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Help Me, LAPTOP: ThinkPad X1 vs. MacBook Air

You write to for advice and we respond. Today, a reader named Kevin wants a light, portable notebook and can't decide between the Lenovo ThinkPad X1, MacBook Air 13-inch, or something larger. He writes:

I'm trying to decide whether to dive into the ultra portable pool or not, and if so, to decide between the Lenovo X1 and the Macbook Air 13 (2011).

As a consultant, I travel to my clients' offices in various cities, staying weeks at a time. My laptop is what I use all day at work, and then carry back to my hotel. The product of my work is proposals. They're written in Word, and include spreadsheets. For personal interest, I'm starting in photography/video and I'm learning GIS programming. Finally, I fly between Asia and the US three or four times per year. My laptop is the only computer I get to use sometimes for months at a time. I carry it everywhere throughout the world.

I've been using the Dell Studio 14z for the last two years which I love very much. I love its backlit keyboard. I love its slimness and 4.4 pound weight which comes from being one of the first without an optical drive. I love its ultrahigh resolution screen. The problem is the Core Duo processor just doesn't have the 'horsepower' for today's highly graphical needs. The Lenovo X1 and Macbook Air 13 (2011) have all these attributes.

I need a new laptop. The question is, can a person work 12 hours a day for months at a time on a laptop screen smaller than 14 inches? I have to pick up and carry my laptop to different locations several times per day and travel great distances. The Lenovo X1 and the new Macbook Air 13 (2011) each seem like huge upgrades to my lovely Dell 14z, and the reduced weight and thinness are so alluring!

I type all day so the X1's awesome spill proof keyboard seems like a winner . Its Gorilla Glass screen, 350 nits display, and ruggedness are also great for what I do. On the other hand, the high resolution screen and lightness of the Macbook Air are especially appealing. But again I wonder, can it be done on a screen smaller than 14 inches?

To answer your last question first, 13-inch screens are great for intense work and many of us at LAPTOP  feel that the 13-inch form factor actually provides the best mix of portablity and viewability. We really like both the ThinkPad X1 and the MacBook Air 13-inch though each has its strengths, many of which you point out in your e-mail.

The ThinkPad X1 has the best keyboard we've ever tested on any notebook and it offers backlighting, durability, and powerful performance. It even comes standard with a USB 3.0 port.

However, the X1 has a couple of drawbacks in its screen and default battery. The screen is made of scratch-resistant Gorilla glass, which is a plus for durability, but at least in this case casts reflections like you wouldn't believe if there's a light source above or behind you. It also has only a 1366 x 768 resolution, which is very common these days, but not as spacious as the 1440 x 900 panel on the MacBook Air. When it comes to battery life, the X1 lasts a strong 8 hours, but only if you attach the $150 battery slice which brings its weight up to 4.6 pounds.

The MacBook Air 13-inch has a much better screen than the ThinkPad X1, its keyboard is pretty good, and it comes standard with a blazing fast SSD that allows it to boot in a truly outrageous 15 seconds. All that and the Air only weighs 3 pounds. Its 6-hour and 25 minute battery life is better than the 4 hours and 11 minutes the ThinkPad X1 lasts without its slice. 

In the end, this debate really comes down to your personal preference as both are great notebooks. If you like Windows, want USB 3.0, or desire the best notebook keyboard money can buy, get the ThinkPad X1. If you prefer Macs, want to see more of your documents on screen without scrolling, or want one of the lightest notebooks on the market, get the Air 13-inch. 

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