The surface finish isn't the usual ThinkPad soft touch black but rather what Lenovo calls a "smooth" finish. It looks just like a ThinkPad and someone might at first mistake it for an X201 were it not for the size difference. But close inspection reveals the matte black finish with no surface texture. It's not slippery and is easy to clean with a damp cloth. For those who like a little zing (but not too much), there's a red color option that's also matte and looks a little odd. It's not the screaming shiny red of the ThinkPad Edge or Acer Ferrari One, and it comes off as a half-way commitment to ostentatious looks.
If you’re a fan of ThinkPad look, you’ll like the X100e. At 0.8” thick it’s trim, and at 11.1 x 8.2 inches it’s smaller than an ultralight. In terms of size, this is a netbook, and in terms of performance it’s somewhere in between a netbook and notebook.
The 1366 x 768 LED backlit display has a pretty good 200 nits brightness. Colors aren’t as saturated and viewing angles are narrower compared to larger and more expensive ThinkPad models. Again, there are concessions made to achieve lower pricing. But we found it a pleasing display and particularly loved the matte finish that banishes glare. The default contrast was a bit too low so we used the ATI control panel to raise it 10 points for a sharp look. In terms of resolution and display quality the X100e can’t compete with its bigger ThinkPad brethren but it’s better than other netbooks on the market.
The beveled front edge is covered with mesh and ample stereo speakers live underneath. The ThinkPad X100e has much better and louder sound than most netbooks that tend to be anemic and often have down-firing speakers that are muffled by your lap or desk. This puppy can get pretty darned loud and while the bass won’t shake the walls, stereo sound is at least decent and not grating. There’s a combined 3.5mm stereo out/mic in jack suitable for external stereo speakers or a VoIP headset. The ThinkPad has a low light webcam that’s quite sharp and colorful, and a mic that works fine for Skype.
Ports are pretty good for a netbook class machine with 3 rather than the usual 2 USB ports. Two are on the left and a powered USB port (sleep and charge) is on the right. There’s a VGA port but no HDMI, a 4-in-1 SD card reader slot, gigabit Ethernet jack and a Kensington lock slot.
The spill-resistant keyboard is simply awesome with keys large enough for an adult and excellent tactile feel. Like the ThinkPad Edge, the ThinkPad X100e has a chiclet style keyboard rather than the traditional ThinkPad keyboard. We have no complaints and find it 98% as easy to type on as their traditional keyboard. The keys are sculpted and have good travel and spring. There's no keyboard flex with island design chiclet keyboards and their key separation improves the tactile sense of the transition between keys. The X100e has the usual ThinkPad Fn key arrangement and we like the lowered oval page up and down keys near the arrow keys. There's no dedicated ThinkVantage button, though the full suite of ThinkVantage software is on board. The only thing we don't like is the delete key's location which is the third key from the end of the top row rather than being the final key.
We’re impressed that Lenovo managed both a relatively oversized keyboard and their dual pointing UltraNav device in this small 11” laptop. You get both the red eraser stick pointer embedded in the keyboard and a reasonable sized trackpad, each with its own set of mouse buttons. The TrackPoint works as well as ever and the trackpad is more pleasant to use than on most netbooks. It supports multi-touch but isn’t prone to interpreting normal finger movements as gestures as we’ve noted with some smaller trackpads. Both sets of buttons are just-right soft and you can set button handedness separately for each pointing device. Our only complaint is that the trackpad’s buttons are on the front edge of the machine and it’s easy to bump them in close quarters or to touch one when carrying the machine.
How about heat? AMD isn’t known for impressive battery life or low thermals but Lenovo has largely managed to tame the beast. Early reviews mentioned poor battery life and toasty temps but in the month since the X100e started shipping, they’ve released several BIOS updates that have vastly improved battery life and kept heat in check. Our machine shipped with an old BIOS and after testing a bit we upgraded to the latest and found the machine runs at 90 degrees Fahrenheit on the keyboard surface and at 110 degrees on the bottom center (the hottest spot) when working hard while plugged in (full performance mode). That makes it much warmer than many Intel Atom netbooks and on par with performance notebooks in terms of heat. There are two large heat grille rows on the bottom and the fan blows warm air out the left rear side.
Here in Never Never Land we’re caught somewhere between the netbook and notebook world. The AMD Athlon Neo MV-40 running on the AMD M780G chipset performs better than the 1.6GHz Intel ATOM Pine Trail CPUs used in most recent netbooks and the X100e’s integrated ATI graphics blows away Intel’s integrated graphics used on both Pine Trail and dual core CULV machines. That puts the X100e ahead of the HP Mini 311 with Atom and NVIDIA ION LE graphics and the Sony Vaio X with a 2.0 GHz Atom and tepid Intel GMA 500 graphics. How does the machine feel? Faster than Atom N280 and N450 netbooks and faster than the 2GHz Atom in the Vaio X. The machine runs Aero by default and thanks to the ATI graphics, it handles it with aplomb. The X100e doesn't feel as fast as larger Intel CULV notebooks like the HP Touchsmart TM2 with the 1.3GHz dual core SU7300 CPU, even though that HP has Intel integrated graphics. We'd love to see an X100e with the 1.3GHz SU7300 but due to pricing constraints, it doesn't look like it's going to happen. Instead, the next step will be the dual core AMD Neo which is a decent performer that typically adds 400 points to the PCMark score at the expense of power consumption.
The ATI Radeon HD 3200 graphics is an integrated chipset that uses shared memory (typically 336 megs). It benchmarks better than the most Intel integrated chipsets and performs better in real world tests playing 720p WMV, MPEG2 and MPEG4 content. It's also faster at Photoshop CS4 and did better for us with Flash 10.1 beta with GPU acceleration. That makes the little Lenovo a bag of contradictions: it's not the swiftest CPU on the notebook front by a long shot but the graphics are better than average. It can play World of Warcraft at 25 to 30fps and handle older games like Rise of Nations at 60fps. Forget super-demanding recent titles like Modern Warfare 2 which runs at 13 to 17fps at native resolution (though for a netbook on steroids that's actually pretty good).
The base config is a 1 gig RAM, 160 gig hard drive model for $449 and our mid-level model comes with 2 gigs of RAM and a 250 gig hard drive. You can build to order and get up to 4 gigs of RAM and a 320 gig hard drive. We heartily recommend the 2 gigs/ 250 gig model because 1 gig of RAM isn't enough to enjoy Windows 7 and the larger hard drive gives you room to grow. All drives are 5400 rpm but they benchmarked very well (sorry there's no SSD option since Lenovo is trying to keep this affordable). All hard drives work with Lenovo's Active Protection System that parks the heads when sudden motion occurs. The RAM is DDR2 PC5300 667MHz and there are two SODIMM slots, with one filled at the factory (unless you order more than 2 gigs of RAM).
RAM is an interesting topic with the X100e. We benchmarked the notebook with the stock 2 gigs of RAM then upgraded it to 3 gigs. The numbers stayed the same. Then we upgraded to 4 gigs of RAM and both the Windows Experience graphics numbers for graphics and the PCMark numbers took a big jump up. With the 4 gig config we kept the original 2 gig RAM module and tried 2 different additional 2 gig RAM modules from different manufacturers all meeting the machine's specs, so it wasn't that we had a very special or fast RAM module that caused the increase. With 3 gigs of RAM, the stock Windows 7 Professional 32 installation saw 2.75 gigs available with the remaining ~256 megs set aside for graphics. With 4 gigs, the machine still shows 2.75 gigs available and all remaining memory is dedicated to the ATI graphics card. No matter what kind of tweaking with boot files and twiddling with BIOS we did, we still had that large chunk reserved for graphics. Windows 7 32 bit with integrated graphics should be able to see all 4 gigs as usable minus that ~256 megs for graphics, so we must assume that the BIOS wants that memory for graphics. Given the very significant improvements we saw in 3 benchmarks and in experiential speed, we'd say it's definitely worth it to buy a 2 gig SODIMM RAM module for $45 and pop it in the Lenovo.
It's very easy to access the ThinkPad's hard drive, wireless PCI slots and RAM. Unscrew 7 screws and the entire bottom panel comes off providing easy access to everything. The machine is cleanly designed and isn't the internal mess that some budget netbooks are (EeePC 1005HA we're looking at you). All X100e models come with Realtek WiFi 802.11b/g/n and Bluetooth is optional (it's installed as a daughtercard to the left of the WiFi module). Even if you don't order mobile broadband, the antenna is installed and you can add the Gobi module later (Lenovo sells it for $149 currently).
The default Lenovo power setting runs the CPU at 800MHz when on battery power. The first thing you should do is change this! The machine is a slug at 800MHz (no surprise) so we changed the unplugged CPU power setting to adaptive. Voila-- a responsive machine. And it only shaved 10 to 15 minutes off runtimes.