A No-compromise Ultraportable Laptop Computer - Page 2

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted June 23, 2011

Working at Home

Two-for-One Input: TrackPoint and Touchpad

ThinkPads used to come with either a TrackPoint -- a pencil eraser-type nub in the middle of the keyboard that responds to finger pressure to move the cursor -- or a touchpad. The X220, like some other current ThinkPads, offers both.

When you’re using the TrackPoint, left and right "mouse" buttons below the keyboard are perfectly placed for reaching with thumbs. The touchpad is button-less to increase the area available for sliding your finger. However, pressing its lower corners -- they depress like keys -- activates mouse button functions.

This arrangement provides the best of both cursor-control worlds. It’s very effective use of the small amount of space available.

While we like the TrackPoint and find it useful especially when doing mass input of text -- it does sometimes get in the way when you’re touch typing and reaching with an index finger for one of the keys immediately adjacent to it.

Optional Hardware Features

The X220 comes standard with most of the other key hardware features you'll need, including three USB ports, an SD memory card reader and 802.11N Wi-Fi network adapter. (Optional broadband wireless adapters are available.)

Like most ultraportables, it lacks an optical drive. Lenovo sells the ThinkPad UltraBase Series 3 ($200 from Lenovo), an expansion dock that snaps on the bottom of the X220 -- easily, the company says -- and can be configured with either a DVD burner or second hard drive. (The UltraBase with DVD multi-burner is available online for about $270.)

The dock adds 1.4 pounds to the weight and 1.26 inches to the height of the X220. It includes four additional USB ports, a Gigabit Ethernet port, pass-through audio and analog and digital video support.

You won't find a camera included in base configurations of the X220, but the available 720p HD-capable camera adds only $30 to the price. Also missing as standard equipment: Bluetooth ($20) and an ExpressCard reader ($50)

Solid Performance but Overrated Upgrades

We reviewed a deluxe model configuration with an upgraded Intel i5-2540M - vPro processor (2.6 GHz,  3.3 GHz  Turbo), a premium screen and 4GB instead of the standard 2GB of memory. Together they jacked the price up over $2,000.

This is a clear case of the law of diminishing returns in product pricing. While we would definitely recommend adding 2GB or more of memory (add $80 for 4GB, $160 for 6GB, $240 for 8GB), only power users who do a lot of graphics work should consider the other upgrades.

The premium screen is certainly brilliant, probably the best we’ve seen on an ultraportable, but it isn't better enough --  even compared to the standard issue screen on our Dell 14-inch laptop -- to warrant the large price boost.

In our real-world testing using Adobe’s Photoshop image editor, for example, response on the X220 with its 2.6 GHz i5 processor was noticeably faster than on our Dell, which has a 2.37 GHz earlier-generation i5 chip and the same 4GB of memory -- but not by a huge margin.

And some of that difference may have been because the X220 was a fresh install with less of the Windows Registry and other baggage that slows computers that have been in heavy use for six months. Again, we’re doubtful the speed boost would be worth the price hike for most users.

Laptop Security Features

ThinkPads are known for superior security, and this one has two features we like. One is the fingerprint reader (add $20) below the keyboard that lets you log in to the computer with the swipe of a finger rather than keying in a password.

Unlike fingerprint readers on some other laptops we’ve tested, this one was dead easy to set up and worked consistently well.

The other neat feature is a face recognition applet that uses the optional camera to register whether someone is looking at the screen. In the absence of a recognizable face, the software puts the computer to sleep after a user-configurable delay.

Bottom Line

You can certainly find less expensive ultraportables, but most can’t compete with the X220 on build quality or performance. And there are a few that are more elegant-looking than the X220, but those, like Apple’s MacBook Air, tend to be either less powerful and/or more expensive.

If you don’t care about style or impressing friends, colleagues and customers with your hot laptop, but do want a high-performing, use-for-everything ultraportable, this is the one -- until something better and/or cheaper comes along.

Gerry Blackwell is a freelance technology writer based in London, Canada. Read his blog, AfterByte

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