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Hands-On with the Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro

By Norman Chan

On paper, the Haswell update to the versatile 13-inch Yoga is an improvement on all technical fronts. But the ultra high-resolution screen gives me some pause.

I've had an up and down relationship with Lenovo's Yoga line of laptops since I first saw them over a year and a half ago now at CES 2012. Back then, I was enamored by the Yoga's unique bendy form-factor, and was frankly still pretty optimistic (naive?) about the potential of Windows 8. Then the Yoga came out at the end of the year, and while I really liked my time with it, it became clear that you couldn't think of it as a laptop-tablet hybrid, but more of a laptop with a keyboard that doubles as a stand. Trying to use the 13-inch Yoga like a tablet didn't work well--it was too heavy and bulky for the tasks that tablets are good at. The same applied even to smaller Yoga 11S, which I again liked a lot but couldn't get past its unfortunate use of the Ivy Bridge chipset and its dim screen. The unfortunate timing of the Yoga 11S (which I write about in-depth here) made it difficult to recommend without pause, especially since a Haswell refresh was likely impending. I've never felt so conflicted about a laptop.

Well the Haswell Yoga is finally announced, and Lenovo is once again sticking with its 2012 launch strategy of releasing the 13-inch model first before any other formfactors. I got a chance to check out the new Yoga 2 Pro at a briefing a month ago and compare it to last year's Yoga. And once again, I walked out of that meeting feeling optimistic, though after thinking about it for a while, am once again left with mixed feelings.

Let's start with what's stayed the same between generations. Like last year's Yoga 13, the new Yoga 2 Pro is a 13-inch laptop running Windows 8 that can bend its screen a full 360 degrees so that it can be used in different "poses." These include a traditional laptop orientation, propped up like a tent (as in the photo above), the keyboard flush on a table as a stand, or flattened to simulate a (thick) tablet. Of those positions, the laptop and stand ones are the most useful for normal users, especially on airplane rides or anywhere with cramped table space. The Yoga 2 Pro will also come in the same fetching Clementine orange as the Yoga 13, and its starting price stays at a reasonable $1100. But those are basically the only things that have stayed the same. Almost every other attribute about the Yoga 13 has been improved in the Yoga 2 Pro--at least on paper.

This new Yoga is half a pound lighter than last year's model at 3.06 pounds. It's thinner too with a maximum thickness of .61 inches (15.5mm). I say maximum thickness because unlike last year's Yoga, this year's model is slightly angled so the thickest point is at the rear of the chassis. Its edges are also slightly more tapered than the Yoga 13. These little details add up to make it feel less bulky when folded up and carried around. Not quite as thin and light as the MacBook Air 13, but getting there. Another truly welcome change do to the new angled shape--the placement of the power button on the right side of the laptop as opposed to the front lip, which was awkward to get to.

And the keyboard gets a backlight. Sweet.

Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro on top of last year's Yoga 13

But let's get to the spec that everyone seems to be clamoring about, and that's the new 3200x1800 resolution panel. When Lenovo's reps told me this unexpected detail at our briefing, you could tell that they were bracing for my eyes to widen in surprise. Have to confess that I didn't disappoint. 3200x1800 (276 PPI at 13.3-inches) is an insane resolution for a laptop, especially when 30-inch desktop monitors still top out at 2560x1600. This immediately positions the Yoga 2 Pro as a competitor to Apple's MacBook Pro Retina (2560x1600 panel) as opposed to the popular MacBook Air 13. But my shock has given way to a bit of cautious skepticism, and I now have three questions: Do laptops really need that kind of screen? Is Windows 8.1 scaling adequate enough to make that resolution actually usable? And is the hardware inside the Yoga 2 Pro powerful enough to drive that panel at graphics-intensive tasks? I can't confidently answer yes to any of them.

Regarding the necessity of such a high-resolution panel, it seems clear to me that Lenovo is playing the screen resolution race that Apple kickstarted with its MacBook Pro Retina laptops. Plenty of other laptop OEMs have since released or announced Ultrabooks with 2560x1600-resolution panels, and Lenovo's product manager admitted to me that high screen resolution is what consumers respond to in their surveys. It's a spec that catches shoppers' eyes--the laptop equivalent of camera megapixels.

This seems unnecessary to me, given that last year's 1600x900 panel on the Yoga 13 was already sufficient for most desktop tasks--photo processing included. Quadrupling the number of pixels on the Yoga 2 Pro feels gratuitous, especially since Windows doesn't support straight-up pixel doubling like Mac OS. On the 13-inch panel, native 3200x1800 resolution and 100% scaling on the Yoga 2 Pro made text almost unreadable--my open eyes turned to a squint trying to read system text when examining the screen. And even though it's improved in Windows 8.1, high-resolution scaling at 150% or 200% is still woefully lacking on the Desktop, according to tests by Arstechnica's Andrew Cunningham. Metro--excuse me, Modern UI--apps and interfaces scale well, but third-party and legacy Desktop program UI rendering remains inconsistent.

I wish that Lenovo would have put their R&D into improving the brightness of the Yoga display. On both the older Yoga 13 and 11S, the vibrant IPS panels were marred by dim backlights. I had to keep them on near max brightness even for indoor use, and Notebookcheck rated the Yoga 13's panel at a mediocre 286 nits. Lenovo claims the Yoga 2 Pro has a 350 nit backlight--the same brightness as a MacBook Pro Retina--but I was not impressed by its luminosity during my time with it. That's worrying because of the high-resolution screen's impact on battery life. In my meeting, I was told that the Haswell chip would last for 9 hours, but Lenovo's spec sheet on the Yoga 2 Pro rates battery life only at 6 hours of video playback, and that is at 150 nits. Troubling indeed.

And let's cap this off by talking about Haswell and its implications on the Yoga 2 Pro. From our testing, mobile Haswell's advantage over mobile Ivy Bridge lies in two areas: battery life and graphics performance. Both of these are mitigated by the 3200x1600 resolution panel. A 6-hour battery claim by the laptop maker in the post-Haswell world is nothing to boast about, and my fear is that the Yoga 2 Pro's lifespan will be shorted to under 4 hours when doing processor-intensive tasks. Lenovo was also intentionally vague about the exact specs of the $1100 base model. It'll come with 128GB of storage, 4GB of RAM (upgradable to 8GB), and an as-yet unnamed Haswell processor (also upgradable to Core i7). The unknown Haswell chip is what bugs me the most. It's reasonable to assume that it's a Core i5 processor and not an i3, but there are three models of Intel Core i5 ULT processors, of which only two run Intel's HD 5000 graphics. Assuming it's the i5-4250U (the same one in this year's base model MacBook Air 13), you'll be able to do some light gaming on the Yoga 2 Pro at a downscaled resolution. According to Notebookcheck, the i5-4250U with HD 5000 can run StarCraft at 38FPS at the MacBook Air 13's 1440x900 resolution, at medium settings. But scaling to any non-native resolution on an LCD never looks as good as native res, and without discrete graphics, you'll unlikely ever play new 3D games at 3800x1800 on the Yoga 2 Pro.

And if the Yoga 2 Pro is actually shipping with the i5-4200U with Intel HD 4400 graphics, don't even think about anything other than running games on their lowest settings or playing casual games. But hey, FIFA 13 seems to do OK on that GPU.

That's why I'm holding my optimism in reserve with the Yoga 2 Pro. An alternative that would have excited me more: shifting to a 16:10 screen ratio and using a 1920x1200 resolution panel, which is better suited for Haswell and HD 5000 graphics. Sure, it's not going to get you tech blogger headlines, but I believe that 1920x1200 is the sweet spot for 13-inch panels. One glimmer of hope in this regard can be found in the name of this laptop--it's the Yoga 2 Pro and not just the Yoga 2. I take that to imply that Lenovo may release another (and possibly cheaper) Yoga 2 model with a more reasonable--if less attention-grabbing--display resolution.

The Yoga Pro 2 will go on sale in October, and despite my reservations, I can't wait to test it.