Friday

Lenovo IdeaPad Y480 review




Lenovo’s IdeaPad laptops come in pretty much every shape and size, with svelte ultrabooks sharing brand space with staid productivity machines and the occasional netbook. The Y series represents Lenovo’s paean to gamers, music lovers, and film buffs: entertainment machines sporting quad-core processors, lots of storage space, and capable GPUs.
The IdeaPad Y480 is one the latest to join Lenovo’s fold, packing a quad-core Core i7 Ivy Bridge processor, 8GB of RAM, and a GeForce GT 640M LE GPU. At $999 it represents a moderately priced gateway into Intel’s latest chips, but is the package compelling enough to warrant a purchase? Read on.

Hardware - design


The IdeaPad Y480 is not a svelte machine: at 1.3 inches thick and weighing just over 5 pounds, this 14-inch laptop is a far cry from the slim and sleek ultrabooks that have clamored for our attention over the last few months. Lenovo is counting on the fact that you'll overlook its heft in favor of its potential as an entertainment machine, built to whet your audio-visual appetite. While a bit bulky, at first blush it isn't unattractive: the brushed metal lid lends the entire ensemble a clean look, one that's only improved when you open it up and check out the rest of the rig. The brushed metal motif continues here, surrounding the keyboard tray and lending the laptop a bit of gravitas. A pair of JBL speakers sit on opposite ends of the machine, all but defining its purpose as an entertainment device.
On the left, you'll find VGA port accompanied by the Gigabit Ethernet jack, a pair of USB 3.0 ports, and an HDMI port. I understand why the VGA port is there — legacy monitors, projectors, and the like — but I can't wait until we (collectively, as a species) decide to do away with the vestigial connector entirely in favor of modern connectors like DisplayPort and its ilk. On the right, you'll find headphone and microphone jacks, a pair of USB 2.0 ports, and the tray-loading DVD burner. Things get a bit more interesting under the hood, where Lenovo has stashed a quad-core Intel Core i7-3610QM processor clocked at 2.3GHz. That Ivy Bridge CPU is backed by 8GB of RAM, a 750GB hard drive, and a 40nm Nvidia GeForce GT 640M LE GPU. You'll also find the usual fixings, like a multiformat card reader along the front edge, and built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity. If you're willing to spend a bit more, optional extras include a 1TB hard drive with a 32GB mSATA solid state drive for caching, and a Blu-ray player.

Display - speakers


The IdeaPad Y480's bog-standard 14-inch, 1366 x 768-resolution display isn't going to win any awards, but it gets the job done. The glossy screen offers fairly generous viewing angles but it's also rather reflective. Once I found a good angle for the display to settle into things were fine, and I could even flop slightly to the left and right without issue, but lean too far forward or back (or tilt the display a bit too much) and I'd lose sight of what was on the screen altogether. Working in direct sunlight or under strong fluorescent lighting is also not really an option. The display is definitely the weak link in this chain, though it isn't a deal-breaker: color reproduction is fine, and images and video appeared crisp and clean.
A pair of JBL speakers sit on opposite ends of the laptop's base, pumping out sound that's loud and fairly rich. There's no subwoofer, so don't expect much in the way of bass, but I was pleasantly surprised by the audio the Y480 produced. Things start to sound a little distorted at the very highest volume levels, but the overall audio quality is solid.
Lenovo's OneKey Theater software makes an appearance here, in the form of a button that lives on the upper right corner of the laptop's base, just beside the mute button. OneKey Theater slides the Y480 between three different entertainment scenarios: Normal, Movie and Intelligent modes. Movie mode attempts to heighten your viewing experience with subtle tweaks: colors become a bit darker, while dialogue in video gains a bit of depth and clarity. The effect works well enough, but I found that Movie mode tended to add a strange reverb effect to most of the music I listened to, so I ended up leaving it off entirely. Intelligent mode simply attempts to swap between Normal and Movie modes on the fly based on what programs were running. The value of these features is largely subjective, though Lenovo doesn't provide an easy way to remap the hardware buttons should you find them useless.

Keyboard - trackpad

At this point in their lengthy history it should go without saying: Lenovo makes greatkeyboards. The company rolled out a new design this year, ditching their classic design for rounded, chiclet style keys. I got my first taste of the new keyboards when I checked out the Lenovo ThinkPad X230 a few weeks ago, and while I was initially a bit worried (why fix something that wasn't broken?) my time with the new design assuaged my fears. Lenovo's chiclet keys feature what the company is calling a "smile" design; the bottom of the keycaps are rounded off into a "U" shape, giving every key a bit of extra room on the tray without actually spacing them any further. As a result, the keys feel comfortable and spacious, but your fingers won't need to do any extra stretching to get to them. The keyboard also comes with a backlight, which can be activated by holding the Function key and tapping the spacebar. Being able to see keys in the dark is pretty crucial, and while there isn't anything special about this implementation (the ThinkPad X230, for example, offered two brightness stages), it's a welcome presence.
It's a shame that this is noteworthy for a Windows laptop, but the trackpad works rather well: it's responsive, and gestures are recognized reliably. We'll have to wait until Windows 8 makes its debut to see much in the way of multitouch gestures, but there are a few baked into the Y480's trackpad. Swipe four fingers up, and you'll fire up the Windows task switcher (the equivalent of hitting Alt + Tab). Swipe four fingers to the right, and you'll open the Quick Notes application, which presents virtual sticky notes to jot things down on. Four fingers to the left, and the wallpaper app lets you pick a new image to serve as your wallpaper. These particular options are pretty useless (well, with the exception of the task switcher), and there's no way to configure them, but pinching and swiping on the wide, smooth surface works flawlessly.
I don't like the glossy plastic texture, or the way it readily picks up the oils from my fingers and starts to look unsightly, but neither of those elements actually get in the way. The trackpad is a single clicking surface, with a thin line demarcating the left and right sides. It all works as one should expect a trackpad to; we haven't quite eclipsed Apple's glass-coated trackpad, but it's certainly a step forward from the poor trackpads that have been all too common on the Windows side of the fence.

Performance - software


The IdeaPad Y480 may be an entertainment-oriented laptop, but its Nvidia GeForce GT 640M LE GPU isn't well suited for most modern games. It does come through in a pinch: the GPU is a few notches down from the GeForce GT 640M that appeared in the Acer Timeline Ultra M3, and performed as expected. In Battlefield 3 on medium settings at the Y480's native 1366 x 768 resolution, the game's frame-per-second rate hovered around the high 30s, dipping as low as the high 20s during some of the more frenetic firefights. Toning some of the quality settings down a bit further will get you a perpetually smooth experience, which would of course be ideal for a first person shooter. Alas, getting The Witcher 2 to a smooth 30 frames per second meant turning all of the various settings down to their lowest levels, and then dialing the resolution down to 1024 x 768. Smooth, but not an especially grandiose experience. Just Cause 2 didn't fare much better: 32 frames per second at a resolution of 1024 x 768, and down to an average of about 27 frames per second when the game runs at the machine's native 1366 x 768 resolution. You'll need to keep your adapter handy if you're looking to get any gaming done, however. The GeForce GT 640M LE throttles down while running on battery power (try as you might to force Nvidia's Optimus technology to step aside), and Intel's integrated graphics won't be able to keep up.
The Intel Ivy Bridge Core i7-3610QM is the same CPU that was in the gamer-centric MSI GT70 I reviewed recently, but the IdeaPad Y480's synthetic benchmark performance was hampered by its lack of a solid state drive and considerably weaker GPU. That said, it wasn't too bad, landing right around the middle of the pack.
The machine woke up from sleep in a hurry, in an average of 1.4 seconds. Boot times averaged at a considerably less impressive 54 seconds, until I ran Lenovo's Boot Optimizer software, which attempts to tweak Windows 7's startup services to give the best possible start up time. Once the Optimizer app had worked its magic (it took a few minutes, and two restarts) the Y480 started up in a snappier 37 seconds. This still isn't a replacement for an SSD (or an mSATA cache drive) however, as you'll need to run the software every now and then once drivers and new programs start to nest on the PC. The pick-me-up is always appreciated, though.
PCMARKVANTAGE3DMARKVANTAGE3DMARK06
MSI GT7014766P1242118951
Razer Blade14494P656111554
Lenovo ThinkPad X2308269P31594929
Samsung Series 9 (15-inch, 2012)10404P16934164
Acer Timeline Ultra M311896P681311201
Lenovo IdeaPad Y4809175P565010754
Dell XPS 1310242P16974193
MacBook Air (2011, 13-inch)10134P17484195
The IdeaPad Y480 is fairly otherwise light on bloatware. Cyberlink's Power2Go DVD burning software and YouCam webcam software make an appearance, as well as the ooVoo video and instant messaging client. Lenovo's OneKey Recovery app is activated by a button directly to the right of the power button, and lets you back up the system, or restore a previous image. The button's prominent location doesn't really suggest much confidence in Windows, but I suppose it is convenient if you're a fan of backing things up.

Battery, heat and noise

The IdeaPad Y480 lasted for about four hours and five minutes on The Verge Battery Test, which puts it right between the MSI GT70 and the Razer Blade. Our battery test consists of cycling through 100 websites and occasionally downloading high-resolution images until the laptop throws in the towel. I tend to stream music over Spotify while juggling web pages, lots of writing, and the occasional video, and saw three hours and forty minutes of battery life. That isn't really enough to juice for a day out, so you'll want to keep your charger handy.
BATTERY LIFE
Lenovo ThinkPad X2307:10
Samsung Series 96:01
Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M35:42
Dell XPS 134:55
MSI GT704:14
Lenovo IdeaPad Y4804:05
Razer Blade3:21
Heat and noise aren't really an issue under normal use; the bottom of the laptop got a little warm while I was writing and web browsing, but barely higher than room temperature. Once I fired up Battlefield 3 and the GPU stepped in, the decibels crept up noticeably. Again, heat and noise weren't too egregious: the Y480 expels warm air out of the vent on its upper left side, so I moved my mouse a bit further south (I'm a lefty). The fans make a bit of noise while they're trying to manage the temperature, but they couldn't match the raucous din of a game's gunfire.

Wrap-up

I’ve got mixed feelings about the Lenovo IdeaPad Y480. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it — I’m not even especially perturbed by the display, which suffers from the same pitfalls as any other cheap laptop. The Core i7 Ivy Bridge processor and 8GB of RAM pack a wallop, and while the Nvidia GeForce GT 640M LE won’t run tomorrow’s games extremely well, if you’re judicious with your quality settings (or just don’t care all that much) it will serve you just fine. That’s ultimately the problem: the Y480 is a big, boring packhorse in a stable full of palfreys and chargers, failing on only one count: standing out.