On the surface, Lenovo's Y500 gaming laptop looks like a standard black notebook computer. When we opened the system up, however, we were surprised by a comfortable, full-size backlit keyboard, a high-quality 15.6-inch screen, and above-average audio. Not bad, even if these are expected in a modern gaming laptop.
Digging a little deeper into the Y500's specifications really raised our eyebrows. A Core i7 3630 processor? Not one, but two GeForce GT graphics parts? An SSD bootstrap drive? 16GB of system memory? For $1,250 (£825)?
It's hard to believe, but it's true. And, more importantly, it's fast. Lenovo's load-out puts the Y500 in rarified air, which we'll detail in a bit. As much as we enjoy flashy, we'll take performance and a low price over aesthetics every time.
Aesthetics: Plain Jane looks bely remarkable power
If someone handed you the black, brushed-metal Y500, you'd probably mistake it for a yeoman-class Dell Latitude-type system. In some cases, this might be true—the Y500 comes in a wide variety of configurations ranging from a fairly basic load-out to the ultra-system we tested.
The chassis doesn't look ugly by any means—just simple. It's big (15.2 x 10.2 x 1.4 inches), heavy (6+ pounds), and when closed, doesn't look particularly modern. The upside of such a simple look is that, if you're big on stickering your laptop, the clean surfaces are ideally suited for such aspirations.
Thankfully, a number of interesting design elements and features give the Y500 some surprising sizzle. The gigantic backlit keyboard is the first thing that stands out; the red backlight against the black chassis is quite striking, and is about as pure a gaming profile as you can get. It's also essential for gaming and other tasks that frequently take place in the dark.
In addition to looking nice, the keyboard is fantastic. We'll admit that reactions to keyboards are entirely subjective, but the Y500's Chiclet-style keys possess a pleasing, slightly rubberized surface. They feel very comfortable to type on, and are still responsive enough to play games with.
The full range of FN enhancements exist, including sleep mode, keyboard backlight on/off, volume controls, etc. And finally, the inclusion of a numerical keypad on the right-hand side of the system is more than a luxury for some gamers; it's a necessity. Even though these numerical keys are about two-thirds the size of the main alphanumeric keys, you likely won't notice the difference.
This undercover aesthetic emphasis extends to other aspects of this gaming system as well. Aggressive-looking, asymmetrical speaker grills that house two 1.5 watt JBL stereo speakers sit just above the keyboard. This grilling also exists on the bottom of the laptop, where a large grate allows the Y500 to exhaust some of the hot air that the dual GPUs throw off via an optional (and removable) fan. The lock for the swappable Ultrabay (fan, hard drive, DVD burner) is also here.
Beyond all this, we were pleased to discover that the Y500 possesses a very crisp, very clear 15.6" 1920 x 1080 glossy LED screen. This is particularly gratifying at the $1,250 (£825) price point. There's no touch experience here though, so the system's track pad is forced to function as the gesture control for Windows 8, with mixed results. More on this later.
One last note before we jump into the Y500's system specifications: Partially as a result of the beefy metal chassis and partially as a result of the Y500's heft, this laptop feels incredibly sturdy. This is not surprising, given Lenovo's laptop-making pedigree. However, all things considered, we'd gladly shave a few pounds if it meant sacrificing a little sturdiness.
In the configuration we tested, Lenovo's Y500 has the following core specs:
2.4GHz Intel Core i7 3630QM
2x Nvidia GeForce GT 650M
1 TB 5400 rpm hard drive
1 16GB SanDisk SSD
Normally, the inclusion of Intel's high-end quad-core 2.4GHz Core i7-3630QM processor would be the star of any gaming laptop. But Lenovo's decision to include dual Nvidia GeForce GT 650M adaptors carries the day.
The GT 650M is a mid-range DirectX 11-compatible Kepler part that Nvidia introduced at the beginning of 2012. Each adapter here has 2GB of GDDR5, and the cards operate in SLI mode, which results in very real gaming performance.
The GT 650M is capable of supporting up to four displays, although you'll only get three out of the Y500 because the laptop only has two video-out ports. These graphics parts are also capable of running display resolutions up to 3840x2160.
The best part about this particular laptop's SLI configuration is that, because one of the GT 650M adapter snaps in via the system's swappable Ultrabay, you can theoretically adjust your system configuration to be storage-heavy for work/productivity purposes, and then switch back to gaming when the time comes.
The presence of the Core i7 3630QM 2.4 GHz, released by Intel in Q3 2012, is very nice. A high-mid-range Intel Ivy Bridge quad-core, the 3630QM is capable of single-core burst modes up to 3.40GHz. The CPU has a 6MB cache and is capable of running 8 threads at a time. In other words, it is also ideally suited for gaming.
(In case you're wondering, there are two key differences between the 3630QM here and the 3632QM that appears in other gaming laptops, including Razer's Blade system. First, the clock speed of the Core i7 3630QM is 2.4GHZ to the 3632QM's 2.2GHZ. Second, the Core i7 3632 is rated at a maximum Thermal Design Power—TDP—of 35 watts, while the 3630 runs at 45 watts. A lower TDP = improved power consumption.)
Another aspect of the Y500's design that gamers will appreciate is the presence of 16GB of SSD storage, a nice load-time accelerator for apps and games.
The Y500 has two USB 3.0 ports, two powered USB 2.0 ports, one VGA port, one HDMI connector, an Ethernet port, a 1/8-inch SPDIF stereo headphone output, and a microphone jack. A DisplayPort adapter would have been a nice add-on feature because it would allow for support of higher resolution displays.
One of the great things about the Y500 model is that it is available in a number of configurations and price points. CPU options range from a Core i3 3110M to a Core i7 3820, with 10 other processor options in between. System memory runs from 8GB to 16GB, and the presence of the Ultra Bay allows another set of alternatives, including a DVD read/write drive.
Prices range from $800 (£525) up to $1,700 (£1,120) . Unfortunately, if you'd rather use Windows 7 than Windows 8, you're out of luck. The only two OS options here are Windows 8 and Windows 8 Professional.
Performance: Smoking fast
Cinebench 10: 21,930 (5807 single CPU)
3DMark 06: 13,863
Battery Eater 05: 91 minutes, 38 seconds
Boot Time: 15.4 seconds
Call of Duty 4: 160fps
Given the hardware specifications detailed above, we expected the Y500 to output some impressive performance numbers. We weren't disappointed—this system is fast enough that it successfully competes with laptops that cost a lot more.
How fast are we talking? Let's put it this way: In all of our tests, the Lenovo Y500 came out on top of Razer's premium Razer Blade gaming system, which costs $1,250 (£825) more.
To be fair to Razer, the Blade can claim a screen that's two inches bigger, as well as an innovative touchpad that functions as a fairly full-fledged second screen. And despite all this, the Razer Blade somehow weighs only a wee bit more than this laptop…and is a half-inch thinner.
None of this takes anything away from the favorable benchmark numbers Lenovo achieves threw down in our tests. Lenovo's system's designers clearly made some smart component decisions to arrive at this level of power at such a low price.
In our Cinebench 10 test, which completely saturates all existing CPU cores/threads, the Y500 achieved a remarkable score of 21,930 thanks to the Core i7's high clock speed of 2.4GHz and the existence of 4 cores and eight threads. No big shock here, given that this is one of Intel's newest Ivy Bridge processors.
By way of comparison, the Razer Blade put up a 20,026 score, and Toshiba's Qosmio X870 (reviewed last summer at $1,899 / £1,250) put up a score of 21,197.
We experienced similar results in in our graphics tests. The tandem GeForce GT 650M graphics cards in SLI allowed this system to cut through our gaming tests like a hot knife through a stick of butter. While this performance is not depicted in the 3DMark 06 test because of 3DMark's trouble benching SLI configurations, the Y500's single-adapter mark of 13,863 puts it pretty much neck and neck with other high-end gaming laptops.
Given this, it's no shock that in terms of less controlled, real-world testing, the presence of the second graphics adapter makes one heck of a difference. In our default Call of Duty 4 Modern Warfare test, we saw benchmarks in the 160 frames per second range. Even with all the details cranked up to maximum levels and the resolution turned up to 1920 x 1080, we still saw frame rates near 60.
How does this translate into more contemporary gaming experiences? In titles such as Borderlands 2 and Call of Duty: Black Ops II, we saw benchmarks in the low- to mid-50s at moderate detail levels.
Translation of all of the above: The Y500 is a surprisingly bad ass gaming system. And at $1,250, it feels like a steal, enough so that we're still having a hard time understanding how Lenovo has managed to accomplish this much power at this low a price.
So, what's missing? In terms of performance, not much is absent. We did find ourselves wishing that the Y500 had a faster 7200 RPM hard drive, not because of any perceived slowdown issues, but mainly because faster rotational speeds would only further boost performance. This said, the presence of the small 16GB SSD does provide a nice amount of giddy-up to file access and app performance.
It also would have been nice to see an IPS display in effect. But again, these kinds of feature upgrades would only result in a higher system price.
Finally, in our Battery Eater test, which stresses all primary PC components in order to gauge battery life, we saw a run time of 91 minutes, 38 seconds. That's about par for this course. At this point in time, there's no real way to generate significantly more unplugged minutes from this type of component configuration.
Given the exhaust grill on the bottom of the laptop, we were concerned that extended use on our laps would generate some serious heat and discomfort. We were grateful to discover that this, in fact, was not the case. Even during light gaming, the Y500 never got hot enough that we became concerned about our reproductive systems.
It's worth noting that the Y500 pumps out surprisingly decent-sounding audio during gaming sessions. The two JBL speakers produce nice mid-range tones as well as full low-end effects—particularly for a laptop.
Input controls are the only weak spot
We've already discussed how great the Y500's keyboard is. It's comfortable enough that, unless you like to set up your portable out of arm's reach as an extra display, you'll want to use it as your primary keyboard vs. tacking on an extra one.
Unfortunately, the Y500's track pad, which Intel calls the Intelligent Touch Pad, doesn't feel great or intelligent at all. It's the only real weak spot here. We frequently experienced mild to medium levels of frustration doing everything from playing strategy games to maneuvering the mouse around on the Windows desktop to simply trying to scroll through open windows and documents.
In an attempt to adjust for the Y500's full-size keyboard, Lenovo placed the large, 4.5-inch track pad slightly control off center enough that it's located on the left half of the wrist rest and is centered perfectly between the alphanumeric part of the keyboard. That's smart design.
Unfortunately, the mouse buttons themselves are hard to operate, partially because the buttons are extremely stiff and unresponsive, and partially because of poor design. Almost the entire Touch Pad surface works as the left button, and there are left and right mouse buttons integrated into the bottom half-inch of the Pad, with nothing more than a line separating left from right. The end result was that, initially and quite frequently, we clicked the right mouse button when we meant to click the left one.
After a while we got used to the hang of things. But with this big a track pad, Lenovo should have borrowed from Apple and used the whole track pad for left-click, and the bottom right-hand corner for right-clicking.
Ultimately, this is more annoying for day-to-day usage than for games; serious fast-twitch gamers are going to use a mouse anyway. This said, if you're going to be playing strategy games like Civilization or StarDrive, prepare to be frustrated, and to take some time getting used to how it works.
All of the above is compounded by the Touch Pad's lack of sensitivity, which makes tasks like two-finger scrolling and a variety of gestures less reliable than they should be.
This shortcoming is exacerbated even further by the use of Windows 8 in a non-touch environment, which emphasizes the type of mouse gesture controls that the Y500's Touch Pad struggles to recognize. Simple tasks, like launching apps from desktop mode, or even just accessing the settings menu in order to turn this laptop off repeatedly become an exercise in futility.
To be fair to Lenovo, we wouldn't exchange a touch screen for a $200 (£130) higher price tag. But it would be nice to have a Windows 7 option. Windows 8 in a non-touch environment that is consistently pushing you to the desktop just doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
By far, the best thing about the Y500 model that we tested is that it is screaming fast. We would have never expected that $1250 (£825) could buy anyone such a fast, off the shelf gaming laptop. Not today, at least. This is the kind of system that you can not just wow, but completely shock your friends with.
Above and beyond the outstanding price-performance, we're also appreciative of the Y500's top-notch keyboard and steady, sturdy chassis. Together, the two create a top-notch typing surface.
We also appreciate the lack of annoying Windows desktop bloatware that so many other software developers bundles onto so many other PC makers' systems. Aside from anti-virus protection, desktop capture software, and a few other apps and applications, there are very few distractions and performance-reducing software suites.
Finally, we think that speaker quality on laptops is under-rated and largely ignored, mostly because the audio coming out of even high-end portable systems is so medicore. That's not the case here, and this is something to be appreciated.
Tying this section up, we also think that the use of a swappable bay that is capable of housing a bigger hard drive, a separate discreet graphics chip, or a ventilating fan is a great idea. It's something that Lenovo has been doing for ages in its corporate-class offerings.
Truth be told, there's not a whole lot to dislike here. There are no gripes that are of the same caliber as the great news about the Y500's system performance, that's for sure.
The biggest complaint we have is regarding the Touch Pad controls. Given how great a keyboard this laptop has, we found the non-responsiveness of the track pad itself as well as the buttons on the track pad surprising. Granted, most people will get used to it over time, and the vast majority of gamers will use a mouse anyway. But there are some fairly well established designs here that Lenovo could have easily mirrored.
The only other significant concern here is the size and bulk of this system. It may be hard to believe, but a six-pound laptop is fairly heavy these days. By way of comparison, Apple's MacBook Pro has a similar-sized screen and load-out, but only weighs a little under 4.5 pounds.
Aside from these concerns, everything else feels fairly minor. It's easy to complain about Windows 8, but there's not much to be done about this aside from simply buying a copy of Windows 7 and re-installing it. It would be similarly easy to complain about the lack of a touch screen, but who needs that in a gaming laptop? Not us.
The more we play games on the Y500, the more impressed we are with Lenovo's minimalist design aesthetic. It's a worthy sacrifice to get the kind of performance the system builder has generated at such a low price point.
From the slightly nerdier perspective of a PC system-builder, the Y500's component selection reflects an intelligent, well thought-out design process. Lenovo's decision to pair a powerful, modern Ivy Bridge mobile proc with a pair of older, high-mid-range GeForce parts is the kind of decision-making that savvy, performance-oriented DIYers make all the time when constrained by dollars.
You can get faster laptops today, but at nowhere near the price tag of this one. That makes this an easy call. If you're on the market for a gaming laptop, you should buy the Y500 (in the same trim as we reviewed it) as soon as you possibly can. It's an ultra-rare combination of fast, versatile, and affordable. And while it is a bit bulky, it's not so big that you can't carry it with you.
We can only hope that other system manufacturers learn from Lenovo here, thereby ending the string of over-priced, kitchen-sink gaming laptops we still occasionally see in favor of more chaste and powerful configurations.