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Today is May 31, 2012, the day Intel finally revealed specifics on its dual-core Ivy Bridge processors. That means the month of June is going to be teeming with new laptops, many of them packing Intel's latest chips. Lenovo's 12-inch ThinkPad X230 will be one of them when it goes on sale June 5th, and it happens to be the first machine we've tested with one of Intel's dual-core-flavored CPUs. But make no mistake: the X230 brings more than just a speed bump. With this generation, Lenovo overhauled its signature keyboard, opting instead for an island-style layout with wider-spaced keys. Rounding out the list is a 300-nit IPS display, a battery rated for nine hours of runtime and, of course, that brand-new Core i5-3320M CPU. So how much better is the performance? Is it a good deal for $1,249? And what to make of that revamped keyboard? Find the answers to all those questions after the break.

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Lenovo ThinkPad X230 review

Look and feel

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If you think the ThinkPad design is dated, stale or uninteresting, you're reading the wrong laptop review.

If you think the ThinkPad design is dated, stale or uninteresting, you're reading the wrong laptop review. The X230 is intended just as much for IBM loyalists as first-time buyers, and to its credit, Lenovo knows well what its customers like. With the lid shut, the X230 looks a lot like last year's X220, which in turn resembles years' worth of ThinkPads that came before it. That is to say, it has a boxy shape with sharp corners and a black, soft-touch lid. Where other PC makers are pushing a spartan sort of look, Lenovo is still studding its laptops with physical mute, volume and mic controls, as well as a hotkey for launching the bundled ThinkVantage suite. And, like the X220 that came before it, the X230 has a latch-less lid, with a little overbite that fits securely over the front lip. All told, these touches add up to a design that's not sexy, per se, but timeless.

While the X230 follows the same design principles as its predecessor, we'd be remiss if we didn't point out that it's both thinner and lighter: 2.96 pounds and 0.75 to 1.05 inches thick. In comparison, the X220 weighs 3.6 3.3 pounds and measures 1.25 inches deep.

As we continue our tour around the laptop, you'll see that although the chassis is thinner, Lenovo still managed to squeeze in a few new ports. The left edge is home to two USB 3.0 sockets (you could add one as an option last year), along with a mini-DisplayPort (also new), VGA, a 54mm Express Card slot and a wireless radio switch. Meanwhile, the right side houses a Kensington lock slot, 4-in-1 memory card reader, a powered USB 2.0 port, headphone jack and Ethernet connection. There's also a Smart Card reader option. Inside, Lenovo's "Airbag Protection" technology guards the drive in the event of drops. Where's the AC port, you ask? It's tucked onto the back edge, potentially allowing for some more discrete cable management. Lastly, there's still a fingerprint reader sitting to the right of the touchpad.

Keyboard and trackpad

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We can't promise that ThinkPad fans set in their ways will take kindly to this new keyboard.

Although the X230 looks like the X220 at first blush, you only need to lift the lid to realize this upgrade is more than just a processor refresh. With this generation, Lenovo's added some subtle backlighting, and moved from a classic, seven-row keyboard layout to a six-row, island-style arrangement. Interestingly, this is just the second ThinkPad after last year's X1 to get the chiclet treatment. Of course, the company's been experimenting with similar keyboards on its Edge lineup for years, though we're told the keys here are slightly different from even those models.

Specifically, the keys each have 30 percent more surface area on top than the old-school keys on the X220, and the spacing is five times greater. In any case, the keys have a so-called Smile shape, with a curved lower edge and slightly indented surface for cradling the fingertips. Additionally, the page up / down buttons are slightly bigger, and are now clustered with the arrow keys, instead of the area above the Backspace button, where they used to sit stacked on top of one another. To turn the backlighting on and off, there's now a control built into the left end of the space bar, which only works if you also hold down the Fn button. Last but not least, Lenovo claims to have improved both the tactile and sound feedback.

Truth be told, we never had a problem with the sound or forcefulness of previous ThinkPad keyboards, but this one is certainly as sturdy as promised. The entire panel stays infallibly rigid, even under the weight of furious typing. And if you're the kind of person who equates keyboard noise with productivity (or who simply gets nostalgic for tactile things), we think you'll find the low-pitched clack quite reassuring. Even so, we can't promise that ThinkPad fans set in their ways will take kindly to this new keyboard. If you review laptops for a living, like yours truly, you might appreciate the tactility of these keys, especially compared to the flat, flimsy keyboards you'll find on most other ultraportables on the market. But when we handed the X230 to Tim Stevens (a ThinkPad fanboy in his own right), he deemed the keys stiff and too widely spaced compared to his trusty T400s. This is the rare case where a "new and improved" keyboard could be a pro or a con, depending on your tastes.

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As you'd expect -- this being a ThinkPad and all -- you've got a variety of different navigation options at your fingertips, including a touchpad with buttons, as well as that signature red pointing stick. So far as we can tell, Lenovo hasn't strayed from its tried-and-true pointer, which is to say it has a flat top, wide enough to accommodate most digits. As ever, the rubbery material and series of raised dots make it unlikely that your finger will unexpectedly slide off. To be sure, there's a bit of a learning curve for ThinkPad converts, but once you find your bearings you'll enjoy some exceptionally controlled cursor navigation -- arguably even more precise than what you'll experience if you use the touchpad.

In case you're more of a touchpad person, the main obstacle you'll encounter here are the small dimensions. There's not nearly enough room to comfortably pinch to zoom, though the pad is certainly capable of this. Two-finger scrolls aren't flawless, but they're still smoother than what most other Windows PCs have to offer. Otherwise, the pad works as promised, and without fuss: it responds well to simple one-finger taps, and cursor movement is generally fluid.

Display and sound

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The IPS panel bodes well for "Up in the Air" types who plan on working through long flights, and need to stay productive even when the guy in front of them leans back in his seat.

Here's something Lenovo had no reason to change. The 12.5-inch, 300-nit display that we loved so much on the X220 is back -- albeit, with the same ho-hum 1366 x 768 resolution. And it's not just that it's a matte panel, though that'll certainly help fight glare from harsh overhead lights in the office; the IPS panel also ensures that colors don't wash out as you adjust the screen angle. Even when we dipped the screen forward or pushed it back, we were able to continue reading websites and other pages densely packed with text. It even lies flat, though we're not sure why you'd want to work that way (this isn't the touch-enabled X230T, after all). In any case, this all bodes well for "Up in the Air" types who plan on working through long flights, and need to stay productive even when the guy in front of them leans back in his seat. If we have one complaint it's that the LCD matrix is very prominent, and is difficult to un-see once you notice it.

The X230 also includes Intel's Wireless Display technology (WiDi), which allows you to mirror your desktop on a TV or external monitor, no cables required. Normally, when we explain this feature in laptop reviews, we tend to talk up the potential for streaming 1080p video from your PC to the big screen. In the case of the X230, though, it's worth reminding road warriors you can just as easily use the technology to send your PowerPoint presentation to a display where it's easier for everyone to have a look. Whatever your preferred use case, you'll need to buy a separate set-top box like this, which connects to your TV / monitor via HDMI. We'll refer you to this review for a deeper dive on WiDi 2.0, but, suffice to say, we've been consistently impressed by both the ease of setup and the unbroken streaming quality.

With this generation, Lenovo switched to Dolby Advanced Audio and added some new face-tracking technology for video chats. Though the speakers deliver some typically constrained, tinny sound, the audio is surprisingly loud, at least, which should come in handy for your conference calls.

Performance

PCMark Vantage
3DMark06
Lenovo ThinkPad X230 (2.6GHz Core i5-3320M, Intel HD Graphics 4000) 8,234 4,891
Lenovo ThinkPad X220 (2.5GHz Core i5-2520M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 7,635 3,517
ASUS Zenbook UX21A (Unspecified Ivy Bridge processor with integrated graphics; some specs embargoed until ASUS formally launches its Zenbook Prime series in the US and other markets.) 10,333 4,550
Dell XPS 13 (1.6GHz Core i5-2467M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) N/A 4,130
HP Folio 13 (1.6GHz Core i5-2467M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 6,701 3,387
Toshiba Portege Z835 (1.4GHz Core i3-2367M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 5,894 3,601
Lenovo IdeaPad U300s (1.8GHz Core i7-2677M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 9,939 3,651
ASUS Zenbook UX31 (1.7GHz Core i5-2557M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 10,508 4,209
Acer Aspire S3 (1.6GHz Core i5-2467M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 5,367 3,221
13-inch, 2011 MacBook Air (1.7GHz Core i5-2557M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 9,484 4,223
2011 Samsung Series 9 (1.7GHz Core i5-2537M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 7,582 2,240

Note: the higher the score the better.

For the purposes of this review, we tested a $1,249 configuration with a 2.6GHz Core i5-3320M processor, 4GB of RAM and a 320GB 5,400RPM hard drive. As you can see in the comparison table above, the X230 offers a nice boost over the X220 in both graphics and all-around performance. Of course, without an SSD it doesn't quite match the performance you'll get from some top-of-the-line Ultrabooks, but it easily bests machines with last-generation Core i5 processors and either traditional or hybrid hard drives. In the disk benchmark ATTO, it performed respectably with peak read and write speeds of 96MB/s. We also timed a 37-second start-up, which is a bit faster than most Windows 7 laptops (those that aren't Ultrabooks, anyway). It does rival Ultras in this regard, at least: it resumes from sleep in less than two seconds. We also noticed the machine stayed relatively cool and quiet throughout -- two things Lenovo says it tried to improve when designing the X230.

Battery life

Laptop
Battery Life
Lenovo ThinkPad X230 6:15
15-inch Samsung Series 9 (2012) 7:29
Lenovo ThinkPad X220 7:19
HP Folio 13 6:08
Toshiba Portege Z835 5:49
ASUS Zenbook UX31 5:41
13-inch, 2011 MacBook Air 5:32 (Mac OS X) / 4:12 (Windows)
HP Envy 14 Spectre 5:30
Lenovo IdeaPad U300s 5:08
14-inch Samsung Series 5 Ultrabook 5:06
Dell XPS 13 4:58
Samsung Series 9 (2011) 4:20
ASUS Zenbook UX21A 4:19
Acer Aspire S3 4:11

Lenovo rates the X230's six-cell battery for up to nine hours of battery life using the benchmark MobileMark, which is more productivity-focused than the test we use. In our test, we managed six hours and 15 minutes, and that's under rather taxing conditions: WiFi on, brightness fixed at 65 percent and a movie looping continuously off the hard drive. That's certainly a better showing than what we've seen from most other ultraportables we've tested recently -- namely, Ultrabooks. And it's an especially impressive performance for a machine with such a small screen; the new 11-inch ASUS Zenbook UX21A, for instance, lasted little more than four hours in the same test.

Interestingly, Lenovo says that under the same testing conditions we use, its internal testing team got similar battery life scores for both the X230 and the X220, with the X230 lasting roughly six and a half hours. That dovetails nicely with our own test results for the X230, though when a different Engadget staffer tested the X220 last year, it held out an hour longer. What's curious is that even Lenovo's own engineers couldn't replicate that result -- at least not with a test that involved looping video. So while our performance table tells one story, Lenovo's own product managers claim the battery capacity is actually comparable. We're inclined to believe that claim, since early Ivy Bridge benchmarks already suggested there's not a material difference in battery savings between the current- and last-generation chips.

Like its predecessor, the X230 will be offered with an optional slice battery -- in this case, a six-cell (57 Wh) number for $149. That promises up to 24.9 hours of runtime, but that's assuming your main battery is the beefier nine-cell option.

Software

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The last-gen X220 came loaded with a pristine desktop, and we're happy to say Lenovo is continuing its goodwill this year: you'll find barely any shortcuts littering the screen when you boot up the X230 for the first time. Dig into the menus, though, and you'll find a handful of innocuous third-party apps installed. These include Google Chrome, SugarSync Manager and Evernote. Even the 30-day trial of Norton Internet Security mostly stayed out of our way.

If anything, most of the pre-installed apps are part of Lenovo's own suite of ThinkVantage utilities, designed to make the upkeep easy even for businesses that don't have a dedicated IT department. Among them, you'll find a backup and restore app, a setup wizard for the fingerprint reader, password vault, power controls, diagnostic software and a system update hub. Though most of these come pre-loaded and ready to go, you'll have to manually install the following three: Rescue and Recover, Password Vault and Access Connections. Lastly, Lenovo also pinned a shortcut for its App Store to the Taskbar, though we didn't spend much time there, as the store runs slowly, and at full-screen.

Like other ThinkPads, the X230 comes with Lenovo Simple Tap software, a launcher that gives you quick access to microphone controls and other settings in the form of large icons. Once you've launched Simple Tap, it runs at full-screen, almost like a dumbed-down mini-OS-within-an-OS. Though it's at its best on touch-enabled machines where you can actually tap the shortcuts, it's perfectly easy to click on them instead, and use the cursor to rearrange the tiles.

Configuration options

The X230 starts at $1,249, the same estimated price of the configuration we tested. Depending on your region, you'll be able to find the X230 offered with up to five processors in addition to the 2.6GHz Core i5 CPU we tested. These include one Core i3 option (a 2.4GHz 2370M), two i5s (2.5GHz 3210M and 2.8GHz 3360M) and two i7s (a 2GHz 3667U and a 2.9GHz 3520M). As any silicon buff would tell you, this means everything but the Core i3 CPU are part of the Ivy Bridge family. (We know the i3 option is Sandy Bridge because its model number begins with a "2" instead of a "3.")

Once you've got the processor squared away, you can load your machine with up to 16GB of RAM and choose between a 200-nit screen and the 300-nit one we tested. As for storage, you have a few traditional spinning hard drives at your disposal, running the gamut from a 5,400RPM HDD with 320GB or 500GB of storage, to a faster 7,200RPM drive with anywhere from 250GB to 500GB of space. You can also buy a solid-state drive with 32GB, 128GB, 180GB or 256GB of space.

As we mentioned, we tested a six-cell, 63 Wh battery, rated for 9.9 hours, but you can also opt for a 29 Wh four-cell (up to 8.9 hours) or a 94 Wh nine-cell, which promises to last up to 14.8 hours on a charge. Finally, if you're interested in built-in 3G / 4G, you can upgrade to a Gobi Verizon Wireless LTE / HSPA radio, a Gobi HSPA option capable of 14.4 Mbps or an Ericsson-made HSPA+ minicard.

The competition

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If you're a ThinkPad loyalist set in your ways, we suggest getting hands-on in person first, if possible.

Thanks to Ultrabooks, the ultraportable market is a lot more crowded than it was a year ago, but, luckily for all of you who freeze under the pressure of having too many choices, most of these models are consumer-grade. If a more business-friendly feature set is a must, there's the HP Folio 13 (an Engadget favorite) and the Dell XPS 13. Both of these offer TPM and a generous selection of ports, but lack the kind of self-service troubleshooting software you'll find on ThinkPad machines. The HP EliteBook Folio also looks promising, but it won't ship until October, and we're guessing you can't wait that long for a new laptop.

Even more than these Ultrabooks -- which walk a blurred line between consumer- and business-grade -- the X230's most direct competitor might be something like the EliteBook 2570p, which goes on sale June 22nd starting at $1,099. Since it's not available yet, we don't have a full picture of what specs will be offered, but we do know it'll weigh a slightly heavier 3.6 pounds. Like the X230, you'll be able to fit it with a built-in LTE radio, but it differentiates itself with an optical drive, which the X230 is missing.

If you can hold off on pulling the trigger for a few more weeks, we'd also wait and see if Dell has anything fresh up its sleeve: 'tis the season for laptop refreshes, after all, and we wouldn't be surprised if the company unveiled some new products in the near future.

If you're on a budget, there's always the 3.2-pound Toshiba Portege R830, which starts at $650. The catch? It's getting long in the tooth, which is to say it's running all Sandy Bridge processors. At the entry level you get a Core i3 CPU, 4GB of RAM and a 500GB 5,400RPM drive and goes up to a Core i7 CPU, 4GB of RAM and 128GB SSD -- a combination that'll cost you $1,649. As always, Toshiba is offering configurable models for a higher price: $949 and up.

Wrap-up

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Depending on who you ask -- a ThinkPad diehard or a notebook agnostic -- the X230 either has little wrong with it, or it has one inexcusable flaw. Starting with the good, it's fast, thanks to its spanking-new Ivy Bridge processor. It's thinner than its predecessor, but still lasts six-plus hours on a charge. And that bright IPS display translates to impressively versatile viewing angles. The problem? Lenovo, a company known for its ergonomic know-how, decided to overhaul its signature keyboard, and replace it with a new-fangled island-style arrangement. Coming from us, a site that's had the chance to review most every ultraportable that's hit the market, we can assure you these are some of the sturdiest, most tactile keys you'll find on a laptop this size.

Still, something tells us this could be a dealbreaker (or at least a sour grape) for grumpy ThinkPad fans who liked the old keyboard the way it was. If you're thinking of switching to Lenovo from some other brand, we have a feeling you'll enjoy the X230, and won't have as much of a learning curve when it comes to typing. But if you're a ThinkPad loyalist set in your ways, we suggest getting hands-on in person first, if at all possible. Some of you might walk away, others might begrudgingly give it a whirl. And some of you, perhaps, might even come around.

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Lenovo

Lenovo ThinkPad X230

Pros

  • Long battery life
  • Solid performance
  • Bright IPS display
  • Sturdy, tactile keys

Cons

  • Overhauled keyboard might not appeal to long-standing ThinkPad fans
Summary

Lenovo's latest business ultraportable offers fast performance, long battery life and a bright display, but its overhauled keyboard might be a dealbreaker for ThinkPad fans set in their ways.