Both the MacBook Air and the Lenovo ThinkPad X300 push the envelope of the newest generation of ultraportables. And where the MacBook Air is more revolutionary, delivering an amazingly thin design but requiring users to adjust how they work, the ThinkPad is more evolutionary, delivering all the features users have come to expect (and adding a few they didn't) in a scaled-down but still familiar package. You'll pay a premium for the X300 (our configuration comes in at just under $3,000), but if a no-compromise notebook is what you need and shaving every ounce and millimeter counts, you won't be disappointed.
A Traditional Look and Feel, Only Thinner
The plain matte-black, squared-off exterior of the X300 is either classic, familiar, or dull, depending on your perspective. It looks like just about every ThinkPad that has come before it, but leaner. Whereas the classic ThinkPad T-series is 1.2 inches thick, the slightly tapered X300 measures 0.7 to 0.9 inches thick.
At a mere 2.9 pounds with a 3-cell battery (and the swappable bay empty) and 3.3 pounds with a 6-cell battery (and a DVD burner in the bay), the X300 is also lighter than its footprint would lead you to believe. And we're happy to see Lenovo went with a diminutive power brick (0.6 pounds); too often a hulking afterthought of a power adapter adds back the precious ounces engineers painstakingly shaved.
While the X300 is svelter than previous ThinkPads, it feels just as rigid and sturdy. Credit Lenovo's second-generation internal roll-cage design, which uses a material the company claims is three times stronger yet 60 percent lighter than magnesium. For the outer shell, Lenovo has used magnesium alloy for the base (to protect the motherboard from flexing) and carbon fiber and glass fiber for the lid (to protect the screen while also allowing the wireless radios to transmit). A new rubberized soft-touch paint gives the keyboard deck and outer shell a comfortable feel and secure grip.
In addition to the space-age materials, other advancements help trim the size and weight. The X300 employs an LED-backlit, 13.3-inch screen, which makes the top cover thinner than with a traditional tube-backlit panel. The screen is 1440 x 900 pixels with a matte finish. That high resolution certainly lets you see more of documents and Web pages, though the default text is small.
Colors looked rich, and scenes in Pirates of the Caribbean showed good motion reproduction, though dark scenes tended to lose shadow detail. And as with other 13.3-inch panels (except for the one in the MacBook Air), the viewing angle in the vertical plane is limited, but it's fine side to side. Above the screen is the 1.3-megapixel webcam and noise-canceling microphone for video conferencing.
What hasn't changed is the always-excellent ThinkPad keyboard, which is a pleasure to type on. The X300 offers both a pointing stick and a touchpad, though the latter is rather small and cramped to accommodate the buttons for the former.
Above the keyboard are dedicated volume and mute buttons, as well as a glowing power button and illuminated ThinkVantage button for launching Lenovo's handy system utilities. A fingerprint reader and stereo speakers complete the cluttered-looking keyboard deck.
The company claims those speakers are louder than those on the X61 and deliver virtualized surround sound. We're not sure about that, but the speakers did sound good and delivered enough volume for a group around a conference table.
X300 Features and Tradeoffs
Lenovo found room on the X300's sides for three USB ports, VGA and Ethernet connectors, headphone and mic jacks, and a remarkably thin 7mm DVD burner, but no card slots. We can do without a PC Card and ExpressCard slot, since mobile broadband is integrated, but would have liked to see an SD Card or even a microSD Card slot. Lenovo uses the thinnest DVD burner in the industry (just 7 mm thick--the same width as the burner on the Toshiba Portg R500) and offers a 64GB solid state drive (SSD) that is smaller, lighter, and more durable than a traditional hard drive, though you give up storage space and pay a hefty price. We would have liked Lenovo to offer at least the option of equipping the X300 with a 1.8-inch hard drive, like the MacBook Air.
Mobile Broadband and GPS on Board (Mobile WiMAX Later)
We like that EV-DO Rev. A wireless broadband is available, and with that option you get a GPS Location utility that lets you load third-party GPS software (or access Google Maps if you're connected to the Internet) and use the X300 as a navigation device. This feature has its limits, however. For example, you need to maintain line of sight to GPS satellites, but the screen is barely readable outside.
Lenovo says it will make enhancements to this first-generation feature in future X300 iterations. Lenovo has also included wireless USB circuitry for connecting to wireless USB hubs and wireless USB devices (whenever they hit the market). It's nice to know that the X300 will also support Mobile WiMAX when networks become available.
Putting the X300 Through Its Paces
As for workaday performance, the X300 is impressive for its size. The 1.2-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SL7100 CPU and 2GB of RAM helped to deliver a score of 126 on MobileMark 2007, which is nearly 40 points above average among ultraportables (though 30 points below average compared with thin-and-lights).
The X300 employs the Intel GMA 945 integrated graphics chipset, which is enough to handle Vista's Aero effects but not enough to power advanced 3D games. It managed a reasonable 1,470 on our 3DMark03 test, which is about 100 points higher than average for an ultraportable, but about 700 points below what you'd find on heavier 13- and 14-inch systems.
In hands-on testing, the X300 booted in 49 seconds. It needed nearly 9 minutes to re-encode 11 tracks in iTunes from MP3 to AAC format, more than twice as long as the speedy Dell XPS M1330 and Sony VAIO VGN-SZ791N/X. Wireless throughput from the 802.11a/g/n radio was strong, with above-average scores of 16.7 and 16.1 Mbps at 15 and 50 feet, respectively.
Battery life was also good, with the 6-cell pack lasting 5 hours and 7 minutes for typical chores and 2 hours while playing a DVD, and you can add a second 3-cell battery in place of the optical drive if need be. By comparison, the MacBook Air lasted only 3 hours and 36 minutes and doesn't offer a second battery option. The X300 is backed by a one-year parts-and-labor warranty (expandable to three years) and 24/7 tech support.
ThinkPad X300 Verdict
Surprisingly, the choice between the MacBook Air or the X300 should be an easy one for most buyers, and it's a decision that comes down to the way you work. The Air is better suited for users that don't often stray too far from their desks and want the thinnest, lightest, sleekest notebook they can find.
However, if you often use an optical drive on the road, find yourself usually swapping in an extra battery, or tend to connect multiple peripherals and would prefer not to deal with an external hub, the X300 is for you. You'll pay for the extras (the SSD, wireless USB, GPS, and so on) with the X300, but if effortlessly carrying all the features you need is important, Lenovo's ThinkPad X300 is worth every penny.
Although it makes some trade-offs to achieve its amazingly thin profile, the MacBook Air outclasses other ultraportables in terms of ergonomic comfort, display size, and performance.