When you review as many laptop computers as I do, it's rare to find yourself genuinely surprised by a new notebook. But when I first picked up Lenovo's new super-lightweight LaVie Z, I could hardly believe it. The device weighs so little that I almost thought that Lenovo must have forgot to add the actual computer components and shipped me an empty shell instead.
In fact, I've never seen a notebook with such an impressive combination of power and portability. Weighing a scant 1.9 lbs., the LaVie Z is easily the lightest 13-inch notebook I've gotten my hands on. In fact, it's even lighter than the new 12-inch, 2.04 lb. MacBook, all while providing a larger display, faster performance and way more ports than Apple's new flagship. If you're tired of lugging your heavy laptop on your daily commute, the LaVie Z seems like a dream machine.
Until you try typing on it, that is. Not only is the LaVie Z's keyboard really shallow, but there are also some truly baffling key placement decisions that will frustrate touch typists. Still, commuters and business travelers might really like this machine, so long as your typing habits are limited to hammering out an occasional email, and you can stomach the premium price.
It's far from ugly, but let's face it: the LaVie Z doesn't look like a $1,500 laptop. The case feels like it's made of thin plastic, and it bends and flexes when the smallest bit of pressure is applied.
Actually, the LaVie Z is made from a super-light magnesium/lithium alloy, a metallic material that just happens to feel a lot like plastic. It doesn't feel especially sturdy, but it's hard to complain when the end result is a machine so thin and light that I hardly noticed it in my messenger bag.
For what it's worth, the machine isn't bad looking at all. Its matte black design will look right at home in a conference room, and a few strategically placed beveled edges keep it from looking boxy and bland.
Weight and dimensions
I already mentioned that the 1.9 lb. LaVie Z is lighter than the 12-inch Macbook, but how does it stack up against other competing machines? The fact is that nothing else comes close sheer portability.
Dell's compact XPS 13, which crams a 13-inch display onto a frame the size of a typical 12-inch laptop, weighs 2.6 lbs. Even the ultra-slim, 12.5-inch HP EliteBook Folio 1020 weighs more, at 2.68 lbs.
And what about Apple's 13-inch MacBook Air, which used to be the poster model for thin-and-light designs? It feels shockingly heavy in comparison, at 2.98 lbs. To be fair, the Air's sleek all-metal construction makes the LaVie Z feel a bit like a kid's toy.
The standard LaVie Z is being sold alongside a sister product, the LaVie Z 360, which has a more flexible hinge, letting you rotate the screen 360 degrees to use the device like a tablet. Hinge aside, the two machines look and feel basically identical, though the 360 version weighs about 0.14 lbs. more, mostly due to the inclusion of a touch display, which this model lacks.
Specs and performance
Notebooks in general are getting thinner and lighter, but many of the newest ultraportable options skimp on power in the process. The new MacBook, for example, runs on Intel's low-power Core M chip.
That's what's so impressive about the LaVie Z: it manages to achieve an incredibly slim and light design without skimping on power. It runs on Intel's top-of-the-line 5th-generation Core i7-5500U processor with 8GB of RAM, which provides really good performance for everyday productivity tasks. Multitasking felt really snappy, even when I tried to tax the machine by editing a large spreadsheet and streaming an HD video from YouTube with more than a dozen tabs open in my Firefox Web browser.
The bottom line is that this machine has more than enough power for daily business tasks, and then some.
You get 256GB of internal SSD storage on the LaVie Z, and that's it; there are no alternate models with more storage. Thankfully, the notebook includes a full-size SD card slot if you need some extra space, a feature MacBooks lack.
Lenovo's business notebooks – specifically its ThinkPad line – are known for their top-of-the-line keyboards. But this isn't a ThinkPad. In fact, the LaVie Z was actually designed by Japanese computer maker NEC and licensed by Lenovo for sale outside Japan. That helps explain its oddball keyboard, which is actually a Japanese-style keyboard that's been converted for English characters.
And the keyboard really is the notebook's single biggest weakness. If you're do any serious typing, the first thing you'll notice is how small and shallow the individual keys are. While typing this review, I found myself making uncharacteristic typos, since the keys are easy to miss. Things went more smoothly once I started to hit my rhythm, but it's the misplaced keys that are the real headache.
The biggest issue for most people will probably be the right shift key, which been stuck in an unusual spot to the right of the arrow keys. It actually wasn't an issue for me – my personal typing style only makes use of the left shift key – but I heard co-workers complaining that the placement had them constantly hitting the up arrow key while trying to capitalize a letter, inadvertently scrolling up in their document.
And that's not the only issue. The Enter key is unusually narrow, making it tough to hit consistently. Ditto for the backspace key, which has been shrunken in size and moved over. Even worse, a bizarre "FWD Space" key has taken up residence beside it, duplicating the functionality of the spacebar, which is as frustrating as it is redundant.
Speaking of redundancies, an extra backslash key has been pointlessly stuck to the left of the actual space bar. Meanwhile, the teeny, tiny Delete key is hidden in a strange spot to the right of the space bar, right next to the oddly positioned Insert key.
Finally, the Fn function key has been placed in the bottom left corner of the keyboard, forcing the Ctrl key over one spot and seriously messing up my muscle memory for keyboard shortcuts like copy and paste. This is more of a personal pet peeve for me, though, since most ThinkPads suffer from the same issue.
No complaints about the touchpad, though. It's nice and roomy, with a smooth matte finish that my finger glides right over. Mousing around feels precise, and two-finger gestures like two-finger scrolling also proved reliable. The buttons are built into the pad, which makes right clicks a bit less accurate than they would be with dedicated buttons. I personally don’t mind, though, since integrated buttons provide more room for cursor navigation.
Some competing notebooks have higher-res screens, but the LaVie Z's 2560 x 1440-pixel panel is more than sharp enough for a laptop this size. Text looks crisp, and split-screen multitasking feels comfortable – what more could you want in a work notebook? I love the 13.3-inch size, too, which strikes a great balance between productivity and portability.
Like many other business notebooks, the LaVie Z's display comes with a matte finish that makes colors appear a bit dull. On the bright side, the matte screen does a nice job of resisting annoying reflections from overhead office lights.
As notebooks become thinner and lighter, ports are often sacrificed; there's just no room on the most portable machines for all the connectivity options you'll find on bulkier business notebooks. Apple's 12-inch MacBook, for example, offers just a single USB-C port for both charging and connecting accessories, and that's it.
So I was pleasantly surprised to find that the LaVie Z offers a respectable selection of ports, including two USB 3.0 ports, a full-size HDMI port for connecting to monitors or projectors, and even an SD card slot. No, you won't find an Ethernet port or VGA video out port here, but that's typical for ultrathin notebooks like this one.
The LaVie Z offers below average battery life, which is mostly expected from a Core i7 notebook with a battery this small; Lenovo trimmed the battery capacity compared to competing machines to keep the notebook light. The machine ran for 6 hours and 50 minutes in our battery test, which simulates continuous Web browsing over Wi-Fi with the screen set to 100 nits of brightness. That's decent enough to get you through most of your workday, but it trails all comparable laptops in this department, running for about a half hour less than the ultraportable average (7:18).
Apple's 12-inch MacBook ($1,299) offers a more premium design and is almost as light as the LaVie Z for $300 less, but it has a smaller display, much less power from its Core M processor, and offers just a single USB-C port.
HP's EliteBook Folio 1020 ($1,249) is slimmer than the LaVie Z, but also runs on a Core M chip, has a smaller 12.5-inch display, and is about half a pound heavier.
Dell's 13-inch XPS 13 $(1,299 with Core i5, $1,899 with Core i7) can match the power of the LaVie Z in a smaller, thinner package, but it's almost a full pound heavier.
The 13-inch MacBook Air ($1,199 with Core i5) offers good performance and a slick design, but it also outweighs the LaVie Z by about a pound.
No other notebook on the market can match the LaVie Z's combination of portability and power. That said, your appreciation of the notebook hinges on two factors: your budget, and your typing habits.
Starting at $1,500, the LaVie Z is really pricey, and there are no lower-end configurations to soften the blow to your wallet. And a few out-of-place keys could prove maddening for serious touch typists.
For the average business user, though, the keyboard quirks might be a nonissue, especially once you've familiarized yourself with its unorthodox layout. And if extended typing sessions aren't part of your workday, the offbeat keyboard might be a fair tradeoff for what this machine has to offer.
The bottom line is that for commuters and frequent travelers who are tired of lugging around a heavy laptop, and don't mind paying a premium price, Lenovo's LaVie Z is somewhat compelling. But if you're looking to do much typing, don't even think about it.