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Lenovo ThinkPad X61s by Daniel P. Dern
Review by Daniel P. Dern
Lenovo  ISBN/ITEM#: LenovoThinkPa
Date: 30 January 2008

Links: Front Shot / Keyboard /

If you're in the market for a full-featured, business-strength ultralight (~3-pound) notebook computer, you won't go wrong with Lenovo's ThinkPad X61s, reports Daniel. It's not cheap -- but if you can afford it, you won't regret it.

IBM's ThinkPad notebooks have always had a good reputation, in particular, for their keyboards. When Lenovo bought and took over the ThinkPad brand, and products, from IBM, there was some concern whether Lenovo would maintain the brand's quality. based on the Lenovo ThinkPad X61s I've had the pleasure of trying (and the many Lenovo ThinkPads I've seen at trade shows), the answer is, thankfully, yes.

The smallest of Lenovo's ThinkPad lines is the X series -- "ultralight," meaning roughly three pounds for the main system (i.e., excluding any docking bay or way big add-on batteries), measuring 8.25" x 11" x 1" in size. (That's with the standard 4-cell battery; the 8-cell High-Capacity Battery extends another inch at the back.)

If you're looking for a lightweight but full-power, full-feature notebook, the X61s fills the bill. (Unless you want a larger screen, in which case, unless you're getting an Apple MacBook Air, you need a bigger notebook.) The keyboard has that great ThinkPad feel. While you don't get the separate "arrow keys" of a desktop keyboard, and a few other keys had to be moved around to fit, the alphanumerics are full-sized, making touch typists (and others) happy.

Specs for the current (as of January 30, 2008) X61s include an Intel Core 2 Duo for CPU -- choice of L7500 LV (1.6GHz, 4MB L2, 800MHz FSB) or L7700 LV (1.8GHz, 4MB L2, 800MHz FSB); 80GB hard drive; 12.1" XGA TFT or UltraLight XGA TFT display (note, it's "standard" format, not the new widescreen shape); between 1 to 4 GB RAM; the "pencil-eraser-nub" TrackPoint (sorry, no touchpad); and hard drive anywhere from 80GB to 200GB. The 200GB drive includes Disk Encryption. Other features include 802.11a/b/g, an on/off switch for the 802.11 and Bluetooth radios (nice to be able to physically switch them off), power-saving settings, and all sorts of security features. And enough ports: 3 USB ports, Ethernet, video, audio; plus PCMCIA-II and SD slots.

Other options include integrated Bluetooth, a fingerprint reader, and Intel Turbo Memory. Turbo Memory, costing $50, is a NAND Flash component to, according to Lenovo, reduce boot time (yay!), improve application loading and responsiveness, save energy (reducing hard drive spin time), and, for Vista, do things like ReadyBoost, ReadyDrive, and SuperFetch.

OS choices currently are Vista Home Basic, Vista Business, Vista Business 64, Vista Ultimate, or XP Pro.

The fingerprint reader, once you learn how to do it (there's a training video on the hard drive) turns out to be a nice feature, especially for quick re-authentication when waking the machine up from sleep mode. (But don't forget your password.)

The ThinkPad X61s isn't cheap. The base price is $1,575 (although the sale price as I write this is $1,195). Bumping up to XP, the UltraLight display, 2GB RAM, 120GB disk, best WiFI, 8-cell High Capacity battery, and adding Bluetooth, fingerprint reader, and Turbo -- but no Ultrabase dock, or optical drive -- pushes that to $1,983 (current sale price $1,603).

Upgrading the base warrantee to 3-year on-site adds another $219, or $349 including "Protection" covering drops, falls, liquid spills, and LDC damage. I bought, and have used, on-site service for the IBM ThinkPad I got; I'd go for the $349 package. (You can make that four years, for $569, but I'd stick with three years -- I was able to buy a fourth year for my IBM ThinkPad, probably you could do that here as well, and by then you'd know if you were keeping the machine that long and wanted to invest another $220 in its health.)

Selecting the three-year Protection warrantee brings the list price up to $2,332 ($1,952 on sale), and that's still without an optical drive ($169 to $199) and the $200 mobile media dock to put it in. (An external USB burner drive will be much lighter -- the UltraBase is about two pounds.) And depending where you order, there may be tax and/or shipping.

Plus, of course, Microsoft Office (if you want it), a spare AC adapter (one for the office, on for travel), and whatever other software licenses you'll need, like a good firewall/Anti-Virus/etc.

So we're talking between two and three thousand dollars.

And there's also the option for built-in cellular broadband -- for another few hundred, plus the monthly service charges. This is useful for when you're not around WiFI ... assuming you're in areas where the provider has coverage.

WORKS NICE, ONLY A FEW NITS

I've used the ThinkPad X61s around the house to do work. I've used it also with an external keyboard and mouse. I've used it at the library, car repair, and doctor's office. I've used it in my home office connected to my 22" widescreen LCD, ergonomic keyboard and Kensington Trackball. I've taken it on the road for use at a trade show. And my SO and I have used it to catch up on some TV episodes we missed or that weren't available on cable, streaming them over the WiFi.

Performance, for all these, has been great. Downloads -- like a half-gig of VMware demoware -- from my 802.11b wireless go like gangbusters, and so do software installs. I suspect that the occasional slowness I've encountered has been Vista's fault.

Ditto the convenience -- compared with my (old) 5.5-pound 14"-screen IBM ThinkPad T60, the X61s is way easier to schlep. Since the eight-cell battery gives me four to five hours, I didn't worry about bringing the AC adapter when I'm just toting it around during the day.

The display, for video-watching, has been good. The sound's not the best, but it's good enough. The WiFI management is very good -- way better than the Microsoft and IBM ones on my 2003 vintage IBM ThinkPad.

One odd item: the UltraBase doesn't work well with the mouse part of my KVM switch, and based on a little googling, that's a common problem. However, things work fine by plugging the KVM cables directly to the machine proper; so, problem resolved.

You can spend less -- even with Lenovo. ThinkPad is Lenovo's business-oriented line, which means more ruggedness, more management and security features (some of which an individual user can't take advantage of)... and a commensurately higher price.

Lenovo's got less expensive ultralights and near-ultralights. Their consumer-oriented four-pound V Series Widescreen ultraportable starts at a thousand bucks, and there's talk of an X300 ultralight -- 2.5 pounds and a 13.1" screen. (No price or availability info available yet.)

If you want a larger-than-12" screen enough to carry a larger (and probably heavier, if you're not getting the new Mac) machine, than this -- or any ultralight -- isn't the notebook computer for you. (Travelling with a heavier one for a few days may convince you to rethink your choice... so try borrowing one.)

But if you're buying a machine for getting work done out of the office, and something in the sub-$500 range like an Asus Eee or Everex Cloudbook won't cut it in terms of power and features, you should think strongly about an X-series ThinkPad. You'll get your money's worth.

-- TechRevu contributing editor Daniel P. Dern (dern at pair dot com) is a freelance technology writer. His web site is www.dern.com, and his blogs are Trying Technology and Dern Near Everything Else.

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