- Light and compact, yet robust
- respectably fast
- built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth
- good ergonomics for a small notebook
- very good battery life.
- Relatively expensive
- optical and floppy drives are charged as extras, as is the docking base.
Even seasoned manufacturers can drop a clanger when it comes to designing an ultraportable notebook, so it’s worth taking notice of a good one. A really good one -- and IBM’s ThinkPad X30 is a really good one -- might even be worth paying a premium for. This is fortunate for IBM, since, even with a recent price drop, the X30 isn't exactly cheap.
The X30's suggested selling price of £1,780 (ex. VAT) notably lacks any included drives or port replicators. If you want a floppy drive and an optical drive, then you pay more. If you want the (admittedly rather nice) little docking base, you pay more still (£149 ex. VAT to be precise, and that doesn’t include any drives).
Okay, that’s it, nasty part over.
To qualify as really good, to stand out from the jostling crowd of pretenders, an ultraportable has to manage a number of things: it must be durable, light and compact but possessed of good ergonomics; it must be powerful enough to get the job done; and it must soldier on and on under battery power. Failure anywhere in this list drags the system down.
To see why the ThinkPad X30 measures up so well, let’s go through the points one by one, starting with durability. IBM’s engineers sorted this one out with an effective combination of robust design and titanium alloy throughout the case and lid, and the result is a notebook that feels as though it is built to last.
The X30 is compact enough to carry around fairly easily with its 27.3cm by 22.3cm (W x D) footprint, but the whole thing still only weighs 1.65kg, so you don’t need to be a gym addict to cope with the load.
The designers have wisely opted to keep the X30 a sensible size rather than miniaturise the life out of it, as sometimes happens. This means that there’s space for a keyboard that really works, complete with a big Enter key and a spacebar that’s big enough to hit without looking for it first. As a rule we’re not over-keen on the keyboard-mounted stud variety of pointing device fitted to the X30, but even this seemed slightly better adjusted and less clumsy than usual.
The screen has a 12.1in diagonal and a native 1,024 by 768 resolution, which means that text and buttons aren’t especially large, but on balance we feel that the size/resolution combination stays on the right side of usable. The panel is also bright and vividly coloured, which helps to settle matters in its favour.
It has to be said that IBM hasn’t gone all-out on the graphics controller, which is integrated into the Intel 830 motherboard chipset and uses shared memory. However, there’s an element of pragmatism here: The graphics processing module is fine for handling 2D business applications, and that’s what this system is for -- you simply aren’t meant to try and run Doom III on it.
There’s a remarkable amount inside the X30 considering its relatively modest size. Unlike many ultraportables, it has enough ports to make it usable without a docking base, including parallel and VGA, twin USB sockets, FireWire, plus LAN and modem jacks. It also reaches out invisibly via both 802.11b (Wi-Fi) wireless networking hardware and an equally hidden Bluetooth adapter. A single Type II PC Card slot and a CompactFlash slot sit next to each other on the left side of the case.
On the inside we were pleased to find that the base 256MB of PC133 SDRAM can be increased without needing to replace any modules, as there’s a spare SODIMM socket under a plate in the base. The 40GB IBM Travelstar hard disk is also straightforward to remove if it should need replacing.
When we put the X30 through its paces it performed rather well. Business Winstone 2001 returned a score of 38.2, which is good for an ultraportable 1.2GHz Mobile Pentium III-M system, while the high-end Content Creation Winstone 2002 benchmark backed this up with an equally sound score of 21.3.
Better still, when we came to the battery rundown test, we got a very encouraging 3 hours 37 minutes under BatteryMark 4.0.1 from the primary 4,400 mAh Li-ion battery. IBM supplies a secondary battery pack which clips onto the base, adding somewhat to the bulk and bringing the weight up to 2.1kg. With this unit on-board, battery life rises to a very impressive 6 hours 57 minutes -- in other words, London to New York with a bit to spare.
The X30 is backed by IBM’s three-year international carry-in warranty, which brings a degree of peace of mind to the deal and goes some way towards justifying the price. The main justification, though, is the obvious quality of the X30, which is evident everywhere -- from the build quality, to the design of the keyboard, to the impressive battery life and performance. If this is what you have to pay for an ultraportable that really works, then you may have to accept that excellence simply doesn’t come cheap.