Lenovo ThinkPad X61s Review

by ZaZ Reads (433,097)

by Ted Lynch

The X61 is Lenovo’s Santa Rosa update to their renowned ThinkPad X series of ultraportable laptops.  The X series is synonymous with usability and toughness while on the go.  There are two versions of the ThinkPad X61: the X61 and the X61s.  The notebooks are almost the same, save for the CPUs.  The X61 uses the full power Core 2 Duos while the X61s variant uses the low power versions of the Core 2 Duo.  In general, the X61 will offer a bit better performance while the X61s will have better battery life.  This review will focus on the low power X61s.


The ThinkPad X61s (view large image)

Specs

Here are the specifications of the model under review:

  • Model: X61s 7669-88U
  • Operating System: Vista Business 32 Bit
  • CPU: Intel Core 2 Duo 1.6GHz L7500 4MB L2 Cache 800MHz FSB
  • Chipset: Intel i965M
  • Memory: 2GB DDR2 PC5300 2 Slots, 0 Open 4GB Max
  • Hard Drive: 100GB 7k100 Hitachi 7200RPM (HTS721010G9SA00)
  • Screen: 12” XGA UltraLight 1024×768 180 nits
  • Graphics Card: Intel X3100
  • Wireless: ThinkPad A/B/G/N
  • Inputs: 88 Key Keyboard, PointStick with UltraNav Buttons
  • Buttons: Power, ThinkVantage, Power Up and Down, Mute, and WiFi/Bluetooth On/Off Switch
  • Ports:
    • Three USB Ports – One Left Side, Two Right Side
    • Four Pin FireWire
    • Ethernet and Modem
    • VGA Out
    • Headphone and Microphone Jacks
  • Slots:
    • SD Card Reader
    • Express Card Slot
    • Dock Connector
  • UltraBase
    • Modular Hitachi-LG GSA-U10N 8x DVD+/-R/-RAM
    • Four USB Ports – Two Left Side, Two Rear
    • Modem and Ethernet Ports
    • Headphone and Microphone Jacks
    • Parallel and Serial Ports
    • VGA Out
    • Two Front Speakers
    • Security Lock
  • Battery : Eight Cell
  • Dimensions With Eight Cell Battery:
    • Width – 10.5”
    • Depth – 9.4”
    • Height – 0.8”(Front) / 1.4”(Rear)
  • Weight: 3.3 Lbs.
  • Warranty: Three Years

Build & Design

My first thought when pulling this the X61s out of the box was – this thing is tiny.  Then I found the battery which is amazingly about a third of the total weight of the system.  I forgot how small the X series is since I hadn’t seen one in awhile.  It made my R60 seem like an anvil.  It’s funny because when I got my R60 it seemed so small in comparison to the 15” T42 I had been using previously.  Needless to say my R60 wasn’t getting a lot of love during the X61s stay with me. Slim and trim are the keywords for the X61s.  Weighing in at bit over three pounds with the eight cell battery, the X61s is completely portable.  Just throw it in your man-bag/purse and you’re ready to go.  It’s also an inch thick, making it easy to use in tight quarters.  I suspect if you liked the old x60′s design, you’re going to love the new x61.  It doesn’t look like it has changed all that much.  It is of course black and squared like all ThinkPads.  ThinkPad owners value function over form.  It’s kind of boring, but I like it.  Besides, you don’t want to be attracting a lot of attention when you are carrying around your expensive notebook.


The ThinkPad X61 next to my 14” R60 in various poses (view large image)

Overall, the X61s feels rock solid, the  fit and finish on it is excellent.  There were no gaps or misaligned parts.  The base is made of a rugged plastic.  The screen cover is mag-alloy and the screen is secured to the base using steel hinges.  When pressing on the back of the screen, it doesn’t ripple so much as bend, but nonetheless it looked like it could take a beating.  One thing that surprised me was the loose screen.  I am not sure if this is an issue because it is a pre-production model or if something somewhere was not tight.  When I was first using the x61s I lightly tossed it onto the couch cushion, as I have done with all my ThinkPads, the screen opened up all the way.  It made me notice the screen on my R60 was firmer.  When I try to open my R60 with one hand, it won’t let me.  I could do this with the X61s.  The screen didn’t move at all during use though, I don’t want to give the impression it was super loose, but it did appear to have a lighter touch than other ThinkPads I have used.

Screen

Lenovo has decided to cling to old ways on the X61s by staying with a standard aspect ratio screen.  The screen is also matte which makes sense since it will likely be used in office type situations.  This model had the UltraLight screen, which is about 20% brighter than the standard X series screen.  The screen was more usable outside than my R60 which has a 150 nit screen, like the standard X61 screen.


The R60 on the left, the brighter X61s on the left, both at full brightness (view large image)

I liked the screen on the X61s a lot.  It was clear and bright, brighter than my R60.    There was some leakage at the bottom of the screen, but only noticeable when the screen was black.  The screen had no dead stuck pixels.  There are 15 brightness levels on the X61s.  I liked the screen in the 5-7 range, but thought anything three or above was usable.  At the brightest setting it is perhaps a tad washed out, but fine for normal use.  I don’t think anyone will complain about it not being bright enough.


The X61s at various angles.  As you can see whites fair better at an angle. (view large image)

As with most other laptops without an IPS screen, viewing angles are not great, but the sweet spot was big enough to allow for some adjustments.  After having used higher resolution notebooks for quite some time, the XGA resolution on the X61s took some getting used to.  I understand it is small notebook, but something above XGA would be nice.  Perhaps I’m asking too much.

CPU & Performance

When you see a notebook with a Low Voltage CPU, you tend to think of slower performance.  This is definitely not the case on the X61s.  The X61s has the Intel Low Voltage Core 2 Duo L7500 CPU.  Like its more power hungry siblings, it has 4MB of L2 cache.  It is part of Intel’s new Santa Rosa platform based around the Core 2 Duo CPU.  Its main performance upgrade is the faster 800MHz FSB, which can down clock like the CPU.  The other main enhancement is Intel’s new Turbo Memory.  This X61s did not have the Turbo Memory, though it is available on other models.  Despite running at half the power of other Core 2 Duo CPUs, performance at least on the benchmarks, the X61s competed quite well as compared to other laptops with the Core 2 Duo.  With 2GB of memory and a faster hard drive, performance was very good.  During everyday use like Office and Internet, which I suspect the X61s will be used for quite often, it performed as well as other notebook/PC I have used.  I would have no problem using this machine as my main computer.  I ran some audio encoding and Photoshop tests on both my my R60 and the X61s.  The X61s was faster than my R60, though not by a huge margin.

Benchmarks

Super Pi

SuperPi is a tool to measure relative CPU performance.  As you can see the L7500 on the X61s distinguished itself well against other faster Core 2 Duo notebooks.  The X61s is nearly as fast as the X61 which uses the regular Core 2 Duo and runs at 2.0GHz.

Notebook Time
ThinkPad X61s (1.6GHz Core 2 Duo L7500) 1m 08s
ThinkPad X61 (2.0GHz Core 2 Duo T7300) 1m 01s
Macbook Pro (2.4GHz Core 2 Duo T7700) 53s
HP 6515b (1.6GHz Turion64 X2 TL-52) 2m 05s
ThinkPad T42 (1.8GHz Pentium M 745) 1m 58s
Sony TX850p (1.2GHz Core Solo U1400) 1m 22s
Dell D420 (1.2GHz Core Duo U2500) 1m 57s
PortableOne UX (2.0GHz Core 2 Duo T7200) 1m 04s
HP dv5000z (2.0GHz Sempron 3300+) 2m 02s
ThinkPad R60 (1.66GHz Core Duo T2300e) 1m 26s
Lenovo C100 (1.5GHz Celeron M) 2m 19s
VAIO S380 (1.86 GHz Pentium M 740) 1m 45s

 

HD Tune

Below is a screen cap of the Hitachi 7200RPM hard drive on the X61s.


The Hitachi 7k100 on the X61s (view large image)

 

3D/PCMark05

PCMark05 is a benchmarking software which compares overall system performance.  As you can see from results below, the X61s scored well compared to other recent notebooks even though its CPU runs at half the power.  I opted not to throw up a 3DMark score in a chart since the X61 is using the integrated Intel X3100 graphics card.  The 3DMark score was rather low at  867.  While that will run Aero just fine, you probably won’t be doing 3D gaming on it in the near future.  At least until Intel sorts out the driver issues.

Notebook PCMark05 Score
ThinkPad X61s (LV 1.6GHz Core 2 Duo, Intel X3100) 3,610 PCMarks
ThinkPad X61 (2.0GHz Core 2 Duo, Intel X3100) 4,153 PCMarks
ThinkPad R60 (1.66 GHz Core Duo, Intel 950) 2,975 PCMarks
Fujitsu A6010 (1.66GHz Core 2 Duo, Intel 950) 2,994 PCMarks
MacBook Pro (2.4GHz Core 2 Duo, Nvidia 8600M) 5,536 PCMarks
Vaio SZ-110B (1.83GHz Core Duo, Nvidia 7400) 3,637 PCMarks
ThinkPad T61 (2.0GHz Core 2 Duo, Intel X3100) 4,084 PCMarks
Samsung X60plus (2.0GHz Core 2 Duo, ATI x1700) 4,555 PCMarks
Asus G1J (2.0GHz Core 2 Duo T7200, Nvidia 7700) 3,427 PCMarks
HP dv2500t (1.83GHz Core 2 Duo, T7300 Intel X3100) 3,376 PCMarks

 

Drives & Storage

Optical Drive

To help keep the weight down the X61s does not have an optical drive, but one is available via the UltraBase.  It is the Hitachi-LG GSA-U10N 8x DVD+/-R/-RAM drive.  It burns DVDs at 8x and CDs  24x.  A full DVD burn clocked in at about 13 minutes while a CD was around five and a half minutes.  Like the T series, the drive on the UltraBase is a super slim 9.5mm height drive.


The Hitachi-LG GSA-U10N next to the Matshita UJ-850 from my R60 (view large image)

The bay on the dock is also modular so you can use the modular battery or hard drive if you would like.  I burned a few audio CDs and the recovery discs.  I didn’t have any issues with the burned discs.

Hard Drive

The X61s came with the Hitachi 100GB 7k100 hard drive.  Boot times were a little slow due to Vista booting slower than XP and all the ThinkVantage tools turning on with the machine.  After discarding the ones I don’t use, boot times sped up some, but not as fast as a XP machine.  Performance once inside Windows was good.

Memory

The X61s has two memory slots with a 4GB maximum.  Both are located on the underside of the notebook for easy access.


(view large image)

The memory slots on the X61s.  You can also the sole speaker.

Keyboard Area

The keyboards on smaller notebooks are often a problem area, not so on the X61s.  The X61s keyboard is in a word – delicious.  The keyboard is firm – no sponginess here.  Key travel and depth are excellent.  It’s the best ultraportable keyboard I have used.  The keys seemed a tad smaller than the ones on my than the keys on my R60.  I’m not sure of the actual % smaller, but typing on it was a joy.  I type all my reviews on the reviewed notebook to help get a feel for the notebook’s keyboard.  Some of the function keys like the caps lock and backspace are much smaller on the X61s.  I often found myself mishitting them, but I think if this were your regular notebook, you would get the hang of it quickly.


The X61s keyboard (view large image)

The ThinkPad X61only comes with a pointing stick, which is a turn off for some including myself.  Perhaps I haven’t found my groove, but I find the TrackPoint to be more work than a touchpad.  After having been using it for a few weeks now, I’ve grown to have a new appreciation for the TrackPoint.  Given the lower resolution of the X61s screen, scrolling is a much more important activity particularly in things like Internet and Office.  For scrolling, the TrackPoint has no peer.  I always setup the red knob on my ThinkPads to scroll.  Just press the center button and it flies.  It wouldn’t be my first choice, but I could definitely live with it.

Next to the UltraNav buttons is the fingerprint reader.  It is the best one I have used.  The software was easy to setup and correctly read the fingertip each time.  I even used it after holding a cold beverage which many times has fouled up other fingerprint readers I have used. 

Battery & AC

Users buying the X61 intend to take it with them, which makes battery life of paramount importance.  There are three battery options for the x61(s): a slim four cell, an enhanced four cell and an eight cell battery.  The review unit came with the larger eight cell battery.  It was both a blessing and a curse.  Equipped with larger eight cell battery, battery life was nothing short of spectacular.  Setting the screen to 7/15, the CPU to Low in Power Manager and WiFi on, I was able to get six hours and thirty-three minutes of battery life doing things like working on the review, editing photos and Internet.  Testing it was the curse.  I personally found sitting at the PC for that amount of time difficult.  I did periodically get up to stretch or do other things, ensuring the screen remained on while I was away.  If you were to dim the screen more which I think is doable or turn WiFi off, you could get even better results.  In addition to sticking out the back and adding about a half pound of weight, the larger battery also raises the bottom of the X61s a bit, not as much as say the HP dv2500, but worth mentioning.  The X61s also employs a new battery saving software called Battery Stretch.


The battery stretch software on the X61s (view large image)

It amongst other things sets the screen to the lowest level which made it difficult to use.  It seemed a bit unnecessary since you can do all this in all elsewhere in Windows, but I suppose it is nice to have in one spot.  The AC adapter on the X61s is very small which is nice for an ultraportable.  There’s nothing worse than carrying a three pound notebook with a two pound adapter.  It does get a bit warmer than usual, but nothing to cause concern.

Heat & Noise

Due to its thinness the X61s can get quite warm, particularly if the room where you are is warm.  I also noticed the heat when I was using it at the park and it was over 80 .  It is not too hot to use, but you may find yourself with sweaty palms after awhile.  The right palm rest, which I think is where the WiFi card is located, and the underside of the notebook, were the warmest areas.  It has one main vent to push out the heat located on the left side.  When it gets going, it pushes the air at a brisk pace, which also makes it a bit noisy.  The Hitachi 7k100 on the X61s was a bit noisy as well, making the X61s a bit noisier than your average notebook.  I personally am not overly sensitive to noise, but I know some are more sensitive.  I have used both Hitachi and Seagate 7200RPM hard drives.  Some like mine are extremely quiet (I almost never hear mine), while others can be more noisy.  It may be hit or miss as to what you’ll get.

Wireless & Networking

The X61s came with the ThinkPad A/B/G/N wireless card.  It is the Atheros card.  I had no problems with the card.  I took the X61s to the park to snap some pictures for the review.  I was able to use the free WiFi connection from the local Library which was on the other side of the park and across the street.  The X61s also has Bluetooth.  Again, I had no problems hooking any of my Bluetooth devices.  The X61s comes with Lenovo’s Access Connections, a software tool to help manage network links.  I personally prefer to let Windows do it since it does a fine job and it’s one less thing to boot with Windows, but if you are using your machine on multiple networks, the extra features of Access Connections is a useful tool.

The X61s can also be had with WWAN service from either Verizon or Cingular.  WWAN allows you to use the mobile phone network for broadband Internet access.  The review unit did not have this feature which is probably a good thing since I live over an hour drive from anywhere where I could reasonably expect to get service.  Heck, it has only been a year since we have gotten broadband Internet at a reasonable price.

Ports & Connections

The space on the sides of the X61s is obviously limited, but I think Lenovo has done a good job putting on all the ports that a typical user is going to need.  I attached the dock for the pictures so you could see what you get with that as well.  The front of the X61 has the WiFi on/off switch.  The dock includes the  the dock power button and lock switch.


The front of the X61s in its dock (view large image)

The left side of the X61s has a USB port, VGA connector, Ethernet port, Express Card Slot and SD media card reader.  The dock has two additional USB ports, the eject mechanism and button.


The left side of the X61s while in docking station (view large image)

The rear of the X61 contains the battery.  The dock has the modem and Ethernet ports, line in and out, parallel and serial ports(anyone still using these?), VGA connector, two more USB ports and the power connector.


The rear of the X61s. while in docking station (view large image)

The right side of the X61s has a four pin firewire connection,. Two USB ports, and line in and out.  The dock has a lock and the Ultra Bay.


The right side of the X61s. (view large image)

 

Docking

Despite being born to travel, the X61s is going to spend some time at home or the office.  With the UltraBase, Lenovo has you covered.


The X61s hooked up to the my 19” Acer monitor (view large image)

You just plug it into the base, and you can use the big monitor and all the other peripherals one usually associates with a desktop.  Plus you get the use of the optical drive which the X61s lacks without the dock.  I have the advanced mini dock for my R60.  It works quite well.  It’s just like being at a desktop, but you can unplug it and be on your way.  One other nice feature of the dock is it allows you to only have to maintain one machine instead of a desktop and a laptop.

Sound

The X61s is an ultraportable notebook.  As such, compromises must be made.  Unfortunately for audiophiles, the speakers are one of those compromises.  There is one speaker.  It is located on the underside of the notebook.  While the sound quality was OK, it was probably good enough for YouTube videos or listening to some tunes if you are not too particular about sound, but if you want to do anything where volume and quality are concerned, a pair of headphones would go a long way.  The UltraBase that came with this particular model does have two front mounted speakers which bring up the sound quality to a more respectable level, if you’re willing to carry it around with you.

Software

The X61s came with Vista Business 32 bit edition.  This has been my first extended use of Vista. After I got a few things figured out like turning off User Account Control(candidate for Vista’s most annoying feature) and setting up the firewall, things ran pretty smooth.  Like all ThinkPads, the X61s comes with Lenovo’s  ThinkVantage tools.  ThinkVantage tools are an in-depth set of software tools allowing you to manage and secure your data/pc.   While the ThinkVantage tools do have their place, I usually just pick and choose the ones I use.  There was a whopping 98 processes when I booted into Vista which I think contributed to slower boot times.


The Task Manager on the X61s (view large image)

Bloatware was kept to a minimum (not counting Symantec), but the X61s came with the dreaded Microsoft Office trial.  I don’t understand why OpenOffice isn’t a choice here.  It’s not like it would cost much, but what do I know? I sincerely hope this is not a slippery slope for Lenovo.  Not getting a lot of crapware when buying a ThinkPad is one of the better reasons to get a ThinkPad.  There wasn’t a lot of other software on the machine, other than the usual suspects like Diskeeper and PC-Doctor which come on all ThinkPads. I found it odd they did not include any disc burning or DVD viewing software since the machine came with the UltraBase.  Luckily, there are better free software sppd floating around the Internet.

Warranty & Support

A custom to order X61s starts with a one year base warranty, but of course Lenovo will let you upgrade for a fee.  Certain pre-configured models like this one do come with a three year warranty.  Being a business class model, support for the X61s is US based which is a major plus.  ThinkPads are usually at or near the top in support quality.  I personally have always had excellent support from Lenovo.

Conclusion

The X61s has been a nice contrast to my R60.  I like my R60 a lot, but at times it seems heavy to me.  When I get my next notebook, I might go with something smaller like this X61. After having spent some time with the X61s, I can see why people have such enthusiasm for the X series and why it is often so well reviewed.  If you are a person who needs a lot of mobility or just want a small notebook, the X61s makes a compelling argument.  The X61s seems to me to offer the best of both worlds.  When you want to be mobile, it’s light and durable with a fantastic keyboard, nimble performance, nearly all day battery life and all the connections one could reasonably need.  When you are stuck at the office, just stick it in the dock and it is just like being at a desktop computer.  When I do get my next notebook, my time with the X61s has given me ample reasons to consider it or its decedents.

Pros

  • Good Build Quality
  • Zippy Performance
  • Long Battery Life
  • Light Weight
  • Clear and Bright Screen
  • ThinkVantage Tools
  • Marvelous Keyboard
  • Docking Options

Cons

  • Loose Screen
  • Single Speaker
  • Office Trial


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