(CNET) -- We're not even two months into the new year, and we've already seen Apple's remarkably slim MacBook Air and Toshiba's update to its featherweight Portege R500.
Both were very strong contenders for the top spot on our list of favorite ultraportable laptops--until this week, when we got our hands on the Lenovo ThinkPad X300.
The newest addition to the ThinkPad X series incorporates the best of the MacBook Air (13.3-inch display, full-size keyboard, thickness less than one inch) with the best of the Portege R500 (solid-state hard drive, thorough selection of ports) while also adding its own great features, such as a built-in DVD burner, WWAN connectivity, and GPS. The X300's ThinkPad DNA is evident in its instantly recognizable black, square-edged case, but at 0.73 inch thick and weighing anywhere from 2.9 pounds to 3.5 pounds (depending on your battery and optical drive choices), it's simply the sleekest ThinkPad yet.
The biggest criticism of the ThinkPad X300 is its price: the base configuration costs $2,476 and goes up from there. But innovative design, thorough features, and cutting-edge components don't come cheap, and the ThinkPad X300 is truly unique in its balance of portability and usability.
Aside from the laptop's dimensions, the design changes with the ThinkPad X300 have been incremental. The ultraportable still features a rectangular black case built around a magnesium chassis. There's still a blue ThinkVantage button above the keyboard, a fingerprint reader below it, and a keyboard light on the top edge of the display.
However, ThinkPad fans will notice small changes that make the X300 a bit more attractive. The lid and wrist rest feature an appealing soft matte finish; the ThinkVantage, power, and mute buttons glow when pressed; and the front edge is devoid of any ports or switches.
In addition to the keyboard light, the ThinkPad X300's display bezel includes a 1.3-megapixel Web cam and a noise-canceling digital microphone for Web conferencing. The matte-finish display itself features a 1,440x900 native resolution that's sharper than that of the MacBook Air and other similarly sized screens, resulting in text and icons that are a bit smaller than you'd expect.
The sharper resolution doesn't cause tremendous problems, though we did find ourselves pumping up the font size on a newspaper's Web site so we could read a lengthy article. We also zoomed in a bit when working on documents and spreadsheets. The trade-off: more screen real estate for multitasking and, when it's time for a break, beautiful video.
Given the amount of typing the typical executive does through the course of the work day, a keyboard can make or break an ultraportable. The ThinkPad X300 actually uses the same keyboard found on Lenovo's 14- and 15-inch models--which is to say, not the condensed keyboard found on previous X series models and many ultraportable laptops from other manufacturers. After conducting an entire morning's work--and writing this review--on the ThinkPad X300, we still don't feel like we've been typing on a laptop. We love it.
Lenovo decided to include both the red eraser-head TrackPoint pointing stick and a touch pad on the ThinkPad X300. The decision is understandable: many ThinkPad users are viscerally attached to their TrackPoint's, while other users can't stand it, so why not include both methods? However, the double sets of mouse buttons seem to run counter to the overall theme of simplification that the ThinkPad X300 embodies.
In order to make room for the TrackPoint's buttons, the touch pad is placed rather low on the wrist rest, with its buttons near the laptop's front edge. Fortunately, the ThinkPad X300 is thin enough that we could use the touch pad with our wrist resting on a desk surface--or on our leg, when the laptop was in our lap.
Of greater concern is the fact that, during our lazier typing moments when our wrists dropped to the wrist rest, we were likely to graze the touch pad and accidentally misplace the cursor.
The ThinkPad X300 is an interesting exercise in minimalism. The laptop lacks some features that would be considered standard on an ultraportable, such as an expansion card slot or multiformat memory card reader, both of which are found on the Toshiba Portege R500. But it adds features that will likely be of higher value to mobile workers, such as WWAN, wireless USB, and even GPS.
More notably, it incorporates many features that the MacBook Air does not, including two more USB ports, an Ethernet connection, and a built-in DVD burner. These additions make the ThinkPad X300 a realistic choice for use as a primary computer, which is a major advantage over its Apple competitor, especially given the price.
The base model of the ThinkPad X300 costs a hefty $2,476. Much of that price can be attributed to the laptop's 64GB solid-state drive, which promises faster application launch and boot times as well as a longer lifetime than a traditional hard drive with moving parts. (Unlike the MacBook Air, which comes in a low-cost configuration with a traditional spinning hard drive, the ThinkPad X300 is available only with a solid-state drive.)
Our review unit included a few upgrades--twice as much RAM as the base configuration, plus WWAN, GPS, and an extended-life six-cell battery--that brought the price to $2,936. That's a bit high, even for an ultraportable, but still below the cost of a MacBook Air equipped with a solid-state drive.
Like the MacBook Air, the ThinkPad X300 incorporates Intel's new small-form-factor Core 2 Duo CPU, though with a slightly slower clock speed. That slower speed is at least partly to blame for the ThinkPad X300 trailing behind the MacBook Air on the multimedia multitasking portion of CNET Labs' performance benchmarks.
Fortunately the ThinkPad's 2GB of RAM helped it keep up with the MacBook Air on our Photoshop test, where it also scored well ahead of the Toshiba Portege R500. As with any Core 2 Duo system, the ThinkPad X300 proved more than adequate for typical business productivity tasks, including Web surfing, media playback, and running office applications. We were able to conduct a full morning's work while streaming music over the wireless connection without any stuttering or noticeable performance issues.
In anecdotal testing of the ThinkPad X300 with the six-cell battery, we were able to get between 3 and 4 hours of battery life, depending on our usage and screen brightness settings. On CNET Labs' DVD battery drain test, the ThinkPad X300 died out after 3 hours, 43 minutes, just 20 minutes before the MacBook Air. That's obviously not enough juice for a full day of work away from the desk, but it is nearly an hour longer than the Portege R500's battery life.
Here's another place where the ThinkPad X300's built-in DVD is an advantage: you can purchase an additional three-cell battery that fits inside the drive bay to extend your mobile computing time. Also an advantage: the ThinkPad X300's removable battery, which is remarkable only because users cannot replace the battery in the MacBook Air.
As Lenovo has moved toward offering built-to-order systems, the company has dropped the baseline warranty for ThinkPads to a single year. Extending coverage to three years costs $119; other reasonably priced upgrades add coverage for accidental drops or spills and LCD damage. The preloaded suite of ThinkVantage applications helps users troubleshoot problems, and Lenovo's support Web site includes the expected troubleshooting topics, driver downloads, and user guides. E-mail to a friend
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