A No-compromise Ultraportable Laptop Computer

Thursday Jun 23rd 2011 by Gerry Blackwell
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Lenovo’s ThinkPad X220 may be the perfect notebook PC for the small business road warrior.

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More small business owners -- tired of lugging a full-size 15- or 17-inch notebook on business trips -- are opting instead for ultraportable notebook computers such as Lenovo’s new ThinkPad X220.

The X220, which comes with Microsoft Windows 7 Professional, offers a range of the latest generation Intel dual-core processors, from Core i3 to Core i7, which makes performance is comparable with full-size laptops.

Battery life – over eight hours with the standard issue 6-cell battery has been reported – is best in class.

Prices start at $920 for models with a Core i3 processor and $1,020 for systems with an i5 processor. The pricing goes up to well over $2,000 on ThinkPad X220 notebook PC with premium components.

Designed mainly for corporate users, the X220 comes with nifty security and diagnostic features that will appeal to IT types, but the X220 is equally appropriate for small business road warriors.

A Small and Light Notebook PC

The upsides to an ultraportable are obvious. They’re smaller and lighter -- usually less than 4 pounds and, in the case of the X220, as little as 3 pounds. They’re easier to pack, easier to fit on an airline seatback tray or on crowded boardroom table. They're also much easier to carry and cause less shoulder and neck strain.

A tiny computer also doesn’t place quite as much of a barrier between you and others when you pull it out in a meeting.

There are downsides, of course, but fewer than once was the case with ultraportables, and fewer with this product than any we’ve looked at before.

High-definition Display

Ultraportable notebook displays are, by necessity, smaller than full-sized laptops, and the X220’s HD-capable screen (1,366 x 768 pixels) measures just 12.5 inches diagonally. It’s not as easy to have multiple windows open and visible on the screen at the same time as with a larger screen, documents may not be as legible and watching videos isn’t quite as comfortable.

But that undersize screen makes the notebook PC's diminutive overall dimensions -- 12.0 x 8.13 x 0.75-1.36 inches possible -- which in turn helps make the X220 as light as it is.

As with any laptop, you can always plug in a larger monitor when you’re in the office. The X220 includes a VGA monitor port for an analog connection, but also has a DisplayPort plug.

Lenovo ThinkPad X220; notebook PC
Lenovo packs lots of power into the ThinkPad X220, a lightweight, ultraportable notebook computer.
(Click for larger image)
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DisplayPort is a fairly new all-digital audio-video connector. With an appropriate cable and adapter (less than $10) you can plug the laptop into a high-definition television set and send it audio and video or, with a different adapter cable, attach the computer to the digital connection available on most modern monitors. 

Solid Laptop Design and Construction

The X220’s lightness, it should be noted, does not come at the expense of flimsiness, as is the case with some lower-priced ultraportables.

While this product does not have the much-admired alloy chassis found in premium-priced laptops, it does feel very solidly constructed. The hinges between the display screen and CPU, in particular, seem heavier duty and better designed than on most laptops.

We also like the improved magnetic clasp on the X220, and the way the top surface of the lid extends down over the front edge of the bottom part of the laptop.

That rounded front edge makes resting your palm more comfortable than on most laptops, and the overhang may also make it more difficult for dust to get in to the keyboard and screen when the laptop is closed.

Best-in-class Input Tools

Ultraportable laptops too often provide cramped keyboards -- a problem especially for big-fingered touch typists, and the cursor controls are often poorly designed. The X220 offers the best that we’ve seen in both areas.

The keyboard, while necessarily smaller than those on a 15- or 17-inch laptops, is very comfortable for this big-fingered touch typist. In particular, the Enter and Shift keys are a good size. Some smaller keyboards save space by shrinking these keys and/or offsetting them slightly from their normal position, making it easy to miss them when typing quickly.

The keys also have a nice positive response and the travel, the distance you need to push a key to enter a character reliably, while different from desktop keyboards, feels right.

The cursor controls -- with slight reservations -- are also very well designed.

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Two-for-One Input: TrackPoint and Touchpad

ThinkPads used to come with either a TrackPoint -- a pencil eraser-type nub in the middle of the keyboard that responds to finger pressure to move the cursor -- or a touchpad. The X220, like some other current ThinkPads, offers both.

When you’re using the TrackPoint, left and right "mouse" buttons below the keyboard are perfectly placed for reaching with thumbs. The touchpad is button-less to increase the area available for sliding your finger. However, pressing its lower corners -- they depress like keys -- activates mouse button functions.

This arrangement provides the best of both cursor-control worlds. It’s very effective use of the small amount of space available.

While we like the TrackPoint and find it useful especially when doing mass input of text -- it does sometimes get in the way when you’re touch typing and reaching with an index finger for one of the keys immediately adjacent to it.

Optional Hardware Features

The X220 comes standard with most of the other key hardware features you'll need, including three USB ports, an SD memory card reader and 802.11N Wi-Fi network adapter. (Optional broadband wireless adapters are available.)

Like most ultraportables, it lacks an optical drive. Lenovo sells the ThinkPad UltraBase Series 3 ($200 from Lenovo), an expansion dock that snaps on the bottom of the X220 -- easily, the company says -- and can be configured with either a DVD burner or second hard drive. (The UltraBase with DVD multi-burner is available online for about $270.)

The dock adds 1.4 pounds to the weight and 1.26 inches to the height of the X220. It includes four additional USB ports, a Gigabit Ethernet port, pass-through audio and analog and digital video support.

You won't find a camera included in base configurations of the X220, but the available 720p HD-capable camera adds only $30 to the price. Also missing as standard equipment: Bluetooth ($20) and an ExpressCard reader ($50)

Solid Performance but Overrated Upgrades

We reviewed a deluxe model configuration with an upgraded Intel i5-2540M - vPro processor (2.6 GHz,  3.3 GHz  Turbo), a premium screen and 4GB instead of the standard 2GB of memory. Together they jacked the price up over $2,000.

This is a clear case of the law of diminishing returns in product pricing. While we would definitely recommend adding 2GB or more of memory (add $80 for 4GB, $160 for 6GB, $240 for 8GB), only power users who do a lot of graphics work should consider the other upgrades.

The premium screen is certainly brilliant, probably the best we’ve seen on an ultraportable, but it isn't better enough --  even compared to the standard issue screen on our Dell 14-inch laptop -- to warrant the large price boost.

In our real-world testing using Adobe’s Photoshop image editor, for example, response on the X220 with its 2.6 GHz i5 processor was noticeably faster than on our Dell, which has a 2.37 GHz earlier-generation i5 chip and the same 4GB of memory -- but not by a huge margin.

And some of that difference may have been because the X220 was a fresh install with less of the Windows Registry and other baggage that slows computers that have been in heavy use for six months. Again, we’re doubtful the speed boost would be worth the price hike for most users.

Laptop Security Features

ThinkPads are known for superior security, and this one has two features we like. One is the fingerprint reader (add $20) below the keyboard that lets you log in to the computer with the swipe of a finger rather than keying in a password.

Unlike fingerprint readers on some other laptops we’ve tested, this one was dead easy to set up and worked consistently well.

The other neat feature is a face recognition applet that uses the optional camera to register whether someone is looking at the screen. In the absence of a recognizable face, the software puts the computer to sleep after a user-configurable delay.

Bottom Line

You can certainly find less expensive ultraportables, but most can’t compete with the X220 on build quality or performance. And there are a few that are more elegant-looking than the X220, but those, like Apple’s MacBook Air, tend to be either less powerful and/or more expensive.

If you don’t care about style or impressing friends, colleagues and customers with your hot laptop, but do want a high-performing, use-for-everything ultraportable, this is the one -- until something better and/or cheaper comes along.

Gerry Blackwell is a freelance technology writer based in London, Canada. Read his blog, AfterByte

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