Keith Combs' Blahg

Ramblings from another nerd on the grid

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 - mini review

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 - mini review

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X1Executive Summary

I had a lot of pre-conceived notions about the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 before it arrived.  It turns out that some of them were wrong but others were right on the mark.  If you are looking for a 13.3” notebook computer that is battle worthy, then the X1 should be on your list for consideration.  It is as tough as a tank.

Specifications

Here are specifications for the machine I am testing. It has the Intel® Core™ i5-2520M processor (dual-core, 2.50GHz, 3MB Cache), DDR3 memory controller (up to 1333MHz), Intel Turbo Boost 2.0 (up to 3.20GHz), and Hyper threading (HT) technology. Intel X-25M Solid State Drive (SSD) / SATA 3.0Gb/s, 2.5" wide, 7mm high. 13.3" (338mm) HD (1366x768) TFT color, anti-glare display with glossy infinity Corning® Gorilla® Glass, LED backlight, 350 nits, 16:9 aspect ratio, 300:1 contrast ratio. Intel HD Graphics 3000 integrated graphics processor, external digital monitor support via HDMI™ or Mini DisplayPort. Dimensions of 13.26" x 9.1" x 0.65-0.84" with a weight of 3.73 lbs. Trusted Platform Module, TCG 1.2-compliant. Bluetooth 3.0 wireless, LED indicator. Intel Centrino® Advanced-N 6205, 2x2 or Intel Centrino Ultimate-N 6300, 3x3. One USB 3.0, one USB 2.0, one powered USB 2.0/eSATA combo port, external monitor (Mini DisplayPort, HDMI), Ethernet (RJ-45) Intel 82579L(F/M) Gigabit Network.

Memory and Storage

The machine I received is the standard ThinkPad X1 but this particular unit has a single 8GB SoDIMM for RAM and the Intel 160GB SSD drive.  The SSD drive is a second generation Intel X-25M drive in the low profile 7mm form factor.

I didn’t crack open the case to see the manufacturer of the RAM SoDIMM stick, but you should know that 8GB sticks are extremely expensive right now. For example, these sticks go for nearly $2000 from Dell. When you add the 32GB RAM option to the Precision M4600 notebook it’s adds $7700 to that config.  As you can see, the 8GB X1 is a bargain with that in mind.

As I mentioned, the SSD drive that came with it is the second gen Intel, so it is not a SATA III 6Gb/s drive. The X1 like many of the other new ThinkPad's comes with the Mobile Intel QM67 Express Chipset so it should be able to handle the newer SATA III SSD drives when Lenovo gets around to certifying them.

Processor

The standard ThinkPad X1 comes with the Intel® Core™ i5-2520M processor and is plenty powerful.  It has many of Intel’s latest feature set including wireless display, anti-theft, and virtualization.  With the 8GB configuration and an external storage drive, it is perfectly capable of running several virtual machines if needed via Windows Server 2008 R2 Hyper-V or a desktop virtualization product like VMWare Workstation.

I am particularly interested in the anti-theft capabilities. Intel® Anti-Theft Technology is an intelligent way for you to help secure the mobile assets of your workforce. This intelligent laptop security technology is built into select 2nd generation Intel® Core™ and 2nd generation Intel® Core™ vPro™ processor families.

Intel Anti-Theft Technology (Intel AT) is built into the processor of your laptop, so it is active as soon as your machine is switched on—even before startup. If your laptop is lost or stolen, a local or remote “poison pill” can be activated that renders the PC inoperable by blocking the boot process. This means that predators cannot hack into your system at startup. It works even without Internet access and, unlike many other solutions, is hardware-based, so it is tamper-resistant.

Gorilla GlassScreen

The screen is a 13.3” 1366x768 native resolution TFT panel protected by a glossy infinity Corning® Gorilla® Glass finish.  Gorilla Glass is an environmentally friendly alkali-aluminosilicate thin-sheet glass. This combined with the other lid materials makes the X1 lid incredibly strong.

The LCD panel is a 350 nit bright panel so it’s plenty bright.  The colors are ok.  The contrast is ok. Strangely the contrast looks better at night in lower light conditions.  The viewing angles are also just fair.  Lenovo should have put an IPS panel in this machine.  It was a mistake not to.  It should certainly be offered as an option.

If you follow my blog, you’ve probably read my blog post and complaints about the LCD panels of the current generation of notebooks.  When you get a chance, go read it.  And for the record, I wrote that article nine days before I got this machine and it didn’t change my opinion. It just reinforced it.  I still detest the 1366x768 resolution.  Arrrgggg.

I don’t like glossy screens.  The X1’s screen is certainly very glossy and has nearly edge to edge glossiness via the “Infinity” look.  On the upside, that glossy glass is nearly impossible to scratch.  My Lenovo rep told me to try and scratch it with anything but a diamond.  I tried to key the darn thing and it just laughed at me.  Now that’s impressive. We’ll talk more about the benefits this screen provides in a minute when we get to the chassis and weight discussion.

One other thing about the screen, if you look really closely you’ll see some graininess or a “screen door” effect.  This has been pretty widely reported on the ThinkPad T420s.  If you are looking at the screen in the 12-18” range with good eyesight, then you can probably discern this.  It’s pretty hard to see outside that range. I don’t consider it a show stopper.

Keyboard and TrackPad

X1_detail_06The keyboard isn’t the ThinkPad traditional style.  In order to support backlighting and the liquid drainage, Lenovo went with a new Chiclet style keyboard. I haven’t used it long enough to get used to it yet but I can tell it would be not problem.  I am writing this blog post using the X1 to see if I stumble.

I like the way it feels and I certainly like the backlighting.  Backlighting should become either standard or an option for all of the business class ThinkPads.  I hope they’ll figure out how to do it with the classic keyboard.  See “ThinkPad X1: Designing the Ultimate Keyboard” and “ThinkPad X1: Stradivarius Keyboard” for deeper insight into the design.  Of the Chiclet keyboards I’ve tried, this one is certainly a stand out.  I’m not sure it deserves to be called a Stradivarius, but it is pretty good.

The backlighting comes in two brightness levels.  Running the backlighting on full does have an effect on battery consumption but it’s pretty minor.  I have not tested the drainage through the keyboard and have no intention of trying it.

Lenovo also made a change to the TrackPoint and TrackPad.  I am a mouse guy about 95% of the time but the TrackPad on the X1 seems to work well enough for my needs.  It’s a buttonless pad but as you might suspect, you left and right mouse click on the bottom left and right portions of the square.  It’s also multi-touch scroll and zoomable.

Battery Life

One of the first things I did with this evaluation unit was test the battery life.  I was interested in two aspects.  I had heard the X1 didn’t have good battery life, and Lenovo claimed it could quick charge the battery to 80% charged in 30 minutes.  Now that’s an interesting claim.

As it turns out, one of those was wrong.  I didn’t find the battery life to be poor.  In fact, on the unit I tested it was pretty decent. In the last test I ran, I had the backlit keyboard on high brightness, the screen dims at 1 minute to 20% brightness, WIFI active, Outlook receiving email from Exchange Server, Tweetdeck and IE9 were running.  That test lasted five hours.  Without the backlighting and few apps, I managed to get 6 hours out of the X1.  So I figure realistically most people are going to get 4-5 hours.

RapidCharge is ultra cool.  In fact, after seeing it in action on the X1 I think Lenovo should include this on every ThinkPad.  On my battery tests, I let the battery literally die on the vine.  The battery would run down to 0% then shut the machine down.  RapidCharge charged the battery back up to 85-87% in 30 minutes.  The X1 ships with the 90W power cord and I was using the 135W cord that came with my ThinkPad W510.  So I cheated some but you have to admit, that is impressive.

So think about it.  You can run around all morning going to meetings, then plug it into the wall during your lunch break, then have another 4-5 hours of juice for the afternoon.  Don’t you wish we could recharge our bodies like that?

X1_standard_01Ports

The X1 has a healthy mix of ports.  Along the back is an eSATA+USB combo port also known as eSATAp in the industry.  This allows you to use a powered eSATAp cable for SATA drives.  It’s also the port you would use to charge a cell phone or slate device if you are leveraging it in that manner overnight. There’s a SuperSpeed USB 3.0 port on back as well.  I picked up an external FileMate 2.5” enclosure not long ago that works really well and only uses the USB port for power.  You can find them for $12-19 USD.

If you are interested in driving external displays, you have a choice of using the mini DisplayPort or full size HDMI ports on the back.  I have not tested either of them and probably won’t before I turn the machine in. There is a SIM card slot on the back of the X1 that is used for the internal cell phone wireless chipset option if present.  The eval unit I have does not have the cell wireless chipset. The last connection on the back is the RJ-45 Ethernet jack for the Intel Gigabit network card.

X1_standard_03On the right side is the memory card slot and the cover for the 7mm SDD/HDD drive bay.  On the left side of the machine is a combo headset/microphone jack and a USB 2.0 port.  Those two ports are covered with a rubber cover.  I guess Lenovo figured they would not be used much.  In my case, they would be right.  I would always look to using the back ports first BECAUSE of the cover.  Annoying little bugger.

Chassis

The ThinkPad X1 is build like a tank.  It’s probably the most solid notebook I’ve ever had in my hands. It is incredibly rigid and I have no doubt this thing could take a serious amount of abuse.  My Lenovo rep told me to let my daughter stand on it.  That’s a pretty interesting challenge but since she was not available for the test I had to improvise. Grin.

Yes, you got that right. I closed the lid and placed the X1 on the floor in my home office.  I took off my shoes and placed my size eleven left foot squarely in the middle of the lid cover and stood on the X1.  Two hundred plus pounds of weight in my left foot squarely crushing the latest technology from Lenovo.  Except for one thing.  It didn’t do squat.  No cracks in the lid.  No cracks in the LCD panel or gorilla glass.  No bends or cracks anywhere else for that matter.  This is one tough chassis and lid.

X1_hero_11

Lenovo brags about the toughness of that carbine fiber rollcage and construction. They’ve shown lots of demos on YouTube but it’s the first time I’ve ever tried to break a machine on purpose, and couldn’t.  Made me a believer.

Like the ThinkPad's of era after era, the X1 has the flat black rubberized finish.  It isn’t as sexy as the shiny black Samsung Series 9 900X3A, but it also isn’t a fingerprint magnet.  Another benefit of the finish is the ability to easily grip the X1.  At 3.7 pounds, it isn’t an ultra light notebook, but it’s easily grabbed with one hand.

Wireless

1345028094When I tested the Samsung 900X3A a few weeks ago, it suffered from poor wireless connectivity.  The Broadcom card in that machine would only work with one band of my 802.11N network.  The ThinkPad X1 and its Intel chipset suffers no such issues in my testing.  It was rock solid reliable and fast.  No fiddling with your access point and it supports 2.4/5.8GHz dual band access points.

Merge

The 13 -14” notebook computer market is really odd right now.  As far as I can tell, there are only a couple of 13” notebooks with a screen resolution above 1366x768.  The Sony Model S and the Apple MacBook Air.  In fact, the Air is one of the few machines left with a 16:10 ratio display running at 1440x900.  I really wish the X1 had a screen like that.

Therefore, in order to create the perfect notebook computer I would borrow from the best machines on the market and merge them into a single machine. The perfect machine would start with the X1 chassis and lid.  But the perfect machine needs a 14” IPS LCD panel.  Keep the Gorilla Glass but make is a matte design.  Since they are all 16:9 ratio screens now, it would need to be at least 350 nits with a 1600x900 native resolution.  And just in case you were wondering, the ThinkPad T420s 14” lid is the same size at the X1 lid so it should be possible.

The keyboard isn’t a hard decision.  Although the backlit keyboard is very cool, I wouldn’t trade light for the stellar keyboards that have been on ThinkPads for generations. I’ll take a NMB keyboard any day.

As for the ports, the Lenovo engineers almost got this one correct.  I would remove the cover from the ports on the left side of the X1 to promote the use of that USB port.  In fact, I would either move the eSATAp port or the USB 3.0 port there.  It’s more convenient to use it for an external DVD or SSD/HDD drive enclosure.

As for the TrackPad, I would like to see Lenovo move to a black glass design.  It seems like Apple has that figured out so it would be great to see the ThinkPads improve that area.

And for heavens sake, put a docking station connector on the X1 or whatever the next version is.  It certainly looks like it is thick enough and rigid enough to handle one.  Not having a docking station is a rather big deal to me.  Especially considering the ThinkPad T420s has one and will drive four external displays.  Fix this Lenovo. A single monitor via the USB 2.0 Port Replicator doesn’t get it done.

Summary

The X1 is a nice machine but it misses the mark for me in some key areas.  I could deal with the keyboard if forced but I won’t sacrifice my productivity with a 13” low resolution screen.  That’s a deal breaker for me.  I know a lot of you won’t care about the screen, but I would at least like some choices. I’ll pay extra for a bigger high resolution matte IPS screen.

Until that happens the ThinkPad T420s is a better fit for my preferences.  I like having the 1600x900 resolution matte screen, Ultrabay, traditional keyboard and docking station.

The X1 size, weight and chassis rocks. Keep improving battery life and by all means, add RapidCharge across all the ThinkPad product lines if possible.   The next generation X1 could be the perfect machine.  Your move Lenovo.

[UPDATE for 6/22/2011]  Here’s a short update.  I took a few pictures of the X1 stacked on top of the ThinkPad T420s so you could clearly see the lid size is that same.  There’s the back picture of all of the ports.  I took pictures of the left and right side, too.  And of course I took a close-up macro shot of some of they keys.  Be sure to see the official photos at the X1 Picasa webfolder.

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  • Hi Keith,

    Great review- thanks!

    How do the X1 and T420s compare as far as battery life and weight (using the X1 battery slice)? And to confirm- there is no ability to extend the battery life for T420s?

  • @M,

    The X1 and T420s are roughly the same battery life assuming you are pretty informed on all of the settings in the BIOS, Lenovo Power Manager, and Windows Control Panel Power Options.  To get the best battery life you really need to explore them, learn what they do, and make sure they are set properly.  It appears the X1 has a slight edge.

    The X1 has the cool RapidCharge.  The T420s does not.  That's a big advantage and a pretty strong selling point.

    Lenovo needs to merge the two and get rid of the 13" if they can't do better than 1366x768 on the screen resolution. I'm not sure many business professionals are going to enjoy that res with Outlook, Excel, etc.

  • Thanks Keith! A merge with the best parts of the two would be great! I don't think anything is on the horizon as these are fairly new. Would you agree?

    The battery life comparison includes the battery bay for the T420s versus the slice battery on the X1? (I just chanced upon battery bay option now and I didn't notice it before.) What were your run times for moderate use (Word document, web surfing etc.)?

    It seems from your review that you lean more toward the T420s because of resolution. Any other reasons?

    Sorry for the multitude of questions and thank you for all of your help!

  • @M,

    There is always something on the horizon and the grass is always greener. Welcome to information technology.

    The battery life comparison is the built-in X1 battery and does not include the slice. I did not receive a slice for testing. The T420s was tested with the standard 6-cell.

    My run times for the X1 with Word, WIFI, Outlook and a few others ran right about 5 hours with extremely miserly CPU and GPU power management settings.  The screen brightness was at about 20% which is a brightness that is usable on a dark airplane flight.  The T420s run times and tests were very similar.

    Yes, I prefer resolutions above 1366x768.  The T420s I tested is 1600x900. That is a good resolution for a 14" especially with a brighter higher quality screen.

  • Thank you for clarifying because that was important- I'd assume they would be similar with their additional batteries but it is good to know that I can probably get a longer battery life.

    If you ignore the screen resolution (I am not doing graphics or gaming etc.)- would you still choose the T420s over the X1? I am trying to decide on a Thinkpad that is ultraportable, good battery life, pleasant to use, and reliable. It is difficult for me to compare these in person as they are not common in Best Buy etc, and I was very grateful to have seen your reviews, so thank you!

  • Slight off topic...

    Keith, you remember the review you did on the T61p a couple years ago?  I bought one after the good word on it only to find out the cripled SATA speed?  Have you tried the "fix" to uncap it yet on NBR?

  • I don’t know if the image at www.lenovo.com/.../W530.png is a prototype