Review: ThinkPad X1, solid MacBook Air competitor

Summary:The ThinkPad X1 combines a thin, light form with new technology to produce a notebook that competes favorably with the MacBook Air. Check out the review and photo gallery to see why.

Apple has a reputation for attractive, thin laptops with the MacBook Air line, while Lenovo has a solid business reputation with its ThinkPad products. The distinction between the two is blurring, thanks to the release today of the ThinkPad X1, the most ultraportable notebook in the ThinkPad product line. The ThinkPad X1 combines a thin, light form with new technology to produce a notebook that competes firmly with the MacBook Air.

I have been using the X1 for a week and this laptop impresses me on every level. From the light weight of 3.8 pounds to components designed for high performance, the ThinkPad X1 is a mobile computer with no compromises. Lenovo has retained everything the ThinkPad is famous for, durability, outstanding keyboards and utility, while introducing new battery technology that will keep mobile professionals happy.

Check out the ThinkPad X1 photo gallery


Image Gallery: Lenovo ThinkPad X1 -- a solid competitor for the MacBook Air
Image Gallery: Charge
Image Gallery: Charge

Hardware Tour

A quick trip around the ThinkPad X1 shows how much utility can be packed into a small form. Lenovo put a bright (350 NITS) 13.4-inch display into a wedge-shaped casing that is only 0.65 - 0.84 inches thick. Contrary to reports that have appeared the display does not have IPS technology. The screen is covered with Corning Gorilla Glass for durability, and can be laid out flat making it possible to work optimally in any tight space. The MacBook Air displays at a higher resolution than that of the X1. The only concession made for the thin casing is a chiclet keyboard, but Lenovo has managed to produce one that is just as good as the regular keyboards that makes ThinkPads famous. More on the keyboard later in the review.

A low-light HD webcam above the screen is standard for video calling, and a utility is included to configure audio and video optimally for Skype calls. Lenovo has included dedicated volume buttons and a mute button next to the keyboard for easy use during conference calls.

There is a fingerprint sensor to the right of the trackpad which can be configured to log into Windows, resume from sleep mode and even to power on the notebook. The latter function is especially useful, as turning on the computer is as simple as swiping a finger on the fingerprint reader. This turns on the power and logs into Windows with just the one swipe.

In spite of the small form, the stereo speakers are surprisingly loud. Lenovo has included Dolby sound technology into the X1, and while the audio quality is not going to replace your big stereo it sounds pretty good for a notebook.

Specifications for review unit

  • Processor: Intel Core i5-2520M, 2.5GHz
  • Memory: 4GB
  • HDD: 320GB, 7,200 rpm (optional SSD available)
  • Graphics/Display: Intel HD 3000, 13.4-inch with Corning Gorilla Glass (1366x768)
  • Ports: USB 2.0 (1), USB 3.0 (1), HDMI (1), DP(1), eSATA (1), Multicard 4-1
  • Battery: 6 Cell (38.92 Wh) sealed, not user replaceable
  • Optional slice battery: 35.5 Wh
  • Connectivity: Centrino Advanced-N 6205, Bluetooth
  • Webcam: low-light
  • OS: Windows 7 Pro 64-bit
  • Dimensions: 13.26” x 9.1” x 0.65” – 0.84”
  • Weight of review unit: 3.85 pounds, 4.6 pounds with slice battery

New Battery Technology »

New Battery Technology

The ThinkPad X1 continues the current trend in laptops by using a sealed battery. This makes it possible to put the biggest battery possible in thin cases, a method started by Apple with the MacBook Air. Having a battery that is not replaceable by the user is not popular with some, and Lenovo has produced new technology to minimize the negative impact of them. According to Lenovo, the battery used in the X1 will last three times longer than conventional batteries before needing replacing. This should eliminate the likelihood of owners needing to replace the battery during the notebook's lifetime.

Lenovo has also introduced RapidCharge technology with the X1. This technology allows the battery to be charged from empty to 80 percent capacity in just 30 minutes. That makes it painless to get hours of operation with just a short time at an outlet, a big plus for mobile professionals. It is easy to picture a traveler with an empty battery using 30 minutes while waiting for a flight to charge the battery up to 80 percent capacity.

This RapidCharge technology goes hand in hand with the five hour battery life the ThinkPad X1 delivers with minimal power stretching. I have been able to regularly get around five hours of operation out of a single charge, longer with battery stretching techniques made easy with the ThinkPad Power Manager utility that is standard on all ThinkPads.

For mobile professionals five hours may not be enough on a charge, so there is an optional slice battery available which doubles the time spent away from a power outlet. This slice is actually a small wedge that snaps onto the bottom rear of the X1. It is hot-swappable, so the slice can be snapped on or off while the system is running. I have seen ten hours of battery life consistently with the slice in place, and the RapidCharge capability applies to it as well as the main system. Thirty minutes of charging can get you a cool 8 hours of run time while using the slice battery.

The slice battery forms a wedge at the rear of the X1, providing an ergonomic typing angle when in place. It only adds about a half inch to the rear of the unit, and about a pound of weight. The X1 with the wedge battery in place weighs about as much as my 13-inch MacBook, while providing over twice the battery life. When attached the system uses the slice battery first, so it can be removed when depleted for ultralight computing. Some folks may prefer using the X1 sans slice battery first, then popping on the slice when the battery goes dry. It works well either way.

ThinkPad Keyboard, Chiclet Style

I have long been a fan of ThinkPad keyboards; as one who makes a living pounding on keyboards I have always appreciated how good they are on the ThinkPad line. I was thus surprised when I unboxed the X1 and saw a more modern chiclet style keyboard in use. I was fully prepared to pan Lenovo for using this style, even though I realize the thin case made it necessary.

From the first moment I started typing on the X1, I realized that Lenovo has accomplished what I thought was impossible: bringing a stellar ThinkPad typing experience to a chiclet keyboard. Through a combination of key spacing and carefully sculpted key tops, typing on the X1 is as good as on any ThinkPad. I was immediately able to type at full speed, with no adjustment period required. Kudos for this keyboard are due to Lenovo.

To cope with the trials of life of the road, the keyboard is spill resistant like other ThinkPad models with two drain holes in the bottom of the unit. Spilled liquid can be drained out the bottom and the unit hopefully salvaged after a proper drying period.

I was also happy to see that this keyboard is backlit, I believe a first for ThinkPads. There are two brightness settings for the backlighting which are toggled by the Fn-spacebar combination. The backlighting can be turned off with the same key combination.

The ThinkPad X1 has both a red trackstick and a buttonless trackpad. There are three mouse buttons between the keyboard and the trackpad for use with either the trackstick or the trackpad. The trackpad can be clicked to produce mouse clicks too, and is multitouch capable. The trackpad is a little smaller than I prefer, but it works well with a little practice. Lenovo has incorporated palm rejection technology to prevent inadvertent trackpad touches while typing from generating unwanted cursor actions.

Conclusion »

Conclusion

ThinkPad X220 top, X1 bottom

ThinkPad X220 top, X1 bottom

The recently released ThinkPad X220 was my favorite laptop to date, as demonstrated in my review of that unit. I must confess the ThinkPad X1 has already bumped the X220 from favorite laptop status, due to its more portable form, beautiful screen and high performance. While the 10 hours of battery life (with the slice) are not as much as the X220's 15 hours with its slice, given my needs the thinner X1 better suits my work routine. The two units are compared in the photo gallery above.

The ThinkPad X1 should be available now from Lenovo, and the unit as reviewed retails for $1,399; the system bundled with the slice battery is priced at $1,549. This pricing makes it competitive with the MacBook Air, and the inclusion of full Intel processors makes it one of the most powerful laptops in this ultraportable class. The Core i5 processor in the review unit handled even video encoding with ease, something ULV or older processors like those in the MacBook Air don't handle as well. The X1 is configurable with a 160GB SSD in place of the HDD if desired.

The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 is a solid competitor to the MacBook Air. It may not be quite as light, and the screen resolution is lower on the X1, but the ThinkPad brand has a lot of value for many consumers. The X1 is not the only thin and light notebook on the market, but it is the only ThinkPad.

See related coverage:

Topics: Apple, Hardware, Laptops, Mobility

About

James Kendrick has been using mobile devices since they weighed 30 pounds, and has been sharing his insights on mobile technology for almost that long. Prior to joining ZDNet, James was the Founding Editor of jkOnTheRun, a CNET Top 100 Tech Blog that was acquired by GigaOM in 2008 and is now part of that prestigious tech network. James' w... Full Bio

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