Google Nexus 7 Review

Overview

Until recently the tablet market has been dominated by high end Apple iPads, but $500 is still a lot of money for a tablet. On the other end of the tablet market are more cost conscious tablets that have the trade-offs needed to hit the price point. What’s a tablet buyer to do? Google is coming to the rescue with the Nexus 7. It’s Google’s attempt to shake up the tablet market with a low cost high quality tablet. The Nexus 7 gives users a nVidia quad core processor, a great IPS screen, a very portable 7” form factor, long battery life and Jelly Bean, the latest version of Android that runs buttery smooth on the Nexus 7. You get all this for the low-low price of $200. They’re practically giving it away, but is it too good to be true? What follows is an examination of the Nexus 7 from a tablet newbie’s perspective, this would be me, that will hopefully give readers some insight into whether the Nexus 7 makes a good fit for them and maybe a chuckle or two.

Nexus 7

Hardware

Here are the Nexus 7 specifications:

  • Model: Nexus 7
  • CPU: nVidia Tegra 3 Quad Core
  • Memory: 1GB
  • Storage: 16GB or 32GB
  • LCD: 7” 1280×800 IPS(400 Nits)
  • Network: WiFi, Bluetooth and HSPA+(AT&T) on Select 32GB Models
  • Camera: 1.2MP Front Facing
  • Dimensions: 7.8(H), 4.7”(W), .4”(D)
  • Weight: 12 Oz
  • OS: Android Jelly Bean
  • MSRP: 16GB $200, 32GB $250 and 32GB with HSPA+ $299

Why a Tablet and Buying

I’m sure this isn’t the first tablet review you’ve read. Most reviews tend to focus on the hardware, design, usage, etc, which we certainly will too, but since this is my personal tablet, I thought spending some time on why and how I bought might be useful for readers or at least interesting anyway. I contemplated getting a tablet ever since Apple released the original iPad in 2010. I had an iPhone at the time and liked iOS, but I already owned a very good 12” ThinkPad X200 ultraportable notebook that offered me better performance and more functionality. Sure, the iPad would convenient for surfing and media consumption, but $500 entry price seemed a bit steep. Plus, the 10” form factor seemed too close to my ThinkPad in size to be able differentiate itself enough from a notebook to warrant spending the money.

What turned the tide you ask? A number of factors came into play. Lately when bringing my laptop somewhere I’ve found myself doing light tasks like surfing, typing out an email/forum post or watching videos. While my phone is great for music, the screen is too small for extended Internet usage. My laptop, even at 12”, isn’t as easy to whip out to check scores, watch a movie trailer or send a text as a tablet. Even reading a book before bed or playing a game seemed like it would be easier on a tablet. I found myself wanting another device between my phone and laptop that provided a better viewing experience, but was more portable. A 7” tablet seemed to be the perfect solution to my problem, not too big or too small. The other main factor was cost. If I’m going to have a third mobile device, I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on it. My interest was piqued when the $200 Nexus was released this summer, but 8GB was a bit too small, but I decided to look in earnest for a tablet.

Once I decided to get a tablet, I had to decide which one to get. The Microsoft Surface certainly seemed interesting. Given that it’s got an optional keyboard, it would alleviate a tablet’s biggest perceived weakness for dedicated notebook users like myself, lack of a keyboard. Like the iPad, it’s expensive asking price, $600 for a Surface with keyboard, is too costly to offer value. When I started seriously looking at tablets this summer, the iPad Mini marketing juggernaut was in full force. I decided to wait for the release of the Mini in hopes that Apple would get closer to the Nexus in price. Had they done so, say $250, I might have gone that way as I have some software from when I had the iPhone that I could have used on the Mini, but it wasn’t meant to be. Around the time of the Mini’s release, Google upped the base Nexus to 16GB at the same $200 price they had been asking for the 8GB version. The Nexus seemed the best blend of specs and cost, which pushed me over the edge to get one.

I had planned to buy the Nexus directly from Google, but there was a kink in the system. Google charges buyers $14 for two day shipping. After poking around I found there was no way out of paying the extra charge even though I was perfectly content to wait a few extra days and save the $14. At this point I decided to look for other options. I Googled the Nexus 7, I know ironic isn’t it, and found they were selling them at at Wal-mart for the same price. I paid with Paypal and picked it up the next day. I did not open it right away as I had to go to work after picking it up. I wish I had as when I opened I found the seal on the Nexus had been broken, which meant someone wasn’t happy with it and returned it, which Wal-mart neglected to mention. I did email Wal-mart and they called me to offer a new one, but the tablet didn’t seem any worse for the wear and I’m one of the few Americans who doesn’t live within 30 minutes of a Wal-mart. It didn’t seem worth it to spend the $6 in gas to get a new one.

The packing on the Nexus 7 was fairly minimal. When you open the box, the Nexus 7 is wrapped in plastic. The USB cord and power adapter reside underneath. There’s also a warranty card in there, but nothing else. The manual is installed on the Nexus 7 itself.

Design and Hardware

It’s flat and covered in glass. Doesn’t that pretty much describe every tablet? Despite its modest sticker price, there’s nothing that feels bargain basement about the Nexus 7. It starts with the rear of the Nexus 7. It’s covered in a black dimpled rubber coating that gives the Nexus 7 a sure grip and feels luxurious. As I mentioned the surface is covered in glass, black being the only color choice at the moment, and at the top of the screen resides the 1.2MP camera, which takes a fairly decent picture and should allow for some skyping. There’s about a half an inch bezel on the sides on the Nexus 7, and about an inch on top and bottom that make the Nexus very easy to hold without blocking the screen. The Nexus 7 uses a 16:10 aspect ratio screen and is a little over 4” wide. It fits perfectly in the palm of your hand, which is helpful when typing one-handed. I would think the Mini at over an inch wider will not be so convenient. The more narrow screen also allows the Nexus to easily slide into my front pants pocket, whether wearing jeans or dress pants. It’s just 12 ounces in weight, which makes it far more portable than any notebook I’ve seen or used. It’s much more convenient to take to work than my notebook. The volume and power buttons are located on the sides on the Nexus 7. They’re black like the rest of the Nexus 7. It makes them difficult to find in in the dark. Perhaps making them a different color or perhaps glow in the dark would help with the usability. A button on the front would have been more helpful, but perhaps Google didn’t want to hear from Apple’s lawyers. All Nexus 7 models have WLAN and Bluetooth, both of which worked well. If you have an AT&T data plan and are willing to spend $50 more, you get the Nexus with WWAN. It doesn’t look like other carriers are an option at the moment.

Nexus 7 Back

To get to the $200 price point, some sacrifices had to be made. You don’t get a rear facing camera, which isn’t a critical to me, but could be a deal breaker for some. There’s no SD card slot on the Nexus, which would allow for storage expansion. I suspect by the time all the apps, music and videos are loaded to the Nexus, some buyers will find the 16GB offered on the base model a bit limiting. I saw the 32GB model on sale for only $30 more a week after I purchased mine of course. I kind of wished I had waited. There’s no video out for hooking up to the TV. The only ports on the Nexus are the headphone, and USB port for charging and uploading.

Ports

Screen and Audio

The Nexus 7 comes with a 7” 1280×800 IPS LCD. The pixel density is 216 PPI. Having used higher pixel density laptops, I was concerned getting a screen with such a high pixel density would make it harder to use for extended periods, but my distress was unfounded. When using the Nexus 7 I find that I hold it closer to my face than I would a notebook, which makes it easier on the eyes. Even when holding the Nexus 7 at arm’s length I found it to be very readable, but prefer it a little closer. The screen on the Nexus 7 is covered in Gorilla Glass, which is both good and bad. The Gorilla Glass protects the screen very well, but comes at the cost of fingerprints and reflectivity. The screen is a fingerprint magnet, though they are easily cleaned off. The reflectivity of the screen is probably the bigger annoyance. If there’s a light source nearby, expect to see your face. Being that it is an IPS screen and looks good at any angle, I could usually tilt it to minimize the glare. The screen is rated at 400 nits and that makes it very usable outdoors except in direct sunlight. Again, outdoors you get glare because of the glass, but I could usually find a spot where it looked good.

Screen comparison next to ThinkPad X220 with IPS screen

The screen on the Nexus 7 is fantastic, but given that it’s an IPS screen, that’s not newsworthy. I don’t have an iPad or Kindle laying around to compare it to, but it holds up well sitting next to my IPS equipped ThinkPad X220i. Contrast is high on the screen. Colors are rich and pop off the screen, which means photos and movies look dynamite. The wide viewing angles mean the Nexus looks great at any angle and it helps offset the glare produced by the glass. Because of the high pixel density of the screen, when reading text it appears crisp and clear.

Given that the Nexus is so small one would expect a subpar audio experience from it. While it’ll never blow you away with the sound quality, it will certainly suffice for video, games or listening to some music. You’ll of course do better with some headphones, which Google does not provide with the Nexus 7.

Performance, Storage and Android

The Nexus 7 has the nVidia Tegra 3 quad core ARM CPU, which is fairly impressive since most 7” tablets I’ve seen use a dual core CPU and even a lot of 10” tablets still use dual core CPUs. The Nexus 7 also comes with 1GB of internal system memory. In addition to the memory, the Nexus 7 comes in 16GB and 32GB flavors for storage. I opted for the 16GB option to keep the price down. There’s a little over 13GB of space left on the Nexus 7 after accounting for Android. It dropped to 10GB after dumping my Mp3s on there. If are going to install a lot of apps, you should probably get the 32GB. Performance on the Nexus 7 is top-notch. Boot time is about 15 seconds, which is faster than my notebook. In doing my homework for the review, I saw users complain about the earlier versions of Android being slow, but the Nexus 7 always seemed very fast to me, whether flicking through menus, opening apps or doing more demanding tasks like watching video.

The Nexus 7 comes with the latest version of Andriod – Jelly Bean. One nice perk to getting a Google made tablet, actually it’s made by Asus, is you’ll always get the updates right away. There’s no need to wait for carriers to optimize the device for their network, which sometimes doesn’t happen. I’ve already had a couple in the month I’ve had the device. I have limited experience using Android with that being my original Galaxy phone. I liked the phone and Android, but the battery life was terrible. Thankfully, it was put through the washing machine fairly early on so I could sell it and buy something else. One clever feature of Android is if you’ve got a bunch of links grouped closely on a page, Chrome will pop up a magnified version of the links that makes them easier to press. One displeasing attribute is that the screen does not rotate by default. You have to turn that on, which took me a while to figure out. I’m sort of a generalist. Most of the things I do are non-techy so any of the mobile operating systems will do, be it Andriod, iOS, Windows 8 Mobile, etc.

When you buy a tablet, you’re not just getting a tablet, but a whole platform to buy content. Apple has iTunes, Android has Google Play and Windows has their Marketplace. I purchased a few books and games, and one movie relatively painlessly once giving them my credit card. The depth and breadth of the offerings is quite staggering. One or the other might have an exclusive on a particular item, which might sway a fan, but I would think there’s enough content there to last someone a long, long time. Price may be a factor. With the Marketplace on my Windows Mobile phone, I did notice a few items seemed higher priced than on iTunes, but on balance, there’s a ton of choices and most buyers should be able to find something they like.

Battery Life

The Nexus 7 uses a lithium-ion battery. It is rated at 300 hours of standby time, nine and a half hours of regular usage, and nine hours of HD video playback. To test the battery on the Nexus 7 I charged it fully, set the screen to half and started using it with WiFi on. I was doing typical tablet usage like surfing, watching videos, reading books and playing games, which is mostly what I plan to do with my tablet. Using those setting I’m getting a solid nine hours of battery lifeon the Nexus 7. That’s probably four times the amount I actually need. My only complaint about the battery life on the Nexus 7 is the power button. When I put the Nexus 7 into my pocket, which the Nexus 7 was made to do, the power button has a light touch. It likes to turn itself on while in my pocket. I suppose I could put it in some sort of case, but that would make it harder to put in my pocket.

Charger

Final Thoughts

Call me a skeptic about tablets when they were first released a few years ago, but the Nexus 7 has changed my mind for the better about tablets. Google has done an amazing job of packing in the goodies at a really, really good price. For $200 you get a very well made tablet. With the quad core CPU and latest version Android, Jelly Bean, performance on the Nexus 7 never leaves you wanting for more. The screen is downright gorgeous. Videos and pictures look great. Text is sharp and easy to read. With its smaller form factor, the Nexus easily slides into your pocket or purse and with nine hours of battery life, you should be good to go all day. If you’re a hardcore tablet user the lack of better storage options and rear facing might give you pause, but if you’re a tablet newbie like myself and want an option that’s easy on the wallet to dip your toe in the tablet waters, then the Google Nexus 7 makes an excellent choice and terrific stocking stuffer too.

Pros

  • Excellent Build Quality
  • Beautiful Screen
  • Imminently Portable
  • Zippy Performance
  • Lot of Features at a Low Price = Ton of Value
  • Long Battery Life

Cons

  • No Rear Facing Camera
  • No Way to Increase Storage
  • Powers Itself on Too Easily
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Lenovo USB 3.0 to DVI/VGA Monitor Adapter Review

Overview

You’ve just acquired a new ThinkPad laptop and have an external LCD monitor or several you’d like to connect to your ThinkPad. The new Lenovo USB 3.0 to DVI/VGA Monitor Adapter gives its buyers the ability to hook those monitors (up to six) to their ThinkPad via USB 3.0 with relative ease and is less expensive than a docking station. As the name implies, the adapter gives users the ability to use either a DVI or VGA connection to the monitor. The adapter supports a maximum resolution of 2048×1152, meaning all but the most expensive ultra high resolution monitors should be able to work with the adapter. In the review below we’lltake a look at the positives and negatives of the Lenovo USB 3.0 to DVI/VGA Monitor Adapter to hopefully help you decide whether it’s a good fit for your setup.

Specs

The specs of the Lenovo USB 3.0 to DVI/VGA Monitor Adapter are:

  • Model – 0B47072
  • Box Contents – USB 3.0 to DVI Adapter, USB 3.0 Cable, DVI to VGA Adapter, Driver CD
  • Maximum Resolution – 2048×1152
  • Maximum Monitors – Six
  • Ability to Rotate Screens
  • Works with Laptops or Desktops
  • Test Systems – ThinkPad X220i, Sony S13
  • Test Monitor – Samsung 2333T
  • MSRP – $79.99, Street Price $70

Lenovo USB 3.0 to DVI/VGA adapter

Setup and Use

The Lenovo USB 3.0 to DVI/VGA Monitor Adapter employs a very simple setup. I attached the adapter to my Samsung monitor, powered up the system and plugged it in. Windows popped up a dialog box saying it was installing the drivers and they were out of date, but when I went to update them, it said they were the newest. Once the drivers were installed, the wallpaper from the laptop popped up on the external screen in extended mode and I was good to go. It just worked as soon as I plugged it in. There was no need to adjust any settings as the monitor set itself to 1080 resolution. I don’t think you can get much easier than that. As for the performance, the external screen looked as nice as the laptop screen. Text was crisp and clear. I was able to watch some Hulu videos and DVD rips without issue. The screen rotated as advertised. I tested both DVI and VGA, and I had no trouble getting either to work.

DSC00029-001

Everything worked as planned, but according to the specs, the USB 3.0 adapter supports a maximum of six monitors. I’m not exactly sure how that works. No ThinkPad I know of has six USB 3.0 ports. Perhaps if you used it in conjunction with one of the docking stations or a powered USB hub, you could get it to work, but I unfortunately only have one adapter. You’ll also have to buy an adapter for each external monitor, which will add up very quickly. The specs also state that it’ll work with any USB 3.0 or USB 2.0 powered port, but when I plugged it into my X220i powered USB port, it did nothing. Perhaps that is a typo.

Conclusion

The Lenovo USB 3.0 to DVI/VGA Monitor Adapter worked great and was a breeze to install. As a stand alone product, I’m not sure the adapter makes much sense from a value perspective. Most ThinkPads are going to give buyers a DisplayPort and a VGA connector. Buying a cable to attach the monitor is far less expensive than the the adapter. Where the USB 3.0 adapter gets interesting is in the use of multiple monitors. According to the specs on the product page, the adapter supports up six monitors. Most ThinkPads support two external monitors, but the USB 3.0 adapter would potentially give you the opportunity to add a third, fourth or fifth external monitors. If you’re one of those people who can never have enough screen real estate, it’s here that spending the extra cash for the adapter seems warranted.

Pros & Cons

Pros

  • Very Easy Setup
  • Good Performance

Cons

  • Expensive for a Single or Dual External Monitor Setup

Where to Buy

The Lenovo USB 3.0 to DVI/VGA adapter retails for $79.99 on Lenovo.com

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Sony VAIO S 13” Review (2012 Model)

The Sony VAIO S 13” (VAIO S13) is a 13” ultra mobile notebook released in Spring of 2012.  The VAIO S13 comes with the latest Intel Ivy Bridge Core i5 and i7 CPUs for top mobile performance. The S13 offers buyers a wide range of configuration options, ranging from the sparsely equipped base unit, which has a street price of around $800, to the much more expensive models with HD+ 1600 x 900 displays, carbon fiber lids and dedicated GPUs. The S13 is aimed at shoppers who want a reasonably thin, durable notebook that gives them the best performance in a light mobile package. Below we’re going to dissect the pros and cons of the VAIO S 13” to hopefully determine whether the S13 makes a good fit for you.

DSC00032-001

Specs

Here are the specifications of the model under review:

  • Model: SVS13112FXB
  • Operating System: Windows Seven Home Premium x64
  • CPU: Intel 2.5GHz Core i5-3210M(3.1GHz Turbo) 35w
  • Memory: 6GB DDR 1333MHz(16GB Max)
  • Hard Drives: 640GB Seagate 5400RPM
  • Optical Drive: DVDRW(Slot Loading)
  • Screen: 13.3” 1366×768 Matte LED LCD
  • Graphics: Intel HD 4000 Integrated
  • Webcam: 1.3MP
  • Network: Realtek Ethernet, Intel 6235 WiFi Card and Bluetooth
  • Inputs: Six Row 81 Key Island Style Keyboard and Clickpad with Integrated Buttons
  • Buttons: Power, Speed/Stamina Control, CD Eject, Assist, Web and Viao
  • Ports:  Three USB Ports – Two USB 3.0 and One Powered USB 2.0 (All Right Side), Ethernet, VGA/HDMI, Combo Headphone/Microphone Jack, SD Card Reader, MagicGate Card Reader
  • Battery: Six-Cell (4400 mAh)
  • Dimensions: Width 13.04”, Depth 8.85” and Height .95”
  • Weight: 3.8 Pounds
  • Warranty: One Year
  • Base Price: $725

Design and Build

DSC00038-001Sony offers the VAIO S13 in eight different color choices, so you can pick the color that best suits your mood. Pink, gold and white are a few of the colors options . Whatever color you chose, the entire case is clad in it. Our review unit came in black, giving it a sort of ThinkPad look. The outside of the S13 has a simple look with only a medium sized Vaio and small Sony logos decorating the the lid. When you open the VAIO S 13” the keyboard is recessed slightly inward. When I first saw it, I thought I had broken it because it’s creased between the keyboard and screen. The S13 has what Sony calls a full-flat design. It’s completely flat on the bottom, except the rubber feet. Most notebooks have something sticking out the bottom these days, which you can feel when it rests in your lap. The S13 is deigned for mobility, so it’s thin and light at just 1” thick. It doesn’t seem all that impressive next to some extremely thin Ultrabooks that are out nowadays, but the S13 also gives users an optical drive, which you’d never see on an Ultrabook. The S13 weighs just under four pounds, 3.8 pounds to be exact. While that’s not the lightest 13” notebook on the market, it should meet the needs of most mobile users.

The VAIO S 13 feels very solid. You can pick it up by the side and it doesn’t creek or groan at all. The lid is made of magnesium alloy and carbon fiber is used on the higher end models. One plus for the mag alloy on the S13 is it is not prone to smudging or fingerprints. While you can make the screen wrinkle a bit if you press on the back, particularly in the middle, it feels well protected nonetheless. The screen is firm when in use, never moving at all. The screen uses a latchless design, but there’s little chance it’ll pop open.  Overall the fit and finish on the S13 is excellent.

Display

The VAIO S 13 has a 13.3” TN LED backlit display. The screen is matte, which thankfully means there’s no annoying reflections when there’s a light source nearby. There are two resolution choices – 1366×768 and 1600×900. We have the lower resolution HD resolution screen. Higher end models will have the HD+ LCD. There are 17 brightness levels on the S13, which range from dim, but usable, to pretty bright. I’d estimate the brightness to be about 300 nits. It seems pretty close to my ThinkPad X220i, which is rated at 300 nits. The S13 screen itself is quite nice, It offers above average contrast, so colors and images look good. Side to side angles are fairly wide and while the vertical angles aren’t as extensive, there’s a sizable effective zone. If you’re not moving too much, the screen looks pretty good. The biggest issue I had with the screen is the screen liked to adjust the brightness all by itself. I’m not sure if it was just a problem with this particular S13 or is a larger problem with all S13s, but the when using the S13, the screen dimmed to a lower brightness for just half a second or so, then would go back to the original setting. At first I thought it was some sort of power management issue, but I turned off all power saving settings and it still did it. I wouldn’t say it’s a huge problem when using the S13 and it may be limited to our S13, but it can be distracting when it occurs.

DSC00043-001 screen tilted back
screen tilted forward side view

Audio

One of the first things I do when getting a notebook for review is plug in my USB drive to dump my Mp3 collection over. I install iTunes and listen to some music, hoping to hear something better than the last notebook I reviewed. On occasion, I get a notebook that rises above the mediocrity that is most notebook speakers, the Dell XPS13 would be an example of this, but mostly they all sound about the same. The S13 would fall into the mediocrity category. While the S13 is pleasant enough for some music or videos, it’s a bit tinny and there’s not much bass to be had. As with most notebooks a good set of headphones or speakers will greatly enhance the audio experience.

CPU, Performance and Storage

Sony offers the Vaio S13 with the latest Intel Core i5 and i7 Intel Ivy Bridge dual core CPUs. Unlike the larger 15” model, there’s no quad core option for the 13” model. It’s a shame there’s no 35w quad option as that would have made the S13 a true portable power house. Our review unit had the base Core i5-3210M dual core CPU. In addition to the Ivy Bridge CPUs, you get a minimum of 4GB of memory on the base model.  Our review unit had 6GB of memory, which should be fine for most users unless you’re running some memory hogging applications. All VAIO S13 configurations have minimum of one 4GB stick soldered to the motherboard with one open slot on the underside of the notebook. That means the maximum amount of memory you can have is 12GB.

DSC00037-001

With the latest Ivy Bridge CPUs and 6GB of memory, the S13 is no lazybones in the performance department. I was able to power through some Photoshop filters while listening to some music and surfing the web. The S13 didn’t sweat at all. One interesting feature the VAIO S offers on the performance side of things is a switch on the keyboard deck that allows you to toggle between speed and stamina performance modes. I think it’s mostly a gimmick. I could not discern a difference between the two modes when doing regular stuff.

The biggest performance bottleneck on the S13 is the slower 5400RPM hard drive. With 640GB of storage, the drive offers plenty of space, but it’s not quick. Boot times were just over a minute and applications don’t pop up as fast as when using a faster drive or SSD. That’s not unexpected, but the good news is the drive is fairly easy to swap. It sits under a panel on the bottom of the notebook. There’s only a couple screws to remove to gain access to it. Unfortunately, there’s only one drive bay and no mSATA slot, which would allow for two drives. It also looks like you cannot remove the optical drive for another hard drive like on the bigger S15 model. While our review unit came with a slot loading DVD-RW drive, a Blu-ray reader or Blu-ray burner is an upgrade option for movie buffs or those who need to do large backups.

Sony offers two graphics card options on the S13, the integrated Intel HD 400, which our review unit has, and a dedicated nVidia GeForce GT 640M LE. If you opt for the Intel solution you should be able to play older games and some newer games on low settings. The Intel card should also offer buyers better battery life. If you want to do some gaming on the S13, the dedicated nVidia card is the way to go. While not a top card by any means, it should allow users to play newer games while on the go, but battery life will take a hit.

Keyboard and Touch Pad

The VAIO S 13” uses a chiclet or island style keyboard that is the norm these days. It’s a full sized keyboard. Being it’s a 13” notebook, there’s no 10 key number pad. The keyboard on the S13 is fairly firm, you can make the keyboard give if you press down on it hard, but that’s not an issue during regular use. The keys on the S13 have a smooth feeling to them. The spacing is off from what I’m familiar with using, but buyers should adjust to that quickly. The depth is also a bit on the shallow side. One nifty feature the S13 keyboard does have is the keyboard backlight. It’s an auto backlight. There’s no on or off switch to the backlight, but when you use the keyboard, the backlight comes on. If you don’t use for a minute or so, it turns itself off. That should help preserve battery life and you don’t have to remember to turn it on or off.

VAIO S13 keyboard

The touch pad on the S13 is a click pad, meaning anywhere except the lower right corner, which is the right click, registers as a left click. The S13 has one of the widest touch pads I’ve seen, measuring over 4.5” wide and just under 2.5” top to bottom. The touch pad on the S13 has just the slightest bit of coarseness to it like a very fine sandpaper, but it works well enough. There’s no lag between what your finger does and what happens on the screen. The button mechanism is much stiffer than I’m used to, making dragging items across the screen a chore, which I didn’t like. I did quickly learn how to use tap to click on the S13, which greatly improved the likeability factor for the touch pad. The S13 has all the gestures like two-finger scrolling, pinch to zoom and tap to click buyers have come to expect when purchasing a notebook and they work well for the most part, but aren’t quite as fluid as the best touch pads I’ve seen like those on the MacBook Air or the ThinkPad X1 Carbon.

Backlit keyboard

Battery

The VAIO S has a six-cell battery. The battery is accessible beneath a panel on the bottom of the notebook. Some screws need to be removed to exchange the battery. While buyers won’t need to send the battery to Sony for replacement, it’s not the most user friendly process. You wouldn’t want to attempt it on say an airplane tray. In addition to the standard battery, Sony offers a sheet battery for the S13 that plugs into a port on the bottom of the laptop. It’s also a six-cell battery and should double the battery life the S13 can offer users, but it also adds a pound and half to the weight, which lessens its mobility. To test the battery on the S13 I charged it fully, placed the switch on the keyboard deck to stamina mode and Windows to battery saver mode since Sony doesn’t offer much in the way of battery management software. The screen was set to half brightness and WiFi was on. With these settings I was able get 4 hours and 16 minutes of battery life. While that’s probably twice what I personally need, it’s a bit on the low side for more recent Intel Ivy Bridge based notebooks that have come across my desk. The ThinkPad T430 for example doubled that, though it had a larger battery. Attaching the sheet battery should get S13 users the same battery life as the T430, but with the added weight, the S13 will be heavier than the T430.

Heat & Noise

When using the VAIO S it stayed cool to the touch whether I was pushing it or not. The bottom back is where it got the warmest, but it was never uncomfortable. The vent on the S13 is located in the middle of the rear, it seems an odd location choice, but at least it’s not on the bottom, which has a tendency to get covered when in use. I wish I could say the S13 ran as quiet as it does cool, but honestly, I can’t. The fan noise on the VAIO S doesn’t get particularly noisy when doing mundane tasks, but it is an ever present fact of life. It has a dull hum that’s on all the time whether you’re just surfing or running more CPU intensive applications. It’s easily drowned out with music or conversation, but if you need quiet, it’s there. I tried setting it to quiet in the software settings and putting the CPU in low power mode, but it had no effect. When pushing the S13 it can get a bit loud, but that’s not unusual for most notebooks.

Ports and Networking

Sony furnishes the S13 with most of the ports typical users will need. Interestingly, almost all the ports on the S13 are located on the right side with the exception of the headphone jack. Hooking up a corded mouse for a lefty might be a challenge. There are connectors on the bottom of the S13 for the slice battery and docking port, but they just have plastic covers that do not attach to the S13, which means they’ll be very easy to lose. The right side of the S13 MagicGate and card readers, VGA and HDMI connectors for video, three USB 3.0 ports(one powered for charging a phone), an Ethernet port and the power jack.

Right side ports

The left side of the S13 has the slot loading DVDRW slot and headphone jack.

Left side

The bottom of the S13 has the slice battery and docking port connectors. The dock only adds a 500GB hard drive for back ups or what not, but doesn’t give you any ports that aren’t on the S13 itself. The dock will add some convenience when using an external monitor or other peripherals at a desk.

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All S13 come with Ethernet, WiFi and Bluetooth, which should cover the bases for most users. I had no trouble with the WiFi at home or work. I was able to connect my phone to play music and my mouse to the S13 effortlessly via Bluetooth.

Software

Our VAIO S 13” came with Windows 7 Home Premium, but Pro is an option for those willing to pay more. Sony does include some software utilities with the S13 like a settings menu and some multimedia software, but they’re not as comprehensive as the ThinkVantage suite offered on ThinkPads. Vaio Gate is an annoying item in the S13 software bundle. It sits at the top of the screen and pops out when the cursor gets close to it. It sort of reminds of ObjectDock. It has a way of popping out when you don’t want it to do so, though is not difficult to disable. One lame feature Sony offers on the VAIO S is what they call Fresh Start. First of all, you have upgrade to Windows Professional to get it, which costs $50. Basically, Fresh Start is a clean install of Windows with no bloatware. That’s how every notebook/PC should come, yet Sony has the nerve to charge you extra to get something it should already have.

Conclusion

The VAIO S 13” model in some sense tries to be all jack of all trades. You’ve got the lower end sub $800 models that are pretty bare and then the higher end models that go north of $2,000. If you’re going for the base and have $800 to spend, the S13 doesn’t hold up against the competition from a cost perspective. The higher end models are so expensive, few are likely to deem them worthy. I think where the VAIO S 13 is going shine is in the middle. If you’re willing to spend a few hundred above the base price, you can the S13 with a HD+ LCD, which is still pretty rare these days on 13” notebooks outside of premium Ultrabooks, and a dedicated graphics card for those who want to game a bit on the go. When you factor in the durable build, attractive design, above average screen and fair price, it’s in the center that the Sony S13 gives end users the best value.

Pros

  • Attractive Design
  • Nice Screen
  • Durable Build
  • Color Options
  • Auto Keyboard Backlight

Cons

  • Noisy Fan
  • So-so Battery Life
  • Not Easy to Swap Battery
  • Can Be Expensive on Higher Configurations
  • Questionable Software
4 comments

Lenovo ThinkPad USB 3.0 Dock Review

You’ve just picked up a ThinkPad X1 Carbon. It’s sleek and sexy, the ultimate portable tool really, but when you get to the office, dorm room or home, you’ve got a couple nice big monitors, a Blu-ray drive, a set of speakers that sound much nicer than the X1’s speakers, a mouse/keyboard combo and an external hard drive you’d like to use with your X1 Carbon. The X1 has only two USB ports and no docking connection. How can you hook up all those peripherals and do you want to spend five minutes doing it? Lenovo has your back with their USB 3.0 Dock. The USB 3.0 Dock is not a traditional ThinkPad dock that you would plug your ThinkPad into, but as the name implies, it uses USB 3.0 as the connector for the dock. The USB 3.0 Dock has lots of USB 3.0 ports and a couple DVI monitor connectors. The USB 3.0 Dock is designed to work with ThinkPads that do not have a docking connector, but will work with any USB 3.0 equipped ThinkPad. Read on to find if the USB 3.0 dock is a good fit for your setup.

Lenovo ThinkPad USB 3.0 Dock

Specs

Here are the specs for the Lenovo USB 3.0 Dock, model number 0A33970, under review:

  • Connectors
    •  Five USB 3.0 – Two Front and Three Rear(One Powered)
    •  Two DVI with One VGA Adapter
    •  Ethernet
    •  Combo Headphone/Microphone Jack
  • Dimensions:
    • Width – 1.00”-1.20”
    • Depth – 3.34”
    • Height – 6.34”
  • Weight – 1.57 lbs
  • Box Contents: Dock, Power Plug, USB Cable, Driver CD, Setup Pamphlet, and VGA Adapter
  • M.S.R.P: $179 at Lenovo.com ($166 Street Price)
  • Warranty: One Year

Design and Function

DSC00018-001As I sit here holding the USB 3.0 Dock in my hand, the size of it reminds me of a transistor radio you would see in old movies and TV shows. It kind of just fits in your hands. It has a small compact design. It’s durable and well made. It stands about 6-inches tall and about an inch wide at the front, but it gets wider at the bottom to accommodate more ports on the rear. The dock is black and the sides are coated with the same grippy surface found on a ThinkPad case.  The front of the dock uses a shiny black plastic. The power button is located on the top of the dock. When you set the dock down, it has enough weight that it won’t be knocked over if it’s touched lightly. However, when you connect all the cables, it has a tendency to fall over. I found it was easier to leave it on its side.

The USB 3.0 Dock gives you lots of connection options. You get five USB ports – two on the front for say an external drive or MP3 player maybe, then three on the rear. The bottom USB port on the rear is powered, which will allow you to charge a device like a phone. You also get two DVI connectors for the monitors. Lenovo supplies the dock with a VGA adapter if you’re using an older VGA monitor. There’s an Ethernet port too, which makes sense as Ethernet will more likely be used at a desk. The combo headphone/microphone jack is on the front for the headphone or speakers. A few disappointments in the design would be the dock does not power the notebook like with a traditional ThinkPad docking station.  Powering a notebook via USB 3.0 is not possible at this time, you simply can’t deliver enough power via USB to run a laptop (though that may change in a year or two with new USB specifications).  You’ll need to have your own notebook adapter and plug that in once you get to the office, or have a spare one there already.   The other thing to note is the power button on the dock does not power off the laptop as well when you push it, only the dock.  With traditional ThinkPad docks when you push the power button it turns on the laptop as well as the dock.

Lenovo USB 3.0 port replicator back view

Use

To test the USB 3.0 Dock, I have two external monitors to use – a 20” Dell UXGA hooked up using DVI and 22” Hanns G WSXGA+ LCD attached with the VGA adapter. I tested the dock on two ThinkPads – the X1 Carbon and T430. Setting it up only took a few minutes. It’s not as simple as a traditional dock where you just plug it in and forget it, but it’s fairly straight forward nonetheless. My question is, if you want to use the dock with a keyboard and mouse, where do put the notebook? With a classic dock once you find a place to put the dock, you’ve always got a place to put the notebook, but with the USB 3.0 dock, you’ve got to look for a place to put it every time you connect it. Once I got everything assembled and powered on the system, Windows seemed to be still missing a few drivers. I put in the supplied CD and ran the setup files. It took three or four reboots before Windows and the dock were talking the same language, but once they were, the dock worked beautifully on both ThinkPads. Being that both the X1 and T430 have the Intel HD 4000, they support up to three monitors. I was able to extend the Dell and Hanns G monitors while still using the notebook’s screen. I do not have a monitor with above Full HD resolution, so I can’t test it, but most ThinkPads come with a DisplayPort that can do 2560×1600 resolution. You can probably do a WQXGA monitor from the DisplayPort on the notebook, a monitor from the dock and then drive the laptop LCD all at the same time, but don’t quote me on that yet. I used the dock with my external hard drive, a mouse/keyboard combo and a pair of Logitech USB speakers. All worked impeccably.

DSC00017-001

Conclusion

Now that you’ve got the ThinkPad X1 Carbon or other docking station-less notebook, should you run out and buy the Lenovo USB 3.0 Dock? If you’ve got a lot of peripherals at the desk you want to connect on a regular basis like monitors and drives, the USB 3.0 Dock certainly makes things much easier than going without out a dock. The dock is well made, has more connection options than most users will need and works great after you get drivers properly setup. If you’ve got a ThinkPad with a proper docking connector like the T, W or X series, I’d be more inclined to go with a classic dock even though it’s more expensive. A classic dock will have its own power supply that also powers the notebook, which saves you the expense of having to buy another power adapter for your laptop. You can also turn on and off the ThinkPad from the dock with the more expensive true docking station solution. Plus, it’s a bit more more easy to set it and forget it. If, however, you’ve got a ThinkPad without the docking port connector like the ThinkPad X1 Carbon or a ThinkPad Edge and you have lots of goodies to hook up, the USB 3.0 Dock makes it convenient and at a reasonable price.

Pros

  • Small Compact Design
  • Lot’s of Connection Options
  • Worked Flawlessly
  • Durable and Well Made
  • Less Expensive Than Traditional

Con

  • Where to Put Notebook?
  • Cannot Turn ThinkPad On/Off from from Dock
  • Doesn’t Stand Upright Well
  • No AC Adapter to Power Notebook

See a Video Tour of the ThinkPad USB 3.0 Dock

Lenovo ThinkPad USB 3.0 Dock Tour

Where to Buy

The Lenovo ThinkPad USB 3.0 Dock is available via Lenovo.com for $179

4 comments

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Review

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 CarbonNot since the ThinkPad X300 has there been a ThinkPad that’s garnered as much attention as the new ThinkPad X1 Carbon has before it’s release. Internet forum users have been dissecting the minute details of the X1 Carbon for months in anticipation of its release. The X1 Carbon is a new 14” Ultrabook from Lenovo’s ThinkPad line, the company’s first business class Ultrabook. It’s easy to why ThinkPadders are excited. The X1 Carbon is extremely thin, under 3/4” at its thickest point. It’s light too, coming in just below three pounds. Those should imbue the X1 with the portability that few other notebooks can match. Being this is a ThinkPad you should get durability, top-notch service and a good keyboard, right? The X1 is shaping up to be perhaps the first bona-fide contender to seriously challenge the MacBook Air, the reigning top-dog of the Ultrabook segment. Admit it, we know you’ve been lusting for the MacBook Air, but need a Windows machine. Does the X1 have what it takes to take on the Air or other Ultrabooks? Read on to find out…

Specs

Here are the specifications of the X1 Carbon model under review:

  • Model: 3444-23U
  • Operating System: Windows Seven Professional x64
  • CPU: Intel 1.8GHz i5-3427U(2.3GHz w/Turbo Boost) 17w
  • Memory: 4GB(Soldered)
  • Hard Drives: Sandisk 128GB SD55G2128G1052E
  • Screen: 14.0” LG 1600×900 Matte LED TN LCD
  • Graphics: Intel HD 4000 Integrated
  • Network: Intel 6205 WiFi Card, Bluetooth, WWAN Upgradeable
  • Inputs: Six Row 84 Key Island Style Keyboard, Pointstick with Buttons and Clickpad
  • Buttons: Power, ThinkVantage, Volume Up and Down, Mute, Microphone Off and WiFi On/Off
  • Ports: Two USB – One USB 3.0 and One USB 2.0 (Powered), Mini DisplayPort, Combo Headphone/Microphone Jack
  • Slots: SD Card Reader
  • Battery: 45.8Whr Four-Cell
  • Dimensions: Width 13.0”, Depth 8.9” and Height .31”(Front)/.74”(Rear)
  • Weight: 2.99 Pounds
  • Warranty: One Year

Price and Competition

The ThinkPad X1 Carbon probably doesn’t have a direct competitor in the form of a business class Ultrabook from Dell or HP, at least not yet, but as the lines between business and consumer class notebooks continue to blur, other Ultrabooks will be competing with the X1 for your dollars. The Apple Macbook Air, Asus Zenbook UX31A and 13” Samsung Series 9 are the Ultrabooks that are the closest to the X1 in design. The X1 was released with a MSRP of $1,399 for the base model with the i5 and 128GB SSD, but as is often the case when purchasing a new ThinkPad from Lenovo, those willing and able to wait for coupons, can do significantly better price wise. Lenovo was selling the base X1 for $999 with coupons the day it was released. At that price point, the X1 offers considerable value as it costs less considerably than the MacBook Air or the Samsung and beats the Asus on price too, though not by as much.

Design and Build

ThinkPad Carbon X1 front view

If Lenovo pegged the MacBook Air as the target for what the size of the X1 should be, they came pretty darned close. The X1 is slightly wider, due to the larger screen, but the depth and height are just about the same. Lenovo managed to keep the X1 narrow by using very slim LCD bezels, which is more attractive. The X1 is a little fatter at the front, but it’s not very noticeable unless you’re looking for it. The rest of the X1 design is ThinkPad through and through. It’s black, it’s a ThinkPad after all, with a simple and uncluttered look. You get a couple of small logos on the lid, but it is otherwise undecorated. It’s classy look is aimed at professionals types that would look at home in the boardroom or the basement. The X1 also matches the MacBook Air in weight as well, which is impressive because the X1 uses a larger screen. Both tip the scales just under three pounds. The X1 is in fact, the lightest 14” notebook you can buy.

ThinkPad X1 Carbon lid

The aptly named X1 feels very stout. The X1 top lid is actually made from carbon fiber while magnesium alloy is used to make the bottom casing. The X1 is very rigid and there’s little give to it anywhere. It’s so thin, where would it give anyway? You can hold it on the sides and try to twist it, but it doesn’t bend. Pushing on the lid can produce ripples on the screen, but the screen seems well protected. The screen uses a latchless design, but the screen is very stiff. I think it’s unlikely that it would ever open unexpectedly. When using the screen, it does not move at all. Necessitated by the need to get slim, the X1 uses a different hinge design. It’s looks like underneath, the hinges are metal, but are covered in plastic. After having used so many ThinkPads over the years with steel hinges, it’s odd not to see them on the X1. I don’t think it effects the quality of the hinges, but it’s strange not to have them there. Fit and finish on the X1 is tiptop. Nothing is out of place.

ThinkPad X1 Carbon weight

Display

The ThinkPad X1 Carbon has a 14” LED LCD. It’s an LG manufactured TN panel. The screen is matte, which means there are no annoying reflections. It has 16 brightness levels, which range from very dim to you’d better wear shades. One of the biggest letdowns of buying a ThinkPad over the years, with a few exceptions, has been the screens. This has been particularly true of the 14” ThinkPads. You spend your money on a new ThinkPad and get an exquisitely engineered notebook, but get the pleasure of staring at a mediocre screen. The reasons behind it aren’t difficult to figure out. The large institutional buyers, who purchase ThinkPads by the 1,000s and drive the design behind them, don’t care much about screen quality. Knowing why doesn’t make it any easier to accept because the result is dim, low contrast screens. I’m happy to report the X1 takes a big step in the right direction where screen quality is concerned. The panel is plenty bright at 300 nits and it offers a high contrast ratio of 400:1. The ThinkPad T430 we reviewed last month doesn’t look that much worse on paper with its 200 nits of brightness and 300:1 contrast ratio, but in person, the difference is quite apparent. Colors on the X1 are vivid and rich. There’s a bit of a bluish caste to the screen, but that’s easily toned down with calibration. Movies and photos are pleasing to view. While you won’t get IPS like angles on the X1, it offers a pretty big sweet spot. You have to be at an angle that people do not usually use their notebooks before colors begin to shift. The X1 also bumps up the resolution up 1600×900, which makes it convenient to view documents side by side, and you get more vertical resolution. More vertical resolution means less scrolling. It’s not a huge bump, only 132 pixels, but we’ll take it and are ecstatic to finally have a decent screen on a 14” ThinkPad.

To get an idea of how the screen compares to the IPS screen of the ThinkPad X230 we have some pictures below of the X1 Carbon on the left and X230 on the right with the screens tilted at various viewing angles:

Straight on view

ThinkPad X1 on the left, X230 on the right

Screens tilted back view

ThinkPad X1 on the left, X230 on the right

Screens tilted forward view

ThinkPad X1 on the left, X230 on the right

Horizontal angle view

IMG_0100

To see more coverage on how the ThinkPad X1 Carbon screen stacks up, see our comparison to the Apple MacBook Air and comparison to ThinkPad T430s article.

Audio

The X1 Carbon has two speakers. You don’t get anything fancy like a subwoofer, but where would you put it anyway? The speakers are located on the bottom of the X1, but are on the sides with small slits for openings. The X1 doesn’t sound as good as the Dell XPS 13, the best smaller notebook I’ve heard of late, but it was better than I had expected going in. The sound is clear and loud, if a bit distorted at higher volume levels. There’s not much bass and it’s a bit tinny, but it works fine for music and/or videos.

CPU, Performance and Storage

The emphasis for the ThinkPad Carbon X1, like all Ultrabooks, is battery life before performance. Because of this you get an Ultra Low Voltage (ULV) processor. ULV CPUs drain the battery at a slower rate. Our unit had the Intel Core i5 ULV, but a Core i7 is an option if you’re willing to open your wallet a little wider. The ULV CPUs are fine for typical usage, but anything where processing power is essential, it’ll lag behind. This is not the notebook to encode your Blu-ray collection on. Our review unit has 4GB of memory, but you can upgrade to 8GB if necessary. It’s an expensive upgrade since only the top model offers 8GB right now. You can’t do it later either as the memory is not upgradeable. Consider that before spending your money. Despite the slower CPU, the X1 is an adept performer for most uses. I managed to surf, run some benchmarks and listen to music without any problems. The SSD helps keep the X1 peppy. To see how the X1 stacks up against other Ultrabooks, we ran PCMark Vantage on it. As you can see from the numbers, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon holds up well against the competition. The X1 is mostly going to be a portable web and media notebook. For those uses, the ULV CPU is not a deal breaker, but if you need more processing power, a notebook with a full voltage CPU like the X230 might merit consideration.

PCMark Vantage Benchmark Results – Higher scores indicate better performance

image

Laptop PCMark Vantage Score
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon – Intel Core i5-3427 2.3GHz, Intel HD 4000, 4GB RAM, 128GB SSD 11,696 PCMarks
Dell XPS 13 (Intel Core i5-2476M 1.60GHz, Intel HD 3000, 4GB RAM, 128GB SSD) 9,826 PCMarks
HP Folio 13 (Intel Core i5-2467M 1.60GHz, Intel HD3000, 4GB RAM, 128GB SSD) 9,026 PCMarks
Lenovo IdeaPad U310 – Intel Core i5-3317U ULV 1.7GHz, 4GB RAM, Intel HD 4000, 540RPM HD 6,433 PCMarks
Lenovo ThinkPad X230 – Intel Core  i5-3320M 2.60GHz, 4GB RAM, 7200RPM HD 7,603 PCMarks
Lenovo ThinkPad X220 – Intel Core  i5-2410M 2.30GHz, 4GB RAM, 7200RPM HD 5,764 PCMarks
SONY VAIO SA – Intel Core i5-2430M, AMD 6750M, 6GB RAM, 7200RPM HD 7,007 PCMarks
Lenovo ThinkPad Edge E420 – Intel Core i5-2410m 2.30GHz, 4GB RAM 6,056 PCMarks
Lenovo ThinkPad T420 – Intel Core i3-2310m 2.1GHz, 2GB RAM 3,204 PCMarks

 

For those concerned about 3D graphics performance, the X1 Carbon isn’t exactly a gaming machine so you don’t expect much, but with the Intel HD 4000 graphics on board it can still be used to play some modern games on low to medium settings.

3DMark Vantage – Measures 3D graphics performance, higher scores are better

Laptop 3DMark Vantage
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon – Intel Core i5-3427 2.3GHz, Intel HD 4000, 4GB RAM, 128GB SSD 2,755 3DMarks
HP ENVY 4t-1000 – Intel Core i3-2367M 1.4GHz, 4GB RAM, 500GB 5400RPM HD, Intel HD 3000 1,320
Lenovo ThinkPad X230 – Intel Core i5-3320M 2.60GHz, 4GB RAM, 7200RPM HD 3,165
Lenovo ThinkPad X220 – Intel Core i5-2410M 2.30GHz, 4GB RAM, 7200RPM HD 1,611
Dell XPS 15 (Intel Core i7-2670QM, Nvidia GT 525M 1GB RAM, 8GB RAM, 7200RPM HD) 4,211
HP Envy 17-3000, Intel Core i7-2670QM, AMD 7690M, 6GB RAM, 7200RPM HD 6,970
Dell XPS 17 (Core i5-2410m 2.30GHz, Nvidia 550m, 6GB RAM, HD 7200RPM) 4,747
HP Pavilion dv6t Select Edition – Intel Core i5-2410m, Intel HD 3000 Graphics, 6GB RAM 1,845

The X1 uses a SSD for storage which helps to keep the X1 slim and trim. The base option has 128GB of capacity, but there’s a 256GB option for those who need more space. Like the memory, the SSD is not upgradeable after purchase. Boot times on the X1 were surprisingly slow, coming in just under a minute. I suspect this is due to all ThinkVantage software and other bloatware that is installed on the X1. Once logged into Windows, the X1 SSD seems pretty normal with quick application launches. My biggest gripe about storage on the X1 is that the factory install is huge. The recovery partition takes up about 20GB of space on the drive, which leaves you with 100GB of space. The factory install was 62GB. 38GB of usable space is left for everything else. That’s a wee bit small for most users. If this were my notebook, I’d be taking a Windows disc to it in short order to free up space. A clean install of Windows should be less than 20GB.

The X1 has the Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics card. The HD 4000 is a big step up from last years HD 3000, offering twice the performance, but it’s still an integrated graphics solution. The HD 4000 should allow for some newer games, depending on the game, at lower settings and FPS. Older games should fair a bit better, but if gaming is your thing, there are better solutions out there.

Keyboard, Pointing Stick and TouchPad

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon keyboard

The Carbon X1 like all new ThinkPads has switched to using an island style keyboard. The keyboard remains spill-resistant. The keyboard is fused to the case on the X1, which means it is not replaceable. The X1 presents Lenovo with a unique challenge. ThinkPads have long been known for their good keyboards. How do you make a notebook this thin, but leave enough space to allow for some key depth, which is an important element of what makes for a good keyboard? It’s a case of an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. The short answer is, you can’t. I can say it’s the best Ultrabook keyboard I’ve used to date. Lenovo does do a pretty good job of making it the best they can within the given limitations, but the X1 keyboard just isn’t up to the standard set by ThinkPad X230 and T430 we reviewed earlier this year. The keyboard is firm given there’s little underneath it and the X1 gives you a couple of big palm rests to place your hands on, that makes for a comfortable typing position. When typing on the X1 and you strike a key, the bottom comes up sooner than it does on the T430 or X230. The X230 and T430 have a near perfect depth. On those machines your finger naturally starts to retreat as your finger hits the bottom of the stroke, but the bottom comes up much more abruptly on the X1. The X1 keyboard is still pretty good. It’s just not quite up to the high standards set by preceding ThinkPads.

Compared to the X230 or even the T430, the touch pad on the X1 is huge, measuring 4” across and 2.5” top to bottom. It’s a clickpad and does not have separate mouse buttons for the touch pad. Anywhere you push on the touch pad will register as a left click, except the lower right corner, which is the right click. Like most clickpads I’ve sampled, the top third or so is stiffer than the rest of the clickpad. You have to push harder to make the click register. The touch pad has a glass surface and it makes the touch pad on the X1 one of the smoothest I’ve ever used. Using the touch pad is effortless. There’s no hesitation or lag between what your finger does and what happens on the screen. The touch pad has all the gestures notebook users have come to expect like pinch to zoom, tap to click and two finger scrolling. They all worked smoothly and I had no trouble getting any of them to work the first time. It’s the best PC touch pad I’ve used.

Touchpad and pointing stick

In some ways I’m probably not the best person to review a touch pad as I’m a pointing stick user all the way and rarely use touch pads or their gestures. Give me the stick or give me death! OK, not death, but you get the idea. While the Carbon X1 is very thin, thankfully, Lenovo left enough room to include the stick. The pointstick is the best notebook mousing tool in my opinion, though certainly a large contingent will disagree. Your hands never stray far from the keyboard and you never hit an edge using the stick. The best part is Lenovo included both a good touch pad and pointstick, which means everyone can be happy.

Battery

The X1 has a 45w four-cell battery. It’s not a traditional ThinkPad battery. The battery is not swappable. It’s locked up inside the case. That means when you run out of battery power, you have to plug in or shut down. You’ll also have to send the X1 to Lenovo to get the battery replaced. While Lenovo is usually pretty good about getting repairs turned around, you will be without your X1 for at least a few days when it’s time for a battery replacement. To test the battery on the X1 I charged it fully, set the CPU to low power and the screen to half brightness, and turned WiFi on. I just did every day stuff like work on the review, listened to music, a few hands of solitaire and surfed the web. Using those settings, I was able to get 5:46 minutes of battery life. That’s a few minutes short of the MacBook Air, but the X1 has a bigger screen too. It’s also close to the X230 in battery life, which uses a much larger wattage battery. Given the smaller battery and larger screen, the battery life is impressive and most users won’t hit six hours anyway.

IMG_0066 power jack

The X1 uses a 90w AC adapter and can’t use any of the other ThinkPad adapters because they’ve changed the connector on the adapter. The adapter is a bit larger and heavier than the 65w adapter found on most other ThinkPads. The X1 plus charger is only about an ounce lighter than the X230 plus charger. Lenovo uses the new adapter to enable quick charge. Quick charge, as the name implies, allows users to charge the battery quickly. Lenovo claims you can charge the battery from 0% to 80% in 30 minutes. When I was using the X1, I did watch the battery go from a 15% charge to 95% charge in about 30 minutes. It was pretty amazing, but it’s a disappointment you can’t use the old adapters. Reusing old adapters on new ThinkPads has always been an advantage to getting a new ThinkPad. That’s the price of progress I guess.

ThinkPad X1 Carbon underside

Heat & Noise

The ThinkPad Carbon X1 has vents on the side and bottom to help it cool. For the most part when you’re not pushing the CPU, it’s very quiet. From time to time the fan becomes audible for a minute or a few, but then goes back to being quiet. The X1 does get warm when just doing normal stuff, but that’s normal for most notebooks I’ve used. When you’re pushing the CPU the temps do climb up the thermometer. I wouldn’t describe it as uncomfortable, but you definitely feel it when it’s in your lap. When the heat rises so does the fan noise level. It can get fairly loud. It’s not as bad as the MacBook Air, but there’s no getting around it since you can hear the fan over music at times. I think for most users who won’t push the CPU much, the X1 will be a cool customer, but if you’re going to stress the CPU, the heat and noise levels will ramp up.

Ports and Networking

Being that the ThinkPad X1 is so thin, port selection is as a result limited. You’ll get the most used ports, but nothing extra. The left side of the X1 has a powered USB port, which is nice for charging the phone or MP3 player, a WiFi on/switch and the power connector.

ThinkPad X1 left

The right side of the X1 has a card reader, combo headphone/microphone jack, mini-Displayport and a USB 3.0 port.

ThinkPad X1 right side

The rear of X1 has a SIM card holder that sits behind a flap.

SIM flap

One noticeable omission, at least for a ThinkPad, is the lack of docking port. Lenovo does have a USB 3.0 dock coming for the X1, but it remains to be seen if that is as useful as the traditional docks.

The X1 comes with an Intel 6205 b/g/n WiFi card. Like every other card I’ve seen of late, it worked fine wherever I took it, which included work and home. The X1 comes with a USB dongle for Ethernet, which is not as nice as having it built-in because they’re easily left behind. Bluetooth 4.0 is included on all X1 models. I was able to quickly pair my phone and mouse via Bluetooth with no trouble on the X1. The biggest news for networking on the X1 is the option to equip all it with WWAN, which is a first for an Ultrabook. You’ll of course have to bring your own data plan and SIM card, but the ability to add WWAN should make corporate customers happy.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the X1 Carbon has left me a bit conflicted. Don’t get me wrong, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon is a terrific Ultrabook. It’s a worthy challenger to the Apple MacBook Air, which has been the Prince of the Ultrabook realm until now. It’s incredibly thin and light which makes it a good companion for those who need portability. It’s well built and durable. It offers an above average LCD that I’m sure ThinkPad T430 users would cut off a finger to get, has plenty of performance for most users, a good expansive touch pad, a keyboard that’s as good as an Ultrabook can be and long battery life. There are a few minor niggles about the X1 like the shallow keyboard, over-sized factory install, and noise and heat when it’s pushed, but Lenovo gets the important things right.

If the X1 is so great, then what’s the rub you ask? The X1 Carbon wears a ThinkPad badge. ThinkPads have long been synonymous with innovation in the notebook industry. I ask where’s the innovation? Apple came out with this notebook almost two years ago. You would think in two years time they could have come up with something, anything to put the X1 a notch above other Ultrabooks, but I don’t see anything like that. A docking port, a swappable battery, upgradeable SSD or memory, would have shown Lenovo customers they’re pushing the envelope. While WWAN in an Ultrabook is nifty, it’s not particularly exciting. If you just want to compare the X1 against the competition, it’s as good as any other and if you can get one for the $999 price, it offers tremendous value, but for us long time ThinkPadders, something to make the X1 stand out would have a sign that the X1 continues the tradition of ThinkPad innovation.

Pros

  • Best Ultrabook Keyboard
  • Very Portable
  • Classy Look
  • Good Screen
  • Well Built
  • Long Battery Life
  • First-rate Touch Pad
  • WWAN

Cons

  • Keyboard Too Shallow relative to other ThinkPads
  • Noisy Fan and Gets Warm When Pushed
  • No Upgrades for Battery, Memory or Hard Drive
  • Oversized Factory Install
  • USB Ethernet Dongle
  • Nothing Particularly Original

ThinkPad X1 Carbon Product Page

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon at Lenovo.com

3 comments

HP Envy m4 Review – A Windows 8 Equipped Laptop

The Envy m4 is a new 14” notebook from HP that goes on sale this Fall, just about the time of the Windows 8 release  at the end of October. That makes sense as the m4 will come with Windows 8 as the default OS. The m4 is a middle of the road offering.  It’s not intended to be a top of the line model and have the price tag that goes with it, nor a bargain item either. What the m4 does give its buyers is a 14” notebook in an aluminum case with easily exchangeable parts like memory/hard drive, a swappable battery and an almost unknown these days, a DVD-RW drive. Read on below to see if the Envy m4 and Windows 8 makes a suitable choice for you.

HP ENVY m4

Specs

Here are the specifications of the Envy m4 model under review:

  • Operating System: Windows 8 (64-bit)
  • Processor: Intel 2.9GHz Core i7-3520M(3.6GHz Turbo) 35w
  • Memory: 8GB DDR 1333MHz(16GB Max)
  • Hard Drives: 1TB Toshiba 5400RPM
  • Screen: 14.0” 1366×768 Glossy LED LCD
  • Graphics: Intel HD 4000 Integrated
  • Optical Drive: DVD-RW
  • Network: Realtek Ethernet and Ralink RT3290 BGN WiFi Card
  • Inputs: Six Row 82 Key Island Style Keyboard with Touchpad and Buttons
  • Ports and Slots: Three USB 3.0 – Two Left Side and One Right Side, Ethernet, VGA/HDMI, Combo Headphone/Microphone Jack, SD Card Reader
  • Battery: Nine-Cell
  • Dimensions w/ Nine-Cell: Width 13.67”, Depth 8.33” and Height .95”(Front)/1.75”(Rear)
  • Weight: 4.8 Pounds
  • Warranty: One Year

Design and Build

Envy m4 screen

The Envy m4 comes mostly in a brushed aluminum case. The aluminum has a smooth cool feel to it and looks good. The bottom and LCD bezel are black plastic with the LCD bezel being glossy. The m4 has a clean understated look to it. Our review unit came in silver, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a black version of the m4 too. It has a small HP logo in the upper corner, but is otherwise unadorned. The minimal look continues when you open the m4, where you you get a keyboard, touch pad and power button, but there’s no other buttons cluttering things up. I was sure the m4 was five plus pounds when I picked it up the first time, but the m4 with the nine-cell battery tipped the scales at 4.8 pounds. While that’s not featherweight for the segment, it’s admirable considering the larger battery. The LCD on the m4 has a thick bezel that makes it a bit wider than usual. A more narrow bezel would have allowed for a smaller less weighty notebook.

HP Envy m4 lid

While the m4 is not a business class notebook, it nonetheless feels pretty well put together. I could pick it up by the side without complaint, there was no creaking or bending of the case. Time will tell if the m4 holds up to the abuse that a frequently traveled notebook typically endures. Pressing on the lid can produce ripples, but it looks well protected. You’d have to hit it pretty hard to cause damage, not that I’d advocate doing so. The screen was solid during use. It never moved. The screen also felt stiff when opening and closing the m4. Fit and finish were also good. There were no mysterious gaps or misaligned parts.

Display and Audio

The Envy m4 uses a 14” LED glossy screen with a 1366×768 resolution. I’d guess the brightness on the screen to be about 300 nits. The brightness appears to be pretty close to my ThinkPad X220i and the ThinkPad X1 Carbon I have right now, both of which are rated at 300 nits. The bottom brightness setting is quite usable. There is a small amount of backlight bleed on the bottom of the screen, but it’s mostly only noticeable when booting the machine where the screen is black. The glare on the m4 is not the worst I’ve seen by any means, but reflections can be an issue if there’s a light source nearby. The plus side of getting a glossy screen is, the screen looks pretty good as colors are vivid and lush. Photos and movies are enjoyable to view. Viewing angles aren’t IPS like, but I found a decent sweet spot where if I didn’t fidget too much, the screen was pleasant. Perhaps a bump up in resolution to fit more stuff on the screen, like we saw on the Pavilion dm4t, would have been nice. Despite the lower resolution, the screen is a plus compared to others with a similar price vying for your dollars.

Envy m4 front view Envy m4 tilted back
Envy m4 screen tilted forward Envy m4 side view

The Envy m4 is a Beats Edition notebook. That means you’ll be getting a subwoofer in addition to the two standard speakers. The subwoofer is located on the bottom of the Envy m4. The sound is decent enough, but don’t expect to anything better than a good clock radio. The subwoofer allows for a bit of bass. The sound is clean and loud, but it can’t belie its notebook origins as it’s a bit tinny, but good enough for music or videos. The m4 is on the better side of average in terms of the sound quality for a notebook.

CPU, Performance and Storage

With the Intel Core-i7 CPU and 8G of DDR3 memory, the m4 is no slouch in the performance department. The Core i7-3520 is the top mobile dual core CPU being offered right now by Intel. Sadly for me, the i7-3520 approaches the performance of my two year old six-core desktop. The m4 will be available with a Core i5 processor too, for those who want keep the cost down. Using the i7 equipped m4 was a breeze. Nothing I threw at it from applying Photoshop filters to running benchmarks to watching 1080p video caused it any trouble. We ran Futuremark’s PCMark 7 to get an idea of how the m4 stacked up. As you’ll see from the scores, the m4 did very nicely even when compared to other larger performance gaming laptops. I suspect people buying the m4 won’t be pushing it much. Typical usage won’t see a large benefit from the better CPU, but for those who want it, it’s there.

Laptop PCMark 7 Score
HP Envy m4, Intel Core i7-3520M, 8GB RAM, Intel HD4000, 5400RPM HD 2,319 PCMarks
HP dv7t-7000 Quad Edition, Intel Core i7-3610QM, Nvidia GT650M, 5400RPM HD 2,660 PCMarks
HP dv6t-7000 Quad Edition, Intel Core i7-3610QM, Nvidia GT650M, 7200RPM HD 2,877 PCMarks
HP Envy 17-3000, Intel Core i7-2670QM, AMD 7690M, 6GB RAM, 7200RPM HD 2,703 PCMarks
Lenovo IdeaPad Y570 – Intel Core i7-2670QM, Nvidia 555M 1GB, 8GB RAM,5400RPM HD 2,573 PCMarks
Dell XPS 17 (Core i5-2410m 2.30GHz, Nvidia 550m, 6GB RAM, HD 7200RPM) 1,995 PCMarks
Sony VAIO SA (Intel Core i5-2430M 2.50GHz, AMD Radeon 6630M, 4GB RAM) 2,002 PCMarks

The weakest link in the performance chain on the m4 is the hard drive. It’s a 1TB drive so there’s lots of space for photos and movies, but it’s also a slow spinning 5400RPM drive, which means slower latency and throughput as compared to a faster 7200RPM or SSD. Boot time was just under a minute and application launch times weren’t quite as snappy as a faster drive or SSD, which is not unexpected. Fortunately, HP makes the drive easy to upgrade. Removing one screw on the bottom of the notebook gives you access to both the hard drive and both memory slots. On the downside, there’s only one drive bay and no mSATA option for the m4. If you want to upgrade to a SSD, that will boost performance, but limit your storage capacity.

The m4 comes with the Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics card. It’s pretty good for an integrated GPU, offering almost twice the performance of the HD 3000 found on Sandy Bridge models. It is still an integrated GPU, which means you’re best off sticking to older games or low settings when gaming.

Keyboard and Touchpad

HP Envy m4 keyboard

The keyboard on the Envy m4 is an island style keyboard. It uses black keys, which is a nice contrast to the silver case. The keys are made of a medium grade plastic and are little bit slippery to the touch. The keyboard is somewhat spongy with a bit of a bounce to it when using it. This is amplified by the fact the key depth is shallow. It seems as soon as you touch the key, you’re already at the bottom of the stroke. It seems odd that the keyboard would offer so little depth. This is not an Ultrabook, where some shallowness is expected due to the thinness. The dm4t we reviewed in February was quite a bit better in this regard. Being that this is a pre-production model, hopefully HP will iron out out some of these kinks. The keyboard is about ¾ of inch wider than I’m used to with my ThinkPad, with the bounce and the wider than I’m used to keyboard size, I found it a little more difficult to get into a rhythm when using the keyboard. Some of that is the unfamiliarity of it, which a buyer would acclimate to over time, but some of it is it could be better too.

The touch pad is on the m4 is very rectangular, measuring 3.6”x1.6”. It’s medium sized, not tiny like the ThinkPad X230 nor huge like the MacBook Air. It is not a clickpad and has its own separate mouse buttons. The surface of the touch pad is smooth and it requires little effort to drag your finger across it. There’s no lag or hesitation while using the touch pad. The touch pad has all the gestures buyers have come to expect on a new notebook these days like two finger scrolling and pinch to zoom, and they work well for the most part. I wouldn’t say there’s anything extraordinary about the m4 touch pad, but it’s serviceable enough. The touch pad buttons are a bit on the small side, but at least they’re there. They are also a bit noisy when using. Pressing down on a button that you hear as well as feel. I personally don’t like this, but I don’t think most would notice it. I guess the buyer will have to decide on that point.

Battery

9-cell battery on Envy m4

Our review unit came with a nine-cell battery, but there will be a six-cell battery option too and it should sit mostly flush with the back/bottom of the notebook. The battery is swappable on the m4, meaning it’s easy to upgrade or replace down the road. The nine-cell sticks out from the bottom of the m4 in a downward fashion, raising the rear almost inch or so. It does make for a more comfortable typing position when using the m4 at a desk or table, but if you’re lazing on the couch, the battery does become noticeable when the m4 is resting in your lap. One nice feature is the battery has charge indicator lights that are on the battery itself. They’ll give a rough estimate of the battery life remaining on the laptop and the battery doesn’t need to be in the machine to check it. Being that the nine-cell battery has a higher wattage than the smaller six-cell option, it should offer long battery life. To test the battery on the m4 I fully charged the battery, put the notebook in power saver mode, set the screen brightness to half and turned WiFi on. I just did normal stuff like listen to music, type up some documents, watch some movies and did my best to figure out Windows 8. Using those settings I was able to get six hours and 50 minutes of battery life before the system went to sleep. While that’s a couple hours short of the T430 I reviewed last month, it’s still a respectable number. If you’re willing to use the screen at a lower brightness level, the bottom brightness setting on the m4 is still very usable unlike the T430, you should be able eke out some more time from the Envy m4.

Battery

Heat & Noise

The Envy m4 does a pretty good job a pretty good job of keeping itself cool, whether it’s just getting a light workout or running more CPU intensive tasks. The keyboard and deck remain cool to the touch. The bottom does get a little warmer, but it’s not uncomfortable. Our review unit, which has the nine-cell battery that raises the rear some, probably helped keep it cool as the raised rear allows air to flow through the underside. The one spot that got warmer is the very front where the notebook rests on a surface. It seems unusual that would be the place it gets the hottest as there’s not much there to heat up, but there it did. The fan on the m4 is a constant. It’s noticeable whether you’re just surfing the web or running the CPU near full capacity. It’s low to medium decibel level that can be drowned out with music or conversation, but if you’re alone in the room and need quiet, it’s there.

Ports and Networking

The m4 is not a bottom of the barrel notebook, but then again, it’s not a high-end notebook either. Given those constraints, HP does a pretty good job of giving its buyers most of the post they’ll need. The left side of the notebook has VGA connector, HDMI, two USB ports and a combo headphone microphone jack.

Left side ports

The right side of the m4 has the DVDRW drive, USB port, an Ethernet port and the power connector.

Envy m4 right side

The card reader is on the left front of the m4.

Envy m4 front side

The connection options for the m4 are WiFi and Ethernet. I would expect Bluetooth to be an option as well, but the review unit did not have it. The WiFi card in the m4 is a Ralink card. I used it at home and work with no trouble. I even managed to pick up a few unknown networks at home I hadn’t seen before. All Envy m4 models will come with Ethernet for those who need a faster connection.

Software

Microsoft’s Windows OS has been a hugely successful product, but the times they are a changin’, at least that’s what Dylan said. More and more people are using smaller devices like tablets and smartphones to complete tasks that have traditionally been done on a PC – like web surfing, playing games and consuming media to name a few. Microsoft must grapple with this reality or face irrelevancy. Windows 8 is Microsoft’s answer to this problem. Normally, we don’t spend much time on the software in our reviews since most notebooks come with Windows and don’t vary much on the software side except for which bloatware is installed, but since the Envy m4 offered us our first taste of Windows 8 at LaptopReviews, we thought a paragraph or a few was in order.

I hadn’t been paying much attention to Windows 8. I had recently upgraded all my PCs to Windows 7 and didn’t want to take the time to install the Windows 8 beta. I went in with an open mind. If anything, I probably had a more positive outlook as I had just acquired a Windows 7 phone. I liked the big blocks and lettering on Windows 7 phone compared to the smaller icons and text you see in iOS or Android. When I first started to use Windows 8, my inner curmudgeon came out in force. It was new and different, and I didn’t like it. It took me some time to figure things like how to get to the desktop, open explorer or even how to power the machine off, but I think that’s a natural reaction to dislike something that’s significantly new that’s changed a much used and liked product. Ask longtime ThinkPad owners how much they like the new island style keyboards that now come on all ThinkPads.

The more I used Windows 8, the more I came to the conclusion that it’s mostly like Windows 7, but with one big change, the start screen, and some other smaller modifications that don’t change the essence of Windows, but will take some time to get used to. What’s the start screen you ask? The best way I can describe it is it’s the start button grafted onto the desktop. You still get a desktop, which you can easily get to using the Windows key, but when you log into Windows, you go directly to the start screen. This is where the made for tablets part comes in. The start screen has most of the things you’d find on the start button, but they’re now right on the desktop(start screen) in large blocks with big easy to read text that will be easy to flick through on a tablet. The start screen is highly customizable. If you install a program and want it on the start screen, it’s easy to do as is removing ones you don’t want. There are also some other changes, too numerous to mention, that will take some adjustment, but are not as impactful as the start screen. One example would be Microsoft has adopted the ribbon style menus found in recent versions of Office in explorer. The ribbon menu offers more information and choices, but again, it’s new and will take some time getting accustomed to using.

Overall, I liked Windows 8. Having all my stuff right there after I’ve logged in is very appealing. That works well whether you’re using a tablet or a more traditional PC. I must say it’s very odd having no start button on the desktop after it’s been there for so long. There are still some procedural aspects to Windows 8 that need to be worked out. Powering down is one of the most common tasks people perform with their notebooks. It used to be a simple matter hitting the start button and shutdown, but it has now devolved into a multi-click journey that’s far longer than needed. Maybe Microsoft thinks PCs should be put to sleep instead of shutdown. I also found getting to the file explorer confusing, there’s no box by default on the start screen for explorer. There other lots of other idiosyncrasies I could point out, we could really spend the whole review on Windows 8, but we’re here to talk about the m4. I don’t think we’ll get a real sense of how Windows 8 will pan out until it’s released to the public this October, but I’ll look forward to getting a PC with Windows 8.

Conclusion

The Envy m4 seems to be a well put together package. For your money you get an attractive, decently built notebook that with a 9-cell battery that should offer long battery life. You also get a notebook with a good screen for the segment, has easily swappable parts such as the the battery and hard drive/memory, and DVDRW drive. At 4.8 pounds, the m4 isn’t the lightest in the segment, but still should offer good portability for its buyers. To me the biggest complaints about the Envy m4 is the noisy fan and the bouncy and rather shallow keyboard. If those are deal breakers for you, you should try to get a look at it before buying. The price isn’t set in stone right now, but it should start at just under $999. If HP can keep the price on the lower side, the Envy m4 will offer a ton of value.

Pros

  • Good Build Quality
  • Above Segment Screen
  • Easy Upgrades for Memory and Hard Drive
  • Swappable Battery
  • Lots of Ports with USB 3.0
  • Pleasing Design
  • Portable
  • Long Battery life
  • For Me, Windows Eight

Cons

  • Shallow/Bouncy Keyboard
  • Noisy Fan
  • LCD Bezel Too Wide
6 comments

Lenovo ThinkPad T430 Review

The T series, particularly the 14” model, has always been the super model of the ThinkPad line-up. It gets most of the love and attention. The T430 is the newest version of the 14” T series notebook. The T430 is designed chiefly for large institutional buyers who in turn dispatch them to their employees. Lenovo didn’t stray to far from the successful T420 blueprint. The biggest changes for the T430 are the it now offers the latest Ivy Bridge Core i5 and i7 CPUs, has been upgraded to USB 3.0 and switched to an island style keyboard. Yes, I can hear the groans from old-school ThinkPadders. Read one to find out if the T430 make a suitable choice for you.

Lenovo ThinkPad T430

Specs

Here are the specifications of the T430 model under review:

  • Model: 2342-22U
  • Operating System: Windows Seven Professional x64
  • CPU: Intel 2.6GHz Core i5-3320M(3.3GHz Turbo) 35w
  • Memory: 8GB DDR 1333MHz(16GB Max)
  • Hard Drives: 500GB Hitachi Z7K500 (7200RPM)
  • Screen: 14.0” 1366×768 Matte LED LCD
  • Graphics: Intel HD 4000 Integrated
  • Network: Intel Gigabit Ethernet and 6205 WiFi Card, Bluetooth, WWAN Upgradable
  • Inputs: Six Row 84 Key Island Style Keyboard, Pointstick and Touchpad with Separate Buttons
  • Buttons: Power, ThinkVantage, Volume Up and Down, Mute, Microphone Off and WiFi On/Off
  • Ports: Four USB 3.0 – Two Left Side, One Right Side, One Rear (Powered), Ethernet, VGA/Mini DisplayPort, Combo Headphone/Microphone Jack, Dock Connector
  • Slots: SD Card Reader, ExpressCard/34 Slot, Smart Card Reader
  • Battery: Nine-Cell((94Whr)
  • Dimensions w/ Nine-Cell: Width 13.4”, Depth 8.13” and Height 1.18”
  • Weight: 5.1. Pounds
  • Warranty: One Year

Design and Build

T430 badgeThinkPads are the dinosaurs of notebooks. From the looks of them, you’d think they’d have gone extinct years ago. Yet, when you open them up and start to use them, you realize they’ve somehow got the latest and greatest goodies in there. If you like ThinkPads, which I do, there’s a certain comfort in getting the exact same thing every time, but the boxy black nature of them probably doesn’t endear to those want a dash of style with their notebook. I guess you’ll have to decide on that one.

IMG_0909What struck me when I first got the T430 was how thick and heavy it was, but then again, I’ve been mostly reviewing Ultrabooks of late. When I put the T430 on the scale, it was just over five pounds using the larger nine-cell battery. That should put it squarely in the center of the 14” notebook segment weight wise. The T430 is a little over an inch thick, about 1.2”. This would seem to go against the slimmer trend, but the extra thickness gives it a more muscular feel and inspires a confidence that an Ultrabook just can’t match.

The T430 is another in a long line of well built ThinkPads. No shortcuts were taken, the T430 feels like a tank. It somewhat reminded of the Lenovo Z61m I reviewed years ago, which could be used in a combat zone. The casing on the T430 is made from carbon fiber and is supported by a rigid sub frame. There’s no give on the base of the notebook at all. You can pick it up by the corner and it just goes about its business without making a sound. You can make the screen ripple a bit by applying some pressure, but it feels like it’s well protected. The screen is secured to the base using steel hinges. They’re very stiff and the screen doesn’t move at all. The fit and finish on the T430 is excellent.

Display and Audio

The T430 has a 14.0” 16:9 LCD, no surprise there. There are two resolutions offered on the T430 – HD (1366×768), which our review unit has, and an HD+ (1600×900) LCD that’s a $50 upgrade. Both are LED and matte, which means there’s no reflections if there’s a light source nearby. The brightness of the screens is 200 nits for the HD screen and 250 nits for the HD+ LCD, which means both are more than bright enough for indoor usage, but too dim to use outside. The contrast for both is rated at 300:1. There’s a small bit of leakage on the screen, but it’s mostly only noticeable when booting the T430 during which time the screen is all black.

From the way people bellyache about these screens, one might get the idea that you’ll go blind while using them, but I certainly did not find that to be the case. That’s not to say this is a good panel by any means either. The image is crisp, but the colors are average at best. The lower resolution means more scrolling. The screen has a bit of a blue hue to it, though this can probably corrected somewhat for those willing to calibrate the screen. Sadly, calibrating the screen will not transform it into Prince Charming. Being that the T430 uses a TN panel, the viewing angles were on the thin side, though I was able to find a decent enough sweet spot where it looked mostly good as long as I didn’t move too much.

T430 viewing angles IMG_0912-001
T430 viewing angles T430 viewing angle side

When you want to find the limitations of the screen, start watching a movie. It just doesn’t have enough contrast to properly render the image. Particularly, dark areas look grayed out. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as your employer, who just issued you a T430, doesn’t want you watching movies on the clock anyway. The bottom line for the screen is it’s fine for Office and Internet type tasks it’ll be mostly asked to do, but if screen quality is a priority for you, then you’d best move along.

On the plus side, the speakers on the T430 are at least located on the top side of the T430, but that may be the only plus. It always amazes me that my tiny iPhone manages to sound better than a lot of the notebooks I see. Being that this is a business notebook, quality sound is not a top requirement and the sound quality on the T430 reflects that fact. It’s not terrible, but definitely could be better. The sound is tinny and there’s not much bass to speak of, but it’s certainly adequate enough for a video or some music. If you’re an audiophile, investing in some good headphones or speakers wouldn’t be a bad idea.

CPU, Performance and Storage

The T430 offers a range of third generation Core i Ivy Bridge CPUs from the i5 to the i7. The i3 equipped T430 models use the Sandy Bridge platform CPUs. All T430 models can also support up to 16GB of DDR3 memory. Our review unit took the middle of the road approach. It has the 2.6GHz i5 CPU and 8GB of DDR3 memory. The T series, particularly the 14” models, are meant to be handed out to worker bees and as such performance isn’t a top priority. They’ll be tasked with non-processor intensive duties like Office and Internet. For those assignments any of the CPUs the T430 offers, along with the minimum of 4GB of memory, should preform more than capably. I was able to surf the web, run some Photoshop filters and listen to music. The T430 never squawked at all. We ran PCMark Vantage just to see how the T430 compared similar notebooks. Its 8,979 score bears out the fact it’s an efficient performer and if you need top performance, the T430 can deliver it.

image

PCMark Vantage Benchmark Results – Higher scores indicate better system performance

Laptop PCMark Vantage Score
Lenovo ThinkPad T430 – Intel Core i5-3320M 2.60GHz, 8GB RAM, 7200RPM HD, Intel HD 4000 8,979 PCMarks
Lenovo ThinkPad W530 – Intel Core i7-3520M 2.90GHz , Nvidia K1000M, 8GB RAM, 7200RPM HD 9,934 PCMarks
Lenovo ThinkPad X230 – Intel Core  i5-3320M 2.60GHz, 4GB RAM, 7200RPM HD 7,603 PCMarks
Lenovo ThinkPad X220 – Intel Core  i5-2410M 2.30GHz, 4GB RAM, 7200RPM HD 5,764 PCMarks
SONY VAIO SA – Intel Core i5-2430M, AMD 6750M, 6GB RAM, 7200RPM HD 7,007 PCMarks
Lenovo ThinkPad Edge E420 – Intel Core i5-2410m 2.30GHz, 4GB RAM 6,056 PCMarks
Dell Vostro 3450 – Intel Core i5-2410m 2.30Ghz, 4GB RAM 5,901 PCMarks
Dell Inspiron N411z – Intel Core i3-2330m 2.30GHz, 4GB RAM 5,285 PCMarks
Lenovo ThinkPad T420 – Intel Core i3-2310m 2.1GHz, 2GB RAM 3,204 PCMarks

 

3DMark Vantage Results – Higher scores indicate better graphics performance

image

Laptop 3DMark Vantage
Lenovo ThinkPad T430 – Intel Core i5-3320M 2.60GHz, 8GB RAM, 7200RPM HD, Intel HD 4000 3,948
Lenovo ThinkPad X230 – Intel Core  i5-3320M 2.60GHz, 4GB RAM, 7200RPM HD 3,165
Lenovo ThinkPad X220 – Intel Core  i5-2410M 2.30GHz, 4GB RAM, 7200RPM HD 1,611
Dell XPS 15 (Intel Core i7-2670QM, Nvidia GT 525M 1GB RAM, 8GB RAM, 7200RPM HD) 4,211
HP Envy 17-3000, Intel Core i7-2670QM, AMD 7690M, 6GB RAM, 7200RPM HD 6,970
Dell XPS 17 (Core i5-2410m 2.30GHz, Nvidia 550m, 6GB RAM, HD 7200RPM) 4,747
HP Pavilion dv6t Select Edition – Intel Core i5-2410m, Intel HD 3000 Graphics, 6GB RAM 1,845

The T430 has the Intel HD 4000 integrated GPU. While the HD 4000 is a good integrated card, see the 3DMark 3948 score in the table above, it’s still an integrated card. This means you can play some older games and maybe some newer games on lower settings, but if gaming is a significant want, you’ll probably wish to look elsewhere. Do note that the T430 that comes with the Core i3 CPU will have the slower performing HD 3000 GPU. The Nvidia NVS 5400 is an option for those wanting a dedicated GPU option. It has Optimus technology, which will switch to the Intel GPU when the dedicated card is not needed.

Probably the biggest lag on the T430’s performance is the slower platter based hard drive. The review unit came with the Hitachi Z7K500 500GB 7200RPM hard drive. It booted in about about 40 seconds, which is twice as long as my SSD equipped X220i, and it just doesn’t have the same level of snappiness, which is not unexpected. Fortunately, unlike the screen, this is easily fixed. The T430 has three drive bays – the main bay, a miniPCI slot where you can put a mSATA SSD and the ultrabay where you can put another hard drive in place of the optical drive using the modular caddy. Any of the bays are bootable. Sticking a SSD in there should liven up performance quite a bit. One disappointment is that Lenovo switched the main bay to a 7mm drive like the X230. This means that 500GB is the largest drive you can put in the T430. If you had dreams of a T430 with a mSATA SSD and 1TB HDD, prepare to have them crushed.

Keyboard, Pointing Stick and TouchPad

ThinkPad T430 keyboard

I think we’ve all heard by now Lenovo switched the classic ThinkPad to the new six row island style keyboards. Doing this lets Lenovo add a keyboard backlight to the keyboard, which is often requested by ThinkPad users. Our review unit did not have keyboard backlight, though you still get the ThinkLight on all T430 models. The keys themselves have a bit more slippery feel to them than before, but I don’t think that affected my speed as it’s already sub 40WPM. Despite changing to an island style, the keyboard on the T430 is still spill resistant. A small amount of liquid hitting the keyboard shouldn’t cause any damage. The keys on the keyboard to my untrained eye appear to be slightly larger than the classic ThinkPad keyboard. Lenovo has removed a few keys and the keys have a new shape. The sides of the keys on the classic keyboard angle upward to the top of the key, but the sides on the new keys are perpendicular to the top of the key. That should make for easier cleaning of the keyboard. Lenovo has also changed the location for a number of keys and function keys, which will not make longtime ThinkPadders happy, but I don’t know what the answer is for them, other than getting used to the new keyboard. Nobody else is offering a traditional keyboard. Getting to the actual typing on the new keyboard, it’s quite good, just like the old ones. The keyboard is firm, no bounce to it all when typing on it. The pitch is exceptional. When you hit the bottom of a keystroke is just when you’d anticipate starting to bring your finger back up. Overall, the keyboard is excellent, just like the old keyboards.

T430 touchpad and ultra nav

The T430 gives you two options for controlling the mouse – an isometric joystick or pointstick in Lenovo lingo and a touch pad. The touch pad on the T430 is square like in shape, which seems an odd choice for a notebook with such a squat screen. It has tiny bumps covering the surface of the touch pad that give it a bit of a rough texture, but it actually feels quite nice when using it. The touch pad works well. There’s no lag. The finger gestures like scrolling and pinch to zoom work sufficiently, though are probably not up to Apple standards. The biggest issue with the touch pad is the buttons. They’re small, about 1/3 the size of the pointstick buttons and they sit on the edge. I found my finger would sometimes go too far and fall off the edge when I went to click a button.

trackpoint

Like all ThinkPads, you get the pointstick option for moving the mouse. When I get the settings to my liking, I find the stick to be superior to any touch pad. Your hands never stray far from the keyboard and you never have to pick your hand up to move from one side of the screen to the other. In particular, scrolling on the stick is phenomenal. It helps, in my opinion, to mitigate the pain of a lower resolution screen because it’s so easy to hold down the center button and push the stick in the direction you want to go. It’s been my experience the stick is one of things in life people either like or don’t, but I’ve found few people who do both. Whichever way you roll, the T430 has you covered.

Battery

There are three batteries options offered on the T430. There’s a six-cell (57Whr) and nine-cell (94Whr) standard batteries that plug into the rear of the T430. The six-cell sits flush with the back of the T430 while the nine-cell battery sticks out the back of the T430 about an inch or so. Both batteries help to raise the rear up a bit. In addition to those two batteries, Lenovo offers a slice battery (94Whr) for the T430, which plugs into the docking port on the underside of the T430. It’s a nine-cell battery, and adds about a pound and half weight to the T430. That would make the T430 around 6.5 pounds. Our T430 has the nine-cell battery. To test the battery I set the screen to half brightness with WiFi on and I parked the CPU in low power mode. I did typical tasks like surfing the web, listening to some music and working on the review. Using those settings, I was able to get 8:45 minutes from a fully charged battery until it went into sleep mode. That’s some serious battery life. Back in the day I remember being pretty happy with the 5.5 hours I got on my 14” ThinkPad R60 with the nine-cell battery. If you can double life with the slice battery, that’s getting close to 2.5 work days of usage away from the outlet. I can’t imagine using a notebook that long, but if you can, it’s there for you.

ThinkPad T430 9-cell Battery

Heat & Noise

The T430 has two vents to help push hot air. Both are located on the left side, one on the side and one on the rear. It’s been fairly toasty this week while I’ve been working on the review, in the mid 90°s and humid too. It hasn’t been fun at all, but the T430 has been a cool customer the whole time It never got much above warm, even when running benchmarks. Most of the time I’ve had the T430 it’s been very quiet. If you put your hand by the vents you can feel the warm air being pushed out, but it’s still whisper quiet for everyday usage. Like any notebook when you start to push the processor, the fan kicks on to help keep the temps down, but even there, it’s pretty quiet. In a noise free room you’ll hear the fan, but if there’s any ambient noises at all, it will quickly drown out the fan. The Hitachi Z7K500 was also quiet, though the T430 is a bit thicker, which probably helps shield the noise more than a thinner notebook like the X230.

Ports and Networking

The T430 offers most of the ports users would want for typical usage. Perhaps HDMI would have been a nice addition, but the DisplayPort is easily converted to HDMI with a cable. Since the Intel chipset supports USB 3.0, the T430 now has USB 3.0 ports. The left side of the T430 has the VGA connector, mini-Displayplay port, a combo headphone/microphone jack and two USB 3.0 ports:

ThinkPad T430 left side

The right side of the T430 contains a USB 3.0 port, ExpressCard/34, Card Reader and above the optical drive is a smart card reader.

ThinkPad T430 right side

The back of the T430 offers a powered USB port, which is nice for charging the phone, an Ethernet port and the power jack.

ThinkPad T430 back side

The bottom of the T430 incorporates a docking port. Using the docking port you can plug into either of the Series 3 docks. The docks are a great idea for when using a ThinkPad at a desk. You don’t have to connect the monitor and other peripherals in every time. You can just attach the T430 to the dock and be ready to go.

Bottom of ThinkPad T430

The T430 gives buyers lots of options for connecting. If you’re like me, WLAN is all I need. The T430 comes with multiple WiFi card options. Being cheap, I usually take the least expensive ThinkPad card and it’s always worked out well for me , but we have the Intel 6205 N wireless card in the review unit. I’ve had no problems with the card. It functioned flawlessly, both at work and home. All T430 machines are WWAN upgradeable. You just need to put the WWAN card into the miniPCI slot on the underside of the T430 and attach the wires. You may also configure it with a WWAN card on Lenovo’s website at purchase. Our review unit did not have a WWAN card. Our unit also came with Bluetooth, which is a $30 upgrade for C-T-O machines. Pairing my iPhone to play music from it on the T430 was a painless process. Ethernet is standard on every T430. Needless to say, however you want to connect, the T430 gives you the option to do so.

Final Words

There’s a lot to recommend about the ThinkPad T430. It’s very well built and should take the punishment mobile workers will inflict upon it with ease. While most of its users probably won’t push it much, for those who do, it’ll perform quite well. Despite some grumbling from veteran ThinkPadders, the keyboard is splendid. The red pointing stick and touchpad are pretty good too. The T430 is very easy to upgrade and it gives end users lots of choices to configure their machines. It offers just about every port and connection option one could reasonably ask to get. It should last a whole day plus on battery if that’s what you need, even more if you pick up the slice battery. Why am I not running out to buy this?  The screen to me is the biggest flaw.  While the screen is serviceable and the low cost will make large institutional buyers (who purchase these by the 1,000s) happy, if I’m spending my own pocket money I’d like a better option. It’s a judgment call. If you’re looking for a great all-around notebook and don’t mind the ordinary screen, then the T430 is an outstanding choice. If you’ve been spoiled by IPS screens on models like the ThinkPad X230 like me, then I’m going to at least look at other options. A T430 with a decent screen would be a killer notebook, it doesn’t even need to be IPS, but unfortunately, we don’t have that option today.

Pros

  • Built to Last
  • mSATA + HDD Setup and Ultrabay Options
  • Easy Upgrades
  • As Many Ports as You’ll Need
  • Lots of Connection Options
  • USB 3.0
  • Portable
  • Long Battery life

Cons

  • Fair Screen
  • Changing of Function Key Locations, Removing Keys
  • Looks Exactly Like the previous ThinkPad T420

Where to Buy

[button link=”http://www.lenovo.com/products/us/laptop/thinkpad/t-series/t430/” size=”large” bg_color=”red” window=”yes”]Buy the Lenovo ThinkPad T430 Direct from Lenovo[/button]

3 comments

HP Envy 4t-1000 SleekBook Review

Just to confuse everyone, HP is calling the new Envy 4t a Sleekbook, not an Ultrabook. That makes some sense as the 4t doesn’t quite hit all the Ultrabook check boxes. While the Envy 4t does have the requisite ULV CPU, it’s not quite as waif thin as an Ultrabook, measuring .78” in height. The third leg of the Ultrabook stool is a SSD for storage, but here again HP differs from the Ultrabook blueprint by using a platter based hard drive for storage. Whatever you want to call the Envy 4t, it is designed to be a wallet friendly slim notebook that gives you an attractive design, some portability, good sound and offers lots of ports. Read on below to see if HP delivers the goods.

HP ENVY 4t-1000

Specs

Here are the specifications of the Envy 4t Sleekbook model under review:

  • Model: Envy 4t-1000
  • Operating System: Windows Seven Home Premium x64
  • CPU: Intel 1.4GHz Core i3-2367M
  • Memory: 4GB DDR 1600MHz(16GB Max)
  • Hard Drive: 500GB Hitachi 5K500 5400RPM Hard Drive
  • Screen: 14” Matte HD (1366×768) TN LED LCD
  • Graphics: Intel HD3000 Integrated
  • Network: Broadcom 4313GN WiFi Card and Realtek Ethernet Card
  • Inputs: Backlit Keyboard and Touchpad with Mouse Buttons
  • Buttons: Power Button
  • Ports: Three USB – Two USB 3.0, One USB 2.0, HDMI, Headphone and Microphone Jacks
  • Slots: SD Card Reader
  • Battery: Four-Cell
  • Dimensions (Six-Cell): Width 13.38”, Depth 9.28” and Height .78”
  • Weight: 3.8 Pounds
  • Warranty: One Year
  • MSRP: $799

Our review unit was configured and purchased directly from HP, it cost $699 plus tax. That was with a $100 coupon, which I would think is there to stay.

Design and Build

IMGT3882

The Envy 4t has a clean appealing look. The top lid and keyboard deck are made from a brushed metal, and are colored a deep black. There’s a small single HP logo on the corner of the lid. Because the top cover and palm rest are made from metal, it quickly attracts fingerprints, though they are easily removed with a rag. The bottom of the 4t is covered in a soft touch material for a surer grip and colored red. It stands out and gives the 4t a distinctive look. There is an alternative casing with a silver keyboard deck and black bottom, but that wasn’t in the budget this time. When you open the 4t the clean look continues with a six-row island style keyboard, touch pad and power button. Though it’s not as slender as an Ultrabook, the Envy 4t is still fairly slim at 0.78” thick. The 4t feels dense when you hold in your hand, like there’s not much dead space on the inside. It weighs 3.8 pounds. While that doesn’t push the limits of how light a 14” can be, see the ThinkPad X1 Carbon for an example of that, it’s still on the light side for a 14” notebook. One area the Envy 4t is like an Ultrabook is the upgrades, as in there are none. You can remove a bunch of screws on the bottom, but the bottom is tightly clipped in. You’ll probably have to cross the warranty line if you want to do any upgrades.

Envy 4t lid

As mentioned, the case on the Envy 4 is made from metal. The bottom case feels very rigid. There’s little give on it when pressed, nor does it flex anywhere. You can make the screen ripple by applying some pressure to the top cover, but it doesn’t seem excessive given its price point or market segment. The 4t uses a latchless lid design, which it seems almost all notebook makers are using these days. The screen feels very solid and doesn’t move at all during use. I don’t think there’s much of a chance the lid will suddenly open without notice. Fit and finish on the 4t is excellent. There’s no misaligned parts or unexplained gaps anywhere on the Envy 4t.

HP logo on Envy

Display and Audio

The Envy 4t comes with a 14” LED TN LCD. I’m sad to see HP has not deemed the radiance LCD offered in other 14” Envy units suitable for use in the 4t. The screen has HD resolution (1366×768) and has a glossy finish, which means you’ll get reflections if there’s a light source nearby. What can I say about the display? There’s nothing really special about it. It’ll get the job done, but it’s not going to knock your socks off either. Colors on the display are adequate. The LCD doesn’t offer the deep blacks and white whites offered on other higher end LCDs. Colors are only good if you’re at the correct angle, but the angles are only about average. So, if you change your position too much, colors will shift out of whack. If I had to venture a guess on the brightness, I’d say about 225-250 nits. It doesn’t seem as bright as my ThinkPad X220i, which is rated at 300 nits. Because of the lower brightness and glossy screen, the 4t doesn’t work well outdoors. The glossy makes seem like you’re looking in a mirror when outdoors. It might do OK in the shade with the sun blocked. I remember when HP released the Envy a few years back, they were more expensive than the average notebook, but were known for their good displays. Other notebook owners were indeed envious of HP Envy displays, but if HP wants to stick an inferior LCD like this in an Envy, which I can probably get a on an HP ProBook for less money, it’s going to dilute the cache of the Envy brand.

Envy 4t screen Envy 4t screen
Envy 4t screen Envy 4t screen

The Envy 4t is a HP beats edition notebook. That means in addition to the two speakers, you get a subwoofer on the 4t. The sound, by notebook standards, is well above average. The placement of the speakers helps quite a bit too. They’re located on the base of the notebook, between the keyboard and LCD. They’re also angled toward the user. This is opposed to other notebooks, where speaker placement is often an afterthought. They end up on the bottom, sides or wherever they fit. Keeping in mind this is still a notebook, but you get some bass, not a ton, but some, and the sound is crisp/clear, even at higher volumes.

CPU, Storage and Performance

Sorry kids, there’s no Ivy Bridge love for you in this review. While HP is in the process of transitioning the Envy 4t to Ivy Bridge, we’ve got the old reliable Sandy Bridge as our review unit, but I don’t think that should be an issue for most users. Specifically, the 4t comes with the ULV Core i3-2367, which means no turbo boost, though other Envy 4t with Core CPUs that have turbo boost are available. It also came with 4GB of DDR3 PC1600 memory, the maximum amount of the memory the Envy allows is 16GB according to HP’s specs, but HP only sells the Envy 4t with 8GB of memory at most. I don’t know how you’d get 16GB in there since the memory is not user replaceable. HP sells the Envy with a pair of 5400RPM platter based hard drives, 320GB or 500GB. There’s no option for a standard SSD on the HP, nor can you upgrade it, which seems an odd choice these days. You can get a mSSD paired with the hard drive. It uses Intel’s Rapid Start technology, which should help resume, boot times and file access. Our review unit did not have this option. It came with the standard 500GB drive. After accounting for Windows and recovery partition, there was about 420GB of usable space on the drive.

Now that we’ve discussed the parts, how does the Envy 4t-1000 perform? I think most people who use this notebook, the i3 will offer plenty of performance for its users. They want a light notebook for portability to use for stuff like Office and Internet where CPU performance isn’t as critical. As you can see from the 4,378 PCMarks score, the i3 performs adequately when compared to similarly equipped notebooks, but underperforms relative to Core i5 configured machines. The 4GB of memory help to things run smoothly. I was able to surf, run a virus scan and watch a HD movie, which didn’t cause any trouble on the Envy. Probably where 4t the lagged the most was the hard drive. The latency on a platter drive obviously can’t compete with that of a SSD. Boot times were slow, around 50 seconds from pushing the start button, compared to around 20 seconds for a SSD equipped machine. Opening applications did not seem to have a sense of purpose that you would get on a machine with a SSD. If you’re someone who likes zippy performance, you should probably consider getting the mSSD or quite frankly, another machine where SSDs are an option.

Our review unit has the Intel HD 3000 GPU, though as the 4t transitions to Ivy Bridge, it should get upgraded to the HD 4000. The HD 3000 managed a 1,320 score in 3DMark Vantage (see below). While that won’t compete with a dedicated graphics card, it should allow for older games to play and some newer games at low settings. The HD 4000 offers a considerable bump in performance. If you’re set on the 4t and want to do some gaming, the HD 4000 is worth waiting to get.

Now to the benchmarks, first up is PCMark Vantage, a popular benchmark used to gauge overall system performance, it takes into account processor, memory and storage performance.

3dmark

PCMark Vantage Benchmark Results – Higher scores indicate better performance

Laptop PCMark Vantage Score
HP ENVY 4t-1000 – Intel Core i3-2367M 1.4GHz, 4GB RAM, 500GB 5400RPM HD, Intel HD 3000 4,378 PCMarks
Dell XPS 13 (Intel Core i5-2476M 1.60GHz, Intel HD 3000, 4GB RAM, 128GB SSD) 9,826 PCMarks
HP Folio 13 (Intel Core i5-2467M 1.60GHz, Intel HD3000, 4GB RAM, 128GB SSD) 9,026 PCMarks
Lenovo ThinkPad X230 – Intel Core i5-3320M 2.60GHz, 4GB RAM, 7200RPM HD 7,603 PCMarks
Lenovo ThinkPad X220 – Intel Core i5-2410M 2.30GHz, 4GB RAM, 7200RPM HD 5,764 PCMarks
SONY VAIO SA – Intel Core i5-2430M, AMD 6750M, 6GB RAM, 7200RPM HD 7,007 PCMarks
Lenovo ThinkPad Edge E420 – Intel Core i5-2410m 2.30GHz, 4GB RAM 6,056 PCMarks
Dell Vostro 3450 – Intel Core i5-2410m 2.30Ghz, 4GB RAM 5,901 PCMarks
Dell Inspiron N411z – Intel Core i3-2330m 2.30GHz, 4GB RAM 5,285 PCMarks
Lenovo ThinkPad T420 – Intel Core i3-2310m 2.1GHz, 2GB RAM 3,204 PCMarks

Clearly the Envy 4t is not going to win any performance awards, especially when compared to notebooks with the latest Intel Ivy Bridge processor.

Next up is 3DMark, a benchmark program that measured the graphics performance of a system.  Given this unit has Intel HD 3000 graphics, the expectations aren’t high:

3dmark7

3DMark Vantage – Measures 3D graphics performance, higher scores are better

Laptop 3DMark Vantage
HP ENVY 4t-1000 – Intel Core i3-2367M 1.4GHz, 4GB RAM, 500GB 5400RPM HD, Intel HD 3000 1,320
Lenovo ThinkPad X230 – Intel Core i5-3320M 2.60GHz, 4GB RAM, 7200RPM HD 3,165
Lenovo ThinkPad X220 – Intel Core i5-2410M 2.30GHz, 4GB RAM, 7200RPM HD 1,611
Dell XPS 15 (Intel Core i7-2670QM, Nvidia GT 525M 1GB RAM, 8GB RAM, 7200RPM HD) 4,211
HP Envy 17-3000, Intel Core i7-2670QM, AMD 7690M, 6GB RAM, 7200RPM HD 6,970
Dell XPS 17 (Core i5-2410m 2.30GHz, Nvidia 550m, 6GB RAM, HD 7200RPM) 4,747
HP Pavilion dv6t Select Edition – Intel Core i5-2410m, Intel HD 3000 Graphics, 6GB RAM 1,845

Again, the results for 3D performance don’t impress with the Core i3 configuration we have, but unless you’re looking to run games it’s not going to have much effect on your overall experience.

Finally, a quick look at the Windows Experience Index shows it’s really the graphics that are the weak spot here, but the processor score 5.2 isn’t exactly great either:

WEI envy 4

Bottom line, it may indeed be worth upgrading to the Core i5 given the not so amazing performance of the Core i3.

 

Keyboard and Touch Pad

The Envy 4t uses a six row chiclet or island style keyboard. The keyboard has a backlight for use in places where the lighting is dim. It has only one light level. It’s either on or off. The F5 key for controlling the brightness is always on, even if the backlight is turned off, which is a little irksome at times. The WiFi key is always on too. The keyboard on the 4t is very firm, which is a step in the right direction. Pressing one key does not cause the next to move. I’m used to ThinkPad keyboards, so the spacing for me is a little off, but that would correct itself over time. The flaw in the keyboard is the key depth. There’s not enough space between the top of the key and the bottom of the keyboard. It feels like as soon as you hit a key, Bam, you hit the bottom. For me this made it more difficult to get into a rhythm when typing on it like you can on a keyboard with better depth.

Envy 4t keyboard

The touch pad on the Envy 4t is a Synaptics brand. It’s a click pad, meaning anywhere you press on the touchpad registers as a left click, except the lower right corner, which serves as a right click. The problem with click pads is you can’t feel where the touch pad ends and the mouse button begins. At least HP has marked it with a line, so a quick glance can put you on the right track. The touch pad is large, measuring three inches top to bottom and four inches across. The touch pad is very smooth. It takes little effort to move your finger from side to side. The touch pad works well. There’s no lag between what you do with your finger and what happens on screen. The button mechanism on the click pad is a little stiff for my tastes, requiring more force to engage the button, but I’m probably in the minority on this one. The touch pad gestures that now come on every notebook work well on the Envy 4t. Two finger scrolling is smooth and fluid, and pinch to zoom is almost intuitive. It’s not quite up to Apple standards, but it’s not far off and the best I’ve seen on any PC to date.

Envy 4t backlight

Battery

The Envy comes with one battery choice, a four-cell lithium-ion battery. The battery is housed inside the case and it cannot be swapped or upgraded by the end user. It must be sent off for replacement. HP’s official battery life estimate is that you can get 8.7 hours of use, but as usual, that’s wildly optimistic. To test the battery life, I set the screen to half brightness and the battery management software within Windows to Power Saver since the Envy had no battery optimization software. Doing just normal type stuff like surfing, working on the review and listening to some music, I was able to get four hours and eighteen minutes of battery life before the Envy went to sleep. That’s certainly respectable for a notebook with a 14” LCD and four-cell battery, but there are other 14” systems that offer larger/swappable batteries for those who need extended time away from the outlet. The AC adapter was slightly larger than my ThinkPad adapter, but the cord was some 32” longer, making it somewhat gangly and unruly when attempting to disentangle it. Plus it’s a three pronged adapter, which may make finding an outlet more difficult.

Heat & Noise

Envy 4t heat vents

You’d think notebook engineers would have figured out by now people use laptops in their laps and putting the vent(s) on the bottom of the laptops recessed upward only a few mm above the feet, is not a good prescription for getting a quiet notebook. The good news is the Envy runs very cool whether you’re running a light load or pushing it harder. It never goes much above warm. The hottest part is around the vent on the bottom of the Envy, particularly if you’re using it in your lap. Unfortunately to get the quiet operation, the fan is on noticeably more often than not. At least it doesn’t have a grind or whine to it, so it’s not particularly annoying. When doing ho-hum tasks like typing documents or web surfing, the fan likes to cycle on/off every few minutes. It runs at about half speed. When giving it a more strenuous workout, the fan is on constantly, at a higher more audible RPM. It’s not unusual for the fan to be running on a notebook running at a high CPU utilization rate, but the cycling on/off of the fan is a bit irritating. If you’re listening to music or there’s conversation in the room, it’s easily forgotten. If, however, you’re alone in the room to get some to some peace and quiet, you can’t miss it. Hopefully HP will release a BIOS update to quell the noise as other manufacturers have done, but for now it’s a somewhat noisy little bugger.

Ports and Networking

The Envy 4t does a nice job of giving its users most of the ports they’re likely to want. Perhaps Thunderbolt would have been a nice addition, but Thunderbolt is so new and there’s not many devices that can harness its potential. The few that are there tend to be steeply priced. The left side of the Envy has an Ethernet port, HDMI, two USB ports and a card reader. The Ethernet port has a flap on it that you have to open to put the jack in there. It sits flush with the notebook otherwise and helps maintain its sleekness. I though it a clever trick.

Envy 4t left side

The right side of the 4t has a lock connector, headphone and microphone jacks, a rare sight these days, another USB port and the power connector.

IMGT3880

Our Envy 4t came with a Broadcom WiFi wireless N WiFi card. It worked without any trouble at home and work. You can upgrade the 4t with Bluetooth and WiDi, though our review unit did not have that card. All 4t come with an Ethernet port.

IMGT3881

Software and Support

The Envy 4t-1000 comes with Windows 7 Home Premium or Professional, which shouldn’t be news to anyone. We took the step of doing a minimized image recovery to reduce bloatware, here’s a YouTube video on how that’s done with the Envy 4t.  By taking this step you seriously reduce the amount of preloaded software, there will only remain a few mildly annoying HP apps.  Norton will be removed if you do an HP minimized recovery, which is huge given the annoyance of that software.

The Envy comes with a one year depot(mail-in) warranty that’s standard on most consumer notebooks. HP will let buyers upgrade the warranty, including House(on-site) and accidental coverage. The length of the warranty is limited to four years of service, but the pricing is fairly expensive. For example, extending the warranty to three years including accidental, but not on-site, cost close to $300. That’s nearing 50% of the cost of the notebook. I think most users except perhaps the particularly clumsy, would probably be better off forgoing the extended coverage.

Conclusion

The Envy 4t seems like a good compromise between cost and features. It’s not as uber thin or light as an Ultrabook, but the Ultrabooks you are going to find in the $700 price range like the Toshiba Portege Z or Acer Aspire S3 don’t offer a design that’s as appealing as the Envy, nor do they feel as robust. What the Envy 4t does give you is an attractive look with the brushed metal and red bottom. At $700, it won’t break the bank. It sounds good, offers plenty of ports and performance for most users. If that sounds like what you’re looking to get, then the Envy may merit consideration. It’s downsides would be the sub par screen and noisy fan. If those are likely to bother you, you should probably take a pass on the 4t. Of course if you are willing to spend a little more money, you can get something better, but if you can spend more money, you’re probably not looking at the Envy 4t anyway.

Pros

  • Cost
  • Attractive Design
  • Respectable Durability
  • Backlit Keyboard
  • Light for a 14” Notebook
  • Good Sound
  • Lots of Ports

Cons

  • Cycling/Noisy Fan
  • Backlight always on for WiFi and Keyboard Light Keys
  • No Upgrades, including the Battery
  • Using a Fair LCD in an Envy Notebook
9 comments

Lenovo ThinkPad X230 Review

Having last year written the X220 review for LaptopReviews.com, writing the X230 review reminds me of watching the sequel to a hit Hollywood action picture. It’s basically the same movie with a few new plot twists. Much of the X230 is carried over from the X220. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The X220 proved to be a smashing success with reviewers and the general public alike. The major new plot twists or features on the X230 are the latest Intel Ivy Bridge Core CPUs (i3, i5 or i7), three USB 3.0 USB ports, where only one was available on the X220 with the i7, and the most talked about feature, the change to a new six row island style keyboard. Read on below to find out if Lenovo came up with the Godfather part II or III.

IMG_0604-001

Specs

Here are the specifications of the model under review:

  • Model: X230 2306-2AU
  • Operating System: Windows Seven Professional x64
  • CPU: Intel Core i5-3320M 2.6GHz  (3.3GHz Turbo) 35w
  • Memory: 4GB DDR 1333MHz (16GB Max)
  • Hard Drives: 320GB Hitachi 7K320
  • Screen: 12.5” 1366×768 Matte LED IPS LCD
  • Graphics: Intel HD4000 Integrated
  • Network: Intel Gigabit Ethernet and Wireless-N 2200, Bluetooth, WWAN Upgradable
  • Inputs: Six Row 84 Key Island Style Keyboard, Pointstick with Buttons and Touchpad with Integrated Buttons
  • Buttons: Power, ThinkVantage, Volume Up and Down, Mute and WiFi On/Off
  • Ports: Three USB 3.0 – Two Left Side, One Right Side(Powered), Ethernet, VGA/Mini DisplayPort, Combo Headphone/Microphone Jack, Dock Connector
  • Slots: SD Card Reader, ExpressCard 54 Slot
  • Battery: Six-Cell 65W
  • Dimensions(Six-Cell): Width 12.0”, Depth 8.13” and Height .75”(Front)/1.36”(Rear)
  • Weight: 3.3 Pounds
  • Warranty: One Year

Design and Build

How many times can you say a new ThinkPad looks a lot like the old one? It seems I’m going to have do it at least one more time. The only differences I could see are the switch to a mini DisplayPort adapter and the posts on the VGA adapter are now integrated into the case, but other than those two small items, the X220 and X230 look like twins from a design perspective. Squared and clad in black, the X230 has a formal simple elegant look that says “Bond, James Bond”.  It could easily be at home on the couch or in the boardroom. While most notebooks, especially smaller notebooks, seem to want to trim any fat from the their body, the X230 goes in the opposite direction. Don’t get me wrong, at a little over three pounds with the six-cell battery and mostly an inch thick, it’s still a supremely portable notebook. It’s just I would say the X230 has a more substantial feel to it as compared to say a MacBook Air or other Ultrabook.

IMG_0552

The X230 carries on the tradition of well built X series notebooks. The top and bottom case are made from magnesium and are very sturdy. Once you open the case, the palm rest, keyboard and LCD bezels are made from ABS plastic, which has a nice feel to it. The inside of the X230, which you can’t see, has a durable sub frame to protect the components inside the X230. The lid is latchless on the X230, but because the X230 uses steel hinges, the LCD frame is very rigid and does not move at all during use. I don’t think there’s much of a chance the X230 would suddenly open. There’s a small lip on the front of the X230 to help facilitate opening the lid, which is usually a two handed process.

IMG_0568

Screen

One of the biggest reasons, if not the biggest, for the runaway success of the X220 was the IPS LCD option. The coming of the IPS was a well-kept secret and was generally not known until just before the release of the X220. It definitely was a pleasant surprise. Since the demise of FlexView equipped T60s, ThinkPad users have been asking Lenovo for better screen options for ThinkPads and on the X220, they delivered. From Lenovo’s perspective, why mess with a good thing? They didn’t and the IPS screen is still an option on the X230.  Check out the viewing angle shots below to see how well the colors hold up no matter how the screen is tilted.

ThinkPad X220 and X230 screens IMG_0578
X230 screen tilted forward X230 screen tilted back

There are two screen choices available – a 200 nit TN LCD, for the miserly, and a 300 nit IPS LCD. If it remains a $50 upgrade, only the true penny pinchers would pass on it. The screens are both 12.5” LED LCDs and have HD resolution (1366×768). Both are matte, which means there will be no reflections when sitting with a light source nearby. We have the IPS screen on our review unit. Lenovo uses the same LG IPS LCD from the X220 in the X230. While it does not have the color gamut professionals are looking for, it still looks incredible, better than all but a handful of notebooks being sold today. The contrast ratio is high, which means colors are lush and vivid. Movies and photos look exceptional. You also get wide viewing angles with the X230. Shifting your position will not cause colors to shift and the image will not lose its fidelity. The IPS screen, as noted, is rated at 300 nits and can be used outdoors as long as your not in direct sunlight. There is a small amount of backlight leakage on the screen, but I only notice it when the X230 is booting with a black screen.

CPU, Performance and Storage

The X230 is equipped with the latest Intel Ivy Bridge CPU. You can configure the X230 with dual core i3, i5 and i7 CPUs. The X230 has two memory slots, which can accept up to 16GB of DDR3 memory. Our unit came with the Core i5-3320 CPU and a single 4GB stick of DDR3 memory. If you look at the benchmarks, the Ivy bridge X230 (7603) seems to score a lot better than the Sandy Bridge X220 (5764), but given that it’s designed more for mobility than performance, the duties most users will ask of it like Office, Media and Internet, won’t need much performance. Any of the CPUs offered on the X230 is more than enough to do those jobs. Performance on the X230 is very good. I was able surf, listen to some music and apply some photo filters, none of which seemed to phase the X230. Probably the biggest speed impediment on the X230 is the slower hard drive. With a SSD installed, it’ll feel much more snappy, which we’ll discuss below.

PCMark Vantage Benchmark Results – Higher scores indicate better performance

Laptop PCMark Vantage Score
Lenovo ThinkPad X230 – Intel Core  i5-3320M 2.60GHz, 4GB RAM, 7200RPM HD 7,603 PCMarks
Lenovo ThinkPad X220 – Intel Core  i5-2410M 2.30GHz, 4GB RAM, 7200RPM HD 5,764 PCMarks
SONY VAIO SA – Intel Core i5-2430M, AMD 6750M, 6GB RAM, 7200RPM HD 7,007 PCMarks
Lenovo ThinkPad Edge E420 – Intel Core i5-2410m 2.30GHz, 4GB RAM 6,056 PCMarks
Dell Vostro 3450 – Intel Core i5-2410m 2.30Ghz, 4GB RAM 5,901 PCMarks
Dell Inspiron N411z – Intel Core i3-2330m 2.30GHz, 4GB RAM 5,285 PCMarks
Lenovo ThinkPad T420 – Intel Core i3-2310m 2.1GHz, 2GB RAM 3,204 PCMarks

The PCMark Vantage benchmarks above show that the X230 easily outperforms last years systems with its new fancy processor.  However, where Ivy Bridge really shines is in the graphics department. The new Intel HD 4000 graphics card almost doubled the performance of the HD 3000 in 3DMark, 3,165 3DMarks on the HD 4000 versus 1,611 3DMarks on the HD 3000. The HD 3000 was already considered a fairly good integrated GPU that could play some games like StarCraft III, though on low settings. The HD 4000 is still an integrated card. While it should allow for some older games and newer ones on lower settings, it’s never going to make true gamers envious.

3DMark Vantage – Measures 3D graphics performance, higher scores are better

Laptop 3DMark Vantage
Lenovo ThinkPad X230 – Intel Core  i5-3320M 2.60GHz, 4GB RAM, 7200RPM HD 3,165
Lenovo ThinkPad X220 – Intel Core  i5-2410M 2.30GHz, 4GB RAM, 7200RPM HD 1,611
Dell XPS 15 (Intel Core i7-2670QM, Nvidia GT 525M 1GB RAM, 8GB RAM, 7200RPM HD) 4,211
HP Envy 17-3000, Intel Core i7-2670QM, AMD 7690M, 6GB RAM, 7200RPM HD 6,970
Dell XPS 17 (Core i5-2410m 2.30GHz, Nvidia 550m, 6GB RAM, HD 7200RPM) 4,747
HP Pavilion dv6t Select Edition – Intel Core i5-2410m, Intel HD 3000 Graphics, 6GB RAM 1,845

The X230 is unique in the ultraportable realm, outside of the X220 that is, in that it can utilize two hard drives. Slim is the trend for ultraportables these days, but the problem with this design ethos is that it does not allow for platter based drives, which offer larger capacity at a lower cost. Slim notebooks mostly get SSDs . Lenovo’s solution for this problem is a miniPCI slot under the palm rest. All X230’s have this slot and into it you put a mSATA SSD. The benefit of this setup is you can use the mSATA SSD as a boot drive for better performance, and keep the platter based drive in the main bay for storage, where speed is not as critical. I have this setup on my X220. It works very well.

Our X230 has the 320GB Hitachi 7K320 7200RPM hard drive. As a 7200RPM drive, it’s a decent performer, but won’t match the speed of a SSD. The boot time is about 45 seconds, compared to around 20 seconds for my SSD equipped X220. Once inside Windows, the differences isn’t as great, but the 7200RPM drive does feel a bit more lackadaisical at times compared to the SSD. After accounting for the recovery partition, Windows and the installed applications, there’s about 220GB left over for other files. As is the case with all ThinkPads, the X230 offers an accelerometer to detect any drops. In such a case, it will park the heads on the hard drive to hopefully save your data.

Ease of Upgrades

Another advantage the X230 offers in comparison to a lot of other Ultraportables and most Ultrabooks is the ability to upgrade most of the components that users commonly do. The hard drive, memory and wireless card are all accessible in a few minutes and doing so does not void the warranty. Try that on an Apple MacBook Air or Asus ZenBook.

X230 Keyboard

The rest of this review is in some ways window dressing for this section of the review. Of all the design changes offered on the new Ivy Bridge equipped ThinkPads, it’s the switch to the six row island style keyboard that has elicited the strongest reaction from ThinkPad users, some of it decidedly negative. Any time you change a proven design that’s been used for decades, there’s bound to be some backlash from your customers. Lenovo has been tight lipped as to the reasoning behind the transition. I suppose one could speculate it’s a cost cutting move as it’s more expensive to use a different keyboard than everyone else or perhaps down the road, a smaller keyboard would allow Lenovo to offer a larger touchpad, which would be welcome, but so far, Lenovo has not shed any light on the matter.

ThinkPad X220 and X230 keyboards

ThinkPad X220 keyboard on the left, X230 on the right – same size keyboards, but different key locations

Let’s take a look at the keyboards themselves. Physically, they’re the same size. I managed to put the X220 old style keyboard and palm rest onto the X230. It fits perfectly, but before you run out to buy a X220 keyboard in anticipation of getting a X230, the keys are mapped in the BIOS and exchanging them yields some strange results. While the letter characters work normally, the Delete key moves to the Page Up key and controlling the screen brightness is done using Fn + F7 or F8, like it is on the X230. Lenovo has moved some other function keys too. The audio controls have been moved to the function key row and the ThinkLight key, which also controls the backlight, has been moved to the Space Bar. Although the keyboards are the same size, the keys to my untrained eye, appear to be slightly larger than the X220 and have more spacing between them. Lenovo achieved this by getting rid of five keys. The old keyboard has 89 keys while the X230 keyboard has 84. The material used to make the X230 keys has a more slippery feel to it. I didn’t bother me, but I liked the older material better. The use of a chiclet design has allowed Lenovo to offer a backlit keyboard on the X230, which is an often requested feature. There have been other changes to the keyboard like the enlarged Esc and Delete keys, which Lenovo trumpeted on the X220, have been shrunk back down. They’re still larger than the other function row keys, but much smaller than before. Lenovo has also dropped the blue Enter key.

Despite the extensive changes between the old and new keyboards, they do have some similarities. Even with the change to the chiclet keyboard, the X230 keyboard is still spill resistant. A small amount of liquid should pass through the keyboard without causing any damage. When you set aside the changed keys and characters, which I know is hard to do, the actual typing experience is very ThinkPad like. To me the two most important features for a good typing experience are the firmness of the keyboard and the key depth. ThinkPads have always excelled here and the X230 is no different. The keyboard on the X230 is very firm. Striking one key does not cause movement in the key next to it. The key depth is also excellent. When you hit a key and naturally want to start to bring your finger up is exactly when you hit the bottom of the keyboard.  It’s a perfectly implemented keystroke distance.

What does all this mean to prospective ThinkPad buyers? If the X230 is your first ThinkPad, you probably don’t care much about all this new keyboard hullabaloo as it’s all new to you.  If, however, you’ve been a long time ThinkPad user, I don’t see how you could be happy with the new changes. I don’t even think it’s necessarily the change to the island style keyboard that’s the problem. Typing on the X230 is good, but the removal of keys and changing of function key locations is what’s going to get people upset.  Like riding a bike, long time ThinkPad users have the keyboard and locations etched into their synaptic pathways. Changing them is going to be a major headache for long time ThinkPadders. It’s been my experience that the faster you type, the more likely you are to use keyboard shortcuts. While I’m not a fast typist myself, I can see why they’re displeased with the changes.

Pointing Stick and Touch Pad

The X230 gives you two options for moving the on screen cursor – the trackpoint (pointing stick), which has its own set of dedicated buttons, and a trackpad, which uses mouse buttons that are integrated into the touchpad. With all the changes to the keyboard, Lenovo thankfully, did not mess with the stick. I’m happy to report the soft rim, my favored cap, works flawlessly on the new keyboard as do the other caps. You just press the cap in the direction you wish to go and your off. The advantage of the trackpoint is it allows you to keep your hand close to the keyboard and not nearly as much hand movement is required as with a trackpad (touch pad).

Track point, touch pad

There’s a large subset of users who don’t like trackpoints. To increase the salability of the X series notebooks, Lenovo has to include one. Because the palm rest on the X230 is so small and the trackpoint buttons cut into the space available for a trackpad, Lenovo has a tough nut to crack. To increase the size of the touchpad, which is already small to begin with, especially top to bottom, Lenovo decided to integrate the touchpad buttons into the trackpad. It doesn’t work very well because you can’t feel where the trackpad ends and the buttons begin.  They’re also not marked in a way that’s easy to see with a quick glance, the trackpad is actually a clickpad. Anywhere you push down on it registers a left click, except the lower right corner which is the right click area. Mousing on it is OK, but because it’s so small, I find myself having to do multiple swipes to move from one side of the screen to the other. Synaptics, who makes the touchpad, must have worked on the drivers in the off-season because I can report the touchpad gestures on the X230 seem improved over what my X220 offered, particularly the two finger scroll. I would in no way describe it as Applesque, but it’s at least now smooth and mostly works.

Battery

There are four battery options offered on the X230 – four, six and nine-cell batteries along with a slice battery that attaches to the X230 via the docking port. Unlike a lot of ultraportables these days, the battery is not locked inside the case and is easy to swap, which will make IT departments happy. With the four-cell, the X230 is a three pound and inch thick machine, but most will probably opt for the six or nine-cell batteries. With the nine-cell and the slice battery, Lenovo claims 24 hours of battery time. As is usually the case with battery estimates, that’s probably overly optimistic, but even if you could get in the high teens, that’s a ridiculously long amount of battery life. I certainly couldn’t use a notebook that long. The review unit came with the six cell battery. To test the battery on the X230, I set the screen to 7/15 for the brightness and had WiFi on. I went about doing normal stuff like surfing, listening to some music, typing up a few documents and I watched a couple of Hulu videos. I was able to get six hours of battery life before the X230 went into hibernation. That’s a few minutes less than my X220 got when it had a new battery, but it’s probably close enough to be within the margin of error compared to the X220.

Heat & Noise

The X230 has two vents to help it run cool and quiet, a larger vent on the left side and a smaller one next to the power plug-in on the back. They do a good job for the most part. When using the X230, it remains cool to the touch, even when attempting more processor intensive tasks. When doing mundane tasks like Office and Internet, the X230 stays very quiet, but like most notebooks when pushing the CPU, the fan kicks on and the noise levels elevate. When using the X230 for just every day duty, the noisiest part was the hard drive. The Hitachi was often more noisy than the fan, but that’s probably more luck of the Irish thing than anything else. My X220 came with the same drive and it was whisper quiet.

X230 heat vent

Wireless & Networking

Our review has the Intel Wireless-N 2200 WiFi card. Performance on it was excellent, but honestly, it’s been a while since I’ve used a laptop with a temperamental WiFi card. I had no problems using it at home, work and I even took to the local library, which has free WiFi. All X230 come pre-configured for WWAN, though using a WWAN card will prevent you from using a mSATA SSD as they share the same miniPCI port. All you have to do is pop the card into the miniPCI slot under the palm rest and attach the wires. You’ll of course have to have a wireless plan too. Our X230 also had Bluetooth 4.0, which I would assume is an upgrade for CTO X230s. I was able to pair my iPhone and play music from it with a few clicks. All X230 will come with gigabit Ethernet.

Ports & Connections

Lenovo offers all of the ports most X230 users will ever need. Perhaps Thunderbolt and/or HDMI would have been nice additions, but Thunderbolt peripherals are scarce/expensive and the mini Displayport is easily converted to HDMI with the proper cable. Lenovo has upgraded all X230 with three USB 3.0 ports where the X220 had only one on the i7 X220s. The left side of the X230 has a USB 3.0 port. VGA connector, mini displayport port, another USB 3.0 port, the ExpressCard slot and a WiFi on/off switch.

ThinkPad X230 left side

The right side of the X230 has lock connector, combo headphone/microphone jack, Ethernet port, the card reader and a powered USB 3.0 port, which is nice for charging the phone or MP3 player.

ThinkPad X230 right side

The back of the X230 has only the power plug-in.

ThinkPad X230 back side

The bottom of the X230 also nets you a docking port. In addition to the slice battery, it can connect with ThinkPad Series 3 docks to add functionality. When you’re on the go, the X230 is light and portable, but when you get home, you can plug the X230 into the dock to use a big monitor and other peripherals.

IMG_0566

Sound

The X230 comes with Dolby sound. Sounds pretty impressive, doesn’t it? Not to crush your dreams, but I wouldn’t get too excited. The X230 does sound slightly better than my X220, but it’s sort of the difference between a pig and a pig with lipstick. It’s still a bit tinny and the bass is lacking, but it’s certainly good enough for music or an internet video. Speaker placement, on the underside of the notebook, doesn’t help with the sound quality. If you’re using the X230 with your hands on the keyboard or in your lap, it has a tendency to muffle the sound some. As with most notebooks, good speakers or headphones will greatly increase the audio experience, though speakers are not the most portable of devices.

Software

Windows 7, this X230 had Windows 7 professional, rules the day on the X230, at least until Windows 8 comes along. I don’t think that’s very newsworthy. Like all ThinkPads, the X230 comes with Lenovo’s ThinkVantage suite. The ThinkVantage suite is a set of software tools designed to allow users to manage and secure their data/notebooks. Familiar utilities like Access Connections, Power Manager and Hard Drive Protection are all there, but Lenovo has made some changes here too. Long time ThinkPad users will certainly recognize the blue ThinkVantage key and it has remained. In the past pressing it has brought up the Productivity Center, which had various links to ThinkVantage utilities. Lenovo has changed the links to icon based links and interestingly, the first page that pops up after pressing the ThinkVantage buttons is a bunch of links to various web sites like Paypal, FaceBook and YouTube. It’s the second page that has the links to the utilities. Taking you directly to the ThinkVantage tools seem more natural, but I guess Lenovo deemed otherwise.

Warranty & Support

Most ThinkPad X230s will come with a one year standard depot warranty, meaning Lenovo will send you a box if a problem arises and send it back to you after the repair is completed. Lenovo will offer warranty upgrades. You can stick with depot service, but on-site and accidental coverage will be available in addition to depot service. Generally, ThinkPads offer up to five years of warranty service, though accidental coverage is limited to four years and must be purchased in the first 90 days. I’ve always had good support with my ThinkPads, but it’s difficult to test the support on a notebook you’ve had for a few days and hasn’t been released yet. I did have an interesting experience with the X230. It arrived in the afternoon via FedEx. I only had a little time to play with it before work and it seemed normal. When I got back home and went to use it, I powered it up and got – FAN ERROR right after the post page. I re-booted and it happened again. It did three times in a row. At this point I panicked a bit because how can you write a review on a machine that won’t boot? After the error message, I reset the battery and memory. It then worked fine and hasn’t had any issues since.  Please be aware this is not a customer ship level system either (as indicated by a giant sticker on the bottom that says that) so we’ll give a get out of jail free pass on this scary though fleeting problem.

Conclusion

Should you run out and buy a ThinkPad X230? If you’re a mobile road warrior or just want a smaller notebook, the X230 offers just about everything you’d ever want. It’s light and durable. There’s no need to baby the X230, it’ll take a licking. It’s easily upgradeable. If a better drive comes along or you want more memory, it takes minutes to swap and does not void your warranty. It’s got a dazzling IPS screen for watching movies or talking to the kiddies via the webcam in the hotel room. There’s no need to bring the adapter along when you can legitimately get 9-10 hours of battery life with the nine-cell battery, probably twice that with the slice battery. You’re not forced to choose between space and speed with the mSATA SSD + HDD setup. If, however, you’ve already got a ThinkPad X220, the case is probably not as compelling. The performance boost Ivy Bridge offers is modest outside of the graphics, which most X230 buyers probably don’t care much about. I would also say dedicated touchpad users should at least try a X230 if you can before spending their money. The touchpad works OK, but you don’t want to get stuck with something you don’t like. Lastly, if you’re a long time ThinkPad user and are distressed about the keyboard changes, you might want to pick up a ThinkPad X220 before they run out.  The X230 keyboard is a good one, but remapping your neural network synapses to find the moved key locations might be annoying to some of us older folks who are set in our ways and don’t have as much brain plasticity.

Pros

  • Durability
  • Impressive IPS Screen
  • mSATA + HDD Setup
  • Easy Upgrades
  • As Many Ports as You’ll Need
  • USB 3.0 Across the Board
  • Portable, just over 3lbs
  • Long Battery life, 6 hours with standard 6-cell

Cons

  • Lame Touchpad
  • Fair Sound
  • Changing of Function Key Locations, Removing Keys
  • Not Much New in the Style Department

Availability

The ThinkPad X230 will be released for sale on June 5, 2012 at Lenovo.com (X230 product page)

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Apple MacBook Air Vs Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook Comparison

At a year and half old in its present form, it’s hard to think of the MacBook Air as the granddaddy of the Ultrabooks, but that’s what it is. Since the Air’s latest release in late 2010, other notebooks makers have been scrambling to match Apple’s combination of style, portability and usability. All except Dell that is.  Until now Dell has been hesitant to venture into the Ultrabook market. With the release of the XPS 13 Ultrabook, Dell has dove headfirst into the Ultrabook waters and the game is now afoot, but does the XPS 13 Ultrabook have what it takes to vanquish the reigning champ of the 13” Ultrabook weight class – the MacBook Air? Read on to find out if the XPS is the new champ or just another chump.

Specs

These are the main specs of the laptops under review:

Apple MacBook Air 13” Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook
CPU 1.7GHz i5-2557M 17w 1.6GHz i5-2467M 17w
Memory 4GB DDR3 1333MHz 4GB DDR3 1333MHz
Storage 128GB Samsung mSATA SSD 128GB Samsung mSATA SSD
Screen 13.3” Glossy WXGA+ (1440×900) TN LED 13.3” Matte HD (1366×768) TN LED w/Gorilla Glass
Graphics Intel HD3000 Intel HD3000
Ports Two USB, Card Reader, Headphone, Thunderbolt Two USB: One Powered, One USB 3.0, Headphone, Mini Displayport
Battery 50w 47w Six-Cell
Dimensions Width 12.8”, Depth 8.94” and Height .11”(Front)/.68”(Rear) Width 12.4” Depth 8.10” and Height .24”(Front)/.71”(Rear)
Weight 2.91 pounds 2.99 pounds
Warranty 1-year 1-year

Price

The 13” Air starts at $1,299 on Apple’s website, though you can get one out the door for around $1,250 if you’re willing to buy a pre-configured model via an Internet retailer such as Amazon. The entry-level XPS starts at $999 at Dell’s web site. That’s a $200-300 advantage for the Dell depending on how and where they’re bought.

Advantage: XPS 13

Design

Side by side of Dell XPS 13 and MacBook Air

One after another notebook maker has lined up to take a crack at making a better Ultrabook design than Apple, but all have seemed to come up short in one area or more.  Here’s Dell’s chance to rock the Ultrabook world with their XPS design.  Being that both machines are Ultrabooks, their designs are constrained by the limits that being an Ultrabook imposes, namely being exceedingly thin and light. Given these restraints, the Air and the XPS are awfully similar, but there are some distinct differences in the designs. The body on the Air is made form aluminum using Apple’s unibody construction method. It’s a silver whitish color. The aluminum makes it smooth to the touch all over. It has an Apple logo on the lid. Opening the Air reveals more aluminum and a black keyboard. The Dell also uses aluminum on the XPS, but only on the lid. The XPS’ is of a more silver gray color, but like the Air, has a small simple Dell logo adorning the lid. The bottom is made from carbon fiber. It has a rubber coating that not only feels great, but gives it a surer grip when carrying the XPS around. Also differentiating the XPS from the Air is the inside color of the XPS – the keyboard, palm rests and LCD bezel are all black. Unfortunately, it tends to pick up fingerprints and smudges easily.

Despite the fact that both the Air and XPS use 13.3” LCDs, the XPS is noticeably smaller than the Air, about an inch shorter and a quarter inch more narrow. Dell accomplishes this by using a much smaller LCD bezel on the XPS, which looks better than the almost inch of bezel that surrounds the Air’s LCD. The Air has a lip on the front of the bottom case. It allows you to use one finger to open the Air quickly. The XPS has no such opening mechanism and it makes the XPS tougher to open. It’s a two handed operation.

Advantage: Tie

Thinness and Weight

The Air and XPS are both incredibly thin and light. The XPS 13 is the chunky one at .71” compared to the .68” for the Air. If I place the Air and XPS back to back and stare at them for several minutes, I think I can see the Air is slightly slimmer, but that may just be my eyes playing a trick on me. The Air is an ounce lighter, but if you held each on in your hands, I doubt anyone could discern a difference. I certainly cannot. These machines are so close in thinness and weight, it’s a photo finish and perhaps even a tie.

Advantage: Tie

Durability

I’ve had the Air about six months now and it’s acquired a few small imperfections on the underside.  The XPS came to me a couple weeks ago so I’ve not had as much time to damage it. I don’t know how much one can tell about the long term durability of a review unit, but both machines feel solid. Apple’s unibody construction method gives the Air that carved from one stone feel to it. It’s very rigid and has little give to it anywhere. The XPS is likewise very stout. It’s also rigid with little flex to it anywhere, but being so thin, that’s what you’d expect from an Ultrabook.  Both machines use a single hinge that runs most of the length of the notebooks. The screens feel firmly in place and don’t move during use. Fit and finish for both machines is excellent. There are no unexplained gaps or misaligned parts.

Advantage: Tie

Screen

The MacBook Air and XPS both have 13.3” TN LED displays. The Air uses a glossy screen while the XPS is matte. Dell covers the LCD on the XPS with Gorilla Glass to add a layer of protection. While the Gorilla Glass should help ward off minor mishaps it, in an odd turn of events, it makes the matte LCD on the XPS more reflective than the glossy screen on the Air, which is fairly subdued by glossy notebook standards. If there’s a light source nearby, there’s a good chance you’ll be looking at yourself instead of the screen on the XPS. In a more positive light at least no one will be able to sneak up on you while using the XPS 13. You’ll be able to see them long before you hear them using the XPS. The Gorilla Glass also likes to collect fingerprints too, though it is easily wiped.

Side by side

Notice the more reflective screen of the XPS 13 due to the Gorilla Glass layer

Once you get past the Gorilla Glass, the LCD on the Air is clearly better than the XPS. First off, it uses a resolution of 1440×900 while the XPS uses the more common 1366×768 HD resolution. The extra resolution on the Air allows you to fit more on the screen and translates into less scrolling. While the extra resolution on the Air is nice, what sets the MacBook Air screen apart from the XPS 13 is the better contrast and viewing angles. Colors are richer and more vivid on the Air. The Air has a nice sweet spot in terms of viewing angles. Minor adjustments in position don’t cause colors to shift. The XPS contrast isn’t bad, it’s just not up to the Air’s standards. Colors look decent, but the viewing angles are below average. If you move in your seat, colors do shift quickly.

Advantage: Macbook Air

Performance and Storage

It’s a little difficult to talk about the differences between the MacBook Air and XPS 13 because they’re almost the same machine performance wise. Both offer Intel ULV i5 CPUs, for better battery life, mated to 4GB of DDR3 memory and SSDs. The Air does comes with an extra 100MHz of clock speed, but I can’t imagine anyone would ever notice it outside of doing benchmarks. Both of these notebooks are designed with portability more than performance in mind. Each machine is more than capable for all but a handful of users who need top performance. On each laptop I was able to surf the web, listen to music, work on office documents and do a CPU intensive task like running Handbrake or a virus scan. Neither machine put up any resistance while doing those tasks. To demonstrate how close these machines are in performance, the XPS scored 9,856 using PCMark Vantage benchmarking software, while the Air got a score of 10,133 running Windows 7 via Boot Camp. That’s less than a 3% difference and probably within the margin of error.

PCMark Vantage Score Comparison

MacBook Air 13” – Windows 7 (Intel Core i5-2557M  1.7GHz, 4GB RAM, SSD) 10,133  PCMarks
Dell XPS 13 (Intel Core i5-2467M 1.6GHz, 4GB RAM, SSD) 9,856 PCMarks

Both the base Air and XPS that we have carry a 128GB mSATA SSD on board. You can upgrade either notebook to a 256GB drive if you need more space. Both machines boot in a little over 20 seconds. The systems are responsive, web pages render promptly and applications open quickly. A noteworthy difference between the XPS and the Air is the XPS has a little over 60GB of empty space left over when I first booted the XPS. That means over half the space is already consumed by the recovery partitions, OS and applications. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for other stuff. The Air had just under 90GB of space with just the recovery partition, OS and factory applications on it.

Advantage: Tie

Keyboard

The MacBook Air and the XPS 13 each have a six row chiclet style keyboard. Both are backlit, though the Air’s backlight is adjustable while the XPS is either on or off. Being that they’re so thin, neither machine has much key depth. Quickly after striking a key you hit the bottom as there’s so little travel distance available. The MacBook Air keyboard is slightly firmer and uses a better feeling material to make the keys, but between the two, the XPS has slightly better key depth. The keyboard on the XPS is spill resistant and can take a small amount of liquid without damage. Both keyboards work fine, but I wasn’t able to get into a rhythm like I can with the ThinkPads I own.

Advantage: Tie

Touchpad

Both the Air and XPS use clickpads, not touchpads, which means the mouse buttons are integrated into the touchpad. The Air’s clickpad is an inch taller than the XPS, but they work about the same. The button mechanism is a bit stiff for both, particularly the top third of the touchpads, which cuts the effective size of the touchpad. Anywhere you press down on the clickpad is a left click. The Air lets you choose the lower right or left corner for the right click while on the XPS the the lower right corner serves as the right click. The buttons are not marked on either touchpad, which makes them a bit more difficult to use as you can’t tell where the touchpad ends and the buttons begin if you’re not looking at the touchpad. The gestures work well on both notebooks. The Dell is the first notebook PC I have seen where the two finger scrolling works well, though it’s still probably a slightly behind the Air in overall smoothness.

Advantage: Tie

Sound

Before I used either machine, I wasn’t expecting much in the sound department, but I was pleasantly surprised by both. For ultraportables, both notebooks have good sound, but the XPS exceeds the Air in sound quality. Sound on the XPS is louder, fuller, more clear and crisper. Where the Air is a bit tinny, the XPS has a bit of boom to it.

Advantage: XPS 13

Battery Life

I tested the batteries on the MacBook Air and the XPS 13 in the same manner with the screen on half brightness and WiFi on. I did typical every day tasks like surfing the net, listening to some music and typing up some documents. With the XPS 13 I was able to get 5 hours and 20 minutes of battery before going into hibernation while the Air got 5 hours and 50 minutes before going to sleep. That’s an extra 30 minutes for the Air, which while not huge, is significant enough to give the Air an advantage.

Advantage: MacBook Air

Upgrades

These are ultrabooks, which means you can do a limited amount of configuration when purchasing them, but after that there’s no upgrading them later. Not even the battery is replaceable. Think carefully about what you need because after you buy you’re stuck with it.

Advantage: Neither

Ports

Being they’re so thin, neither machine has a ton of ports, but Dell somehow forgot to add a card reader to the XPS, which is a major hole in its port selection, not that the Air offers a bounty of ports either. The XPS has a powered USB 2.0 port, which can, ironically, charge your iPhone. The Air offers no such port. The Air has offers a Thunderbolt port while the XPS goes with a USB 3.0 port. Thunderbolt is faster than USB 3.0 and can do video, but in practical terms, there’s many more USB 3.0 devices right now.

The left side of the Air has a USB 2.0 port and headphone jack while the XPS 13 has a powered USB 3.0 port and headset jack.

Left

The right side of the Air has Thunderbolt port, another USB 2.0 and the card reader while the Dell has the powered USB 2.0 port and mini DisplayPort connector.

Right

Advantage: MacBook Air

Heat and Noise

Bless Dell’s heart. I complained in my XPS 13 review that fan on the XPS liked to cycle on/off every few minutes and it was somewhat loud. The day after my review of the XPS 13 was published Dell, to their credit for caring about their customers, posted a BIOS update that has largely fixed the issue. When I use the XPS now when just doing normal stuff, there’s a whisper of fan noise, but you’ve almost got to really listen for it to be able to hear it. Still, when pushed the fan can get noisy, but it’s almost a night and day difference compared to the previous BIOS. The Air when doing typical tasks remains inaudible. When the CPU starts getting a workout on the Air, it gets noisy, noisier than the XPS, but it mostly remains quiet during normal usage. The Air stays very cool, even when running more CPU intensive tasks. The XPS gets a little warmer on the bottom, but nothing that should cause concern. The keyboard and palm rests stay cool.

Advantage: Tie

Wireless and Networking

Both machines give you a Wi-Fi card and Bluetooth. The XPS 13 also brings WiDi to the table. The Air uses a Broadcom card while the XPS has an Intel card. Both worked well at home and work. I was able to sync my Bluetooth mouse and iPhone to each machine with no problems. WiDi is Intel’s new wireless display technology. If you’ve got a WiDi enabled TV you can beam video to it via the WiFi card using WiDi. Such a small subset of users will have WiDi, I don’t think it will enter in to the buying decision for most purchasers.

Advantage: Tie

Software

It’s OS X Mountain Lion vs. Windows 7 Home Premium. Actually, it’s OS X and Windows 7 vs. Windows 7 as the Air can have Windows 7 installed via boot camp, though battery life does seem to suffer in Windows. Both machines offer a minimal compliment of installed software. On the Air you get iTunes, Safari and iLife, but there’s certainly free equivalents for those in Windows except for GarageBand. The XPS is fairly light on the bloatware. You get MacAfee, Chrome and Office starter, which is a gimped version of Office that doesn’t even let you track changes in documents. It should only take a few minutes to remove those. The XPS does have LoJack, which can help track your notebook should it get lost or stolen. You also get Adobe Photoshop and Premiere Elements 9, which is an upgrade over what you usually get over on a new notebook.

Advantage: Tie

Warranty

Both machines come with a one year warranty standard. The MacBook Air has only 90 days of software support. That would not seem to befit a $1,300 notebook. The Dell XPS 13 offers 24×7 access to premium tech support, which includes software support for the life of the warranty. Both warranties can be extended, the MacBook Air to three years and the Dell can get up to four years of warranty service. The plum to buying an Apple product is you can take it to any Apple store and have it serviced right away. There’s no need to send it off and wait for it to return. That’s a major plus, but Dell goes one step further with the XPS. The XPS has what Dell calls America’s Best Warranty. For a standard warranty it’s very impressive. It includes on-site service and accidental coverage. Dell will send a technician to your home or place of business to fix your XPS. There’s no need to leave the house to get the XPS repaired. Because it has accidental coverage Dell will still fix it if it’s damaged in a manner not covered by typical notebook warranties like drops or liquid spills. The downside of the Dell warranty is it’s a little more expensive than the Apple upgrade, $250 vs $300. If you’re considering upgrading the warranty anyway, the extra $50 adds a lot of value.

Advantage: XPS 13

And the Winner Is…

If you add up the score, it kind of looks like a hockey record of 3-3-9. Three wins for Apple, three for Dell and nine ties. I think that shows how close these machines are, but there are some significant differences that may sway you one way or the other. The XPS 13 is less expensive, has higher quality sound and a better warranty. The MacBook Air offers a more pleasing screen, a wider port selection and longer battery life. Your choice will obviously be influenced by your priorities, but if it’s my money I’m spending, I’ll take the MacBook Air. I think you can make a very good argument that the most important part on any notebook is the screen because that’s what you’re staring at all the time. If there’s one area where the Air dominates the XPS, it’s the screen. The Air’s LCD, though glossy, is less reflective with the better contrast and viewing angles. It is just plain nicer to use. The XPS definitely has some admirable qualities, but the $200-300 price difference isn’t enough to make me consider the XPS unless I’m on a limited budget or need the better warranty. If I plan to keep my notebook for a number of years, the better screen is worth an extra $50 a year to me.

Comparison Summary Table (green tick indicates advantage, both with ticks indicates a tie)

Dell XPS 13 MacBook Air Late 2011
Price and Value
Design
Thinness and Weight
Durability
Screen
Performance & Storage
Keyboard
TouchPad
Battery Life Potential
Upgrade Capability
Ports Selection
Heat & Noise
Wireless & Networking
Installed Software
Warranty Options

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