In this first run of Windows 8 devices, manufacturers are essentially throwing things against the wall to see what sticks. We've seen every size, every form factor, every direction and angle of rotation — companies are trying desperately to figure out the best way to take advantage of everything Windows 8 can do.
Even Lenovo's lineup is all over the place. There's the Lynx convertible, which transforms from laptop to tablet. The Twist rotates and folds, and looks like the X Series tablets we've seen for years. And then there's the IdeaPad Yoga, perhaps the most enticing of the bunch — we've been waiting for this device to come out ever since it was announced at CES back in January. The Yoga's crazy gimmick is its hinge, which allows the screen to fold all the way back over the keyboard, so you can hold your laptop like a tablet.
Carnival sideshow tricks aside, though, the IdeaPad is still a pretty appealing Windows 8 laptop. My review unit has a 1.7GHz Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD in an attractive 3.5-pound package. It's more laptop than tablet, but it's trying to be both — and much more. Is this the Windows 8 ultrabook for you (and for me)?
Hardware and design
More than meets the eye
The Yoga's a fairly innocuous ultrabook. The matte gray machine's black sides, slightly rounded and sloped corners, and undecorated exterior definitely won't catch your eye on a store shelf, but that's not necessarily a bad thing — it's nice-looking in a simple sort of way. At three and a half pounds and two-thirds of an inch thick, it's just a middle-of-the-road ultrabook. It's noticeably heavier and larger than a MacBook Air or the ThinkPad X1 Carbon, but not so large to worsen my back problems as I carried it around.
The clamshell's gray exterior opens up to reveal entirely black insides — the keys, palmrest, bezel, and trackpad are all the same matte black. The understated look matches well with the ultra-colorful Windows 8 interface, taking no attention away from the display. The only problem is that the display's hard to get at: the Yoga's base isn't heavy enough to hold in place, so you need both hands to open the lid, and it's hard to get enough purchase underneath the tiny lip on the front to get the top open.
On the right side of the Yoga (if you're using it like a laptop — as you'll see, "sides" are all very fungible with this device) sit a full-size SD card slot, a USB 2.0 port, and the blocky yellow jack for the power adapter. The one and only USB 3.0 port rests on the left, next to an HDMI port and the headphone jack. The power button is on the front, and there are physical volume controls on the left side — both are very unlike a laptop's normal configuration, but make sense for all the ways you'll use the Yoga. And much though I worried about it, I never once accidentally pressed the power button in my lap.
Its leathery palmrest and soft-touch exterior give the Yoga a very comfortable feel unlike the cold slickness of, say, the MacBook Air. The matte exterior is a bit odd to the touch, though — one of my co-workers said "it kind of feels like touching a human." I definitely prefer the look of the ThinkPad X1 Carbon, which combines the comfortable feel with a more handsome design. The Yoga is well-made for sure, but it won't exactly get the oohs and ahhs the X1 Carbon did.
Its contortionist ways are great without causing any problems
If you never felt the desire to test the integrity of the Yoga's hinge, you might never know the device's most impressive trick and thus always wonder why in the world this thing is called the Yoga. But if you open the clamshell, and push the screen back, and back, and back, you'll figure it out. The screen can rotate a full 360 degrees (minus however many separate one side of the base from the other), creating a bunch of different ways to use this device. You can rotate it all the way around, flip the thing around and hold it like a tablet with the screen facing you and the keys underneath your fingers on the back. Some people might not like that your fingers touch the keyboard as you hold it in tablet mode, but I didn't mind it, and it actually makes the Yoga a little easier to grip. You can prop the Yoga up like a teepee — I did so constantly, since it's an ideal way to watch movies. You can also use the keyboard tray as a stand for the display, as if the screen were mounted to the front of the base rather than the back. The hinge is sturdy enough to hold in almost any position, so anything you can think of you can probably pull off.
On one hand, it's all a bit of a gimmick. Flipping it around so it's "closed" with the screen facing out does make the Yoga much more like a tablet — a huge, giant, unwieldy tablet — but in every other setup it's still a screen and a stand. But there's something different when you can't see the keyboard — the screen doesn't feel so far away, and I found myself somehow more immersed than I normally am watching things on my laptop.
This is the way I hope Windows 8 laptops go. Instead of trying to find some happy medium between laptop and tablet, I hope manufacturers build devices that just add new use cases or form factors to the equation — a keyboard and mouse for a tablet, or an ersatz tablet mode for a laptop. Microsoft's own Surface falls into the no-man's-land between the two form factors, and suffers as a result. Meanwhile the Yoga is every ounce a laptop, it just does a cool extra thing most laptops don't. I like the flipping hinge more than the swiveling actions of the ThinkPad Twist, but either way I think the approach is right: don't build one device to replace two. Just pick one, nail the core experience, and crib a couple of features from the other.
Display and speakers
All its contortionist tendencies aside, the Yoga's screen is relatively uninteresting. It's a good display, to be sure — the 13.3-inch IPS panel's 1600 x 900 resolution is a notch above many ultrabooks, and its color reproduction and brightness are both as good as I'd expect. But it pales next to the 1080p screens on the Asus Zenbook Prime and a few others, especially when you use it as a tablet. 1600 x 900 is more than adequate at a typical laptop distance — and 1080p might even be too high in some cases, making everything on the screen seem tiny — but when you hold the screen closer to your face every pixel really counts. But still, It's neither the best nor the worst display I've seen on a device in this class, this size, or this price.
The only problem I had with the screen was its touch response: the Yoga seemed to miss a few more taps and swipes than I'd normally expect. It also occasionally registered taps when I meant to swipe, and swipes when I meant to tap. It didn't happen often, or reliably — I couldn't recreate problems, for instance — but I wound up swiping right and opening the New York Times app a few too many times.
Two speakers are hidden in the fan vents on the rear of the machine, and they're more or less bog standard — decent enough, and these actually have richer-than-average sound, but nothing special. I periodically get Stockholm Syndrome with computer speakers, thinking they're totally adequate, and then I plug my computer into my external speakers and my ears immediately rejoice and look upon my computer with disdain. That happened about thirty times with the Yoga.
Nice to look at, but not to touch
Keyboard and trackpad
Since this is an IdeaPad and not a ThinkPad, there are a couple of key accoutrements missing. There's no red TrackPoint nipple, and no separate, clickable mouse buttons — personally I don't miss either, but if you're a TrackPoint devotee that might be a dealbreaker. Instead you get a sleek, all-black tray with a clickpad and six rows of full-size keys.
Lenovo's good at this game
Both are more like a ThinkPad than not, and that's a great thing. The keyboard uses the same "smile" design we saw on the X1 Carbon and elsewhere — the slightly concave keys are comfortable to use, easy to get used to, and have just the right amount of travel and feedback. The only problem is the layout: the right-side Shift and Backspace keys are half their normal size, and I found myself accidentally hitting = and / a lot. The Home, End, PgUp / Dn keys take up the right-most column on the keyboard, and it throws off the alignment of the keyboard otherwise; I always had to set my hands where I thought home row was, and then move them one key to the left before I could type properly. But after a few hours of using the Yoga exclusively, I was fully up to speed, typing as fast and accurately as I can on any other machine. As long as it was light out, anyway — the keyboard isn't backlit, which is a really frustrating omission.
The trackpad's a mixed bag. Its surface is smooth and glassy, and my fingers glide over it easily, but what happens on the screen isn't quite on the same level. Two-finger scrolling works, but sometimes takes a couple of swipes to kick in — it's like it needs to warm up before it's ready to scroll. It does scroll both vertically and horizontally, though, which is great for moving around the Start screen and Windows 8 apps.
As a pure pointing device, it never failed me, but it misses on some of the more complex things. Edge gestures (key to navigating Windows 8) are maddeningly inconsistent — sometimes I was just moving my finger left and it swiped in the most recent app, and then when I'd try to switch apps it would just move the cursor a bit. It's like it was teasing me. These are certainly driver issues, and probably can and will be fixed, but I was frequently reminded how many bugs are left to work out in Windows 8.
Software and performance
I'm on the hunt for a new primary machine, so beyond our benchmark tests I've been subjecting every Windows 8 review unit to some rigorous testing to see how it holds up. On a normal day, that includes three different browsers running something like 25 tabs at a time, lots of multitasking and app use, and the occasional Photoshop job. The Yoga handles all of those things fine, though when I tried to do as many things as possible at once — all those tabs, a Netflix movie, the Hulu Windows 8 app, and Photoshop — it stumbled pretty hard. But that's not exactly a practical use case, and as an everyday machine for everyday uses it works just fine. The machine resumes from sleep in about three seconds, and boots in only seven — I'm still blown away by how fast Windows 8 starts up.
The Yoga's even a vaguely usable gaming machine, which is leaps and bounds better than I can say for most ultrabooks. Older games like Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X play relatively smoothly, and even newer games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, which cripples most ultrabooks, was at least decently playable at native resolution and low settings — though by no means should you mistake this for a competitor to an actual gaming rig.
McAfee's been crippled, but it's not dead yet
There were some odd performance issues, though, which like the trackpad serve as all-too-frequent reminders that Microsoft has a lot of tweaking left to do with Windows 8. The Yoga sometimes wouldn't reconnect to a Wi-Fi network when it resumed from sleep, even though it saw a known network; otherwise-stable apps also crashed a few more times than I expected. These aren't deal-breakers, just minor annoyances, but they're always lurking in the background as you use the Yoga.
If the Yoga's bloatware is indicative of what's to come on Windows 8 devices, the world's about to become a much better place. Yes, the company adds plenty of its own software: Kindle, Ebay, Evernote, Skype, AccuWeather.com, and a handful of first-party utilities come preinstalled. But that's it! Yes, McAfee is installed on the Yoga, but not as a nagging pop-up telling you your computer is irreparably damaged and only McAfee can fix it — it's just an app. If manufacturers have decided to take a lesson from phones and only add new apps to the equation, the Windows experience is about to get a lot better.
Battery, heat, noise
Continuing the theme of "a pretty normal machine that does wacky things with its hinge," the Yoga's battery life is about what you'd expect from an ultrabook. It lasted five hours, eight minutes on the Verge Battery Test, which cycles through a series of popular websites and high-res images with the screen set to 65 percent brightness. In normal use — charge it fully, unplug it, work a regular day, and see how long it lasts – I got between five and five and a half hours depending on how many times I needed to use Photoshop. That's an acceptable result, but nothing to write home about.
The Yoga's fans kick in basically any time you touch the computer — it doesn't take much for them to start whirring. Most of the time it's really quiet, though, and you'll only notice it in a silent room — plus, the machine barely gets warm unless you're cranking through The Witcher 2, and if some slight fan noise is the tradeoff I'll take it. When you're gaming or using a heavy app like Photoshop, though, the fan blasts hot air out the back at a pretty high volume.
No sleep 'til... five hours from now
If you ignore its awesome transformational abilities — which are a pretty great addition to a laptop, and are implemented really well — the IdeaPad Yoga 13 is just an average, pretty good laptop. It has a good keyboard, a nice-looking screen, and competent performance. It also has a frustrating trackpad, though, and a touchscreen that doesn't work as well as it should. It's a perfectly good laptop, and that's about what I expect for a $1,000 ultrabook.
If you're buying a Windows 8 laptop right now, this is a really good option — it's definitely the best device I've tested since the new OS came out. But if you can wait, you should — there are many more cool devices coming soon, and even the Yoga should get better over time as the trackpad drivers and performance issues are fixed. What I want more than anything is the ThinkPad X1 Carbon with a Yoga hinge; this is a decent approximation, but not quite up to its level.