Lenovo ThinkPad X220: the customisable ultralight travel laptop

By danwarne, July 6 2011
Lenovo ThinkPad X220: the customisable ultralight travel laptop

This week Australian Business Traveller is scoping out the best Windows notebooks for frequent business travellers. These high-flying laptops deliver just the right mix of maximum computing power and long battery life in a slim, light yet robust package.

Most ultra-light travel laptops come in just one or two configurations, but the ThinkPad X220 series comes in three -- and can then be customised even further to suit your needs.

This flexible configuration really sets it apart from many of the competitors in this space. Often, because the manufacturing of extremely thin and light notebooks is so intricate and delicate, computer makers offer a one-size-fits-all configuration.

Lenovo has managed to preserve the flexibility for its factory to swap parts depending on what customers need. As a result, the notebook isn't as thin as some of its competitors, but it's very light. 

Of course, the ThinkPad isn't going to win any beauty contests when put up for parade alongside some of the other ultra-thin and light notebooks.

It's finished in the traditional rugged ThinkPad black plastic -- no fancy brushed duralumin or easily scuffed aluminium here. In fact, the visual style of the ThinkPad hasn't changed much in 10 years, but that's just the way ThinkPad owners like it -- these machines are renowned for their durability and no-nonsense design.

Lenovo claims "incredibly long battery life" for these models, with up to 16 hours using the standard six-cell battery included. A nine-cell battery is available as an optional extra.

Other nice improvements over older ThinkPad models include screen hinges that keep the laptop closed without needing a latching hook at the front, a giant touchpad, and even drain-holes in the spill resistant keyboard.

The laptop also has two microphones for improved noise cancellation during voice and video conferencing, keyboard noise suppression technology to make typing in calls possible and a dedicated LED-lit microphone mute key so you can easily drop out of a conversation without having to go hunting for the mute button in Skype.

Rather than describing all the ports and connectors provided, this image from Lenovo explains them well:

Lenovo is currently offering the X220 with three years' manufacturer's warranty, which is a great bit of additional value. Most laptops only come with 12 months.

Note -- Lenovo has another ultra-thin and light notebook, the ThinkPad X1, which is considerably thinner than the X220 at just 1.69cm. However, we think the X220 is a better choice for most business travellers, as it has long battery life, while the X1 is very limited in this respect. The X1 is also heavier at 1.69KG than the X220, at 1.45KG. 

Size and Weight

The X220 is a 12.5" notebook, so a tad smaller in screen-size than the 13.3" that has become the norm for ultra-thin and light travel laptops. But it doesn't trade screen resolution, so you'll still see the same amount on an X220 screen as a Toshiba Portege R700 or a Samsung Notebook Series 9.

Its weight is from 1.45KG, putting it squarely in race alongside the lightest laptops on the market. Of course, since the configuration can be customised at the time of order, the weight will vary a little depending on what parts you choose.

The main disappointment in the X220 is its thickness (and the absence of this information on just about all of Lenovo's website information and marketing materials shows that the company is aware of its weakness on this front). The laptop is 1.9cm at its thinnest point, rising up to a chunky 3.46cm at its thickest.

What you get

There are three models to choose from, before you start customising options. All of them use the latest generation "Sandy Bridge" Intel Core processing chips, which are really fast.

Impressively, Lenovo is not using the "ultra-low voltage" versions which dial down their speed in exchange for longer battery life; it is instead using the full power versions typically found in larger 14" and 15" laptops.

Lenovo claims the X220s run up to 75 percent faster than their ultraportable competitors that use low-powered CPUs.

None of the models have an optical drive built-in (something that we think is a good decision for a thin-and-light notebook, as downloadable movies and internet-based software updates mean DVD drives are rapidly becoming last century's technology, along with floppy disk drives and dial-up modems.)

If you still want to use a DVD drive with the X220 you can get a slimline USB one from any computer shop for less than $100, or buy the Lenovo docking base, which provides an optical drive bay.

The basic $1799 model

The entry-level model has an Intel Core i5 processing chip, running at 2.3GHz -- which is pretty snappy without being top of the range, 2GB memory and a 320GB traditional mechanical hard drive for storage. The 2GB memory is the least you'd want to use with Windows 7, and most laptops now come with 4GB, because with several apps open at once, Windows may start to slow down with only 2GB memory.

The 320GB storage is plenty for most people, but the fact that it's a mechanical hard drive and not one of the newer solid state drives that use high speed flash memory will be a bottleneck in the system performance. Traditional hard drives with moving parts really slow down the booting and application loading time on machines that use very fast processing chips like this one.

However, this basic model has no webcam, which means making Skype video calls won't be possible without using an external webcam (and that rather goes against the concept of an ultraportable laptop).

Also, oddly, it also omits Bluetooth -- pretty much a standard thing for all notebooks these days -- which counts out wireless keyboards and mice unless a plug-in adaptor is used -- though that can be added in to the mix for another $14 during the order process (a camera can't be added as a custom option).

There's no option to get 3G mobile broadband built in to the base model.

The $1,959 mid-range model

This model has a slightly faster processor chip than the basic one -- 2.5GHz compared to 2.3GHz Intel Core i5.

It also has twice the amount of memory -- 4GB -- which is what we'd recommend for good performance with Windows 7.

If you want to trade the old, slow mechanical 320GB hard drive for a faster solid state drive you can, with this model. It'll cost $460 more, and your storage will halve from 320GB to 160GB -- but you'll be enjoying the lightning speed that an SSD can provide. (Lenovo has a note on its ordering page saying that swapping to an SSD may delay your order by up to four weeks, though.)

It also can't be used with a docking station, which means you'll need to plug in all your cords each time you get back to your desk. However, unlike the basic model, it does come with Bluetooth built in, so you'll be able to use it with a wireless keyboard and mouse.

It has a high-definition webcam as well, so Skype video chats will be no problem.

It doesn't come with 3G mobile broadband capability, and this is not a configurable option -- that's only available in the top model.

The $2,889 top model

This is the model most business travellers will probably want to buy. It includes the Intel Core i7 2.7GHz powerplant in it, which is the fastest dual-core chip Intel offers.

It also gets USB 3.0, which provides much faster data transfer for fast devices like memory keys, and to a limited extent, faster copying to and from USB hard drives.

Another sweet feature is basic in-built 3G mobile broadband -- so you can just slip a SIM card in wherever you're travelling to and avoid paying hotel internet rates. For an extra $125, you can even upgrade to a better 3G module inside the laptop that will support Telstra's 21Mbit/s Next G download speeds.

It comes with a docking station in the box at no additional cost (see below for more details).

However, oddly for a top-shelf model, it doesn't have an option to swap the 320GB hard drive for a faster solid state disk flash-memory based model. Of course, this is something you can add yourself, or get added by a computer shop technician quite easily, but it's still a surprising omission for a top-of-the-line unit.

Docking options

Lenovo sells a $218.90 docking station for the Thinkpad X220, called the "ThinkPad Series 3 UltraBase". As mentioned above, it comes standard with the top-of-the-line X220 at no extra cost.

The UltraBase has a bay for an optical drive or second hard drive -- ideal if you've gone for the 160GB solid state drive option and want more storage when you're back at your desk.

It has a VGA monitor port for connection to older style monitors or projectors, as well as a DisplayPort -- the newest type of digital connector that practically no monitors use yet, so you'll probably need to buy a DisplayPort to DVI or HDMI adaptor, too.

The dock also provides Gigabit Ethernet for connecting to corporate networks, four USB 2.0 ports, and power and audio pass-through.

Hi Guest, join in the discussion on Lenovo ThinkPad X220: the customisable ultralight travel laptop