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.
Here are the specifications of the model under review:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
HP Pavilion dv6t Select Edition – Intel Core i5-2410m, Intel HD 3000 Graphics, 6GB RAM
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.
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 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
The back of the X230 has only the power plug-in.
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.
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.
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.
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.