Friday, August 06, 2010

First Impressions: Lenovo Thinkpad X201

All throughout my tenure at Google, I've been a Thinkpad user. In fact, once the ultra-portable class of Thinkpads became an option, I switched to an X30 and never looked back. This class of machines fit in a saddlebag, was light, and typically as fast as the previous generation desktop. The best feature was the full size keyboard, on which I could type almost as fast as my Kinesis attached to my desk.

When the Lenovo ThinkPad X201 showed up as a special deal on working advantage, I noticed that the Lenovo page selling the product had a bug: if you bought the fully loaded package with the 3-year warranty, you were allowed to back out the 3-year warranty at the shopping cart, thereby saving $200, and hence getting a fully loaded model at a 20% discount. This was a very good deal, so I told Phil about it and bought one for myself. One day later, SlickDeals announced it and the day after that Lenovo fixed the bug.While there are many shipping horror stories about Lenovo on the internet, my Thinkpad arrived with no incident, taking just a hair over a week between departing Shanghai and arriving in Sunnyvale.

My goals in purchasing the laptop was two fold. One: I wanted a machine to write on while traveling. I don't typically travel with a laptop on my many cycle tours, but given that I no longer am restricted to one long trip a year, things like sailing trips and photography trips should become more common. So the machine had to be powerful enough to run Lightroom, Adobe Photoshop CS5, and if possible Adobe InDesign CS5. All 3 programs are well-known CPU and memory-hogs, which rules out most netbooks. Since my primary workstation was running Windows 7 as well, and I wasn't about to re-buy all the software I had already purchased, that ruled out Macs. Well, that and buying a Mac would wipe out any profits I had made from the book, and I take a certain amount of pride in keeping the book business profitable. As a travel machine, I opted for the finger-print reader, but opted out of the blue-tooth PAN, since I had a dongle I could transfer from the desktop to the laptop if I wanted/needed blue-tooth. I hate touchpads with a passion, so I opted out of that as well. The "fully-loaded" package that Lenovo sold came with Windows 7 Professional, 4GB of RAM, a 320GB 7200rpm hard drive, SD card reader, integrated video camera, microphone, and stereo speakers. It only has a VGA output, but if you buy the Ultrabase you can get digital display output as well. The native resolution of the display is 1280x800, WiFi. There used to be an option for 1440x900 with the X201s, but for whatever reason I could not find the X201s any more on Lenovo's web-site.

As a Windows Enhanced Experience laptop, the Thinkpad comes with no crap-ware installed. This is very nice, since it meant that the machine startup was fast and clean. It does come with the usual Thinkpad utilities. The laptop boots in about 1 minute, and wakes up from sleep in about 10s. Fingerprint login was easy to setup and easy to use, and I liked it more than expected. I am very tempted to get a solid state disk so that it boots even faster.

Lightroom 3 has had a performance makeover compared to Lightroom 2, and runs very fast on the machine. The pictures from the Pixar trip were processed all on the laptop as a test, and while the screen is small you could definitely work on photos, process them, and post them without a hitch. Even stitching 10 photos into a panorama in Photoshop was fast and easy.

InDesign was a different story. I copied the files over from my desktop and discovered to my shock that the machine could not keep up with my typing! It turns out that once you've put together all the chapters into a book, InDesign tries to keep the chapters all in sync, and so the entire book has to be loaded into memory. Even after loading it all into memory, things were still slower than molasses! It turns out that InDesign's file format suffers from fragmentation if you repeatedly load and save, so a "repackage" of the entire book from my desktop solved that problem. It's still not fast, but now InDesign no longer spins when I type. By the way, this is not a machine issue: the CPU was idle, as was the disk, indicating that whatever it is InDesign is doing, it's wrong.

The machine charges relatively fast, going from 5% to 80% in about an hour. Full charges take quite a bit longer. As far as battery life is concerned, I regularly got about 4 hours out of the 6-cell battery (and that's including all the Lightroom/Photoshop work!), which does not protrude from the back of the machine, unlike the 9-cell battery. For long flights and such, I would probably buy an extra 6 or 9 cell battery. The machine weighs 3.4 pounds. I did not bother testing it with video playing, music playing, or anything else.

It's a truism that buying a new machine always costs you a day. The Thinkpad was no exception, but I'm very pleased with the laptop. It's smooth, fast, and will let me do more work while on the move. Many of the blog posts I've made over the last few days have been made with it, and it was definitely worth the $858 (including tax, recycling fee and shipping) I paid for it. Recommended.
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