Lenovo's latest and greatest ultraportable business notebook, the 12.5-inch ThinkPad X230 promises to strike the perfect balance between serious performance and mobility. With the latest Intel Ivy Bridge processors and more than 8 hours of battery life is this the best work laptop on the market? Take a closer look to find out.
Lenovo probably pre-announced more notebooks at the Consumer Electronics Show in January than any other manufacturer, but the latest update to the X-series of ThinkPad business notebooks rises above the competition. The all-new ThinkPad X230 promises to be the ultimate 12-inch business laptop but in an age when the business market is being flooded with aluminum-clad MacBook look-alikes is there room for a traditional business ultraportable? ThinkPads have long been regarded as some of the best business laptops thanks to a trusted combination of cutting-edge performance, solid build quality, excellent keyboards, precision TrackPoints (that red dot in the middle of the keyboard) and fantastic warranty support. The previous generation ThinkPad X220 was widely regarded as the best 12-inch business notebook on the market.
The big question: Is the new ThinkPad X230 even better than the popular X220?
Build and Design
At first glance, the ThinkPad X230 has only a few minor changes from the X220. The location of several ports has been shuffled around, but you've still got the same tried and true boxy design combined with durable magnesium alloy and plastic construction covered in matte black rubberized paint. Lenovo continues to provide essentially a full-size keyboard on a 12-inch ultraportable notebook, but that larger keyboard comes at the expense of space for the palm rests. Although typing is very comfortable on the X230, your wrists don't have abundant space with your fingers in the traditional typing position.
The X230 continues Lenovo's trend of "business rugged" laptops even with its Lilliputian proportions. This ThinkPad is Milspec tested (physical shock, thermal shock, altitude, dust, vibration, humidity, heat and cold) for proven durability. Bottom line: you can toss the X230 in your car or let the flight attendant jam it into an overhead compartment without worrying something will break. Like most ThinkPads, the X230 will take the beating and keep working.
While the majority of Lenovo's business clients order their notebooks pre-configured exactly the way they want them it's important to mention that the X230 is still very easy for IT staff to upgrade and service in the field. The hard drive is easily replaced by removing the single screw on the side access panel. As far as RAM is concerned, there are two slots located under the main access plate on the bottom of the notebook. Our review unit came with a single 4GB memory module installed, so it would be quite easy to upgrade to 8GB of memory or drop in two 8GB modules for a total of 16GB of RAM.
Ports and Features
Last year we said "The ThinkPad X220 has what can only be described as the most robust port layout we've seen on any current-gneration 12-inch notebook." Well, Lenovo engineers found a way to pack even more into the X230 this year. You get two "SuperSpeed" USB 3.0 ports for rapid data transfers and one "always on" USB 2.0 port (for charging USB devices when the notebook is powered off). The X230 also comes with a traditional VGA port for those legacy business and school projectors, a mini DisplayPort connection, Gigabit Ethernet and a SDHC card reader. Oh, and Lenovo even managed to squeeze in a full size 54mm ExpressCard slot for accessories and port expansion. If that isn't enough ports, there is a docking station connection on the bottom of the notebook so you can turn this 12-inch laptop into a desktop replacement.
Front: Speaker grills
Back: Battery, AC power jack and heat exhaust
Left: Heat exhaust, USB 3.0, VGA, Mini DisplayPort, USB 3.0, ExpressCard slot and wireless on/off switch
Right: SD/SDHC card slot, "always on" USB 2.0 port, Ethernet, headset jack and security lock slot
Screen and Speakers
The 12.5-inch screen on our review unit of the ThinkPad X230 is an optional IPS panel with LED backlighting. The screen features the same 1366 x 768 resolution as the standard display, but the IPS panel provides greater screen brightness, more contrast and wider viewing angles. Our lab test results show this screen has a 780:1 contrast ratio and a peak brightness of 300 nit. Horizontal and vertical viewing angles are quite simply superb; we barely noticed any color distortion even out to extreme viewing angles.
Speaker quality is average as the maximum volume output is loud enough to fill a large meeting room with relatively clear sound. The audio performance is good enough for a basic video conference or webcast and Lenovo makes the best of a less than ideal situation by using Dolby Home Theater software to digitally enhance the audio output from both the built-in speakers and headphones connected to the headset jack. As with most modern ultraportable notebooks, the speakers are located on the bottom front edge of the X230. This means sound is directed down and away from you rather than up toward your ears. If you use the X230 like a "laptop", then the sound is often muffled against your clothing or your legs.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The keyboard on the ThinkPad X230 is Lenovo's new "Precision Keyboard" with LED backlighting. Although there will certainly be some diehard fans of the traditional Lenovo keyboard, the X230 uses a Chiclet-style key design not unlike what we've seen on most consumer laptops over the last decade. The main key sizes are still 100% of normal but know there is additional space between each key to help prevent typos. The typing surface has excellent support with barely any flex under heavy pressure. The tactile feel from each key is great with soft clicks emitting very little noise when fully pressed. You can type for hours at a time without much discomfort.
The previously mentioned LED backlighting has four settings; off, low, high, and high with the addition of the traditional "ThinkLight" located next to the webcam which casts light down onto the keyboard. This gives ThinkPad users "the best of both worlds" if they aren't sure about the new backlit keyboard.
The classic red TrackPoint and buttonless touchpad are Synaptics models that provide an excellent sensitivity and responsiveness as you move your cursor in various applications. The buttonless touchpad provides the same surface area as the X220 (45 percent larger surface than the old X201).
As with all the recent Synaptics clickpads we've tested, the lack of separate dedicated left and right buttons beneath the touchpad only presents a problem with the default settings because it's very difficult to trigger a right click. You might have to press the bottom right corner of the touchpad several times to register a right click. Thankfully, you can adjust the touchpad settings using the included UltraNav software. Alternatively, you can just use the TrackPoint and the dedicated left and right mouse buttons located above the touchpad.
Our review unit of the Lenovo ThinkPad X230 features the following specifications:
Part of the headline news with the release of the ThinkPad X230 is the use of the latest Intel "Ivy Bridge" processors. Our review unit came equipped with the Intel Core i5-3320M dual-core processor. This CPU has a standard clock speed of 2.6GHz and quickly steps up to a 3.3GHz turbo frequency whenever the notebook is performing a difficult task or running a complex application.
The new Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics in the Ivy Bridge platform are a noticeable step up from the previous generation of Intel integrated graphics and are capable of playing DirectX 11 games ... assuming there is driver support for the games you want to play. The X230 delivered some impressive benchmark numbers in 3DMark06 but real-world gaming tests were a combination of hit and miss since many new games still won't run properly on Intel graphics. Just to play devil's advocate we included benchmarks from the Eurocom Monster (Clevo W110ERF) since that ultraportable notebook packs the latest generation of NVIDIA discrete graphics inside a laptop shell roughly the same size as the X230.
Performance and Benchmarks
Granted, even if the X230 can't beat a custom gaming ultraportable when playing Batman: Arkham City, most businesses don't care about the ThinkPad X230's ability to play games ... they just want decent graphics performance for Photoshop editing and video conferences. Those are things that the X230 can handle without breaking a sweat.
The 320GB Hitachi Travelstar Z7K500 hard drive in our review sample is reasonably speedy and is quick enough for average tasks. But considering the speedy performance of the latest Ultrabooks with SSDs, Lenovo probably needs to consider offering the optional solid state drive as standard (at least the 128GB capacity).
The only reason that the X230 didn't slaughter ultrabooks like the Dell XPS 13 and HP Folio 13 in the PCMark benchmarks is the fact that those ultrabooks are using faster SSD storage instead of a slow hard drive. Translation: Buy the X230 with a SSD or replace the hard drive with a SSD yourself if you want top-of-the-line performance.
wPrime processor comparison results (lower scores mean better performance):
PCMark Vantage measures overall system performance (higher scores mean better performance):
PCMark 7 measures overall system performance in Windows 7 (higher scores mean better performance):
3DMark06 measures overall graphics performance for gaming (higher scores mean better performance):
3DMark11 measures overall graphics performance in DirectX 11 games (higher scores mean better performance):
CrystalDiskMark storage drive performance test:
Heat and Noise
Lenovo promised a "cooler and quieter thermal design" thanks to the dual exhaust vents and they weren't kidding. Noise levels from the fan were basically inaudible during normal daily use with the X230. Even the high fan speed is whisper quiet--so much so that we had to put the notebook to our ears to make sure the fan was working. The Hitachi hard drive was actually louder than the fan when the hard drive was actively reading and writing files. We were impressed by the relatively low exterior temperatures considering the impressive level of performance and quiet fan. All temperatures shown below are listed in degrees Fahrenheit:
The ThinkPad X230 with Intel Core i5-3320M processor delivered 8 hours and 41 minutes of battery life with the 6-cell battery. Our standard battery life test sets the screen to 70% brightness, wireless active and continuously refreshing a website on a 60-second interval, and Windows 7 set to the "balanced" power profile. With the optional nine-cell battery and the slice battery which connects to the bottom of the notebook, Lenovo claims up to 24 hours of battery time. The take away here is that the ThinkPad X230 is the king of the hill in terms of battery life.
Battery life test results (higher scores mean better battery life):
Business professionals who are constantly travelling or who just have a small office space should seriously consider the purchase of the ThinkPad X230. Not only does this 12-inch notebook pack more power than most 13-inch and larger ultrabooks, the X230 also provides greater peace of mind thanks to the rugged build quality and frankly AWESOME battery life.
The latest Intel Ivy Bridge processors certainly help with performance both in terms of raw computational power and improved graphics performance. Our only minor complaint about performance is that a premium ultraportable like this really needs to have a solid state drive as standard equipment. We understand that offering a hard drive allows Lenovo to offer the X230 at a lower starting price but the slow hard drive was the only dark spot on an otherwise flawless performance.
In terms of design the X230 has a fantastic keyboard (perhaps the best Chiclet-style keyboard we've ever seen) but the quirky touchpad makes for a frustrating user experience unless you learn to use the TrackPoint.
After everything is said and done the ThinkPad X230 is the best ultraportable business notebook currently on the market. It isn't completely perfect (see our comments about the hard drive and touchpad) but you won't find a better combination of portability, performance, durability, port selection and battery life at any price point.