Alex Payne is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.

since 2001, al3x.net has served as his online home.

Good Things: the Lenovo ThinkPad X301

This is the first in a series of posts on good, nice things I’ve come across lately in the world of tech. I’m thinking of these posts as curmudgeon offsets.

Background

Late last year, I took a long multi-city trip to Australia. As always, I hauled along the mid-2009 fifteen-inch MacBook Pro that work provides for me, my sole machine for the past while. By the end of the trip, I was pretty burnt out on lugging around the 5.5 pound beast, and finally ready to violate one of my longstanding unwritten rules for computing happiness: don’t try to maintain multiple computers. The prospect of having a lightweight machine, one completely divorced from my work machine and the responsibilities it entails, was deeply appealing.

The Failed Dell Mini 10v Experiment

My first attempt at a travel-friendly personal machine was a Dell Mini 10v. I had seen recommendation after recommendation for this particular machine, apparently the little netbook that could. Friends boasted of their success with hackintoshing the machine to run Mac OS X, or how well it ran various netbook-optimized Linux distributions.

I ordered my Mini 10v for a great price from the Dell Outlet, a painless process. Upgrading its memory was not so painless, but half an hour later I had what I hoped would be the perfect ultraportable. Unfortunately, simple ergonomics doomed my Mini 10v. The keyboard and touchpad were just undersized and awkwardly-located enough to make the machine all but unusable for me. I simply couldn’t use the thing for more than ten minutes without my hands cramping up and my eyes straining from the bitty screen.

So went the machine to a friend-of-a-friend bitten by the netbook bug. Plenty of people have made the Mini 10v work for them, and I hope it’s working out well for him.

The MacBook Air

In short order, I replaced the Mini 10v with a MacBook Air. Having tried the cheaper “DIY” solution, the Air seemed like the obvious choice: pay a premium for a nice machine that Apple designed to be as travel-friendly as possible.

Reviews of the Air really are true: it’s an executive computer, for better and for worse. The Air shines when dashing out emails or documents on a cross-country flight. For anything much more intensive than that, it simply doesn’t cut it. The screen is a bit too dim and unevenly backlit for graphics work. The 2GB RAM limit makes memory-intensive software development tasks difficult. The paper-thin body leaves little room for fans, so the Air will overheat if, say, you have it resting on a comforter while trying to watch Hulu in bed.

Combine those issues with my increasing wariness of Apple’s politics, and after a couple of months I was left thinking that the Air just wasn’t the right fit for me. Politics aside, the rest of Apple’s portable lineup only gets heavier and bulkier after the Air. Even the 13” MacBook Pro is 4.5 pounds, a heifer once you’re used the Air’s feather-light weight. Where else to look for a light but reasonably powerful machine that will run something other than Windows reliably? There are plenty of MacBook Air competitors out there, but how many of them are worth it?

The ThinkPad X301

A friend encouraged me to look once again at Lenovo’s ThinkPad lineup. While Lenovo’s IdeaPad line is looking progressively and pleasantly more like MacBooks, they largely lack the power of their ThinkPad counterparts. Said friend loves his ThinkPad X200, but I can’t work comfortably on anything less than a 13” display.

Enter the ThinkPad X301, Lenovo’s MacBook Air competitor. A bit pricey direct from the manufacturer, albeit comparable to the Air. I found one new on eBay for about $1400. The model I got lacks an optical drive, but then so did the Air; nothing lost there. It still has a 13” screen, still has an SSD, still gets good (4-ish hours) battery life under real-world load, and adds in a built-in Verizon WWAN card.

In no way is the X301 as cleanly or elegantly designed as the MacBook Air. But that tradeoff has its advantages: the X301 has more ports, more choices for input (the usual TrackPoint “eraser” in addition to a multi-touch touchpad), and even a rather handy built-in light (I’m not a big fan of Apple’s light-up keyboards). The X301 also makes up for being slower in clock speed than the Air by taking twice as much RAM. The X301 feels faster than the Air even though it shouldn’t. This could be due to the extra RAM, or it could be a matter of the software/OS.

The screen isn’t appreciably better than the Air’s in terms of brightness, although it does look more consistent. The display isn’t in a widescreen layout, though I’ve found this to be preferable for some tasks. I’m enjoying the ThinkPad’s keyboard greatly, which has a wonderful tactility and finger-accommodating groove that Apple’s current generation of “chicklet” keyboards lack. Never having to worry about whether or not I can get on wi-fi or if I remembered a WWAN dongle/card is a joy as well. All that with just slightly more weight than an Air, still light enough that I can forget it’s on my shoulder.

I’m certainly not ready to say that I’ll never get another Mac portable. But for my particular set of needs/preferences in a travel-friendly laptop, the X301 seems ideal. It’s a nice thing to have a viable alternative to the hegemony of Apple laptops, one that doesn’t feel like a major compromise.

Coming Up Next

In my next post in this series, I’ll talk about the OS and the software I’m running on the X301, which has been a pleasant surprise.

Good Things: Ubuntu and Android

Good Things