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The limber Lenovo Yoga 13 walks the line between laptop and tablet

A full-time laptop meets a part-time tablet.

The good: The Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 looks as good as any 13-inch ultrabook, with the added attraction of a 360-degree screen and a laptop body that can fold into a tent, stand, or slate.

The bad: Tablet mode leaves the keyboard exposed, and the Yoga 13 costs more than standard ultrabooks with similar components.

The bottom line: The Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 is a convertible touch-screen laptop/tablet that most importantly doesn’t compromise the traditional laptop experience.

The biggest hardware trend marking the launch of Windows 8 is the proliferation of touch-screen laptop/tablet hybrids. Some have screens that pull apart to become separate tablets, while others have screens that flip, twist, or rotate to give you a tabletlike shape to hold. We call those latter models convertible laptops, and one of the best examples to date is the new Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13.

The name Yoga is suggestive of the system’s big selling point, that the display flips fully over to become a tablet. In fact, it has four basic usable positions — clamshell laptop, tablet, stand, and tent.

The reason the Yoga stands out from the suddenly crowded touch-screen laptop scene is that it does something other convertible or hybrid laptops do not. When set up as a traditional laptop, the 13.3-inch Yoga doesn’t compromise the all-important clamshell experience. The excellent double-hinge design means that it looks and works the same as any other ultrabook laptop, unlike the complex and often clunky mechanisms in systems such as the HP Envy x2, Sony Vaio Duo 11, or Dell XPS 12.

The Yoga works best as a full-time laptop and part-time tablet, because when it’s folded back into a slate, you still have the keyboard pointing out from the back of the system. Although the keyboard and touch pad are deactivated in this mode, it’s still not ideal. Plus, despite the hype, Windows 8 is still not a 100-percent tablet-friendly OS, and there are some frustrations that span all the Windows 8 tablet-style devices we’ve tested.

The Yoga certainly seems to be everyone’s choice for a great Windows 8 ambassador — both Microsoft and Intel have touted it as a best-in-class example, and Best Buy is currently featuring it in a television ad. At $1,099, you’re paying a bit of a premium, but not outrageously so, for an Intel Core i5/8GB RAM/128GB solid-state drive (SSD) configuration (note that our early review unit had only 4GB of RAM installed), but a less expensive Core i3 version starts at $999. If I had to pick a single first-wave Windows 8 convertible touch-screen laptop, the Yoga would be at the top of my list.

Price as reviewed / starting price $1,099 / $999
Processor 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U
Memory 4GB, 1,600MHz DDR3
Hard drive 500GB 5,400rpm
Chipset Intel HM77
Graphics Intel HD 4000
Operating system Windows 8
Dimensions (WD) 13.1×8.9 inches
Height 0.67 inch
Screen size (diagonal) 13.3 inches
Category 13-inch

Design, features, and display
Despite its reputation as a maker of buttoned-down business laptops, Lenovo can always be counted on to produce intriguing designs. Most of those end up, like the Yoga, as part of the company’s consumer-targeted IdeaPad line of products.

We’ve seen similar attempts at laptops that can double as tablets over the years, usually with a rotating center hinge that swivels around to let the device change forms (or more recently with a screen that slides down over the keyboard). Before Windows 8, most of these experiments weren’t particularly successful, thanks to a combination of poor design, underpowered components, and an operating system that wasn’t touch-friendly.

The other problem with those traditional convertibles has been that the single rotating center hinge was a potential weak point in the design. Lenovo says the Yoga’s full-length hinge has been rigorously tested and is stronger than the older rotating convertible design, and in practice that definitely seems to be the case.

When opened into its clamshell position, the Yoga would be tough to pick out of a lineup of recent ultrabooks. The minimalist interior is dominated by a large buttonless clickpad, along with a island-style Lenovo keyboard, which means the flat-topped keys have a small curve along their bottom edges for easier typing.

As good as Lenovo’s reputation is for excellent keyboards, I had a surprisingly amount of trouble with the Yoga’s keyboard. I narrowed most of my issues down to the half-size right Shift key, which meant I often hit the up arrow when aiming for Shift. The end result was a lot of frustration and retyping, but after a few days one would naturally adjust to this specific layout. The touch pad is the same as you’d find in other clickpad Lenovos, including the recent high-end X1 Carbon. It offers plenty of space for multifinger gestures, but isn’t as effective for manipulating the touch-centric Windows 8 UI as a finger would be.

When you flip the Yoga’s screen back, the physical keyboard doesn’t disappear from view, as it does on most other convertible laptop/tablet combos, but it does get automatically disabled. A slightly raised layer of leather over the wrist rest and keyboard tray lets you rest the tablet on a table, keyboard-side down, without worrying too much about damaging the keys. Some buttons have been moved to the sides so they can be accessed no matter how the system is folded, and the outer shell has a soft-touch coating for easy gripping. While the Yoga isn’t particularly comfortable to hold in tablet form, as your fingers are pressing up against the exposed keyboard and the touch pad, you do get easy access to a volume rocker along one edge and a rotation lock button along the other.

Beyond the slate mode, I especially liked the stand or sharing mode, where the screen is folded back 270 degrees or more, turning the system into something like a small touch-screen kiosk. It’s great for sharing video or presentations in a group setting, or for just getting closer to the screen while keeping the keyboard out of the way.

Its fourth position is standing upright like a tent, but I can’t think of too many reasons you’d want that.

In any of these positions, the Yoga is well-served by its 13.3-inch display, which has a native resolution of 1,600×900 pixels. That’s arguably the perfect resolution for a 13-inch laptop, giving you plenty of screen real estate without making onscreen text appear too small, as can happen with 1,920×1,080-pixel resolutions on smaller systems. Off-axis viewing angles are great, and unlike with some Windows 8 convertibles stuck with 1,366×768-pixel screen resolutions, you don’t feel like you’re paying a premium price for a substandard feature.

Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 Average for category [13-inch]
Video HDMI HDMI or DisplayPort
Audio Stereo speakers, combo headphone/microphone jack Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks
Data 1 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, SD card reader 2 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, SD card reader
Networking Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Optical drive None DVD burner

Connectivity, performance, and battery life
Even for an ultrabook, this is not among the most connected laptops you’ll find. There’s a pair of USB ports, one 3.0, one 2.0, and it has an HDMI port, a combo audio jack, and an SD card slot. The lack of built-in Ethernet is understandable, but this is the first laptop in a long while I’ve seen with only one USB 3.0 port.

There are three base configurations for the Yoga 13. For $999, you get an Intel Core i3 CPU, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD. Even with a folding touch screen, that seems pricey for a Core i3. But, for only $100 more, our review unit trades up to a Core i5 CPU and doubles the RAM. Finally, for $1,299, the CPU gets a bump to a Core i7 model. Of the three, the middle-ground $1,099 version certainly seems to be the best bet.

The 1.7GHz Core i5-3317U we tested performed as expected in our GNz Labs benchmark tests. It matched up closely in most cases with other Windows 8 convertibles, many of which had exactly the same CPU. Another recent high-end 13-inch laptop, the much-more-expensive13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display, was markedly faster, but it also has a full-voltage Core i5 CPU, rather than the low-voltage models in our Windows 8 laptops.

In practical terms, all of these systems are more than powerful enough for everyday tasks, from Web surfing to HD video viewing to running Photoshop. One area in which the Yoga (and other ultrabooklike Windows 8 laptops) can’t compete is gaming. With only Intel’s built-in HD 4000 graphics, it can only run current games with the settings or resolution turned way down. In our Just Cause 2 test, at mid-to-high settings and 1,600×900-pixel resolution, the game ran at only 6.7 frames per second.

For any 13-inch laptop, battery life is key, and even more so for an ultrabook, which is specifically designed for use on the go. Add a tablet experience to that — tablets being basically never used while connected to a power outlet — and any Windows 8 hybrid or convertible needs to have excellent battery life to be taken seriously. Most of the current wave of Windows 8 systems we’ve seen have done a decent job on this front, despite powering touch screens and accelerometers.

The Yoga 13 ran for 5 hours and 30 minutes in our video playback battery drain test. That’s an above-average time, and with some smart use of sleep mode when you’re not actively using it, could stretch to last a full workday. At the same time, pure tablets, such as Apple’s iPad orMicrosoft’s Surface RT, can run much longer, and full Windows systems are not quite in that ballpark yet, absent gigantic snap-on secondary batteries.

Lenovo includes a standard one-year mail-in warranty with the Yoga, and several upgrades are available. As of this writing, extended warranty plans are being discounted, and you can add in-home service and accidental damage protection for your one-year term for $51, or extend that higher level of coverage to three years for $148.

More importantly, Lenovo has excellent Web-based support features that are easy to find and navigate, and the system includes a Windows 8 support app from Lenovo that provides easy access to support tools and documentation.

Conclusion
There’s a good reason companies such as Intel and Microsoft have used the Yoga 13 as a prime example of a Windows 8 laptop done right. The folding screen opens up many possibilities for sharing and display, and the tablet mode, while not perfect, isn’t really any worse in practical terms than that of any other Windows 8 convertible. The Yoga 13 has a great, premium feel at a semipremium price, and most importantly, the folding hinge design doesn’t compromise either aesthetics or mechanics when it’s used in clamshell laptop mode.

Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
MacBook Pro 13-inch Retina Display (fall 2012)

193
Sony Vaio Duo 11

436
Dell XPS 12

517
Toshiba Satellite U925t

576
Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13

589
Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Toshiba Satellite U925t

185
MacBook Pro 13-inch Retina Display (fall 2012)

186
Sony Vaio Duo 11

186
Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13

188
Dell XPS 12

199
Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
MacBook Pro 13-inch Retina Display (fall 2012)

68
Sony Vaio Duo 11

126
Toshiba Satellite U925t

126
Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13

127
Dell XPS 12

148
Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)(Longer bars indicate better performance)
MacBook Pro 13-inch Retina Display (fall 2012)

417
Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13

330
Toshiba Satellite U925t

326
Sony Vaio Duo 11

286
Dell XPS 12

283

 

System configurations

Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 128GB Samsung SSD

Toshiba Satellite U925t
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 128GB Samsung SSD

MacBook Pro 13-inch Retina Display (fall 2012)
OSX Mountain Lion 10.8.2; 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-3210M; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 768MB (Shared) Intel HD 4000; 256GB Apple SSD

Dell XPS 12
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.9GHz Intel Core i7-3517U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 32MB (Shared) Intel HD 4000; 256GB Lite-On IT SSD

Sony Vaio Duo 11
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U; 6GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 128GB Toshiba SSD

 

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