One of our favorite ultraportables just got a power boost. Like its predecessors, the ThinkPad X61s ($2,228 as configured) boasts a rock-solid design, a best-in-class keyboard, and enough security features to make the most seasoned hacker ponder retirement. What's new is the muscle, courtesy of Intel's latest Core 2 Duo Low Voltage processor, which also delivers long battery life. Despite its surprisingly low Wi-Fi score (for 802.11n), standard-ratio screen, and lack of a built-in optical drive, you'll be happy with this pricey pint-size performer.
The fact that Lenovo didn't mess with the design of the X Series is mostly a good thing. With the included eight-cell battery, which hangs off the back, the X61s weighs just 3.3 pounds. The lid on this system feels incredibly sturdy, and the keyboard provides excellent tactile feedback, although some of the keys (like Backspace) are a bit shrunken to accommodate the X61s' compact footprint. Getting accustomed to the TrackPoint control-there's no touchpad-took some time, but we found it comfortable and accurate.
In some ways, however, the X61s feels a bit behind the times. The 12.1-inch UltraLight display is plenty bright (with 180 nits of brightness, compared with 150 for the standard screen), and the matte finish does a good job cutting down on glare. But this panel's standard-aspect ratio could make anyone who's used to a widescreen feel like they just got launched back a few years. Lenovo has already gone wide with its other ThinkPads, but not with this series.
You also don't get a built-in optical drive. A DVD burner is built into the X6 UltraBase dock, which is included in this configuration and brings the weight to 5.2 pounds. If you do want a widescreen and integrated optical drive, you may prefer the Toshiba Portege R500, which weighs only 2.4 pounds.
Otherwise, this ultraportable has all the features road warriors need. Our configuration included 2GB of RAM, a speedy 7,200-rpm hard drive, and both 802.11n and Bluetooth wireless. The right side of the system houses two USB 2.0 ports, a FireWire port, and the mic and headphone jacks, and on the left side you'll find another USB 2.0 port, VGA connector, and Ethernet port.
As you might expect from a ThinkPad, the X61s is all about protecting both the hardware and the data inside. In addition to a fingerprint reader on the keyboard deck, this notebook features new 32-byte hard drive password protection and the ability to disable I/O ports. You still get active hard drive protection, which temporarily stops the hard drive in case of a tumble, as well as a hard drive shock absorber.
We've always been fans of the blue ThinkVantage button, which brings up a utility menu that allows users to do everything from defragging the hard drive and toggling wireless connections on and off to backing up and restoring your system. If you do a little digging, you'll find the new Battery Stretch tool, which automatically dims the display, disables the wireless radios, and mutes the audio. This tool even tells you the estimated increase in battery life.
The good news is that the X61s lasts a long time on a charge without having to make any tweaks. On our DVD rundown test, this notebook lasted just shy of four hours-and that's with the external drive, which requires more power than an internal drive-so you can expect at least six hours of runtime when performing everyday productivity chores. That's a battery life that's about two hours less than the not-as-powerful X60s we tested last year, but it will be long enough for nearly a full day of work. After using a plug-in EV-DO modem to surf the Web for more than an hour, the battery meter said we still had 75 percent juice left.
Even better, this ultraportable doesn't sacrifice performance for endurance. The 1.6-GHz Core 2 Duo processor, combined with 2GB of RAM, allowed the X61s to notch a very good PCMark05 score of 3,549. That's above average for this class and provides plenty of horsepower to run Vista Business and Office 2007. Graphics performance was also above average, with a 3DMark03 score of 1,607.
The only disappointment was the X61s' Wi-Fi performance. Throughput from both 15 feet (8.4 Mbps) and 50 feet (7.1 Mbps) for our access point was below average, especially for a notebook with an 802.11n connection. Other Core 2 Duo laptops we've recently tested, like the ThinkPad R61-14w, clock in above 17 Mbps. If you want mobile broadband built in, it will cost you an extra $175, which includes a pop-up antenna for better reception.
Although we'd like to see a widescreen option, the ThinkPad X61s is an excellent choice for road warriors. We prefer the Panasonic Toughbook CF-W5 for its longer battery life, lighter weight, and integrated optical drive, but this system has a better keyboard, a more powerful processor, and more robust security features. If you want an ultraportable that performs-and feels-like a mainstream business machine, this is the one to get.
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