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IdeaPad S12 12.1
Review by Daniel P. Dern
Lenovo Tools & Hardware  ISBN/ITEM#: B002D5MX3C
Date: 22 November 2009 List Price $449.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Manufacturer's Page / Show Official Info /

Lenovo's IdeaPad S12 netbook pushes the top edge of the category's definition in terms of screen size (12.1") and weight (starting just under 3 pounds). But with its near-full-sized, Lenovo-class keyboard, and the size of the screen, the S12 is the first netbook I've tried that lets me be productive not just for basic email, webbing, and writing, but also some document editing. That makes the extra half pound or so, and somewhat higher price, compared to many netbooks, well worth it, in my opinion.

Netbooks, as I'm sure you know, are "small" notebooks. Small in weight -- two to three pounds; small in price -- in the $200-$700-ish range; lowish in performance -- good enough for standard office/Internet productivity applications, but no "heavy lifting" like serious multimedia editing; and small in size -- displays between 7 and 10, depending on whose definition you believe, 10 to 12 inches (diagonal). And they don't have a built-in optical drive.

(Microsoft recently revised their official definition of a netbook from not to exceed 12.1" to 10.2", according to BNet, for example -- and OS-wise, Microsoft says the only version of Windows 7 they'll license for these is Windows 7 Starter, the party poopers.)

You can get full-power notebooks by relaxing at least one of these constraints, e.g., price, weight, or size. Lenovo's ThinkPad X61s (see my Jan 2008 review in TechRevu, for example, weighs 3 pounds and has a 12.1" display, but is in the greater-than-$1,000 price range, and has snappy performance. Ditto Lenovo's ThinkPad X200, price and size-wise. Lenovo's ThinkPad X301 costs more -- in the $1,700 to $2,500 range, weighs a few ounces more, and sports a 13.3" display. Lenovo's IdeaPad U series slims down the price and performance somewhat, by using Intel's "CULV" "consumer-oriented Ultra-Low-Voltage CPUs," with 11.6 to 15.4" displays, weights from 3 to 5.29 pounds, and prices from around $600 to $1,000.

(See my IEEE Spectrum article, Portable Computers Under $1000 and 1 Kilogram for what's been available when you seriously tighten these requirements.)

Netbooks are intended to match-or-beat the size-and-weight convenience of "ultralight" notebooks like Lenovo's X61 and X300 ThinkPads, and Apple's Mac Air, sacrificing performance and some degree of usability, e.g. screen and keyboard size for price and portability.

With its 12.1 " WXGA TFT 1280x800 display and 2.87 pound starting weight, Lenovo's IdeaPad S12 pushes the limits of the current definition of netbook. But the price (MSRP currently starting in the mid-$400s) and processing power (Intel Atom) place it firmly in the netbook category, at least as far as I'm concerned. That's not a criticism, simply a label.

The Lenovo IdeaPad S12 is also the first netbook I've tried that lets me be productive not just for email and web access, but also for the writing and some of the editing (e.g., this review) that constitute much of what I do to earn my living, thanks to the size of its display.

Over the past year, I've tried a number of netbooks and "ultra-light" notebooks (see ), including Lenovo's U110 IdeaPad ultraportable notebook (see my review in TechRevu, Panasonic's three-pound CF-W7 Toughbook (ditto), HP's 2133 Mini-Note netbook ditto) (HP's first foray into netbook territory), and Lenovo's X61s three-pound ultralight powerhouse (see my review from eWeek). Plus I've briefly tried machines at trade shows, in stores and elsewhere. To date, none has whispered "I'm the one you want" to me (although the pre-production mockup of the Asus 1002HA was muttering in that direction).

I've been using Lenovo's IdeaPad S12 for the past few months, at home and on the road. I brought it with me to the World Science Fiction Convention in Montreal. I'm been using it to write this review, while waiting in my doctor's office, e.g., for a flu shot, at libraries, and other places. I've taken it to trade shows in New York City, using it on the train, bus, and plane, and while waiting in the terminals.

I also used the S12 with 3G service -- Verizon, using the USB external 3G modem and service provided by Ipass. This was very convenient when no WiFi was available, e.g., on Amtrak. (However, it meant one more thing, albeit small, to pack and keep track of... and more often than not, my mobile broadband "speed" was apparently about 115kbps -- faster than a speeding dial-up modem, but not by much. Still, that was good enough for email and webbing, and a lot better than nothing.)

And while it's a little heavier and larger than I'd like, the Lenovo IdeaPad S12 is a machine that makes me ready to reach for my wallet.

The keyboard is good. (I'd expect no less, on a Lenovo machine, although if I recall correctly, the one on their IdeaPad S300 had flat keys; the S12's are slightly sculpted.) I recall keys on the ThinkPad X61s being slightly more sculpted, but the IdeaPad S12's keys are good enough for all-day typing.

The display looks good, although -- like most laptop displays -- it tends to wash out in direct sunlight.

The review unit I'm testing has a 1.60Ghz Atom processor with 1GB RAM, running XP Service Pack 3. The system is peppy enough for standard web and Microsoft Office stuff, not super-peppy for heavier-lifting apps like Olympus' photo editing suite, where the Lenovo S12 does work, but not as fast as my year-and-a-half-old Intel desktop computer does.

With the six-cell high-capacity battery, the screen only opens to about 135 degrees... good enough, I guess but it feels like another 15-30 would be good in some cases. However, the longer battery life is worth it.

In addition to Windows, Lenovo pre-installs DeviceVM's SplashTop, a Linux-based "lightweight alternate boot environment" intended to let you get up and online fast for simple web/online tasks like email and web browsing. However, as I indicated in my March 20, 2009 ComputerWorld comparative review of SplashTop and Phoenix Technologies' HyperSpace (Tired of waiting for Windows to boot?), and my September 2009 IEEE Spectrum article, "Why can't your computer wake up as quickly as your BlackBerry?", SplashTop lacks the session persistence needed for a start-up that's meaningfully quicker than resuming from Windows' Hibernate... and it sounds like the joint efforts of Microsoft, BIOS vendors, and hardware vendors, plus use of Solid-State Drives or other flash RAM, is significantly speeding up Windows' cold boot and de-hibernate times.

Other features include the usual suspects -- webcam, slots'n'ports (3 USB, video, audio, SD slot, Ethernet). Also, very appreciated, a physical WiFI on/off, good for conserving power.

Depending on what you do -- and don't -- want to do with a travel machine, this may be more computer than you need -- size and weight in particular (and possibly also price, performance, and capacity. Or not enough.

But for me, this is the first netbook I've been able to be productive enough on, for out-of-office activity, letting me get serious work done. I'm seriously considering buying one.

Lenovo currently offers five models, with MSRP ranging from $449 to $649. The differences include processor (VIA Nano or Intel ATOM), OS (XP/Home or Windows 7/Home), and graphics (Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950 or NVIDIA ION 256MB), RAM 1,2, or 3GB), and hard drive capacity (160, 250, 320GB).

The test unit I tried had a hard drive and was running Windows XP/Home. I'd be interested in seeing what Windows 7 and a solid-state drive (SSD) would do in terms of start-up time -- interestingly, the Windows 7 version offered is Home Premium 32, rather than the "Starter" version.

Vendor claims for Windows 7, the new BIOS and new hardware are for few-second boot-ups. Anecdotally, TechRevu ed-in-chief Ernest Lilley reports Lenovo showing a bevy of Windows 7 notebooks and netbooks booting up in about 30 seconds, alongside a Mac booting up much pokier. I don't know whether the Lenovo IdeaPad S12 has the new BIOS tweaks that are part of the speed-up, and if not, whether there are BIOS updates or a new BIOS available.

My recommendations (and what I'd do) for accessorizing include considering Lenovo's 90W Ultraslim AC/DC Combo Adapter, which may be somewhat smaller and lighter weight than the standard one that ships with the S12. (The power brick may not be much different, but the total brick-and-cabling might be.) Also an external USB-powered optical drive -- Targus has a nice albeit expensive one, Samsung has a good-looking one for much less, that looks about the same size and weight.

I'd also consider buying a spare six-cell battery... you can get external third-party battery packs from Energizer and others, but this spare will pack more power per ounce. (External batteries need additional circuitry.) Read the specs and do the math.

I haven't bought a new notebook computer in nearly four years, and my 5-pound IBM ThinkPad, with its 15-inch display, still works but is more than showing its age, especially in terms of declining battery life. This Lenovo IdeaPad S12 is tempting. Yes, I could get a junker netbook for half this price, but I wouldn't get a fraction of as much useful value. Recommended without hesitation.

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