Lenovo ThinkPad Edge Notebook PC Review

Lenovo’s venerable ThinkPad product line has generally been geared more toward large corporate customers than small-business people, but with its new ThinkPad Edge series, the company is making a concerted effort to entice SMBs with notebook computers that put a special emphasis on simplicity — and throw in a bit of style to boot. 

Many Options, Great Ergonomics

The ThinkPad Edge series starts at a reasonable $579, comes in 13.3-, 14- and 15.6-inch models. All of the screens, regardless of size, display 1,366 x 768 pixels and come in either glossy or anti-glare varieties.

Lenovo ThinkPad Edge 15; notebook computer, small business computing
The Lenovo ThinkPad Edge 15 small business laptop combines affordability with style and substance.
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The Lenovo laptops use AMD Athlon Neo X2, Intel Core 2 Duo or Intel Core i3-330m processors (all dual core CPUs), and they offer a variety of useful optional features including Bluetooth, an integrated fingerprint reader and a Gobi GPS-enabled mobile broadband chip for access over either AT&T or Verizon 3G networks.

The ThinkPad Edge 15 starts at $649 and includes the Core i3 CPU as standard equipment. Our Edge 15-inch test unit, equipped with 4 GB of RAM (the maximum available), a 250 GB hard disk, the aforementioned fingerprint reader and Windows 7 Professional, sells for as little as $796 from CDW, though a similar version without a fingerprint reader rings up nearly $100 more direct from Lenovo.

As of this writing, the ThinkPad Edge is only available in one of several dozen fixed configurations, but Lenovo says it will begin selling build-to-order models in June.  

Aesthetically, ThinkPad Edge notebook lids feature either a glossy red, glossy black or traditional matte black finish (depending on the model selected), and all have a prominent metallic-look edge that wraps around both lid and base. The ThinkPad Edge 15 weighs about 5.5 pounds with its standard six-cell battery, which is rated for a maximum of 4.5 hours of life. In our time with the notebook PC — with power management set to “High Performance”– we managed to get a bit more than three hours use out of it.

Upon opening the ThinkPad Edge 15, you’re greeted by a spacious and very comfortable island-style keyboard (where the keys are separated by small gaps) centered amidst a wide flat expanse. Some 15-inch notebooks have begun to incorporate keyboards with a full numeric keypad in order to make full use of all available real estate, but we don’t lament the Edge’s lack of one. (Lenovo touts the Edge’s keyboard as being spill-resistant, though we didn’t put that assertion to the test.)

You get dual pointing devices with the ThinkPad Edge –the trademark TrackPoint pointing stick (with a very handy button for scrolling long documents or Web pages), as well as an oversize touchpad that supports multi-touch gestures and is much less annoying to operate than some others we’ve used. In fact, the ThinkPad Edge is one of the few notebook computers that didn’t immediately make us long for an external mouse.

The integrated fingerprint reader is easy to set up, and makes logging into Windows — as well as applications and Web sites when paired with the included Password Vault software — convenient and secure.

Keeping Small Business Technology Simple

The ThinkPad Edge lacks any dedicated control buttons, so the top row of function keys (i.e. F1-F12) serve as the only way to perform various system adjustments ranging from speaker volume and screen brightness to enabling and disabling integrated hardware devices such as the Webcam or wireless adapter.  (A 2-megapixel camera and 802.11n Wi-Fi are standard fare on all models.)

But while most notebooks relegate these control tasks to secondary status by making the key symbols small and hard to read and requiring a two-handed (or at least two- fingered) Fn + function key combination to perform them, the ThinkPad Edge takes the exact opposite approach.

For example, the F2 and F3 keys are prominently labeled as volume controls, and pressing them lower and raise the volume directly. This takes a while to get used to, but once you do you’ll likely wonder how you tolerated any other way. The flip side is that to use standard Function key commands such as F5 or F11 (i.e. to refresh a browser page or enter full-screen mode, respectively) you must press Fn as well, though if you prefer you can revert to standard function key behavior via a BIOS setting.

The ThinkPad Edge’s theme of simplicity extends to its status indicator lights as well. You won’t find the customary array (for battery charging, disk activity and so forth) that you do on most notebooks. Rather, there are lone red LEDs subtly integrated into the ThinkPad logo (it’s the dot in the letter “I”), both on the outside of the lid and in the corresponding position beneath the keyboard.

The two LEDs mirror each other, either glowing solid when the system’s powered up or calmly blinking when it’s in sleep mode.  It’s definitely simple, but we’re not quite as enthusiastic about this innovation because it doesn’t provide an at-a-glace way to determine whether the battery is fully charged or still charging when the notebook is plugged in but not turned on.

The Edge’s austerity with regard to buttons and lights doesn’t carry over to ports. It provides an ExpressCard 34 slot, VGA and HDMI output, Gigabit Ethernet, a multi-format memory card reader, eSATA, and four USB 2.0 ports.

One of the USB ports cohabitates with eSATA, and another is powered, allowing it to accommodate devices that would normally require a separate AC adapter. (The Edge 13 omits eSATA and ExpressCard, as well as the internal DVD burner that’s standard on 14- and 15-inch models.)  

Software Enhancements

ThinkPad Edge notebooks come with what Lenovo calls its “Enhanced Experience” (EE), which among other things includes OS optimizations that promise speedier Windows 7 startup and shutdown times.  We couldn’t do an apples-to-apples comparison to gauge EE’s effectiveness (you can’t turn of the feature off), but our based on our unscientific observation, it can help.

Our test unit took an average of 35 seconds to go from power up to login screen and 9 seconds to fade to black after initiating a shutdown. By comparison, an Acer Aspire 5740 we had on hand (with the same Core i3 CPU,  4 GB of RAM, and Windows 7 OS) started up in 38 seconds and took 18 seconds to shut down.

Two included Lenovo software utilities, also part of the EE package, clearly do enhance the Windows 7 experience. The Access Connections utility makes it easy to manage settings for myriad network connections (Ethernet, Wi-Fi , 3G, etc.) and configure different default printers, browser home pages, or network security settings for each. In addition, Lenovo’s Power Manager provides a convenient slider bar with a far more detailed power settings than you get with standard Windows 7.  

Overall, the Lenovo ThinkPad Edge 15 offers a good choice of features and arguably the best keyboard and pointing device you can get in a sub-$1,000 business notebook. It’s a good blend of style and substance in a reasonably priced package.

Joseph Moran is a veteran technology writer and co-author of Getting StartED with Windows 7, from Friends of ED.

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