When Lenovo discontinued its ThinkPad X300 series, many mobile professionals were disappointed that they could no longer buy the svelte 13-inch laptop, which combined a lightweight soft-touch chassis with a comfy keyboard and a high-res screen. Fortunately, after nearly a year, Lenovo has debuted a new 13-inch business ultraportable in the ThinkPad X1. The 3.8-pound, $1,399 X1 delivers a lot for the money, including a speedy second-generation Core i5 processor, a bright 350-nit screen, a backlit keyboard, and a rugged chassis that's built to survive falls. This machine is so good that more than just business users should check out our in-depth review.
The Lenovo ThinkPad X1's chassis is an evolution, not a reinvention, of the classic ThinkPad design. The all-black chassis is made entirely from soft-touch, rubberized material that's as durable as it is pleasant to touch. Lenovo has taken great care to give the ThinkPad X1 a clean look, going so far as to seal in the battery, minimize the number of holes in the bottom, and hide its left- and right-side ports under rubber panels. The ThinkPad X1 opens to reveal an equally elegant interior with a deep palm rest, a backlit island-style keyboard, and a bright screen that's covered end to end in scratch-resistant Corning Gorilla Glass.
At 13.3 x 9.1 x 0.8 inches and 3.8 pounds, the ThinkPad X1 is extremely thin and light compared to most notebooks, but it's heftier than the 2.9-pound 0.68-inch-thick 13-inch MacBook Air or the 2.9 pound, 0.64-inch-thick Samsung Series 9. However, the Thinkpad X1's somewhat bulkier frame allows for a magnesium alloy top and bottom and an internal roll cage that adds superior durability. The notebook was designed to pass eight different mil-spec tests, including those for sand exposure, vibration, mechanical shock, and extreme temperatures. Better still, Lenovo claims that the X1 can survive drops of up to 1.6 meters (5.2 feet), though it may suffer some damage from such a fall.
Putting a ThinkPad X1 at the fingers of a touch-typist is like placing a Stradivarius in the hands of a violinist. While all of Lenovo's ThinkPads have strong keyboards, the ThinkPad X1 features the best laptop keyboard we've ever tested.
On the surface, the island-style, spill-resistant keyboard may look nearly identical to those on the company's ThinkPad Edge series, but Lenovo specially designed the X1 keyboard for even greater typing comfort and accuracy. From the curved "smile-shaped" keys that make it easy to avoid hitting adjacent keys by mistake to the adjustable backlight (a ThinkPad first) to the gentle slope of the deck, the X1 gets everything about the typing experience right.
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Perhaps the best feature of the X1 keyboard is the strong force feedback it provides; it reminded us of the highly tactile IBM model M keyboards of the 1980s. The keys made a subtle, pleasant clicking noise as we typed.
To top it all off, the ThinkPad X1 has a soft palm rest that gently cradled our wrists as we achieved a 92 word-per-minute score on the Ten Thumbs Typing Test, our highest rate ever. We were able to continue working on the system for a long time without a hint of wrist discomfort.
Pointing Stick and Touchpad
Like other ThinkPads, the X1 features both a TrackPoint pointing stick and a touchpad. We prefer to use the TrackPoint, because it provides the most accurate navigation possible on any notebook.
If you're not a trackpoint fan, you'll appreciate the 2.9 x 2.3-inch textured touchpad on the X1, which provides accurate navigation, too. The touchpad's left and right buttons are built-in so as to provide extra surface area. Though we prefer discrete buttons, they offered decent tactile feedback without making the pointer jump as we activated them. The pad also supports multitouch gestures such as pinch-to-zoom and three-finger flicks. However, these gestures weren't always smooth, and we sometimes had to repeat a pinch in order for it to register.
The 13.3-inch, 1366 x 768 glossy display on the ThinkPad X1 provided incredibly bright images, thanks to its 350 nits of brightness. However, even though images were razor-sharp, colors were not particularly deep, and the highly reflective screen produced narrow viewing angles. That said, as long as you don't use the ThinkPad X1 to show a movie to three people at once, you'll appreciate its brightness and love its scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass cover.
Fans of the old ThinkPad X300/X301 may be disappointed that the ThinkPad X1 has a lower resolution screen than its 2008 predecessor, sporting only 1366 x 768 pixels of desktop real estate, as opposed to 1440 x 900. That's 15 percent less vertical real estate for viewing web pages, Word documents, and anything that requires scrolling. It's also 5 percent less horizontal space for placing windows next to each other. Apple includes a 1440 x 900 display on its 13-inch MacBook Air.
Thanks to its Dolby Home Theater v4 technology, the ThinkPad X1 offers strong audio that was loud enough to fill our whole apartment and rich enough to substitute for a low-end stereo. Whether we were playing the bass-heavy "Forget Me Nots," the jazzy "Summer Madness," or Motley Crue's guitar-heavy "Too Young to Fall in Love," the speakers produced rich, accurate sound with a good separation between instruments. Using the bundled Dolby software, we were able to optimize for bright, rich, or warm audio, while selecting between movie, music, or gaming audio profiles.
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The ThinkPad X1 has more than its fair share of modern ports, but it skimps a little on legacy support. On the right side is an SD card reader, an amenity the X300/X301 lacked. On the back, you'll find an Ethernet port, a USB 3.0 port, an eSATA/USB port, and both HDMI and mini Display port outs. Under a rubber panel on the left side are an audio in/out jack and one more USB port, for a total of three USB connections. The USB 3.0 port and combination of modern display options are critical additions, but businesses with old projectors or monitors in their offices will need a mini Display port to VGA adapter, because the X1 lacks a dedicated port.
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The ThinkPad X1 stayed nice and cool throughout our testing, which is critical for a device that's made to live on your lap. After 15 minutes of playing full-screen video, we measured the touchpad at a chilly 79 degrees, the keyboard at a cool 87 degrees, and the bottom at a barely perceptible 92 degrees Fahrenheit. We consider temperatures under 95 degrees comfortable.
Webcam and Conferencing
The 720p webcam on the ThinkPad X1 provided sharp images in many different types of lighting. Both when we were standing directly under an overhead fluorescent light and sitting in a dim room with a small amount of natural light, our face appeared bright and colorful. However, when sitting under dimmer fluorescent lighting, the picture appeared a little washed out, though the finer details of our face were still visible. When chatting on Skype, our image was smooth enough despite our weak Internet connection. Because the camera is not Skype HD-certified, users will need a different chat client, such as ooVoo, if they want to conduct a call at 720p resolution.
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To provide the best possible conferencing experience, the ThinkPad X1 features dual array microphones which you can set to either single-user or multiple-voice modes. The software also features a keyboard noise suppression feature that's designed to keep your conversation partner for hearing your keystrokes in the background. In our experience, both of these features worked flawlessly. Our friend heard our voice clearly in single-voice mode and heard a person behind us in multiple-voice mode. On other ThinkPads such as the ThinkPad X220, we found that the keyboard noise suppression feature barely worked, but our friend did not hear our keystrokes on the X1 at all.
With its 2.5-GHz second-generation Intel Core i5-2520M CPU, Intel integrated graphics, and a 7,200-rpm hard drive, the ThinkPad X1 offers strong enough performance to take on even the most daunting productivity tasks. On PCMark Vantage, a synthetic benchmark that measures overall system performance, the X1 scored a whopping 7,535, about 80 percent above the ultraportable notebook category average of 4,185 and well above the Core i5-2537M powered Samsung Series 9 (6857), the Core i5-2410M powered Toshiba Portege R835 (6115), and the 13-inch MacBook Air (5,390) and its older Core 2 Duo CPU.
The 320GB 7,200-rpm Hitachi hard drive took just 40 seconds to boot into Windows 7 Professional (64-bit), 20 seconds faster than the category average, but way slower than competitors with SSDs such as the MacBook Air (15 seconds) and the Samsung Series 9 (25 seconds). The drive took a reasonable 2 minutes and 41 seconds to complete the LAPTOP File Transfer test, which involves copying 4.97GB of mixed-media files. That's a rate of 31.6 MBps, which is right around the 32.5 MBps category average but way behind the 13-inch MacBook Air (78.3 MBps) and the Samsung Series 9 (68.8 MBps).
When it comes to transcoding video, the Thinkpad X1 really shined, taking a mere 41 seconds to convert 114MB MP4 file to AVI format in Oxelon Media Encoder, more than twice as fast as the category average of 1 minute and 50 seconds. Because Cyberlink Media Espresso takes advantage of the Intel Quick Sync capability in the ThinkPad X1's Core i5 CPU, that program took a mere 34 seconds to transcode an HD video. That's way faster than the 2:47 category average but behind the Toshiba Portege R835's 28-second time.
Graphics and Video Performance
The Intel HD Graphics 3000 chip on the X1 isn't good enough for gaming, but it's more than capable of playing 1080p video and running any kind of business app you need. On 3DMark06, the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 scored a reasonable 3,763, about 50 percent faster than the 1,902 category average, but a bit slower than the Toshiba Portege R835's 4564.
While we wouldn't recommend gaming on the ThinkPad X1, it did manage a playable frame rate of 30 fps in World of Warcraft at native resolution, which is about 11 fps below the category average. When we turned up the special effects, that rate dropped to an unplayable 15 fps.
Though the viewing angles leave something to be desired, the ThinkPad X1 did a great job of playing any video we threw at it. Whether we were watching a 1080p QuickTime trailer for Thor or streaming a 720p episode of Fringe, images were sharp and noise-free while motion was perfectly smooth.
Battery Life and Wi-Fi
There's no two ways about it: If you're going to buy the ThinkPad X1, you will need to get its optional $150 battery slice. Without the slice attached, the X1 lasted just 4 hours and 11 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous surfing over Wi-Fi at 40-percent brightness. That's about 50 percent less than the 6:01 category average and simply not enough time for the kind of mobile users that want a 13-inch notebook.
The slice adds 0.8 pounds to the weight of the notebook and another 0.5 inches of elevation to the back, but it's more than worth the added bulk and cost. With the slice attached to the bottom, the ThinkPad X1 lasted exactly 8 hours on our test, well above the category average and enough for all-day use.
If you need more than 8 hours of endurance, you can always buy a second slice and swap them, but there's no way to replace the internal battery. Fortunately, the internal battery is rated to last at least 1,000 charge cycles (three years) before it might start to lose capacity.
Lenovo boasts that the internal battery can charge from 0 to 80 percent in just half an hour, a claim we were able to verify. Our X1 took just 34 minutes to reach 80 percent and another 10 minutes to get to 99 percent of capacity.
The Intel Centrino Advanced N 6205 wireless radio provided speedy transfer rates of 48.5 and 21.5 Mbps at distances of 15 and 50 feet from our router. Those rates are well above the 33.5 and 19.7 Mbps category averages.
The ThinkPad X1 starts at $1,399. For that price, you get our review configuration, which includes a 2.5-GHz Core i5-2520M CPU, 4GB of RAM, and a 320GB 7,200-rpm hard drive. The battery slice, which we consider a must-have, costs $150 extra. At additional cost, you can also configure your ThinkPad X1 with a Core i7 CPU, up to 8GB of RAM, and a 128 or 80GB SSD instead of the hard drive.
Software, Finger Print Reader, Warranty
The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 comes with a standard array of Lenovo ThinkVantage utilities. Among these are Airbag protection for stopping your hard drive during a fall, Enhanced Backup and Restore, Reading Optimization for making your ThinkPad into a better eReader, and the ThinkVantage Power Manager (which allows you to exert fine control over power settings). Our favorite ThinkVantage utility right now is the Web Conferencing control panel, which allows you to control the camera and microphone settings for video chats.
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The ThinkPad X1 comes with a powered fingerprint reader that, once enabled, will stay on even when the computer is off. After setting up the fingerprint reader software, we were able to turn on the computer, boot it, and log into Windows 7 just by sliding our index finger over the lens.
Lenovo backs the ThinkPad X1 with a standard one-year warranty on parts and labor. See how Lenovo fared in our Tech Support Showdown.
The ultimate businesss ultraportable, the ThinkPad X1 combines the best notebook typing experience ever with strong performance, a sleek design, great sound, and durability. However, the notebook isn't perfect. Business users who require more endurance will want to consider the Lenovo ThinkPad X220, which includes a nine-cell battery for $125 less. Those who want a lighter system with a better screen should consider the 13-inch MacBook Air. However, if you want the Rolls-Royce of business laptops, the ThinkPad X1 should be at the top of your list. Just make sure to get the battery slice.