experience-solid with well-spaced keys, minimal to no flex, and prefect tactile feedback. The layout, however, does make a few unfortunate compromises. The vertical stack of keys to the right of the shift key, while offering dedicated Home/End and PgUp/PgDn keys, can take some getting used to, especially for those accustomed to the Enter and Backspace keys being located right most, flush against the edge. Often I found myself hitting the Home key when reaching for Backspace, resulting in the cursor jumping to the beginning of a line.
The truncated right shift key is also challenging at times, especially since competitors offer full-size. It may seem minor, but for touch typists it can be an issue. I’ll see if I can get used to it over time, and adjust. Maybe it’s a matter of practice.