What’s in a name?
I’ve always had a place in my heart for ThinkPads. My family has owned several over the years, and I personally have had the privilege of owning a T61p as recently as last year, as well as an X200, still in circulation. It always surprises people on the board that a ThinkPad isn’t my main machine. That honor now goes to the Dell Precision M6400, which is a 17” beast of a laptop. When it comes to computing, I always try to pack a one-two punch, consisting of a main system and an ultraportable. I’ve never liked being weighed down by a desktop because I’ve always owned and used laptops.
The X200 (Tablet) has been part of the fleet since 2014 and despite its aging, and often-disrespected specifications, (1.86Ghz Core2 Duo, Intel Graphics, 4GB of RAM, 500GB Western Digital Blue Hard Disk) it’s always outperformed my expectations. In Spring of 2017, I supplemented it with a Surface 3 (which itself replaced a ThinkPad Tablet 2 that I had owned since 2016) to help me relive my netbook days. The Surface 3 offered performance that was (shockingly) almost on par with the ThinkPad, but in a much smaller package, and with a best-in-class screen and outstanding battery life to boot.
By the end of 2017, an original Surface Pro had somehow slipped into the mix too, and my once-streamlined featherweight department had ballooned into a trio of tiny computers. The trouble was that I liked them all. The Surface 3 offered unbeatable portability & battery life that had really come in handy on a trip during the summer, (one that even the ThinkPad would’ve been too big for) while the OG Surface Pro had impressed me with its shockingly-good performance-to-size ratio. And, of course, nothing could beat the productivity of the ThinkPad, but it was too late; the seed had been planted, and I couldn’t stop asking the question of if there was a somewhat-affordable compromise that could combine the positive aspects of these three machines.
As a product, the Yoga 2 Pro is undeniably mainstream. Even the name is dull. I don’t know what it is about consumer-grade machines that forces OEMs to come up with useless and tacky names like this, but after having spent several years with products bearing labels such as “Precision,” “ThinkPad,” “Surface,” and their implication of people working hard and accomplishing bigly in style, one could say that the bar was not set high by the “Yoga.” A computer whose name is synonymous with sweaty women awkwardly stretched into various uncomfortable pretzel poses doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in me when considering a computer. That’s one of the main reasons that I largely ignored this product line and never really took it seriously over the years. Price probably played a significant role too.
Dissecting the Platform
The Yoga 2 Pro is what I would consider to be a classic ultrabook. It features a small casing, dual-core low-voltage processor, a bright LCD screen, and no optical drive to be seen. Despite Intel’s best efforts, these gimped machines still offer a surprising amount of performance for what they are, lagging no more than 1-3 generations behind their M-class sibilings. For this reason, it was the ThinkPad X230 that I first considered. The trouble with that machine was that the X230 (non-tablet) is notoriously difficult to find equipped with the “better” (IPS) LCD panel. Actually, many ThinkPad models from this time are that way. Even the ones that are available with decent panels aren’t typically equipped that way, which artificially inflates the cost of such computers and parts on the secondhand market. Ultrabooks, on the other hand, are much easier to find with quality screens, which is just one of several factors that steered my decision.
This particular unit, while not top-of-the-line, is rather close thereto. The i7-4510U-based model also has the Intel HD 4400 graphics system and 8GB of memory welded to the board but features a socketed SSD and Mini-PCI-Express slot. This is actually a pretty acceptable compromise. With 8GB of memory, I don’t foresee the need to ever have to upgrade, and the fact that they were able to leave some expandability open is encouraging to me. Even the battery can be replaced with minimal fanfare. While the bottom cover is held on with 11 Torx screws, these are all that stand between the end-user and the internal expansion. It may not be the ideal, near-fully-modular architecture of the ThinkPads that we’ve come to know and love, but it’s a pretty darn good compromise given the size of the thing, at least in my opinion. To contrast, Microsoft’s Surface line requires a heatgun and the hands of a surgeon to breach the device’s outer casing without breaking the screen, and even then, there isn’t much that can be replaced short of the storage device and battery pack.
The User Experience
In practice, the Yoga 2 Pro largely lives up to the hype and delivers a performance on par with the expectations set by its specifications and original retail price. The chipset is swift, the SSD is ridiculously fast, and the battery life is marginally better than the Surface Pro, which is to say, reasonably long (3-4.5 hours or more under light-to-moderate load would not be unobtainable) and difficult to really complain about, especially when one considers that the whole machine is only six tenths of an inch thick. While the Surface Pro itself is about this thin, the published dimensions of Microsoft’s portable don’t take the size of the keyboard into account, which makes the whole package seem slightly bulky, while the comparatively larger size of the Yoga 2’s screen makes the whole package seem that much sleeker.
Speaking of, the display panel was one of this laptop’s most controversial elements when it was new, so the question of how it holds up is well worth asking. The answer is that it is acceptable, but certainly nothing special. Ultrabooks are typically well-known, at least in my view, for being luxury items with nice screens. The Yoga 2 Pro is no exception to this, employing a 13.3” Samsung. However, instead of choosing a “safe” panel, they selected a sort of oddball display with a ludicrous 3200×1800 resolution. That’s four times the size of a 1600×900 screen, which itself can easily fill a 20” monitor, so on paper at least, we’re talking about a seriously dense screen. Unfortunately, this figure is at least slightly misleading since this particular panel uses an RGBW pentile subpixel layout. If you’re not well-versed on the meaning of “subpixel layout” and the connotation of the word “pentile,” the pictures probably explain it more concisely than I could, but the main limitations are essentially that overall sharpness is reduced and the panel is known for doing a subpar job at producing the color yellow. I probably wouldn’t have noticed this if it wasn’t pointed out to me in the reviews, but as long as a newer version of the firmware is installed, (along with the ever-annoying Lenovo Energy manager) this quirk is somewhat suppressed.
At the end of the day, this design consideration, allegedly done in an effort to salvage as much brightness as possible from the abnormally-dense panel, ultimately ends up hurting the overall sharpness of the image dramatically. The good news is that you’re not going to notice because of the insanely high resolution, which is more than could be said when this laptop was first released. What you may notice is a small amount of backlight bleed on the lower and right-hand edges. It’s not clear whether it was like this when new or if this developed over time/use/abuse. Other folks have complained of stuck/dead pixels, although I have yet to see any of these (it does stand to reason that, with a 5.76Megapixel screen, the odds of these developing is higher than your typical ~1Megapixel display, statistically speaking).
Software & Performance
While the Yoga 2 Pro is new enough to have shipped with Windows 8.1 from out of the starting gate, Microsoft still had yet to put some of the finishing touches on the long-delayed scaling functionality of the operating system. Windows 8.1’s scaling was really more of a beta test than anything due to how buggy it was (that is to say nothing of the barely-functional implementation seen in Windows 8, 7, and Vista) though. That said, Microsoft had no choice but to release what they had when they did because of all the high-density laptops that were coming on the scene at the time. It is functional, but was improved even more with the release of Windows 10 and continues to be improved in the Windows 10s that have been released since. As of this writing, their single-monitor implementation is nearly flawless, and the (non-homogeneous) multi-monitor functionality is not far behind. The only thing really lacking is minor bugs in certain poorly-written software programs, but the situation is, without a doubt, dramatically better than what it was when this computer was first released.
Day-to-day tasks are, unsurprisingly, perfectly responsive, despite the dense LCD panel. 3D performance, despite its higher benchmarks, (and the i7 designation) is actually right on par with my Surface Pro, being able to run older flagship 3D titles like Ghostbusters: The Video Game at a decent resolution, strong level of quality, and stable framerate. The tried-and-true Dreamcast emulator (nullDC) also runs apparently flawlessly (albeit at a scaled resolution on the computer’s built-in screen, as nullDC is not high-DPI ready). Where the Yoga 2 Pro chokes up is on higher-intensity loads, such as Mario Kart Wii running on the Dolphin emulator. Despite the fact that the Yoga 2 Pro benchmarks substantially faster than the (Core2 Duo based) Dell Precision M6400, the M6400 remains the only computer in my fleet that can emulate Mario Kart Wii at 720p resolution with a near-perfect 60 frame stability level. The ultrabooks are all limited to running the game at the Wii’s native resolution, and even then, do experience some framedrops and hiccups when there’a lot of action on the screen. It’s playable, (barely) but not something that I get any real enjoyment out of (especially online) like I do with the heftier machine.
Driving that experience is a sparse, but still useful, variety of connectivity. This includes one (lonely) USB 3 hookup, MicroHDMI, and an SD card slot on the left side, plus a lonely USB 2 port, 3.5mm combined headphone/microphone jack, volume buttons, rotation lock toggle button, AccessIBM/ThinkVantage/Whatever-they-call-it-on-the-consumer-grade-machines button, and most annoyingly of all, a power button. Why they didn’t put a power key on (or around) the keyboard as is seen on nearly every other laptop is beyond me, but that little bugger hides out on the side of the machine. Muscle memory alleviates this annoyance, but it is worth mentioning that the button is disabled when the screen is closed.
Also on the side is a charging/battery indicator light, independent of the power light found on the power button, in yet another subtle nod to the ThinkPad.
There’s no wired Ethernet connection, but a USB NIC would remedy that inexpensively. Be aware that, unlike The ThinkPad X200, (which only features VGA output unless you add the bulky dock station) this machine forgoes all analog video output in exchange for the aforementioned HDMI. Transcoders do exist, but the quality and price can be hit-n-miss when converting video formats.
Cool air input and hot air exhaust are on the back of the machine. As is expected on a consumer-grade device, the cooler is extremely quiet and all but inaudible, even under heavy
Bluetooth and Wireless LAN are handled by a much-chastised single-band Intel card. It is usable, but I do find it kind of ironic that the most modern computer in my fleet is also the only one with no 5Ghz WiFi functionality. This card can, of course, be replaced, but this must be done within the strict limits of Lenovo’s ever-present whitelist, else the computer will refuse to boot.
There’s also a webcam. I tested it for a few seconds just to say that I used it during the review. It works.
The Human Interface
It’s long been a known fact that ThinkPads typically have historically had some of the best input devices in the industry, so that begs the question of if the Yoga 2 Pro can, in any way, measure up. In terms of keyboard, I would have to say that it does. Even on their non-ThinkPad machines, Lenovo really has to try hard to make a bad keyboard, and this laptop is no exception to that “rule.” Some have complained about the layout, but my only real issue with it is that there are no play/pause/skip/previous function shortcuts to be found. On the Dell Precision M6400 it was understandable (although not quite forgivable) that these were lacking, due to other shortcuts being delegated to the secondary functions of the arrow keys, but the Yoga 2 Pro has absolutely nothing else on the arrows, so there’s absolutely no excuse, especially when one considers the fact that this is a consumer machine that people are expected to be playing media on. Still, that’s about the worst thing I can say about this otherwise-excellent keyboard. Even the backlighting stays true to the ThinkPad lineage, requiring a key combination to toggle the lights on and off.
What’s not so quite so excellent is the trackpad. It’s not unusable by any means, and I’ve used far worse. To be clear, where it lacks is not in size or precision, but in a couple of behavioral quirks. Even with all of the gestures turned off, it doesn’t always recognize left-clicks 100% of the time, especially when another finger is tracking, which hinders the precision of clicking multiple closeby items on-screen in short succession. There’s also some weird, non-linear acceleration going on. The result is approximately 30% lower efficiency than the gold standard set by the trackpad found on my Dell Precision M6400. This puts it approximately in line with a Trackpoint pointing stick, so it’s still leave-the-mouse-at-home efficient, but not quite as good as I feel that it should have been. Its overall texture is very nice though, offering just the right balance of friction and freedom.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing I learned was that the Yoga 2 Pro actually shares a few traits with its upmarket ThinkPad cousins, namely the Magnesium rollcage. While it would be fair to say that the Yoga 2 Pro doesn’t exactly reek of good build quality, it is at least somewhat better than I was expecting. What disappointed me most about the design was neither the durability nor the keyboard layout, but actually the coating that the machine is finished in. It’s hard to tell from pictures, but the whole machine is painted with some kind of material that is ever-so-slightly grippy.
And we’re not talking about the pleasant soft-touch layer that’s been a staple of ThinkPads for years; it’s actually grippier than that even, and possibly almost borders on “sticky.” And it covers the whole machine, except for the screen. Part of me appreciates the additional grip that this affords to the laptop, but the other part of me is grossed out by how grubby it makes the machine feel. Did I mention that the person who owned this computer before I, also owned a dog? *shudders* It’s not terrible, but I do fear that, someday, this material may break down into a nasty, rubbery mess. In the meantime, I tolerate it, but an unable to fully embrace this questionable design decision.
The display is covered by a capacitive glass touch layer, which is reasonably luxurious. It’s not quite as integrated as Microsoft’s implementation, but still just fine. The glass is predictably reflective, but doesn’t limit viewing angles or cut down on light output like the Wacom digitizer on the X200 Tablet. In this area, Lenovo has come a long way.
One area where they may have regressed, however, was with the hinges. The Yoga 2 Pro, in stark contrast to the Surface Pro, (which has one angle of operation) the Surface 3 (which can be used in three distinct positions) the Dell Precision M6400, (which has a maximum of approximately 165 degrees) and even the ThinkPad T61p, (which can achieve an impressive 180 degrees) can actually open nearly a full 360 degrees.
Why? Nobody’s really sure, but it has something to do with being able to make it mimic a tablet. I always thought that the whole point of a laptop was so that people wouldn’t have to live with the compromises of a tablet, but apparently Lenovo wasn’t of the same mindset. It’s a cute trick, but one whose design ramifications include weak hinges. They don’t get fully loose like the ones found on the T61p, but don’t exactly inspire confidence either. Still, they do work better than most gimmick-based designs, (such as Microsoft’s Surface line) so I can’t complain too much.
With all that said, does the Yoga 2 Pro really stand to replace my X200, Surface Pro, and Surface 3? The answer is actually a quiet “yes,” but with caveats. The battery life and portability, while good, doesn’t quite match the Surface 3, but the results are close enough. The human interface, while not quite as polished as what was seen on the ThinkPad X200, is also good enough. There’s no room for a 2.5” hard disk, but I wasn’t really expecting one on a device of this size either. At the end of the day, whether it is a viable ThinkPad contender or not, the Yoga 2 Pro brings a healthy amount of performance, a fair bit of personality, and even a bit of value to the table. It’s arguably a much better deal now that the prices have leveled out a bit and Windows’s display scaling has improved.