Monday, September 5, 2011

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 offers flirty features

Monday, September 5, 2011

ThinkPad notebooks have long been staples in the business world, first under IBM and in recent years under Lenovo of China. So you take notice when a ThinkPad promises flirty features that would typically appeal to a mainstream user, including a souped-up Dolby audio system, backlit liquid-resistant keyboard and a low-light-sensitive, high-definition webcam. Those are among the selling points in the ThinkPad X1 ultraportable that went on sale this week.

  • The Lenovo X1.


    The Lenovo X1.


The Lenovo X1.

To be sure, the X1 remains a business-first portable computer, a sturdy stately looking black clamshell-style ThinkPad. It has ThinkPad's trademark red eraser-head TrackPoint, complemented by a large button-less touch-pad. The tech police in your company will appreciate such security options as an integrated fingerprint reader for authentication, an encrypted hard drive and a hardware-based password manager.

But with consumer-friendly enhancements, the X1 also promises to attract crossover interest. I've been testing the X1 for a few days and liked it a fair bunch, with two important caveats. The battery life was underwhelming. Worse, the computer ultimately got fried soon after I put that spill-resistant keyboard to the test.

First the positive: I've been a big fan of ThinkPad keyboards dating back to its IBM roots and feel the same way after pounding away on the X1. If anything, the new keyboard — a cross between the classic ThinkPad keyboard and a more recent version seen on ThinkPad Edge laptops — is even better. To my fingers, the Chiclet-like keys provided the ideal tactile feel.

The latest machine is the successor to the sleek ThinkPad X300 ultraportable, which was frequently compared when it arrived three years ago with Apple's original MacBook Air. As the thinnest ThinkPad to date — Lenovo says its angled edges are shorter than the height of a U.S. penny — the X1 invites comparisons with the current-generation 13.3-inch MacBook Air. After all, the X1 has the same-size screen as the larger of two Air models and, as an ultraportable, resides in the same computing category. But Lenovo's chassis is noticeably thicker and, at 3.73 pounds, the notebook is nearly a full pound heavier, though it is by no means a back breaker. The X1 is also thicker and heavier than another svelte notebook rival, the Samsung Series 9. As with the Air and Series 9, the X1 lacks a built-in optical drive, a turnoff for some potential users.

X1 models start at $1,399 or $1,549 bundled with an external so-called slice battery, which, when snapped onto the bottom of the computer, adds a little bulk and heft. Based on my tests, you'll welcome the extra juice, especially because the integrated battery is sealed and performed poorly in my tests. Lenovo says you'll get up to 10 hours of battery life with the slice battery or 5.2 hours with just the integrated battery.

In my rather harsh test without the extra battery — I cranked up system performance at the expense of the battery while at the same time watching videos via Wi-Fi on Hulu — the machine only went a little past an hour. That's not good, though you would certainly do better under more "normal" circumstances.

At least I was able to verify Lenovo's claims that the X1 will charge up really quickly — up to 80% of battery capacity in just half an hour.

My test configuration has a 2.5-gigahertz Intel Core i5 processor (you can get up to an i7), 4 gigabytes of memory, 320-GB hard drive and the Windows 7 Professional (64-bit) operating system. It's got a single USB 2.0 port, a single USB 3.0 port, a display port, plus HDMI for connecting the system to a high-definition monitor. A card reader and so-called eSata port are also included, the latter for connecting speedy external storage drives.

Though the X1 isn't ruggedized per se, it does come with features that in theory will protect it against the hazards of corporate travel or the hazards of small kids getting their paws all over the thing. The screen is protected with Corning's Gorilla Glass, making it extremely resistant to scratches.

Lenovo says the machine meets eight standard military toughness tests, and it did survive being intentionally dropped on the floor a few times.

What it didn't survive was the spill test. In its marketing, Lenovo suggests the X1 keyboard can resist inadvertent spills of coffee, soft drinks or water. In the pamphlet that comes with the machine, the advice is to "prevent your computer from getting wet." So much for going with the marketers. I poured bottled water onto the keyboard, and most of the liquid appeared to drip out of the bottom, as it was supposed to. I was initially able to type in a Word document and prowl the Web. But soon after, perhaps because moisture seeped inside, the screen went blank, and I was unable to turn off the computer. When it finally did power off, I couldn't turn it back on, even after I stuck a paper clip into a tiny hole on the back of the computer to reset it.

If you're seeking a light and thin enterprise-friendly computer with a terrific sound system, great keyboard and rugged features, the ThinkPad X1 is well worth thinking about. Only the battery could be better. And you'll want to keep it above water.

The bottom line

Lenovo ThinkPad X1

$1,399 on up

Three (out of four)

•Pro: Thin and light. Protective Gorilla Glass display. Souped-up Dolby sound system. Excellent backlit keyboard.

•Con: Poor battery life. Machine quit after test of "spill-resistant" keyboard. No optical drive.

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