Lenovo ThinkPad X220 Review Editor's Choice

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Editors' rating:
The Pros

Long battery life; Strong performance; Light weight; Display has great viewing angles; Responsive keyboard

The Cons

Washed-out, flaky webcam; Short palm rest ; Poor palm rejection

Verdict

A fast Core i5 processor, well-designed clickpad, and epic endurance help the 12-inch Lenovo ThinkPad X220 rise to the top.

Lenovo's ThinkPad X200 series has a long history of combining lightweight portability, epic battery life, and uncompromising performance. The 12.5-inch, $1,299 ThinkPad X220 offers a couple of new riffs on this familiar theme, including a 16:9 screen, an Intel 2nd Generation Core processor, and a large textured clickpad, but can the new model live up to the storied legacy of its predecessors?

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Design

At 12 x 9.1 x 1.25 inches and 3.6 pounds (with a nine-cell battery), the ThinkPad X220 is extremely light and thin, comparing favorably to last year's ThinkPad X201 (11.6 x 9.2 x 1.4 inches, 3.8 pounds with a nine-cell battery) and the HP EliteBook 2740p. However, the 13-inch MacBook Air is much lighter and thinner (12.8 x 8.9 x .68 inches, 2.9 pounds). The standard six-cell battery takes 1 inch off the depth of the notebook and 0.2 pounds off its weight. The optional battery slice, which attaches to the bottom of the system, adds 0.6 inches of thickness and 1.5 pounds of weight.

The X220 sports the tried-and-true ThinkPad aesthetic, complete with a rubberized lid and a metallic Lenovo logo, and raven-black sides, bottom, and deck. As usual, the only dashes of color are the bright red TrackPoint and a light blue Enter key on the keyboard. Perhaps the most noteworthy departure from other high-end ThinkPads is the absence of a latch on the lid.

Heat

There are few things more uncomfortable than a hot notebook, so we must give kudos to the X220 for keeping it cool. After streaming a video at full screen for 15 minutes, we measured the touchpad at just 82 degrees Fahrenheit, the keyboard at a cool 86 degrees, and the bottom at a reasonable 91 degrees. We consider temperatures below 95 degrees to be comfortable.

Keyboard and Touchpad

The ThinkPad X220's keyboard offers the kind of amazing tactile feedback and concave shaped keys that allow touch typists to input quickly and accurately. Due to these advantages, we were able to score a strong 86 words per minute on the Ten Thunbs Typing Test, better than our typical 80 wpm average.

Like those on Lenovo's ThinkPad T Series, the X220's keyboard also features an enlarged Esc and Delete to make those frequently used keys easier to target. The keyboard also has a full array of extended keys such as Scroll Lock and Pause for users who need them. Unfortunately, while the keyboard itself feels great, the short 2.5-inch palmrest will leave many users' wrists hanging over its edge, which can be uncomfortable and can place added strain on the shoulders and wrists.

The ThinkPad X220 has two different pointing devices: a TrackPoint pointing stick and a touchpad. As with other ThinkPads, the TrackPoint provides a highly precise way to navigate around the desktop without even lifting your hands off the home row.

Those who prefer touchpads will appreciate the X220's 3 x 1.75-inch textured clickpad. Though we've been critical of previous buttonless touchpads because they were jumpy, the X220's Synaptics-powered pad was accurate and comfortable to use. It also supports a wide variety of multitouch gestures and edge scrolling.

However, we did notice frequent problems with the pad's ability to reject accidental touches from our palms. When we were using the TrackPoint to navigate and our wrist brushed against the pad, we sometimes ended up clicking on the desktop by accident or, worse still, the touchpad and the TrackPoint were both trying to drag the pointer in opposite directions, leading the pointer to temporarily get stuck in place.

Display and Audio

The 12.5-inch 1366 x 768 matte display on the ThinkPad X220 offers bright, sharp images and amazingly wide viewing angles. Even standing at 90 degrees to the left or right, we were able to watch videos without noticing a significant loss of color fidelity. Our only complaint is that Lenovo chose to go with a 16:9, 1366 x 768 aspect ratio after offering 16:10, 1280 x 800 displays on the ThinkPad X201. While 1366 x 768 has become a standard, it offers less vertical real estate for viewing documents and web pages.

Though we wouldn't recommend using the X220 has a home stereo, when we played both the bass-heavy "Forget Me Nots" and the orchestral theme from the Empire Strikes Back, sound was true and loud enough to fill a room.

Ports and Webcam

For such a small notebook, the X220 has plenty of ports. On the right side are an SD card reader, an Ethernet port, an audio jack, and a powered USB connection that can charge your devices even when the notebook is off. On the left are a VGA port, DisplayPort, two more USB ports (for a total of three), and an ExpressCard/54 slot, something you don't see on many notebooks these days.

The 720p webcam, which supports Skype HD calls, provided crisp but washed out images. Making a Skype call from our dimly lit living room, our facial features were clearly visible, but colors were muted. Under bright overhead lighting, details were sharper, but had way too high of a white balance at both auto modes; tinkering with the settings didn't help. At one point during our testing, the webcam even stopped working and displayed a black block instead of an image. This problem persisted until we finally powered off the system completely for a few seconds before booting again.

Conferencing Features

The ThinkPad X220 has a couple of features designed to enhance the video conferencing experience, the most obvious of which is a row of buttons on the upper left side of the deck that quickly allow you to raise and lower the volume or mute/unmute the microphone. In the Lenovo Communications utility, you can optimize the microphone for single voice or multiple voice calls, both of which worked as advertised when we conducted a conference call over ooVoo. The keystroke noise suppression setting, which is supposed to filter out the noise of your typing, didn't work as well. Our conference partner clearly heard our strokes with the suppression enabled, though they were even louder and more annoying with it disabled.

Performance

With its 2.5-GHz Core i5-2520M CPU, the ThinkPad X220 has more than enough performance for the most demanding tasks, even video editing. On PCMark Vantage, a benchmark that measures overall performance, the X220 scored a whopping 7,719, about double the ultraportable notebook category average of 3,837 and a bit faster than the X201's 7,050. That showing is also miles ahead of the HP EliteBook 2740p (5,374) and the 13-inch MacBook Air (5,390).

The 320GB, 7,200-rpm Hitachi hard drive booted Windows 7 Professional (64-bit) in a speedy 47 seconds, which is about 14 seconds faster than the category average (61 seconds) and 20 second faster than the HP EliteBook 2740p (67 seconds). However, the 13-inch MacBook Air, which has a high-speed SSD, boots into Mac OS X in just 15 seconds. The X220 is available with a number of SSD options that can decrease its boot time, including Lenovo's RapidDrive technology, which pairs an 80GB SSD boot drive with a traditional hard drive for storage.

The 7,200-rpm hard drive took just 2 minutes and 38 seconds to complete the LAPTOP File Transfer test, which involves duplicating 4.97GB of mixed media files. That data rate of 32.2 MBps is on a par with the ultraportable category average of 31.1 MBps and far better than the HP EliteBook 2740p's 18 Mbps. Of course, the 13-inch MacBook Air and its SSD blew this away with a rate of 78.3 MBps.

There's little doubt that the ThinkPad X220 is good enough for mobile video editing. The notebook took a mere 43 seconds to transcode a 114MB MP4 to AVI format using Oxelon Media Encoder, over a minute faster than the 1:54 category average. It also took a mere 37 seconds to encode a 5-minute HD clip to an iPod touch format video using Cyblelink Media Espresso, much quicker than the 3:40 category average.

Graphics

The ThinkPad X220 comes with an integrated Intel HD Graphics chip, which is good enough for playing 1080p videos and performing most tasks, though you can forget about serious gaming. On 3DMark06, which measures overall graphics prowess, the X220 scored a respectable 3,494, which is more than double the category average of 1,611 and far better than the 1,900 that last year's ThinkPad X201 saw. However, the 13-inch MacBook Air, which has a discrete Nvidia GPU, managed 4,611.

With the special effects turned down, the X220 managed a playable frame rate of 34 fps in World of Warcraft, but that number dropped to an unplayable 14 fps when we turned up the special effects. Those numbers compare unfavorably to the 56/24 fps turned in by the 13-inch MacBook Air.

With its 2.5-GHz Core i5 CPU and Intel HD graphics, the X220 proved capable of playing any video we threw at it with great aplomb. Whether we were streaming a 720p episode of Fringe or playing a downloaded 1080p QuickTime trailer for The Battle of L.A., playback was completely smooth (37 and 48 fps, respectively) with sharp, distortion-free images.

Battery Life and Wireless

No matter which battery option you choose, the ThinkPad X220 will let you stay unplugged for a long time. With its default six-cell battery, the notebook lasted a whopping 7 hours and 51 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous surfing over Wi-Fi. That's two hours longer than the category average of 5:32 and over an hour more than the 13-inch MacBook Air's time of 6:36. However, the X201s saw an even better 8:31 with a nine-cell battery.

While 8 hours is excellent, those looking for intercontinental endurance would be best served with one of the X220's extended battery options: The nine-cell battery on the X220 lasted 12 hours and 39 minutes. With the six-cell battery and the optional $179 battery slice attached to the bottom of the notebook, the X220 lasted an even longer 15 hours and 44 minutes, though at the expense of an additional 1.6 pounds of weight and an inch of thickness. With both the 9-cell battery and the battery slice, the Lenovo X220 lasted an epic 20 hours and 18 minutes while still weighing only 5.2 pounds. 

The Intel Centrino 6205 802.11n radio produced strong transfer rates of 43.7 and 19.6 Mbps at distances of 15 and 50 feet from our router, respectively. Those scores compare favorably to the 31/19.6 Mbps category averages, though the HP ProBook 4720s (46.1/20.4 Mbps) and the original ThinkPad X201 (50.6/33.2 Mbps) did a little better.

Security Features

The X220 has a couple of unique and compelling security features that you won't find on a lot of other notebooks. Lenovo Autolock can be configured to lock the desktop after the system has been idle for a certain period of time and the webcam does not detect a human face staring at the computer. This feature ensures that if you walk away from your notebook and forget to secure it, other people can't access your files. In practice, the facial detection worked well as long as we were staring directly at the screen; if we were looking sideways, it locked.

The powered fingerprint reader is one of our favorite security features on any notebook. After you configure it, you can power on the notebook and log into Windows with just a single swipe.

Software and Warranty

Lenovo bundles the ThinkPad X220 with a number of useful ThinkVantage utilities. The Lenovo Screen Reading Optimizer makes your X220 a better eReader by lowering your power use and enabling you to enter portrait mode with ease. Airbag protection helps keep your hard drive safe from sudden drops. Enhanced Backup and Restore lets you save a complete image of your system in case of emergencies. Perhaps our favorite utility is the Power Manager, which shows you the exact number of watts the notebook is using and allows you to exert finer control over power consumption than you get with Windows 7's power manager.

Interestingly, Lenovo hasn't pre-loaded all of its apps; it allows you to decide whether or not to install its Password Vault password manager, Access Connections wireless connection manager, and SimpleTap touch UI. We think users will appreciate having the option to skip these utilities.

Lenovo backs the ThinkPad X220 with a standard one-year warranty on parts and labor, though extended warranties are available for up to three years. ThinkPlus protection plans that insure against accidental damager are available at additional cost. Click here to see how Lenovo did in our tech support showdown.

Configuration Options

The ThinkPad X220 carries a starting price of $979, but our review unit carries a $1,299 MSRP. For that price, you get the 2.5-GHz Core i5, 4GB of RAM, 320GB hard drive, a six-cell battery, and an extra-bright screen. However, you can configure your X220 with a number of different options. Available processors range from a 2.1-GHz Core i3-3210M to a Core i7-2620M. The notebook holds up to 8GB of DDR3 RAM.

You also have a choice of a six- or nine-cell battery and the option to add a $179 battery slice to the bottom for even more endurance. The screen is available in both regular and extra-bright versions, though both have the same 1366 x 768 resolution. You can also pay extra to make one of the USB ports a USB 3.0 port for higher speed transfers.

You can choose hard drives ranging from 160GB to 320GB in 7,200-rpm or 5,400-rpm speeds and SSDs of 128GB or 160GB capacities. An 80GB mSATA SSD can be paired with one of the hard drives to give you the best of both worlds, a speedy boot and application drive for high performance and a large hard drive for data storage.

Verdict

With the ThinkPad X220, Lenovo has combined epic battery life, strong performance, a bright screen, a responsive keyboard, and powerful security features to make one of the world's best ultraportables even better. Our biggest complaint is the flaky webcam, though we suspect that Lenovo will be able to address this issue. Users who want an even lighter notebook with a better screen and larger palm rest (but less horsepower and battery life) might prefer the 13-inch MacBook Air. However, if you want something that packs a ton of power into a tiny package, the X220 is an excellent choice.

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Author Bio
Avram Piltch
Avram Piltch, Online Editorial Director
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of Laptopmag.com since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master's degree in English from NYU.
Avram Piltch, Online Editorial Director on
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Laptop Mag & Tom's Hardware
CPU 2.5-GHz Intel Core i5-2520M
Operating System Windows 7 Professional (64-bit)
RAM 4GB
RAM Upgradable to 8GB
Hard Drive Size 320GB
Hard Drive Speed 7,200rpm
Hard Drive Type SATA Hard Drive
Display Size 12.5
Native Resolution 1366x768
Optical Drive
Optical Drive Speed
Graphics Card Intel HD Graphics
Video Memory 64MB
Wi-Fi 802.11a/g/n
Wi-Fi Model Intel Centrino 6205
Bluetooth Bluetooth 3.0 + EDR
Mobile Broadband
Touchpad Size 3 x 1.75 inches
Ports (excluding USB) Combo Headphone/Mic Jack
Ports (excluding USB) VGA
Ports (excluding USB) ExpressCard/54
Ports (excluding USB) Ethernet
Ports (excluding USB) DisplayPort
USB Ports 3
Card Slots SD/SDHC Card reader
Warranty/Support One year standard
Size 12 x 8.1 x 1.25 inches
Weight 3.4 pounds / 5 pounds (with battery slice)
Company Website www.lenovo.com