Years ago, I began my first purchase of a Lenovo Y550 laptop. I had very poor luck in purchasing laptops previously, and suffered through failures of the LCD ribbon, screen hinges, and power ports. At that time, Lenovo was a new name in the Canadian market, and wasn’t available at retail. It was still early in the eCommerce days, so buying a laptop blind seemed somewhat insane. Still, Lenovo had a budget gaming machine with impressive specs for a significantly lower price than the competition. The Y550 went on to last all through my college years, and still worked after I eventually upgraded.
Today, Lenovo has a new budget gaming line, and after seeing what the Y520 line offered versus the Y700 line (Pascal graphics being the top focus point), I was curious if Lenovo could pull off what swayed me into the brand years prior. Lenovo has generously provided a Legion Y520 to put to the test.
Goodbye Ideapad, Hello Legion
The Y520 is a new introduction in the newly-created “Legion” branding of gaming machines. The “Y” series are consumer grade notebooks with discrete GPUs designed for gaming. However, this has led to confusion previously, and so you can now count on buying a gaming-focused machine by joining the “Legion”. As for the Y520 itself, the new numbering separates itself from the higher-end Y720 line, and the extreme enthusiast Y920 models. However, don’t let the numbering distract you. The Y520 offers many premium features, and in a lot of cases, actually out-performs the previous high-end Y700 models.
Pretty, Pretty Exterior
Lenovo has, for the most part, left the design of the “Y” series machines unchanged for the past few generations, and for good reason: Why mess with something that works? The Y520’s black finish with red accents creates a rather healthy blend of a primarily black finish, with a few red edges to break the uniform colour. As with the previous generation, Lenovo has stuck to what I would call a “single hinge” on the display, which seems to last longer than the traditional two-hinge mount. This results in your display not having a lot of play after a few years of constant opening and closing.
The keyboard The keys seems to have a longer stroke than my Y700, and certainly seem to be quieter when typing rapidly (such as writing this article). For a 15” laptop, the full keyboard seems rather natural, up until we reach the numpad. Coming from a laptop with a true, full size numpad, it took some time to get used to the new locations (I’m looking at you, Print Screen!). The remainder of the keyboard is easy to adopt for touch typing thanks to the raised edges on the F and J keys (in the QWERTY world). In a future iteration, I would consider the usage of a numpad on today's gaming laptops with the push towards using gamepads (Hello 1992!).
For ports, Lenovo has provided a standard number of peripheral options, while adding some new generation ports to mix things up a bit.
On the left of the unit, we have a Kensington Lock (does anybody still use these?!), power port, RJ45 ethernet port, USB 2.0 port, headset jack (TRRS) and a OneKey Recovery button.
On the right side of the unit, we have a USB 3.0 Type C (sadly, I don't have any devices which utilize this yet), SD card reader, 2x USB 3.0 Type A ports and a HDMI port.
The display is a 1920x1080 matte panel, which does surprisingly well outside of direct sunlight. While I found many games ran fine in the outdoors, it did become more difficult with darker themed (think horror) games such as Bioshock. However, if you are looking to play a casual game like Human: Fall Flat, it performs amazingly as shown below.
Human: Fall Flat
Bioshock, while playable, didn't fair nearly as well outdoors.
For a budget gaming machine, the display and keyboard are extremely minimal sacrifices to get a good gaming machine. However, if these are truly important, the Legion Y720 may be worth the additional investment. But are the keyboard and display the only true differences between the Y520 and Y720?
Really, what separates the Y520 from its more buff siblings is the graphics processor. The Y520, as of this posting, comes with a GTX 1050 Ti on most of its models, with the GTX 1060 offered in some markets (and not reviewed today). The review model comes with a GTX 1050 Ti with 4GB of GDDR5 RAM. Unless you plan on cryptomining on your notebook (SHAME ON YOU! GET A DESKTOP INSTEAD), you won’t need to worry about bottle-necking your GPU outside of VR (more on that later).
Outside of graphics, you can configure the remainder of the hardware to beyond flagship specs. The model reviewed today comes with an Intel i7-7700HQ and 16GB of DDR4 RAM. The storage consists of a 128GB Samsung MZVLW128 NVMe SSD and a 1TB Seagate ST1000LM035 running at 5400rpm (Though I may switch that out to another SSD if the right sale comes along…).
In Detail: Processing and RAM
The i7-7700HQ is the 5th highest manufactured Intel processor for its 7th generation, and going higher will only result in 2MB more cache and a few hundred extra MHz. Considering we are talking about a gaming PC, you’d be hard-pressed to see the top-tier processors in a consumer box. According to Intel’s specifications, the processor can address up to 64GB of DDR4-2400 RAM, though this limitation may be for 4 DIMMs of 16GB each (giving us a maximum future configuration of 32GB of RAM).
Now, I’ve had several discussions on the forums about maxing out memory right off the bat. I have been running 16GB of RAM as a base standard on all my boxes, whether for business or casual. However, I am only finding myself utilizing all the RAM in one scenario: Virtualization. Without doing dynamic RAM allocation (I have some critical VMs that cannot crash when running), I pre-allocated memory for these systems. As a result, an active VM using 192MB of RAM while running may have 2GB+ pre-allocated. If you run enough of them, you’ll allocate most of your available memory (ever got a Low on Memory error with 16GB? I sure have!).
As of writing this article, I am running LibreOffice, Chrome, Hangouts, Microsoft Edge, GPU-Z, ESET, and the remainder of the standard processes that ship with the Y520. I am also enjoying the masterpiece that is the 1995 film “Mortal Kombat” on Netflix. All in, my system is still below 8GB of RAM usage as shown below.
Case-and-point: 8GB is sufficient for most users, and 16GB will leave you TONS of overhead, especially if you are using the machine solely for gaming.
The Y520’s GTX 1050 Ti has a tough reputation to shake from its previous generations. Unfortunately, mobile graphics processors have always been in a battle between power and thermal management. Although it was an adamant contender, Uncle 950m just simply couldn’t compare to its big sister, Aunt GTX 1050. It became widely accepted that the mobile GPUs lagged immensely to the desktop editions, even though they ran at a roasting 80°C at times. NVIDIA’s 10 series threw out the tradition, creating an extremely efficient architecture across all its product lines, including mobile.
So where does that leave the 1050 Ti? I loaded down the pascal die to see if the magic smoke would come out.
Stage 1: The Ring of Fire
As with all new systems, I like to put the GPU under a standard stress load. Using Furmark, I ran a standard GPU Stress Test on 8x anti-aliasing for 10 minutes. During this test, the Y520 maintained a GPU temperature of 60°C. With the thermal throttle set at this temperature, the fans were significantly quieter than previous generations for a gaming laptop. But would this impact gameplay?
Stage 2: The Way The Games Were Meant To Be Played
With the recommended GPU listed as a GTX 980 (not the mobile version), Steep caries a name both referring to the environment and the hardware requirements. With no respect for the recommended settings, I maxed out all graphics settings and gave the built-in benchmark a whirl:
The game surprisingly held a framerate above 30fps throughout the benchmark, and only utilized about 50% of the i7 processor. It is clear that the 1050 Ti has a lot of power even when thermally limited.
Stage 3: Catching up on the Steam Backlog
My main gaming box has recently been running a GTX 670, and when I bought a GTX 1070, I sent it straight to the mines (cue some Devo). As such, I've had a window of several years where the lead games were not playable at their full potential. The GTX 1050 Ti's ridiculous performance improvements over the 950m and 960m have opened up new doors to revisit some great previous titles.
I first decided to push the settings of Final Fantasy XIII to the maximum settings (1080p, 16x Anti-aliasing, and 8192x8192 Shadow Resolution). Although this title has been out for a few years, I have had difficulties running this title with ridiculously high shadow resolutions (mostly halting the process). Much to my surprise as shown in the below video, not only did the game boot fine, but was even capable of running at a pretty solid 60fps:
For the next title, I decided to crank the settings on Shadow Of Mordor. Although the results were not as positive as the Final Fantasy test, the game retained above 30fps on the most visually-intensive scenes. Pulling back some of the extreme settings would likely result in a solid 60fps.
Although it would not make the list for "recent" games, the remaster of Bioshock warranted a revisit. With maximum settings, the Y520 didn't bat an eye at delivering a solid 60fps.
Let's Talk VR
Now, you'll notice that I had mentioned above that it was questionable on the Y520's VR compatibility. Well, this is because the Oculus benchmark at first told me that the GTX 1050 Ti was not compatible with Oculus. Fast forward today, and we are seeing a very different picture:
Now, if we run the Vive benchmark, we get a slightly-less-positive result:
If we look at the minimum system requirements for both platforms, the GTX 1050 Ti meets the absolute minimum for VR readiness. So to say this is a system that is ready to rock VR would be a slight stretch. Unfortunately, I have neither of these headsets, but understanding that many games need to render at least dual 1080p displays at 90Hz seems like it would push the boundaries for a 1050 Ti. It will run the games, but you may need to reduce the video settings to the bare minimums to achieve the solid 90Hz (and not feel nausious from frame lag). If VR is truly your end-game, you may want to look outside the portable space and have a look at the Y710 Cube.
Tearing Open The Beast
So what's hiding beneath the plastic shell? Let's have a look.
The rear panel comes off with the removal of several screws, and a bit of dilligence popping open the clips without damaging them (My clips were all fine, but they were a bit stiffer than expected). Once removed, you'll have access to all the ports available for upgrades:
Under the hood, you'll find (from left to right) an M.2 port (looks to be "M" key), 2x DDR4 SODIMM ports (hidden under the metal shield, WLAN/BT card, and a 2.5" port for additional storage. Unlike previous makes, the HDD connector is automatically affixed to the mainboard, so you won't need to buy a special ribbon cable to attach that second SSD / HDD.
Removing the shield exposes the hidden RAM ports:
The speakers are made by Harman Kardon, a fairly good midrange speaker company. Unlike the previous line, Lenovo dropped the subwoofer speaker (not a huge loss, in my opinion). For a gaming PC, the sound is more than ideal for listening to music or watching videos. For a better gaming sound experience, consider pairing the Y520 with the Y Series Gaming Headset.
Another change from the previous generation is the removal of the fabric mesh on the air intake with a more robust, breathable metal or plastic (not sure which) mesh which seems to increase airflow while still keeping the particles out. This may be a contributing factor as to why the laptop games at a much cooler temperature and the fans are much quieter.
Taking It All In
The Legion Y520 is truly an interesting little machine. Thanks to the GTX 1050 Ti and offering configurations up to an i7-7700HQ, the entry-level gaming laptop can play the latest game releases, albeit with a few graphical reductions. If you are into older games (is it fair to call games before 2016 old now?), the Y520 takes on the challenge of maxing out graphics options while offering a very respectable framerate.
Although you will get a great gaming experience with the Y520, there are some features not available on this series such as 4K displays, a built-in subwoofer, and the XBOX controller receiver. For some users, these may be critical features, however, I'm the kind of gamer fully happy with a FHD display and uses his own headphones. The Y520 has grown on me over the past 60 days, and I've found myself using it more and more over my Y700.