Lenovo IdeaPad U310 Touch – Review

by on September 5, 2014

As mentioned in my previous post, I had received from Lenovo an IdeaPad U310 Touch. After having used it as my main laptop for the past couple of weeks, it’s now time to write a review of it.

The specs of the unit I received were:

  • Intel Core i7 3537U CPU with Intel HD Graphics
  • 1x 4GB DDR3 SODIMM
  • 500GB hard drive (a HGST HTS545050A7E380)
  • 24GB SSD Cache
  • Windows 8 Core
  • 13.3” touchscreen at 1366×768
  • No optical drive

Currently, this IdeaPad isn’t available in Australia but you can get variants of it on Amazon, starting at US$599.99 with a Core i5 3337U CPU, 4GB RAM, 500GB Hard drive and 24GB SSD cache.

First Impressions

I talked about this in the YouTube unboxing I did when I first received it, but to reiterate – this machine is gorgeous. It’s got a handsome dark grey aluminium lid. While the inside is plastic, it’s definitely not cheap looking plastic. The base is also plastic but of a different kind – it too is dark grey like the lid but is a soft touch plastic, making it easier to grip when carrying.

It’s also quite light too – I usually carry my T530 around in my backpack at uni and I can definitely feel that I’m carrying it. On the other hand, it often felt like I wasn’t carrying the U310 when I was.

One tiny, tiny thing that I noticed and then couldn’t unsee – the model number under the screen isn’t aligned to be flush with the side of the panel. I saw it and wondered how did it not get noticed? It does slightly cheapen the experience.

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Another slight build issue was that it appeared that the glass covering the screen wasn’t quite the right size, as there’s some visible exposed silver to the left of the screen. I’m thinking this is just unique to mine, as there’s none on the other side and I’ve not read any complaints about it online.

Ports

The U310 doesn’t have a huge number of ports, but certainly more than the super ultra thin ultrabooks out there. On the left there’s two USB 3.0 ports, one full size HDMI port and a full size Ethernet port, on the left there’s a single USB 2.0 port, a combo headphone\microphone jack and the power jack. On the front is the card reader and the two status indicator lights – one for power and one for charge status.

Keyboard

The keyboard is where this machine shines. Granted, it’s no ThinkPad keyboard, but it’s the best laptop I’ve used on a consumer grade notebook in a long time. I’ve used Acer, Toshiba, Asus and HP keyboards in recent months and none of them were as pleasurable to type on as this.

One thing I was pleased to see was dedicated Home, End, Page Up and Page Down keys, something that’s not so common on consumer notebooks anymore and buttons that I use all the time when typing.

That said, there a couple of downsides. First, there is visible keyboard flex – not a huge amount but enough to be visible (of course, it could just be because I am quite a hard typist – your mileage, of course, will vary)

Second, the keyboard also takes part in the current silly trend started by Apple of having F keys behave like hotkeys and require the use of the Fn key to use them as F keys. While some people will appreciate this, I do not – I use more often the actual F functions then the hotkey functions. Fortunately, you can boot into the UEFI and change it to make the hotkey functions require the Fn key instead if you’re like me and find the default behaviour obnoxious.

Third, where are the media buttons? In what I’d consider a strange omission for a consumer notebook, there’s no buttons on the keyboard to control media playback beyond volume control – no play\pause or skip controls. This is an irritating omission for me because I do listen to music and it’s irksome to have to go into the Zune app to switch tracks.

The fourth would be arguably the strangest of issues and is definitely considered a first world problem. But what on earth is up with the % symbol printed on the 5 key?

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Clickpad

Oh dear.

I’m not a huge fan of clickpads. They’re yet another silly trend started by Apple (again!) in my view, and I think they sacrifice usability for the sake of looks. In this case, it actually works really well. I was surprised by how much I liked it. The issues I had with it though seemed (mainly) to be glitches relating to the Synaptics driver.

For general use (pointing and left clicking), the clickpad and I got on quite well. No issues there, it’d be one of the best I’ve used (which would be about four – one on a HP that didn’t like it when I rested my thumb on the left “button” and instead thought I was wanting to zoom or rotate, once on a MacBook Pro, one on a random Dell at JB Hifi which wasn’t a glass once and the one on the Lenovo ThinkPad Helix dock). The glass surface was lovely and smooth to swipe across and the clicks weren’t mushy – they provided a firm response with a not too loud click sound..

However, the issues generally got worse when it came to scrolling. When it worked, it worked quite well. But for some reason the driver would randomly lock up (you could tell it had because the little animated taskbar icon for it would claim it was being touched when it wasn’t, hovering over the icon caused it to disappear indicating that it had crashed.) and then it wouldn’t respond to two finger inputs. Eventually, it got to the point where I didn’t bother with using the clickpad for scrolling and instead proceeded to swipe up and down the screen. It would also occasionally just not respond to regular input, at which point more touching of the touchscreen was required. For some strange reason, the driver would usually start working fine again after sending the computer to sleep and then waking it up again.

To be honest, these problems seem to be driver issues – the Synaptics driver Lenovo provided with the system and have for download on their website is from November 2012 (v16.3.4), whereas the current generic Synaptics driver (which, oddly, wouldn’t install) is from October 2013 (v17.0.19). Hopefully a driver update is forthcoming.

Touchscreen

The touchscreen works pretty well – it responded quickly and accurately (handy when the clickpad was being glitchy), and I had no issues with it beyond it collecting fingerprints, as every touchscreen tends to do (I use these on the screen to clean them as well as my glasses, highly recommended and at $4 for $30 they’re a steal).

About the only complaint I had with it, which is probably more to do with Windows, was that it was difficult to move tabs in Chrome and Windows instead thought I was trying to do the close gesture on the desktop.

On the note of Chrome, in Chrome 26 there was a strange bug – if you interacted with Chrome it solely with a touchscreen for an extended period of time, then went back to using the clickpad, the cursor wouldn’t appear on the Chrome window, but would on the taskbar and outside of the Chrome window (e.g. if you used the desktop or another app). The solution was to close Chrome, kill all Chrome processes and start again. It seems to be fixed in Chrome 27, though, as it hasn’t happened since the update for that came out.

Performance

To be honest, I think I’ve been spoiled over time having used SSDs almost exclusively (at the very least for the OS and applications) in my computers for the two years. I’ve gotten used to everything just happening. While the U310 has an SSD cache, this really only is useful for speeding up boot times – for everyday use, it’s not terribly noticeable. Really, though, if it had an SSD in it, its performance would be much, much better. That said, considering the regular retail price on it, something else would have to be cut to keep the price as low as it is or the price would have to go up by $50 to $100 to accommodate a decent sized SSD.

For everyday tasks, though, it ran fine. Everything runs as nimbly as one can expect a hard drive based system to run – Office apps load fast enough and the system wakes from sleep a bit slower than I’d like but nothing too shocking. The cache certainly helped with speeding up boot times, taking about ten seconds to get me to the Windows login screen when rebooting (so as to avoid the Windows 8 “trick” for shutting down which actually involves hibernation).

If you do get one of these, I’d highly recommend getting an SSD and putting it in. The Hardware Maintenance Manual on the Lenovo website provides instructions on how to do the replacement, but bear in mind that the replacement may affect your warranty.

Display

To be honest, the display is nothing to write home about. It runs at 1366×768 – not the greatest resolution in the world. I would have loved 1920×1080 (this is what my T530 runs at and, again, have been spoiled by), and would have settled for 1600×900. Again, though, to keep the price as low as it is, something else would have to be cut to have a higher resolution display.

That’s the good news about the display.

The bad news: the viewing angles on this are absolutely shocking. It’s clearly a TN panel, and not a very good one at that. Unless you’re sitting bang on, the colours will start to go wacky. This is immediately obvious if you use it lying in bed as I often do – the other night I had to have it propped just so to keep the colours of the episode of Hot in Cleveland I was watching viewable while I remained comfortable.

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The display looks fine head on…

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…but not so good when you’re too far above it…

IMG_1860
…it’s a bit better when you’re too low but not by much though.

I have seen TN panels with good viewing angles (the one on my T530 is TN and has far better viewing angles, ditto for the ones in my Dell monitors), so I know it can be done without having to switch to a more expensive IPS panel (again, meaning something would have to be cut or the price increased). It’s unfortunate that it’s not used here because, really, it’s the biggest let down.

It is a glossy display because of the touchscreen, but it’s manageable. If you want a matte display to avoid glare, you will have to look elsewhere and most likely sacrifice the touchscreen to get it.

Connectivity

This particular U310 has an Intel Centrino N 2230 Wifi adaptor with Bluetooth, which performed fine. I did have some issues connecting to some networks – I occasionally had issues connecting to the Wifi network at my uni (which is a little glitchy sometimes so I won’t hold it against the laptop), but it did refuse outright to connect to any public wifi hotspots. Initially I thought it was the antivirus software I had installed being paranoid, but removing it and installing an alternative didn’t fix it, nor did installing the latest driver from Intel so I’m not entirely sure why it wouldn’t connect to them.

That said, I didn’t notice any significant speed issues, it was more than happy to connect my TP-Link router and transfer data at an acceptable speed. It was able to copy a 3167MB ISO from my server to its hard drive in eight minutes – about 395.9MB per minute or 6.6MB per second.

Strangely, though, it only has Fast Ethernet (not gigabit Ethernet) provided by Realtek. No issues there, it too happily connected to my TP-Link router.

Audio

Audio is provided via a Conexant SmartAudio chipset, with Dolby Home Theatre enhancement software. I did have some initial issues with the audio not always playing that was fixed with an uninstall of the driver that it came with and then installing an updated version from the Lenovo website which fixed it right up.

The Dolby software runs in the system tray and lets you switch between audio presets so you can tweak the audio to your liking – you can also fire it up and set your own EQ settings up if you like.

Speakers in the notebook are positioned in the rather odd position of behind the hinge, however this doesn’t impede them. They’re fine as far as notebook speakers go – Hot in Cleveland and Mr. and Mrs. Murder sounded acceptable on them, albeit a little light on the bass, so if you want decent audio you’ll definitely be wanting to plug in actual speakers or a good set of earphones.

Plugging in headphones to listen to music or to watch the aforementioned Hot in Cleveland presented  no issues, the audio was fine.

Software

Out of the box the U310 came with Windows 8 Core (necessitating an update to 8.1, see my previous post for details), along with a number of applications:

  • Absolute Data Protect
  • Dolby Home Theatre v4
  • Lenovo Energy Management
  • Intel AppUp Centre
  • Intel WiDi
  • Lenovo\Cyberlink MediaShow
  • Lenovo\Cyberlink OneKey Recovery
  • Lenovo\Cyberlink YouCam
  • Lenovo Motion Control
  • Lenovo Photos
  • Lenovo Smart Update
  • McAfee Internet Security 11.6 Trial
  • Microsoft Office 365 Trial\Activation Stub
  • Nitro Pro 8 Trial
  • SugarSync Manager for Lenovo Cloud Storage

To be honest, most of these I’ll never use so most of them got the flick. The only ones I did keep were the Office trial (to activate my Office 365 license), Energy Management, Dolby Home Theatre and the Cyberlink software.

A number of Metro applications were also installed as well, most of which were trials, US specific or not relevant to my interests, so most of those got the flick as well.

All in all, the software load was a bit much for my liking, but it was hardly the worst offender I have seen – we need only look to offerings from Toshiba, Acer and HP offerings for an example of what not to do.

That said, software preloads are something that Lenovo have been getting a bit bad with. I’d like to see Lenovo follow Dell’s lead in regards to this – I’ve had to deal with a couple of fresh out of box Dell systems: aside from drivers and Windows they all had an Office trial, a McAfee trial, two Dell apps (system updater and system utilities) and Skype. Nothing else.

Battery Life

The website for the U310 and the Amazon pages for it proudly trumpet a six hour battery life. For normal use, I found this not to be the case – an informal battery test over the course of a day had it lasting three and a half hours, which involved half an hour of internet over lunch, an hour and ten minutes in a lecture, followed by four episodes of Hot in Cleveland at twenty minutes each and half an episode of Mr. and Mrs. Murder (27 minutes) on the Balanced profile in the Energy Management app and at 50% brightness. Certainly not awful, it’s beating out my T530 by half an hour on the same settings, but considering the fact that the T530 has a higher resolution screen and a more power intensive CPU I did expect it to be beating it by a wider margin. That said, had I run it on Power Saver mode, I imagine that the battery life figure would be much closer to Lenovo’s stated figure – that said running it in Power Saver mode would result in a performance hit.

As an upside to this, the charger is small enough and light enough that you can throw it into your bag and not worry about it weighing you down too much.

Final Thoughts

I guess the question is, was I happy using the U310? I was, actually. While the clickpad issues did irritate me, the touchscreen was fine to use instead.

Apart from that, I enjoyed using it. I think I used my T530 only once or twice, mainly to retrieve files on it that I didn’t have on my server or on OneDrive, not because I was trying to use the U310 for this review, but because I found using the U310 to be a pleasurable experience.

Would I recommend it? For someone who needs something for university or college, yes, I’d recommend it, definitely. The keyboard is nice to type on, there’s plenty of storage for music and other files, and it’s generally a nice all round package.

Would I recommend it for a business user? If they had to have an ultrabook on a budget, I might (plus a Pro Pack should they need domain connectivity), but I’d probably be pointing them towards a ThinkPad instead, mainly for the better warranty options (onsite next business day warranty is essential for a business in my opinion).

Would I recommend it to my mother? I probably would. She has a Lenovo B590 at the moment and she’s rather fond of it, using it for her university coursework and assorted internet activities (Facebook, internet banking, etc.). If she were after something thinner and lighter she would probably enjoy it.

That said, if you know what you’re doing, definitely get an SSD and chuck that in. The difference will be significant, if having them in my other systems is anything to go by.

All that aside, though, it looks like the U310 is no longer being manufactured, with no stock being available direct from Lenovo and only a couple of models on Amazon (the i7 model I got not being one of them). It also appears to have no direct successor. There is a U430 which is a 14” model (instead of 13”) featuring Haswell processors, which appears to be the closest current generation model to the U310. It even has models with a full HD screen, so it’s definitely worth a look.

The problems I found with it that weren’t a case of #FirstWorldProblems (seriously, what is up with that % symbol?) seem to be able to be easily fixed by software updates that Lenovo need only supply and all should be right with it.

The biggest issue with it that I see at the moment is that, in Australia, it is near impossible to source a U310, let alone anything with the word “Idea” in its model name. This one was provided to me from the US as part of the Lenovo Insiders program, and I’ve heard of people using shipping forwarders to get these products to Australia but this creates warranty issues. Hopefully, now that Lenovo ANZ has recently taken on HP’s former Consumer Business Manager as Director of Consumer Products, we might start to see more of the consumer oriented products hit our shores. This has started to be rectified in recent months with the Yoga 2 range being available from JB Hifi, so hopefully there’s more to come.

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