Let’s say you’re in the market for a compact all-round laptop able to handle daily activities and tackle a few casual games as well.
You don’t want a full-size computer, but rather something smaller and lighter, yet at the same time your budget is only around $700-$800 (or 700-800 EUR in Europe).
Well, in this case the Lenovo IdeaPad 520s fits the description well. It’s a 14-inch laptop with a compact footprint, KabyLake Core U hardware and dedicated Nvidia 940MX graphics, paired with a backlit keyboard, proper sized battery and sturdy construction. On the other hand it gets a pretty poor screen (IPS, but one of the crappier kinds), is chunkier than the competition and rather slow on the Internet. It’s cheaper than the competition though, which could be enough to steer many of you his way.
Devices like the Asus Zenbook UX410UQ, Lenovo IdeaPad 320s or the Acer Swift 3 are its close competitors, with 14-inchers as the Lenovo IdeaPad 720S, Asus Zenbook UX430UN and Asus Zenbook UX430UQ as far-stretch alternatives in a superior league.
We’ve gathered all our impressions below, with the solid aspects and the quirks, so read on to find out if this laptop is the right one for you or not.
Specs as reviewed
|Lenovo IdeaPad 520s-14IKB|
|Screen||14.0 inch, 1920 x 1080 px, IPS, non-touch, glossy|
|Processor||Intel Kaby Lake Core i7-7500U CPU|
|Video||Intel HD 620 + Nvidia 940MX 2 GB GDDR5|
|Memory||8 GB DDR4 (1x DIMM)|
|Storage||256 GB SSD (2.5″ bay)|
|Connectivity||Wireless AC (Qualcomm Atheros QCA6174), Bluetooth 4.1|
|Ports||1x USB-A 3.0, 1x USB-A 2.0, 1x USB-C gen 1, HDMI, SD card-reader, headphone/mic jack, Kensington Lock|
|Battery||53 Wh, 45W charger|
|Size||327 mm or 12.87” (w) x 236 mm or 9.29” (d) x 19.3 mm or 0.75” (h)|
|Weight||3.65 lbs (1.62 kg)+ .48 lbs (.22 kg) US charger and cables|
|Extras||backlit keyboard, VGA webcam, stereo speakers|
While we got to test this particular higher-end configuration, the IdeaPad 520s is available in multiple others with Core i3 to i7 processors and quad-core 8th gen processors as well, with or without the dedicated graphics, with a TN HD screen or a FHD IPS panel and of course, with various amounts and types of storage and RAM.
Design and first look
The IdeaPad 520s looks like most other IdeaPads we’ve already reviewed here on the site and is just as sturdily built. Smooth metal is used for the lid and interior, with plastic on the bottom and around the screen.
Lenovo offers it in a few different colors and we got the Gold model here. It looks nice and the branding is discrete, with a Lenovo logo on the lid and IdeaPad and Lenovo logos on the inside. The status LEDs are subtle as well and placed on the lateral edges, so there’s no bling that would interfere with your use in a dark room.
As far as the build goes, this laptop is sturdy, with no give in the lid or in the main chassis. It’s a little bit chunkier than other 14-inchers though, as it mostly borrows its design lines from the entry-level IdeaPad 320s and lacks the slim silhouette of the Ideapad 720s series. I also noticed some sharp edges on the back, where the bottom panel attaches to the edges, but that aside there isn’t much to complain about the craftsmanship.
The 520s is a bit heavy at 3.7 lbs, but not significantly heavier than the other units in its price range. The Acer Swift 3 for instance is both larger and heavier, while laptops like the Zenbook UX410 are almost .5 a pound lighter, but also more expensive, and I’d reckon many of you won’t mind Lenovo’s take here. The 520s is also fairly compact, as you can tell from the small bezels around the screen, but that’s no surprise as all the 2017 IdeaPads S-line gets this small form-factor build.
On the practical side, the sturdiness gives a nice first impression when first getting the laptop out of the box. You’ll notice the extra weight if you’re coming from a smaller 13-inch ultraportable, but this IdeaPad is still portable enough and easy to carry around in your backpack, so a solid computer for school.
The screen allows easy one hand operation and goes back flat to 180 degrees. There’s no crease on the front lip, but the screen part is longer than the main-body, thus easy to grab with your fingertips and pull up. The hinge on the other hand is a little weak, which you’ll notice if you grab and move the laptop while open, when it’s unable to keep the screen firmly as set up.
That aside, the IdeaPad 520s is a comfortable to use laptop. The rubber feet on the bottom keep in well anchored on a flat surface, the palm-rest is spacious and the edges around the interior are tapered, but this laptop has a slightly taller front-profile and they can dig into your wrists in some cases, especially if you use it on a smaller desk. The speakers are placed on the bottom, where you’ll also notice a large air-intake grills covered by a mesh meant to stop dust from getting in, with the hot-air blown through the grills behind the hinge, like on many other similar computers.
The IO is lined on the edges, with most of the ports on the left edge (yey for righties, ney for lefties), and includes pretty much everything needed: 2x USB A ports, 1x USB C port, full-size HDMI, a card-reader, a headphone/mic jack and a lock. There’s no Thunderbolt 3 though, you’d have to jump to the higher end IdeaPad 720s for it.
All in all there’s little wrong about this 14-inch Lenovo IdeaPad 520s. It’s well built, looks alright without turning any heads, and gets most of the needed things in the right places, which is pretty much what I’d expect from a mid-range computer. It is taller and heavier than some of the other 14-inch notebooks on the market, but again, this is a mid-ranger and it’s meant to offer value for the buck, which as far as the build and and design goes, it does well.
Keyboard and trackpad
Lenovo puts their standard chiclet backlit keyboard on this laptop, and while it’s not the best keyboard on the market, it’s better than most and doesn’t have major flaws.
We got the European layout on our unit, but it varies from region to region. The keys are well sized and slightly rounded towards the bottom, and the layout is simple and practical. Not the biggest fan of those half-sized Up and Down keys or the Power button integrated as the top key, but I could learn to live with them.
As far as the typing experience goes, I don’t have that much to complain about the feedback, but I do feel the keys are a little buttery and require firm and precise presses in order to register properly. They’re also a bit taller than what I’m used to, which in this case took a hit on my typing speed. It’s either that, or a hit on accuracy when trying to type faster, as on the IdeaPad 320s which gets a very similar keyboard.
The keyboard is quiet, a trait you’d want in a school computer, and it’s also backlit, with white LEDs and two levels of brightness to choose from. I don’t remember exactly if the illumination is activated while swiping the fingers over the clickpad, I believe it doesn’t, but correct me if I’m wrong in the comments section.
The clickpad itself is made by Elan and gets a plastic surface. It’s well sized and framed into the palm-rest, and it also gets a big enough lip towards the front to prevent accidental swipes while using the laptop on the lap or leaned on your legs. You should be aware that it comes with a thin plastic film on top out of the box, I didn’t notice it at first and I wasn’t happy with how well the fingers glided on the surface, but that changed once I peeled it off.
I don’t have much to complain about my daily use experience with this clickpad, it’s well set-up out of the box and handles swipes (even those short, precise ones), taps and gestures well. I did however notice some stuttering when keeping one finger on the click areas and dragging with another, but I don’t really use clickpads that way, so it didn’t have a big impact for me.
Lenovo also puts a fingerprint sensor on the IdeaPad 520s. It’s placed beneath the arrow keys and it’s well sized and responsive.
As far as I can tell you’ll find the IdeaPad 520s with either a TN HD or an IPS FHD panel, both 14-inchers on this series, of course, and both with a matte finishing and without an unnecessary layer of glass on top like on some other IdeaPads. I’d definitely stay away from the TN option, but the IPS option on our unit was not a lot better either.
We got an Infovision M140NWF5 R3 panel on our test sample and I believe it was defective, as it proved to be dim and abnormally nonuniform, with the lower half being much dimmer than the top side. Details below, taken with a Spyder4 sensor.
- Panel HardwareID: Infovision M140NWF5 R3;
- Coverage: 72% sRGB, 52% NTSC, 55% AdobeRGB;
- Measured gamma: 2.3;
- Max brightness in the middle of the screen: 208 cd/m2 on power;
- Contrast at max brightness: 1050:1;
- White point: 6200 K;
- Black on max brightness: 0.20 cd/m2.
We didn’t’ notice any obvious light bleeding, but even so, the overall quality of this panel was poor. I couldn’t find much about this particular panel online though, so I don’t have a reference for my measurements to tell for sure if our sample was defective or not. I’m inclined to believe it was though, still make sure to properly check the panel quality on your unit and buy from a reputable source that allows for easy returns, just in case you draw a short stick.
There’s also a good chance you won’t actually get this panel on the retail versions as all, as other reviews mention a much nicer Innolux N140HCA-EAC on their samples, yet that might also differ from region to region.
Hardware, upgrades and performance
As mentioned earlier, the Lenovo IdeaPad 520s is available in a multitude of configurations and we got to test one of the higher-tier ones, with the dual-core Intel Core i7-7500U processor, dedicated Nvidia 940MX graphics with GDDR5 memory, 8 GB of RAM and a 256 GB SATA SSD in the 2.5″ storage bay.
There are two storage options inside, a 2.5″ bay and an M.2 slot that seems to support PCIe drives as far as I can tell from HWInfo. It was empty on our unit, as you can notice in the pictures below.
Getting inside is a simple task, you need to get past the entire back panel that’s hold in place by a handful of screws, all visible around the sides. Once inside you’ll notice that the storage drives and RAM are upgradeable and you can also easily replace the Wireless chip. The RAM slot is hidden behind a metallic shield, you’ll need to loosen the clamps that keep it attached and then pull it out; it’s not that complicated, just use a small flat screwdriver head. There’s a DIMM slot underneath the shield that can take an up to 16 GB DDR4 memory module.
With that out of the way, let me tell you about the experience with this laptop. I don’t have anything to complain about as far as daily use goes, our sample handled browsing, movies, music, multitasking and so on smoothly. Having an SSD inside helps a lot, as with a regular HDD the experience would be more sluggish, but even if you decide to get your laptop with a HDD, adding an M.2 SSD later on for the OS and programs will only take you a few minutes. The pictures below shed more info on the performance and temperatures with daily use chores.
I did notice some issues with high load performance, when the CPU was unable to maintain its Turbo Speed frequencies. That’s visible with benchmarks, but also with games and other activities that put a constant strain on it. Details below.
Benchmark results are affected by this behavior:
- 3DMark 11: P2755 (Physics – 4112, Graphics – 2570);
- 3DMark 13: Sky Driver –6673, Fire Strike – 1967, Time Spy – 641;
- 3DMark 13 – Graphics: Sky Driver – 7029, Fire Strike – 1536, Time Spy – 576;
- PCMark 08: Home Conventional – 2826;
- PCMark 108: 2839;
- Geekbench 3 32-bit: Single-Core: 2923, Multi-core: 6473;
- Geekbench 4 64-bit: Single-Core: 4051, Multi-core: 7631;
- CineBench 11.5: OpenGL 47.65 fps, CPU 3.25 pts, CPU Single Core 1.40 pts;
- CineBench R15: OpenGL 52.55 fps, CPU 294 cb, CPU Single Core 112 cb;
- x264 HD Benchmark 4.0 32-bit: Pass 1 – 101.51 fps, Pass 2 – 18.93 fps.
For the sake of comparison, here’s what the same platform actually scores in an implementation that works the way it’s meant to.
As far as real life use goes, you’ll only notice the performance loss in demanding applications, if you plan to edit photos/videos or run Mathlab or other programming software you might use at school. The gaming experience is otherwise decent, but the GPU averages clock speeds a little under its stock frequency, so in theory doesn’t do as well as it could either. Check out the results below.
|Nvidia 940MX – FHD low||Nvidia 940MX – FHD high||Intel HD 620 – FHD low|
|Grid: Autosport||85 fps||44 fps||~35 fps|
|Bioshock Infinite||51 fps||36 fps||~24 fps|
|Far Cry 4||33 fps||18 fps||~20 fps|
|NFS Most Wanted||40 fps||24 fps||~29 fps|
|Tomb Raider||75 fps||43 fps||~39 fps|
When it comes to gaming you shouldn’t forget that the 940MX is a rather old chip, even in this updated variant with GDDR5 memory, and you’re going to get a lot better results with the newer Nvidia MX150 chip. There aren’t many configurations built on the MX150 available as of late September 2017, but that’s going to change in a month or two.
So all in all, our IdeaPad 520s sample wasn’t able to get the best out of the hardware inside, with the CPU unable to maintain Turbo Speeds in continuous loads and the GPU running at below stock speeds with games. That’s unexpected and hard to accept, given the extra heft of this device compared to others with similar hardware, but I’m not the only one reporting this kind of behavior. There’s always a chance the performance will improve with later software updates, but there’s no guarantee.
Emissions (noise, heat), Connectivity and speakers
As far as thermals and acoustics go, there’s a fan inside the IdeaPad 520s and a very simple cooling implementation, with a single heatpipe spreading on-top both the CPU and the GPU.
It does a good job at keeping inner temperatures at bay, as shown in the pictures above, and also keeps outercase temperatures within normal margins, as shown below.
The fan is however active all the time. With daily use it’s mostly quiet, to the point where you’re not going to even notice it in a normal room, but it can ramp up to around 39-40 dB at head level with multitasking. With gaming and demanding loads it jumps to 45-46 dB at head level, which is a little louder than the segment’s average.
*Daily Use – 1080p Youtube clip in EDGE for 30 minutes
*Load – playing FarCry 4 for 30 minutes
For connectivity there’s Wireless AC and Bluetooth on this laptop. Lenovo went with Qualcomm QCA6174 wireless module on our sample, which is a decent mid-range option, and performs alright as long as the computer stays close to the router. The speeds drop significantly at 30 feet with 2 wall in between though, to barely usable levels, and I’d reckon the rather basic antennae implementation bares the blame for it. There’s nothing you can do about it, except to use the laptop in places with strong Internet access, as close to the source as possible.
The audio is handled by a set of speakers, placed on the bottom. They’re rather quiet, with max volumes measured at around 74-75 dB at head level, but he sound coming out of them is alright, clear, clean and without distortions. Low end is noticeable down to about 95 Hz.
The last thing we’ll mention here is the camera, which is pretty bad with its VGA-only resolution, washed out details and a tendency to overexpose in good light.
Lenovo didn’t skim on the battery here, which is a compromise with other mid-tier notebooks. The IdeaPad 520s gets a 53 Wh battery, actually bit larger than what you’ll find in most other 14-inchers, and paired with the ULV hardware and basic screen it allows solid runtimes. We set the screen’s brightness at 60% brightness, roughly 120 nits, and here’s what we got:
- 6.0 W (~8 h 45 min of use) – very light browsing and text editing in Google Drive, Balanced Mode, screen at 60%, Wi-Fi ON;
- 5.4 W (~10 h of use) – 1080p fullscreen video on Youtube in Internet Explorer, Balanced Mode, screen at 60%, Wi-Fi ON;
- 5.4 W (~10 h of use) – 1080p fullscreen .mkv video in the Movie app, Balanced Mode, screen at 60%, Wi-Fi ON;
- 5.9 W (~9 of use) – 4K fullscreen .mkv video in the Movie app, Balanced Mode, screen at 60%, Wi-Fi ON;
- 10 W (~5 h of use) – heavy browsing in Edge, Balanced Mode, screen at 60%, Wi-Fi ON;
- 35 W (~1 h 30 min of use) – gaming on battery, High Performance Mode, screen at 60%, Wi-Fi ON.
A compact 45 Wh charger is included, and a full charge takes over two hours.
Price and availability
The IdeaPad 520s is not available worldwide at the time of this post, September 2017.
It starts at around 700 EUR in Europe, and it’s also listed in some Asian regions. I’d expect it would start at around $700 for the Core i5 models without Nvidia graphics in the US, with the Nvidia units going for around $800. For the sake of comparison, the higher tier IdeaPad 720s starts at $950 for an i7 configuration with the same Nvidia 940MX chip, so the 520S should be at least $100 – $150 cheaper.
However, I’m not sure it will actually be available in the US, there’s a fair chance Lenovo are only going to sell the 320s and the 720s over there. We’ll see.
Follow this link for updated configurations and prices at the time you’re reading the article.
At the end of the day the Lenovo IdeaPad 520s is a nice mid-range laptop and it makes for a good all-rounder and a good laptop for school and students. It’s built well, it gets a good keyboard and the right ports, it can handle everyday use and some games, it doesn’t run very hot and it lasts longer on a charge than most other options.
At the same time I had some issues with the review unit. It came with a pretty poor screen, but chances are most retail versions will get a better one, as explained in the Screen section. The fact that the hardware doesn’t work as well as it should is a little surprising though, given this laptop is actually chunkier and heavier than other 14-inchers that squeeze better performance out of the same components. Then there’s also the crappy webcam, the average speakers and potentially lacking wireless performance when stepping away from the router. Whether the good pricing policy compensates for these lacks is up to you.
My biggest gripe with this laptop is however related to the graphics chip inside. The 940MX chip is dated and significantly outperformed by the newer Nvidia MX150, and unless you don’t care that much about gaming or you really find this computer for cheap, it makes much more sense for me to recommend one of the options with the newer graphics instead. I’d reckon Lenovo will update this line with the MX150 chip at some point as well, but I don’t know when or when that’s going to happen. We do know 8th gen KabyLake-R configurations are scheduled for Q4, but nothing on the graphics chip update for now.
With updated hardware, the IPS screen mentioned in other reviews and hopefully improved drivers that would address the performance losses, the IdeaPad 520s can be an excellent pick in its segment. Until that happens though, I’m on the fence recommend it, unless again you find it for a good price and gaming is not as important for you as to justify waiting for the MX150 models.
That’s going to wrap this up, but the comments section is open for your feedback, questions and impressions on the IdeaPad 520s or any of the alternatives out there.