Lenovo ThinkPad X301 Review

by Andrew Reads (273,902)

by Andrew Baxter

While cheap netbooks are all the rage these days, just a few months ago the attention was being lavished on expensive, high-end thin and light notebooks.  Namely the 13.3″ screen Apple MacBook Air and Lenovo ThinkPad X300.  Fast forward several months and several hundred stock market points lower and expensive laptops don’t seem quite as appealing, which might be why the recent release of the Lenovo ThinkPad X301 was mostly a silent entrance on stage left.  Still, if you’re a CEO that happens to still have a job these days and you like to have the latest and greatest in ultra-mobile computing technology, cost not being a concern, the ThinkPad X301 could be a fit.

Overview

Before going too far we’ll preface this review by saying it’s going to sound a whole lot like the X300 review we did back in February.  That’s simply because the new X301 is just a refresh to the X300, and design wise everything remains the same.  Internally you have a new Montevina platform Intel chipset and Lenovo also saw fit to add a DisplayPort interface this time around, but other than that we’re talking carbon copy of the X300 here.  Which isn’t a bad thing by any means, since the X300 won high praise.

The review unit ThinkPad X301 we have comes with the following specs:

  • Processor: 1.40GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SU9400 (1.40GHz, 3MB L2 cache, 800Mhz FSB)
  • Graphics: Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 4500MHD
  • Screen: 13.3-inch WXGA+ (1440 x 900, 300 nit) LED backlit display
  • Memory: 2GB (up to 4GB configurable)
  • Storage: 64GB SSD (up to 128GB SSD optional)
  • Optical Drive: Ultra-thin DVD Burner
  • Wireless and Communications: Intel Wi-Fi Link 5100 (802.11 a/b/g/n wi-fi), BlueTooth 2.0 EDR (Verizon or AT&T 3G wireless available as option, not included) 
  • Battery: 6-cell Li-Polymer extended life battery (3-cell Li-Polymer battery available and multi-bay extended life 3-cell battery)
  • Ports: 3 USB 2.0 ports, Monitor out port, AC adapter, headphone/line-out, microphone/line-in, Gigabit Ethernet
  • Dimensions: 12.4″ x 9.1″ x 0.73″ – 0.92″
  • Weight: from 2.93lbs with 3-cell battery and no optical drive to 3.32lbs with 6-cell battery and DVD Burner in
  • Port Replicator: Via USB
  • Input: Full sized keyboard, trackpoint navigation, touchpad, fingerprint reader
  • Operating System: Windows XP Professional (Windows Vista available in various flavors)
  • Other Features: Integrated web camera
  • Price: About $3,000
  • Warranty: 1-year

Notice the dimensions of the X301, it is well under 1-inch thick, meaning it’s easy to slip into a bag for carrying purposes. The light weight makes that doubly the case.

Build and Design

The ThinkPad X301 is as solid as you get in terms of build quality. The internal chassis and roll cage use an advanced carbon-fiber / glass-fiber material that provides both strength and light weight. The case material is made of magnesium, press as hard as you want anywhere on the body of the notebook and it will not flex. Like all ThinkPads, the X301 is designed for accidental abuse and drops. The screen is held down using a latch mechanism with button release, something that’s more and more rare these days with notebooks as most other manufacturers move to a latchless design.

The build quality leaves no doubts and the X301 design also makes it standout. That said, there’s nothing crazy going on here, the black boxy look of a ThinkPad is still very much so intact. However, the glossy bottom bezel area and the cool light illumination on the ThinkVantage button and power button add a nice touch, plus add to the usability. The speakers located on the front corners of the notebook add a nice design accent. The heat vent grills are painted black to blend with the rest of the notebook design, you don’t see any copper colored internals. The screen is centered for those hung up on symmetry. And last and probably most important, the X301 is very thin, a cool look by de facto.

The weight of the X301 with a 3-cell battery and weight saver can get you under the magic 3lb mark at 2.93lbs.  If you’re going to be unplugged for any duration of time you’ll probably want the 6-cell battery, which bumps the weight to 3.32lbs.  Still a very comfortable weight to be carrying.


Input and Output Ports

The ThinkPad engineers have done a great job of squeezing in as many useful ports in a thin design that they can.  Indeed, the X301 adds an extra port to the mix over the X300 in the form of the DisplayPort located on the back.

Here’s what’s included:

  • 3 USB 2.0 ports (2 on the left, 1 on the back)
  • Gigabit Ethernet (back)
  • Audio out, microphone in (left side)
  • Monitor out (back)
  • DisplayPort (back)

Three USB ports is very generous for this size and dimension laptop. It would have been very nice to have a media card reader slot, especially an SDHC compatible one so that you could quickly boost storage capacity. 

Keyboard and Touchpad

The full-sized keyboard on the ThinkPad X301 remains the same as that on the X300.  It has no flex, every key feels individual, and the key travel distance is perfect.  Lenovo has added a matte finish to the keys so that they don’t wear and get all shiny over time. For added usability the Caps Lock has a green light indicator and the power button a white light to show power is on.

People that like a touchpad and complain about it being missing on the ThinkPad X200-series have nothing to complain about here, a decent sized touchpad with scrolling areas is in place on the X301. This reviewer actually prefers the TrackPoint pointing stick over the touchpad and exclusively uses that method of input, but in testing out the touchpad it was found to be responsive and the size adequate.

Just to the right of the touchpad is a fingerprint reader, a feature common to many business notebooks. The palm rest area is especially comfortable, it has a rubberized paint finish so it both feels and looks nice. It’s very smooth and pleasing to the touch, almost satin in feel.

Performance and Benchmarks

The ThinkPad X301 is not built to compete with your Quad Core processor loaded desktop. The name of the game with thin travel notebooks is using a low voltage processor to conserve power and reduce heat build-up. The ThinkPad X301 uses a newly released Intel 1.40GHz Core 2 Duo SU9400 processor from the Montevina family chipset.  The X300 used a 1.20GHz L7100 chip especially designed by Intel for that notebook (so Lenovo claimed), but the SU9400 appears to be a more standard processor that other manufacturers might use.  Apparently the 45nm fabrication process the SU9400 was developed on shrank things enough to mitigate Lenovo needing any further “shrinking tricks” by Intel engineers.  

The SU9400 processor inside the X301 is more than capable of running Office applications and performing any general web related tasks, but will not serve well for 3D graphics applications or any heavy duty rendering tasks. The Intel integrated graphics will allow you to play a few light games, maybe even Half Life 2 on low settings, but in general you’ll want to stick to e-mail, web browsing, Office and photo editing tasks. In other words, what most normal business people use a laptop for.

The SSD storage really goes a long way to improving certain aspects of performance, the all important boot-up time is a fast 28-seconds from the push of the power button to the Windows hourglass disappearing. It only took 32 seconds to boot-up, have the wireless connection enabled, and a browser window open to its homepage.

Let’s take a look at a couple of basic benchmarks so you can get an idea of how the X301 stacks up.

PCMark05 is a benchmark that measures the overall system performance, so it considers the processor, hard drive, memory and OS as part of the mix.  You’ll notice in the results the X301 takes a 1,000 point leap over the previous score of the X300, and the MacBook Air score is close to doubled:

PCMark05 benchmark results (higher scores are better)

Notebook PCMark05 Score
Lenovo ThinkPad X301 (Intel Core 2 Duo SU9400 @ 1.40GHz, Intel 4500MHD) 4,457 PCMarks
Lenovo ThinkPad X300 (Intel Core 2 Duo L7100 @ 1.20GHz, Intel X3100) 3,467 PCMarks
Apple MacBook Air (1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P7500, Intel X3100) 2,478 PCMarks
Sony VAIO NR (1.5GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T5250, Intel X3100) 3,283 PCMarks
Sony VAIO TZ (1.20GHz Core 2 Duo U7600, Intel GMA 950) 2,446 PCMarks
Lenovo ThinkPad X61 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, Intel X3100) 4,153 PCMarks
Lenovo 3000 V200 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, Intel X3100) 3,987 PCMarks
Lenovo T60 Widescreen (2.0GHz Intel T7200, ATI X1400 128MB) 4,189 PCMarks
HP dv6000t (2.16GHz Intel T7400, NVIDA GeForce Go 7400) 4,234 PCMarks
Fujitsu N6410 (1.66GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400) 3,487 PCMarks
Sony VAIO SZ-110B in Speed Mode (Using Nvidia GeForce Go 7400) 3,637 PCMarks
Asus V6J (1.86GHz Core Duo T2400, Nvidia Go 7400) 3,646 PCMarks

 

The X301 has the new Intel 4500MHD integrated graphics on board. The 3D performance actually gets quite a bump from the previous X300 thanks to this upgrade, over 200 points higher in 3DMark06:

3DMark06 comparison results (higher score meens better performance):

Notebook 3DMark06 Score
Lenovo ThinkPad X301 (Intel Core 2 Duo SU9400 @ 1.40GHz, Intel 4500MHD) 712 3DMarks
Lenovo ThinkPad X300 (Intel Core 2 Duo L7100 @ 1.20GHz, Intel X3100) 475 3DMarks
Apple MacBook Air (1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P7500, Intel X3100) 502 3DMarks
Sony VAIO NR (1.5GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T5250, Intel X3100) 504 3DMarks
Toshiba Tecra M9 (2.20GHz Core 2 Duo T7500, NVIDIA Quadro NVS 130M 128MB) 1,115 3DMarks
Sony VAIO TZ (1.20GHz Core 2 Duo U7600, Intel GMA 950) 122 3DMarks
HP dv2500t (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, NVIDIA GeForce Go 8400M GS 128MB) 1,055 3DMarks
HP dv6000t (2.16 GHz Intel T7400, NVIDA GeForce Go 7400) 827 3DMarks

 

Battery

Lenovo offers the choice of either a 3-cell or 6-cell Lithium-Polymer battery that rests at the front of the notebook. The 3-cell is lighter and has a quoted life of up to 4.3 hours while the 6-cell is heavier and has a quoted life of up to 6.5 hours. You can also get a 3-cell Lithium-Polymer option bay battery, to install you just pull out the DVD Burner, which is easily done by removing one screw, and then insert the spare battery instead (note, you have to shut down to do that, there is no hot swap option).

We did a couple of battery tests. In the first test we had the following settings:

  • Battery: 6-cell Li-Ion extended life battery
  • Radios: Wi-Fi on
  • Usage: Idling with screen on
  • Vista Power Setting: Power Saver
  • Screen brightness: 7 / 15 bars
  • DVD Burner: On but never used

Under this non-realistic style usage we achieved 4 hours and 50 minutes of battery life, at which time there was 6% battery left and the X301 went into hibernation.

For a more realistic test, we used the following settings:

  • Battery: 6-cell Li-Ion extended life battery + 3-cell Media Bay battery
  • Radios: all on
  • Usage: used for web surfing, working on review, downloading and installing software
  • Vista Power Setting: Power Saver
  • Screen: 7/15 bar

With this typical work scenario setting the battery reached 6% remaining and went into hibernate at 7 hours and 12 minutes. Note that the 3-cell battery is used up first and the main battery is then switched to seamlessly, you won’t even notice it happen.  The X301 does weigh a few ounces more when you put the 3-cell media bay battery in, but the extra weight is worth the battery life if that’s what you value most from a laptop.

Screen

The 13.3″ WXGA+ matte (non-glossy) screen on the X301 is nice and bright, with its 300 nit LED backlit spec. The screen real estate you get with WXGA+ on the 13.3″ form factor is actually more than you’d expect, you can quite comfortably fit a couple of web browser or spreadsheet windows open next to each other and compare and contrast things.

 

The viewing angles are good, especially the horizontal viewing angles. Thanks in part to the bright screen; it is very easy to view things even if you are almost totally off to the side.

Heat and Noise

One major concern with a laptop that’s extremely thin is that it will overheat due to all of the components being crammed together. To combat this issue Lenovo went with an Intel Core 2 Duo 1.40GHz low voltage processor, less power draw means less heat. Heat never became an issue with the X301, it was completely comfortable to use in the lap and the palm rests never got warm.


Temperatures on the palm rest and keyboard area remained low (view large image)



Temperatures on the bottom only got mildly warm (view large image)

The fan located on the back left side of the X301 ran fairly frequently and at a constant rate. It wasn’t particularly loud or annoying, with ambient room noise it was hard to hear the fan at all. Though in a more quiet room the fan is certainly audible.

Connectivity and Wireless

The ThinkPad X301 has a great array of connectivity and wireless offerings. Included in the mix are:

  • WLAN Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n
  • WAN (Verizon or AT&T 3G services)
  • UWB (optional)
  • GPS (optional, available only with Verizon card)
  • Ethernet LAN port
  • BlueTooth

Notice there is no modem included, you’ll have to use a dongle modem extension if you want that. We don’t miss this port being built-in as it’s been years since we had to use a modem.  The integrated WAN and WLAN will combine to keep you connected just about anywhere on the road, the UWB is an option for roaming wireless but you won’t find many cities in the U.S. that offer this.

Audio

The X301 actually has good sound and speakers that are well positioned. For an ultra thin notebook, that’s astounding. The ThinkPad X61/X200 contain a puny speaker on the bottom of the notebook, so this is something of a quantum leap for audio quality on the X-series. ThinkPad X301 equipped executives will never have to tote their external speakers to watch DVDs by night in their hotel rooms again.

Conclusion

The ThinkPad X301 takes the original X300 and adds a nice performance jump with the new Intel SU9400 Montevina family processor plus adds a DisplayPort to the mix.  Also available now is a 128GB SSD option, though this costs $400 more than the standard 64-bit SSD, if you’re buying the X301 price probably isn’t too much of a concern for you.  The $3,000 laptop market is certainly an exclusive group of buyers, but for many business people their laptop and Blackberry are a lifeline to getting work and deals done, and thereby money made.  So at the end of the day if you’re a globe trotting executive that needs a reliable and top of the line work tool, the cost of the X301 can be jusitifed and this slim form factor machine can serve you well.

Pros

  • Under 1-inch thick, the thinnest ThinkPad ever
  • Light weight and easy for carrying around in a bag
  • Superb build quality and feel, nice design touches added
  • Built-in optical drive for such a thin notebook is a rarity
  • Improved performance over the X300.  Great for normal business tasks, very fast bootup with the SSD
  • Very bright screen for easy viewing

Cons

  • No SD media card reader
  • No expansion dock capability, USB based port replicator only
  • No ExpressCard or PC card slot
  • Starting price of $2,500 is out of range for many people


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