Testing: Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro Laptop

By Norman Chan

The third generation Yoga laptop makes strides in design that may come at the expense of performance.

We're at a bit of a crossroads for Windows-based laptops. With Windows 10 coming out next year, the laptops on sale this holiday may be the last new generation to be designed with Windows 8.1 in mind, with all of the OS's quirks and shortcomings (touch on the Desktop and high DPI screen management still not perfected). My hope is that laptops like Lenovo's new Yoga Pro 3 to thrive in Windows 10--I can't wait for that virtual desktop manager--but you don't buy a laptop today to unlock its potential in a year. And what Lenovo has done with its popular Yoga line this year is pretty interesting. I've been testing one as my Windows PC for the past week and a half, and wanted to share some notes with you before we shoot our in-depth review.

If you recall, I was a fan of the original Yoga when it debuted as one of the first Windows 8 laptops. It was a full x86 machine with a unique folding hinge that gave it novel (and practical) use opportunities. I never liked using it as a tablet, but it worked well as a laptop and in its "stand" mode for watching video. The second generation Yoga Pro brought a ridiculous 3200x1800 screen resolution--a pentile Samsung panel that suffered from a color problem in displaying yellows. Because of the RGBW matrix of the panel, certain power settings on the Yoga 2 Pro made yellows appear greenish in hue. Users had to fix this with a BIOS update. The high resolution display also didn't work well in Windows 8, with DPI scaling behaving inconsistently between applications and even within the Windows desktop UI.

The Yoga 3 Pro still uses the same 3200x1800 display, but the color issues seem to be gone and Windows 8.1 is slightly better at dealing with high DPI scaling. The big changes this year are linked: a new ultra-low power CPU from Intel and a new formfactor that's significantly thinner than the past Yoga laptops, while also increasing connectivity options.

Let's first talk about the new chassis. The Yoga 3 Pro has a redesigned body that emphasizes portability. It's 2.6 pounds and half an inch thick at the fattest point of its tapered design. That's lighter than the 13-inch MacBook Air and lighter than even my 11-inch MBA. The footprint of the Yoga 3 is larger than Apple's counterpart, and the black bezel around the 13.3-inch screen is significant, but not distracting. What's more noticeable is the new "watchband" hinge design of the Yoga 3 Pro. The new hinge is definitely sturdier than that on the previous Yogas, making the laptop more usable in its "stand" position--the screen doesn't flop or wobble as much when the keyboard is flipped down and used as a stand. But some people may find the look of the hinge garish or gaudy, especially next to the dimpled surface texture of the plastic around the keyboard. It evokes the look of a fashion accessory. I personally don't mind it. What I do like is that the Yoga 3 Pro still retains good connectivity options, like a SD card reader, micro HDMI output, and three USB ports. Two of those USB ports are 3.0, and the sole 2.0 port actually doubles as the power adapter slot. The AC plug looks like a keyed USB connector, which is a cool innovation.

Lenovo achieves the low weight and slim design of the Yoga 3 Pro by running it on Intel's new Core M-70 processor. This is a mobile processor based on the Broadwell architecture--otherwise known as the tick up from Haswell. Broadwell is built on a 14nm process compared to Haswell's 22nm, and it's advantages are all about power efficiency. The 5Y70 CPU in this laptop maxes out an ultra low 4.5 watt TDP, compared to last year's i5 4210 which maxed out at 15W. That's a huge difference in power consumption, which allowed Lenovo to run this laptop on a 45Whr battery as opposed to the 54Whr battery of the Yoga 2 Pro. That's where the weight reductions come from.

Power efficiency does come at the price of performance. The 5Y70 chip has a slower GPU than the i5, and its base clock is 1.1GHz. It does clock up to 2.6GHz with Turbo, but my experience has been that it can't sustain that max clock for long. This explains why the Yoga 3 Pro felt sluggish for me when running big Lightroom exports, and why I wasn't able to comfortably edit a 1080p video in Premiere without significant stuttering in the edit timeline. 8GB of RAM and the 256GB SSD keeps it speedy for running tons of browser tabs, but I can definitely feel the laptop slowing down when I have Photoshop, Lightroom, Premiere, and Audition open as well. In my use so far, this feels like a laptop that's good for light media and web work, but not any kind of sustained power computing.

Another effect of the slim design is that the keyboard keys have very little throw, which I'm still not accustomed to. I also don't like the placement of the Delete key on the top righthand corner of the keyboard, next to the Backspace key--I keep hitting it by mistake when reaching for Backspace.

One uncertainty so far is battery life, which I'm still testing. Lenovo rates the Yoga 3 Pro at 7 hours of use, but I've yet to exceed 5 hours while using it as a primary work computer. Lenovo has bundled software that gives you the option of keeping the battery charged at around 60%, which theoretically prolongs its lifespan. At that setting, I barely get 3 hours of use.

After a week of using the Yoga 3 Pro, I get the feeling that this is a premium laptop for users who don't need a powerful computer. The $1300 price--which includes 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage--seems high for the relatively limited computing performance, so you're paying more for the high resolution screen and the formfactor. That may be worth it for people who don't need to do heavy computing, so battery life may be the deciding factor here.

More thoughts to come.