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X230 Lead 2nd Sub
X230 Lead 2nd Sub

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Lenovo ThinkPad X230 review

Meet the new ThinkPad: Same as the old one, with a new keyboard

The last few months have seen a deluge of ultrabooks, with companies tripping over one another to offer sleek profiles with tapered teardrop designs and roughly the same specifications. And now there’s Lenovo, breaking the mold by sticking to what it knows best: black boxes built for work. The ThinkPad X230 is one of the latest ultraportables to join the Lenovo fold, sporting Intel’s recently announced dual-core Ivy Bridge processor, and (arguably more importantly) Lenovo’s new Precision keyboard — the same comfortable yet controversial set of chiclet keys the company’s added to all its new models. The 12.5-inch ThinkPad X230 I reviewed is equipped with a 2.6GHz Core i5-3320M processor, 4GB of RAM, a 320GB 5400 RPM hard drive, and Intel integrated graphics — it falls close to the middle of the X230 lineup, and is priced at $1,249 (as configured). With the exception of the revamped keyboard, Lenovo has largely decided to stay its laptop course. Is it a winning strategy? I’ll get to that and more, so read on.


Hardware / design

Hardware / design

A timeless appeal

Drop the ThinkPad X230 into a lineup with the last few generations of ThinkPad, and with the exception of the keyboard, you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference. Lenovo's wares aren't going to win many style competitions, but the matte black plastic shell, rigid body and demure ThinkPad badges offer a refined, functional aesthetic. The chassis is rock solid, offering little to no flex or bend. Most importantly, it feels good: the corners are boxy, but the palmrest slopes to give your hands a comfortable place to perch. There's no latch on the lid; its edge is molded to fit snugly with the lower tray, and lifts smoothly when you need it.

On the left side of the keyboard, just over the function row, are a set of volume controls, mute buttons for the microphone and speakers, and the blue ThinkVantage key, which fires up a menu to access Lenovo's proprietary software.The left side of the X230 hosts a pair of USB 3.0 sockets, a VGA port, a Mini DisplayPort, a 54mm ExpressCard slot, and the hardware wireless switch. On the right you'll find a powered USB 2.0 port, a headphone jack, multi-format card reader, the Kensington lock slot, and a Gigabit Ethernet socket. The power adapter plugs into the rear, keeping the cord out of the way, while a fingerprint reader is located to the right of the trackpad. Underneath the machine, you'll find the docking station connector (Lenovo's T, L, W, and X ThinkPads series share the same docking station, which is nice), and runoff holes for any liquids that might accidentally run through the spill-resistant keyboard. The X230's innards are readily accessible with a small Phillips screwdriver, should you want to dive in and replace the hard drive, RAM, or other components. This particular model wasn't especially tricked out, but optional extras include HSPA+ and LTE radios, a Smart Card reader, and up to 16GB of RAM.

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Keyboard / Trackpad

Keyboard / trackpad

Lenovo stands for keyboards — or it would, if the right people were allowed to put the matter to a vote. Having spent a few years working on a cube farm I'm intimately familiar with the work the company has done to make typing a pleasant, efficient experience. When the 2012 ThinkPad lineup was revealed in May, I learned that a few of the new models — including the X230 — would be sporting the chiclet-style Precision keyboard that graced last years ThinkPad X1. It was a bit of a shock, but rest assured that all is well.

The Lenovo approach to chiclet keys features a rounded "smile" shape, allowing for a bit of extra room for every key without actually requiring you to stretch your fingers any further. It feels natural and rather comfortable, despite being a notable departure from the sloped, curved keys Lenovo purists might be accustomed to. Most of the keys have also been shuffled around, resulting in a layout that's a bit more uniform: the function row's keys are identical and tightly packed, bookended by slightly larger Escape and Delete keys. The rest of the keyboard follows suit, and there's a pleasant balance between uniformity and breathing room across most of the board. The typing experience feels different, which might put some people off but doesn't require much effort to get familiar with.

Out with the old, in with the new

While the machine is scarcely deeper than an inch at its thickest point, travel distance on each key is excellent. There's a satisfactory "click" with every press, though the mechanical keyboard isn't especially loud. I did find fault with the arrow keys. I can't be the only one who uses these to get around, despite the fact that they're small. The Page Up and Page Down keys are sandwiched on opposite sides of the Up arrow. These were traditionally Back and Forward buttons (and still are, if you hold the Function key), which won't do much harm if you're typing in a document, but I can't say the same for these. In the X230's case, a casual reach to move to another spot in a sentence or paragraph sends me shooting up and down the page. Any other keys would've been fine: misfire, and you'd add an errant capital letter or punctuation mark. It's not a deal breaker by any stretch, but touch typists who aren't accustomed to the placement might need a bit of time to get situated.

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The model I reviewed also included optional backlighting: it works pretty much as expected, lighting the undersides of the keys so you can track them in dark spaces. The backlight is activated by tapping the spacebar while holding the function key, and offers two brightness stages. Tap the spacebar a third time, and you’ll disable the backlighting and activate the Thinkvantage light; it’s a nod to old-school Lenovo users, shining light from the lid down onto the keyboard, but feels inferior to backlighting. Options are always nice, I guess.

The pointing devices aren’t quite as impressive, though you won’t necessarily need to tote a mouse around. The trackpad is small, but not egregiously so. It’s covered in a sort of bumpy, braille-like texture, and is a single clicking surface: left and right sides register left and right clicks, respectively. It technically supports multitouch gestures, but I found two-finger scrolling up and down pages to be a bit hit or miss. If you’re really determined and apply pressure in the right spots, pinch-to-zoom gestures on images and webpages work — again, it’s generally not worth the effort.

The X230 sports Lenovo’s classic eraser nub pointing device, with the requisite pair of extra buttons sitting above the trackpad. It works much the way it always has: if you like it, great. If you don’t, it never gets in the way. Oddly enough it’s also aesthetically pleasing — the chiclet-style keys slope inward to accommodate the nub. That slope also happens to create a faux-radioactive symbol in the center of the keyboard. Intentional? Probably not, but still a neat effect.

Speakers / Screen

Speakers / screen

Gorgeous display, but consider packing headphones
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The speakers are tucked under the X230’s front lip to the left and right of the trackpad, and they aren’t very useful. On a soft surface (your lap, or a couch) they’re muffled, and voices become nigh indecipherable. The audio is bit better on a solid desk or table as the sound diffuses down and outward, but I found that the palms of my hand tended to block the audio a bit. Even in optimal listening conditions you aren’t exactly missing much: the tiny speakers are devoid of bass, pumping out tinny audio that starts to sound warbly and distorted at higher volumes. The Dolby audio application does give you some control over the audio, offering a graphical equalizer, virtual surround sound, and custom profiles you can set if the presets don’t meet your needs. They do make a difference, but it’s not very substantial: the speakers will do in a pinch, but bring a pair of headphones along if you’re particular about your audio experience.

The 12.5-inch display, by contrast, is excellent. The 300-nit matte IPS panel is a regular, welcome guest on Lenovo’s ThinkPad X series (it’s the same display that appeared on the X220, actually), and it doesn’t disappoint. The horizontal and vertical viewing angles are generously wide, and text and images remained clear and decipherable at all angles. The screen is also fairly visible outdoors in bright, direct sunlight. There is one caveat: the X230 is cursed with the same 1366 x 768 resolution as its predecessor. I’d love to see a higher resolution panel attached to this keyboard (and the rest of the laptop, I suppose), but as it stands it’s just great.

Performance

Performance

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The newly announced Ivy Bridge dual-core Core i5-3220M doesn’t fail to impress. While the X230 doesn’t quite keep up with some of the pricier ultrabooks on the market, it tackled our synthetic benchmarks amicably, and never made the slightest bit of fuss while in use. The model I reviewed packed a modest 320GB, 5400 RPM hard drive. It isn’t as fast out of the gate as ultrabooks packing solid state drives, booting into Windows in about 35 seconds. If that boot time doesn’t strike your fancy, Lenovo offers models sporting solid state drives (up to 256GB), and configurations that include a 32GB mSATA solid state cache. It’ll wake up in a hurry though, resuming from sleep in 1.8 seconds.

PCMarkVantage 3DMarkVantage 3DMark06
Lenovo ThinkPad X230 8269 P3159 4929
Samsung Series 9 (15-inch, 2012) 10404 P1693 4164
Acer Timeline Ultra M3 11896 P6813 11201
HP Envy 14 Spectre 9121 P1526 3462
Dell XPS 13 10242 P1697 4193
MacBook Air (2011, 13-inch) 10134 P1748 4195
Lenovo IdeaPad U300s 8815 P1413 3357

Gaming performance is negligible. Intel’s Ivy Bridge has improved integrated graphics performance tremendously over its previous generation, but one can’t expect miracles here: the X230 earned an average of 15.5 frames per second on our Just Cause 2 benchmark. Video playback is just fine. The X230 tackled HD videos with aplomb, even while a comical number of them were played simultaneously in an attempt to wear the device down.

Software

Lenovo’s pre-loaded software is generally pretty tame; the ThinkVantage suite includes advanced power management utilities, configuration software for the fingerprint reader, and backup software, to name a few. Some are genuinely useful, and all can be avoided. The desktop is pristine — just the Recycle Bin and the bright blue "Think" wallpaper. Norton Internet Security did rear its ugly head, pestering me to activate something or other and only sulking back into its pit when I chose the ominous "stay unprotected" option — you’ll probably want to just uninstall that.

Get stuff done
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Battery Life

Battery, heat, and noise

A tireless workhorse
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On The Verge Battery Test, the X230’s six cell, 63Wh battery lasted for seven hours and ten minutes (Lenovo's estimates say 9.9 hours). The Verge’s test consists of cycling through 100 websites and high-resolution images, with the screen’s brightness set at 65 percent. My own usage was a bit more rigorous, consisting of music streaming, web browsing, writing, and one or two Skype chats. I like to keep the screen brightness and volume cranked up, and got a solid five hours and forty minutes before the machine finally gave up the ghost. Not bad at all. Of note: when there’s about an hour of battery life left, Lenovo’s Battery Stretch app offered to step in and buy me an extra 30 minutes of juice by muting the audio, throttling CPU speed, and suspending non-critical background services. That could prove to be a lifesaver for that last leg of a flight, or when a day of conferences goes overlong. If you need still more power, Lenovo offers a six-cell 57Wh slice battery for an extra $150, which Lenovo estimates will bring your battery life to a total of 24.9 hours.

Battery Life
Lenovo ThinkPad X230 7:10
Samsung Chromebook 7:10
Samsung Series 9 6:01
Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3 5:42
HP Envy Spectre 5:14
Dell XPS 13 4:55
Razer Blade 3:21

While you're chugging away for most of a day (or all of it, if you opt for the battery slice), you'll be hard pressed to actually hear much activity from the ThinkPad X230. Hold your ear up to the keyboard and can hear the mechanical hard drive spinning away, but the entire machine is wonderfully quiet. The heat exuded is negligible; there is some warmth to be felt on the bottom of the chassis, but it barely bested room temperature here in northern California.

There are a lot of laptops out there. Faster laptops, laptops with better speakers and trackpads, higher resolution displays and sleek, aluminum chassis. But none of those laptops are a ThinkPad. That name carries a lot of weight, and if you’ve ever spent an extensive amount of time hunched over their bright displays and hammering prose out onto their sturdy keyboards, there’s a good chance you understand how important it is that things not change too dramatically. That said, the ThinkPad X230 is more than a mere spec bump over its predecessor. The new Precision keyboard makes a world of difference, improving on a historically splendid design. There’s a certain sense of gravitas built into these staid black boxes, and Lenovo has done an excellent job of maintaining that feel.

If you need brushed aluminum, thumping bass, or a 1080p display, look elsewhere. The ThinkPad is all about getting stuff done without compromising performance or comfort, and there aren’t many workhorses out there that can do it better.

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