The Lenovo ThinkPad X301 Laptop: In Search of Perfection


I'm traveling this week with a new Lenovo ThinkPad X301 fully configured. If it isn't the perfect laptop, I'm not aware of anything closer. It has similar dimensions and weight to the MacBook Air, plus a removable primary battery and a spare bay battery, and a 128GB SSD (Solid State Drive). It is both quiet and fast. I have the optional AC/DC power supply, which is very thin and works on airlines equipped with seat power. With a spare battery, I have yet to find myself with a dead notebook. Finally, it has built-in Verizon WAN, which is not only ranked the best in coverage, but is one of the most economical as well. At this configuration, this isn't the most expensive notebook I have, but it is definitely in the running. However, it is, by far, the best notebook for my use I have yet found.


But what is best for me may not be best for you. Let's chat about what makes for a great notebook this year-end 2008.


What Makes a Great Notebook?


Notebook computers, by nature, are tradeoffs. They have to provide adequate performance and still be portable and affordable. These three conditions are in constant conflict. You can get notebooks with up to 19" screens, but they are heavy and have very poor battery life. You can get them with 12" screens, but those screens are cramped and the keyboards often suck. Products with 13.3," 14" or 15" screens fall in the general class of those trying to provide the ideal balance. And, for most of us, it is balance that causes a product to approach perfection.


Flexibility is important, as well. While for many years, three-spindle notebooks (having floppy, optical, and magnetic drives) were a requirement because you needed the floppy for emergencies, this eventually dropped to two spindles (magnetic, optical), and then to one as we increasingly were able to use network and Web resources to load applications and, yes, download movies. This new X301 I'm using has no spindles, giving up the magnetic drive for a flash-based product. These flash drives are still too expensive (but dropping very quickly) for most, but the current generation is not only dead quiet and very power efficient, it is noticeably faster than its magnetic counterparts. Pricing puts it ahead of the curve for most of us; however, I find I don't miss having an optical drive. Having the choice is nice, though, and we, as an industry, are still in the process of making the move away from optical drives.


Ideally, a laptop should be able to run off power for a full work day. As I have this X301 configured, I probably could run it for a day if I were aggressive with the power settings. But there are few all-day notebooks on the market, and they require such large batteries that their carry weight tends to drift to the high side. Here, we are likely still waiting for fuel cells to reach viability, and AC power is so prevalent that I wonder if, by the time fuel cells arrive, we will need them anymore.


Connectivity is very important. We have moved from sneakernet (sharing floppies), to Ethernet, to Wi-Fi, and most recently, WAN capabilities in notebooks. The problem with WAN at the moment is that, should you have a smartphone, you have to have two WAN services. I'm using a new Palm Treo Pro, which will also function as a high-speed WAN modem. I think that's the most economical solution if you have both products, but I have yet to see someone create a seamless user experience for this. WiMax is coming and, once it is available, should replace WAN as a more affordable option -- if performance is adequate (and that is a big if). The best integrated offering on the market is the built-in WAN approach, and Verizon continues to be ranked first by folks like Consumer Reports with regard to providers.


Security is incredibly important, given how often these things are stolen. Having both a TPM and a fingerprint reader is becoming more common. Most notebooks with TPMs have them disabled and require a lot of work to get them working. This X301 has one of the best utilities to enable a TPM I've seen, and I'm likely one of the few now using this technology. Given that many of us are paying for it anyway, making it easy to enable seems to have been a long time in coming.


Appearance is increasingly important to many of us. Dell, HP, and especially Apple are focused like lasers on making stunning laptops. The Apple products, for me (and this is subjective), generally go too far because they sacrifice both durability (aluminum is a soft metal) and functionality to get just the right look. I can't deny the Apple products are beautiful, but they trade off usability in the form of good keyboards and usable track pads to be stunning. For something you actually have to work with, for me, that isn't a good trade. They lack balance. On the other hand, the X301, while one of the most aggressively thin products on the market, isn't very noticeable and seems to go too far to be plain. However, given the current economic conditions and the likelihood that products in this class will be stolen more often, this may actually be a benefit. I expect this product will be stolen less often than others that are more ostentatious.


Wrapping Up


If you find yourself shopping for a notebook computer this year, the X301 provides a nice baseline you can work from to trade off price, size, usability, battery life, capability and technology. Having a reference platform to work from can give you a sense for what you are willing to trade off and what capabilities are worth the money. Because I live off my notebook, having something in this class makes a great deal of sense to me, but we aren't all created equal and there is more range in products and vendors than ever before.


With a clear buyers' market, you can likely find something that comes close to your own ideal at an aggressive price if you shop smart. Good hunting!