You can't tell by looking at the familiar squared-off matte-black chassis, but the Lenovo ThinkPad T61 delivers dozens of subtle improvements that make it the widescreen machine to beat among thin-and-light business notebooks. This 5.2-pound classic isn't perfect, but it's darn close.
Behind the 14.1-inch screen, Lenovo has added a magnesium-alloy inner shell to better protect the display, similar to the internal rollcage added to the bottom of the chassis a few years ago. Lenovo claims that the screen is now 25 percent more resistant to breakage than previous models.
The 1440 x 900-pixel widescreen was plenty bright and delivered crisp, vibrant images. Default font sizes are on the small side, but the higher resolution works well with Vista's sidebar widgets. The matte screen cuts down on glare and doesn't cause as much blurring as other matte finishes we've seen (think of it more as a satin finish). Viewing angles are fine side to side, but the screen washes out when viewed from above.
The keyboard is as comfortable as ever, and we're happy to see both the TrackPoint pointing stick, with a central scroll toggle between the mouse buttons, and a touchpad with its own buttons. The white LED ThinkLight above the screen sheds just enough light on the keys in a darkened room, and the handy volume and mute buttons sit above the keyboard's function keys. The touchpad is a bit on the small side (to accommodate the TrackPoint's mouse buttons). Volume from the T61's speakers is good enough for private listening but is barely adequate for use in a presentation.
The T61 delivers all the typical ports, including FireWire and both PC Card and ExpressCard slots, but there's still no memory card reader. As for security, this notebook offers a fingerprint reader for use with the standard TPM circuitry. And security-conscious businesses will appreciate the ability to disable the I/O ports in the BIOS to prevent data from being off-loaded.
Intel Centrino Processor
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Of course, the biggest new feature is the Intel Centrino Duo platform. We tested the top-of-the-line 2.4-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7700 processor, coupled with the Intel Turbo Memory solution, which employs 1GB of onboard flash memory to cache crucial OS and application data. Intel Turbo Memory can cut down on time-consuming hard drive accesses as well as extend battery life, since addressing flash memory consumes less power than spinning up the hard drive.
Turbo Memory and our T61's Windows Vista Business Edition operating system are especially complementary. Vista's SuperFetch technology anticipates what disk pages will be required and loads them to memory before they're called for. And ReadyBoost uses available flash memory as a virtual-memory OS cache. Turbo Memory-equipped Vista machines can wake faster from hibernation and load and run applications faster.
On our hands-on tests with two nearly identical T61 models--one with the $50 Turbo Memory option and one without--we did indeed see some speed improvements. Waking from hibernation (about 30 seconds) was nearly identical on both machines, most likely because of the high-end components and 2GB of RAM in our configuration; a less-potent machine might see a benefit here. But the Turbo Memory T61 did consistently launch Microsoft Word 2007 faster, taking just over one second, versus nearly three seconds for the T61 without the flash boost.
More noticeable, when saving a 20-image slideshow to WMV format in Adobe Photoshop Elements, the Turbo Memory T61 needed about 3 minutes, versus nearly 4.5 minutes for the machine without it. Turbo Memory also had a positive impact on benchmark testing. The T61 with the feature scored 4,727 on PCMark05 (the best showing for a thin-and-light to date), versus 4,305 (the second-highest score to date). Even with all this power, the T61 runs cool and quiet, thanks to additional venting and fan blades modeled after an owl's wings.
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The T61's Intel 966 integrated graphics chip (with 256MB of shared memory) is a big step up from previous-generation Intel GMA GPUs; it handled Vista's demanding Aero effects quickly and smoothly. It's no gaming machine, with a score of only 1,616 on 3DMark03, but this ThinkPad's 3D results are in line with other business portables. The T61 also delivers improved Wi-Fi reception (802.11a/g/n in our unit), and the antenna for the optional wireless EV-DO broadband radio is now completely internal.
Wireless throughput was above average, consistently ranging between 18 and 19 Mbps. But the T61's six-cell battery was a disappointment, lasting only two hours on our DVD rundown test. We say opt for the $40, seven-cell battery instead, or buy a second six-cell battery ($159) or three-cell bay ($107) option.
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As with other business notebooks, preloaded software is light. But you do get Lenovo's excellent ThinkVantage Productivity Center suite. It gives quick access to a host of features, including network connection settings, active hard drive protection, power and presentation settings, system backup and recovery, and more.
We have one other complaint. The 8X multiformat DVD burner in our test unit made a whiny whir as it spun up, and the way it continually cycled faster and slower during DVD playback was annoying. But given the T61's excellent performance and portability, we can forgive this shortcoming. The ThinkPad T61 is as ideal a business portable as you are likely to find.
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