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This 11.6in. ultraportable features the usual impressive ThinkPad build quality and exemplary keyboard. If you're seeking a small, portable and relatively affordable notebook and don't mind the absence of an optical drive, the ThinkPad X121e is well worth considering.
Lenovo positions the 11.6in. ThinkPad X121e as a basic mobile computing device, targeting both students and business users. Despite its entry-level designation, the ThinkPad X121e can be configured with a range of features from SSD drives to self-encrypting USB and fingerprint readers. Such embellishments will take it far beyond the starting price of £299.69 (inc. VAT) and into executive ultraportable territory. With processor options spanning Intel and AMD, this is a versatile and highly customisable notebook.
The X121e exhibits the thoughtful design and high-quality construction we've come to expect from the ThinkPad range. It's not super-light, weighing 1.55kg with a 6-cell battery, but is not much larger than a netbook at 28.96cm wide by 20.8cm deep by 2.35cm thick.
It might even survive in a bag without a slip case thanks to a very solid outer shell. The lid is particularly impressive: it's on the thick side, but has minimal flex — a trade-off we're happy to make. We'd have liked a clasp between the lid and base sections, though.
The matte black finish to the outer shell has a rubbery feel that's great for grip. The 'i' in the ThinkPad logo on the lid is a red LED that lights up if the lid is closed with the system powered on. This thoughtful feature tells you at a glance whether the battery might be draining unnecessarily.
A small-format notebook obviously can't accomodate a large screen, and the ThinkPad X121e's 11.6in. display won't suit everyone. Still, its 1,366-by-768-pixel resolution makes for sharp, clear images. As befits a notebook designed to be worked at for relatively long periods, there's no potentially irritating reflectivity to the screen surface; viewing angles on the horizontal plane are excellent, and very good on the vertical plane.
We are fans of Lenovo's isolated keyboard design and here, as in other ThinkPads, it delivers a satisfying typing experience. Keys depress a long way and click gently as they do so. Lenovo has made maximum use of the width available, and individual keys are generously sized. As ever with this size of notebook, users with large hands may find the keyboard a bit cramped, but we had no trouble touch typing at normal speed.
The X121e has a typically well-designed and constructed (spill-resistant) keyboard
The inverted-T cursor arrangement at the keyboard's bottom right has the PgUp and PgDn keys in the gaps; the Home and End keys are on the right-hand end of the row of smaller Fn keys, while PrtScr is oddly located to the right of the space bar. There are Fn key shortcuts for starting up the webcam software, switching monitor configuration and muting the microphone. The keyboard is spill resistant.
Lenovo has managed to fit its familiar UltraNav system into the ThinkPad X121e. The red TrackPoint sits between the G, H and B keys, and beneath the space bar are two mouse buttons and a central rocker that can be used with the TrackPoint for scrolling. Meanwhile a small touchpad, which Lenovo calls the ClickPad, sits on the rather narrow wrist rest. It's wide enough to take the cursor right across the screen in a single sweep.
The ClickPad has no buttons beneath it — there simply isn't room for them. Instead, there are left and right click areas at the bottom (hence its name), as well as scroll zones along the right and bottom edges. The ClickPad is a little squeezed, but quite efficient.
With multiple configuration options, the Lenovo ThinkPad X121e is a very versatile notebook. Our review sample is one of four available off the page at Lenovo's web site, and it retails direct for £451.16 (inc. VAT; £375.97 ex. VAT). It has a 1.3GHz Intel Core i3-2357M processor, 4GB of RAM and runs Windows 7 Professional 64-bit.
The other off-the-page Intel-based model is less expensive at £386.40 (inc. VAT; £322 ex. VAT). It has the same processor, but comes with just 2GB of RAM and runs Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit.
There are also two AMD-based models available at Lenovo's web site: a 1.6GHz AMD Fusion E-350 system with 4GB of RAM and Windows 7 Professional 64-bit for £403 (inc. VAT; £335.83 ex. VAT); and, at the rock-bottom price of £299.69 (inc. VAT; £249.74 ex. VAT), a 1GHz AMD Fusion C-50 system with 2GB of RAM and Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit. Memory can be expanded to a maximum of 8GB on all models for an extra £63.60 (inc. VAT).
Our review sample used Intel's CPU-integrated HD Graphics 3000 graphics. If you choose an AMD processor, graphics are handled by an integrated AMD Radeon HD 6310 module. Graphics specifications are not configurable.
The Intel models come with a 320GB 7,200rpm hard drive as standard, with a 128GB SSD as an £235.20 (inc. VAT) option. The preconfigured AMD models' 320GB drives spin at 5,400rpm as standard, with options for a 7,200rpm drive or a 128GB SSD.
Wi-Fi (802.11b/g/n), Bluetooth (3.0) and Ethernet (10/100/1000Mbps) are present as standard across the board, and you can add integrated mobile broadband to any model for £77.76 (inc. VAT).
The chassis is quite small and Lenovo has opted not to squeeze in an optical drive. The right edge houses just an SD card reader, the power socket and two USB 2.0 ports. One of the USB ports is powered, and therefore useful for charging portable devices from the notebook's battery even when it's powered down. These two ports are spaced well apart from each other and can be used simultaneously.
The left side houses a third USB 2.0 port, plus HDMI, VGA and Ethernet (RJ-45) ports and a microphone/headset combo jack.
Performance & battery life
Our ThinkPad X121e's Windows Experience Index (WEI) was 4.7 (out of 7.9) — a score matched recently by several Core i5-based notebooks we've reviewed, although here we have a Core i3 system. The WEI is the lowest of a number of component scores, which — as is usually the case — was for Graphics (Desktop performance for Windows Aero).
The top score of 6.1 was for Gaming Graphics (3D business and gaming graphics performance), followed by 5.9 for Primary hard disk (Disk data transfer rate), 5.5 for RAM (Memory operations per second) and 4.9 for Processor (calculations per second).
There's plenty of performance here for mainstream productivity tasks, and even some light gaming in off-duty moments. As ever, the most cost-effective upgrade would be to spend another £64 and boost the RAM to the maximum 8GB.
The ThinkPad X121e comes with either a 3-cell or a 6-cell battery, our review model sporting the latter. We tested battery life by choosing the Maximum Lifespan power plan and playing video from a USB stick continuously after first fully charging the battery. Lenovo's range of power management tools is sophisticated and provides a great deal of flexibility.
The notebook delivered video for 5 hours and 20 minutes, which is above average. We'd have liked more volume from the speakers, which are a little too quiet to handle a room-based business presentation.
The Lenovo ThinkPad X121e is an impressive little notebook. True, at the very lowest price you're getting a version of Windows that's not ideal for business users and a relatively small amount of RAM. But our review sample, which costs less than £500, is a competent notebook in terms of specifications and benchmarks.
All configurations share the impressive ThinkPad build quality and exemplary keyboard. If you're seeking a small, portable and relatively affordable notebook and don't mind the absence of an optical drive, the ThinkPad X121e is well worth considering.