Review posted June 4, 2008 by Lisa Gade, Editor
The ThinkPad X300's biggest problem is the MacBook Air, which set a new standard for impossibly thin and good looking ultralight notebooks. The design philosophy is at first look very similar: make it usable with a 13" display rather than something tiny like the Sony Vaio TZ series, include a full-size notebook keyboard and make it durable. A sort of everyman's notebook that's extremely light yet can survive plenty of plane trips, with display and keyboard that ensure productivity. The price of ultralights are hardly everyman's territory however-- the smaller they get, the more they cost. The MacBook Air starts at $1,799 and that had folks gasping (even more so for the $3,098 solid state hard drive version). The Lenovo X300 is even dearer, starting at $3,225 on Lenovo's web site, and working its way up to $3,880 (more if you order it with MS Office). Lenovo's web site offers the X300 with Vista Business or Ultimate, but online retailers sell the X300 for a bit less and offer a Windows XP version.
The Air and X300's design philosophies diverge as you look deeper: Apple wanted to make a mind-bogglingly thin and beautiful computer, irrespective of ports and drives axed in the process. Lenovo wanted to make a thin and light notebook with many of the creature comforts of a 15" notebook including an optical drive, WAN networking and a few more ports. The ThinkPad X300, offered only with the very expensive SSD drive clearly targets the higher end of the market, while Apple included the mid-tier with their conventional drive version of the Air.
When you conjure up images of ThinkPad notebooks, they're more toward the Lincoln Continental than Lotus Elise. They're reliable, built like tanks, not svelte and in fact a bit boxy. The X300 is no Elise, but it's no old man's cruiser either-- it's ThinkPad Lite. Despite the 3 lb. lightweight design, the X300 features a robust carbon fiber/glass fiber chassis, spill-resistant keyboard and overall excellent build quality, just like its bigger brothers. But it's only about an inch thick (the front is thinner at 0.73") and it looks and feels good in the ThinkPad soft touch black finish which extends to the wrist rest area.
It may not be sexy or awe inspiring in terms of looks, but what's under the hood will make IT types and geeks drool. The ThinkPad X300 runs on Intel's 965 chipset with a 1.2GHz Core 2 Duo processor. While the CPU isn't drool-inducing, the max 4 gigs of DDR2 RAM, 800MHz front side bus and 4 megs of level 2 cache are start-of-the-art. And the SL7100 is a recently designed CPU for the ultra-mobile market focusing on significant size and power reduction, which is interesting. Since it's not anorecticly thin like the Air, the X300 can be configured with an internal DVD burner, a Verizon EVDO card and it comes standard with a biometric fingerprint scanner plus TPM chip, 3 USB 2.0 ports and the afore mentioned 64 gig SSD drive. That SSD drive, which costs nearly $1,000 when purchased separately is certainly a compelling (if not cost-prohibitive) feature. It's massively faster than a conventional hard drive and it's immune to shocks, drops and vibration-- handy for a mobile product.
The keyboard is the usual, well-loved long travel desktop style keyboard and there's both a touchpad and ThinkPad eraser stick pointer with buttons just above the the trackpad. The wrist rest area feels great thanks to the soft-touch finish and the surface surrounding the keyboard gently curves down to accommodate the long travel keys' height. The fingerprint scanner sits to the right of the trackpad and uses Lenovo's own security software in conjunction with a TPM (Trusted Platform Module). The scanner was a bit pickier than other notebooks, and we sometimes had to make a second swipe after the on-screen prompts told us to swipe slower.
Here's Looking at You
A high end notebook deserves a high end display, or more aptly-- if you shell out the big bucks, you deserve a really nice LCD. To that end, Lenovo builds the X300 with a 13.3" LED backlit display, currently the best kind of display on the market for bright whites and vivid colors. Apple uses this on their MacBook Pro and MacBook Air notebooks as does Sony on their higher end offerings like the Vaio SZ650. The ThinkPad's non-gloss display is good, similar to high quality LCDs on non-LED backlit products, but it doesn't hold a candle to the MacBook Air or Sony SZ which are much brighter, sharper and more vibrant. The gloss vs. matte display is part of the issue-- gloss displays look sharper and richer though they induce glare in bright lighting. But the X300's matte display doesn't look as sharp as the MacBook Pro with the matte display option either. Mind you, the X300's display isn't bad in any way, it's just not as good Sony and Apple's offerings nor even the LED-equipped ASUS U6 notebook.
Both displays were set to 1 notch below max brightness. The MacBook Air is significantly brighter.
Compared to Apple and Sony's 13.3" offerings, the Lenovo has a higher resolution display. The Vaio SZ and MacBook Air (as well as the conventional LCD non-Pro MacBook models) have 1280 x 800 resolution, which suits a wide gamut of users from the sharp-eyed to the bifocal set. The X300 squeezes 1440 x 900 pixels into the same 13.3" space, which means slightly less scrolling in web pages and spreadsheets, but smaller fonts and icons. We found the display easily readable, though we often boosted text size when using the notebook for a few hours to reduce eye strain.
Intel's X3100 integrated graphics drive the display and use shared memory. For an integrated graphics solution, the X3100 does a decent job and can handle light 3D work suitable for non-graphically intensive games like many older RPG and RTS games. The ThinkPad can drive an external monitor via its VGA port, and our 19" external display posed no problems for the notebook. We weren't able to test it with our larger displays because those had HDMI and DVI ports rather than VGA.
Off to the Races
The X300's 1.2GHz Core 2 Duo doesn't sound like much on paper, and we were concerned that it might not be able to hold up to Vista's demands. We were pleasantly surprised that it performed well, with relatively fast boot times (that thanks to the SSD drive), snappy Vista response and good performance in Internet and Office applications. Though the clock speed is the same, this isn't the same CPU used in the Sony Vaio 11" TZ series notebooks. The Lenovo is in fact faster, and it keeps up well with the MacBook Air running a similar processor at a higher clock speed.
PCMark05 Benchmarks: CPU: 3149
HDD: 14,935 (you'll never see 5 digit speed ratings on a conventional drive!)
Windows Experience Index Processor: 4.4
Gaming graphics: 3.5
Ports and Drives
For a little guy, the ThinkPad X300 shines when it comes to ports, especially compared to the Air. Lenovo managed to squeeze 3 USB 2.0 ports, a standard VGA port, Gigabit Ethernet and 3.5mm audio in and out jacks. There is no card reader but the optional dual layer DVD burner more than makes up for it. The $225 DVD burner is a mere 7mm high and it can read and write CDs and DVDs (+/-) as well as dual layer media. The drive lives in the "Fixed Bay", which as the name indicates, isn't a swappable bay. Thus you order the machine with just a weight saver insert, a DVD drive or a secondary 3 cell battery in that bay and you don't get to swap them at will.
Back of the X300 with power port, VGA, Ethernet, wireless on/off switch and a USB port.
For Skype fans, there's a 1.3 megapixel video camera centered above the display. In our tests using the camera and built-in mic and speakers, video calls on Skype worked very well with clear, loud audio, no sound artifacts or feedback and sharp outgoing video.
Left side with two USB 2.0 ports and audio in/out jacks.
As we've mentioned, the machine ships with a 64 gig Samsung SSD drive, and that's the only option. This silent drive is extremely fast and the 3.0 GPS SATA interface keeps data moving quickly. The drive door is on the notebook's left side under a cover affixed with a single philips head screw. 64 gigs is currently the largest commonly available capacity, marking a tradeoff between a traditional drive's significantly higher capacity but slower speed, higher power consumption and vulnerability to movement and shock damage. Though the drive is silent since it has no moving parts, the system fan does kick in occasionally when doing light duty work and more often during video playback, software installations and other high demand tasks that raise CPU temperature. The X300 is absolutely silent when the fan isn't on and the DVD drive is empty, and at most moderately loud when the fans are working hard.
The Lenovo X300's 64 gig SSD drive is easily removed for repairs and upgrades.
The ThinkPad X300 is a well-connected machine with wired Gigabit Ethernet, WiFi 802.11n, Bluetooth 2.0 +EDR, an optional Sierra Wireless 1X/EVDO module and a GPS that uses the EVDO module's aGPS. WiFi is handled by the Intel WiFi Link 4965AGN module that supports all current WiFi flavors: 802.11a/b/g/n. Range and reliability are excellent and it plays nicely with the Bluetooth module (the two wireless technologies share similar frequencies and can interfere).
Bluetooth likewise worked well and it's fast since it uses a 2.0 + EDR module. These fast speeds are useful should you not opt for the WAN module and instead want to use a 3G phone as a wireless modem over Bluetooth. All the usual Windows profiles are here including A2DP, FTP, serial port, PAN and DUN.
The Sierra Wireless WAN module (Sierra Wireless MC5725 PCI Express MiniCard) is tied to Verizon Wireless, so you'll need to activate a new data account if you wish to use it for fast wireless data access anywhere Verizon has service. The GPS uses this module, and you can't use both the GPS and EVDO module at once. The Sierra Wireless modem supports EVDO rev. A with backward compatibility with EVDO rev. 0 and 1xRTT.
Our review unit shipped with the 6 cell extended main battery and no secondary battery since the fixed bay was equipped with a DVD drive. Given the permutations- 3 or 6 cell main battery and possible presence of the 3 cell secondary battery, we obviously can't state results for all configurations. Lenovo claims that the standard 3 cell battery is good for up to 4.3 hours and the 6 cell extended is good for 6.5 hours. Our 6 cell battery didn't come close to 6 hours and lasted more like 4 to 4.5 on the "balanced" power plan with WiFi active, no optical drive use, and the screen set to 75% brightness. That should put the 3cell standard battery at 2 to 2:15, which isn't impressive for an ultralight with a relatively slow and power-frugal CPU.
The 4" x 1.5" x 1.5" power brick is mid-sized and will add about 7 or 8 ounces to your gear bag's weight. We'd like to see something a bit smaller and lighter with an ultralight notebook, but we've seen worse.
The Lenovo ThinkPad is very slim and light, yet it makes relatively few concessions in terms of features-- an applaudable feat. The machine has plenty of basic ports (no HDMI, S-Video or FireWire-- but that would be asking an awful lot) and an internal DVD burner. The Sony Vaio TZ 11" notebooks manage to pack quite a few features into an even smaller package, but the Lenovo is faster and more usable thanks to its 13.3" display and full-sized notebook keyboard. For the frequent traveler who doesn't want to lose networking options, and optical drive or overall usability, the X300 is a dream come true. It may not be as drop-dead gorgeous and thin as the MacBook Air, but you won't have to carry an external DVD drive, Ethernet dongle or USB hub either.
Pro: Very slim, light yet full-featured. Has most everything the road warrior needs. Resolution is higher than average, which means you see more on-screen. Keyboard is excellent in the ThinkPad tradition of desktop-like keyboards with long travel and lots of tactile feedback. Strong performance for an ultralight.
Con: Expensive. Battery life isn't great. Display isn't very bright and doesn't look as good as competing LED backlit displays on the market.
Display:13.3", 1440 x 900 pixel resolution LED backlit color LCD. Intel mobile 965 Express Chipset, X3100 integrated graphics.
Battery: 3 and 6 cell batteries available. Our unit has the 6 cell 4,000 mAh @ 10.8v Lithium
Ion rechargeable. Optional 3 cell additional battery in place of optical drive in the fixed bay. 3 cell main battery runtime claimed: 4.3 hours, 6 cell is 6.5 hours. Longer with secondary battery in fixed bay.
Core 2 Duo SL7100 processor with 800MHz front side bus and 4 megs level 2 cache. 1 gig DDR2 RAM with 2 SODIMM slots, 4 gigs max (can order with 1, 2 or 4 gigs installed).
Drives:64 gig SSD (solid state drive), ours was made by Samsung, 3.0 GPS SATA. Internal DVD burner is optional (Matshita UJ-844 8X DVD +/- RW drive, 7mm height).
Size:12.5 x 9.1 x 0.73- 1.0 inches. Weight: 2.9 lbs. with weight saver in fixed bay with 3 cell main battery, 3.13 lbs. with DVD drive installed and 3 cell main battery. 3.32 lbs. with 6 cell main battery and DVD drive.
GPS:Yes, internal GPS that's integrated with the Verizon modem.
Security:Biometric fingerprint scanner is standard, ThinkVantage fingerprint software.
in stereo speakers, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone
jack and mic jack.
Intel WiFi Link 4965AGN WiFi 802.11a/b/g/n, Gigabit Ethernet and Bluetooth 2.0 +EDR. Optional internal Verizon EVDO modem.
Vista Business Edition. Vista Ultimate available for $70 additional. Usual suite of ThinkPad management tools included including ThinkVantage software. Diskeeper Home Edition, InterVideo WinDVD Creator and WinDVD (on models sold with a DVD drive), Norton Internet Security 2007 90 day trial and PC Doctor.
Ports:3 USB 2.0 ports, Gigabit Ethernet, VGA, audio in and out.