ThinkPad Lite...Really Lite

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted April 24, 2006

As much as we might all love a stylish, high-performance notebook with all the bells and whistles, that premium price tag brings most of us down to Earth pretty quickly. Still, you can buy perfectly fine laptops now for well under $1,000

Lenovo, the Chinese company that purchased IBM's ThinkPad and ThinkCentre lines, entered this lower-end laptop market earlier this year with the introduction of its Lenovo 3000 family of computers. The new products, which compete with laptops from makers such as Dell and Acer, carry the company's own brand. These are not ThinkPads, nor were they intended to be. And it shows.

On the other hand, prices for the Lenovo 3000 products, which include C Series models with 15-inch screens and N Series models with wide-aspect screens, start at a remarkable $600 for a laptop with a 1.50GHz Intel Celeron M processor, 512MB of memory, 80GB hard drive and a CD-RW/DVD-ROM combo drive. Prices for the wide screen models, some with dual-core processors, start at $900.

With its pricing, software and service extras, the 3000 series is targeted squarely at small businesses. The software bundle, which includes WordPerfect Office 12 and Lotus Notes, is very impressive. Lenovo Care, a suite of security, support and shortcut tools and utilities, may count for little if you're experienced and confident when it comes to computers, but it could be a deal maker if you're allergic to technology.

We reviewed a higher-end C series model with a 1.73GHz Intel Pentium M processor and a dual-layer DVD recordable drive, but with a standard-issue 80GB hard drive and 512MB of memory. Like all of the 3000 family computers, our test model also came with Intel PRO wireless connectivity (Wi-Fi a, b and g), a fast Ethernet network interface card and Windows XP Professional.

Performance
The C100 is not a high-performance machine, as you might expect given the processing power and memory. It's more than adequate for productivity applications and Web browsing, but not a real star when it comes to multimedia. If you plan to work with photographs within a photo editor, for example, you will certainly want to purchase additional memory. (It takes up to 2GB.) Ditto if you think you're ever likely to use the Firewire (IEEE 1394) port for connecting and downloading camcorder video.

As a DVD player, the C100 is just adequate. The 15-inch,1024x768-pixel screen is far from the best laptop LCD we've seen. Contrast and brightness levels are sufficient for most lighting situations, but the pixel pitch is coarse — you can see individual pixels. And the picture is only optimal when viewed square on. Tip the lid slightly at the wrong angle or view it from off center and the picture washes out or goes dark. This can be a benefit in some situations, of course. It means people sitting beside you on a plane can't easily read what's on your screen.

The video system also seemed unstable in our testing. The included Mediamatics DVDExpress and InterVideo WinDVD player applications both froze on a few occasions while playing DVDs. At first we couldn't figure out what was causing the software crashes while playing movies on battery power. It turned out to be the power management system trying to put the computer into standby mode after a few minutes of no mouse or keyboard activity. You can fix it by changing the default power management settings, but the product's designers should have anticipated the problem.

Features
Given the price and the fact that the C100 is not — and makes no pretense of being — a multimedia powerhouse, it features a more than generous array of connectivity options, including four USB 2.0 ports, PC Card and multi-format flash memory card slots, RJ45 network and standard telephone jacks, external mouse and monitor connectors and the aforementioned Firewire port.

The Lenovo 3000 notebooks are lightweight only when compared to the portable behemoths that people turn to when they need high-end desktop replacements — for CAD, video- or engineering-intensive applications and the like. In terms of portability, the C100 we reviewed weighs in at 6.39 lbs. and measures 10.9 x 1.33 x 13.1-inches. If you do a lot of air travel, take this into account in your decision making. Six pounds may not sound like much on paper, but after hanging on your shoulder for 30 minutes or an hour, it will feel like a ton.

The physical design is generally pleasing with a nicely proportioned bezel around the screen and rounded corners at the front. The controls are easy to figure out at a glance — the second function on the dual-function keys is clearly indicated with orange icons or text. Besides the keyboard, there are only three buttons to worry about — power on/off, a dedicated button for launching the Lenovo Care tools and audio mute.

If you're a touch typist accustomed to using a full-size desktop keyboard, you should have no problem adapting to the C100 keyboard. The alpha keys and the shift, enter, backspace, Ctrl and Alt keys are all full size and in the right positions. Only the delete and function keys are undersized, which is fairly common in laptop keyboards. The Synaptics pad that you slide your finger over to move the cursor is in good position for using with your thumbs while keeping fingers on the keyboard. We would prefer to have the mouse buttons on either side of the pad or above it instead of below, which forces you to take your fingers off the keyboard, but this is a small thing.

We also have some reservations about the C100's build quality. The body is all plastic. While it seems solid for the most part, there is a little too much give in the plastic of the lid. If you put any amount of pressure on it, you can see the liquid in the LCD ripple — which makes you wonder how well the screen is protected. The unit we received lacked covers for the PC and memory card slots.


Lenovo 3000 C100
Beauty Costs Extra: The Lenovo C100 notebook's price is prettier than its design.

Software
The software bundle may clinch it for some small business purchasers, but be aware of caveats on some of these products. The bundle includes:

  • Corel Small Business Center — including WordPerfect Office 12 (not the most recent version of this Office-like word processing-spreadsheet-presentation suite)
  • Lotus SmartSuite Millennium — spreadsheet, word processor with IBM ViaVoice speech recognition, Organizer 5.04 personal information manager, presentation graphics, relational database (again, not the most recent edition)
  • Lotus Notes — the stand-alone client for messaging and collaboration (you need a Lotus Notes server, for which you have to pay)
  • Norton Internet Security — provides 90 days of virus definition updates, and PC Doctor diagnostics
  • IBM's ThinkVantage Utilities — wireless connection configuration, password manager, system update management, rescue and recovery
  • Diskeeper Lite — hard disk maintenance
  • Corel Paint Shop Pro X and Corel Photo Album Starter 6 — A 60-day free trial of a very good photo editor
  • InterVideo WinDVD, InterVideo WinDVD Creator and Roxio Digital Media Basic Edition — DVD and CD authoring

Lenovo Care offers a control panel — accessible by pressing the dedicated hardware button just below the screen — link to tools and information. For example, the Maintenance and security section gives you one-click access to the bundled Diskeeper Lite automatic disk defragmenter, the ThinkVantage System Update utility (which updates system software and bundled applications the way Windows Update does Windows) and Norton AntiVirus scanning.

The Lenovo Care control panel also gives you quick access to device and wireless network configuration, pre-loaded backup and restore functions, help and support options and multimedia management (create an audio CD, capture and edit a DVD, copy or erase a disc). You can customize the panel so it displays up to five links (either to information or utilities) under Quick Links.

People already familiar with their computer, with Windows and with their applications probably don't need Lenovo Care it. But for non-techie small business people, it collects the tasks they're apt to be most concerned, and feel least confident, about in one place — and that's worthwhile convenience. It was smart of Lenovo to develop and include this feature.

Bottom Line
If you know your way around a computer and already own the productivity and multimedia applications you need, Lenovo Care and the C100's excellent software bundle probably won't factor into your buying decision. Lenovo does have a reputation — borrowed from its IBM ThinkPad business — of providing excellent support and service, and it plays up that reputation in marketing the Lenovo-branded products. Whether it delivers the same service levels to Lenovo 3000 buyers remains to be seen.

If you discount the service and support and the software bundle, the C100 offers only middling good value. Dell, for example, currently has 5.2-lbs. laptops with 1.73MHz Pentium M processors starting at $600, $300 less than the lowest-price Lenovo 3000 with the same processor.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here's How, a spiffy Canadian consumer technology magazine.

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