Review: Lenovo U41

Introduction and design

The Lenovo U41 is a portable computer designed for everyone and anyone. It has an attractive svelte silver design, you won’t complain about its weight, and there’s enough power to chomp through the everyday tasks that the vast majority of people want to use their computers for, such as Microsoft Office, web use and watching movies.

And at a starting price of £500 ($610 in the US, or AU$800) it’s a relatively affordable proposition too.

Design

Lenovo sent me the silver version, made from a metallic-looking plastic on both the outside of the lid and the main chassis, but it’s also available in "flamenco red" or "ebony". The bezel around the 14-inch screen is matte black and the island-style keys are termed AccuType by Lenovo – they’re ergonomically designed with an extra curve at the bottom.

The circular power button in the top right glows white when the U41 is up and running. With the lid closed it measures about 1.7cm high and weighs 1.8kg, making it neither the lightest or thinnest laptop ever made, but it’s still highly portable.

Lenovo U41 profile

Its 160mm trackpad is generously sized without physical buttons, but an inwards push registers left and right presses with a sharp click. It supports multi-touch gestures for use in Windows 8.1, which comes preinstalled on the U41.

There’s a pair of USB 3.0 ports, RJ45 Ethernet, and HDMI on one side, and another USB 2.0 port, an SD card reader and headphone jack on the other. A pair of white LEDs indicate power status and disk access. Right at the top is a 720p webcam.

Whether closed or open, the U41 looks good, for the price at least. Sure, it’s an all-plastic chassis, with a low cost being one of its chief aims. But within these tight restrictions, Lenovo has still managed to come up with a design that looks reasonable.

And it feels good to use too. Typing is pleasant, the trackpad works well enough, the device feels fairly sturdy, and there are no show-stopping complaints about its build.

Lenovo U41 keyboard

Specification

Intel’s Core i3 chips are a great fit for general-purpose laptops such as the U41. A Core i5 or i7 is preferable if you want something for more heavy-duty tasks, such as photo editing, but that drives up power requirements and cost.

On the other hand, a lightweight Atom processor will have a habit of reminding you of its lack of overall performance, perhaps with slow loading Flash video for example. A Core i3 is a perfect balance between these two extremes.

Spec sheet

Here is the Lenovo U41 spec sheet as provided to TechRadar:

  • CPU: Intel Core i3-5010U (2.1GHz)
  • Graphics: Intel HD5500
  • RAM: 8GB
  • Screen: 14-inch 1366 x 768 LED Backlit
  • Storage: 1TB WD10S21X SSHD
  • Optical drive: none
  • Ports: 2 x USB 3.0, 1 x USB 2.0, HDMI
  • Connectivity: 802.11 a/b/g/n, RJ45
  • Camera: 720p HD
  • Weight: 1.8kg

The Intel Core i3-5010U in the Lenovo U41 is a dual-core chip with 3MB of L2 cache, and part of the 14nm Broadwell update that came out in January 2015, running at 2.1GHz, and supporting hyper threading so Windows sees four logical processors.

Coupled with that is an Intel HD Graphics 5500 integrated GPU. This is hardly a powerhouse or something you’d want in a gaming PC, but Intel’s integrated graphics chips are improving dramatically with each generation, and the HD5500 is certainly enough to at least run software that needs basic-to-mid level graphics performance.

8GB of DDR3 memory is the right choice, as it’s just about the baseline level for modern PCs. Although Windows 7 and 8.1 can cope with just 4GB, doubling it adds relatively little to the cost, and ensures the it won’t run out when working with lots of programs at once, along with dozens of tabs open in a browser like Google Chrome.

Lenovo U41 ports

On the entry-level model, the display’s native resolution is just 1,366 x 768, hardly impressive in a world of laptops with high-DPI screens. Perhaps more noticeable is how it’s based on TN technology, rather than IPS. Viewing angles aren’t great and the screen lacks real brightness or deep contrast. A 1080p option is available, however, on slightly more expensive variants.

Similarly there’s some variety to the available storage. You can have a 1TB hard disk, 256GB SSD or as in the model I was sent, a 1TB Western Digital SSHD, a hybrid hard disk with a small cache of flash memory for improved overall performance. SSDs generally perform better than hybrid disks, but it’s a worthy compromise, ensuring fairly nippy boot times and swift waking from sleep mode, while still providing a good amount of storage.

Lastly, the built-in 1.5W stereo speakers support Dolby Home Theatre, a software enhancement that improves general sound reproduction. Obviously, 1.5W speakers can never deliver volume levels to rival the Glastonbury festival, but there’s still a notable improvement to the U41’s sound quality over certain laptops in its price range.

Performance

Intel’s Core i3 processors use the same pipeline for number crunching as the Core i5 and Core i7 processors. The real differences between the three products are in core count, clock speed and L2 cache.

With a 2.1GHz Core i3, demanding benchmarking software is likely to throw out numbers that show a clear difference between the U41 and higher-end laptops with quad-core processors and a discrete GPU. It’s obviously important to look at how the U41 performs compared with other laptops in its price range, rather than against workstations with quad-core chips that cost three times as much.

Lenovo U41 close

Benchmarks

  • 3DMark: Fire Strike: 605; Sky Diver: 2477; Cloud Gate: 4351; Ice Storm: 42878
  • Cinebench: CPU: 217 points; Graphics: 23.74 fps
  • PCMark 8 (Home Test): 2235
  • PCMark 8 Battery Life: 2 hrs 55 mins

These results indicate reasonably nippy CPU performance for general use. You won’t find the U41 holds you back in most basic computing tasks, or even light Photoshop use.

And the 3DMark scores aren’t too shoddy either, for an integrated GPU. It goes some way to proving that even on a mid-range mobile chip, Intel makes good strides with performance.

Battery life is a slight area of concern, since a result under three hours isn’t great, especially given the fact that with a three-cell battery Lenovo claims 6 hours in MobileMark 2012 on its website.

PCMark 8 is slightly more demanding than an average light-use scenario though, which could account for some lower scores.

Lenovo U41 front

We tested the display with a Spyder4 Elite colorimeter to measure its accuracy and brightness. The Spyder4 Elite measured 62% sRGB and 47% Adobe coverage, with a maximum brightness of 182 nits and a contrast ratio of 90:1.

All these scores are fairly bad, at least when compared to the displays on many other laptops, and dedicated PC monitors. This confirms the fact that the U41’s display is its Achilles heel, but from just a cursory glance, it’s fairly obvious that the display lacks eye-popping brightness or deep contrast.

Verdict

We liked

The U41 offers a very reasonable level of performance in terms of both the processor and the GPU when it comes to everyday tasks. This is also a well-built machine which is very portable and looks good, particularly considering its price bracket. The keyboard and trackpad are pleasant to use, as well.

We disliked

Unfortunately, the screen really lets this Lenovo offering down. It lacks any sort of punch, with disappointing contrast and brightness levels, and that’s compounded by unimpressive viewing angles. The performance in PCMark 8’s battery life test was also poor.

Final verdict

The laptop market is very crowded around this popular price point, filled with models that are capable of the same everyday tasks as the U41. There are far fewer that come with a slim and light design though, making this the U41’s main selling point.

It’s a portable computer with roughly Ultrabook-like dimensions at a much lower price than most Ultrabooks. Spend a bit less and you could get something like HP’s 255 G3, a super-affordable laptop that is notably larger and a lot less powerful than the U41.

Spend a bit more and you could get an Ultrabook like the Asus UX305 which boasts similar performance but with a better screen and an even slimmer design.

Graphics performance is excellent for an integrated GPU, and CPU performance is nippy enough for all general tasks.

Unfortunately, while the battery life is a bit disappointing, it’s the display that ruins the overall experience of using the U41. Not all TN screens are terrible, but the U41 is lacking in this area compared with some of its similarly priced competitors.

It’s a personal choice of course, but I’d prefer a laptop with a better display, even if it means a bit more heft.

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