Review: ThinkPad X1, solid MacBook Air competitor

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.

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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.

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Topics: Apple, Hardware, Laptops, Mobility

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76 comments
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  • Design

    Damn when are they gonna start making actually attractive design?

    Seriously its been years. But their design department is still back in the 1990's. Fair enough thin design and yap yap. But its just damn ugly :S
    evolutionqy7
    • It's a ThinkPad!

      @evolutionqy7 <br>
      And it has tons of fans already.
      cym104
      • And it is too thick and heavy to be MacBook Air's competitor

        @cym104
        DDERSSS
    • RE: Review: ThinkPad X1, solid MacBook Air competitor

      @evolutionqy7
      I was thinking the same thing, looks exactly like my old IBM thinkpad from y2k. Macbook air looks way better, these days looks win..
      Hasam1991
      • RE: Review: ThinkPad X1, solid MacBook Air competitor

        @Hasam1991 [i]Macbook air looks way better, these days looks win..[/i]

        Now there's a sad statement. Might be true, but still sad.
        Badgered
      • @badgered

        Why is it a sad statement? When performance is comparable, what's wrong with choosing beautiful over ugly? Or do you want us to believe your house is furnished in cinderblocks and wooden planks. After all, it's perfectly functional and a whole lot cheaper.
        fr_gough
      • RE: Why is it a sad statement

        @@frgough@...

        Because it is silly to use looks as a primary choice. The MacBook Air also is less of a performer than the X1. Look at it this way:

        Well computer "A" has less power, less options, and costs more but sure is pretty.

        Computer B is not as stylish but offers more power and functionality for a similar price.

        I choose computer A because it is prettier.

        Sound pretty sad to me.
        bobiroc
      • RE: Review: ThinkPad X1, solid MacBook Air competitor

        @Hasam1991 Mac has always had a form-over-function mentality. The concept of sacrificing a little performance for appearance is part of the Mac credo.
        Scubajrr
      • Sadness of Style

        @bobiroc, @frgough stated "when performance is comparable", so aesthetics wouldn't be the primary consideration. Only the most resolute gearheads abandon looks.

        Reminds me of a debate, ages ago, about the launch of Windows. "Why would anyone take the performance hit of a GUI when DOS so much more powerful and functional?"
        questionsall
      • RE: Review: ThinkPad X1, solid MacBook Air competitor

        @questionsall

        But the performance is not comparable. Current Macbook Air uses older technology than the Lenovo. I never said the physical appearance of something is not important but it should not be made the top priority without weighing in the other factors. Maybe that is what frgough meant but he was responding to Badgered who was saying it was sad that "looks" win over functionality. If something serves the purpose and is considerably less expensive with the only downside is that maybe it is not as shiny and pretty I would go that route too I would think. I do not think the Lenovo is ugly and it is using the design elements that many find to be a positive reason to choose Lenovo.

        Also DOS was never more functional than a GUI as DOS could not really Multitask with applications like a GUI could. Even though I find that I can do some things faster with command line using a GUI is more intuitive for most users.
        bobiroc
      • @bobiroc

        A computer is more than its CPU and chipset. Something you folks will continue to not get.
        fr_gough
      • RE: A computer is more than its CPU and chipset.

        @frgough@

        Yes and a car is more than an engine and a transmission but it doesn't change the fact that it still is one of the most important deciding factors of performance.

        Of course Apple is scheduled to upgrade the MacBook Air to the newer processors and chipsets this summer so it may be a moot point.
        bobiroc
    • RE: Review: ThinkPad X1, solid MacBook Air competitor

      @evolutionqy7 Agreed. Aside from being ugly, heavier, more expensive, not having a real GPU, and running Windows, this totally kicks the Macbook Air's ass.
      podperson
      • RE: Review: ThinkPad X1, solid MacBook Air competitor

        But running Windows exposes the users to valuable experience with crashes and maleware!
        john_gillespie@...
      • RE: Review: ThinkPad X1, solid MacBook Air competitor

        @podperson
        Sure as it has just come out .. it has months of looking at what the AIR has going for it and improving it (except looks) .. The new AIR will be out this Summer .. lets then do the same comparison again and see ...
        I bet you the new AIR will destroy this laptop ...
        CND-Dude
      • Spoken like a true Mactard...

        @john_gillespie
        Please do pull your head out of the sand... Or wherever you've got it buried.

        1.) Windows 7 is fairly rock solid and surprisingly stable. Much more so than XP and prior versions ever thought of being.

        2.) Windows 7 is also less susceptible to malware. See Ed Bott's recent article on the subject.

        3.) There's malware coming out - just for your precious Macs. Congratulations - your platform of choice has achieved enough of a critical mass and malware authors are now working hard to create the same sort of "fun" crapware for OSX that has been the bane of Windows users for the past 10 years.

        That's right - no more security by obscurity for you... Given how OSX has repeatedly fallen victim at the last few Pwn2Own competitions with such ease, don't think you're able to skate by freely any longer. If anything Charlie Miller has demonstrated at Pwn2Own - OSX security bites big wind.
        Wolfie2K3
    • RE: Review: ThinkPad X1, solid MacBook Air competitor

      Aahhh, back to 2000 ... how nostalgic, who cold resist! I hope it still has the cursor control sticking up through the keyboard. Now if someone would only resurrect the Apricot.
      john_gillespie@...
    • RE: Review: ThinkPad X1, solid MacBook Air competitor

      @evolutionqy7

      It's not about how it looks but how it performs. In business it's about productivity not what it looks like.
      Rob.sharp
  • It's a good machine

    But I have to agree with evolutionqy7 .. It won't win many beauty contests.

    One question, James .. Is your MacBook a unibody model? I thought all unibody MacBooks gave 7 or more hours of battery life between charges. Just curious. My white MacBook gives about 4 to 5 hours but I rarely need to use it that long on battery charge alone.
    kenosha77a
    • RE: Review: ThinkPad X1, solid MacBook Air competitor

      @kenosha7777 My unibody MacBook gets about 4.5 hours of operation on a charge. The 11-inch MacBook Air lists at 5 hours and the 13-inch at 7 hours.
      JamesKendrick