Lenovo IdeaPad Y580 Review
It wasn't that long ago that getting a gaming laptop meant spending two grand and having to lug around a massive slab of plastic and metal that weighed a good ten pounds - twelve if you counted the power brick which you pretty much needed if you wanted to use the computer for more than an hour. In the last couple of years, however, GPU technology has improved to the point that manufacturers can now easily fit decent hardware into a more reasonably-sized (and modestly-priced!) machine that won't break the bank or your back. Boutique manufacturers like Alienware, OriginPC, XoticPC, and more are making great machines at a wide range of prices, but I decided instead to go with Lenovo and the laptop with the most powerful GPU they offer. That laptop is the Ideapad Y580, and while serious work-laptop enthusiasts that read this are already scoffing at my terrible buying decision - after all, the Thinkpad T430 is the One True Lenovo to them - as someone who actually plays PC games as part of both career and lifestyle, I've got to have gaming with me anywhere I go.
I ordered one of the Y580s that has an MSRP of $1299, but you can get them on sale really often. I picked one up on a Christmas Day sale for what I thought was an impressive $900 plus tax, and it included a Core i7 3630QM quad-core CPU, 1TB 5400 RPM hard drive, Nvidia 660M 2GB GPU, and a 15.6" screen at 1920x1080 resolution. The laptop I'm replacing with the Y580 admittedly isn't much different on the surface - it's the predecessor, the Lenovo IdeaPad Y570, but that older machine has significantly less horsepower with a weaker GPU and CPU. It may not seem like it on paper, but the latest-gen tech from Intel and Nvidia makes this Ideapad refresh a vastly better machine than the Y570 for gaming on the go.
The Y580 weighs in at 6.15 lb and its dimensions are 15.2" x 10" x 1.4", with a mostly uniform thickness from front to back - that doesn't make it thin and light in any way, but then again, thin and light won't get you an acceptable frame rate in PlanetSide 2. (I'll come back to this point repeatedly, because the Y580 is really only a smart buy if gaming is at the top of your list and your budget is in the $1000-ish range.) What Lenovo offers here is a particular balance between price, gaming performance, general usability, and portability, and after having used gaming laptops ranging from the 11" Alienware M11x (which weighs 4lb or so) to a couple of 17", twelve-pound behemoths, the middle ground of the IdeaPad Y580 is a form factor that I think I'm settling on for a good long while. It's not so tiny that I won't notice it if I stuff it into a backpack, but it's not so huge that the backpack starts to feel heavy after half an hour. It's not as fast (or as heavy) as a hulking beast of a machine that chews through games, but unlike the smaller gaming laptops that are on the market, the Y580 can run pretty much anything I throw at it, even at 40+fps - as long as I'm willing to tweak game settings to match.
Pictures paint a thousand words, so I won't have too much to say on this. Look at the pictures yourself and decide, but my opinion is that the IdeaPad Y580 is not a pretty laptop, not by any stretch of the imagination. While I generally like the appearance of a chiclet-style keyboard and find no real fault in the shape and contours of this laptop, other companies are making some great-looking hardware with uniform thickness and sometimes all-metal casings. Of course, the simple fact is that no companies have put those features into gaming machines yet - or at least, not for a reasonable price. As part of a set of compromises Lenovo made for this laptop that I'll detail in this review, aesthetics took a pretty big hit in order for them to reach their goals. But looking at their whole product line, you'll be hard-pressed to find a Lenovo machine, even a small and thin one, that matches the looks of MacBooks or even Samsung's Series 9 or some of Asus' laptops. Lenovo is not the company you go to if you're worried about how cool you look at your local coffee shop.
Lenovo gets a lot of credit for the amazing build quality of their ThinkPad machines, while most other lines like the IdeaPad brand are a little less immaculately constructed. This continues with the Y580, but I think that you can learn a lot about a laptop's construction (and the customer service that comes with it) by the cost of extended warranties. And in this case, Lenovo offers some of the most competitively-priced extended warranties in the industry. As of this writing, extending the default one-year warranty to three years only adds $100 to the price, which is pretty reasonable for a laptop in the $1000 range and beats out pretty much every US-based competitor I could find.
As far as the extended outlook on durability, well, I only just bought this thing and ... it hasn't broken yet. Not helpful, I know, but what I can say is that the Y580 feels solidly built with a sturdy keyboard and a good fit for the shell and components. A large bottom panel is held down tightly with clips and easily slides out, with only two screws affixing it in place. From there you can get to the optical drive, hard drive, RAM, the WiFi card and mSATA slot. Plus, opening that panel makes it easy to clean dust out. (This became important to me a couple of years ago after I has to completely disassemble an overheating Gateway gaming laptop to get dust out of a very difficult-to-access GPU heatsink.) Most importantly, Lenovo doesn't void your warranty for opening up the laptop, and you can use basic tools to get to nearly everything you need.
The Y580 can come with a 1366x768 screen or a 1920x1080 one, and while neither screen has the color quality or tremendous viewing angles of an IPS panel - both screens use cheaper, less-brilliant TN panels - that's never been a huge deal to me. Nor have I had a serious problem with low-res screens like the 1366x768 variant in my current IdeaPad Y570; some people would rather stab themselves in the eyes unless they've got top-of-the-line IPS panels with insane pixel density. But for me, pretty much any old screen will do.
I set that up so that I could say that Lenovo's 15" 1080p screen actually impresses me quite a bit, even in all its TN non-glory. I usually don't need to wear my glasses to use a computer, but I found that I have to put them on with this laptop to see the tiny text properly, but even with that, I could really get used to what Lenovo offers on this upgraded screen. It's still not IPS, but it is much more crisp and colorful than a cheap screen. And hey, playing today's most demanding PC games in 1080p on a 6lb machine does seem a little indulgent. While the upgraded display on the Y580 isn't the best of its kind on the market - hell, it's not even the sharpest or most colorful one that Lenovo offers across its entire product line - it's still leaps and bounds ahead of what you used to be able to get when spending around a thousand bucks on a gaming laptop.
Bloatware. Most computer users don't care about this issue, but power users dislike the compatibility problems and slowdowns that lots of pre-installed software can bring. The IdeaPad Y580 comes with a pretty decent amount of it, although Windows 8's new interface hides it by default. Bring out the normal desktop, though, and you'll see icons for a bunch of Lenovo's own software (Intelligent Touchpad, OneKey Recovery, a Photo app, and more running in the tray like Power Management, OneKey Theater, and webcam software) along with an Office trial, McAfee Internet Security, a link to eBay's website, NitroPDF trial, Cyberlink Power2Go disc burning software, PowerDVD 10 for watching movies, FreeRide Games, PokeTalk internet telephony, and a secondary app store run by Intel of all companies. (Seriously - I didn't even know Intel ran an app store.)
McAfee took less than a half hour to pop up a box asking me to buy their software, and then insisted on rebooting just so it could update itself. (Microsoft's own free antivirus doesn't bug you unless it, you know, actually finds a virus.) Nearly everything else comes with long license agreements you have to click through the first time you use it, and even the included PDF software, NitroPDF, is only a trial. I think there's plenty wrong with Adobe software, but what was wrong with the free and ubiquitous Adobe Reader? I'm aware of how these trials work and how companies like Lenovo make money off of placement of these trials on the PCs they sell, but there's a balance that must be struck when imposing software on your customers that they didn't ask for, and it doesn't seem that selections like a NitroPDF trial is worth it.
Windows 8 is Microsoft's latest attempt to make computing easier and to make their OS a little more in-tune with the emerging and vastly growing tablet market. But on a computer like this, without a touchscreen or really any need for a tablet interface, Lenovo's combination of Windows 8 with their choices of bloatware and the mild meddling they do with the basic OS install only muddles up the computing experience and creates confusion.
Windows 8 is now coming standard with most models of the Y580, and considering the intended audience for this laptop, I don't think that it's really a good upgrade over Win7. Sure, it includes a few minor efficiency improvements and the new Task Manager and multiple monitor support work nicely, but its new Start screen and simplistic fullscreen tablet-style app design (even outside of "Metro" apps, as this design leaks into other things like the wifi network selector) make it frustrating to use. Several programs exist that allow you to force the regular Windows desktop and bring back the old start menu, and I stick with Classic Shell because it allows me to go all the way back to the Start Menu back from the Windows 2000 days. Still, that new Metro interface will continue to appear once in a while if you're a power user, and if you refuse to get accustomed to it, it'll stay as baffling and senseless as it did the first time it popped up.
So what about either a fresh install of Windows 8 (this time without the bloatware) or going back to Windows 7? You'll likely have mixed success. Lenovo includes their easy recovery system through a separate partition on the hard drive, but it'll return the system back to Lenovo factory standards which includes the bloatware. Additionally, Lenovo seems to have screwed up Windows 8's built-in option to create a restore image on an external drive, as my attempts to use this feature (which I used when I replaced the pre-installed 5400RPM HD with a 2.5" SSD) were met with a fatal error in the Windows 8 installer before setup even really began.
These issues can be fixed with a fresh OS install, but they take time and knowledge and unless you get your hands on a disc or image of Windows 8, it gets even more annoying, especially since it's a pain to find the right version of Windows 8 that will actually install on the Y580 and use its pre-set product key. The Pro version seems to refuse to even start to install because the product key that is embedded in the Y580's BIOS (no key on a sticker this time, just stuffed into the BIOS) isn't for Pro. Windows 8 "plain" or "retail", or non-Pro, or whatever it's called: that's the one you want.
So, what about going right back, formatting the hard drive, and installing Windows 7? I normally wouldn't even mention this in a review for most laptops, but this isn't Mom's First PC; this is made more for serious gamers and enthusiasts, many of whom want Windows 7 and have the means to get it on there. Installation of Windows 7 went great, and Lenovo does offer both Win7 and Win8 versions of all drivers on its website, and today's Optimus setups allow you to run the latest mobile drivers directly off of Intel and Nvidia's site without any need for special builds from Lenovo or anyone else. It's a perfectly reasonable solution to run Win7 on this laptop. I ran 7 for a few days but wound up toughing it out with a vanilla reinstall of 8. But at the very least, I felt more comfortable dealing with Windows 8 knowing I had the option of realistically falling back to 7.
One of the most welcome usability upgrades Lenovo put in going from the Y570 to the Y580 is the addition of a backlit keyboard. They correctly assessed that this machine's bulk, cost, and overall marketability makes it most suitable for gamers, and in that respect, backlit keyboards can be handy when you've been gaming for so long at a time that you haven't gotten up yet to turn the lights on. I know that I might be reinforcing the stereotype of the neckbearded PC gamer who bangs away at his keyboard, raging at noobs online in the dark and flinging Cheeto dust everywhere, but for a guy like me who actually hates gaming in the dark, it's still handy to have a backlit keyboard once in a while. Beyond that, it's got a solid chiclet design that I've since typed more than a few reviews on, including this one, and while it's not ever going to be quite as responsive or satisfying as something like a mechanical keyboard, the short throw of laptop keys is actually preferable to me over the cheap membrane keyboards most people use on their desktop PCs.
The keyboard design Lenovo is using on their 15" machines squeezes together the keys of a full-size desktop keyboard, putting the six-block editing keys up top on the far right side and relegating the seldom-used keys up there to secondary functions using the FN key. The numpad is brought closer and the arrow keys slide in to the left towards the main keys. Just as with nearly every laptop I've owned (and that total is up to something like a dozen now), the keyboard is a little different from nearly everything else on the market so it'll take a little getting used to, but it's very doable. I can get used to pretty much any keyboard, but the ones I hate the most are the ones that require me to do mental gymnastics just to get used to common functions, because then that ruins my ability to quickly perform those functions when I get back to a regular desktop keyboard. (For example: putting the FN key on the bottom left corner and moving the Ctrl key, forcing you to train yourself on new positions for both keys rather than just one.) That's not a problem for me here at all, but mileage may vary for you.
The touchpad, however, can be frustrating. First, I hate how Lenovo along with so many other companies center the touchpad directly under the space bar rather than the middle of the laptop, as I find my palm constantly touching it while I'm typing. This can throw havoc into my typing if I've got the cursor somewhere in the edit area of the screen, and unfortunately, there's no way to auto-disable the touchpad when an external mouse is plugged in. That particular feature was built into Synaptics touchpad drivers (for other laptops) a long time ago, but the feature has disappeared somewhere in the last year or two, and now you'll be left manually disabling it with a FN-key combination or constantly trying to tweak the software's palm detection until it's just right.
I suppose I should talk about how the touchpad works when I'm actually trying to use it, and in that respect, it works pretty well. It's got the multi-touch scrolling and pinch-to-zoom functions that can be tweaked or disabled separately in the Synaptics control panel, and it's responsive and smooth. There, I talked about it. Going to go back to the mouse now...
Now's a good enough time to talk about the ports on the Y580 since I'm on the topic of mice. Four USB ports are included, with two of them working as USB 3.0 ports and one of those 3.0 ports also doubling as an eSATA connector. There's both HDMI and VGA out, and as far as I can tell, it works seamlessly with Optimus. Standard headphone and microphone ports are included along with ethernet, a normal power plug, and an SD card slot. All of these ports are on the sides of the machine along with the optical drive, so things can feel a bit crowded, but still Lenovo makes good use of space by not stacking USB ports vertically (which, with some of the more chunky devices, can cause ports to get blocked). The back of the laptop is pretty clean and the battery does slide out backwards when it's being removed. None of the USB ports will continue to work while the laptop is off, so your dreams of charging your phone off of your powered-down laptop will have to wait - or you'll have to find another machine that includes that little feature.
Lenovo offers a pretty robust warranty for the Y580, including options for accidental damage protection that would be great in a home with kids or destructive animals. The only issue I have with those accidental warranties is that they don't cover loss or theft, so if you travel a lot, one of the bigger risks isn't covered at all. Still, no one else offers anything better on paper, so I'm generally impressed with Lenovo's warranties. With that said, I only had a one-year warranty on my Y570 and despite it coming refurbished from Lenovo's outlet store, I haven't had to use it.
It's actually been months since the Y580 was released, but in that time, we've seen plenty of AC adapters, batteries, keyboard covers, optical drive caddies for hard drives, and zip-up protective cases appear on places like eBay, and most of it is pretty reasonably priced. I've seen little in the way of internal parts for it, however, so if you're the type that winds up replacing specific parts for whatever reason (breakage being probably the biggest one), well, the Y580 might not be the best laptop for you. Or just get one of Lenovo's reasonably-priced warranties and let them handle it.
The variant of the Y580 I received included a Blu-Ray reader drive, and while I did consider replacing it with a caddy for holding a second SATA hard drive, I wound up leaving it alone and instead replacing the 1TB 5400 RPM hard drive that came in the regular hard drive slot with a 250GB Samsung 840 SSD. Still, my experience with doing this same thing on the Y570 tells me that replacing the optical drive with a caddy and a second HDD or an SSD won't take you long, and the BIOS is ready to support two SATA devices (along with the mSATA slot for a possible SSD there, too) easily.
On the topic of battery life, the first thing I should point out is that if you're looking for a laptop that can play the latest games unplugged for hours at a time, all under 10lb in weight and for under a thousand bucks, you might as well ask for a free Ferrari 458 as well. Simply put, you're not going to get it, not with today's technology and prices. You can stretch the Y580 to nearly five hours of non-game usage by doing nothing fun on it: as in, disabling the 660M GPU, turning off Wifi/Bluetooth, dimming the screen, and refraining from powering too many external devices.
But let's face it, there are much better laptops out there for that kind of job, so you should only be doing that with the Y580 if you're in a pinch. The Y580 has a small battery, so even if you're not gaming, this is not a laptop that'll last you all day on battery. While doing manly things like gaming, my standard is somewhere around the 80-90 minute mark. If a laptop can play a demanding game online for an hour and a half before it goes to sleep, that's where I'm happy, and the Y580 makes it... just barely.
The HD4000 video card that's inside the latest Intel CPUs has been getting used as the only GPU in quite a few smaller and lighter laptops, including a ton of ultrabooks, and that is used here as the base GPU with Nvidia's Optimus technology only turning on the 660M when Windows (in combination with Lenovo's own energy management tweaks) thinks it's needed. The thing is, with so many great indie games making up bigger parts of some users' PC gaming libraries, the HD4000 can actually handle more than you might expect. Games like Torchlight II or Faster than Light don't require the full power of the 660M to be perfectly playable and there are hundreds more that require even less horsepower, so if you don't care that much, you can easily muddle through with Intel's on-die video in order to reduce heat, keep fan speeds low, or just save on battery. I'd say that if you're playing indie games or something older that's not dependent on massive performance, then give the HD4000 a try for your less-demanding games, because you might not even be able to tell a speed difference between it and the 660M.
Optimus is supposed to turn on the Nvidia 660 either when the system detects a game that's in its database for needing lots of GPU power. That automatic detection doesn't always work how you want, however, so you can right-click a shortcut to start a game with the 660M, or you can set a profile in Nvidia's control panel to not only tweak the 660M's basic settings (forced antialiasing, Vsync, etc) on a particular game, but you also have the option to use the GPU you want rather than the default auto-select.
While the Y570's Optimus system had a deliciously low-tech switch that allowed users to completely disable the Nvidia GPU, here it's actually a power profile that Lenovo builds into Windows itself. I'm not sure that this was actually a better solution as it gives the user fewer choices for tweaking very specific power profiles, but it does generally work and if you use the Y580 as a desktop replacement PC, you'd probably never know the difference.
Heat will be an issue with nearly any gaming laptop, and the Y580 is no exception. You've got both a fast-running quad core CPU and a gaming-oriented GPU both dumping heat out, and the Y580 expels that heat from both through the same heatsink and fan that's on the left side of the case. Through the use of heatpipes and an all-copper design, Lenovo gets away with this, and in my experience, it does it even better than my Y570 does, even with the older laptop's weaker GPU and CPU. The Y580 can become almost completely silent and if you're just using some CPU and a bit of the Intel HD4000 - say, decoding a video or watching a Twitch.tv stream - it's not silent, but it's very close. Involve the Nvidia GPU and you'll get more heat and noise, but it's very far from the hair-dryer sound I'd get from the gaming laptops of yesteryear.
If you're in a dust-happy household, do keep a can of compressed air around, as even a moderate dust buildup in the Y580 can force the fan to go into the aforementioned hair dryer mode, and I imagine it could eventually lead to the CPU and GPU throttling themselves at crucial times while in-game. Throttling is probably a better solution than the old days when an overheat was an instant power-down, but the only issue with that it can make recognizing and diagnosing the problem a little more difficult. Additionally, I no longer sit with a laptop directly on my lap and always keep a buffer - tables or cooling pads work best for me - but the Y580 is going to get mildly uncomfortable (but not incredibly so) on your lap if you're playing games. If you're just browsing the internet, it's just fine.
Nvidia's 660M isn't as fast as a desktop 660, but it's still enough to run a ton of games at 1080p, with only the very latest and most demanding games requiring you to drop resolution or detail in order to get by at 40+ frames per second. I decided not to go easy on the Y580; sure, I could have set up benchmarks revolving around the notion that you should only be playing low-requirement games like Diablo III or Call of Duty on a laptop, but honestly, you can play games like these on just the integrated Intel HD4000 graphics. Those games run fine on laptops without dedicated GPUs at all. We need to feed this thing something a little more serious to see how viable it is as a daily driver with more demanding games.
Benchmarks are always better with a comparison between two machines, so I'm setting up a head-to-head battle between the Lenovo IdeaPad Y570 (with Core i3 2330 CPU, 8GB DDR3 RAM, and 555M GT) against the Y580 I'm reviewing (Core i7 3630QM, 8GB DDR3 RAM, 660M GT). I've done all benchmarks with the Y570 at its native screen resolution of 1366x768 and the Y580 at the same settings and resolution, then I've run the Y580 again at its own native resolution of 1920x1080. What you'll find consistently is that the Y580 trounces the Y570, even if you do an unfair test with each laptop at its own native resolution. That means that even though the 660M is pushing out twice as many pixels at 1080p resolution, it's still delivering noticeably better frame rates than the Y570's 555M.
Even at low detail, this game looks great; as you crank up the settings, you're mostly getting performance-killing effects that only mildly improve image quality. While this is only a timedemo rather than true gameplay, I found it to be pretty close to the performance you'll get in-game.
Sleeping Dogs can become a very demanding game quickly when you start cranking up those detail options, and its timedemo benchmark does a good job telling you how the game will actually run.
Getting reliable results in Borderlands 2 seemed to be easiest in a vehicle, so I set a route throughout The Dust in a Bandit Technical. It's not the most demanding chunk of gameplay you'll get in this game, but the results were very repeatable, so they should be pretty consistent between runs.
The carriage ride down to Helgen at the beginning of the game seemed to be the best choice here since it was a way to get a few minutes of reliably consistent game performance, and I found this sequence to be generally representative of the game's usual frame rates, too. I benchmarked Skyrim at both Ultra settings with multisampling antialiasing and at Medium settings with the game's built in FXAA.
F1 2012's benchmark mode is unlike most game benchmarks in that it's not a timedemo; all subsystems, including AI, are active. The AI simply takes control of a car and tries to drive, which means that the results of the one-lap race the benchmark plays are never the same, but I found the performance between runs to be pretty consistent. I benchmarked the game at High settings with 4xMSAA, and at Ultra with 2xMSAA.
For our only non-gaming benchmark in this review, I decided to go with x264 video encoding benchmark which is entirely CPU-dependent. Just for fun, I decided to throw my desktop CPU, a Core i7 950 that's overclocked from 3.06GHz to 4GHz, into the mix and see what'd happen. I was surprised to find that the Y580's 3630QM CPU was only about 10% behind the overclocked desktop chip; sure, there's two generations difference, but I still found it impressive that we can get that kind of CPU power out of a gaming laptop in the thousand-dollar range. Of course, the dual-core i3 CPU in the Y570 fell far behind, but that was entirely expected.
I played quite a few games on the Y580 and had no problems tweaking a few basic settings to get averages over 40fps in every game I tried. That included several demanding games like Skyrim (with and without a ton of mods), PlanetSide 2, and Hitman Absolution, each time simply dropping some detail options so I could stay at 1920x1080. Sure, things can get bad in PlanetSide 2, but a drop to mixed medium/low detail can keep you north of 30fps in even the most crowded of hundred-player battles - including at the Crown on Indar, where there's almost always a huge battle going on.
I've got some minimum requirements that I demand of any gaming laptop, and while I'm not so delusional as to think that my needs perfectly represent all mobile PC gamers out there, I do think that there are at least a good chunk of us who don't mind a compromise, and in meeting all of those standards and making smart trade-offs is where the Y580 shines. I couldn't find a game that ran poorly on this laptop, and while I did have to tweak settings here and there to keep the frame rate north of 40fps, it was, again, a reasonable compromise to make. And that's the story of this laptop: yes, there are trade-offs, but they're very balanced ones. Those who only want the most gaming performance, or just want the best looks, or are only interested in getting the lowest price are going to be disappointed with this laptop, but those who want that balance will be hard-pressed to find a better solution.
Lenovo's IdeaPad Y580 doesn't have the fastest GPU in a machine of its size, it's not the lightest or smallest laptop out there, and you can find game-capable mobile setups with lower price tags, but Lenovo found a middle ground on a lot of things with the Y580, and a lot of the standards I've set for gaming laptops over the years - price, portability, and gaming performance being the primary ones - are all getting met by this machine. They're never being exceeded by a very large margin, but to have them all met simultaneously is still a pretty great achievement in my mind and Lenovo did it.
- Excellent price when on sale
- Interesting balance of features, price, and size
- Solid warranty options and build quality
- Play the latest games at 1080p in a 6lb machine!
- Iffy choices of pre-installed software
- Windows 7 might have been a better fit
- Difficult to do a fresh OS install
Disclaimer: This review was done on hardware bought from Lenovo at an advertised, non-exclusive sale price.