Testing: Lenovo Yoga 11S Ultrabook

By Norman Chan

Without Haswell, it may feel like too little, too late for Lenovo's Yoga 11S Ultrabook. But there's still a lot to appreciate in this uniquely convertible laptop.

I really wanted to love the Lenogo Yoga 11S. It was, after all, the Windows laptop I had been waiting almost a year to test. Lenovo's Yoga 13 wowed us when we first saw it way back at 2012's CES. When I reviewed it back in December of last year, I lamented that it only came in the 13-inch form factor, while Lenovo's 11-inch Yoga was a Windows RT-only device at the time--it wasn't able to run Desktop Windows programs. The 11S is a refresh that brings Windows 8 Pro to the compact Yoga design, eliminating the first model's biggest weakness. It hits all the right notes: weighs 3 pounds, has an IPS LCD touchscreen, and has plenty of RAM and storage. At $1000, it had all the makings of a compelling MacBook Air 11-inch alternative. That is, if only it wasn't still running Intel's Ivy Bridge chipset.

We'll get to the performance implications of using Intel's third-generation Core processor in a bit, but this isn't a case of Lenovo lagging behind the competition. Yes, Ivy Bridge laptops have been available for over a year now--let's just use Apple's 2012 MacBook Air line as the example--but the chips inside those laptops aren't the same ones that are inside the Yoga 11S. Last year's MacBook Airs came with Intel's Core i5-3317U processor, which ran at 1.7GHz (up to 2.6GHz in turbo). The Yoga 11S actually runs on Intel's Core i5-3339Y processor, an Ivy Bridge ultra-low voltage CPU that is designed to consume less power than the initial Ivy Bridge chips. These mid-generation ULV CPUs were announced at CES 2013, and Lenovo and other PC OEMs weren't able to get their hands on them until later in the Spring.

From a technical standpoint, the ULV Ivy Bridge chips are more power efficient than last year's Ivy Bridges, having a 13 watt max TDP as opposed to last year's 17-watt max. The I5-3339Y also has a 7 watt SDP rating, which is Intel's new marketing metric of power consumption under "normal workloads"--short bursts of activity followed by idling.

This may seem moot when Intel launched its Haswell mobile chipsets early this Summer, which are already in the latest line of MacBook Airs and some PC notebooks. But really, the class of chips inside the Yoga 11S and that inside the MacBook Air are two different animals. The Core i5-4250U (note the U designation) processor inside the new 2013 MacBook Air is in the same high-performance class as last year's i5-3317U Ivy Bridge--both clock to 2.6GHz at full load. Haswell is absolutely more power efficient than Ivy Bridge across the same class of processors, since the TDP of this year's U line is 15 watt at load, versus 17. But the ULV Ivy Bridge that the Yoga 11S uses is still technically more power lean, at 13 watts TDP--and 7 Watts SDP. The tradeoff comes in performance, since the ULV i5 CPU maxes out at 2GHz with Turbo Boost.

So in designing the 11S, Lenovo's engineers had a few choices to make. They could've launched the 11S along with the Yoga 13 and used the same full-power Ivy Bridge CPU in that machine, but gave users the option of the smaller chassis (this is what I wanted). They could also have waited until Haswell chips were ready at quantity and launched the 11S with the same processor as the new MacBook Air. Instead, they went with the middle road, using the Ivy Bridge ULV refresh to take advantage of power efficiency improvements...and cost savings. i5-3339Y Ivy Bridges are $100 cheaper than i5-4250U Haswells, which is how the Yoga 11S can stay at $1000 with all of its other bells and whistles. So even though I wish Lenovo launched the 11S last year--I can understand them wanting to test the waters with the 13 first--they really were a victim to the availability of Intel's ULV Ivy Bridge chips and timing of Haswell.

But what's done is done, so let's talk about my experience with the Yoga 11S and its actual performance.

The things I really liked about the Yoga 13 all make their way to the Yoga 11S. I'm still a big fan of its flexible design. The hinge on the Yoga laptops allows it to be used as a standard laptop, a tablet-esque touch computer, and a propped-up all-in-one with the keyboard acting as the stand. Lenovo representatives I talked to also like to champion the "tent" mode in which the laptop sits on a table like like the letter 'A', but I never used it that way (good for PowerPoint, maybe). Instead, the non-laptop position I use most is the stand "posture", where the screen flips nearly all the way back (around 300 degrees) and the keyboard is hidden away as a stand. This has been really useful for watching movies on planes or simply browsing the web with touch while slouched on my couch (feet up on the coffee table, natch). The versatility of the Yoga's design is its biggest asset, but you really have to think of it as just an option and not a mandatory way of use. It is, after all, still a laptop first.

Touch on laptops has to be thought of in the same way. This is where so many people get touch wrong. It is a complementary mode of interface for interacting with webpages, photos, and programs in general. For the vast majority of things I do on a Windows 8 laptop, I still use the keyboard and mouse/trackpad. Touch augments that when I want to quickly pinch to zoom in on a webpage or tap a dialog box button. The Yoga 11S' 10-point touch fulfills that need, and I still find myself impulsively touching my MacBook's screen on occasion only to be frustrated that the option isn't there.

Another thing that makes the Yoga 11S stand out is its high-quality IPS screen. Like the MacBook Air's display, its native resolution is 1366x768, which I think is just fine for an 11-inch panel. As I've learned from using a 1920x1080 panel on the Surface Pro (and Lenovo Helix), the Windows Desktop doesn't handle high density screens that well, with DPI scaling needing serious improvement. Apple gets around this problem with pixel doubling on its Retina MacBooks, but the 125% and 150% scaling options in Windows leave legacy programs and UI text behaving inconsistently. I think 1440x900 is probably the ideal resolution for a 11-inch display to still run at 100% scaling.

However, the Yoga's IPS panel is simply better than that on the MacBook Air's TN panel. Put the same high-resolution photo side-by-side and it's easy to tell that the photo's colors look more vibrant on the Yoga, and stay more true when viewing off-angle. I was more satisfied with my Lightroom photo edits on the Yoga than on the MacBook, and had to make fewer corrective edits when importing those photos onto my desktop PC and 30-inch color-calibrated monitor. And after using the Yoga for several weeks, MacBook screens look disturbingly warm. Unfortunately, the Yoga's panel is not nearly as bright as the MacBooks, or bright enough period to use outdoors. At 300 nits of brightness, I had to keep it cranked to 100% even when using it with normal indoor lighting. On the MacBook Air, I rarely step above 75% brightness.

But it's not the screen that sways me one way of the other--it's performance. Which in the case of the Ivy Bridge processor in the Yoga 11S, is directly tied to battery life. Even with a ULV processor, the Yoga 11S was perfectly suited to do all the tasks I needed on a daily basis--running dozens of browser tabs, using Google docs, and editing images in Photoshop. I didn't feel like I had to limit or compromise any of those tasks just because I was on the Yoga. But in running benchmarks, the Yoga 11S was definitely slower than the Haswell MacBook Air. Running an intense Photoshop Action script on a 28 megapixel RAW photo took just over 10 minutes on the Yoga, while the MacBook Air was able to accomplish the same action in five and a half minutes.

Some of that performance difference can also be attributed to the MacBook Air's new PCIe SSD. The Yoga uses an mSATA II drive (thankfully only 4GB partitioned for restore). On the plus side, as with the Yoga 13, users can pop the chassis open with a Torx screwdriver and upgrade the RAM and mSATA with standard components.

Gaming options are also limited on the Yoga 11S, as can be expected with the Intel 4000 integrated graphics. The Walking Dead, when running on battery, played at a barely acceptable 20-40 frames per second. When plugged in and at max Turbo, framerates jumped to a very playable 45-60fps. This was at the very lowest graphics quality settings, but still at native resolution.

Battery life was where the Yoga 11S disappointed me the most. You would think that with the 7 Watt ULV processor and a 42Whr 4-cell battery, the Yoga would last for at least the 6 hours rated by Lenovo. In my tests, regular web browsing and image editing consumed the entire battery capacity consistently between 4.5 and 5 hours, while persistent downloading and video streaming cut battery to 3.5 hours. Compared to the almost 7 hours of battery life I have been getting with the MacBook Air 11-inch (with only a 38Whr battery), it seems like there are definitely inefficiencies in either Windows 8 or Lenovo's design. Four and a half hours of solid use is still fine for a short flight or an afternoon at a coffee shop, but it's still disappointment that Intel's ULV Ivy Bridge didn't yield more impressive results.

The Lenovo Yoga 11S is still a smart buy if you're in the market for a Windows laptop today. There are so many things to like about it: the touchscreen, flexible hinge, wealth of ports (love that SD card slot), and wonderful build quality. And the $1000 price point comes with 8GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD, with 256GB only costing $50 more. Compare that with 11-inch MacBook Air, which costs $1300 if you want the same amount of memory and storage capacity.

And knowing that Haswell is out there right now--and likely to make its way into Lenovo's laptops--doesn't necessarily mean that we'll see a Yoga 11S with that chipset any time soon. Lenovo may choose to wait until Intel reduces Haswell prices first, or do what they did last year and get a new Yoga 13 on the market before refreshing the 11S. The timing kinda sucks for this model, and I hope it doesn't put Lenovo off on the 11-inch Yoga with Windows 8 Pro. This is still one of my favorite laptops that I've used.