Lenovo Y480 Review – A Powerful Portable Laptop for Students

Lenovo Y480Last year I reviewed the IdeaPad Y470 and found it to be a great portable yet powerful laptop option for students.  This year Lenovo is updating the Y-series with the IdeaPad Y480 that is powered by the latest 3rd generation of Intel Core i7 processors that some of you may have heard referred to as “Ivy Bridge”.  Many have been eagerly awaiting the Y480 release, the new Intel platform is of course faster than last years Sandy Bridge processors and yet still offers equivalent or better battery life.  This is an enticing proposition for those like myself who are students and need long battery life for use in class but also like to kick back and play some 3D games on the weekends (ok, and sometimes during the week as well)!  What follows is a review of the IdeaPad Y480 that I recently purchased, the specs of the laptop under review are as follows:

  • Display: 14.0-inch LED backlit display with 1366 x 768 resolution, glossy finish
  • CPU: Intel Core i7-3610QM 2.3GHz Quad-Core processor (Ivy Bridge)
  • Graphics: NVIDIA GeForce GT 640M LE
  • Memory: 8GB of DDR3 memory
  • Storage: 750GB 5400RPM Hard Drive
  • OS: Windows 7 Home Premium 64-Bit
  • Ports: Two USB 2.0, Two USB 3.0 ports, 6-in-1 media card reader, Ethernet RJ-45 port, headphone out, microphone in, monitor out VGA port, HDMI port
  • Optical Drive: DVD Super Multi-Burner
  • Wireless: 802.11b/g/n Wireless Networking, Bluetooth 4.0
  • Weight: 4.85lbs (2.20kg)
  • Dimensions: 13.6” (W) x 9.4” (D) x 0.8” – 1.3” (H)
  • Battery: Lithium Ion 6-cell, 48Wh
  • Price as configured: $949

That’s a lot of performance per pound.  Granted, 4.85lbs is not exactly light weight for a 14” laptop when you compare it to Ultrabooks of the same size that are coming out weighing under 4lbs, but you will certainly get more of a performance punch with the quad Core i7 processor and dedicated Nvidia graphics.  Those that are in the know about graphics cards will look at the specs of the Nvidia GT 640M LE and shrug their shoulders as, despite being new, it’s not exactly a high end card.  Many people have been clamoring to see the Nvidia GT 650M inside the Y480 as that offers the new Nvidia “Kepler” architecture and a significant improvement over the AMD 7690M graphics included in the Lenovo Y470p predecessor.  However, for my needs the Nvidia 640M LE fits the bill.  It’s a little more power friendly, offers about the same performance as the AMD 7690M, and so allows you to play most any game at 1366 x 768 resolution, albeit not at high detail and not at frame rates of over 60 fps.  As I said, for my needs this is first and foremost a laptop for getting school work done and the gaming ability is all sugar on top.

Design

Lenovo Y480 lid

Lenovo didn’t exactly overhaul the Y480’s design from the proceeding Y470, but there are certainly some differences.  At the current time on Lenovo.com the only color design available is “Dawn Grey”, supposedly there is a black color option but it’s not configurable.  The Dawn Grey finish is exactly as it says, all grey.  The lid has a brush metal aluminum finish, which is both classy and a common finish on high-end laptops these days.  Inside is much of the same, the keyboard tray is a dark grey with a brush finish while the keyboard itself is black with orange accents used for certain key functions.  With the Y470 there was a lot more use of orange accents going on, a purple tint to the case and a funky pattern on the lid, so by comparison the Y480 is much more conservative looking.  The shape of the laptop is pretty much the same as before, it has rounded off corners though the top edge remains somewhat sharp.

For a 14” laptop the Y480 is kind of thick at 1.3” at the thickest point.  Don’t get me wrong, it’ll still fit in your backpack no problem, it still has a small footprint, but it’ll look fat next to an Ultrabook or MacBook Air that is 0.70” thick give or take.  One new design touch I really dig is the backlit keyboard, and it’s of course a functional feature as well, making it super easy to see the keyboard in dimly lit or dark rooms.

Build Quality

When you’re spending close to a grand on a laptop you want to know that it’s not only powerful but also durably built.  I think many will expect the Y480 to last them 4-years, the (theoretical) amount of time you’ll spend from start to end in college.  Thankfully Lenovo went ahead and used high quality materials in the Y480, there’s very little flex to be found anywhere on this notebook, push and prod as I might.  Not to fool anyone, I mentioned the brush metal finish and that may lead some to believe this is a solid hunk of metal and built like a tank.  Well, not quite.  The aluminum clad finish is exactly that, clad on top of a durable plastic frame.  The plastic case construction is still very durable feeling, I don’t know if it’s the same ABS plastic as that used in ThinkPad’s, but suffice to say the frame and chassis still feels very stiff and will stand up to the daily rigors of being on campus.  You can shove it in and pull it out of your backpack, drop your backpack on the floor full of books and in general jostle this machine around and it still starts up and shows no worse for the wear.

Lenovo Y480 speaker

Now I add this caveat, it’s pretty impossible to fully vet the build quality of a laptop you’ve only been using two weeks or even two months.  Only a year or more of time will tell what the long term prospects are of the Y480, but I’m confident based on early usage and perceptions that this thing is built to last.

Lenovo Y480 Performance

As is the case with any new chip from Intel, there was intense interest before the release of what kind of performance boost the new Ivy Bridge would give end users.  Here’s a dirty little secret though, the Core i7 Sandy Bridge processors were so good that for 90% of users they’re still going to be fine.  But if you want to know you’re on the cutting edge and have a 15% or so processing boost over a previous generations processors, then you’ll sleep better at night knowing you have the latest and greatest processor inside the Y480.  Specifically, this review unit came with the Intel Core i7-3610QM 2.30GHz CPU.  Right now there’s no option to upgrade the processor on Lenovo.com, but you really don’t need to, the Core i7-3610QM is fast, fast, fast.  The weak spots on this machine are the slow 5400RPM hard drive and powerful yet not screamingly fast Nvidia 640M LE.  Unfortunately there is no option to upgrade to the Nvidia 650M – yet.  That may change in the coming weeks and days.  You do get an option to have a hybrid HD and SSD when buying via Lenovo, but it’s unclear whether Lenovo actually puts the OS on the SSD, which would be important to improve the overall speed of the laptop.  Either way, you can put an SSD or mini SSD inside the Y480 after market by yourself for around $200, upgrading to an SSD would result in a lot faster boot up and program load times.

Anyway, the burning question is how well does this system perform overall and compared to its predecessor, the Y470 and Y470p?  When comparing the Y480 to a Y470p with the following configuration:

  • Y470p specs for performance comparison: Intel Core i5-2450m, AMD 7690M graphics, 6GB RAM, 500GB 5400RPM HD

the benchmark results from 3DMark 11 indicate 3D performance is pretty close:

3DMark 11 (measures 3D graphics performance)

  • Lenovo IdeaPad Y480 (Intel Core i7-3610QM, NVIDIA 640M LE, 8GB RAM, 5400RPM HD) – 1,335
  • Lenovo IdeaPad Y470p (Intel Core i5-2450m, AMD 7690M, 6GB RAM, 5400RPM HD) – 1,340

But overall performance as measured by PCMark Vantage, which considers every component and does not just focus on testing the graphics card, is a wide margin of victory for the Y480:

PCMark Vantage (measures overall system performance)

  • Lenovo IdeaPad Y480 (Intel Core i7-3610QM, NVIDIA 640M LE, 8GB RAM, 5400RPM HD) 8,634 PCMarks
  • Lenovo IdeaPad Y470p (Intel Core i5-2450m, AMD 7690M, 6GB RAM, 5400RPM HD) 6,727 PCMarks

Obviously those that have their heart set on gaming will be disappointed to see things are pretty much the same in terms of 3D capabilities as the Y470p.  The Nvidia GT 640M LE card in the Y480 is pretty evenly matched with the performance from last years Nvidia GT 555M or AMD 7690M cards – neither of which are slouches.  It’s really the new Intel Core i7-3610QM processor that makes the Y480 better performance wise.  Also consider the fact that the integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics are a lot better than the Intel HD 3000 graphics in the Y470.  Cold comfort for those with their heart set on better dedicated graphics, but still a little something to sweeten the pot.

Lenovo Y480 Screen

The Y480 has a 14.0” glossy screen with a 1366 x 768 resolution.  No doubt some people would have liked to have seen a higher resolution option, but it’s not to be.  Still, when it comes to gaming the 1366 x 768 resolution is a good thing in that it allows for higher frame rates.

The screen is vibrant, the glossy layer helps to make colors really pop.  On the down side, the glossy finish also causes a mirror like reflection, especially when the screen has darker colors and you have a lot of light behind you.

Lenovo Y480 Screen

Viewing angles are what you’d expect, if you tilt the screen way back then the colors distort, but if you view from the side the color distortion isn’t too bad.

IMG_0456 IMG_0458

The screen brightness is very good, though you still won’t be able to use it outside as the screen would simply reflect all the light in an outdoor setting and act like a mirror.

Lenovo Y480 Keyboard

Lenovo Y480 keyboard

If you’re doing a lot of typing and picky about keyboards then this part will be important to you.  If you’re of the opinion that a keyboard is a keyboard is a keyboard, so long as it has all the typical QWERTY keys, then you can move on.

In terms of design, the Y480 uses a chiclet / island style keys.  This means each key is individual and stands on its own.  The spacing of the keys is good, allowing for accurate typing.  The overall keyboard is firm and free of flex.  My one gripe is the location of the PgUp and PgDn keys along the far right side.  It’s not exactly a normal location and you have to have a very deft pinky finger to reach over there and use them.

The best feature of the Y480 keyboard, and one that’s a significant improvement over the Y470, is the backlit keyboard.  You can turn on the backlighting by holding down the Fn + Space.  Once turned on the keys are brightly illuminated and easy to see in a dimly lit room, making it easy to find those uncommonly used keys.  There is no ambient light sensor to automatically turn the backlighting on and off, but that’s ok by me, I actually prefer to just leave the backlighting on at all times anyway.

Lenovo Y480 Ports

All the important ports are included with the IdeaPad Y480.  You get HDMI, USB 3.0, Ethernet, headphone, microphone ports and a media card reader.  Below are images of each side of the Y480 indicating the port locations:

On the left side is a VGA port, Ethernet port, HDMI and two USB 3.0 (blue colored ports)

IMG_0441

On the right side is a headphone port, microphone port, two USB 2.0 ports and an optical disk drive

Y480 right side

There are no ports on the back

Y480 back side

On the front side is the 6-in-1 media card reader, which comes with a plastic dummy fill-in

IMG_0440

Y480 Battery Life

This IdeaPad comes with a 6-cell Lithium Ion rechargeable battery with a 48WH capacity.  Lenovo claims 4 hours of battery life on the specs, which turns out to be about right under normal usage.  I did a battery stretch test by dimming the screen all the way down and letting the Y480 idle while in energy saver power mode and squeezed out just over 5 hours of battery life.  That’s a rather unrealistic usage scenario, unless you’re in a dark room and can deal with a low screen brightness, you’ll probably need to set it to at least half screen brightness.  If you’re gaming or playing HD videos with screen brightness all the way up, battery life is going to drop down to around 3 hours.

IMG_0449

Y480 Heat/Fan Noise

The Lenovo Y480 has a giant cooling system for a 14-inch screen laptop.  You can see the huge heat vent on the left side and inside there is a big heat sync.  So although the laptop might be kind of thick, that size is put to good use via the big and efficient cooling system.  The Y480 rarely gets hot and only when running benchmarks did the temperature reach into the mid-90s around the heat vent area.  Under normal usage this machine is entirely comfortable to use in the lap, it won’t burn your legs or make you sweat.  The fan noise was minimal, they didn’t come on half as much as you would expect for a small laptop with a bunch of powerful components crammed in, and even when on the noise was low level.

Wrap Up

The IdeaPad Y480 is a unique offering in that it costs under $1,000 and has serious performance in a small package.  The Alienware M14x does offer more powerful options, such as an Nvidia 650m graphics card (which hopefully the Y480 eventually has), but it costs $1,250 starting out with a 3rd generation Core i7 processor.  Many people don’t want to spend close to $1,500 after taxes on a laptop, so the M14x is out of reach.   But the Y480 shouldn’t just be considered a cheaper alternative to something that’s better, it’s an awesome machine with a lot to like.  I would like to see more options, like a higher resolution screen, matte screen option and of course a more flexible online configuration that offers a range of graphics cards.  However, those grumbles aside, the Y480 is easy for me to recommend and is a nice evolution of the previously popular Y470.

Product Purchase Page

The Lenovo IdeaPad Y480 Starts at $849 on Lenovo.com

Interested in Purchasing this Lenovo ThinkPad Laptop?

Here are the country specific links to Lenovo.com with current deals!



Filed Under: Feature Articles, Lenovo Student Laptop

14 Responses to Lenovo Y480 Review – A Powerful Portable Laptop for Students

  1. The Swee May 17, 2012 at 8:12 am #

    Hey man – great review. I took the plunge and bought the 1TB + 32GB SSD model. Hope it’s good!

    My main concern with the graphics card used to be about gaming, but since I’m 10 years older and I also have an Xbox, my main concern is now Photoshop, Indesign, Illustrator, etc. You think this computer will run those smoothly given the i7 Ivy Bridge and 2GB GPU? That’s what I’m gambling on….LMK what you think. My ship date is May 24th and I’m getting all antsy with anticipation…

    • AJ May 17, 2012 at 10:57 am #

      thanks for the feedback! So the applications you use are pretty much all dependent on the CPU for performance and since this is the latest Intel Core i7 (Ivy Bridge) you’re definitely going to get some sweet performance. The graphics card actually doesn’t matter so much for those Adobe programs. Also, the 2GB of VRAM isn’t entirely necessary, the graphics card really doesn’t have the bandwidth to even need that amount, but it certainly won’t hurt performance either. Good luck with the Y480!

  2. DJ May 20, 2012 at 4:33 am #

    I ordered mine (highest option with coupon $1049 + tax) and it’s shipping sometime at the end of the month.I’ve had ThinkPads in the past so I’m not worried about quality especially durability, they can take beatings. I really wanted to check out the Y580 but it keeps getting pushed back (now June) and I couldn’t wait anymore since I wanted a new laptop sooner. My main concern is I keep reading back and forth the GPU that came with the review units are 640M LE and 650M, 640M which is the one I wanted and paid for but I wish it did come with 650M Battlefield 3 would be much better. I would be really pissed if they added extra options in a month and have buyers remorse.

    • AJ May 20, 2012 at 2:13 pm #

      Just stop reading forums or tech related headlines and you’ll never know if anything changes in regards to the Y480 :D If you need something now, you need it now, some people wait forever because there’s always something just a little bit better around the corner of course!

      • DJ May 21, 2012 at 11:28 pm #

        I’m so OCD, and really I am, that it keeps me crazy sometimes. I really hope they don’t do anything to cause me to have buyer’s remorse. Maybe they’ll save it for the Y580 and whenever I get mine in it’ll actually be as stated on their site, GT 640M. Besides Lenovo has a policy if they made a mistake in the order they’ll take it back, so technically I could use that and just get what I so desired in the end since their site was misleading. Overall I think I’ll enjoy this new laptop. I haven’t gotten a new one in six years now and so I need an upgrade.

  3. ceestudent May 31, 2012 at 7:57 am #

    I was trying to do a benchmark test using 3d mark 11, but the result is very bad (I suspect there is a problem with the nvidia setting). The result is only about 400 only.
    Can you share what is the setting you use for your 3d mark 11 setting.

    Thanks

    • AJ May 31, 2012 at 3:54 pm #

      400 is way too low a score, make sure your Windows power settings are set to “Performance” and you can go into the Nvidia Optimus graphics settings and force the dedicated graphics to be always on and then run the benchmark (right click on the desktop, choose Nvidia control panel), it sounds like it’s using integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics to get that score.

  4. Stonecold June 20, 2012 at 5:44 am #

    Hi there,
    Just posted question on the Y470 review page before I found this page on the Y480.

    I’m wicked pysched to get this little rig, but would like to install an mSSD on my own and get the most performance improvement out of it. I understand that the OS should be installed on there to get this benefit.
    I’m looking for someone’s kind input on detailing the process after you install the mSSD physically…what’s next? BIOS changes, drivers, software, anything special to know about how to install an OS onto mSSD, etc…..

    Any help would be greatly appreciated!

    mike

    • DJ June 20, 2012 at 10:31 am #

      It uses the mSSD as a cache boot. It’s what helps it boot within 15 seconds

      • Stonecold June 22, 2012 at 10:41 pm #

        Thanks DJ….. but I am looking for the details on how to install / setup / configure the mSSD drive when you buy it aftermarket. Any details on that process?

        Thank you

        • DJ July 1, 2012 at 11:22 pm #

          If you’re gonna have a SSD than it’s not necessary but if not than it’s pretty simple to install the mSSD, I have an SSD and mSSD which is overkill wished I just paid for the HDD instead to save some money on the purchase. The mini PCI slot is next to the HDD/SSD drive bay to the left of it if I remember correctly.

  5. Neo July 27, 2012 at 4:16 pm #

    Any idea how good are the webcams with these? Do they work well in low lit dorm rooms. Any motion blur during usage?

    • AJ July 28, 2012 at 6:11 am #

      Hi Neo, the Y480 web cam is a low light sensitive camera and works well. I forgot to mention it also has face recognition built in for login if that appeals to you. I did not experience motion blur during my usage. Thanks for reading!

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