For a concept that promises the best of both worlds, the convertible tablet too often delivers the worst. In the past we’ve had twist-screen and swivel-screen products providing the sloth-like performance and poor ergonomics of a netbook in a package twice the thickness and weight of any tablet. While the new generation of Windows 8 convertibles shows potential, many have simply aped the detachable keyboard dock design pioneered by Asus’ brilliant Transformer. With the IdeaPad Yoga series, however, Lenovo has bought a new approach to the convertible concept. Through innovative design and impressive engineering, it’s produced a convertible as flexible and smart as the Yoga name implies.
A versatile design
Open the Yoga 11’s clamshell casing – a fetching orange in my review sample – and it looks just like an ordinary 11.6in laptop, or at least a touchscreen Ultrabook equivalent fashioned from soft-touch plastics and toughened glass. The surprise comes when you keep opening. Where the lid should stop, it just keeps on going, to the extent that it swivels all the way around so that the lid meets the laptop’s base. Your laptop is no longer a laptop, but a tablet, with full multitouch control and a proper tablet look and feel. In between these two positions comes two more; a tent position where the screen faces upside down and outwards while the base acts as a support, and a stand position where the keyboard lies face down with the screen facing outwards. As I said, it’s a flexible device.
Of course, at 1.25kg and 15.6mm thick, the Yoga 11 is thicker and heavier than your average tablet. It’s 570g heavier than Microsoft’s Surface and nearly twice the weight of the latest iPad. However, this doesn’t affect its use as much as you might think.
If you like to hold a tablet up and right in front of your face then you’ll find your arms aching very quickly, but most of us use a larger tablet cradled on one arm or resting on a lap, and in this scenario the Yoga 11 doesn’t feel much different. What’s more, the larger screen means that you don’t have to hold it so close to see it clearly, and being able to switch from tablet to laptop mode so quickly is a real boon. Need to type a reply to a long email? Simply swivel the keyboard into laptop position and you’re away. The onscreen keyboard, if it’s active, disappears and doesn’t reappear until it’s called back into duty with the Yoga in its tablet configuration.
It’s a really smart design, and a very solid piece of engineering. Despite a fair bit of flex in the lid, the Yoga itself feels fantastically robust, and its soft-touch plastic finish feels a lot more welcoming than the metallic surfaces of the Transformer or some other convertibles. The hinge mechanism also feels like it’s built to last. There’s nothing cheap or creaky about the Yoga 11 at all.
The keyboard is one of Lenovo’s takes on the island-style key design, with good-sized, nicely spaced, flat keys that have rounded bottom edges. The action is a little stiffer than on many laptop keyboards, and while there’s not a lot of travel the actual feel is positive. This would be a decent keyboard on an average Ultrabook, let alone a convertible device.
Lenovo also wins points for the touchpad. At roughly 90mm x 60mm it’s quite generously sized for a small form-factor laptop, with responsive integral buttons in the bottom-left and bottom-right corners. Combined with an effective touchscreen, it gives you one of the best and most intuitive Windows 8 experiences you can have, with charms, toolbars and app-switching all working through the screen-edge swipe-in gestures, simple taps and swipes for controlling the Windows 8 UI and apps. And yet it still offers the precision of the touchpad when you need to make edits in a Word document or hit a tiny hotlink on a webpage. Like I said, the best of both worlds.
Screen and sound
Within certain constraints the Yoga’s 11.6in 1,366 x 768 screen is a beauty. I have to make the obligatory comparison to the iPad’s Retina display or the 2,560 x 1,600 display of the Nexus 10, and note that the Yoga 11 can’t match them for sharpness or clarity, but the image is bright, colours are well-balanced and vibrant, and the resolution is more than good enough for watching films, browsing the web or handling simple office tasks. All I would note is that the default brightness settings, obviously designed to maximise battery life, don’t show the screen in its best light. In fact, the picture is a little gloomy if you leave the Yoga to its own devices.
Sound is excellent by tablet standards, and not bad by those of slimline laptops. There’s a real sense of stereo and more low-end power than the norm, and while you’ll still want headphones to make the most of music or a movie, you could happily watch streaming films or TV programmes without.
One of the best things about the Yoga is that it doesn’t leave you feeling like you’re making compromises by opting for a convertible. There’s a USB 2.0 port on either side of the case, plus an HDMI connection on the left-hand side and an SD memory card slot on the right.
I also remain impressed with the range of devices supported by Windows RT. Where other tablet operating systems are choosy about what you can plug in and expect to work, Windows RT is happy with everything from USB memory keys to wireless mice and external hard disks. With 64GB of onboard flash storage, there’s no need to worry too much about space for apps and files, but if you need more you have plenty of options.
This is where things can get confusing. The Yoga does such a good job of convincing you that you’re using a Windows 8 laptop that it’s only when you hit the limitations that you remember that it’s actually running Windows RT. The shift from the Windows 8 UI to the desktop when you want to use the built-in Office 2013 Preview apps remains jarring, but there’s no doubt that the Windows 8 interface is a more natural fit for a device like this than it is for many desktop or conventional laptop PCs. The core apps aren’t all brilliant, with Mail a rather threadbare and unintuitive email client, but the full screen-focused approach of IE10 is really growing on me, making it hard to go back to Chrome or the default browser on Android.
The problems always come when you need to do something where you’d normally use a Windows desktop application, in my case Photoshop or even Paint.NET. Suddenly you’re left scrambling to see what’s available in the Windows 8 app store, and hoping for the best.
The selection is improving, with most major needs now covered with some excellent apps. All the same, Windows RT still can’t match Android or iOS for the breadth and sometimes quality of apps, and some of the pricing is comparatively outrageous. On the flipside, having Office 2013 bundled means productivity is already taken care of – and in style – even if the licensing precludes commercial use.
I'm short of apps with which to benchmark Windows RT, so most of what I can say is subjective. With a Tegra 3 processor and 2GB of RAM, the Yoga 11 has the kind of firepower that you’d expect from a 2013 tablet, and the Windows 8 interface makes good use of it. Apps that don’t rely on an Internet connection launch quickly (there’s often a small wait on those that do, but you can’t blame the tablet for that) and switching from app to app is very quick. The overall feel is slick and snappy. There’s enough 3D horsepower to run more demanding games like the impressive Hydro Thunder: Hurricane, and HD video isn’t a problem either. A SunSpider score of 1039.21 is perfectly credible.
It’s not all good news. The Preview version of Word 2013 often struggles to keep up with your typing, particularly if you have multiple apps or the Windows desktop version of Internet Explorer open. This issue seems to get worse the longer you’re working on a document. Performance in other Office 2013 Preview apps seems fine, however, and even complex PowerPoint documents didn’t pose any problems for the Tegra 3. It’s possible this is a software problem, and one that might be resolved with time.
Battery life is one of the Yoga’s strongest points: at the point where conventional laptops and tablets seem to falter, it just goes on and on. Through several charges I’ve consistently had around 10 to 10.5 hours of mixed use, including Netflix streaming video and games. That’s good news if you just want entertainment, but it’s even better to have a productivity tool that doesn’t run out of juice when you’re out and about all day and night.
I love the Yoga 11. There will be some who can’t stand the extra weight or the feel of the keys at the back when it’s in tablet mode, but it’s an elegant convertible that can effortlessly switch between fun-packed media device and hard-working productivity tool. It has a good screen, a great keyboard and enough power to run current Windows RT apps, and excellent battery life to boot. It rivals Microsoft’s own Surface as a showcase device for the OS.
Unfortunately, there’s one big hulking elephant in the room, and that’s the price. At £499, I’d fall over myself in recommending the Yoga 11. Having used one for 10 days I would actually buy one. Even at £599, it would be reasonable value. £699, however, is just too much, putting the Yoga in the same territory as more powerful Ultrabooks with better screens and full-fat Windows 8 Pro, albeit without touchscreens. It’s £140 more than the equivalent Microsoft Surface with touch keyboard cover, and even pricier than the 64GB iPad with a third-party Bluetooth keyboard. If you have deep pockets, it’s a brilliant convertible, but I’d be even happier if it hit a more affordable point.
Manufacturer and model
Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 11
1.5GHz Nvidia Tegra 3
SD memory Card
11.6in 1366 x 768
2x USB 2.0, HDMI, 3.5mm headphone
Size and weight
298 x 204 x 15.6mm, 1.25Kg