Lenovo is rethinking the ThinkPad.
For years, the iconic laptop brand, originally created by IBM, has been known for solid construction and great keyboards, but with a boxy black design and relatively high prices. It has a business orientation, though it also has been the choice of some tech-savvy consumers willing to pay a little more and forego flashy style touches.
IBM (IBM) and Lenovo, a Chinese-owned company that bought the brand in 2005, have at times been bold with the ThinkPad’s engineering. For instance, in 2008, Lenovo launched a very thin but full-width line, the X300 series, which uses cutting-edge materials and goes to head-to-head with Apple’s (AAPL) ultrathin MacBook Air.
But Lenovo has been reluctant to tinker much with the ThinkPad’s design. It has retained the classic but boring black-box look and preserved the solid, comfortable keyboard.
Now, to broaden the brand’s appeal, the company has decided to depart from that template. It has just launched two new ThinkPads at uncharacteristically low prices, with new designs, sizes and colors, and—shudder—a revamped keyboard.
I’ve been testing the two new models, and, in general, I like them. They are the least expensive ThinkPads ever offered, and the first available in a color choice other than black. Each can be ordered in red as well. Also, one is the first ThinkPad in years that is a mini-notebook, rather than a full-size laptop.
Lenovo’s new ThinkPad X100e.
One of these two new models, the X100e, is a small, netbook-like machine with an 11.6-inch screen—starting at $449, though the upgraded configuration I reviewed costs $599. The company refuses to call the X100e a netbook. Its keyboard, screen and resolution are better than what many netbooks offer, but it’s also heavier.
The other new line is called the ThinkPad Edge. It’s a full-size machine, with a 13.3-inch screen, that is more rounded than traditional ThinkPads, and has a silvery band around its edges. It starts at $579, though the step-up configuration I reviewed costs $799.
Both machines retain the solid feel of a ThinkPad. Neither is the lightest computer in its size class, though they’re not overly heavy. The little X100e weighs 3.3 pounds and the Edge weighs 3.6 pounds with its base battery, and 3.9 pounds with a larger battery.
And both retain a classic ThinkPad feature—the TrackPoint, a small red nub in the middle of the keyboard that can be used to move the cursor. It is an alternative to the touchpad that each machine also includes.
In my tests, both new ThinkPads proved snappy, though neither has the latest or most potent processors. Both ran Windows 7 fine, and handled well a variety of popular software—Microsoft Office, Firefox, iTunes and Adobe Reader. One caveat: The test units Lenovo sent me had twice the standard memory of base models. And my test Edge had a more powerful processor.
Under my tough battery test, where I turn off power-saving software, keep Wi-Fi on, set the screen at maximum brightness, and play a continuous loop of music, the X100e’s battery lasted 3 hours and 44 minutes. In normal use, you could likely get 4½ hours or more.
The Edge had a battery time of 4 hours and 16 minutes, so you could likely get over 5 hours in normal use. But the costlier Edge configuration I tested had a larger battery than the base unit, so would likely last only two-thirds as long.
Start-up times on the two were respectable for a Windows PC: ready to go from cold start in just over a minute. The touchpads on both also feature multitouch gestures, like the ability to use your fingers to resize or rotate photos.
What about the new keyboards? Instead of the closely packed, large, scooped keys that ThinkPad loyalists love, the X100e and Edge have “island-style” keyboards, with distinctly separated, flatter-looking letter and number keys. The Backspace, Shift, Enter and Tab keys are large and prominent. Lenovo eliminated the little-used SysReq, Scroll Lock and Pause keys.
I found the letter and number keys to be comfortable, accurate and fast, with a solid, reliable feel—even on the smaller X100e. Lenovo explains this is because the letter and number key tops aren’t really flat, but have the same curve as the tops of classic ThinkPad keys.
But the new keyboard has compromises. On the Edge, the Delete key was too small and insufficiently prominent. On both devices, the Home, End, Page Up and Page Down keys are far apart, and the latter two are tiny and hard to press, especially on the Edge. The Num Lock key and virtual numeric keyboard are gone.
All in all, ThinkPad lovers looking to save money, and other PC users considering a ThinkPad, might find these new models worth a try.