Lenovo has released its Macbook Air “killer,” the svelte and feature laden ThinkPad X300. While Apple had to make a number of compromises on the Air to get it down to its remarkable size, Lenovo took the opposite approach and have crammed as many features as possible – including an optical drive – into the X300. It’s an expensive notebook because, unlike the Air, it comes with a solid-state 64GB hard drive standard. As of the time of this review, the Lenovo ThinkPad X300 is priced from $3000 USD.
Features and Design
Like any ultra-portable notebook, there are a few compromises in the design which is meant to enhance battery life at the expense of all-out power, and is a typical trade-off in this category. It starts with the CPU, which is a low-voltage Core 2 Duo running at 1.2GHz. It also comes with a 64GB solid-state hard drive, and unfortunately there’s no option to configure it with a higher-capacity mechanical drive.
Aside from those specs, the rest of the notebook is as full-featured as you would expect a flagship notebook to be. Lenovo hasn’t skimped one bit on features and includes three USB 2.0 ports, headphone and mic jacks, a Gigabit Ethernet port, optical drive, VGA-out, 1.3MP webcam and a switch to disable all wireless radios. There are no expansion slots however, such as an ExpressCard port, nor are there any slots for removable media.
Speaking of wireless, it seems Lenovo shares Apple’s vision of a wireless future, but Lenovo has taken it to the next level by including every possible wireless option known to man, including onboard Intel Wi-Fi that supports legacy G speeds as well as the faster N standard. The system also supports Bluetooth, and has an internal Verizon Wireless broadband card as well. The wireless broadband isn’t free of course, and you have to sign up for 2 years paying either $39.95 a month for 50MB of data usage or $59.95 for 5GB.
Tipping the scales at a mere 2.9lbs., the X300 is certainly very light, but that doesn’t mean it’s a feathery notebook that will crack the first time it falls out of one’s laptop bag. Lenovo has designed the X300 to not only be easily portable but also rugged enough to withstand the rigors of frequent travel. It uses a roll-cage that wraps around the chassis, and features a magnesium chassis for increased strength. Internally it features carbon and glass fiber to reduce weight without sacrificing ruggedness.
Lenovo sprinkled carbon fiber throughout the chassis to keep it light yet rigid.
In the past most ultra-portable notebooks have used small 12.1” displays in order to keep size and weight to the minimum, but recently manufacturers have moved to a larger 13.3” display for the simple reason that more display real estate is better as long as it doesn’t negatively impact overall weight. The X300 uses a 13.3” LED backlit display, similar to the MacBook Air paired with onboard Intel X3100 graphics. The movement toward using LEDs for a backlight instead of cathode tubes is gaining popularity as its makes for more even lighting, reduces backlight leakage at the edges of the display, and consumes less power.
The Fixed Bay
Most ultra-portable notebooks do not include an optical drive, and though it’s mostly due to weight and size limitations it’s also because most people don’t bring CDs with them on the road and only occasionally need access to such a drive. Lenovo recognizes this, and allows the user to remove the optical drive and replace it with either a lightweight travel bezel that protects the port, or an additional 3-cell battery. Lenovo claims that when using Windows XP and the optional 6-cell battery, the additional 3-cell battery can extend battery life up to 10 hours.
The default OS for the X300 (and all business-oriented notebooks these days) is Vista Business, but Lenovo also offers Windows XP Professional at no additional charge and Vista Ultimate for an extra $63. If you are considering ordering an X300 with Windows XP, you better get on the ball since Lenovo won’t be able to offer it after June 30th.
Like all ThinkPads, the X300 comes with a biometric fingerprint scanner that can be used to log into Windows. It also features Lenovo’s Active Protection System for the internal hard drive, which monitors the movement and acceleration of the laptop in order to protect the hard drive. It also includes a Trusted Platform Module which can encrypt passwords.
The X300 sports a gorgeous 13.3” LED backlit display that runs at 1440 x 900.
Use and Testing
Like the MacBook Air, as soon as we lifted the X300 out of the box we were amazed by not only how thin and light it was, but by how rugged it felt. You can pick it up by the display or by the corner of the chassis and it doesn’t flex one bit. We pressed down hard on the top of the LCD cover and it was rock-solid and didn’t budget. It’s a smidgen thicker than the Air, but that’s mostly due to its boxy roll-cage design. Suddenly, our very own 6lb. notebook – an XPS M140 – felt like an obsolete tank in comparison.
The X300 is just under three quarters of an inch thick at its thinnest point.
Since the X300 uses a solid-state hard drive, we expected its boot time to be better than average – especially since we’d heard stories of how fast it boots. It ended up booting to the desktop in a scant 40 seconds, which is good, but it then took an additional 15 seconds to load all the startup items, giving it a 55 second boot time, which is average for a Vista machine. This performance backs up our previous experience with the Asus Eee PC – as a user it’s literally impossible to “feel” any speed advantage with solid-state drives.
Once we got to the desktop it seemed pretty sparse in terms of pre-installed programs, as the only links on the desktop where to ones we see on almost every pre-built PC we get in for review: Norton Internet Security, Microsoft Office trial and Adobe Reader. It’s certainly nothing like the Toshiba Qosmio we recently reviewed. However, when we looked at the available hard disk space our jaw dropped – with its 64GB hard drive, only 36GB remained unused. This translates to a 24GB installation of Vista plus the usual ThinkVantage applications, which is unbelievably large. We used a utility to examine drive usage and nothing out of the ordinary came up aside from a 4GB directory named “backup,” but we looked and System Restore had been disabled. We’re honestly not sure why Lenovo configures its systems this way or what takes up so much space, but 36GB for storage is not a lot of space obviously.
With its 2GB of RAM and Core 2 Duo processor, the X300 is certainly zippy enough for day-to-day tasks. It comes pre-loaded with Vista’s Service Pack 1, which has been known to improve general performance as well as file transfer times. It’s Windows Experience Index score is a decent 3.5.
Obviously, given its specs it’s not a machine one would purchase for gaming or video editing, and though some people are griping about its processor running at only 1.2GHz, we found it to be totally sufficient for general laptop duties.
Battery life is critical to an ultra-portable, and to test it we disable the screensaver and other battery-saving options and simply loop a DVD while surfing the Net until the battery runs out. Though this scenario isn’t a “worst case” scenario such as running 3DMark or loading the CPU to 100 percent, it’s a bit more strenuous than simply typing emails and such. In our tests we were able to squeeze 2 hours and 35 minutes from the included 3-cell battery, which is decent, but not spectacular. We can imagine it wouldn’t be difficult to stretch that out past 3 hours though using the built in battery-saving features Lenovo includes. Also, we received a low battery warning near the end of the test saying it was disabling the optical drive to preserve battery life, but we ignored it, so know that it’s certainly possible to get more life out of the battery. Lenovo also sells a larger 6-cell battery that’s supposed to be good for over six hours, and there’s also the extra 3-cell battery that can replace the optical drive for a few more hours of battery life.
Keyboard and Drive Protector
Every time we get to review a ThinkPad we’re reminded how much we love the keyboard. It’s spot-on perfect in terms of size, feel, key travel distance and sound. And while some notebook keyboards can feel a bit squishy or soft, the X300’s felt totally solid and was a joy to use. Though we don’t like using the red nubbin and the left-and-right keys below it, it’s nice that Lenovo includes them for those who don’t like the touchpad, which is a bit small but easy to use.
Also, Lenovo includes its Active Protection software for the hard drive, which is supposed to be able to move the read/write heads out of the way in case the notebook is dropped. We wondered though, how is that supposed to work on a solid-state drive? We opened the utility and looked at the real-time status window which displays a 3D animation of the notebook that moves when you move the notebook. It noted “no shock detected” no matter what we did, even when we swung it around very fast and even dropped it on our bed, which would normally trip the sensor, it always said no shock detected. We bring this up to highlight how nice it is to have a solid-state drive. Even if it doesn’t “feel” faster than a normal drive, it’s comforting knowing you can throw the notebook around without having to worry about any moving parts inside (aside from the CPU fan).
Lenovo has done a very good job with the X300, and if we win the lottery soon we’d choose it over the MacBook Air simply because it’s just as portable but a lot more flexible. Despite its size, the X300 makes very few compromises to achieve such a slim profile and it’s so solid construction makes it feels almost unbreakable. The biggest drawback is clearly its small 64GB hard drive, and that situation is exacerbated by the fact that only 36GB are free. Granted it’s a business notebook so it is likely users won’t be ripping movies to the hard drive or engaging in other “home user” type of activities. Anyone could easily augment this storage with a USB drive but still – 36GB is below what we’d consider a bare minimum amount of storage for a notebook these days.
• Amazingly light and portable
• Lots of expansion ports
• Feels rugged
• Includes swappable optical drive
• Small touchpad
• Needs bigger hard drive