Keith Combs' Blahg

Ramblings from another nerd on the grid

Lenovo ThinkPad X301 - mini review

Lenovo ThinkPad X301 - mini review

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image I've been using the Lenovo ThinkPad X301 for almost three weeks now so before too long I'll have to return the eval unit I have.  With that in mind I thought now would be a good time to run down all of the pro and cons for the unit I have.

You'll be happy to know there are very few cons.  But price cannot be overlooked.  The machine I have on the lenovo.com buying site goes for a little over $3000.  I don't know about you, but for that price I'm going to shop the market heavily before I drop that kind of change on a machine.

The Machine Specs

I have an evaluation unit with the Intel® Core™ 2 Duo processor SU9400 with ultra low voltage, dual-core, Intel HD Boost, 800MHz system bus, and 3MB L2 cache.  4GB PC3-8500 1066MHz DDR3, non-parity, dual-channel  memory in the two 204-pin SO-DIMM sockets.  13.3" (338mm) WXGA+ (1440x900) TFT color, anti-glare, LED backlight, 300 nits, 16:10 aspect ratio, 250:1 contrast ratio screen.  Integrated camera on top of screen, 1.3-megapixel, fixed focus.  Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 4500MHD (GMA 4500MHD), in GS45 External monitor support via analog DB-15 connector or DisplayPort; Maximum external resolution: 2048x1536@75Hz.  It has the 64GB SSD drive and has the DVD drive in the fixed bay slot.  The rest you can see in the ThinkPad specs in tabook.pdf.

Battery Life

When I wrote the first impressions blog post about ten days ago, I had not tested the battery life.  I have tested it a few times over the course of the past couple of weeks and at first I thought I was getting terrific battery performance.  You see, I made a mistake. 

I thought I was using the 3 cell battery.  But in fact when I started checking the specs in tabook.pdf, I noticed this model ships with the 6 cell battery.  So I flipped the machine over and popped the battery out.  Sure enough, the part number matches the 6 cell battery part numbers. I don't know.  Is 4 hours of continuous use good for a 6 cell X300 or X301 battery?  According to the Lenovo website, I should be seeing 4.3 - 10 hours of battery life.  I am barely making 4 hours hours so I don't see how I am supposed to make 10 even with the DVD drive pulled and a battery in it's place.  Especially since it's only a 3 cell battery.  And just in case you are wondering, I am using the Max Battery Life power management profile with battery stretch turned on.  The only real modification to the environment I made was to turn the LED brightness up since I can't read and type at the level that profile uses. 

Makes you wonder how much power is used by the screen.  There sure seems to be a discrepancy from the Lenovo published results and my actual results.  Another battery test I did over the course of a couple of days was the sustained DVD playback torture test.  The Lenovo ThinkPad X301 lasted only 2.5 hours in my tests.  Not exactly great.  Plan on using a airplane adaptor for long flights.

The LED Backlit Screen

The 13.3 LED backlit screen is super bright.  In fact, unless it's daylight or you're in a well lit room, it's probably too bright.  I always knock the brightness down a level or two via the FN+END hot key combo.  Which brings me to a complaint about the T400, W500 and now the X301.  The brightness controls are no longer as granular as they are with the T61p and other models.  With the T61p, I knock the brightness down 6-8 clicks.  On the models I am complaining about, that's 2 clicks.  See what I mean?  It's more difficult to reach a desired comfort level because the difference in each click is much greater with the backlit LED screen controls.

When you don't run the LED backlit screen at full power and brightness, you will lose some color and contrast.  It isn't that bad, but I really noticed it when I used the X301 for 6-8 hours then switched back over to my T61p.  The other thing to remember that when running battery stretch mode, Windows Vista Aero Glass is disabled and you are set at a 16 bit color depth.  I can live with that on a temp basis but I would not want to run like that all the time.  I have not tested to see how big a contribution this makes to power savings.

imageAll in all, I like the 1440x900 LED backlit screen resolution.  You'd better like because other than the keyboard, it's one of the things you use most with the machine.  On a personal basis I now prefer 15.4 widescreen laptops with a native resolution of 1680x1050.  It seems to fit my eyes the best at this point in my life.  This is something each of you is going to have to decide on as well.  1440x900 on a 13.3 is a good resolution but it may not be suited to you. 

Heat

Cooling on the X310 is impressive.  I have not been using my Targus heat guard the entire time I've been using this machine.  My surmise is that the SSD storage cuts the heat considerably.  That and the thermals associated with the CPU and GPU chipsets.  If you like to use a laptop on your lap while wearing shorts, you are going to like this machine.  Nice and cool.

64GB SSD Storage and Performance

I'm sure one of the reasons this machine stays cool, and cost more is the SSD drive.  It's also one of the reasons the machine is virtually silent even when starting or launching apps.  It's really weird not to hear the tell tale sounds of a hard drive actuator arm moving and seeking those luscious sectors on the platters we have grown to love and loathe.  One of the beauties of a hard drive that is on it's way out is the fact many of them sound like it long before they fail.  What does a SSD drive sound like before it fails.  Or does it just suddenly have a heart attack?  According to my reading, these drives will in theory last longer due to fewer moving parts.  Er, make that no moving parts.

Take a close look at the Windows Vista WinSAT test results in the screenshot just above..  As you can see, the SSD drive is fast.  It scored a 5.9 on the "disk" test that was performed.  A lot of people don't know this, but faster hard drives can have a more dramatic impact to performance than CPU or RAM in many cases.  And the cool thing, pun intended, about SSD drives is that they are fast, consume less energy, give off less heat, are quiet, etc.

The Intel SU9400 CPU isn't any slouch either.  As you can see above, it scored a 4.6 on the WinSAT test.  Not bad.  Not as fast as my T61p's T7500, but this is a small ultralight machine.  The net effect is a great Windows Vista environment with and overall score of 3.8.  You'll notice the Intel integrated graphics chipset holds the score back some, but I haven't observed any significant problems with the speed of the graphics.  I'm not playing Crysis either.

This little machine should have no problems running the usual business applications we all know and love.  Office 2007 runs very nicely.  I have not tried any resource intensive apps like a video editor or something else that is going to work over the CPU.  It should handle email, spreadsheets, presentation software, web surfing, etc. in stride.

The Keyboard

The Lenovo ThinkPad X301 retains the legendary keyboard feel associated with the ThinkPad heritage.  It's a full size keyboard and has nice area from the front edge of the machine to the keys to rest your hands.  This is also the location for the built-in speakers and it had me wondering how much dirt is going to accumulate as a result of being in such close proximity to your hands.  By the way, the speakers are pretty good.  Nice and loud for such a small pair.

Unfortunately Lenovo did not backlight the keyboard.  I'm still on the fence for the whole backlighting issue.  It sure looks cool but how necessary is it really?  It would sure come in handy for long flights on dark planes, or texting in a closet, but where else?  Anyway, Lenovo still has their famous keyboard light available via the FN+PgUp key combo.

Case Construction and Ports

The X301 case is plenty sturdy.  The backlit LED panel lid doesn't seem as strong as the lid on my T61p.  It could be my imagination because according to the Lenovo website it's made of carbon fiber.  The carbon fiber design is supposed to be strong and reduce weight.  It has more flex than I am used to, but it's probably nothing to worry about.  The rest of the case is solid as a rock.

The ThinkPad X301 has no shortage of ports.  Along the back are ports for USB, VGA, Display Port, Ethernet and the wireless on/off switch.  On the left side there are two USB ports and jacks for a microphone or headset.  The left side also has the SSD drive cover and bay.  There are no ports on the front or right side.

Summary

This machine is an awesome little machine.  Fast, light, cool running, great screen, awesome keyboard, etc.  If you need a great machine and can afford this, I don't think you'll have any problem sleeping at night over your purchase.  I sure wish I could keep it, but I need to ship it back soon.

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  • Phenominal write up Keith.  Now I see why Lenovo keeps sending you test units.  I really appreciate your non-biased views in your posts.

    Keep up the great work.