by Andrew Baxter, New York USA
The IBM ThinkPad X41 notebook is a 12.1" screen ultraportable that follows in the footsteps of last years ThinkPad X40 release. Although the X41 is small and light, weighing only 2.7lbs with a 4-cell battery, it is not underpowered by any means as it carries a 1.50 GHz Pentium M processor that uses the latest Intel 915GM chipset. Most other ultraportables on the market have a 1.10 GHz or 1.20 GHz Pentium M. Combine the X41's good processor performance with the typical sturdy IBM ThinkPad build and excellent keyboard and you have an ultraportable that's easy to recommend.
IBM ThinkPad X41 (view larger image)
The ThinkPad X41 is built in the same rugged manner as any other X or T series notebook from IBM. Don't let the size of the X41 fool you, it may look cute and small, but once you pick it up and feel the highly sturdy and reinforced plastic case you'll understand this is a device that's been designed to take a beating and not just to look suave. There's just nothing chintzy about this machine; the hinges, keyboard, screen cover, case and trackpoint buttons all exude physical quality.
IBM X41 Specs and Configuration Options (text in blue indicates review unit configuration when there is a choice available)
IBM X41 Product Page: http://www.pc.ibm.com/us/thinkpad/xseries/index.html
Reasons for Buying
I actually do not own this ThinkPad X41, it's property of IBM. Or I suppose that would be to say Lenovo now. Either way, IBM/Lenovo is organized enough to do a good job of coordinating review unit laptops and getting the word out about their products. Believe me, it's eye opening to see which major manufacturers don't have a clue and can't coordinate putting you in touch with the right person when there's a question or request for information on a product. IBM is not one of those. Dell is coordinated and good with product info too. I won't start throwing mud at the organizations that aren't this way (as much as I would like to). My point here is, I like buying products from companies that are coordinated and where the left hand cooperates with the right, so even though IBM is big, their PC division does a good job (relative to other PC manufacturers) of keeping their folks on the same page.
That aside, I am actually going to be purchasing a 12.1" screen notebook soon and the X41 will probably be my choice -- so let's pretend I do actually own this notebook. My reason for buying an ultraportable class notebook is that I carry my notebook around all over the place, like to travel at least once a month, don't have the need to play games (which ultraportables are notoriously bad at doing) and have had good experience in the past with purchases of IBM notebook products.
It's always good to know what other options you have in a certain notebook category you are looking to buy within. Here's a rundown of similar 12.1" screen ultraportable notebooks that the X41 competes with:
ThinkPad X41 Design & Build
The X41 is, by design, very light and thin. The X41 is 1.06" inches thin and with the longer life 8-cell battery I have the X41 weighs 3.2lbs, if you use a 4-cell battery the weight is cut down to 2.7lbs. But even at a weight of 3.2lbs I find it easy to simply walk around with the X41 in one hand. Try doing that with a notebook that has a screen over 15" in size. I love being able to reach into my notebook case, pull out the X41 easily and effortlessly with one hand, and then place it into it's docking station (called the X4 UltraBase, more on that later) and immediately be up and working. Abe Lincoln once said "right is might", I'll argue that "light is might" -- in the world of mobile technology at least!
Here's a size comparison of the X41 to the T40, the X41 has an 8-cell battery in so it adds an extra 1-inch to the back notice (view larger image)
One way we know of to keep weight down in a mobile product is by utilizing plastic as the build material for the case. The problem with plastic is that it's just not all that rugged and if you bash your notebook or drop it then you'd better cross your fingers and hope that nothing breaks or cracks. The ThinkPad X41 does use plastic for the case, but the kicker is that it's a reinforced plastic composite. The case material provides for a very rugged and durable build, but still keeps the weight down. The screen lid is constructed of a magnesium alloy so there's no flexing of the screen, if you push in on the back of the lid you don't get any of the disconcerting ripple effect on the front of the LCD. When this rugged build is combined with the IBM Active Protection System for the hard drive (this built-in software/hardware feature shuts down the hard drive if the notebook is dropped in order to protect data), you can be fairly sure both your data and the physical hardware will survive a decent sized drop. IBM claims the ThinkPad X41 will survive up to 3-foot drops with little to no consequence.
Dell X1 resting on top of IBM X41, the X41 has more depth than the X1 but the X1 is wider (view larger image)
One thing that is common in ultraportables, but that must be pointed out, is that there is no built in optical drive for the X41, nor has there ever been for the X-series. That's part of the formula for keeping the weight down and the overall package thin. So what happens when you need to load software from a DVD or CD? That's when you'll need an expansion base such as the ThinkPad X4 UltraBase Dock. This dock has a built-in optical drive and various ports at the back. The UltraBase X4 allows you to have an external monitor, power and all your favorite accessories hooked up to it so that when you slide the X41 into the base you can start working right away, no hassle of arriving at the office and plugging in all the various accessories to the notebook. However, when on the road travelling or in a coffee shop you can have the X41 in it's raw thin and light form so that it lives up to the ultraportable namesake.
Input and Output Ports
Obviously with less surface area and room inside an ultraportable style notebook you're going to find that the number of ports and fancy features will be reduced. The X41 does a decent job of minimalizing this problem though. Let's take a tour around the notebook to see what we get:
On the right side you have the most slots and ports: PCMCIA slot for accessory expansion, Headphone/audio line-out, microphone in, SecureDigital memory card slot, 1-USB 2.0 port, RJ-11 modem port, RJ-45 ethernet port, kensington security lock.
ThinkPad X41 Right-side (view larger image)
On the left side you have the AC power jack, monitor out port, 1-USB 2.0 port and a fan vent. The USB 2.0 port on the left side has a power port (notice slot underneath) so you can attach an external optical drive without having to plug the optical drive in seperately.
ThinkPad X41 Left-side (view larger image)
On the bottom of the X41 you'll see there's an expansion bus port that is used to connect to the UltraBase dock. The battery compartment and memory slots can also be accessed from here.
ThinkPad X41 underneath (view larger image)
UltraBase X4 Expansion
When purchasing the X41 the UltraBase X4 is an optional add-on. If you don't want the expansion base but still need to load software onto the X41 you can always use a fast network to access drives on other machines to read large amounts of data. I highly recommend getting the UltraBase though, it's almost a necessary option in my opinion.
IBM ThinkPad X41 UltraBase X4 (view larger image)
The UltraBase X4 offers a simple way to organize all of your wires and dock your notebook when you arrive at the office or home. As soon as you slot the X41 into the dock the notebook will recognize it's been attached to the base station so you can use the optical drive (the UltraBase X4 I have has a CD-RW/DVD drive combo, since it's an UltraBay you can actually upgrade the optical drive that sits within the base), power will be drawn from the plugged in base station, you can switch to a monitor attached to the base station, any keyboard, mouse, printer, speakers or other device connected to the base station will of course become usable.
Here's a rundown of the ports and features you get with the UltraBase:
The dock weighs approximately 1.5lbs, so you'd be better off not carrying it around because if you add that to the weight of the laptop you're not going to be very light and portable any more...you'd in fact be better off with a thin-and-light style workstation notebook such as the ThinkPad T40 series.
Right side view of UltraBase X4 (view larger image)
Left side view of X41 in the UltraBase (view larger image)
Processor and System Performance
The X41 provides much better performance than your average ultraportable due to the fact it has a low-voltage 1.50 GHz Pentium M that uses the latest Intel 915 chipset. According to Intel there's about a 10% performance gain from the older 855 chipset.
We use the program Super Pi to get a benchmark of processor speed. The Super Pi program simply forces the processor to calculate Pi to a selected number of digits of accuracy. Calculating to 2 million digits is our benchmark. Below is a comparison chart of how the ThinkPad X41 with it's 1.5 GHz processor stacked up to other notebooks when running this calculation:
|Notebook||Time to Calculate Pi to 2 Million Digits|
|IBM ThinkPad X41 (1.50 GHz Alviso Pentium M)||2m 02s|
|Dell Latitude X1 (1.1 GHz ULV Pentium M)||2m 40s|
|IBM ThinkPad T43 (1.86 GHz Alviso Pentium M)||1m 45s|
|Fujitsu LifeBook N3510 (1.73 GHz Alviso Pentium M)||1m 48s|
|IBM ThinkPad T41 (1.6GHz Banias Pentium M)||2m 23s|
|Compaq R3000T (Celeron 2.8GHz)||3m 3s|
|Dell Inspiron 600m (1.6 GHz Dothan Pentium M)||2m 10s|
|Dell Inspiron 8600 (1.7GHz Banias Pentium M)||2m 28s|
So we can see from the numbers above that the processor is able to perform significantly better than processors in its competing class and also outpace much larger laptops from just last year. Not bad.
Now let's look at some more benchmarks pitting the X41 against the competing Dell Latitude X1 notebook. The X41 has a low-voltage 1.5GHz processor and the X1 has an ultra-low-voltage 1.1GHz processor so it's not a very even match -- something I should mention is that the X41 has to use a fan to dissipate heat due to its faster processor while the X1 uses passive cooling with no fan.
|Futuremark PCMark04 Scores|
|Dell Latitude X1 (1.1 GHz)||IBM X41 (1.50 GHz)|
|Multithreaded Test 1 / File Compression||2.0 MB/s||2.66 MB/s|
|Multithreaded Test 1 / File Encryption||16.26 MB/s||21.81 MB/s|
|Multithreaded Test 2 / File Decompression||14.43 MB/s||19.03 MB/s|
|Multithreaded Test 2 / Image Processing||6.5 MPixels/s||8.65 MPixels/s|
|Multithreaded Test 3 / Virus Scanning||1309.7 MB/s||1349.58 MB/s|
|Multithreaded Test 3 / Grammar Check||1.79 KB/s||2.09 KB/s|
|File Decryption||32.66 MB/s||43.78 MB/s|
|Audio Conversion||1495.55 KB/s||2014.01 KB/s|
|Web Page Rendering||3.39 Pages/s||4.43 Pages/s|
|DivX Video Compression||78.81 FPS||39.19 FPS|
|Physics Calculation and 3D||65.05 FPS||79.59 FPS|
|Graphics Memory - 64 Lines||374.57 FPS||399.62 FPS|
|Futuremark 3DMark05 Scores|
|3DMark Score||182 3DMarks||160 3D Marks|
|CPU Score||1468 CPUMarks||1598 CPUMarks|
|GT1 - Return To Proxycon||0.8 FPS||.6 FPS|
|GT2 - Firefly Forest||0.5 FPS||.5 FPS|
|GT3 - Canyon Flight||1.0 FPS||.9 FPS|
|CPU Test 1||0.9 FPS||.9 FPS|
|CPU Test 2||1.1 FPS||1.3 FPS|
So by looking above we see that the PCMark04 numbers show overall performance of the X41 is better than the X1. Interestingly though, the graphics performance of the X41 and X1 are essentially the same, with the X1 having a slight edge. Both systems use integrated graphics solutions, but the X41 has the more up to date Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 900. I'm not sure how to explain the results in this case, but needless to say the graphics performance is overall poor and you won't be using either notebook for gaming.
Perceived performance for using Office applications, browsing the web and using such programs as Visual Studio for programming is very good. I can have multiple programs and browser windows open at the same time and they all work fine whenever I switch to the program to use its specific utilities. No lag whatsoever. The X41 most certainly is an ultraportable that will enable you to get work done. It will not do well with anything graphically demanding though.
The hard drive speed of 4200RPM is often pointed to as being too slow. And the problem with the hard drive size on the X41 (1.8") is that there is no upgrading to a faster hard drive. With extra RAM that will provide less need to hit the hard drive, you'll be able to overcome performance issues, and with the included processor you'll be humming a happy tune anyway. To me the 4200RPM limitation hard drive isn't a big deal.
There is one upgradeable slot for memory on the X41. If you order the X41 with 256MB of memory then you can use a 1GB stick of memory to upgrade to 1280MB and if you order the X41 with 512MB of memory built-in you can upgrade to a max of 1536MB of RAM. It's definitely a good move to get 512MB of memory built-in to the inacessible slot if you can afford it. Here's a link to the X41 memory upgrade page so you can see the current prices of compatible RAM: X41 memory purchase page
Keyboard and Input
ThinkPad X41 Keyboard (view larger image)
The X41, despite its size, comes with a keyboard that is amazingly comfortable to use and fantastic for typing on. Keys are slightly smaller to fit everything on there, but no space is spared as the keys are pushed right out to the edge so you know IBM has done everything they can to make the keyboard usable. Feedback from the keys is great, there is not an ounce of flex to this keyboard. The trackpoint navigation is fantastic, the pointing stick makes it easy to navigate the cursor to the area on the screen you wish. Some complain about lack of a touchpad, but I've never come across a touchpad I've loved or used a whole lot so for me this is no loss. Biometric security is an option on the X41 and if you go for this option you'll get a fingerprint reader in the general area that a touchpad might have been.
IBM ThinkPad keyboards are sealed and sit inside of a tray so that spills do not get to the electronics underneath. Now this doesn't mean the X41 is waterproof and 100% spill proof by any means (liquid can still get in the vents if your aim is really bad), what it does mean is that if you spill some water onto the keyboard then you'll have time to tip up the notebook and pour the liquid out before it seeps down into the internal components of the notebook.
One thing I should note regarding any ThinkPad keyboard is that IBM has always been stubborn about not putting a "Windows" key on the bottom left-side that nearly every other notebook has. Pushing this key by default pops up the start menu in Windows. Some people like having this and find it annoying when it's not there, personally I don't care, and I'm sure some Linux fans are just plain chuffed that IBM chooses to leave this Windows friendly button out!
Above the main keyboard are a few hardware buttons: the power button, volume up and down buttons, a mute button and the blue "Access IBM" button. The Access IBM button will launch an IBM software application called Access IBM that will guide you in using, protecting, configuring and updating software on your X41. Apparently in the future this "Access IBM" button is going to be named "ThinkVantage" due to the Lenovo buyout of the IBM PC division.
The 12.1" screen on the X41 is XGA resolution and there's nothing fancy about it. It has a matte finish and is not widescreen. But this is perfect for use of Office applications and what not. You'll only be able to see one application at a time on the screen given the fact the resolution is XGA (1024 x 768). The screen is bright and easy on the eyes, you'll get no glare or reflection on the screen in an office environment with lots of ugly fluorescent style lights. There's no option for a glossy finished screen, no ThinkPad has this option. So the screen provides nothing to write home about, but nothing to complain about either.
The speakers on the actual X41 are on the bottom. Needless to say, this doesn't provide for very good audio. Using headphones is a very wise idea, it's hard to even understand spoken dialogue because the volume is low and sound is tinny. If you put the X41 into it's UltraBase you get much louder audio, but even then the quality isn't very good so a set of external speakers or headphones will serve you well.
Heat and Noise
The X41 uses a fan and smart design to keep the insides cool with its 1.5GHz processor. Most ultraportables come with a slower and therefore cooler running processor. The X41 does generate some heat on both the bottom and top, I found that putting it in my lap for over an hour was doable but got a little uncomfortable towards the end of that time period. The left palm rest would also sometimes get a bit warm, but not toasty warm by any means. The hard drive is right under the left palm rest so that explains the heat build up in that area. When you have the X41 on a desk or place where there's good ventilation heat build up will not be a problem. If you have it on your lap, in bed or in a warm room then the X41 can get warm on both the bottom and left top side.
A fan is used to blow hot air out and cool the insides. However, the fan is virtually inaudible. It doesn't need to run very often and when it does it's just a gentle push of air.
Battery life is a big deal when it comes to being portable. I use the 8-cell longer life battery for the X41, you can use a 4-cell battery to save weight (X41 is 2.7lbs with 4-cell battery and about 3.2lbs with 8-cell) and make it so the battery does not stick out the back of the notebook, but you'll obviously only get half the battery life relative to the 8-cell. Using the 8-cell I was able to achieve 4 hours and 40 minutes of battery life with the screen brightness set to 5 out of 8 bars, wireless on and during that time the notebook was either idling (with screen on still) or I was using it lightly to browse the web or send email. So basically you could do a New York to Los Angeles flight with the power lasting most of the way, much of the battery life depends upon what you're using the notebook for though.
There is an extended-life battery option that slots on underneath the X41 and will give you another 3-4 hours of power, but it of course adds another 1lb of weight and all of a sudden you're carrying something that's not so portable. Carrying a 4-cell and 8-cell battery might be a good option to achieve 6+ hours of battery life as long as you don't mind powering down, replacing your drained battery and booting up again.
The ThinkPad X41 I have comes with an Intel 2915 PRO/Wireless 802.11 a/b/g internal wi-fi card. I had no problems using wireless on the X41. Using the built-in IBM Access Connections application makes it very easy to find networks and manage various wireless connection profiles. IBM places what it calls the UltraConnect Wireless Antenna in the upper part of the screen. You can't see it of course as it's enclosed in the casing, but it really helps to extend your wireless range. Most manufacturers take the cheap route and put the antenna in the base part of the system where it's susceptible to interference from all the other components there.
The X41 has an antenna in the screen area for better reception
There is no internal Bluetooth in the X41 I have, but Infrared (IrDA) is integrated. When a ThinkPad with IrDA gets close to another ThinkPad with IrDA you'll get a noise effect that sounds like a spring and you'll be asked if you'd like to transfer files between the two machines.
Fingerprint Reader Security and Software
The X41 can be purchased with a built-in fingerprint reader to provide biometric security. The fingerprint reader is unobtrusive in nature and won't get in the way of any of your actions, but is easy enough to access and use when needed.
The first time you start using the X41 with biometric security you'll get the following screen that prompts you to "enroll" at least two fingers for the ability to scan and use as your Windows logon.
As soon as you start using the X41 a wizard pops-up to guide you through setting up biometric security (view larger image)
You can pick any two fingers of your ten to enroll (view larger image)
You have to do three successful finger swipes, using the same finger, over the reader and then the software will record your fingerprint and converge the three successful swipe images (view larger image)
Once you've successfully enrolled two fingers you will be prompted by the software as to whether you'd like to now use finger swipes to logon to Windows. In addition to substituting a fingerswipe for Windows logon you can also use the fingerscan for what IBM calls "Power Up" security. This means that when you turn your computer on it will sit and wait for you to scan your finger before it will even start to boot. So for the ultimate security use both the Power Up and Windows logon passwords/fingerscan.
Actually using the finger reader is relatively easy. Just slide the end of your finger over the reader, and if it does not read right the software will actually coach you to move your finger to the right or left. It does take a little bit of training to use the reader properly, you can move your finger too fast or too slow and you do need to line the finger up right, I can basically get the read right in one or two tries, but I won't say it's sure fire to work every time on the first try.
For a white paper resource that covers all the advantages of biometric security check out this link: http://www.research.ibm.com/journal/sj/403/ratha.html
Tech specs and features aside, the ThinkPad X41 continues the streak of providing a highly usable laptop in the small 12.1" screen form factor. It's no small feat to produce a keyboard on a notebook of this size that feels the same as a keyboard on a mainstream 15.4" notebook. The 1.5GHz processor is the fastest you'll find in any ultraportable on the market, and the typical rugged build of the ThinkPad line is part of the course. This is an easy laptop to recommend to those who need to be highly mobile and get work done while moving about. When combined with the UltraBase X4 docking station solution, the X41 can function well as a main computer too, so keep that option in mind.
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