Lenovo's ThinkPad X200 series of 12-inch ultraportable notebooks has long been known for its strong combination of power, portability and unmatched battery life. The new ThinkPad X230, $1,249 as configured, continues this tradition, offering a speedy new 3rd Generation Core Series CPU and a revamped island-style keyboard as the major changes to this lightweight laptop.
If you like the classic ThinkPad aesthetic, you'll appreciate the way the X230 looks. With its raven black color, soft-touch lid and square-angled chassis, it's hard to tell this new ThinkPad from both direct predecessors like the X220 and cousins like the T420. The main aesthetic difference is the isolated keyboard. Like the X220, the top and bottom of the X230 chassis are made from magnesium alloy. There is no internal rollcage like you'll find on ThinkPad T series notebooks.
At 1 inch thick and 3.4 pounds with its default 6-cell battery, the ThinkPad X230 isn't light or thin enough to be considered an official Ultrabook, but it's certainly small enough to fit in your bag or on your lap without weighing you down. Some competitors are just a little more svelte; by comparison, the HP Folio 13 ultrabook weighs just 3.2 pounds and is 0.8 inches thick, while the 13-inch Toshiba Portege R835 is just 1.1 inches thick and 3.2 pounds. We don't know yet how much weight and thickness the 9-cell battery or optional battery slice will add to the X230's profile.
In a somewhat controversial move, Lenovo decided to move away from the classic-style keyboard found on the prior generation ThinkPad X220 and go with a new island-style keyboard on the X230. Fortunately, the keyboard still has a great tactile feel with the kind of industry-leading force-feedback we've come to expect from Lenovo.
The optional backlight -- a first for the ThinkPad X200 series -- allows you to toggle between four settings: off, low, high and overhead light. In our tests, the low brightness settings was more than adequate for a dark room while the high brightness setting was really quite intense. Some users will prefer the overhead light because it also illuminates the touchpad and deck.
Unfortunately, it's not all good news on the ergonomic front. As with previous ThinkPad X200 laptops, the palm rest is uncomfortably short, causing touch typists with large hands to have their wrists dangle over the front lip. The MacBook Air 11-inch has a smaller screen, but its 1.53-inch palm rest is a full 0.31 inches longer than the X230s. Lenovo uses up a lot of deck space with the dedicated row it gives to the power, volume and mute buttons.
Using the the Ten Thumbs Typing Test, we got a reasonable 84 words per minute, but with a higher-than average 2-percent error rate, because our wrists were uncomfortable.
TouchPad and Pointing Stick
Like other ThinkPads, the X230 has a TrackPoint pointing stick situated between its G and H keys. While some people dislike this little "nub," we find it to be most accurate and comfortable pointing device on any notebook, because it is never jerky and allows us to navigate around the desktop without removing our fingers from the home row.
The 2.9 x 1.7-inch touchpad is one of the smallest ones we've used, but as long as we kept our finger on the pad's comfortably textured surface, we were able to navigate accurately around the desktop. Considering that the pad has built-in buttons, it suffers from none of the productivity-killing jumpiness we've seen on most other clickpads. We were even able to execute multitouch gestures such as pinch-to-zoom, rotate and three-finger swipe with ease. Our only problems occurred when we accidentally ran off the edge.
The ThinkPad X230 stayed pleasantly cool throughout our tests. After streaming a movie at full screen for 15 minutes, the keyboard measured 87 degrees, the touchpad clocked in at just 81 degrees and the underside was a reasonable 92 degrees Fahrenheit. We consider temperatures under 95 comfortable.
Display and Audio
The 1366 x 768, 300-nit matte screen clocked in at 240 lux on our light meter test, not quite as bright as the amazing screen on the ASUS ZenBook Prime (423 lux) but comfortably above 219 lux ultraportable average. When we watched a 1080p trailer for "The Avengers" on the X230, images were sharp but colors such as the red in Iron Man's armor were a bit muted. Colors stayed true at 45 degrees to the left or right, but began to wash out at wider angles. Lenovo says it will also offer a dimmer 200-nit screen option when the X230 goes on sale.
We wouldn't recommend you use the X230 as a home theater, but thanks to its Dolby Advanced Audio v2 software, the two bottom-mounted speakers offer accurate playback. When we streamed the bass-heavy disco tune "Forget Me Nots," all the instruments sounded true but not particularly rich. The hard rock "Rainbow in the Dark" sounded worse, because the high-pitched guitars really pushed the X230's mediocre speakers to their limits. Still, for a business notebook, the Thinkpad X230 sounds quite good.
Ports and Webcam
As a full-fledged business notebook, the ThinkPad X230 comes packed with plenty of ports. On the right side are a micro SD Card reader, a USB 2.0 port that can charge devices while the system's asleep, a headphone jack and an Ethernet port, something you won't find on some ultraportables. On the left side of the chassis sit two USB 3.0 ports, a VGA port, DisplayPort, and an ExpressCard/34 slot. There's also a hardware Wi-Fi on/off switch, another rarity.
The HD webcam took colorful pictures, even in low light. However, when we shot pictures of our face in somewhat shadowy areas of our office, the camera got our skin tone right, but was filled with a lot of noise. Like most other ThinkPads, the X230 comes equipped with noise-canceling dual-array microphones and software that suppresses keyboard noise while you are making a call.
Powered by a 3rd Generation 2.6-GHz Intel Core i5 i5-3320M CPU, the ThinkPad X230 provides enough power for any task you throw it, whether that's transcoding video or crunching giant spreadsheets.
On PCMark07, a synthetic test that measures overall system performance, the ThinkPad X230 scored a strong 2,838, well above the ultraportable notebook average of 2,476, though less than the HP Folio 13 and its older 2nd-generation Core i5 CPU (3,167).
The ThinkPad X230's 320GB, 7,200-rpm Hitachi hard drive booted into Windows 7 Professional in a speedy 37 seconds, considerably faster than the 50-second ultraportable notebook category average. The drive took a modest 2 minutes and 47 seconds to complete the LAPTOP File Transfer test, a rate of 30.5 MBps, lower than the 45.2 MBps category average, but typical for a notebook with a 7,200 rpm hard drive. Lenovo will also sell the ThinkPad X230 with 128, 180 and 256GB SSDs or a 32GB mSATA cache drive.
When it comes to transcoding video, the X230's 3rd Generation Core Series CPU really shines, due to Intel's built-in Quick Sync video processing technology. The notebook took just 16 seconds to convert a 5-minute HD video to iPod touch format using Cyberlink Media Espresso, 10 seconds faster than the 2nd-Generation Core i5-powered Toshiba Portege R835's 26-second time.
The ThinkPad X230 took just 4 minutes and 29 seconds to complete the LAPTOP Spreadsheet Macro test, in which we use OpenOffice calc to match 20,000 names with their addresses. That time is nearly half the 9:26 category average and way faster than the 5:16 offered by the Portege R835.
The ThinkPad X230 series is more than good enough for watching or editing HD video. The X230 scored a solid 4,854 on the 3DMark06 graphics benchmark, comfortably ahead of the 3,416 category average.
When we played the mid-range game "World of Warcraft" on the ThinkPad X230, the notebook managed a fairly good 41.3 frames per second on default settings, but that number dropped to an unplayable 19.8 fps when we turned the special effects up. .
Security-conscious users will love the X230's power-on authentication. Using the preloaded ThinkVantage Fingerprint software, you can not only enroll any of your 10 fingers, but set up the reader so that it stays on, even when the notebook is powered off. With the fingerprint reader configured for power-on security, you can cold boot the computer, log in to the BIOS and log into Windows 7 with just a single finger swipe.
With its 6-cell battery, the ThinkPad X230 lasted a fairly good 6 hours and 56 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous surfing over Wi-Fi. However, its predecessor, the ThinkPad X220, lasted a longer 7 hours and 51 minutes on the same test with a 6-cell battery, while the HP Folio 13 managed 7 hours and 50 minutes. The category average is a very similar 6 hours and 49 minutes.
However, Lenovo offers both a 9-cell battery and an optional battery slice, which the company claims can provide 24 hours of endurance. We'll update this review after we've had the opportunity to test the X230 with the expanded capacity batteries.
Update: We've tested both the 9-cell and the sheet battery. With the 9-cell option alone, the X230 lasted just over 12 hours. The 6-cell battery and the sheet combined for a runtime of 15:29. Adding the sheet battery to the 9-cell power supply helped the X230 to last an amazing 20 hours and 46 minutes.
Like other ThinkPads, Lenovo allows you to configure the X230 to order on its website. While it starts at $1,179, the MSRP for our review unit was $1,249. For that price, you get the X230 with the 300-nit screen, 2.5-GHz Core i5 CPU, 4GB of RAM, a backlit keyboard and a 320GB, 7,200 rpm hard drive.
Users can configure the notebook with a choice of Intel 3rd-generation Core series CPUs, up to 16GB of RAM, hard drives up to 500GB and SSDs up to 256GB capacity. You can also opt for an extended, 9-cell battery and optional battery slice, both options we recommend.
Software and Warranty
The ThinkPad X230 comes with a standard set of ThinkVantage utilities, many of which are quite useful. Password vault stores your passwords, though we prefer third-party utilities such as KeePass. Power Manager allows you to exert fine control over your power savings and check the health of your battery. The Communications utility gives you the ability to configure the webcam and optimize the dual-array microphones for either single or multiple voices.
For the past couple of years, Lenovo has been including its touch-friendly, SimpleTap UI environment on most of its ThinkPads, whether they have touch screens or not. While SimpleTap started out as a way for ThinkPad users with touch screens to change simple settings like volume and brightness, it now includes three screens full of mini-apps that correspond to popular websites and services like Wikipedia, Facebook and Paypal. In fact, the new SimpleTap interface, which launches either when you tap its tray button or double-tap on the touchpad, looks somewhat like Windows 8's Metro UI.
Though most of the SimpleTap tiles simply launch their associated websites in a browser window, that browser window sometimes sits within the SimpleTap UI, making this a more immersive and customized experience. In truth, most non-touch screen users will pass this alternative UI over in favor of regular Windows 7, but we found it both interesting and attractive.
Lenovo bundles the ThinkPad X230 with a standard one-year warranty on parts and labor. For a fee, you can add additional years to the warranty or including accidental damage or theft protection.
Like the X220 before it, the ThinkPad X230 packs a lot of power into its 12.5-inch frame while offering the promise of true all-day endurance when you buy the extended battery and slice. The island-style, backlit keyboard provides great tactile feedback, but users with large hands may prefer a notebook with a longer palm rest like the upcoming ThinkPad X1 Carbon. However, if you want the ultimate in business endurance, the X230 is a truly compelling choice.