Lenovo ThinkPad X1 review

Despite the similarity to an increasing number of ultra-slim notebooks, the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 stands out from the crowd – especially for ThinkPad fans.

Being a ThinkPad means the X1 has a distinctive design that has been given a welcome refresh without losing its signature look and feel. The magnesium alloy chassis has the familiar soft-touch matte black rubberised paint finish, which shrugs off fingerprints, stands up well to scratches and gives you a superb grip.

The sharp angles give the illusion of being thinner and lighter than the X1 actually is -it slopes from 17 to 21mm thick and weighs in at 1.71kg, which is noticeably thicker and heavier than the Samsung Series 9. It's an evolution of the classic ThinkPad look, only sleeker, but sleek isn’t always better and here, sealing the battery tidies up the underside of the case but means you'll need to invest in the 'slice' battery if you want to carry a spare. We also don't really care about the port cover on the left-hand side, as it's as much for looks as for protection.

You do get plenty of protection though. The glossy screen is covered by Gorilla Glass which does add enough weight to be noticable and gives the same irritating reflections around the screen we disliked on the plastic bezel of the Samsung Series 9. The spill-proof keyboard has drainage holes, the chassis has an internal cage to protect it and Lenovo counts up eight military specification tests for ruggedness that the X1 passes. Sturdy doesn't mean chunky or ugly, although there's no designer bling, just practicality here.

Keyboard and trackpad  

A ThinkPad keyboard is something you either love or hate and while the 13.3-inch size doesn't leave room for all the ThinkPad idiosyncrasies, there are still a few. The action of the keyboard is excellent, with plenty of travel -though not the full firm click of classic models. The rounded keytops with concave surfaces locate your fingers wonderfully so you don't roll off onto the next key. That's useful because there isn't much space between the isolated island-style keys.

The keyboard is also an oddity with the function key where the control key is on almost every other keyboard. There's also a print screen key between alt and ctrl on the bottom right of the keyboard. The page up and page down keys are a little cramped in the corners of the navigation arrows, and a long way away from the home and end keys at the top of the keyboard.

The secondary commands on the function keys include microphone and camera settings as well as the usual brightness and media playback keys. Dedicated volume controls at the edge of the keyboard are a nice touch, with mute buttons for both speakers and microphone that business users will find very useful. There's also a tiny button that launches one of the many ThinkPad software tools as well as a fingerprint scanner.

The trackpad combines a ThinkPad signature feature – a second set of buttons between itself and the keyboard, to use with the TrackPoint in the middle of the keyboard. As on Apple's laptops, the usual two buttons found beneath the trackpad are gone. The Lenovo advantage here is that you can use the buttons intended for the TrackPoint, if you hate these new button-less trackpads.

Extending the touch surface over the button area gives the touch pad a square aspect ratio that doesn't fit the widescreen 1337 by 768 resolution at all and while we like the deep palm rest, the touch pad itself feels a little small. The pronounced texture does give you an excellent combination of smoothly responsive cursor and accurate clicking.

The trackpad also offers multi-touch gestures. These work as well as they ever, but their sheer number can confuse. Should you be a gesture fan, you'll be pleased to see the three-finger click, three-finger tap along with the more common pinch-zoom, rotate, scroll and flick. It's also possible to tweak the settings for the TrackPoint and use that as a button.

Inputs and ports  

Nearly all of the ports on the X1 are on the back of the case. We find this odd on a machine designed to be ultra-portable because this layout works best for keeping cables out of the way on a desk, rather than putting ports where you need them on the move. It's also a very modest selection too. The left side has only a memory card reader, the right has a fiddly cover over the headphone socket and a single USB port.

Along the back you get power, HDMI and DisplayPort, but no VGA. There's one USB 3 port and one combined eSATA/USB 2 charging port and gigabit Ethernet. As well as Bluetooth and dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11n, you get unlocked mobile broadband too. Because the battery isn't removable, the SIM slot is conveniently on the back of the case as well.

Processor and battery

The Sandy Bridge Core i5 2520M is a full-power processor (with the business vPro option); it runs hot when you're watching video and you only get the built-in Intel HD 3000 graphics. This is an ideal everyday workhorse of a processor and you can play games at reasonable frame rates on medium detail, but a multimedia powerhouse it is not.

Battery life is disappointing. Our usual mix of streaming audio, video, continual Web browsing and general Office use gave us only two hours twenty minutes of use. You could stretch that to well over four hours without Wi-Fi though. The bright spot is that 30-40 minutes of recharging gives you an almost full battery. An SSD instead of the 320GB hard drive would improve battery life as well as boot times. From a cold boot, Lenovo's RapidDrive fast boot gets you to the login screen in 40 seconds. That's around half the time it takes most 13-inch Windows laptops, but far slower than an SSD system like the Samsung Series 9.

Screen and audio quality

The screen is crisp and bright, with excellent contrast ratios even in dark areas. We didn't like the reflections from the gloss finish or the even more distracting reflections from the Gorilla Glass surround. Streaming 1080p video from the Web played smoothly, but the details weren't as crisp and clear as we'd like to see on a premium laptop. 720p video streamed from the local network also played back smoothly but the colours are subdued and we didn't see the exceptionally crisp detail other notebooks have delivered in recent reviews.

Audio quality is generally good, with more than enough volume and reasonable bass, mid-range and treble. That said, it's good sound for a business machine rather than the highest sound quality we're hearing from the best consumer models this year. We also noted that there was a lot of distortion at high volume.

Along with the usual Office Starter, Live Essentials, Skype and Norton Internet Security, you get Internet Explorer 9 with a Lenovo-branded 'Bing bar' and a collection of 1,500 business document templates called Business in a Box.

Lenovo is one of the few PC makers to use Microsoft's Device Stage to organise the tools and utilities you get, and it works well for organising what would otherwise be hard to find but useful tools. It's confusing that there's also a PC-Doctor powered Toolbox with tools and tips in. We particularly like the power controls, instead of making you tinker with individual settings you can just drag the slider to show whether you want more performance or longer battery life. There's also a 'battery stretch' option that can eke power out for another 60-90 minutes when you just HAVE to keep working, and with this battery life, you need it.

Verdict

Practical is the X1's middle name, along, perhaps, with pricey -although this depends from whom you buy it. The choices Lenovo has made won't suit everyone though, and at this price you start to resent something that would be a mere quibble on a cheaper system.

Overall, you get almost everything you need, from performance, sturdiness through to the ports people actually need and useful extras like 3G. Nothing is arranged the way you're used to though, and the screen and battery life are slightly disappointing.

We think X1 willl make a great business machine though, and business users will mind the price less, especially with the three year guarantee.