Lenovo ThinkPad X1 vs Apple MacBook Air

Lenovo is trying to pick up a more style-conscious audience with its new ultrathin laptop

Lenovo ThinkPad X1

Lenovo ThinkPad X1

Known for its straightforward business laptops, Lenovo is adding a touch of style with its new ThinkPad X1. The ultrathin laptop will be available May 24th for a starting price of US$1,399.

With a 13.2 x 9.0-in. footprint, the ThinkPad X1's jet black case is 0.4 in. wider than two other 13.3-in. rivals, the Apple MacBook Air and the Dell Vostro V130; at 0.8-in. thick, it is a tenth of an inch thicker than the Air's super-slim profile.

Add in its 12 oz. AC adapter, and the 3.8-lb. ThinkPad X1 hits the road with a 4.6-lb. travel weight — not bad, but 5 oz. heavier than the Vostro V130 and about 1 lb. heavier than the Air.

Style counts for a lot with these premium lightweight notebooks. The ThinkPad X1's angular black plastic case is a strong contrast to the MacBook Air's sleekly rounded aluminum skin; which you like better is strictly a matter of taste. I do like the feel of the X1's rubberized coating; it keeps the laptop from slipping while being carried.

The X1 is powered by a second-generation 2.5GHz Intel Core i5 processor that offers TurboBoost technology which allows it to sprint to 3.2GHz; it comes with 4GB of memory. This compares favorably with the Air's current 1.9GHz Core2 Duo chip (which is antiquated by comparison). The ThinkPad X1 review unit came with a 320GB hard drive and a 160GB flash storage module (which costs an extra $400).

To protect the X1 from injury, it includes a wrap-around internal frame and a display made of Corning's Gorilla Glass.

The X1's 13.3-in. display is powered by Intel's HD 3000 integrated graphics chip and offers 1366 x 768-pixel resolution. I found the screen to be bright, rich and clear in a variety of lighting environments. Like many premium notebooks, the X1 comes with a backlit keyboard; the bluish glow has two brightness settings. However, be aware that using it can cut battery life by about 20 minutes.

Pointing to the keyboard

Along with something blue, the ThinkPad X1's keyboard offers users something old and something new. It still has a pointing stick in the center of the keyboard (a nice holdover from the old IBM ThinkPads), but the touchpad has been tweaked. Rather than having separate keys for right and left clicks, it has areas for right and left clicks at the bottom of the touchpad itself. It took me a little time to get used to it, but it worked well.

At a Glance

Lenovo ThinkPad X1

Lenovo

Price: $1,399; $1,549 with optional snap-on battery

Pros: Good performance, backlit keyboard, fast charge time, durable display, three-year warranty

Cons: Heavier than MacBook Air, sealed battery, no VGA port

To prevent a spill from becoming a disaster, the keyboard has two prominent drain holes at the bottom of the keyboard so that liquids will flow out of (rather than into) the system.

The ThinkPad X1 comes with three USB ports (one more than the MacBook Air); one is USB 3.0-complaint while another doubles as an e-SATA connector. There's also a combo headphone/microphone jack, and volume controls as well as mute buttons for microphone and speakers.

In addition, the ThinkPad X1 has both HDMI and DisplayPort connections. Like most other ultraslim systems it lacks a separate VGA port, but you can purchase a DisplayPort-to-VGA adapter for $35.

It also comes with a wired gigabit Ethernet connection as well as 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 3.0. You can also purchase an optional 3G module for $125; it can be either a Sierra Wireless Gobi module for connecting with AT&T, Sprint or Verizon 3G networks or an Ericsson module for connecting with AT&T's 3G HSPA network.

Top performance

In our tests, it all adds up to a top-performing executive-class notebook. The system's 1,275.0 score on PassMark's PerformanceTest 7.0 benchmark suite is double the score of the Dell Vostro V130 and even passes the Asus U36JC, which was the fastest ultrathin notebook in our February roundup. In fact, the ThinkPad's overall performance score roughly matches the score of the less stylish Lenovo ThinkPad L420 business laptop. (We couldn't test it against the MacBook Air because PerformanceTest is a Windows-only test.) But some of its individual components didn't test as well as the overall system; the ThinkPad scored a run-of-the-mill 2.83 and 8.55 on CineBench's processor and graphics tests.

The ThinkPad X1's 5,800mAh battery lasted for 3 hours and 47 minutes with the keyboard light off and 2 hours 26 minutes with it on, while continuously playing videos off of a USB drive. That's nearly twice as long as the Vostro V130's running time of 2 hours 21 minute battery runtime, but short of the MacBook Air's four hours on a charge.

When it's time to power up, the X1's battery can get to 80% of capacity in 30 minutes and can attain a full charge in 50 minutes with the system running. That's about half the time for a typical notebook. Unfortunately, like so many other ultraslim systems, the main battery is sealed inside the system and can't be swapped on the road.

Lenovo's $150 snap-on wedge battery can provide an extra 3,200mAh of power (and adds half an inch of thickness and 8 oz. of weight). With both batteries attached, the laptop ran for 6 hours and 2 minutes; using some judicious power management settings, the machine could probably work through the bulk of a cross-country flight.

On top of Windows 7 Professional, the system comes with a slew of ThinkVantage utilities for adjusting just about every aspect of the X1's operation. It also includes Office 2010 Starter and Dolby Home Theater software.

The X1 also comes with a three-year warranty included — which is very nice considering that most laptops come with a one-year warranty. (For example, a three-year warranty adds $250 to the Air's price.)

All told, the ThinkPad X1 is a high-performance bargain that could outdo the MacBook Air if only it weighed a pound less.

How I tested

To see how the ThinkPad X1 compares to other executive-class systems, I used it for several hours daily for a week to write with, update a Web site, give presentations and work through my backlogged email.

I measured and weighed the system. To test its travel readiness, I put it on a mockup of the typical airplane seat-back table tray to see if it fit.

While on the road, I connected it to public Wi-Fi networks and a mobile hotspot. I also used it in my office with Ethernet and Wi-Fi connections.

I looked at overall performance with PassMark's PerformanceTest 7.0 benchmark test. The software exercises the major components of the system, including processor, hard drive, 2-D and 3-D graphics and memory; it then compiles the results into a single score that represents its performance potential.

I also ran CineBench 11.5 which benchmarks graphics and processor performance. The software renders several photorealistic 3-D scenes that stress the processor and graphics card by manipulating up to a million polygons and then reports scores for each.

Finally, I measured battery life. With a USB drive containing six HD videos connected to the laptop, I set Windows Media Player to shuffle through all the videos until the ThinkPad ran out of power while PassMark's BatteryMon charted the battery's capacity.

All tests were run three times with the results averaged.

Brian Nadel is a frequent contributor to Computerworld and the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.

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