Lenovo ThinkPad T61 Review

by Charles P. Jefferies Reads (1,582,627)

The ThinkPad T61 14.1″ widescreen notebook was recently released by Lenovo as an update to the T60 series. The T61 uses the new Intel Centrino Duo platform (Santa Rosa) and offers a number of design updates.


ThinkPad T61 14.1″ widescreen notebook (view large image)

Important to note is that this review covers the 14.1″ widescreen version of the T61 series. As with any laptop model series, there are going to be widely varying configurations you can choose that will greatly affect system performance. For this review, we’re dealing with a T61 with the following specifications:

Specs

  • Processor: Intel T7300 Core 2 Duo (2.0GHz, 800MHz FSB, 4MB Cache)
  • Graphics: Intel GMA X3100
  • Operating System: Windows Vista Business
  • Display: WXGA+ 1440 x 900 (LG screen)
  • Hard Drive: 100GB 7200RPM (Seagate Momentus 7200.1)
  • Memory: 2GB (1GB x 1GB), up to 4GB max
  • Ports: 3 USB 2.0, 1 FireWire, Monitor out, modem, Ethernet, headphone out, microphone in
  • Slots: 1 PC Card Slot, 1 ExpressCard slot (optional media card reader and Smart Card reader)
  • Optical Drive: Ultra-slim Super-Multi Drive
  • Dimensions: 13.2″ x 9.3″ x 1.09 – 1.26″ (335mm x 237mm x 27.6 – 31.9mm)
  • Weight: 5.1lbs

Design and Build

The ThinkPad T61 is a premium product with a durable build, it is geared towards business users or simply those willing to pay a bit more to get something that won’t fall apart after 1-year of use. For somebody that travels a lot or relies on their notebook to earn a livelihood, the build and reliability factor is probably more important than having the latest and greatest components inside.


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So how does the T61 excel build-wise?  Basically the same as its predecessor T-series notebooks did.  The T61 body is a rugged plastic that does not flex.  Inside the stiff and thick plastic casing is a magnesium roll cage in both the lid and main chassis. The lid on the previous T60 was a magnesium material, while the lid on the T61 is a plastic composite with a magnesium “roll cage” plate inside. The reason for plastic now being used in the lid is to allow better penetration of radio waves, such as 802.11 and WWAN, thus providing greater wireless range and signal strength.

The keyboard remains the same between the T61 and T60 — meaning it’s once again excellent.  The only difference is that now there’s more room on the keyboard side areas since the notebook body is wider, the speakers have been relocated to this extra real estate. The keyboard is spill proof and has two drain holes to make sure if you do happen to spill your morning Starbucks coffee, the liquid is carried away from sensitive components and out through the bottom of the notebook

The thick metal hinges that attach the screen are very rigid and ensure the screen does not wobble.  You’ll need two hands to adjust and open the screen as the hinges are very tight. The double screen latch system locks securely to make sure the screen stays down when being carried around.

The hard drive is protected within the magnesium roll cage and shock mounted. Even if your T61 is dropped the included Active Protection System (APS) software will work with the on board accelerometer to detect a fall situation and end hard drive activity to prevent data loss.

Dimension wise the ThinkPad T61 14.1″ certainly changes from its predecessors, it is wider but not as deep since it has shifted to widescreen.  The dimensions of the T61 (assuming 4-cell battery that does not stick out) are as follows: (WxDxH): 13.2″ x 9.3″ x 1.09 – 1.26″ (335mm x 237mm x 27.6 – 31.9mm)

The T61 is actually thicker than the T60 was, which is a little disappointing, here?s the dimensions for the 14.1? T60: (WxDxH): 12.2″ x 10.0″ x 1.0 – 1.2″ (311mm x 255mm x 26.6-31mm)

So the T61 is about .1-inches thicker than the previous T43 and T60. A picture demonstrates this difference in thickness between the T43 and T61:


ThinkPad T43 on the left, ThinkPad T61 on the right — the T61 is about .1-inch thicker (view large image)

While the shape has changed, aesthetically the T61 is pretty much the same as past ThinkPad T series notebooks — just wider. It is an all black look with the iconic red trackpoint.  Black is a fine look, it never goes out of style, just ask Steve Jobs.

One subtle change that may rattle some is the new ThinkPad logo you see pictured in this review.  But don?t get too excited, those ordering over the web are still going to get the same old IBM logo on past ThinkPads, the logo change is an option for business channel buyers.


New ThinkPad logo option (view large image)

Input and Output Ports

The port layout of the T61 has also changed quite a bit, and mostly for the good since we now have a standard FireWire port and optional media-card reader port.  I?m not so thrilled with the fact that all of the USB ports are vertically oriented; I find this more awkward than horizontal.

The media-card reader is an option, but it replaces the ExpressCard slot if you go for it.  You can also get a Smart Card slot in place of the ExpressCard if your company needs that. Let?s take a tour around the T61 to see all of the ports that you get.

On the left side of the T61 from back to front is the main heat vent and fan, monitor out port, modem and Ethernet LAN port, 2 USB 2.0 ports, ExpressCard and PC card slot. The ExpressCard can be swapped for a media card reader or Smart Card reader if you so choose:


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On the right side of the T61 from back to front is a USB 2.0 port, then the ultra-slim multi-bay drive. This drive is hot swappable and can be removed and replaced with an extra hard drive or battery:


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On the back side of the T61 you can see the 6-cell battery protruding, and then the power jack and another heat vent. Notice how thick those hinges are:


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On the front side of the T61from left to right is the IEEE 1394 port (FireWire), Wi-Fi on/off switch, headphone jack, microphone jack, and the screen opening latch:


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Screen

The new widescreen format screen for the 14.1? T-series is either good, bad or somewhere in between depending on your personal preference.  Lenovo will try and convince you widescreen offers more screen real estate and so it?s better, the reality is the guys making the LCD screens are forcing it down the throats of the PC manufacturers because it?s cheaper to make widescreen LCDs.  For a more complete look at the benefit of standard versus widescreen read the review I did of the initial rollout of a ThinkPad T60-Wide here.

Rest assured, Lenovo will offer other formats of the T61 so you?re not in a widescreen or nothing situation.  It will be interesting to see if the standard screen costs more; it will almost certainly be less available.

The particular screen I got is a WXGA+ resolution (1440 x 900).  It provides easy viewing and you can fit a good amount on the screen, so no complaints on that front.  The screen is crisp and there are no issues with graininess.  The matte finish ensures there?s little to no glare in office lighting situations. 

What the T61 screen lacks is brightness, which has always been the case with ThinkPad notebooks.  I wish the screen would go about two notches brighter than it does, Fujitsu and HP definitely do a better job offering brighter screens on their business notebooks.

When toggling screen brightness I didn?t get a heads up screen display of current system screen brightness level.  I found this annoying as this was always included on past ThinkPads, maybe it?s a Vista driver issue still to be ironed out.

Some will be disappointed to know that the popular FlexView option in the T60 series will no longer be offered for the T61.  This is a shame.  The vertical viewing angles on the T61 are, like most laptops, poor.  A video of the T61 executing graphics benchmark program 3DMark05 in which I tilt the screen to different vertical angles gives you an idea of how coloration varies greatly depending on how you view the screen:

 

Horizontal viewing angles fair better though, you can see that moving from left to right around the screen keeps coloration pretty much so consistent:

Another thing you may notice about the screen is that it?s off center within the frame — there?s a greater bezel area to the left than the right.  This doesn?t bother me, I know it will some people.

One change that you won?t see, but that is present, is the fact the lid is now constructed with a magnesium roll cage inside for better protection of the screen area when you shove books on top of the lid.  The actual outer lid is now made of a high-tech plastic composite, that actually feels like a metal when tapped (very cool).  The benefit of the outer lid now being plastic is that radio waves (Wi-Fi, WWAN) penetrate through the lid more easily and provide better wireless throughput.

Speakers

The T61 speakers are located on the sides of the keyboard, taking advantage of the extra real estate width due to the wide format.  The speakers are quiet; you have to be fairly close to the laptop to hear the audio, it won?t work to try and watch a DVD from across the room as the audio won?t carry (especially dialogue).  But Lenovo made an interesting move by putting the headphone jack on the front side of the laptop.  This is to make it easier to quickly plug in your headphones and get superior audio.  The slight downside now is that if you plug in external speakers the wiring running around the front is not as convenient.  The move is better for me because I use headphones more, with a portable laptop such as this I think that will be the case for most.

The hardware buttons at the top of the keyboard to quickly adjust audio volume are very nice to have, the quick mute button is clutch in business situations as well.

Processor and Performance

The ThinkPad T61 now uses the Intel Centrino Duo (Santa Rosa) platform.  You get a faster processor front side bus (800MHz), more processor cache (4MB) and an improved integrated graphics solution in the form of the Intel X3100.  If all that talk is nonsense to you, then suffice it to say the T61 offers newer and better processing components than the T60.  Will this performance be perceivable in helping to run MS Word faster?  No of course not, but certain processor intensive tasks such as encoding video will be faster.  And even if you won?t be utilizing every ounce of processing power, just knowing the processor is faster and you?re on top of the game is enough to make people like myself want to buy it.

I was pleasantly surprised by the Intel X3100 performance in 3DMark05, it certainly performed much better than the Intel GMA 950 ever scored.  Intel claims they?re still working on better drivers for the X3100, so there might be quite a bit of room to grow in terms of performance here too.

The included 2GB of memory and 100GB 7200RPM hard drive helped to light a bit of a fire under Windows Vista.  I feel like a curmudgeon saying it, but the extra graphics and features of Vista still don?t outweigh the pain factor involved with a) getting around the new interface and b) dealing with the currently worse performance than you get with XP.  You really do have to throw hardware at Vista to get it to run better, and larger amounts of fast memory and a speedy hard drive to improve bootup speed are two great ways to do that.  Lenovo aren?t fools though, they know most of their business customers won?t stand for Vista being forced upon them, and so Windows XP Professional is still an option for the T61 if you so choose.

On the subject of getting Vista to perform better, the 1GB Intel Turbo Cache memory option on the T61 is designed to cooperate with Vista to improve system performance, I did not have the opportunity to test this though.

Benchmarks

The benchmarks will play out all this talk of the new Intel Santa Rosa platform being faster.

Super PI, used to test CPU performance by calculating pi to 2 million digits of accuracy, demonstrates that the T61 was able to outperform the older generation ThinkPads with similar clockspeeds.

Super Pi Comparison Results

Notebook Time
Lenovo ThinkPad T61 (2.00GHz Core 2 Duo Intel T7300) 59s
Lenovo ThinkPad T60 (2.00GHz Core 2 Duo T7200) 1m 03s
IBM ThinkPad T43 (1.86GHz Alviso Pentium M)  

 

1m 45s
Toshiba Satellite P205-S6287 (1.73 GHz Core 2 Duo Intel T5300) 1m 24s
Toshiba Satellite A205 (1.66GHz Core 2 Duo) 1m 34s
HP Compaq 6515b (1.6GHz AMD Turion 64 X2 TL-52) 2m 05s
HP dv6000t (2.16 GHz Intel T2400) 59s
Dell Inspiron e1705 (2.0GHz Core 2 Duo) 1m 02s
Toshiba A100 (2.0GHz Core Duo) 1m 18s
Samsung X60 (1.66GHz Core Duo) 1m 29s
HP dv5000z (2.0GHz Sempron 3300+) 2m 02s

 

The 3DMark05 synthetic graphics benchmark results. It’s quite apparent that the Intel X3100 graphics card is an improvement upon the proceeding Intel GMA 950.

3DMark05 Comparison Results

Notebook 3D Mark 05 Results
Lenovo ThinkPad T61 (2.00GHz Core 2 Duo Intel T7300) 911 3DMarks
Toshiba Satellite P205-S6287 (Intel 1.73GHz T5300 + GMA 950) 559 3DMarks
HP Compaq 6515b (1.6GHz AMD Turion 64 X2 TL-52, ATI x1270) 871 3DMarks
HP dv6000t (2.16 GHz Intel T7400, NVIDA GeForce Go 7400) 2,013 3D Marks
Dell Inspiron e1705 (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400) 1,791 3D Marks
Acer TravelMate 8204WLMi (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1600 256MB) 4,236 3DMarks
Alienware Aurora M-7700 (AMD Dual Core FX-60, ATI X1600 256MB) 7,078 3D Marks
Lenovo ThinkPad T60 (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400 128MB) 2,092 3D Marks
Asus V6Va (2.13 GHz Pentium M, ATI x700 128 MB) 2,530 3D Marks
Fujitsu n6410 (1.66 GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400 128MB) 2,273 3DMarks
Dell XPS M1210 (2.16 GHz Core Duo, nVidia Go 7400 256MB) 2,090 3D Marks

 

PCMark05 is a synthetic benchmark that tests overall system performance. The T61 with integrated graphics performed very well, outperforming systems from last year that had dedicated graphics:

Comparison table for PCMark05

Notebook PCMark05 Score
Lenovo ThinkPad T61 (2.00GHz Core 2 Duo Intel T7300) 4,084 PCMarks
Toshiba Satellite P205-S6287 (Intel 1.73GHz T5300 + GMA 950) 2,981 PCMarks
HP Compaq 6515b (1.6GHz AMD Turion 64 X2 TL-52, ATI x1270) 2,420 PCMarks
Toshiba Satellite A135 (Core Duo T2250, Intel GMA 950) 3,027 PCMarks
HP dv6000t (2.16 GHz Intel T7400, NVIDA GeForce Go 7400) 4,234 PCMarks
Fujitsu LifeBook A6010 (1.66GHz Core 2 Duo, Intel GMA 950) 2,994 PCMarks
Alienware M7700 (AMD Athlon FX-60, Nvidia Go 7800GTX) 5,597 PCMarks
Sony Vaio SZ-110B in Speed Mode (Using Nvidia GeForce Go 7400) 3,637 PCMarks
Toshiba Tecra M6 (1.66GHz Intel T2300E, Intel GMA 950) 2,732 PCMarks
Asus V6J (1.86GHz Core Duo T2400, Nvidia Go 7400) 3,646 PCMarks
Sony VAIO FE590 (1.83GHz Core Duo) 3,427 PCMarks

Cinebench is a good rendering benchmark tool based on the powerful 3D software, CINEMA 4D. Its rendering tasks can stress up to sixteen multiprocessors on the same computer. It is a free benchmarking tool, and can be found here: http://www.cinebench.com.  The basic CPU test provided the following results, you can see the T61 Core 2 Duo was able to easily outperform the 2-year old ThinkPad T43 and edge out the T60:

Test ThinkPad T43 Pentium M 2.0GHz ThinkPad T60 Core 2 Duo 2.0GHz ThinkPad T61 Core 2 Duo 2.0GHz
Single Core rendering mode  222 CB-CPU points 327 CB-CPU points 331 CB-CPU points
Dual Core rendering mode   not available 592 CB-CPU points 616 CB-CPU points

 

Everest Benchmarks and Report

Everest is an application that runs a full analysis of a notebooks components and drivers and creates a report, we ran this on the T61 wide, here is the report Everest produced.

 

Windows Experience Index

Windows Vista has a built-in benchmarking application to indicate how well the system will run, below are the results for the T61 (scores are out of 5.0):

HDTune showed that the 7200RPM Seagate hard drive performed admirably:


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Battery Life

One thing that?s always a concern with a new platform is battery life.  Reading the first reviews that came out about the T61 sounded like gloom and doom with reports of 2 hour battery life.  It seems most of the initial reviews were done using very power hungry dedicated graphics solutions and with a 4-cell battery.

I had the opportunity to test a larger 6-cell battery on an integrated graphics system, and got 3 hours and 41 minutes of battery life under what I would deem normal usage.  I was using the T61 with screen brightness set to half or lower, Vista battery optimized setting, wireless off to get this number.  In a torture test, I set the screen brightness to top level, put in a DVD (Stargate) and played it until the battery hit 5% and the PC went to sleep ? which happened after exactly 2 hours 15 minutes.  I wouldn?t call that bad, it?ll get you through most movies.

The downside of a 6-cell battery is that it sticks out of the back (see pics) and weighs more, but I?m always be willing to carry a bit more weight for an extra hour of battery life. A positive comment that should be made is the power adapter is nice and small, it’s actually the same size as the X60 ultraportable series adapter.

One cool feature Lenovo has added is called battery stretch.  Basically it?s a software applet that allows you to opt in and out of certain power saving features and it shows you how much battery life an option will get you.  For instance, check the reduce screen refresh option and you can gain a couple of minutes of battery life, and the interface will show you that approximation.  A video best demonstrates this:

Heat and Fan

Whenever a notebook is released that?s faster and a company claims it is cooler and quieter than the last generation, you have to raise an eyebrow.  I was a skeptic when hearing this, but after putting the T61 head to head with my 2-year old T43 to measure system temps and noise when performing similar tasks, I?m a believer.

Basically, the T61 ran far, far cooler than my ThinkPad T43.  The bottom never got as hot on the T61, and all around it just felt cooler.  Since there?s a lot more heat vents on the T61, the fan doesn?t need to run as much.  But even when it does run, the T61 fan is very quiet.

A chart best demonstrates how much cooler the T61 was than my T43, both are using 2.0GHz processors (temps taken in the same room at the same times):

Notebook Temperature when Idling Temp. After running 3DMark05
ThinkPad T43 (2.0GHz Pentium M) 57C 68C
ThinkPad T61 (2.0GHz Core 2 Duo) 42C 50C

 

The addition of more vents on the T61 really goes a long way to keeping the system cool, but internally the T61 uses a new cooling system too, so some true design innovation is at work here.


More heat vents are now located on the underneath of the T-series (view large image)

Keyboard / Touchpad / Pointing Stick

The ThinkPad T-series hasn?t changed too much over time, and that?s a good thing, there?s no use changing something that?s just right.  The ThinkPad keyboard is one of, if not the best, notebook keyboards out there.  There’s zero flex, every key feels individual, every key has great travel/feedback and the keyboard is full-size.


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The T61 has a pointing stick, I love using this and find it much easier than the provided touchpad — it makes it so you can move the cursor around the screen without having to lift your hand from the keys, a much faster and easier to control style of input.  But the great thing is that if the pointing stick isn’t your cup of tea then you’ve got the touchpad as well.


Volume and ThinkVantage button (view large image)


Power button (view large image)

Wireless

The ThinkPad T61 uses the Intel 4965 wireless chip that offers 802.11 a/b/g/n wireless reception.  All of your bases are covered there, and the greater range 802.11n offers is on the table if you have an 802.11n router. The range of the ThinkPad is theoretically greater now that the lid material has changed to plastic too.  The antenna is run up through the lid for better reception you see, and the new lid material allows radio waves to reach the antenna more easily.  I was only able to test up to 100-feet away from my NetGear WGR614 802.11g wireless router, which I despise for its bad performance and tendency to drop connections, but the T61 worked just fine with it and I never suffered a connection drop and throughput was consistently good.

The T61 also offers with integrated WWAN via Verizon as an option, Bluetooth can also be configured as a built-in option.

Software

You can get the various flavors of Vista or Windows XP Professional as the pre-loaded OS on the T61.  Bloatware is kept to an absolute minimum as this is a business notebook. Interestingly Google software is no longer present like it was on the T60, you actually get a Windows Live Toolbar and search included now ? I found those to be useless, but you can remove them.  The quick list of what you get in terms of software is as follows: Rescue and Recovery, Access Connections, Client Security Solution, ThinkVantage Productivity Center, ThinkVantage System Update, System Migration Assistant, Lenovo Multimedia Center, Norton Internet Security, Diskeeper Home, PC-Doctor, ThinkPad Utilities (Power Manager and Presentation Director), Adobe Reader, Windows Live Toolbar, Windows Live Search, Picasa from Google.

Most of that software is useful, especially the ThinkVantage related applications, they?re very mature software tools that make things like backing up data, managing your system settings and configuring the notebook easy to do.  Picasa is actually nice to have pre-loaded as I always download that whenever I?m setting up a new system, it?s a nice and easy (and free) photo editing tool to use.

Warranty

The default warranty for a T61 is one-year, but you can always upgrade to 3-years.  View our warranty guide for further information.  One interesting tid-bit to know is that ThinkPad warranties are different than most other notebooks. They follow the machine, not the buyer. No registration or proof of purchase is ever necessary. If you sell your ThinkPad, there is no need to transfer the warranty. Machine type and serial number are required to look it up: Warranty

Conclusion

The ThinkPad T61 14.1″ widescreen notebook is easy to recommend as a laptop for those that want a highly durable system that provides powerful performance while on the go. The new cooling system design works wonders for keeping the temperature of the notebook down below 50C and limiting the need for the fan to run. The keyboard is as excellent as ever, the sturdy build is great, and the new port options are appreciated. I’d like to see a brighter screen option, in strong office lighting situations the screen can appear pretty washed out. Overall though the ThinkPad T61 does a great job of combining excellent usability features and performance, keeping the T-series well established as the leading portable business notebook.

Pros

  • Excellent build quality, magnesium internal cage in lid and body provide extra protection
  • Keyboard is highly usable, one of the best in the industry
  • System runs cool, even though it now has more powerful processor
  • FireWire and media card reader are nice new port options for the T-series
  • Great performance and good battery life with integrated graphics
  • Integrated WWAN and web camera are nice options to have

Cons 

  • Screen brightness is lacking, in strong lighting situations screen appears washed out
  • Would rather not have the Windows Live toolbar built-in
  • T61 is thicker than the ThinkPad T60 and T43 notebooks
  • Screen is not centered




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