Mac user's Review of the X220 - Impressive

Sep 3, 2011
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Extremely powerful, well-made and long running.  Legendary ThinkPad keyboard

Cons:Expensive, integrated graphics not up to high-end gaming, not a Mac

The Bottom Line: The best ultraportable hardware available today.  Not as pretty as MacBook Air, but stronger, faster and longer-runing.

I'm predominately an Apple user, however I've been a fan of IBM/Lenovo ThinkPads for many years and still must use a Windows system for my military service (I'm in the Army Reserve).  Typically I used my MacBook Pro booted into Windows with Apple's Boot Camp utility, or a virtual machine to run Windows within OS X on my MacBook Air, but a desire to separate my work and personal life (I consider military as personal) led me to look for a Windows ultraportable that handle light gaming, military use and have extremely long battery life for travel.  The X220 is it.

The X220 comes with many configurable options, so very few will be alike.  Options range from processor (2.1 GHZ Core i3 up to 2.6 GHz Core i7 (I got the 2.5 GHz Core i5), standard TN or premium IPS display (I got the IPS), fingerprint reader (didn't get it), 4, 6 or 9 cell battery (I got the 9 cell), RAM (8 GB max), hard drive (both conventional and SSD, with optional mSATA second SSD) and funally operating system (all versions of Windows 7).  Within those many choices it should be easy to build an X220 to suit your needs and budget, with the least expensive models starting around $800 and moving near $2000 for a fully loaded example.

My X220 is what I would consider a low-medium spec.  It has the fastest Core i5 Lenovo offers, which for everything except engineering work should be just as fast as the Core i7.  Mine came with only 2GB of RAM, but I ordered an 8 GB kit from Crucial for $60 and maxed it out.  Most X220 systems come with the 320 GB 7200 RPM hard drive, which is an outstanding compromise between speed, reliability and price, but as I bought this for military use I upgraded to the 128 GB SSD drive, which will have better shock resistance, though likely won't last as many read/write cycles.  I opted not to get the fingerprint reader as military websites require a smart card anyway, but did get the large 9 cell battery, Bluetooth and webcam to maximize communications capabilities and battery life.  I did not get the WWAN card as I use my iPhone and tethering for that purpose, and plan to use the WWAN mini PCIe slot for an mSATA SSD drive (40 GB Intel 310 on order).  I bought my system at the Lenovo Outlet (someone else's cancelled order, there is a wide selection of configurations available) for $940, discounted to $840 with their labor day 2011 sale promotion. 

I have owned many ThinkPads over the years, with my last being a T400 in 2008.  My favorites, however, were always the X series ultraportables.  The problem with the X series in the past was that the graphics were never adequate for any but the most basic of games (Flash games and solitaire were fine, shooters and RPGs, not so much).  Intel's current SandyBridge processors and their HD 3000 graphics are still not gaming grade, but they are more than adequate for most games with the detail turned down.  As I already have a powerful system with gaming-grade graphics (2010 MacBook Pro Core i7 with nVidia 330M 512 MB) for serious gaming, the X220 is more than adequate for gaming on the road. 

Two games I have played on the X220 are Mass Effect 2 and DragonAge 2, which were released in 2010 and 2011 respectively, and are considered medium in their system reuirements.  Both run very well at low detail and native 1366X768 resolution.  DragonAge 2 becomes a stuttering, unplayable mess at medium detail, while Mass Effect 2 does fine at medium detail until you get into a fight, when it too bogs down to unplayability.  Low detail looks fine on a 12.5" screen, and so configured gives a more than decent gaming experience, at least for a business laptop.

So if games are important to me, why did I buy a business laptop instead of something more gaming oriented?  Call me lazy, but I just hate carrying a heavy or bulky laptop around with me.  Whether I am traveling across the country or just across the living room, I like laptops that are very small, very comfortable, run very long on their batteries, are very light and very well made.  There are plenty of machines out there that can hit most of those targets, but the ThinkPad X220 is, to my knowledge, the only one that hits them all.

Very small and very light are easy, and even those $200 netbooks get those right.  The hard part in making a small machine is keeping it comfortable to use.  That means a full-size keyboard and pointing device(s) optimized for a small machine, though usable by large hands.  Apple's 11" MacBook Air is the best example of how small a laptop can become and still be comfortable to use, and Lenovo's ThinkPad X220 comes close.

Now the X220 is physically larger than the 11" MacBook Air, thicker, deeper, but about the same width.  Apple chose to (heavily) shrink the function keys at the top of the keyboard in order to push the keyboard as far forward towards the screen as possible, leaving as much surface area as possible for the palmrest and very large touchpad.  They (Apple) further enlarged the touchpad by eliminating the buttons and using the surface itself for clicks. 

Lenovo tried to do the same thing (as many others have recently), but refused to compromise on the size of certain keys, while actually enlarging some like enter and delete.  Lenovo also (thankfully) kept the TrackPoint pointing stick and its physical mouse buttons, which take up space underneath the keyboard.  The result of these differences is mixed.

This results in two trade-offs compared to Apple's approach for ultraportable ergonomics; a better keyboard layout with quicker, more intuitive access to important non-alphanumeric keys (delete, enter, etc), but a smaller, cramped touchpad and shorter palmrest that may be less comfortable for some users.  Personally, I prefer the deeper palmrest on Apple's design.  That said, the actual keyboard is far better on the X220, though of course being a ThinkPad, keyboard is always a primary factor in the design.  The touchpad on the X220 is decent enough, but is nowhere near Apple's (nobody's is) in terms of feel, accuracy and gesture support.  Of course, as a TrackPoint fan I disabled the touchpad completely and use only the red nubbin and its three hardware buttons.  So configured, the X220 is, in my opinion, THE most comfortable ultraportable to type on, period.  Yes, I'd prefer shorter function keys like Apple's if it afforded a deeper palmrest, but no machine is perfect.  For long sessions at the keyboard, this is as good as it gets in a 3 lb computer.

I've discussed the keyboard layout above, but what truly sets a ThinkPad keyboard apart (beside the TrackPoint) is the feel of the individual keys.  These are quiet keys, but have a longer travel than just about any non-ThinkPad available.  They are also large, touching the adjacent keys, as opposed to the island style keyboards that have become popular (another Apple design that has spread).  The MacBook Air has excellent key feel, but the ThinkPad X220 is simply on a whole other level, better even than desktop keyboards commonly available.  In my view, there is no better keyboard anywhere, on any machine, at any price that is better than of a Lenovo ThinkPad, and unlike previous X series models, the X220 uses the same full-size keyboard as the full-size T and W series ThinkPads.  OUTSTANDING!

The next area of comfort is the display.  I actually ordered and returned an X220i, a lower end version of the X220 that came with a Core i3, conventional 320GB hard drive and non-IPS (TN) display.  The X220i was a very nice computer, but the display, while decent in isolation, looked murky and washed-out in comparison to my (also TN) MacBook Air.  The IPS display on my new X220 is vastly superior to the X220i's display, and surprisingly for a Lenovo (not known for the best display quality) its better than the MacBook Air or even my matte screen MacBook Pro, which has the best TN display I've ever used.  This is, with the exception of the limitations of its 1366X768 resolution (same as my 11" MacBook Air) THE BEST laptop display I've ever used.  IPS is the same technology used on the iPad, and just as on that device, it is truly astounding here.  You can look at the display from almost any angle and the colors remain vibrant and accurate.

The rest of the X220 is much the same as any ThinkPad of the last decade.  High carbon plastic casing feels very sturdy and has been well-proven over the years.  Top and bottom plates are metal, with a very luxurious-feeling rubber-like paint on the top.  Sturdy metal hinges and a magnesium rollcage inside the case make the X220 thicker than some competing ultraportables, but also make it stronger, and along with the T and W series ThinkPads passes the US Military's medium standard, which nothing else other than special ruggedized laptops can do.  This is about the most sturdy laptop you can buy that isn't a purpose-built rugged machine.  My experience matches this as I used ThinkPads back when I was in law enforcement and they always got bashed around, but never failed.  In fact, every ThinkPad I've ever owned held up to all sorts of abuse, and still looked and felt new when I was done with it.  Yes, the current crop of aluminum laptops are sturdy, but again the X220 is in a whole other (higher) league.

Performance is exactly what one would expect given the specifications.  Intel's SandyBridge processors are extremely fast, and the one in the X220 (and the i3 X220i) is no exception.  This machine is noticeably faster than my SandyBridge MacBook Air, which uses a low-voltage version of the Core i5.  That low voltage model is fast, the X220 is wickedly fast.  In fact, for anything that doesn't involve heavy use of the graphics processor, the X220 is the fastest computer I've ever owned, faster even than my 2010 model Core i7 MacBook Pro that runs at the same clock speed.  Even the graphics are far better than Intel integrated graphics have any right to be.  I explained the gaming capabilities at the beginning of this review, and they are not impressive, but for actual work or even games new enough to be optimized for the SandyBridge graphics, they are very impressive indeed.  High definition video is rendered without any real effort and with no ghosting or stuttering, which was not true of previous generations of Intel integrated graphics.  Simply put, unless you deal with massive images or videos with GPU-dependent software or are a hard-core gamer, you will not be disappointed in the GPU and will be blown-away by the CPU.  This is one very powerful laptop, despite being an ultraportable.

I saved the most important thing (to me) for last, which is battery life.  Here the X220 is at its most impressive.  With the standard 6 cell battery most users will get 8 to 10 hours of wireless web browsing on a charge.  With the 9 cell its good for 12 to 15 hours.  Add the 6 cell slice batter to the 9 cell and you will get between 20 and 23 hours.  Even without taking advantage of the power management features or dimming the screen you will get about an hour per battery cell, or 18 hours on the 9 cell and slice.  Most impressive is that you will get 4 or 5 hours on the tiny 4 cell that doesn't protrude from the case and allows a travel weight of under 3 lbs.  That is for a fast full-voltage Core i5 and IPS display!  Sure, there are laptops that will run longer away from AC power, but none that do so with this much power, this much comfort, this good of a display and this much raw power.

I'm a Mac user, and my entire business network is Mac-based, with Mac-only software in a mission-critical role.  In spite of that, there are many instances where I leave the MacBook Air at home and take the X220, relying on either my iPhone or iPad to access my Mac only business management software (DayLite 3), which has an iOS client.  The MacBook Air, good as it is, is simply too limited in battery life to be my only computer.

Okay, so I prefer OS X, but Windows 7 is a lot better than any previous version of Windows, and is not at all annoying to use.  That is saying a lot for a Mac user.  Furthermore, Lenovo adds excellent software to allow users more control over their ThinkPad PCs.  From the Access Connections networking utility that allows location profiles that switch automatically much like OS X does on its own, to extremely advanced power management, it is possible to configure the X220 to any desired application.  This takes a lot more user involvement than Apple's system or even the defaults in Windows 7, but is a lot more powerful as well.  It is the exact opposite of Apple's approach to elegant simplicity and hiding the power, but it has its advantages as well.

In conclusion, even though I'm a Mac user, the X220 in my opinion is the absolute best ultraportable hardware on the market today, and is even better than Apple's extremely impressive MacBook Air.  If only it ran OS X, it would be my absolute dream machine.  As it is, the MacBook Air is still a better fit for my business use, but in pure hardware terms, the MacBook Air is now second-best.

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