Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Tech: Lenovo ThinkPad X120e review


INTRODUCTION

The Lenovo Thinkpad X120e is part of a new budget ultraportable segment that's positioned somewhere between the traditional netbook and the mainstream thin-and-light laptop. Instead of packing a low-voltage Intel Atom processor (which sips electrical power but doesn't have much computing muscle), the X120e has an out-of-order execution, dual-core AMD E-350 processor with integrated graphics acceleration. The result is a computing experience that supposedly feels much more like a real laptop:



Slick marketing videos are well and good, but how does the X120e actually perform? Can you get some semblance of the ultraportable experience for under $500?

CASE DESIGN AND FORM FACTOR

It might have the ThinkPad logo on it, but there's a lot separating the X120e from Lenovo's mainstream laptops. You won't find any fancy magnesium rollcages, magnetic latches, or LED-lit full-size keyboards here - in most respects, the chassis of the X120e is like any other budget netbook.

Despite the loss of some of the signature enhancements of other Lenovo computers, the X120e's build quality is still fairly solid overall. The unit has a matte black finish, and basically looks like a shrunken ThinkPad. On the left side of the X120e, you'll find space for a security lock, an HDMI port, a USB port, an Ethernet port, and an audio jack.


The right side has a card reader, a powered USB port, and a regular USB port:


The rear has the power jack and a VGA out. Aesthetically, I'm not a big fan of the way the 6-cell battery juts out of the case, but it does keep the hinge area slim:


The X120e comes equipped with an 11.6" matte anti-glare 1366x768 LED-backlit LCD. It's not the world's brightest screen (don't believe Lenovo's marketing - you'll have trouble using it in bright daylight), but the absence of the glossy finish found in a typical netbook removes a lot of distracting reflections.


Here's a shot of the X120e next to some miscellaneous items: Season 2 of "The Adventures of Pete & Pete," a Maxpedition-branded Nalgene bottle, an Al Martino CD, and a pack of Trident White.

KEYBOARD AND INPUT DEVICES

The X120e ditches the famed ThinkPad keyboard; in its place, there's a chiclet keyboard that's much closer to those found in other netbooks. I found the keys to be responsive and comfortable, and Lenovo even found the space to include dedicated PgUp and PgDn keys (a huge boon for browsing long documents and webpages). The only real quibble I have is that the left Ctrl key is shifted inward - a pretty pointless departure from a typical keyboard layout.

Here is a closeup to give you an idea of the key size:


In the middle of the keyboard, Lenovo has placed the distinctive red TrackPoint pointing stick, which was sensitive and responsive enough to use for playing first-person shooters (with practice). There's also a standard touchpad, and two sets of mouse buttons; the pointing stick's mouse buttons are more responsive.


PERFORMANCE AND BATTERY LIFE

The Intel Atom gets stellar battery life, but you pay a pretty hefty price in terms of performance. Loading up a big PDF or even a rich webpage can be an exercise in staring at the Windows busy cursor. In contrast, the AMD Fusion chipset powers through streaming HD video and office productivity tasks with ease. You can even use it to play last-gen games like Team Fortress 2:



One thing that most reviews of the X120e don't discuss: out of the box, the unit is blissfully free from the bloatware that gets shoveled onto other laptops. All you get is Lenovo's helpful ThinkVantage utilities (including a neat stress test for the components and a battery health indicator) and a clear blue screen.


Battery life on the X120e is decent, in part due to Lenovo's aggressive screen-dimming and standby schemes. With continuous use, including downloading files, playing web videos, and installing programs, I was able to squeeze about 5 hours of life from the machine - not too far off from the advertised 6.6 hours.

CONCLUSION

The X120e and others of its ilk are going to gut the netbook market. While it "only" runs about five hours with realistic use, the X120e is so much faster than a typical netbook that, after using them side-by-side, even a casual user would be persuaded to drop the extra $100-$150 for the X120e. It strikes the right balance between power usage, price, and performance, and gets a thumbs-up from me.

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