Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Lenovo ThinkPad X61 ultraportable review

Ever since Lenovo took over IBM's PC division, there has been speculations that the legendary built quality of ThinkPad would suffer. Having recently acquired a ThinkPad X61, I can safely brush aside these concerns as unjustified. ThinkPads laptops are still quite possibly the ultimate notebooks for people who who demands the most reliable portable workhorse, and the ultra portable X61 is no different.

The X61 has since been replaced by the X200, but there are several reasons why you shouldn't yet dismiss this older model, especially when you can get them for a fraction of the cost of the X200. Coming up from the X31, I found the X61 to be almost exactly the same size (smaller actually) and lighter too (200g less with standard 4-cell battery). The overall classic bento shape of the ThinkPad has been retained while thankfully black remained black, making this iconic series instantly recognisable from other me-too notebooks. Personally I kinda dislike the new X200 due to its wider footprint as well as huge bezel, but maybe that's because I am jealous!


CPU: Intel Core 2 Duo T7100
Chipset: Intel 965 Express with Intel X3100 GPU
Memory: 2x 1GB DDR2 PC2-5300 (max 8GB)
Hard Drive: 100GB 7200rpm SATA
Screen: 12.1" 1024x768 LCD
Other: Bluetooth 2.0 EDR+, Intel PRO/Wireless 3945 ABG
Operating System: Windows XP Professional SP3
Warranty: 3 years walk-in (2 1/2 years remaining)

I was initially disappointed of the lack of rubberised texture from the ThinkPad X31 notebook, though I still suspect that the lid is still rubberised. The display is fitted with a 12" LCD screen sporting a fairly disappointing XGA resolution (my decade old Inspiron 7000 had that resolution!). The screen here is very bright and does not suffer from dead pixels or light bleeding. On the top you have one of the most beloved IBM innovation, the ThinkLight, which is a LED that shines down at the keyboard allowing you to type in the dark. Two latches near the edge keeps the lid shut. On the bottom are a set of status lights. Depending on configurations you can easily see the status of the ThinkPad's WiFi, Bluetooth, battery, hard drive, power, standby etc.

Like previous X-Series ThinkPads, the X61 is fitted with an almost full sized keyboard. If there is a single reason to get a ThinkPad, it is for the keyboard. Quite simply, ThinkPad keyboards destroys all their competitors. I even avoid using external full size keyboard as the keyboards here are very robust, has a comfortable key travel, isn't too loud and does not flex. You can comfortably use this for hours without nary an ache. A TrackPoint sits in the middle of the 'home' area. Some may hate the nipple as a mouse device, but I absolutely adore it. The middle UltraNav button allows you to quickly scroll down documents or web pages. As a package, the TrackPoint is more intuitive and accurate, and its position allows for less finger travel thus allowing for increased productivity.

The power button sits above the keyboard near the middle. Next to it are the volume keys and ThinkVantage key (formerly Access IBM on older models), which when pressed will bring up either the Productivity Centre that help configure or diagnose problems with the notebook, or the Predesktop Area (hidden partition recovery area). Unfortunately compared to the X31, the keys here are small and clumsy, but they do work much better than those touch-based one you find on flashy notebooks. As Lenovo now fully owns IBM's former PC division including the ThinkPad line, the old classic RGB IBM logo is now sadly gone forever (no amount of pleading will bring them back lest IBM buys back the ThinkPad division which I doubt). Imprinted on the bottom right is a new ThinkPad logo, with the words 'X-series' highlighting Lenovo's desire to acknowledge the strong brand loyalty.

The bottom front of the X61 has a WiFi on-off toggle. The left side contains a single type-II CardBus slot. Below it is a full size SD-IO card slot (it is SDHC compatible). A Gigabit LAN port sits next to them followed by a legacy VGA port, a single USB 2.0 port and finally the vent. On the right side of the X61, we have a 4-pin IEEE1394 port (FireWire, i-Link), two additional USB 2.0 ports, headphone and microphone 3.5mm jacks, 56k modem port, the new power socket and a standard Kensington lock port. The hard drive access bay is also accessible from the right side, though you will need to remove a single screw from the chassis to pull it out. The back side is reserved for the battery. The optional 8-cell battery does stick out quite a bit. As for the battery life, the standard 4-cell battery works extremely well, providing me with enough juice to do a complete system recovery and play time to boot during my first test.

On the bottom is a single speaker, RAM door (which gives you access to two SODIMM slots), the UltraBase docking station port, battery latch and various screws. If you look closely you will also see two keyboard drainage holes, where accidental spillage of water on the keyboard will just drain right out. The speaker is okay for watching various YouTube videos of morons attempting to prove Darwin, but you'll definitely want to hook it up to an external speaker for watching films. Removing the bottom will reveal two MiniPCI Express slots, one of which is taken up by the WiFi card (in this case an Intel PRO/Wireless 3945 ABG). The other is empty and can be configured to take an authorised WWAN card. Speaking of wireless, the Intel PRO reception is good though I did wish that it was configured with an Atheros powered ThinkPad 11a/b/g card. Jennifer's Acer has an Atheros card that is able to see networks my X61 was unable to. That said the Intel PRO card performance was still acceptable.

L-R: Sony PS2 Slim AC, Lenovo 65W AC, Dell Latitude 65W AC

Overall built quality is excellent. The stainless steel hinge allows you to swivel the screen 180 degrees and is so sturdy that where other notebooks will simply snapped into half, you can have no worries carrying a X61 by its lid (I don't recommend abusing your ThinkPads - but they are built to be abused!). At 1.41kg, the ThinkPad X61 is extremely portable. Even with the optional 8-cell battery the notebook weights around 1.6kg. Including the optional UltraBase docking station, the weight barely exceeds 2.7kg. Sadly the X61 uses the new AC barrel plug design, so it won't be compatible with previous ThinkPad chargers. On the upside the new Lenovo 65W AC adapter is small, petite and weighs less around 260g. The total weight for a X61 with 4-cell battery and the 65W AC is a shoulder friendly 1.7kg.

Performance wise the X61 blows my old X31 away. This isn't surprising as the X61 is fitted with a Merom-based Intel dual core processor, but even in single threaded benchmarks like Super Pi, the X61's 1.8Ghz clock speed completely thrashes the X31's 1.4Ghz clock speed, calculating at more than twice the speed despite the modest clock speed advantage. Even then, the X61 is almost always silent and if the fans do kick in, isn't as loud as the X31. Heat was never an issue with the newer model too, despite having opted for a full voltage C2D. I can comfortably use it on my lap. Unfortunately despite supporting Socket P, the T7100 is soldered down. If you desire to upgrade to a faster processor in the future, you'll have to replace the whole motherboard. You can easily purchase spare parts direct from Lenovo so long as you know the FRU part you are seeking.

The benchmark results certainly would not set the world on fire as the T7100 processor and hard drive is clearly on the average side.

Super Pi 1 million: 31s
wPrime 32 million: 48s

In terms of real world usage I find it more than fast enough. With multiple processes queueing on start-up (mainly ThinkVantage utilities, Comodo firewall and AVG), the system is able to cold boot to usable state in less than 40 seconds despite the processor rarely clocking above 1.2Ghz. Even a bloated workhorse like Firefox 3 is able to start up with minimum fuss despite having eight add-ons enabled. I am running Windows XP with it, but I don't see any possible issues with it running Vista. The Intel X3100 integrated graphics won't allow you to play modern games, but it is good enough for Telltale's Sam & Max and perhaps even SimCity 4. I had no problems playing 720p and 1080p WMV files, though it did struggle at times with 1080p h.264 files.

The ThinkPad X61 notebook came bundled with some bloatware, of which I purged by doing a complete re-installation through the Rescue & Recovery application during boot-up. You can select which program is omitted during the recovery. Naturally first class junks like Google Desktop, Live Toolbar and Norton something was de-commissioned at the source. Apart from Lenovo's Message Center, I allowed most of them to be installed as unlike most third party applications, ThinkVantage is actually useful. For example their Power Manager program is great for optimising battery life and even gives you detailed battery information including manufacturing date, current charge capacity as well as the number of battery charge cycles you have used up. Perhaps the most useful is the Active Protection System which automatically parks the hard drive's head when it detects movement via the built-in accelerometer, though if you do install a SSD drive you will be stupid to keep this utility activated.

Overall I am glad I got the X61. Sure I could have gotten something flashier, faster, thinner and more expensive to sit with in Starbucks, but the X61 is just as sexy offers features that may not exist in more expensive alternatives. Most importantly is the reliability and durability that comes with this machine. Despite getting mine used, the transferable 3 year warranty (2.5 years remaining on mine) and the peace of mind that comes with it makes it worth it. ThinkPad X-Series are powerful machines that can be configured up to the fastest mobile Core 2 Duo processors and make suitable desktop replacements (provided you get their UltraBase), so don't be fooled by their petite size.

+ Good general computing performance
+ Mature ThinkVantage applications
+ Sturdy built-quality
+ Still the best keyboard on the market
+ Classic ThinkPad design
- CPU soldered down
- Outdated screen resolution
- No recovery DVD


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