Normally, when a company releases two laptops in different sizes (the MacBook Air, anyone?) we review just one: we assume you’ll get the gist about the design and trackpad the first time, ya know? So it’s funny, then, that we’re taking a look at the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 11 after we’ve already tested the Yoga 13 and named it one of our favorite Windows 8 convertibles. They look alike, with an inventive hinge allowing you to fold the screen back like a book cover. The keyboards are the same too, though the 11-incher’s is understandably a tad more crowded. They even have the same oddly shaped power port.
Except, of course, they’re totally different products. Whereas the Yoga 13 is a proper laptop, with a Core i5 processor and full Windows 8, the Yoga 11 runs Windows RT, and is powered by a Tegra 3 chip (yes, the same one you’re used to seeing in Android tablets). That means a big dip in performance, but exponentially longer battery life. Legacy x86 apps are off-limits too, given that this is Windows RT and all. Now that we’ve set up that equation for you (weaker performance plus longer battery life minus standard Windows apps equals what?) let’s meet up after the break to see if this is just as good a deal as its big brother.
LOOK AND FEEL:
“ The nearly edge-to-edge display lends the Yoga 11 a certain panache — enough, possibly, to make you forget the resolution is a ho-hum 1,366 x 768.
What’s nice about the Yoga 11 is that it takes the same design found on the higher-end Yoga 13 and shrinks it down into a package that starts at a much lower price ($599, as of this writing). It’s right up there with the Microsoft Surface in terms of build quality, as different as they are, and it’s certainly nicer than all the remaining Windows RT tablets (all three of them). Heck, it’s higher-quality than most Atom-powered Windows 8 tablets, too, albeit not as powerful.
But first, a little more about that build quality. More than anything, we like how the Yoga 11 feels – sure, it might be your backup laptop, but nothing about the design feels disposable. We’re talking about the soft-touch lid, yes, but also the smooth, glassy trackpad and textured, leather-inspired palm rest. The display doesn’t wobble when you set the machine down, and is anchored by two tasteful metal hinges. Speaking of the hinge, the act of folding the screen back into tablet mode feels controlled, but it isn’t so tightly bound that you’ll ever struggle to move the display this way and that. Finally, of course, there’s the dense, sturdy keyboard, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.
Certain visual flourishes help, too. The nearly edge-to-edge display lends the Yoga 11 a certain panache — enough, possibly, to make you forget the resolution is a ho-hum 1,366 x 768. The system also has more or less the same book-inspired shape as Lenovo’s U-series Ultrabooks, meaning when the notebook is closed, the top and bottom edges protrude ever so slightly beyond the sides, sort of like a hardcover shell cradling a spine full of pages. If only it ran full Windows 8 — it might have won based on hardware alone.
You’ll also get more ports than you would on some other Windows RT devices: not one, but two USB connections, along with a full-sized HDMI socket and a full-sized SD reader to match. As you’d expect, too, there’s a volume rocker and screen-orientation lock button for use in tablet mode, along with a 3.5mm headphone jack and your typical power / lock button.
For those who haven’t heard much about the Yoga, here’s a quick primer. In addition to folding it all the way back into tablet mode, you can stop partway so that the laptop is in a “V” shape. Set it down on a table like a teepee and you’ve got what’s called Downward Dog Tent Mode, which is good for sharing presentations or watching a movie. You can also fold the screen so that it’s facing you with the keyboard facedown against the desk. That’s called Stand Mode, and it serves much the same purpose as Tent, which is to say it’s ideal for using the thing as a tablet, without actually having to hold the 2.8-pound device in your hands.
All told, it’s the most versatile Windows 8 form factor we know of, with the only drawback being that the keyboard is always exposed. Indeed, it feels a little unsettling to hold the device in tablet mode and feel your fingers pressed against loose keys, even if they have been disabled automatically. Lenovo obviously heard early complaints about that: it’s selling $40 sleeves for both the Yoga 11 and the Yoga 13, which you can use to sheathe the entire device, or just cover the keyboard area.
KEYBOARD AND TRACKPAD:
It’d be inaccurate to say Lenovo never does any wrong when it comes to keyboards (see: the IdeaTab Lynx), but it certainly gets most things right, most of the time. Like so many other Lenovo machines we’ve tested recently, the Yoga 11 combines big, well-spaced keys with an underlying panel sturdy enough to handle the heaviest of heavy-handed typing. The individual buttons themselves are the same U-shaped “Smile” keys you’ll find on other Lenovo PCs, complete with a decent amount of travel. Our only complaint is that certain important keys (Backspace, etc.) are undersized and difficult to find by feel alone. Though that might well be a function of the fact that this is an 11-inch device, and such machines often have somewhat cramped keyboards.
The other nice thing about a traditional laptop form factor? There’s room for a spacious trackpad — something you won’t find on most dockable tablets (or sliders, for that matter). The touchpad here is fashioned out of a smooth, low-friction material that’s easy to drag your finger across. The problem is, when you drag your finger, the cursor doesn’t always come with you. As we’ve found on some other laptops we’ve tested, the pointer sometimes stops short on the screen as you’re navigating, or simply doesn’t move at all. This is less of an issue when you’re using the Metro (nay, “Modern”) interface, where everything is large and an easy target. (Not that you’ll be using your mouse much there, but you get our point.) On the desktop, though, hitting those smaller, more defined objects can take multiple tries if you’re unlucky.
DISPLAY AND SOUND:
As we alluded to earlier, the display here is quite nice for a $600 machine, in part because of that nearly edge-to-edge glass and partly because the viewing angles are so shockingly wide. What we have here is an 11.6-inch, 350-nit panel making use not of IPS, but of Vertical Alignment (VA) technology, allowing you to view from off to the side and with the lid dipped far down. The screen is bright too (350 nits is fairly high as far as laptop-type devices go) and color reproduction is good too. Again, it’s a very nice display. So nice, in fact, that you might easily forgive its 1,366 x 768 resolution, especially in the Start Screen environment where everything is big and finger-friendly anyway.
The two tiny speakers, located on either side of the machine toward the front, are low on bass, as you might have guessed. But the volume gets loud enough that you should have all the amplitude you need if all you’re doing is having a listening party of one.
PERFORMANCE AND BATTERY LIFE
As tech writers, we became intimately familiar with NVIDIA’s quad-core Tegra 3 chip back in 2011 — you know, when there was a new Android tablet to review every other week. In recent months, though, we’ve become reacquainted as Tegra 3 has started to appear in various Windows tablets. The Yoga 11, in particular, has a 1.4GHz chip, paired with 2GB of RAM and a 64GB SSD. Alas, there aren’t many benchmarks designed to run on Windows RT — and we don’t have much to compare the Yoga 11 to, anyway. If our anecdotal experience is any help, we didn’t encounter any of the crashing or instability that plagued our ASUS VivoTab RT review unit.
Still, the performance does suffer when you go from a full Windows 8 tablet with an Atom processor to an RT device running with an ARM SoC. In IE10, particularly, we often found that even after a page loaded, we’d need to wait a few extra seconds before we could click around or do anything like scroll or zoom in. Also the boot-up time is just shy of 30 seconds, which is about two to three times slower than many Atom-powered tablets we’ve tested.
Officially, Lenovo says the Yoga 11 is good for up to 13 hours of battery life. In our experience, that’s true and not true, depending on what kind of luck you’re having. One day, for instance, we started our battery test (video looping, WiFi on) and didn’t log a final time until 16 hours and 14 minutes later. Another time, the battery gave out after around 10 and a half hours. We’re at a loss to explain that gap and strangely enough, Lenovo is too; the company said its own engineers have seen varying results, though never less than 10 hours, which matches our own experience pretty exactly.
SOFTWARE AND WARRANTY
In a way, Lenovo’s the beneficiary of good timing here: had we reviewed this months ago, we probably would have said the same thing we said about the Surface and VivoTab RT, which is that the app selection is too low. And it still is, at least compared to more mature platforms like iOS and even Android. But the selection of Windows apps has grown, with the biggest newcomer being none other than Twitter. People who purchase an RT tablet now might still be frustrated to find a favorite application is missing from the Windows Store, but maybe you’ll at least take some comfort in the expediency with which things have been added.
As for pre-installed apps, there’s thankfully very little of note here; with the exception of eBay, Evernote and the streaming service rara.com, Lenovo gave us the gift of mostly stock Windows.
The Yoga 11 has a one-year warranty — pretty standard for laptops and tablets (and laptop / tablet hybrids, even).
The Yoga 11 comes in two flavors — a 32GB model and a 64-gig one — and technically, their list prices are $849 and $949. As it happens, though, Lenovo is currently offering the 64GB version for a special price of $599, so until that deal expires, the 32GB model shouldn’t even be up for consideration. In any case, the specs are the same, save for the internal storage: both have that 1.4GHz Tegra 3 chip we talked about, along with an NVIDIA ULP GeForce GPU, 2GB of RAM and a four-cell battery.
We understand why RT was born: there was a market for Windows tablets that were every bit as thin as the iPad, or your typical Android tablet, and offered similarly long battery life, to boot. Windows RT tablets accomplish that, for sure. The thing is, so do low-powered Atom tablets running full Windows 8: they’re thin and light with robust battery life and performance that’s actually a cut above what you’d get from an ARM chip. Oh, and you can run legacy x86 apps, too.
“ If Lenovo had swapped in an Atom processor and installed Windows 8, it might have had a hit on its hands. ”
With that in mind, if we’ve persuaded you to give Atom a chance, we’ll make things even easier for you and narrow your choices down to just two models: the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 and the ASUS VivoTab Smart. The Lenovo is pricey, at $579 and up, but in absolute terms, it’s our favorite, thanks to long battery life and a best-in-class keyboard dock. It also accepts pen support, if you think you might want to scribble once in a while. (Though really, if that were so important, why would you be looking at the Yoga 11 anyway?) The VivoTab Smart doesn’t last quite as long on a charge, and the keyboard isn’t as delightful to use, but at $499 for the 64GB model, it offers better value than anything else out there. As far as consolation prizes go, this one is pretty great.
If you do insist on a Windows RT device (and who are you, anyway?), the Yoga 11 is a good choice, mostly owing to its comfy keyboard and long battery life. If you’d prefer something a bit easier to use as a bona fide tablet, the Surface RT is lighter. Samsung has an RT device too, the ATIV Tab, but it isn’t even for sale in the US, so those of you who live here in the states have an especially limited selection. C’est la vie.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Lenovo also plans to sell the Yoga 11S, which has the same form factor as the Yoga 11 (and roughly the same dimensions), except it runs a Core i5 processor. That’s great news for folks who actually need a little more horsepower than either Atom or ARM has to offer. But the battery life might be half as short, precisely due to that higher-voltage chip. Just a heads up.
We love the Yoga 11, but we can’t shake the feeling it’s running the wrong OS or at the very least, that it’s ahead of its time. As the little brother to the wonderful Yoga 13, it’s every bit as versatile, well-made and comfortable to use. (Seriously. That keyboard.) And if Lenovo had swapped in an Atom processor and installed Windows 8, it might have had a hit on its hands. In fact, we hope Lenovo does just that when it sits down to design the inevitable follow-up product — after all, what good is a Windows laptop without the ability to run legacy x86 apps? It doesn’t help that there are so many Atom tablets (including Lenovo’s own ThinkPad Tablet 2!) that offer long battery life, a decent typing experience and support for most Windows programs.
Still, we can’t totally pan this. Maybe if the battery life were the same as on Atom tablets, but in fact, the runtime here is so epic we can’t recreate it on any other device (and believe us, we’ve tried). If you’re satisfied with the current selection of Windows apps and imagine using this primarily as a tablet, then the Yoga 11 could be a win: it lasts longer on a charge than any other Windows tab, and it has a comfortable keyboard at the ready when you need it for pecking out the occasional email or web search. If you thought this might make a nifty travel laptop, though, we’ll give you the same advice we dispense to people considering Chromebooks: be sure (very, very sure) you don’t need to do much offline.