From afar the Lenovo ThinkPad X230 looks similar to many other preceding ThinkPad products. It is ruggedly built and wrapped in the same matte black as all other ThinkPads past and present (with the exception of the Edge, which is available in red).
Look more closely, however, and you’ll find that this is an important product both for Lenovo and for anyone looking to buy a laptop. The new X230, like all revised ThinkPads, comes equipped with a Chiclet-style keyboard. After years of holding on to the old beveled design, Lenovo has finally decided that it’s time to move to a more modern design. Many ThinkPad enthusiasts buy them because of keyboard quality. Changing a time-tested design is a risky move.
This is also the first Ivy Bridge dual-core laptop that we’ve had the chance to review. It comes equipped with Intel’s Core i5-3320M, which has a base clock of 2.6GHz. Intel introduced the third-generation Core i7 first but most laptops will be shipping with Core i3 or i5 dual cores. This product will provide us with our first insight into how laptops with these new processors will perform.
All other specifications are normal. There’s 4GB of RAM and a 320GB hard drive. Graphics come courtesy of Intel HD 4000. This is Lenovo’s flagship ultraportable, but this particular review configuration is far from the most expensive version. We expect it to come in at around $1,200 when it hits retailers and Lenovo’s site.
Still a ThinkPad
The ThinkPad X230 is classic Lenovo – matte black, basic, rugged. There’s nothing about it that’s striking besides the size of the laptop. The 12.5-inch display implies that this laptop is not going to be large, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Because of its thin display bezels and small chassis the ThinkPad X230 is hard to distinguish from most 11.6-inch and 12.1-inch laptops with a glance.
Handling the laptop reveals typical ThinkPad quality. The metal display hinges are firm and don’t allow for display wobble. Keyboard flex is virtually non-existent, and the palmrest area is as solid as marble tile. The only potential disappointment is the lack of a lid latch, a feature found in some ThinkPads.
Don’t look at the X230 with the impression that this is an Ultrabook. It’s not. There are Ultrabooks that are thinner and lighter, but don’t offer the same level of quality as the X230. The X-series is still a unique product. There’s no other laptop of similar size that offers equivalent build quality.
About that new keyboard
Lenovo’s decision to start pushing Chiclet-style keyboards across the ThinkPad line is not without precedent. The company already offered this style of keyboard on the ThinkPad Edge, and it was well received.
Part of the reason for this warm welcome is the unusual design of the keyboard. Most of this style use flat keys, but Lenovo gives each key a subtle indent. In addition, the keys are not perfectly square but instead are curved along the bottom. The impact of these small changes is difficult to overstate. Touch-typing is a breeze even for the most jaded user.
Switching to the Chiclet keyboard allows Lenovo to add backlighting, a feature it was sorely lacking. The backlight available on the X230 is bright and the keys don’t allow much light leakage. ThinkPad enthusiasts will be happy to hear that the company still offers the ThinkLight, a small LED lamp built in to the top of the display that can illuminate the keyboard and its surroundings.
Does this mean the new keyboard is better than the old design? No. We don’t think it’s worse, either. It’s just different. We loved the old keyboards, but we love this one, too. Our only regret is the fact that Lenovo’s switch means there’s no longer any quality beveled keyboards on the market. It’s the end of an era.
The X230 offers maximum keyboard by including minimum touchpad. It’s there, and it’s usable, but it’s small. Most users will want to become well acquainted with the trackpointer and use it instead of the touchpad.
Built for work, not entertainment
The ThinkPad X230 includes a display that we’ve never encountered before. Lenovo calls it “FlexView” and it consists of a semi-gloss coating on a 1366 x 768 display panel that is tailored for optimal viewing angles. It’s a gimmick that works – the viewing angles on this laptop are astonishing. Text is perfectly readable up to the moment that the laptop’s lid is closed and there’s little change in color quality even when the screen is viewed at a significant vertical angle.
Quality isn’t great to begin with, however. It’s not bad, but its average at best, and there’s a definite lack of the high-contrast colors found on some multimedia laptops. HD video and games are acceptably attractive, but there are obviously better laptops for general entertainment.
Sound quality is adequate. There’s little distortion even at maximum volume, but this is because the volume is never loud and there’s never any bass to speak of. You can certainly get by with what the X230 has to offer if you’re on the road and left your headphones at home, but most users should plan on buying a pair of headphones or portable external speakers.
Mostly cool and quiet
The ThinkPad X230 is an extraordinarily mundane laptop when left at idle or operated at low levels of load. Intel’s focus on power efficiency results in external temperatures that rarely exceed 85 degrees Fahrenheit and sometimes dip into the high 70s. Almost no fan noise is required to offer this, so you can use this laptop in a dead-quiet office without distracting yourself or anyone else.
Higher levels of load do cause the fan to speed up, but not by much. It’s quieter than average and can easily be drowned out by a moderate level of ambient noise. Temperatures also stay pleasant, but there is a hot spot on the bottom left side that can reach over 100 degrees. This can make the laptop uncomfortable for lap use if you’re playing a game, encoding a video or performing some other demanding task.
The Lenovo ThinkPad X series has always been about portability, and the new X230 does nothing to change that theme. It feels exceptionally small and light-in hand. Comparisons to large netbooks seem more apt than comparisons to traditional ultraportables. Even some Ultrabooks feel a bit bulky by comparison, though the X230 is technically not thin enough to qualify for that moniker.
Part of the reason for its bulk is the laptop’s large 63Wh battery. Though we’ve seen larger batteries in portable laptops, such as the Asus U36, this is still a sizeable unit relative to the rest of the chassis. It sticks out from the bottom slightly and can catch on zippers and buckles when sliding the laptop into or out of a bag.
The benefit of a large battery is endurance. In the Battery Eater test the X230 lasted two hours and one minute, while the light-duty reader’s test resulted in eight hours and two minutes of life. These results are among the best we’ve ever recorded. Only the Asus U36 and the HP dm1z last longer without an optional extend-life battery.
Even the power cord, should you need to bring it, is small. It will easily fit in a spare backpack pocket and adds less than a pound of additional weight.
Bloatware that isn’t terrible
Lenovo is one of the few companies that continually offer potentially useful software with its products. The company calls this ThinkVantage and it covers a variety of utilities.
Some are great. The custom Power Manager is more informative and easier to use than Window’s stock power manager. Similar praise can be heaped on Access Connections, a great power wireless networking tool that provides a visual representation of hotspot signal strength and security. Other utilities, like System Update, are only so-so but do manage to offer some small benefit in functionality or ease-of-use.
There are a few stinkers. The Lenovo App Store, for example, seems silly. Why have an app store just for Lenovo laptops? Is it necessary? Does anyone really buy from it? And why does the ThinkVantage button bring up an interface that looks like it was designed for a touchscreen device?
Still, these complaints aren’t a major issue. The bad software can be ignored and there doesn’t seem to be any performance penalty.
A blazing fast ultraportable
The ThinkPad X230 packs a new third-generation Intel Core i5-3320M processor. This is a dual-core part with Turbo Boost and Hyper-Threading that lands in the middle of Intel’s lineup (the components we know of so far, at least). It would not be unusual in a mainstream 15.6-inch laptop, but it is a bit unusual here. Most laptops of this size use either a processor that is oriented towards netbooks (like an Atom or AMD E-Series) or a low-voltage version of a processor found in larger products.
The use of a normal Core i5 makes the X230 an impressive performer for its size. SiSoft Sandra’s Processor Arithmetic benchmark reported a combined score of 52.77, which is an improvement of about 20 percent over the second-generation Core i5 and the fastest score we’ve ever recorded from any dual-core laptop. 7-Zip reported a similar situation by returning a combined score of 9,128. That is once again the best result we’ve received from a dual-core laptop.
PCMark7 also had nice things to say about the X230 and reached a final score of 3,295. Some other laptops have scored higher, but they were equipped with solid state hard drives, which PCMark7 favors. This laptop’s score is the highest we’ve seen from a laptop with a traditional mechanical drive.
Intel’s new third-generation Core processors also come with Intel’s new HD 4000 integrated graphics processor. It managed to squeeze out a score of 4,902 in 3DMark 06 and 805 in 3DMark 11. These results are a decent upgrade over Intel HD 3000, but not as much of an upgrade as we would have liked. Basic 3D gaming is possible. However, some new titles like Battlefield 3 and even Diablo 3 won’t run well unless detail settings are throttled down to the bare minimum.
Lenovo’s X series has always been unique. HP’s Elitebook line offers the only real competition, but we’ve favored the ThinkPad in the past. This new model gives us no reason to change our recommendation. The X230 is the perfect laptop for a road warrior. Its keyboard is unusually spacious, endurance is excellent and the display is easy to use in almost any scenario imaginable.
Normally you have to sacrifice performance to obtain so much in a laptop so small, but that’s not the case here. The Core i5-3320M is the first third-generation Core processor we’ve reviewed, so it’s only natural for it to outperform previous laptops. Still, it’s unusual to see a regular Core processor put in a laptop of this size. An Ultrabook with a low-voltage Core i5 processor will be noticeably slower if you make any use of demanding applications. Netbooks? Forget about them. Some may be of similar size, but their performance is not remotely competitive.
So the X230 is small, fast, portable, and pleasing to use. What’s the catch? Price. This model is expected to hit store shelves at around $1,200. If you pay attention to Lenovo’s frequent sales and coupon codes you may be able to snag one for $1,100 a few months from now, but that’s still a fair chunk of change. It’s worth the price – we think this laptop is a heck of a good value, in fact – but over a grand is a lot to spend on a 12.5-inch laptop. Consider your needs carefully before taking the plunge.
- Sturdy chassis
- Excellent keyboard
- Display offers wide viewing angles
- Long battery life
- Quick for its size
- Touchpad could be better
- Expensive for its size