Few brands have as firmly established a brand identity as the Lenovo ThinkPad (and the IBM ThinkPad before that). The iconic look and feel of these systems have changed in only subtle ways over the years, maintaining a road-tested list of features, from the solid, chunky keyboards to the jutting top lip of the display lid to the familiar red trackpoint and secondary mouse buttons.
The ThinkPad X series are small, if not exactly svelte, versions of the bigger ThinkPads found in corporate offices around the world. The current version of the X201 maintains a surprisingly large keyboard, accomplished by literally running the keys to the very edges of the chassis, as well as a 12-inch display and Intel’s latest Core i5 processor.
It’s about as powerful an ultraportable package as you’re likely to find (and a wholly different beast from the other small-but-mighty laptop we’ve seen recently, the Dell Alienware M11x), but it’s also not nearly as portable as most 11- or 12-inch Netbook-style systems. We could see shaving a little mass off by ditching the trackpoint (which requires a large wrist rest to accommodate its double set of mouse buttons), but at the same time, were happy to shoulder a little more weight in return for the semirugged feel and the peace of mind the construction provides.
If the Lenovo ThinkPad X201 looks familiar, that’s exactly the point. Similar to the rest of Lenovo’s ThinkPad line, and virtually identical to the last X-series ThinkPad we reviewed, there’s a satisfying sameness to the micromanaged (in a good way) design details. Sure, there are occasional tweaks and improvements, but today’s ThinkPad retains much of the design DNA of systems from years ago.
Interestingly, however, Lenovo has started to seriously experiment with its standard look and feel, starting with the underrated consumer-targeted IdeaPad series. We’ve seen new colors, new keyboards, and an overall much flashier look from those systems, and some of those ideas have started to bleed over to the commercial side, with laptops such as the ThinkPad Edge.
This system, however, sticks to the traditional beats. Exactly where in the list of contenders it places is up to individual taste, but Lenovo’s chunky tapered-key keyboards are in nearly everyone’s top tier of laptop keyboards. The look is positively retro now, with many (including several Lenovo models) switching to flat-topped island-style keyboards. That said, this version of Lenovo’s classic keyboard is a dream, with easy to hit keys, large versions of the Shift and other important keys, and absolutely zero flex, under even heavy typing. Our only complaint would be that on this smaller keyboard tray, the red trackpoint button seems bigger than ever, and we occasionally stumbled over it while typing.
The recessed touchpad has a slick, accurate surface and is easy to use, although it seems small compared to the generous keyboard, as if it had to be shrunk down to squeeze in the second row of mouse buttons above it.
One of the reasons ThinkPads are popular with big companies, small businesses, and individual consumers alike is the specialized suite of software and support apps that come with every system. Called ThinkVantage, and handily summoned by a dedicated blue button just above the keyboard, the ThinkVantage interface gives you one-stop access to security and diagnostic tools, plus Lenovo support features. It’s a very useful tool, but at the same time, it may be our imagination, but there does seem to be more advertising for Lenovo accessories and services in ThinkVantage than we recall from previous versions.
The 12.1-inch wide-screen LCD display offers a 1,280×800 native resolution, which is standard for many 13 and 14-inch laptops (12-inch models themselves are a relative rarity). It’s essentially a 16:10 aspect ratio version of the 1,366×768 displays seen on 16:9 laptops with wider screens.
One of the best reasons for a nonbusiness user to consider a biz-oriented system like this is Lenovo’s matte displays–a nice change of pace from the overly glossy screens we usually see (or try to see, through the ever-present glare).
Lenovo laptops are typically highly configurable, although they rarely offer much in the way of CPU or GPU choice. Instead, you get a variety of options for RAM, hard drives, networking, and even operating system. Even the ExpressCard slot, nearly extinct among consumer laptops, is here, offering some extra expansion flexibility, as well as an equally rare old-fashioned modem jack–both are more frequently found on business systems than consumer ones.
Intel’s Core i5 CPU, in this case the 2.53GHz Intel Core i5 M540, continues to impress. Especially as it’s packed into a 12-inch system (even if it’s on the large side of 12-inch models). You’re not going to find many laptops at this size that can pack in the same power as a mainstream 15-inch system–the only comparable ultraportable we can think of right now is Sony’s Vaio Z116. The end result is a laptop that can handle just about any non-graphics-intensive chore you can throw at it.
The Lenovo ThinkPad X201 ran for 6 hours and 52 minutes on our video playback battery drain test, using the included six-cell battery. That’s very impressive, and usually the kind of numbers we only see in the best low-power Netbooks. Working in the system’s favor are its larger battery (the extended battery we tested sticks out from the back significantly) and the smart power management built into Lenovo’s ThinkVantage software.
Lenovo includes only a one-year mail-in parts-and-labor warranty by default, but if you’re buying a ThinkPad for mission-critical office use, you’ll probably want to upgrade to a combination of a longer term and on-site service. Moving up to a three-year term that also includes onsite service will run $223, and a variety of other options are available. The battery itself is not covered by extended warranties, but you can add a “no questions asked” three-year battery coverage plan for $139. Online support is accessible through a 24-7, toll-free phone line, and an easy-to-navigate online support site with a knowledge base and driver downloads.