Lenovo 3000 V100 Review

The Lenovo V100 should definitely be at the top of your short list.
The Lenovo V100 should definitely be at the top of your short list.
The Lenovo V100 should definitely be at the top of your short list.

Highs

  • Exceptional keyboard; competitively priced; IBM service and support

Lows

  • Finicky fingerprint scanner; small trackpad; battery is not the best for DVD movie playback

Summary

For over a decade, IBM ThinkPads have been the gold-standard for laptop reliability, performance, and durability. Though IBM often eschewed the multimedia  bonuses that made notebooks from Apple and Sony popular, the ThinkPad was always first-in-class when it came to business. The next time you’re on a plane, take a moment to see which laptops are being used in the first class cabin – the majority will be IBM ThinkPads.

After Lenovo acquired IBM’s consumer PC division in 2005, the company was careful to reassure ThinkPad-fans that their beloved laptop would continue to set  the benchmark for business notebooks. However, in addition to continuing the “ThinkPad” line of notebooks, Lenovo has leveraged IBM’s experience in developing their new value/consumer notebook brand: the “Lenovo 3000.”  With the Lenovo 3000 V100 Series (Lenovo V100 for short), their goal was to bring  most of the world-class IBM ThinkPad technology and put it into a lightweight, consumer-friendly package. You know what? They succeeded.

Features and Design

The Lenovo V100 is a 12.1″ 4-lb class notebook with an integrated DVD burner. This form-factor is perfect for someone who doesn’t need to duplicate the  features of a performance desktop, and instead values mobility and function. The nearest competitors would be the Sony SZ series, the Dell Inspiron 710m,  the Dell XPS M1210, and the Apple MacBook.

While the V100 has a silver-colored lid, curved edges, and a high-gloss anti-reflective LCD screen, Lenovo still adopts the design language of the IBM  ThinkPad. The ThinkPads are famous for “overengineered” LCD hinges, and with the Lenovo V100, that design motif continues. Unfortunately in the case of  the V100, the beefy hinges are just cosmetic — those are “hinge covers” that you’re looking at.

But there is substance behind the style: although the faceplate of the DVD-RAM has a bit of rattle, there’s almost no flex to the keyboard over the alphabetical keys. Even our 6-cell extended battery fit perfectly snug — even better than an extended battery in a ThinkPad Z60t. The latchless lid feels solid and reassuring. There’s no mistaking the V100 for a  “lifestyle” or “gaming” machine. This is a laptop that means business. If you’re looking for a notebook that’ll be a conversation starter -– you should  look elsewhere. This is notebook that gets people to focus on what you have to say.

Lenovo 3000 V100
Lenovo 3000 V100

Lenovo V100 Hinges
Don’t be fooled, these are just hinge “covers”

Lenovo 3000 V100
The V100 is just a tad bit taller than a quarter

Lenovo 3000 V100
The rear of the 3000 V100

The specifications list may seem par for the course for this class of notebook. Everything you expect to be there, is there: Firewire 400, three USB 2.0  ports, Wi-Fi, integrated modem, 100 MBps Fast Ethernet, optional Bluetooth, and a 5-in-1 media reader (SD, MS, MS Pro, xD, MMC). One exception is the lack  of a TV-out.

Dig a little deeper, and you start to notice some less-common features such as a 1.3 megapixel webcam, an “Instant On” feature where you can play MP3s, music  CDs, and DVDs or look at digital photos without having to boot into Windows XP (like some of the HP or Compaq PCs), and the ExpressCard 54 slot offering more “future-proof” upgrades than a traditional PC Card slot or an Express 34 slot. However, where the V100 really shows its ThinkPad heritage is the keyboard  and integrated fingerprint scanner.

Lenovo V100 Webcam
The integrated webcam on the V100

IBM ThinkPad Heritage

Most people expect their notebook keyboard to be mushy and spongy. They assume that an unresponsive keyboard is a necessary sacrifice for a laptop. IBM ThinkPad owners (and Apple MacBook Pro/PowerBook owners) know a different story. Indeed, some of the most dedicated programmers use the IBM UltraNav keyboard for their desktops; when was the last time you heard someone say they wanted a non-IBM notebook keyboard for use with their desktop PC? I can’t think of one. What’s brilliant about the V100 is that keyboard is virtually identical to the ThinkPad. No, the keyboard may not look like one from a ThinkPad (6-rows instead of 7, and no red TrackPoint pointing stick), but it still feels like a ThinkPad keyboard. I can type faster and more accurately with the keyboard on the Lenovo V100 than I can with any other laptop I’ve tested. Should the quality of the keyboard be a deciding factor? Well, writers, computer programmers, and pianists will probably notice the difference the most, and I sort of fit into all three categories.

Peak words per minute (as typed by the author)

Lenovo 3000 V100 (NMB) 138 wpm (99% accuracy)
IBM ThinkPad Z60t (Alps) 135 wpm (97% accuracy)
GoldTouch Ergonomic 125 wpm (99% accuracy; my desktop keyboard)
Apple MacBook 125 wpm (97% accuracy)
Vintage alps (Omnikey Ultra style) 123 wpm (97% accuracy)
Dell Inspiron 700m/710m 121 wpm (97% accuracy)

The trackpad is, sadly, a different story. The mouse buttons on the Lenovo V100 are spongy, particularly at the corners of the button. What bothered me the most was that the trackpad surface itself felt about a centimeter too short. I kept wishing that I had just a bit more room to work with and moving my finger into the keyboard.

Lenovo 3000 V100 keyboard
The keyboard on the V100

Lenovo V100 trackpad
The trackpad on the Lenovo 3000 V100

The inclusion of a fingerprint scanner was a surprising feature. Usually this is reserved for more expensive notebooks. Whereas the fingerprint scanners found in true business class notebooks have a dedicated encryption chip (called a TPM for Trusted Platform Module), the V100’s fingerprint reader is intended primarily for convenience. Instead of trying to remember several different passwords, you can just use your finger. Although I’ve had an excellent experience with the fingerprint scanner found in the ThinkPad with my fingerprint being recognized the first time around, the fingerprint scanner in the Lenovo V100 was significantly more finicky. The sensor often had trouble even registering the fact that I was passing my finger over the sensor.

Unfortunately, other hallmark ThinkPad technologies such as the Active Protection System (which automatically stops the hard drive motor during a fall), the spill-resistant keyboard, and the magnesium rollcage technology are missing from the Lenovo 3000 lineup.

System Configuration

Our system was configured with the following equipment:

  • Intel Core Duo T2500 CPU (2GHz)
  • 1 GB memory (DDR2 667MHz)
  • 100 GB Serial ATA HDD 5400 rpm (Hitachi TravelStar 5K100)
  • DVD MultiBurner (HLDS GMA-4082N; writes CD-R, CD-RW, DVD-RAM, DVD-R, DVD+R, DVD-RW, DVD+RW, DVD+R DL)
  • 12.1″ 1280×800 widescreen display (CMO 1210)
  • Integrated Intel GMA950 Graphics
  • 802.11 a/b/g wireless adapter (Intel 3945)
  • Bluetooth (Broadcom BCM2405)
  • 1.3 megapixel webcam (ALI m560x BisonCam)
  • Motorola SM56 Data FAX Modem
  • 10/100 Fast Ethernet (Realtek RTL8139/810x)
  • Realtek High Definition Audio (ALC883)
  • Fingerprint Reader (Authentec AES1610)
  • 5-in-1 memory card reader
  • 6-cell lithium-ion battery

Software Bundle: Windows XP Professional, Lenovo Care, Diskeeper Lite,  Corel wordPerfect 12, Corel Photo Album 6 Starter, InterVideo WinDVD, WinDVD Creator,  InstantOn, Roxio DigitalMedia LE, PC Doctor, IBM Java, BisonCam, Google Picasa, Google Desktop, Google Toolbar

Installed demos: Norton Internet Security 2005 AntiSpyware Edition (90 days), Corel Presentations (60 days), Corel Quattro Pro (60 days), Corel Paint Shop  Pro X (30 days), Corel Draw 12 (30 days)

*Lenovo uses multiple suppliers for the HDD (HGST, Toshiba), DVD-RAM (HLDS, Panasonic), LCD display (Samsung, AUO, CMO), and keyboard (NMB, Chicony).

Performance

The Intel Core Solo and Core Duo platform have become the wonder-products from Intel. Since all of the Core Duo notebooks use the same Intel i945GM chipset,  there isn’t too much variation in system performance from manufacturer to manufacturer. It’s mostly a question of how fast your CPU is, how much memory you  have, and how fast the HDD is. The GPU is where you’ll still see a big difference (particularly with games). Notebooks with dedicated graphics chipsets  from companies such as NVIDIA and ATI offer additional performance. On the other hand, the integrated Intel GMA950 found in notebooks such as the V100 offers better battery life.

Speaking of battery life, our Lenovo V100 came with the extended 6-cell lithium ion battery pack. I started my battery test by playing a DVD movie, with the  screen set to maximum brightness. The battery died after 2 hours 10 minutes, just enough to complete an average Hollywood film. The only problem was that  when the notebook had about 15 minutes of juice left, the WinDVD software interrupted me and stopped the movie so that I could recharge the battery; of  course, the last 15 minutes of a Hollywood movie is usually the best part…

The second time around, I left the screen at 60% brightness and just surfed the web and did some writing. A USB hard drive was attached. Wi-Fi and  Bluetooth were on.  Battery life was 2 hours 30 minutes. Not much better.

The third time around, I switched the computer into maximum battery savings mode. I then brought the brightness down to the minimum setting, and disabled  the Bluetooth radio. I then turned off the fingerprint password manager.  Although the fingerprint password manager is usually dormant, it does have the  occasional spike of activity. These small spikes meant that 9% of the time, my CPU time was spent dealing with the fingerprint application. I left the  Wi-Fi radio on, had Yahoo! Launchast playing music in the background, and just used the notebook to write and to surf the web.  I figure this is a typical  situation you’d use at a coffee shop. The battery lasted 3 hours 10 minutes.  Better, but not great. Unfortunately, this type of battery life seems to be par for the course with today’s Core Duo notebooks.

Lenovo advertises their 6-cell extended battery as lasting up to 4.4 hours, but clearly this is with the wi-Fi antenna disabled and no user activity  whatsoever. With the standard 3-cell battery, your battery life should be about half of these results.

Thermal Management

We’ve all heard stories of laptops that can overheat and burn their users. Lawyers have even gotten every notebook manufacturer to emphasize that notebooks  should not be used on a lap.  Fortunately, the V100 does a superb job of staying cool. Under maximum system load, the notebook remained perfectly stable; even when the laptop was on a plush carpet surface (which diminishes airflow). CPU temperatures peaked at about 74C with baseline running at 42C.  Under  normal usage, I had no problems using the notebook on my lap or on a plush surface such as my bed.  The cooling fan can easily be heard, but it blends into  the background.  Unlike the annoying high-pitched whine of most notebook cooling fans, this had a deeper tone that faded into the background.

Audio/Video Quality

The V100’s screen had rich and vibrant colors. The anti-reflective coating on the V100 does a great job and we found the high-gloss screen useable, even  outdoors. The viewing angles were somewhat disappointing with light fall off noticeable at the edges. That said, there are only a handful of suppliers of 12.1″ 1280×800 LCD screens and as a result, the V100 screen is pretty much the same as other 12.1″ 1280×800 screens.

The Realtek High-Definition Audio provided clean and crisp audio. The built-in speakers of the Lenovo V100 were respectable although not up to the level of  quality that larger multimedia notebooks can offer. One annoying issue was that using the volume keys on the laptop opened up the Windows Sound Mixer instead of showing the changes using an on-screen display (or simply not showing anything at all).

Software/Technical Support

Another hallmark of the IBM ThinkPad line is its ThinkVantage software bundle and world-class technical support.   The Lenovo V100 adopts the best of these features.

First of all, Lenovo laptops ship with “Lenovo Care,” which includes the ThinkVantage “Rescue and Recovery” application. This allows you boot into a  protected environment and recover your data files even when if operating system fails to boot. After recovering your critical data, you can then use the built-in system restore to recover your system from an older backup.

The ability to recover data without going into Windows is great, but what’s even better about the System Restore feature is that unlike competing solutions such as Norton Ghost, Lenovo Care doesn’t require that you completely wipe the hard drive clean and start fresh. You can selectively restore Windows XP to  a fresh install while preserving your added data files, bookmarks, and personal settings, or choose to clean up the Windows registry. Of course, you have the option to completely wipe the drive clean to factory-spec. You can even create your own backup images onto an external USB HDD, or even a networked drive, and later restore from those locations. The whole point of Lenovo Care is to help you recover and troubleshoot your computer instead of having to send it in.

But suppose something does go horribly wrong and you need replacements parts or an opportunity to talk with a technical support specialist. Tech support for  the Lenovo V100 is handled by IBM Service and Support… which is key.  This means that when you have a problem during business hours, your call typically gets routed to IBM’s call center in Atlanta – not somewhere overseas. IBM Service specialists will be able to help you with your system.  Know which part you need replaced? Just give the call center the FRU number and they’ll take care of the rest.  It may sound like a hyperbole, but service and support with  the Lenovo V100 is indeed a dream come true. Expert users can get things taken care of quickly and efficiently, and novices can talk with an expert when they need to.

The Lenovo V100 also includes a full version of Corel WordPerfect 12. WordPerfect is a great word processor if you’re working alone, but if you need to read complex documents produced by Microsoft Word users, OpenOffice might be a better alternative.  Still, almost everything you write in WordPerfect will translate to Microsoft Word very well.  In fact, WordPerfect is the 2nd most popular office suite, with a marketshare of about 15% (though this includes copies of Word Perfect bundled with systems such as the Lenovo V100).  Diskeeper Lite is a disk defragmentation software that helps keep your system running fast. The bundled Norton Anti-Virus and Internet Security software is good, but it only offers a brief subscription to the protection updates.

The BisonCam software intended for use with the webcam seems to have been written as a engineering test application rather than something normal people are supposed to use. You have to  manually determine how much space to pre-allocate (in MB) for the capture file. If you didn’t pre-allocate enough space the first time and decide to change the amount to pre-allocate before you choose a new filename, you’ll lose that first video.  If none of that made sense to you, don’t worry — that’s exactly why BisomCam is so bad. If  that made sense to you, then yeah… that’s exactly why BisonCam is so bad.  It’s really a shame really, since the camera itself is very high quality.

Conclusion

Despite its idiosyncrasies with the webcam software, and average battery-life for its class, the Lenovo V100 is still a very good ultra-portable notebook. It’s lightweight, well-designed, and better yet, a relative bargain with a starting price of $1099. It truly brings the best of ThinkVantage Design to the consumer. This is the ideal notebook for someone who needs ThinkPad-quality during the workweek and the multimedia amenities of a consumer notebook on the weekend. With Dell-like pricing, ThinkPad-inspired design, and superb technical support, its hard to find a better notebook in its class. You certainly won’t find a notebook with a better keyboard.

Consider the Apple MacBook if you want Apple iLife/iWork software and can overlook the awkward keyboard and higher weight/size, the Dell XPS M1210 with the dedicated NVIDIA GeForce graphics if gaming is important to you, or the Sony SZ series if you’ve got the extra cash and want both dedicated GeForce graphics and ThinkPad-like features of TPM-based fingerprint security and active hard drive protection. Otherwise, the Lenovo V100 should definitely be at the top of your short list. Just make sure you remember to get the 6-cell battery.

Pros:

  • Exceptional keyboard
  • Competitively priced
  • IBM Service and Support

Cons:

  • No TV-out
  • Finicky fingerprint scanner
  • Small trackpad
  • Needs 6-cell battery for DVD playback at maximum brightness
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