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Lenovo's IdeaPad U260 challenges MacBook Air

Lenovo has announced the U.S. release of its new 12.5-inch IdeaPad U260 ultraportable consumer laptop in what appears to be a direct challenge to Apple's widely acclaimed new 11.6-inch and 13.3-inch MacBook Air models.

The close proximity of the release dates respectively has to be partly coincidence, but it's fair speculation that the U260's debut may have been moved forward in response to the favourable market and critical reception that's been heaped on the redesigned MacBook Air.

Lenovo is touting the U260 as the world’s first 12.5-inch laptop with a 16:9 aspect ratio widescreen configuration, which slots neatly between the two MacBook Air models and it's certainly priced to challenge the Air starting in base trim with an Intel Core i3 processor at US$899 (about £565), handily undercutting the US$999 (£849.00 in the U.K.) entry level 11.6-inch MacBook Air.

There are a number of respective U260/Air similarities aside from general size range, such as no internal optical drive, just two USB 2.0 ports, no ExpressCard or SD Card slots, and both support up to 4 GB of RAM (standard on the U260) and come with standard Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless support, integrated Webcams, chiclet keyboards and glass multitouch touchpads, but there are quite a few distinctives a touches well.

At 3.04 pounds The U260 is a bit heavier than the 2.3 pound (1.06 kg) and 2.9 pounds (1.32 kg) MacBook Airs, and also slightly thicker at 0.71 inches vs vs .61 inches for both Air models. While the MacBook Air displays are not as glossy as the behind glass 13-inch Apple MacBook Pro and MacBooks' screens, the U260 is available with businesslike matte anti-glare finish display surfaces and 1366 x 768 16:9 aspect ratio display resolution, compared with the 13-inch MacBook Air's 1440 x 900 res. and 16:10 aspect ratio, and the 11.6-inch model's 1366x768 16:9 aspect screens.

Internally, there are some big differences. Lenovo equips the U260 with CULV Core i3, i5, and even i7 CPUs (the latter two with Intel's turbo boost technology) as opposed to Apple's older technology Core 2 Duo processors for the Air. That would appear to give the Lenovo machines a performance advantage, especially in that Core i7 config., but the fly in the ointment there is that using Core i silicon means being stuck with Intel's poky, in-house HD integrated graphics, whereas Apple's decision to stick with the older Core 2 Duo CPUs enabled then to pack state-of-the-art Nvidia GeForce 320M graphics chipsets in the new Airs. It will be interesting to see what some comparative benchmarking will reveal, but my provisional deduction is that in most real-world use, the faster graphics support will trump the Core i processor advantage.

The vaunted Core i power conservation hasn't put the U260 in front in battery life either, with Lenovo claiming a modest 4 hours runtime vs. Apple's claim of five hours and seven hours for the 11.6 and 13.3-inch Airs respectively, even with their long-in-the-tooth non-CULV Core 2 Duos and powerful 320M graphics. On the other hand, you will be able to carry a spare to swap in when the U260's battery goes flat, while the MacBooks with their non-swappable built-in batteries will oblige you to find some mains current and wait while the machine recharges before you can go mobile again.

Other U260 advantages include built-in VGA and HDMI video output, while the Air requires optional adapter dongles to connect to external displays, standard Dolby surround sound audio, a Breathable Keyboard — an Intel Advanced Cooling Technology that allows the laptop to run cooler and maintain spill resistance, and ambient light sensors that automatically adjust screen brightness based on lighting conditions.

Perhaps the most significant difference of all is that the U260 comes with a conventional 320GB HDD, with a 128GB SSD optional, while the MacBook Aira are all SSD in capacities of 64GB, 128GB and 256GB, which enables a marquee "instant-on" capability, and of course the MacBook Air can run both the Mac OS and Windows, while the U260 is limited (at least legally) to Windows (albeit with Lenovo Enhanced Experience for Windows 7, a Lenovo certification that delivers speedy boot-up and shutdown times), or Linux.

While the MacBook Air's all-aluminum unibody design exudes understated techno-sophistication, Lenovo has gone with a more conspicuous luxury vibe with the U260, which features a magnesium-aluminum alloy chassis, a soft-to-touch leather-patterned palm rest, and comes in your choice of two fashion colours — Mocha Brown or Clementine Orange.

It should be fascinating to see how this new Lenovo-Apple rivalry unfolds. Let the games begin.