It's really not easy to find a netbook that manages to stick out in a crowd of soulless atomic midgets, which look alike inside out. Yes, things are starting to look a bit dull in the netbook segment, mainly thanks to Intel's and Microsoft's restrictions imposed, and strictly adhered to by most vendors. After all, nobody in their right minds looks forward to an unfriendly chat with Redmond's or Santa Clara's spinners and lawyers.
So, they all look and smell alike, and you're probably thinking there's something special about the Lenovo IdeaPad S10e. Well, no actually, there's not, at least not much. So let's start with the stuff that could make the S10e stand out in a crowd. First of all, Lenovo was the first vendor to offer a hybrid storage option on its netbooks, a 4GB SSD which peacefully coexists with the 160GB hard drive.
MSI joined the hybrid club a few weeks ago with its Wind U115, which touts an incredible 12 hours of battery life, although some MSI reps like to say it's 16 hours, at least in their MSN sigs. The Lenovo S10e doesn't come near this figure, as it's based on the N270 instead of the Z530 CPU, and it lacks some of the power management features of the Wind U115. However, MSI sells its U115 for a whopping €529, while the little Lenovo costs €379, a full €150 less, so they're really not in the same class.
The second interesting feature is Lenovo's adaptation of DeviceVM's Splashtop, which I am told, is an instant-on OS. Dubbed Lenovo QuickStart, it loads in about 20 seconds, and offers you some rudimentary connectivity and media features. In my book 20 seconds is not instant, unless we're talking about coffee.
You can use it for browsing, instant messaging, Skype, and if you're bored you can play some tunes or look at your photos. It's simple, fast, and it works. Let's leave it at that, as we'll take a closer look at it later.
So much for the distinguishing features, under the hood it's a netbook vulgaris. You get the picture, and if you don't here are the specs: Atom N270/945 combo, 1GB of RAM, 160GB of storage, and the 4GB SSD mentioned earlier. Unlike most 10-inch netbooks, Lenovo's S10e features a 16:9 screen, which means you get 1,024x576 pixels on 10.1 inches. So, the TV aspect ratio has robbed you of 24 rows of pixels, or 24,567 of them to be exact. Some applications might give you trouble with the non-standard resolution, but it's really not a big deal. The glare coating isn't very reflective, although you'll be begging for a matte panel on a sunny day. Overall, display quality is quite good. There's plenty of contrast to go around, and the colours look good.
Design and Build Quality
I'm not a great fan of Lenovo's conservative, no thrills design, and frankly some of their machines look like they were nicked off the set of Miami Vice. However, I actually like the little IdeaPad. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that most netbooks look playful, too childish and cute, while the black S10e is a tad more serious, in its appearance at least.
Measuring 250x196x22-36mm, it has the smallest footprint of any 10-inch netbook on the market, but it doesn't look chubby either. It weighs 1.25kg with a 6-cell battery. The designers did a nice balancing act: it doesn't look as dull as some Lenovos, but it still looks a bit more serious than most netbooks, and you just don't get the feeling you're looking at a child's toy.
Once you try it out, it doesn't feel like a toy either. To put it mildly, build quality is above average. We've seen much worse on similarly priced products. The palmrests feel solid, and so does the entire chassis. The chrome decorative covers on the hinges look a bit cheap, but even they feel ok, and there's really few things to complain about. We liked most of the materials, especially the satin, matte screen finish, which looks nice and doesn't pick up too many fingerprints.
The chassis feels very robust, and the rounded front edges further help the general feeling of solidity. The keyboard, touchpad buttons and palmrests are no exception. There's next to no flex in the keyboard, and the touchpad buttons are pretty good.
The decorative mesh surrounding the LEDs and power button, and a similar one at the front of the chassis, feel and look good. They both do tend to gather loads of dust and tiny bits of fabric, but it's fairly easy to clean up the mess.
However, some plastic bits just don't look like they've been put together by Swiss craftsmen. Some of the gaps are pretty big, but after all, we're still talking about a cheap netbook, and this is purely an aesthetics issue, not a quality one.
Bottom line - it's no ThinkPad, but it's still damn good.
Also, in case you're not into the matte, all black design, Lenovo is offering the S10e in white and red, for ladies and the sort of people who would ban opposition parties, nationalize banks and collectivize farming.
Keyboard and Touchpad
We already said the S10e has a surprisingly small footprint, and this has a somewhat negative impact on the keyboard. Although the chassis itself is small, the designers decided not to extend the keyboard all the way to the edges. This basically resulted in a keyboard which is half way between that of a 9-incher and most 10-inch netbooks. It is still pretty comfy to use, although people with big fingers should be wary, although those people should avoid all small notebooks in the first place.
Someone made the baffling decision to move the Control key one position to the right, and place the Fn key in its place. This will result in a number of failed copy/pastes until you get the hang of it. The Tab key is tiny, and so is Enter. Another non-keyboard related issue is microphone placement. You can see it just above the Atom sticker, and it's easily covered by your palm, so if you're into Skype, think about a headset.
Fortunately, the arrow keys are full size, and more importantly, the keyboard feels bulletproof. There's no flex, no squeaks and twists. As we always like to point out, you'll eventually get used to just about any layout, but you'll never get used to poor quality. Also, bear in mind that the layout differs from market to market, so be sure to check what it actually looks like in your neck of the woods.
The touchpad is also quite small, measuring just 26x57mm. However, it has a scroll bar, it's pretty fast, and we got used to it in no time. Using it to zoom in or out is a bit tough due to the size. It can be done with a little practice, but there's not much room for error with just an inch of vertical space.
The keys are a bit too small for my chunky thumb, but after a couple of days I got used to them. At least they're under the touchpad, and not on the sides, and there's no complaints about the quality whatsoever.
Although some vendors offer three USBs on their netbooks, Lenovo has just two. We can't say this is a big drawback, especially as there's a USB on each side of the chassis. Let's take a look at the layout.
The power connector, memory card reader, VGA are on the left. The USB is a bit close to the front edge, but this doesn't really make much of a difference on such a small machine.
On the right side you'll find the second USB, as well as LAN and audio connectors. Also, Lenovo is one of few vendors to include an ExpressCard 34 slot on their netbooks, although it's doubtful many people will choose to use it. Still, it can come in handy. The security lock is hidden in the hinge cover.
On the front there's nothing to report. Just three status LEDs and a decorative mesh covering two speakers. They are pretty weak, even for a netbook.
And on the back, there's absolutely nothing, apart from the battery. Our sample came with a 3-cell battery, but all S10e SKUs on the European market ship with a 6-cell power pack. It offers twice the juice, but also gives the IdeaPad a pretty big hump on its backside. The latches seem pretty tough, and keep the battery safely in place without a hint of flimsiness.
Another nice touch is the no-nonsense upgradeability, as its intestines are easily accessed through a spacious plastic lid. This is not the case with many netbooks. Add to this the ExpressCard 34 slot, and the S10e is easily the most upgradeable unit on the market. In case you were thinking about changing the OS, be warned that you'll have a tough time making the SSD work.
Under load, the S10e tends to get pretty hot, especially around the HDD. We were looking at more than 37°C after running a few benchmarks. Sounds like a lot, and it is, but netbooks aren't really meant for any CPU intensive tasks anyway, so this shouldn't be a problem for the average user.
The tiny 10.1-inch LED backlit screen is surprisingly bright, and the colours look beautiful too. It does sacrifice even more resolution than your average 10-inch netbook screen, and it's got a glare coating, which we're not crazy about.
The viewing angle is pretty limited, but this is hardly an issue on such a small device, it's not a TV, but it could annoy you while using the webcam and trying to get the right angle. The 1.3MP webcam is pretty good, and deals well with poor lighting conditions. You can also use Lenovo's VeriFace security software with it. Instead of typing in your password, the webcam takes a mugshot and lets you access the system. Neat.
Surprisingly, the sample we got shipped with a 3-cell battery, not a 6-cell like all current S10e SKUs. Unfortunately this means we can only guess how much the 6-cell unit would last. While browsing with the backlight set at 100% we were managing around three hours on our sample. We tried playing some video too, and the 3-cell battery threw in the towel after 2 hours and 15 minutes. You could probably get a bit more than three hours in real life, if you turn off some features and reduce backlight intensity.
This isn't bad for a 3-cell battery, and you can probably look forward to 5+ hours of regular use with the 6-cell unit, if not even more.
If you were thinking about getting the rare and cheap €219 SKU with no hard drive, think again. In theory, you could add some extra storage with an SDHC card and end up with a dirt cheap 10-incher with solid state storage all the way. However, as the card ends up protruding out of the chassis by about 8mm, this is impossible.
Another issue, addressed earlier, is the placement of the microphone and speakers. The microphone is easily covered by your palm, and as the speakers are placed in the front, if you use it from your lap, your clothes, or a few layers of fat, will get in the way.
Lenovo is touting its QuickStart OS as an instant on operating system, however, this is simply not the case. It takes almost 20 seconds to boot, whereas XP takes 38 seconds to boot to a fully functional desktop. QuickStart allows you to browse the web, IM, Skype, manage your photos and listen to music. Basically, it lets you do most of the things you're supposed to do on a netbook.
It's most annoying drawback is that you're unable to set trackpad sensitivity, so you end up with a trackpad which allows you to scroll from the top to the bottom of the screen in one swoop, while it takes almost three full horizontal movements to move the cursor from side to side. It's very hard to get used to, and you can only hope Lenovo will fix it at some point.
Our sample didn't have QuickStart installed, so we went about installing it ourselves. We tried to download the OS from Lenovo's support page, which was pants and wouldn't link to the file. It than offered us the chance to report the broken link, but the link to report the broken link was, you guessed it, broken. Long story short, once we managed to download it, the installation went without a hitch.
So what's our verdict on QuickStart? Frankly it's nowhere near as useful as some reviewers reported a couple of months ago when it first appeared.
It's doesn't boot up as fast as we'd hoped for, and the trackpad issue is very annoying. However, it does have potential, especially if you've got kids, or if you're likely to lend your netbook to someone else, as they can play around with it without messing up anything in Windows. Also, XP does boot to a fully functional desktop in 38 seconds, but on a fresh, clean installation, and this will probably go up to over a minute once you install a thing or two. It's also a nice failsafe in case XP chooses to die while you're in the middle of something.
Let's start off with some storage benches. Although the S10e uses a 4GB SSD as the system drive, this doesn't mean it's using a lighting fast drive, to the contrary.
HD Tune wasn't impressed, and neither was Sandra.
The average speed was 24.1MB/s and burst speed was rated at just 21.3MB/s. The average access time was 0.6ms, or negligible, while CPU utilization was 8.3 percent. Sandra found it had an average read speed of 26.1MB/s and 1ms access time. Basically, it's almost like using a glorified USB stick as your hard drive. This is the norm in this price range, and Lenovo is not the only vendor to use slow SSDs - they all do.
Western Digital's 160GB hard drive turned out to be a decent performer, as you can see below.
The real trouble with the SSD has more to do with its capacity than its speed. With XP and the 180MB QuickStart OS installed, you end up with about 1.3GB of free space, and this is obviously nowhere near enough for even the most basic applications. So, you will end up using the hard drive for apps, and you can forget about saving a few watts on account of the SSD, although this could potentially slightly improve performance, but only in certain scenarios.
It does feel a bit more responsive than other netbooks we came across, but we don't believe the SSD greatly improves overall performance, especially considering it costs you €40 extra. You're probably thinking the SSD helps the Lenovo boot a bit faster, well it does, but the difference is small if any, and with the OS on the HDD, it takes it just over 40 seconds to boot.
There's really not much to say when it comes to CPU and graphics benchmarks. It's an Atom, and it's not designed with rendering or other number crunching operations in mind. As you can see, like all 3D rendering software, Cinebench likes HyperThreading.
The overall 3Dmark 06 score was 92, while the CPU score was 476.
Basically we could have skipped these benchmarks altogether. The Atom does what it's supposed do. It's optimized for power efficiency and undemanding, everyday applications, not rendering or encoding. It's about three times slower than the slowest Core 2 Duo CPUs found in most notebooks, and in more demanding tasks (i.e. Cinebench), the gap widens. Nevertheless, it's sufficient for browsing and office applications, and if you need more than that, you shouldn't be considering netbooks in the first place.
As usual we'll start with the bad stuff. We don't like the glare screen very much, although the display quality is really good. It fails outdoors, in bright rooms and in vehicles, and a matte screen would have been a better choice, even at the cost of some quality. The fact that it features a somewhat lower resolution than most netbook screens doesn't help either.
The IdeaPad tends to heat up slightly more than most netbooks, and it has just two USBs. These are minor issues, and few if any users will miss the third USB, or keep it under load long enough for heat to become a problem. There's no draft-n wireless, the touchpad is a bit cramped, but it's good, it has a scroll bar and supports some multitouch features. Although the keyboard could have been a tad bigger, it makes up for its lack of size with its ruggedness.
Build quality is impressive, and bear in mind that the S10e is cheap. In fact, it is one of the cheapest 10-inch netbooks on the market, and it offers good value for money. However, saying a netbook is cheaper than the competition doesn't mean much, as most are very closely priced, which means you can get something else from different vendor for lunch money. Having said that, investing in this particular SKU, with an additional 4GB SSD really doesn't make much sense, and you're much better off getting a cheaper version with HDD only.
On the bright side, the IdeaPad S10e is one of the smallest 10-inchers in this price range. At 1.25kg with a 6-cell battery, it's not heavy either. However, the 6-cell power pack sticks out badly, which is not the case on some other netbooks, like MSI's Wind for example. Lenovo is one of few vendors to offer an ExpressCard 34 slot, and you can use it to add a modem or even a TV tuner to it, although most consumers will never touch it.
In spite of its small footprint and low weight, it's one of the most rugged netbooks out there. The materials feel good, and build quality is truly exceptional at this price point, with an emphasis on the rock solid keyboard. The screen hinges feel like you could use them on bank vault doors, and the chassis feels like a brick. The design is pretty good too, and compared to most cheerful netbooks out there, it looks pretty serious. It is very easy to upgrade, which isn't the case with most netbooks.
Overall, the pros heavily outweigh the cons, and our verdict is a positive one, a very positive one. Lenovo proves you can build an amazingly robust and durable netbook for under €300, and it doesn't compromise on looks either. If only it weren't for the 1,024x576 glare screen, it would get our Recommended award in a heartbeat.