3 executive-class laptops: Beauty that's more than skin deep

The newest ultraslim Windows notebooks back up their good looks with power and affordability.

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Lenovo IdeaPad U260

Looking more like an expensive leather portfolio than a laptop computer, Lenovo's IdeaPad U260 mixes style and power. It's the smallest and lightest of these three thin notebooks but is tied for first place in cost.

Lenovo IdeaPad U260 laptop
The Lenovo IdeaPad U260

At 0.9 x 12.4 x 8.0 in., the IdeaPad is slightly thicker than the others but an inch narrower from side to side, making it the easiest to pack. Frequent fliers take note: It leaves the most room on an airline tray.

The U260 weighs just 2.9 lbs., which matches the 13-in. MacBook Air and puts it on a par with many netbooks. With its small AC adapter, the system has a travel weight of 3.4 lbs., nearly a pound lighter than the Vostro V130.

Of the three, the IdeaPad has the classiest appearance and looks the least like a notebook. Its rubberized coating has an alluring feeling and is available in clementine (orange) and mocha (brown). Open up the case and you'll see the biggest treat of all: a padded leatherette wrist rest that cushions the palms and make typing much more comfortable. Although the system has 18.8mm keys, the smallest of the bunch, the keyboard is comfortable to use.

The system I tested is powered by a Core i5 470UM processor that cruises at 1.33 GHz, but when the pressure is on, it can boost its speed to 1.86 GHz. (The entry-level model has a 1.33-GHz Core i3 processor.) The U260 takes a back seat to the power of the Asus' 2.53-GHz Core i5 460M chip.

Like the Vostro, the IdeaPad I tested came with 4GB of RAM and a 320GB hard drive; the Asus test unit had a larger 500GB drive. There's an $89 external DVD drive option, but while the drive may be useful, it doesn't match the IdeaPad's classy look.

At 12.5 in., the IdeaPad's screen is the smallest of this notebook trio, but the difference is hard to notice and it was the brightest of the three. It offers the same 1366 x 768 resolution as the others. Like the Vostro, it uses Intel's GMA HD graphics.

The ports that the IdeaPad has on tap are sufficient but not impressive, with a pair of USB 2.0 ports, VGA and HDMI connectors, and a combo headphone/microphone jack. It does without the Asus' USB 3.0 port and the more convenient separate headphone and microphone connections. Unlike the others (and unlike virtually every other notebook made today), the IdeaPad lacks an SD slot for flash memory cards.

Lenovo IdeaPad U260 laptop
The IdeaPad U260 resembles a portfolio case.

On top of 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi networking, the IdeaPad has an Ethernet connection and Bluetooth. Lenovo does not offer an integrated wireless data card for connecting to a cell network.

Performance

The IdeaPad was a midrange performer on just about all measures. On PassMark's PerformanceTest 7.0 benchmark, it scored a 664.5, slightly ahead of both the Vostro and the Asus in Battery Saving mode, but well behind the score of 1,095 that the Asus achieved in High Performance mode. In real-world use, the IdeaPad's performance and response times seemed on par with the Vostro's -- that is, adequate but not as fast as the Asus in High Performance mode, and it showed fewer background details in the Trainz simulations.

The IdeaPad's six-cell battery can power it for 3 hours and 23 minutes, more than an hour longer than the Vostro, a virtual tie with the Asus in High Performance mode and well behind the Asus' 4:17 run time in Battery Saving mode. The IdeaPad remained connected to my office Wi-Fi router 105 feet away, 10 feet longer than the Vostro but 20 feet short of the Asus machine's mark.

Priced at $999, the IdeaPad includes Windows 7 Home Premium, Office 2010 Starter and a translucent smiley face that shows up on-screen and provides shortcuts to a variety of configuration details. It's the same price as the Asus U36JC, but it comes with a one-year warranty, a year short of the coverage that Asus provides. An extension to three years of coverage adds $80, a nice bargain.

Bottom line

If you're looking for a good compromise between size, weight and performance in a notebook that doesn't look like a notebook, the IdeaPad U260 fits the bill.

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