Lenovo ThinkPad X300 Review (Best. Notebook. Ever.)

Saturday May 17th 2008 by Eric Grevstad
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Okay, It costs more than $3,000. Fair warning: You won't care. Lenovo's lightweight goes toe to toe with Apple's MacBook Air -- well, it would if the Air had a DVD burner, a LAN connection, and a sharper screen. Thinkabout a solid-state hard disk, full-sized keyboard, ample battery life, and impeccable green credentials in a 13.3-inch, just-over-3-pound slimline. Now try to be satisfied with your current laptop.

We can't keep it. Our eval loan has run out and we have to return this Lenovo ThinkPad X300 review unit next week. But that's all right. We'll find a way. We can follow it back to Lenovo's address in North Carolina. We can stalk it. Someday it'll be in our arms again and we can tell it how we feel. We'll say those three little words we thought we'd never say, words no level-headed PC reviewer should swoon and say:

Best notebook ever.

If You Have To Ask ...

They say love is blind, and we were struck blind by our first look at the X300's price tag: At retail, our test configuration (model 6478-1VU) costs as much as four adequately equipped, full-sized laptops -- $3,000 equipped with 2GB of DDR-2/667 memory, Bluetooth, webcam, fingerprint reader, and a Verizon mobile broadband module with GPS.

When we configured a matching model on Lenovo's Web site, it came to $3,400. The best discount we found was from Datavision, offering the X300 for $2,800.

Part of the system's high tariff is that it features a 64GB solid-state disk (SSD or flash-memory drive). That's much less storage capacity than most notebooks' conventional hard disks, but it gives the Lenovo a fast startup time (about 30 seconds) and extra reliability, especially when coupled with what Lenovo calls glass- and carbon-fiber "roll cage" construction and a ThinkVantage Active Protection System that automatically turns off the drive when the X300 is jolted or dropped. The latter feature isn't nearly as necessary for an SSD as for a mechanical drive, but it has a cute real-time display window in which you can watch an animated image of the ThinkPad jiggle and jump as you mistreat it.

But the real reason the X300 inspires devotion is that it's the PC market's closest thing to Apple's celebrated, skinny status symbol, the MacBook Air. At 9.1 by 12.5 by 1 inches, it isn't quite as svelte as the Apple, but has essential features the Air lacks -- a DVD±RW drive, for example, along with an Ethernet port and a user-removable battery.

The Lenovo is also light enough to make briefcase-lugging a pleasure: Our test unit tipped the scale at 3.4 pounds (an even 4 pounds with the AC adapter). You can add a few ounces by replacing the optical drive with a second battery pack for, Lenovo says, up to 10 hours of battery life.

And, to return to the MacBook Air, the ThinkPad's $3,000 price may be daunting but is $98 less than Apple charges for its slimline with the same size solid-state drive but no optical drive. And while both have 13.3-inch displays, the X300 offers higher resolution (1,440 by 900 pixels versus 1,200 by 800).

A DVD Drive Hardly Thicker Than a DVD

On the notebook's left side are two USB 2.0 ports and microphone and headphone jacks. At the rear are a third USB port and Ethernet and VGA monitor ports.

We were disappointed not to find a flash-memory card reader or an ExpressCard slot, though Lenovo would likely say there's no urgent need for the latter since what's under the hood already includes mobile broadband; a GPS chip; and support for WiMax, should Intel's chosen long-range wireless standard overcome the apparently long odds against it ever being deployed.

One of the ThinkPad's most remarkable features is on its right side -- a super-duper-slim, swappable DVD±RW burner. The dual-layer Matsushita drive is just 7mm (a quarter of an inch) thick; we found ourselves wishing it would pull out just a fraction further but it proved easy enough to slip a disc into the tray inside-edge first.

The latest thing in skinny screens is LED backlighting, which helps make the X300's 13.3-inch display crisp and vivid for black text and color images alike. On the other hand, to be frank, the 1,440 by 900-pixel panel didn't seem super-bright or show whiter whites under office fluorescent lighting, unless we left the backlight on its highest setting.

Working at home, with just one or two lamps at opposite sides of the living room, made things look better. Under such less-than-sunny conditions, or on a darkened airplane beside a snoring seatmate, you can press a Fn-key combination to activate the cutest little night light you ever saw, tucked into the top bezel beside the 1.3-megapixel webcam and shining down on the keyboard.

The keyboard lives up to the high standard of other ThinkPads, stretching back well before 2005 when Lenovo acquired the matte-black brand from IBM. It's virtually full-sized (spanning 8 inches from A through apostrophe, just like our desktop keyboard) and delivers a smooth, yielding-just-enough typing feel. There are dedicated Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn keys instead of shifted cursor arrows, as well, though it takes some practice to adjust to their location in the keyboard's top right corner.

Lenovo also offers travelers a choice of IBM's famous original or today's most common mouse alternatives -- a textured TrackPoint micro-joystick stub embedded at the intersection of G, H, and B, plus a touchpad in the palm rest with vertical and horizontal scrolling zones along its right and bottom edges.

Both the TrackPoint and touchpad have their own left and right mouse buttons below. We found that, when using the X300 in our lap, the latter's mouse buttons were often too close or pressed against our belly to use, so we happily relied on the joystick's buttons just above the touchpad.

Let's Go Green

Lenovo boasts that the X300 is the most environmentally friendly ThinkPad to date, consuming 25 percent less energy than older X Series models and meeting both Energy Star 4.0 and EPEAT Gold standards for low power consumption and minimal impact on Mother Earth. Along with the LED backlit display and no-moving-parts SSD, one of the key contributors to this status is Intel's Core 2 Duo SL7100, a 1.2GHz processor with an 800MHz front-side bus, 4MB of Level 2 cache, and a thrifty TDP (thermal design power) of 12 watts.

The CPU specs should clue you in that nobody's going to use the X300 for hardcore gaming or video encoding, but the notebook's performance is perfectly fine for office applications. It scored 3,305 on PCMark05 (CPU 3,279; memory 3,262; graphics 1,042; hard drive -- wildly skewed by solid-state -- 15,787), and rendered Cinebench 10's test scene in six and a quarter minutes.

Intel's GMA X3100 integrated graphics handled our benchmarks about as well as you'd expect, managing 70 frames per second in our nostalgic Quake III Arena test and 10 fps in the more demanding AquaMark3; its 3DMark06 score at native 1,440 by 900 resolution with no antialiasing or other eye candy was 362.

A View Without Vista

Lenovo's array of models with just slightly different ID codes (6478-1VU versus -1TU, for instance) can make it hard to spot the exact configuration you'd like, but we must confess that one thing we liked about our test unit was that it came with the simpler, quicker Windows XP Professional instead of Windows Vista.

A page on Lenovo's Web site (under the banner headline "It's hard to say goodbye") says that systems with XP preloaded will be available for purchase only through May 20, 2008, but that customers will be able to buy a downgrade DVD that wipes out the newer and installs the older operating system. One of the company's tech support pages adds that the downgrade kit will be available (though "fees may vary") until January 31, 2009.

The rest of our ThinkPad's preinstalled software ranged from the predictable (trial versions of Norton Internet Security and Microsoft Office) to the Picasa2 image organizer, Diskeeper Lite defragment utility, InterVideo WinDVD, and an impressive stack of utilities and control settings arrayed under the ThinkVantage label.

A pop-up ThinkVantage Productivity Center offers maintenance, wireless (including location profiles for different networks and logons), hardware configuration, and security options presented so as not to frighten even the technophobiest.

Finally, the X300's light weight doesn't indicate a wimpy battery pack as with some slimlines. The supplied six-cell battery lasted a good four hours during a multimedia-heavy DVD-viewing and music-playing session, while a less demanding word processing marathon stretched to five hours.

So what do we mean by best notebook ever? Simply the best-engineered, most desirable, thin-and-light-without-compromises laptop we've seen in many long years of testing, reviewing, and not infrequently buying. Out of all the PCs that have occupied the Labs, Weather, & Sports Desk, the ThinkPad X300 is the one we most hate to send away.

Ah, well. If you love something set it free.

HardwareCentral Intelligence

Lenovo ThinkPad X300
Lenovo
$3,000
Available: Now

On a 5-star scale:
Features:
Performance:
Value:
Total: 14 out of 15

This article was first published on HardwareCentral.com.

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