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Testing: Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro Ultrabook

By Norman Chan

The specs look great on paper, but the many irksome shortcomings with Lenovo's Yoga 2 Pro make it really difficult to recommend.

On a technical level, Lenovo's Yoga 2 Pro is probably the best $1000 Windows laptop you can buy right now. The hardware you get for the same price as the entry-level 11-inch MacBook Air is better than what you'd get for that price from any other PC maker, Apple included: a 13-inch 3200x1800 IPS touchscreen, 128GB SSD, 4GB of RAM, and Haswell-based Intel Core i5-4200U processor with integrated HD 4400 graphics. And all of that packed into a 3-pound chassis that's thinner and more refined than last year's Yoga, fully-articulating hinge included.

But I wouldn't buy it. No way.

That's because what you and I know: the technical specs only tell half the story. Less than half. And that's only the specs you see on a shelf at Best Buy, on the laptop's box, or on one of the dozen or so websites that have reviewed the Yoga 2 Pro so far. Top-line specifications don't convey whether or not a super high-resolution display makes sense on a 13-inch screen or how the travel on a keyboard feels after typing a few thousand words. That's user experience. But there are also important technical details left off of a product sheet that many users never think about. The manufacturer of the Wi-Fi card, for example, or the difference between pentile and RGB sub-pixel arrangement. Turns out, those things matter too.

And it's in those little details that the Yoga 2 Pro disappointed me.

I've been using the Yoga 2 Pro for a couple weeks now, switching between it and my MacBook Air as a primary work computer. I liked last year's 13-inch Yoga a lot, and even moreso the Yoga 11S that came out earlier this year. That laptop, through inopportune timing on Lenovo's part, only disappointed in that it was equipped with an Ivy Bridge processor and released right before Intel's mobile Haswell processors became available to OEMs. It was a 5-hour Ultrabook in a market where 7-8 hours of regular use became the norm. Well, the Yoga 2 Pro runs a dual-core Core i5 Haswell processor, and had the opportunity to give users everything that was lacking in the original model.

But the Yoga 2 Pro doesn't do that. Battery life topped out at 6 hours in my tests, and under 4 hours when I was doing Photoshop and Lightroom photo-editing work. Much shorter than the 9 hours that Lenovo claims. And some of that can be attributed to this ultra high-resolution 3200x1800 screen and the backlight needed to power it. There are issues with the screen quality itself, but just from a pixel-counting perspective, the resolution was unnecessary and frankly isn't handled well by Windows 8.1's Desktop programs. I expressed reservations about the display resolution when I first saw the Yoga 2 Pro, and it sucks that those concerns turned out to be warranted. Lenovo chased the pixel resolution spec with this laptop, and the overall user experience suffers for it.

This laptop has other faults as well. But before we start this airing of grievances, I do want to acknowledge the many things that the Yoga 2 Pro got right.

Yoga 2 Pro retains its flexibility. This wouldn't be a Yoga without the ability to flip the screen to different positions to give you some versatility in how you use the laptop. Not much has changed here--the hinge still feels strong and I still like using the laptop with the keyboard flipped keys-down, acting as a stand. The tablet mode is mostly useless. Even more rigidity in the hinge wouldn't hurt, since the screen bounces a little when touched and tapped in the normal 30-degree laptop position.

The chassis design is a huge improvement. I really like the tapered design of the Yoga 2 Pro. It's both lighter and thinner than last year's Yoga, and Lenovo employed an aesthetic trick in the two-tone design of the rubberized plastic to make the laptop look even thinner than it actually is. It's a really pleasing design that doesn't look cribbed from Apple or other laptop makers. The outer rim has a soft rubber feel that helps cushion the laptop's edge when it's propped up in the "tent" position. That same rubberized plastic feel makes the laptop comfortable to carry around and brace your palms on when typing.

I love that touchscreen. Every time I use a Windows 8 laptop, I'm reminded of how much touch benefits the user experience in Windows. Tapping dialog boxes to close them, pinching to zoom into text on webpages in Internet Explorer, and even just dragging windows around are actions that come naturally and complement both the keyboard and mouse. The 10-point touchscreen here is accurate and responsive, and doesn't add noticeable thickness to the panel.

Lenovo continues to make the best non-Apple trackpads. Apple's trackpads still feel smoother, but the multi-touch glass trackpad here comes close. I still don't use the edge gestures on the trackpad in Windows 8 to access charms, and my brain defaults to using the touchscreen for scrolling. I can't say the same for the now-backlit keyboard keys, which have too little travel for my taste. The short travel distance is a necessity to keep the keys recessed in the chassis so they don't come into contact with tabletop surfaces when the screen is flipped around. A little more resistance in the keys maybe could have helped.

Speakers are loud and clear. Good enough that I didn't feel like I had to plug in headphones to enjoy music or audio in movies. They're also on the bottom of the laptop, but stereo sound is directed to the left and right sides. Audio does sound a little different depending on what "pose" you have the laptop in, with the best results actually in the normal laptop position.

Surprisingly, you can play games on this. With big caveats, of course. I could only get playable framerates in StarCraft II, The Walking Dead, and The Stanley Parable after turning the resolution down to 1600x900 (and lower) and putting graphics settings at medium or low. For kicks, I tried playing those games at 3200x1800, but no amount of lowering graphics settings could get the framerate close to 30fps.

It doesn't get too hot or loud. Even at load (Turbo-boosted to 2.6GHz), the Yoga 2 Pro's fans didn't get too loud and the laptop was still comfortably usable on my lap. You'll hear the fans kick in, but it's not deafening.

Those are a lot of things that the Yoga 2 Pro gets right, but are also mostly things that last year's model did well too. But now we get to the new screen. This ridiculous screen with a retina-topping 3200x1800 resolution. To put it into context, Apple's 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display has a 2560x1600 screen, and Google's Chromebook Pixel has a comparable 2560x1700 screen. Hell, that's the resolution of the 30-inch desktop monitor I use at home on my desktop PC.

But those computers handle those pixels differently. OS X, by default, pixel-doubles its interface so users effectively see a sharper version of 1280x800 desktop. On my desktop computer, I run Windows without any software scaling because the large physical area of the 30-inch monitor makes 2560x1600 practical and usable. But on the Yoga 2 Pro, scaling does some pretty funky things to the Windows desktop.

To illustrate, here are screengrabs of the Desktop at different scaling options, running the display at its native resolution. The first is at 100% scaling, which runs programs and their fonts at their actual size. On a 13-inch display, text is too small and unreadable at a normal distance. You have to get up close and squint to actually make out dialog box text, and even then it's not very sharp. I tried using Windows at 100% scaling for two days and couldn't get accustomed to it.

The next is the Yoga 2 Pro in its most ideal setting, with Windows scaling set to 150%. The good thing about Windows 8 is that you don't need to scale to an integer multiplier (ie. pixel doubling) for system text to look good--non-integer scaling on OS X results in text and UI dithering throughout. At 150% scaling, a lot of things in Windows look right. System folders, Internet Explorer, and many common programs I tested rendered just fine, and at a comfortable size for everyday use while giving much more screen real estate than a 1366x768 MacBook Air. But the places where text scaling breaks are really jarring. Chrome, for example, doesn't natively support high-DPI scaling, so web images and text look fuzzy. Chrome Canary has high-DPI support, but it's not stable and I wouldn't run it as my default browser. A lot of dialog and UI text in Windows also doesn't scale at all, and renders at teeny tiny 100%. You can see that in the DropBox system tray text at the bottom right of the screenshot below. This effect isn't fixed even when scaled to 200%.

The other option is to run the Yoga Pro 2 with 100% scaling, but at a non-native resolution. The ideal resolution for this display size is 1920x1080. But even though Windows text, menus, and images render consistently, the dithering effects of running the display at a non-native resolution are bothersome. I really wished that Lenovo had just put a great 1080p display on the Yoga 2 Pro. There's still hope for that, I guess, in a non-Pro model.

But it's not just the high pixel resolution that makes the Yoga Pro 2 frustrating to use in Windows 8.1 (to be clear, Metro/Modern apps scale just fine). The IPS screen has some some unforgivable technical flaws. The first is that it uses a pentile subpixel arrangement to achieve its pixel density. And instead of a standard RGB sub-pixel arrangement, this screen uses an RGBW matrix, with an extra white sub-pixel to enhance brightness. Brightness was one of the issues that I had with the last-generation Yogas, and Lenovo chose a RGBW Pentile screen to artificially increase brightness without having to amp the backlight even further. Unfortunately, that comes at the expense of color vibrancy and accuracy.

Pixel density comparison: Yoga 2 Pro on left, 30-inch monitor on right.

In fact, there's a known issue with the Yoga 2 Pro where its screen doesn't produce the color yellow accurately. It's not something I can convey with a screengrab, so I took a photo of the same Pantone yellow images displayed on the Yoga 2 Pro (on the left) and the color-accurate iPad Air (on the right). As you can see, yellow colors not only look muted, but have a tint of green in them. On the Lenovo support forums, support staff have acknowledged this issue, and there's a fix that requires a BIOS update and also running Lenovo's power management utility to correct this discoloration using the backlight. It's a Windows-only fix, so Linux users still suffer from the bad coloring.

The worst part is that this panel technology was chosen to help converse battery life and make the screen brighter, both things the Yoga 2 Pro fails at. Battery life is mediocre for a Haswell Ultrabook, and the screen still isn't as bright as MacBooks. It's also extremely glossy to a point that makes it difficult to use outdoors. Ugh, so frustrating!

But the kicker is the wireless performance on the Yoga 2 Pro. Wi-Fi is provided over an Intel Wireless-N 7260 card, which can only connect to 2.4GHz networks. Yes, you read that right: this is a flagship laptop released in 2013 that can't connect to 5GHz networks. The lack of dual-band connectivity may not be an issue for some people, but for me it's inexcusable. No 802.11ac support, I can understand. And it's not for any technical compromise, either, since there are plenty of dual-band wireless adapters that users have swapped out in their Yoga 2 Pros. It feels like a cost-saving measure, but really comes at the cost of the user.

And worse yet, the Intel 7260 card Lenovo chose has some serious driver incompatibilities with Windows 8.1. There's a 45-page thread on the Lenovo support forums about random disconnects happening on the Yoga 2 Pro; it really seems like a widespread issue. And even though my test unit didn't suffer to the extent that other users' did, I had to manually reconnect to both home and office Wi-Fi at least twice a day. And get this: I actually had to send back my first test unit because the Wi-Fi adapter wasn't working at all. Flat-out broken Wi-Fi was likely a fringe case, but inconsistent wireless connectivity is a known problem with this laptop.

That's why I just can't recommend the Yoga 2 Pro today. Some users will be very happy with what they get for $1000. They'll be able to live with the Pentile display, be happy with 5-6 hours of battery, and maybe not even have any wireless problems. But I don't want to validate or reward Lenovo's decision to shoot for high specs and then failure to execute. The Yoga 2 Pro is an ambitious device, but ultimately a disappointing follow-up to last year's Yoga. Here's hoping that there's a revision in the works with a more appropriate 1080p screen and better wireless card.