Lenovo x121e ultraportable review
Well I just took delivery of a new Lenovo x121e ultraportable notebook. I had been looking at the Lenovo x100 series ThinkPads for some time, as I have had a number of older X40 and X60 12 inch models from work in the past and really liked the design and keyboard.
Up till now however the current 11.6-inch screen Thinkpads had significant failings, either low battery life, or a huge battery jutting out of the rear of the machine like a wart. The previous CPU offerings were also not up to much.
Ok, as of July 2011 Lenovo woke up and released the x121e notebook, available on their UK web site. I ordered the basic model but upgraded the ram a bit, well actually I went mad and stuffed it with 8GB Ram! It has a 320Gb drive as standard or if you have the wallet they also offer an SSD option. (Will save up for one later.) Price was £495 with the 8GB Ram and a core i3 low voltage cpu. Much cheaper options exist with AMD chips and less RAM. However, when I consider how much I paid for 1 MB of Ram in 1995, this seems like a good deal. (£25 per MB, so work out how much 8000Mb of Ram would have cost then!)
Build Quality & look and feel
Ok the good news, this is a proper Thinkpad, very good build quality, solid case, no flex and a superb keyboard. Excellent. If you have ever used a Thinkpad keyboard you know what I mean.
However, the trackpad is another matter. They have used a textured surface, which is ok, but the whole pad is a button hinged at the top, this makes it shift as you try to use it and hence inaccurate. I find this really a pain, so using a mouse.
Also good news, it has a matt screen! See the screen shots below in comparison to an Acer ultraportable with a glossy screen.
The case is matt black and the screen back is a nice textured matt finish. It is clearly a business oriented design, but personally I like the lack of bling.
Weight is 1.5kg with the 6 cell battery, I recommend getting this option, it fits well and doesn’t add much bulk, see images below. A big improvement on previous X100 class models. The machine doesn’t feel light though, but then I’m comparing it to a 13inch Mac Air.
Lenovo offer a range of options, including SSD, broadband modem, etc. The rear of the case has an easy access panel that can be removed with 3 Phillips screws and most of the internals are then accessible. I tried upgrading the hard drive to a new 500GB laptop drive I had, however Lenovo have used a thinner drive than standard and the 500GB wont fit, too thick by about 2mm. There is a foam rubber pad inside the drive bay that could be removed and with effort I guess you could squeeze a standard laptop drive in, but don’t!! It would be exerting pressure on the electronics underneath and probably void the warranty
As I said it is a matt screen which is great, however the resolution is not the best, 11.6″ (HD, 1366 x 768, WXGA LED). Also you need to activate the True Type font option in the Windows screen settings, otherwise the fonts look soft. Why this isn’t set as default I don’t know. Screen brightness is good and more than adequate. (I had the older Lenovo X300 ultralight model and it had a rather dim screen, which really impacted the usability.)
Well it has a basic pair of forward facing stereo speakers until the front lip of the machine, which is a good location, and they are ok for movies in a small room. The Bluetooth works well with my Creative D200 speakers so just use something like that for music playback or headphones.
Haven’t really tested this in anger yet, but on full charge with the 6 cell battery the machine is quoting 6 hours time available. Will post more detail when I have tested it on the road with real world conditions.
The wifi is (802.11b/g/n Wireless), it also has the usual VGA, 3 USB, SD card slot, plus HDMI and Ethernet ports on left side as well. Pretty much everything most folk require. An option is a built in Broadband module, the SIM card sits behind the battery.
Speed and performance
The windows benchmark performance tests rates the machine as 4.8. Figures below.
Gaming Graphics 6.1
Hard disk 5.9
Here are some brief thoughts on how it compares to some similar machines.
Acer ultraportable 1810TZ
This machine is a year older but very similar in design and size. Same 11.6 inch screen size. The Acer beats the X121 on battery life, it typically manages 7 hours on its 6 cell battery. Weight is almost the same. The big advantage to the Lenovo though is the keyboard which is much better in my opinion.
Speed comparison, results for Acer 1810TZ
Gaming Graphics 3.2
Hard disk 5.7
Just benchmarked the machine using some custom Java code of my own that sweats a CPU and graphics card. The X121 is twice as fast as a Lenovo T400 Centrino, and 33% faster than a Mac Book Pro with 4GB Ram and 2.4Ghz Core 2 Duo from a year ago. Nice.
Here is a quick overview.
Overall I really like the machine, the design is great and the look and feel are what I expect from a Thinkpad. Good build quality
Keyboard is the best you can get.
Best point is the speed, which is partly due to the ridiculous amount of RAM I specified. This is a fast computer.
Battery life is good with the 6 cell, not the best in class, but acceptable.
Screen is matt and works well.
Audio quality is ok, not tiny.
Useful built in Lenovo utilities that help manage the machine, for networking, security and backup.
There is one major flaw however, and that is fan noise. The fan kicks in at startup and stays on. Doesn’t matter what power options you select, I have tried them all, and still full on. I suspect this is partly due to the choice of a 7200rpm hard drive as these run hotter and need cooling. When I have time I will try an SSD drive and post the results. If anyone has an answer to this please let me know. I can see online other Lenovo notebooks had fan noise issues and sometimes a bios update can help. The noise level isn’t that bad, it is tolerable and at least is constant, not fluctuating which is generally more annoying.
Would also like a higher resolution screen option. Just compared it to a 5 year-old Vaio ultraportable, and that beats the Lenovo hands down for screen resolution and sharpness.
In summary, I’m happy with the machine, can see it being used a lot. It is fast, portable, and for the specification good value. Lenovo can we please have a bios fix for the fan noise, then it gets five stars, at present though only 4/5 stars.