Walt Mossberg

Two Laptops Travel Light, but Flaws Weigh Them Down

For years, the ThinkPad line has been the class of Windows laptops — offering rugged, simply designed machines with great keyboards, even in small sizes. But ThinkPads have always been aimed at corporate buyers, not the broader consumer market. So Lenovo (0992.HK), the Chinese company that took over the brand from IBM (IBM), is bringing out a new, consumer-focused line called IdeaPads.

I’ve been testing one of these new IdeaPads, a small, thin model called the U110, that’s sized to be ideal for travelers. It looks nothing like a classic black ThinkPad. It even comes in red, has swirls etched into its case, and can supposedly log you in by recognizing your face using its built-in camera.

At the same time, I’ve been trying out another similarly sized little laptop, the U2E from Asus (23571.TWO), a Taiwan-based company whose products are relatively new to the U.S. This computer has its own distinctive design: It’s clad in real leather. It also has a camera, and it can be ordered with one of the new solid-state drives, which have no moving parts, instead of a hard disk.

Both of these small laptops are subnotebooks, meaning they weigh 3 pounds or less. Like many subnotebooks, they have small 11-inch screens and somewhat cramped keyboards. And, like most subnotebooks, they are costly — an $1,899 starting price for the Lenovo and $1,999 for the Asus.

Each can only be ordered with Microsoft’s (MSFT) Windows Vista operating system, which means you can practically walk your dog in the time it takes them to start up. Each has a standard battery so wimpy that it provides poor battery life, so both companies throw in bigger batteries that provide decent power, but make the computers larger and heavier.

I wish I could recommend a clear winner between these two contenders, but both are mixed bags. The IdeaPad is lighter, thinner, and has a slightly faster processor. The Asus has a built-in DVD drive, while the Lenovo’s is external. The Asus also has the new, faster “N” type of Wi-Fi networking, while the IdeaPad is stuck with the older, slower “G” type.

Photo
Lenovo’s small, thin IdeaPad model called the U110.

The IdeaPad has two big flaws, in my view. First, it has blown the biggest advantage of its sibling, the ThinkPad: a great keyboard. The IdeaPad keyboard has huge, flat keys with slick, shiny surfaces and almost no space between them. I found typing difficult with this setup. I asked two people who are faster typists than I am to try it: One liked it, one hated it. The IdeaPad also dispenses with the TrackPoint, the little pointing stick for moving the cursor that many ThinkPad lovers revere.

By contrast, the Asus U2E keyboard, while nothing to write home about, is more conventional and more usable, with traditional tapered keycaps that provide better key separation. The mouse buttons underneath the touch pad on the Asus, while thin, were sturdier than the ones on the IdeaPad, which had a cheap feel to me.

The second big flaw in the IdeaPad is its most hype-worthy feature: face recognition, which is meant to spare you the need to type in a password to log in. In a dozen tests, it recognized me only twice. I asked my wife to try it, and it never once recognized her. It did recognize a colleague successfully, but we tried it only once with her.

The Asus’s biggest flaw is its solid-state drive. It adds $700 to the price, for a total of $2,699, but is only 32 gigabytes in size, tiny by today’s standards. To compensate, Asus throws in an external hard disk, but that’s an inconvenient solution.

You can order the Asus with a standard 120-gigabyte internal hard disk for the $1,999 price, but that’s still $100 more than Lenovo charges for the IdeaPad with the same sized drive.

Each machine has three USB ports, a video-out connector, a slot for camera memory cards, and an ExpressCard slot, typically used for cellphone modems. Neither has a built-in cellphone data modem. The Asus has three gigabytes of memory, the Lenovo just two.

In my tough battery tests, where I turn off all power-saving features, turn on the Wi-Fi, and keep music playing constantly, the Asus got about 1.5 hours and the Lenovo a miserable one hour and three minutes. This means that, even with a more normal usage pattern, you’d be lucky to get two hours out of the IdeaPad and 2.5 hours from the Asus.

With the included bigger batteries, the IdeaPad clocked out at three hours and 10 minutes, which means you could probably stretch it to over four hours with more normal use. The Asus’s bigger battery delivered an excellent five hours and 29 minutes in my test, which points to nearly seven hours in more normal use. Asus says it has tweaked its machines to improve battery life somewhat.

However, while the jumbo battery on the IdeaPad barely protrudes from the machine, and keeps the weight under three pounds, the one on the Asus U2E is so huge it looks like a tumor and pushes the weight to 3.4 pounds, well above the subnotebook cutoff.

If you’re a frequent traveler, both of these models are worth considering, but each has its own flaws.


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