Walt Mossberg

Price May Be Steep, but Thin ThinkPad Has Abundant Features

I am writing these words on a new laptop computer that packs a full-size screen and keyboard into a body that’s quite thin and light. And it has a solid-state drive with no moving parts instead of a hard disk.

But this isn’t the much-touted Apple MacBook Air, introduced last month with all those qualities. Instead, it’s a new ThinkPad from Lenovo, the X300. While the two machines are both impressive products, they are different in key respects.

I’ve been testing the ThinkPad X300 and I have found it to be a solid, innovative laptop that will be perfect for many mobile PC users. It isn’t as sexy or inexpensive as the MacBook Air, but it has numerous features the Apple lacks, especially a wide array of ports and connectivity options, a built-in DVD drive and a removable battery.

I can recommend the X300 for road warriors without hesitation, provided they can live with its two biggest downsides: a relatively paltry file-storage capacity and a hefty price tag. This ThinkPad starts at $2,476 for a stripped-down model and at $2,799 for a preconfigured retail version with a half-size battery. The configuration I expect to be the most popular, with a full-size battery and DVD drive, is about $3,000.

The key factor in both of these downsides is the solid-state drive, or SSD, which replaces the hard disk. The SSD is fast and rugged, but today it can hold only a cramped 64 gigabytes of files and is very costly. Apple offers a MacBook Air version with the same solid-state drive for a similar high price. But Apple also has a much more affordable $1,799 model with an 80-gigabyte standard hard disk. Lenovo doesn’t.

Dell
Lenovo’s ThinkPad X300

The X300, due to go on sale next week at lenovo.com and at a few retailers, isn’t as thin as the MacBook Air. In fact, at its thinnest point it is almost as thick as the Apple is at its thickest point. And when the new ThinkPad is ordered in what are likely to be its most common configurations, it is heavier than the three-pound Apple and, in fact, fails to make the three-pound cutoff that typically denotes a “subnotebook.” Only one configuration breaks that barrier, at 2.93 pounds, and it is the stripped-down model with just a half-size battery and no DVD drive.

But the X300, which will come with either Windows Vista or Windows XP, is still very thin and light. It’s under an inch thick and even at its heaviest is only 3.5 pounds. Yet, like the Apple, it packs in a widescreen 13.3-inch display and a full-width keyboard.

Plus, Lenovo has used that extra thickness to good advantage. While the MacBook Air’s extreme thinness makes it gorgeous, it left no room for an Ethernet jack, a removable battery, a built-in DVD drive or a cellphone modem. The X300 has all these things, either standard or as options, plus three USB ports, compared with just one for the Apple. The Lenovo even offers GPS location-finding, the ability to connect to new wireless USB devices and future support for a forthcoming wireless network standard called WiMax.

The ThinkPad has another advantage: Even though its screen is the same size as the Apple’s, it is higher resolution, so more material can be seen without scrolling. Some people find that higher-resolution screens make text too small to read easily, but I didn’t experience any such problem on the X300.

In my tests, the X300 performed very well, even though it has a relatively slow processor, slower than the MacBook’s.

But the ThinkPad’s battery life was only fair, and was inferior to the Apple’s. In my tough test, where I turn off all power-saving features, set the screen to maximum brightness, turn on Wi-Fi and run a repeating play list of music, the X300 lasted three hours and five minutes. That was 24 minutes less than the comparable MacBook Air. And this was on the $3,000 configuration with a full-size battery and a DVD drive. The more basic models, with a half-size battery, would last only half as long, according to Lenovo.

MacBook Air
MacBook Air

In more normal use, the model I tested would likely last under four hours on a charge, and the base models maybe two, compared with about 4.5 hours for the Mac.

I also tested another version of the ThinkPad, which substitutes a second, half-size battery for the DVD drive. It got five hours and 15 minutes, which means you could likely get 6.5 to seven hours in normal usage. That model costs around $2,850.

There are two more factors worth mentioning. I believe that both the Mac operating system and the software that comes with it are superior to the Windows operating system and built-in software offered on the ThinkPad. And the Mac isn’t susceptible to the vast majority of viruses and spyware, and doesn’t require third-party security software.

Also, the ThinkPad’s screen, when opened, stands significantly higher than the Mac’s, so it is less usable in a coach seat on an airplane when the person in front of you reclines.

If you’re happy with Windows, can afford the price tag, and value the many ports and connectivity options Lenovo has packed in, the thin and rugged X300 is a great choice. It’s a notable engineering accomplishment.

Email me at mossberg@wsj.com. Find all my columns and videos online, free, at the new All Things Digital Web site, http://walt.allthingsd.com.


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