Lenovo ThinkPad R61i User Review

by Messudieh Reads (139,644)

by Ken Blaszak

ThinkPads have always had a reputation for being durable and reliable, but typically this comes at a price premium as well. In this review I attempted to squeeze the best performance I could out of a ThinkPad at the lowest price possible. Read on to see how well this attempt paid off.


Specifications

  • Intel Pentium Dual Core T2330 (1.6GHz, 533MHz FSB, 1MB Cache)

  • Chipset: Intel GM965 Express

  • Graphics: Intel X3100 (Integrated)

  • Operating System: Windows XP Professional SP2

  • Display 14.1" WXGA 1280 x 800

  • Hard Drive: 80GB 5400RPM

  • Memory: 1GB (1 x 1GB) as ordered, upgraded to 4GB (2 x 2 GB) myself

  • Ports: 3 USB 2.0, Intel 82566MM Gigabit Ethernet, Modem, VGA out, Stereo out, Mic In, IEE1394 Mini Port, Memory Card Reader

  • Slots: 1 Cardbus Slot

  • Optical: Matshita Super Multi DVD drive 8X max

  • Interface: Intel PRO/Wireless 3945ABG, Thinkpad Light, UltraNav Trackpoint and Touchpad

  • Dimensions: 13.14" x 9.25" x 1.18 – 1.33"

 

Reasons for Purchase

This is my third ThinkPad, and so far the best. When I was in college, my school had a laptop program using ThinkPads. I started out with an R31 (celeron 700) then R40 (M-P4 2.0 GHz). Both were built pretty well, but were very hot, especially the R40. Because of this, and the age of my R40 (four years) it was time for a new laptop. I was obviously drawn to the ThinkPad series because I knew about its good build quality, and I also love having a pointing stick. Because I have a fairly high-end desktop with a large monitor I didn’t need a powerhouse, and I wanted something fairly portable. I also do some light photography as well as use SD cards to move data at times, so the option to add a media card reader was a huge plus.

I briefly considered a Dell, but I have a Latitude D610 at work, and don’t like the lack of a center scroll button, and they are not built as well. I got a Toshiba A105 for my girlfriend on one of those Best Buy bargain specials, so I knew how creaky and unappealing they would be to me.

In the end, the major considerations were price and build quality with decent to good performance and battery life … and that is what I got with this purchase. So far, the slightly scaled down "Core 2" based processor has handled everything I’ve thrown at it without a problem. I purchased near the end of 2007 directly from Lenovo using their sale prices as well as the Contractor Purchase Program (I do IT work for a Payroll Company). The final price of the above configuration came out to $690, which is almost budget level for a laptop. Shipping was free.

When I got the laptop I immediately upgraded it to 4 gigs of RAM ($60 after $30 rebate). I realized that 32 bit XP would only address three, but when a suitable 64 bit operating system, whether it be a version of Linux, Vista when it finally matures, or the next version of Windows (7) arrives, I will be able to use it all. As it stands with 3 gigs, I can have plenty of programs open without any memory issues.

One strange (but good) thing with this purchase was the time it took to get here. When I got my online receipt and went to check the status I was given an estimate of four weeks. I ordered on 12/10, it shipped on 12/13 (Thursday), and it went out to delivery on 12/17 (Monday). The amazing thing about this was that it originally shipped from hong kong for free.


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Build and Design

As stated by other reviewers, the R61 is built very well with most of the same design considerations as the T series. Mine holds up to this as well. The screen shows almost no distortion unless twisted or pushed on quite hard due to the roll cage. The base of the computer basically does not flex at all. There is no real flex or give to the palm wrests or keyboard. I personally don’t experience and clicking or looseness with the palm wrests either.

Despite this there are a few small, basically nit picky build problems I’ve found. The first is that when a certain spot on the left bezel of the screen that will make a cracking noise when I push on it a certain way. Also, when I push down on the right side of the computer where the speaker is located, it does flex in some. Taking out the CD drive, the entire section flexes, but I believe this is because there just isn’t enough room to reinforce it any more. Again, extremely nit picky here, and I don’t expect they will ever be any sort of problem.

One thing that does bug me a little is that there is one missing screw on the bottom of the laptop.

I also got the 4-in-1 memory card reader, which I am happy about since I keep a 2GB SD card in there now at all times. Unfortunately, the reader was put there in place of the expresscard slot (which I knew going in). Although I have never needed to use any sort of add-in card there is a slight chance that I may eventually use some sort of mobile broadband. I’m sure the cardbus slot will suit my needs though, and the memory card reader has been invaluable. It appears that the 15.4" model would let me have both, but I just didn’t want a laptop that large.

Input/Output

The R61i has most of the standard I/O ports you would expect on a laptop.


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Left: VGA Port, Modem, Gigabit Ethernet, 2 vertical USB ports. Top expansion slot is the Cardbus/PC card; lower slot is the 4 in 1 card reader that takes the place of the Expresscard Slot.


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Center: IEEE1394 Port (included free), Wireless on/off switch, audio ports, screen latch


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The right side includes the optical drive and a single USB port. The front area is where the hard drive can be removed and inserted.

Screen

Overall, I like the screen and I have no real gripes about it. Generally I will only be doing some sort of work or web surfing on it, so I don’t really need to worry about multiple people trying to watch a movie on it. The viewing angles are pretty good in my mind for the least expensive screen possible. Side to side shows very little color distortion even at extreme angles. Bottom Also, the 1280 x 800 resolution gives a good balance of readability and desktop estate on the screen size I have.

Wireless

I had some strange things happen with the wireless on this computer when trying to connect to my 802.11b network from a d-link router. For whatever reason this new laptop wouldn’t connect while my older R40 sat there on the Internet just fine. I ended up just moving to a wireless G router and my problem was solved.

In general, reception on this notebook is better than my previous Thinkpad. At the same distances from my access point I would generally get between 5% and 15% better signal strength.

Battery life

The R61i comes with ‘battery stretch’ software which will do things like dim your LCD and turn off your optical drive when activated. To test its effectiveness ‘real world constant usage circumstances’, I left the monitor on and did standard things like web page viewing and instant messaging. I did one or two activities that accessed the hard drive heavily for a short time.

With Battery stretch – 2 hours 56 minutes


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Heat and Noise

Compared to my old P4-based R40, this laptop is much quieter and cooler. Not only are the components more energy efficient (35 watt processor vs ~65 watt in the R40), there are many more vents and I’m sure a more efficient fan.

Whether it’s on battery or AC, I always set my CPU performance to "adaptive." This way if I’m working on something intensive, the full processing power of my computer will kick in. Otherwise, it will stay cooler when idle.

When plugged in, I put my fan at "maximum performance" which makes it run at a low rpm about half the time. It does a pretty good job of keeping the notebook cool without causing much noise, and a small stream of warm air comes out the vent. When I battery I have it set to "Balanced" which makes it come on a little more sporadically. Overall though, it is a much cooler and quieter running laptop.

Audio

The speakers on the laptop are about average, but one improvement over previous ThinkPads is the placement. The speakers used to be on the front edge, very close together giving almost no separation. Now they are on the sides which not only gives a better experience, but when I lie down with my laptop, they are no longer muffled with the front edge resting on my stomach area.

Upgrading

As mentioned, I did upgrade the RAM to four gigabytes. It was a fairly simple process once I found the instructions in the manual; just pop out four screws from their labeled holes and take off the palm rest.

Benchmarks

Although the processor is branded as a Pentium Dual Core, CPU-Z does show its Core2 based design, and even labels it as a "Core 2 Duo T5200."


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I have also been reading about the upcoming Service Pack 3 for Windows XP and some potential performance improvements that it offers aside from its intended purpose. I decided to run all of my benchmarks with SP2 installed, then decided to upgrade to the beta SP3.


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Super PI calculated to 2 million digits in 1 minute 33 seconds, which is right in line with other Core2 based processors. This leads me to believe this program is not limited by the 1MB of shared cache.

Under SP3 the time was 1 minute 32 seconds, basically no change.

I also ran wPrime 32M to test the multi threading capabilities. It came out to 56.609 seconds, which is a little slower than other Core2 based processors of this speed grade.

With SP3 installed the time improved to 53.625 seconds, which is a good gain.

PC Mark 05 was a little disappointing with a score of 2985, which seems to be a little below similarly clocked full Core2 processors.

SP3 did very little to improve this score. It went up to 2990, which could be attributed to normal testing variances.


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Although I probably won’t ever use this laptop for newer games, I did run 3DMark 05 on it, and it did come up somewhat disappointing. I got a final score of 634 which also seems a little lower than other similarly equipped X3100 notebooks.

SP3 made almost no difference. The result came to be 631 which can again be attributed to a normal variance. I also noticed that there are no "Approved Drivers" from Intel on Futuremark’s list.


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HDTune showed that the base 5400RPM hard drive performed pretty well. I looked at specs for some 7200RPM notebook drives, and the average transfer speeds were only about 2 MB/sec higher and access times about 1.1MS lower.

Under SP3 there was little change. It seemed like the minimum transfer rate was slightly higher under SP3, but the average came out the same.


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Operating System and Software

I was going for the lowest cost laptop I could, but I still opted to have Windows XP professional ship with the laptop for an additional ~$25 instead of Vista Home Premium. I have heard nothing but performance and battery life reductions with Vista, so I stuck with XP. Perhaps with Vista SP1 coming out soon my opinion will finally change.

Bloatware was kept to a minimum and mostly consisted of Google applications. I did like that Win DVD Creator 3 was included. DVD playback was also handled by Win DVD player.

Lenovo also included its ThinkVantage suite of software, which has mostly been positive. I have always used the access connections program for my Internet connections and profiles and continue to with this laptop. One problem I have encountered is with the included password manager. The program is somewhat redundant, and it would cause Firefox to freeze when visiting certain sites. Disabling it solved a lot of my browsing issues.


Conclusion

Despite a few small issues, I’m pretty happy with the ThinkPad R61i. It feels very sturdy, and the performance will meet my needs. On top of this, the price was almost in the budget range for a laptop.

Pros

  • Good screen quality for being the least expensive

  • T-series build quality for a much lower price

  • Good balance between screen real estate and portablility

  • Option to add memory card reader

 

Cons

  • Possibly underperforms compared to similarly equipped laptops

  • Possible problems on 802.11b network (may have been fixed by driver update)

  • Memory card reader takes up expresscard slot

  • Questionable password manager

 


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