by Jason Ip, USA
Overview and Introduction
IBM ThinkPad X31 (view larger image)
This is a review of the ThinkPad X31. As you all probably know it is made by IBM (and I am saying IBM because at the time it was IBM, not Lenovo). I realize that the new and improved X32 is available now and you might be wondering why you're reading a review for the older' X31. The X31, with the arrival of the X32 (which is identical except for the CPU), becomes much cheaper, thus for those budget minded (like myself) it becomes a good value. And I am sure there are a lot of budget minded people out there. As you might have guessed, this laptop is firmly set in the ultra portable category, although with the influx of extremely thin laptops entering the market (Dell X1, Sony X505, IBM X40/X41, etc.) the X31 does not compete for being the smallest and lightest. However, I still like it and you'll see why further on.
Reasons for buying
I'll start off with why I got this laptop and mainly why I chose it over the very similar, and even smaller, X40. Before I purchased this X31 I had an X40, and while I enjoyed it, I felt disappointed about some features and thought that some things were missing. Firstly, don't get me wrong, the X40 is extremely diminutive and fits squarely in the ultra portable category, however my main gripe with it was its build quality. My backup/desktop replacement laptop is an IBM A21P and let me tell you, that thing is a tank, on the thinkpad.com forum you'll consistently hear people harking about the good old days of tank-like ThinkPad's. The A21P is one of those. The X40 was not. It felt too flimsy for me, there were many squeaks and I just did not feel confident with it in my hands. I browsed the forums and many ThinkPad owners thought that the X31 was more solid. So I gave it a try, low and behold they were right. The X31's build quality is very solid, much like that of my A21P. When I picked it up I knew that I liked it much better than the X40. I was sold. The option of a 7200rpm hard drive (the X40, along with most other new ultra portables, use 1.8" hard drives with max speed 4200 rpm) was a bonus and something I did add later on.
Where and How Purchased
I purchased this laptop on ebay from a reputable seller; I did my homework on each seller and found that the one I bought from (email me if you'd like the name) had good feedback. He also provided pictures of the box because my X31 was sealed/new. However he did sell many refurbished ThinkPads. I ended up paying $1100 USD which I thought was a good deal for a non-refurbished X31.
Build & Design
ThinkPad X31 top view (view larger image)
As mentioned in the previous section I believe that the build quality of the X31 is its main strength. I value build quality the most in a laptop, without that I will pass on any laptop, no matter what other features are on it. There is absolutely no flex in the LCD, unlike the X40 where you could see spots on the screen if you flexed the LCD lid. The X31 exhibits no such spots when flexing. All the ports seem very solid, another important factor for such a portable laptop since it will require the plugging and unplugging of speakers/headphones and USB devices constantly while you are on the road. The lid closes nicely and when you try to squeeze the lid with the main body when closed there is little to no give, something rare in most laptops, the X40 displayed gaps in this test.' However, to the X40's credit, I have seen a friends' X40 that didn't have that problem. But with two latches on each side, as opposed to the X40's single right side latch, there is that extra sense of tightness when closing the unit. Other design elements are shared with the X series line such as metal hinges, slight lip around the LCD screen, the Think light' (very handy and cool to showoff), and no Windows shortcut key. The TrackPoint, or IBM nipple' as it is affectionately known as, is my preference. I won't get into a track point vs. track pad debate since that has been done before and it comes down to preference; suffice it to say, I am comfortably in the nipple' camp.
The screen on the X41 is your standard 1024x768 XGA screen. I have not seen a 1600x1200 T-series UXGA screen so I cannot compare, but for the needs of an ultra portable, it is beyond sufficient. I have watched a couple DVD movies on it already and it is great. Luckily my X31 does not have any dead pixels. As with every other IBM ThinkPad the screen does not have the look at me' gee-whiz ultra glare screen. You can probably tell I am not a fan of these. As far as I can tell the backlighting on the LCD is fine, no leaks or anything of the sort.
The speakers on any ultra portable are about as dumpy as you can get. To top it off, there is only one speaker and it is aimed downward to muffle the sound even more. Basically only use the speaker in a situation where someone's life will be in danger if you don't, otherwise steer clear.
Processor and Performance
I found the performance on the X31 very snappy. Of course, this is after I upgraded to 1.5 gigs of RAM and a 7200 rpm HD. I basically tried to eliminate any bottlenecks that I could think of. Of course, since I cannot upgrade the video card, it stayed. In normal Windows operation the video card doesn't matter too much, games such as Starcraft and Warcraft 3 work fine but don't expect to go to a Half-Life 2 or Doom 3 LAN party with this machine. Boot up time, with my configuration, is about 30 seconds and applications are very quick to open. For example, Adobe Photoshop loads in less than 5 seconds and Microsoft Word will take 3 sec the first time it loads. Overall, it is on par with a 2.x Ghz P4 desktop.
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 X31 with it's 1.6 GHz older Banias Pentium M processor stacked up to other notebooks when running this calculation:
|Notebook||Time to Calculate Pi to 2 Million Digits|
|IBM ThinkPad X31 (1.6GHz Pentium-M Banias)||2m 28s|
|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|
|IBM ThinkPad X41 (1.50 GHz Alviso Pentium M)||2m 02s|
Keyboard and Touchpad
The second part of this section will be hard to review seeing as there is no touchpad on the ThinkPad. As I have said earlier in the review, the nipple' vs. touchpad is a personal preference. I'll say this though, if you prefer the nipple', the ThinkPad has one of the finest of all notebook nipples' so you won't be disappointed. If you must have the touchpad, look elsewhere or carry around a mouse.
The keyboard, what can I say about an IBM keyboard that hasn't been said already. They are amazing. Each keystroke is firm and crisp. It makes you feel like you can, and want to, type faster. Also, they are easy to replace and can be found in abundance on Ebay.
Input and Output
Along the right side there are no ports. The right side is where the CPU fan vent sits and where the hard drive bay sits. The front side has nothing, the left side and backside is where all the action is; we'll start with the left side. There is a firewire port, a single PCMCIA slot, a Compact Flash slot, an IR port, audio in/out, headphones, and finally a USB 2.0 port. On the back there is your standard fare VGA in, parallel, AC power, another USB 2.0 port, 10/100 Ethernet, and a modem phone jack.
IBM ThinkPad X31 front right side (view larger image)
IBM ThinkPad X31 back side (view larger image)
IBM ThinkPad X31 left side (view larger image)
My unit did not have any wireless card installed, only the antennas, I installed the Intel Pro Wireless 2200 and am quite satisfied with it. I will say this though, I hate how IBM makes a bios lock for the mini-pci slot. You can only buy IBM wireless cards (essentially price enhanced' wireless cards). Of course there is a bios hack floating around on the web that defeats it but it will also disable the wireless light on the laptop. The antennas on the X31 are very receptive, I get great signal no matter where I go. Of course reception will also depend on what wireless card you have, I had an Atheros 802.11 a/b/g card in my X40 and it seemed a bit better, however it could have been that the X40's antennas were better, it is subjective. Nonetheless, both had exceptional reception.
Another plus for the X31 over the X40, the battery is a 6 cell lithium ion. With the X40 you could only get a 4 cell if you want ultimate portability, which lasted no more than 3.5 hours or you would have to sacrifice size if you wanted the 8 cell. The 6 cell on the X31 lasts about 4-5 hours depending on what you are doing, I mostly have mine plugged in and am afraid to completely drain the battery while the laptop is on but I have it on for 3 hours with no problems (and 30% remaining).
OS and Software
IBM provides quite the suite of software with their ThinkPad's. Of course once I got the new hard drive I started by installing Windows XP myself without any of the IBM software, I am not a fan of manufacturer preloaded software. However, for the sake of the review, I will try to review the IBM software. With the original hard drive there is a partition that allows you to return your ThinkPad to factory fresh state whenever you please. IBM accomplishes this by having the bios boot into a small Linux OS at start up if you press the ACCESS IBM button. There will be an option of recovering if you want. This is a nice feature because you don't have to get into Windows to use it. Many times when you want to format/recover it's because you cannot get into Windows, smart move on IBM's part. The other piece of software I liked was the IBM connections software, it allows you to use the shortcut keys on your keyboard and IBM keeps it pretty updated.
Customer Support and Warranty
My X31 came with 3 years of warranty. I've never had to use IBM warranty so I cannot comment on it. However I have heard very good things about the service from the ThinkPad forums.
I'll combine the praise and complaints into this section. Overall I am very pleased with this notebook. It is small yet powerful, something hard to find these days in ultra portables. The only gripe I have was mentioned before and that was the wireless card bios lock that IBM decided to implement. It is not a big deal, it will just cost more to upgrade your wireless card. I plan to upgrade my X31 with Bluetooth in the near future and have every bit of confidence when it comes time to open up the case to install it. As with most ThinkPads, IBM has made it very easy to upgrade, all the components are easily accessible and there are numerous hardware manuals on the IBM/Lenovo website detailing every single part of the laptop down to the very screw. You could completely disassemble the laptop with the instructions provided, I kid you not. All in all what I am most please with is the build quality, I feel like I can take this laptop anywhere, and that is a good feeling. So in the words of Ebert and Roeper: "Two Thumbs, Way Up."
Pricing and Availability
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