Lenovo ThinkPad X200 Review - May 2009

X200

2.26 GHz Core 2 Duo

2 GB

160 GB (Hitachi HTS543216L9SA00)

Vista 32-Bit

Bluetooth/Intel 5100 AGN

6 Cell (52.6 WH) Battery

Webcamera

 

Note: This is not a performance review of the laptop, you can tell how it will perform more or less by the subsystems it uses. If you want performance data check the review at NotebookReview. Now on with the review...

A laptop in the end is an engineered system, replete with engineering choices. Larger screens make the machine heavier, and reduce battery life. The fastest possible processors run hotter and reduce battery life. Omitting a CD drive can save weight, but hurts convenience.

For a desktop choices are much simpler, it is mostly a question of how much performance you need and how much are you willing to pay to get it (and perhaps how loud the fans are in the case if you go for the fastest possible machine). Laptops are more subtle, because there are more tradeoffs to be made. Weight, battery life, screen size, and performance are the primary tradeoffs.

Laptops are extremely popular today, indeed in 2008 in the United States, they outsold desktops for the first time. The most popular laptop design balance today is the desktop replacement. This kind of laptop often has a 15.4 inch wide screen and uses fairly power hungry parts. As a result it is heavy and does not get very long battery life. Sometimes the thermal design is such that they also run very hot. They do perform decently and they are very cheap. They are big enough that nothing has to be miniaturized too much, which helps keep costs down. On the other end of the spectrum, but still popular, are so called netbooks. These eschew CD drives and sometimes hard disks, and screen size for both cost reduction and weight reduction. They also sacrifice performance for a low cost, low power processor. At the time of writing, this low power processor is still often paired with a power hungry chipset making the offering somewhat less appealing.

I could go on, but there are many combinations. Depending on what you want. The point is that as notebook design is an engineering problem there is no right answer. There is no perfect notebook. Which is best depends what you need.

There are some notebooks that do try to do it all, as this is a ThinkPad review, the X301 is a notable attempt at this. The sacrifice in the case of such a halo product is cost. If cost is no issue, than these types of laptops that have started to appear are great choices. For the rest of us, a choice must be made, what is most important?

My last laptop was a Lenovo T60. I reviewed it. It was a good machine. However, after two years of use I found out its flaws. It could run very hot if you insulated the bottom say by running it on a sofa, bed or just your lap. It had some power management issues related to the graphics subsystem and network adapters that were driver bugs. You could work around them by disabling certain deep sleep modes, but annoying nevertheless. The hard disc in the T60 was slow. I guess it was not slow for the time when I got the machine, perhaps a little, but by current standards it was very slow. Battery life was not great, it was good for the type of laptop it was, but not great when looked at more globally.

The T60 had its pluses also. The 15.4 inch screen had plenty of room to do work. It was heavy but not as heavy as many 15.4 inch laptops. It was still just as solid as the day I got it construction wise, the day I sold it, which is more than I can say for my Dell that preceded it.

In the end, it turned out the T60 was not the best engineering choice for me, at least not any more. Either that or I like change when it comes to technology. Thus, I purchased an X200 from Lenovo’s outlet, refurbished, for 720 dollars.

I had considered the X series when I got my T60. I had had a Dell 300m before the T60 and it influenced my choice to not buy an X series because I felt XGA just was not enough screen space (the X60 was an XGA laptop). I also had major reliability issues with the Dell, I am not sure I feared a repeat on a ThinkPad, but it may have played a role in my choice. Finally, I had found the lack of a CD drive internal to the computer occasionally annoying, and I was not sure I could get along without a TouchPad.

Having used a T60 for two years the last item could be definitively answered, for me a TouchPoint, was perfectly adequate. While I had my T60, I would use both the TouchPad and TouchPoint. Editing a document the TouchPoint was used as I did not have to move my hand as far. Surfing the web with lots of clicking and little typing the TouchPad was used.  However, either would work for me. I think a lot of ThinkPad loyalists remain so due to the keyboards. Given that fact, I think it is clear why the TouchPoint is favored by many ThinkPad users. In general, if you are keyboard centric in your computer use the TouchPoint is probably the better pointing device of the TouchPad, TouchPoint debate.

The CD drive issue also has faded. Even two years ago flash memory was quite a bit more expensive. Now optical discs are much more for archiving than data exchange. Downloads are more and more common for software over optical discs for installs. This lowers the need to have an optical drive with you all the time.
While not everyone likes widescreen LCDs, WXGA has more space than XGA by about 30% in terms of pixel area. Linearly, it is about 25% wider, and has just a hair more vertical resolution. All of these factors add up to a CDless, WXGA, TouchPoint only laptop being much more attractive to me than it was a few years ago (sans WXGA of course). That attractive laptop is of course the X200 and its siblings the X200s and X200t.

With the preliminaries out of the way I will get down to the actual design tradeoffs of this laptop.

Let me start with the worst item: the screen. The screen in my X200 has a static dithering pattern. What does that mean? Look at the provided close up photograph of a gradient on the screen below, shown are two blocks which should be solid colors, however you will see clearly they are dithering patterns. These patterns are easy to notice, and significantly degrade visual quality.

dithering

The screen is a 6-bit TN panel. While many TN panels are 6-bit, most use dynamic dithering, which like movies moves faster than your eye can see and thus is much less noticeable. This static dithering looks awful at times. It is most prominent noticeable for the lowest 7 levels of luminosity. Because lossy video and image compression relies on smearing barely different colors into larger monochromatic blocks, the dithering problem is most noticeable in JPEGs and compressed video (think MPEG4, or NetFlix or what have you). It is quite evident in dark scenes of DVDs (MPEG2).

Of course, if you wanted to watch movies all day why did you buy a 12.1 inch laptop? There is no perfect laptop. Still the screen could be a lot better. The viewing angles are not particularly good in terms of color rendition either, not even by TN panel standards. However, none of these issues affect writing, surfing, calculating, giving presentations, and the like. So again, it depends on what you need. The matte finish on the LCD is still appreciated and the LCD is noticeably brighter than my T60 ever was.

WXGA is a bit tight for heavy multi window work. Okay it is very tight, but you know that going in. I myself have an external display for when my X200 is in the office to get around this 'problem'.

What other bad issues are there? Honestly, not a whole lot that is not obvious from the spec sheet. One minor issue is that my X200 high pitched Morris Code power switching sounds that can be noticed in a quiet room. These sounds are not exclusive to the X200, and are common to most Core 2 Duo laptops. My T60 had them as well. I have yet to find any other issues with the machine. The choice of screen was poor, but other than that, it looks like a lot of good choices were made. The screen on the X200s may be better than the X200, and the higher resolution and better battery life are boons as well, but the extra cost may or may not be worth it. The screen on the X200t is an IPS panel and is known to be very good if you are willing to consider a tablet. Again it depends on what you need.

Now let us move on to the good parts. Like all ThinkPads the X200 has a nice keyboard. In fact, unlike many past X series computers it is full sized. Some people have complained about the bezel on the LCD being so large. Given the choice between a larger bezel with a full sized keyboard and a thin bezel and a reduced keyboard, I know I would pick the larger bezel every time. In sum, I think it was a good choice by the Lenovo engineers.

The keyboard itself is excellent. I had a Chincony keyboard in my T60 and it was a lot louder, which at first I missed a lot, because this one is much quieter (it may be NMB), but I can still type just as fast on it as I could on my T60, the keys have good travel, and quieter keys can be less of a bother to my neighbors in the office. The TrackPoint is the same as always and the mouse buttons have colored accents on them that were removed during the T60’s era. Of course there is no TouchPad.

One item often overlooked in notebook reviews, is sound. The X200 has only one speaker. In Andrew’s review at NotebookReview, he suggests that the sound is loud but that the quality is poor, and sounds very negative that the X200 has only mono sound. The point of stereo is really sonic imaging (or I guess volume if you cannot drive one cone hard enough without distortion). I have yet to meet a laptop that had any noticeable imaging qualities. The speakers just are not very far apart. Thus, I actually see no drawback to having just one speaker. I have also never heard a laptop that sounded good though the speakers. The X200 is no different, the speaker quality is very normal. Lenovo choose to place the speaker on the bottom just behind a ridge so that it stands off a hard surface. On a soft surface it will be muffled. However in either case, it is loud enough to hear things comfortably, louder in fact than the pair of speakers on my T60. If you want to do serious listening to anything I suggest using the headphone jack, which I found to be excellent.

Perhaps my iPod is not as good as it was before I put it though the washer and drier, but the X200’s sound quality via my MDR-888LPs is significantly better. I guess some might find it harsh, but it certainly is not muddy, at least to my ears.

The built in microphone is on the lid just to the right of the status LEDs. This position is better than that of the T60 in that it picks up a bit less of the running noise of the laptop. However, there is still background noise in any recording. The microphone jack though is silent, so whoever laid out the traces for the sound interface did a good job. (Actually it is only silent while on batteries.)

The built in webcamera is nothing to get excited about but it does work and does save you the trouble of having to have an external one if you want to video chat with someone.

Performance of the X200 is completely in line with what should be expected from the processor/chipset combination of the X200. The hard disc in my X200 is a decent performer, and about twice the speed of the one that was in my T60. Within 2-3 years I expect major inroads to be made by solid state drives, and replacing the 160 GB drive with a 160 GB flash based drive in 2 years seems a reasonable prospect.

The only other items that affect usability of a laptop are really size, weight, and battery life. My X200 has the 6 cell battery. If you do not mind having something stick out the back I recommend getting the 9 cell. Not because battery life is bad on the X200, on the contrary it is rather good, which I will come to in a moment, but at less than 0.5 lbs more for 50% more battery life the 9 cell is probably well worth it. As I purchased mine from the outlet, I was just happy to find one in the configuration I did for the price I did.

Weight wise, the X200 is just a touch over 3 lbs. The AC adapter is the smaller lighter 65W version, so even carrying the power supply with you is not much of a big deal. Take your average 15.4” laptop, cut its weight in half and you have the X200 more or less.

Even though it does not weigh much it feels pretty sturdy. Not quite the tank like sturdy that my T60 was, but still solid. The lid has two parts, a main body and a front edge that is about 1 cm wide. If you grip by the edge you will get some flexing. Also on the underside the RAM cover will flex if you push on it. Apart from these minor flexing spots, it feels very rigid. The hinges on the X200 that I have are noticeably less stiff than the ones that were on my T60. That said, the ones on my T60 were very stiff. Still, it makes me a little worried for long term stiffness and support as they will only get looser over time. Let me be clear, that they are still more than stiff enough, but as they are not as wide as the T60s less force is required to move them. Honestly, I am probably worrying over nothing. I would not think anything of it in fact, had the hinges on my Dell 300m not totally failed during the lifetime of that laptop.

Doing regular work with the screen at 3 or 4 notches from the bottom (which was acceptable to work inside with), the 6 cell battery lasted just over 4.5 hours. Regular work for me consists of having the wireless radio on, and doing things over the internet, streaming movies, listening to music and writing. If you want to do heavy computations I would hope you can plug it in.

Finally we come to size. The X200 deserves the name notebook, both because of its size and weight. It is just about over 11 inches long and just under 8.5 inches wide so roughly the size of a regular sheet of paper. It is just about as thick as a 5 subject spiral notebook. Such a notebook weighs about 2 lbs (200 sheets of 20 lb paper). So the X200 not only takes notes, but is about the size and weight of a paper notebook, albeit a large one. The X200t and X200s come even closer to the function and weight of a notebook respectively. However for me the X200 is close enough, it is small enough and light enough that it is not a bother to carry at all.

Heat and noise are minimal on the X200. The fan, when it does spin up sounds like a mini turbofan (think jet engine or turbo vacuum pump). It is very quiet, and it is rare to hear it spin at all. Even under heavy load the X200 does not get very hot.

In conclusion, after about a month of use the X200 is still performing admirably.

The screen is bad for graphics quality, it is good for office/CAD/programming work.  The keyboard is excellent. The speaker is okay. The headphone port is great. The microphone is adequate as is the webcam. The microphone port is good. Computation performance is inline with the parts used.

The battery life is long enough to actually be useful for long periods without AC power and the laptop is small and unobtrusive to bring with you. The screen resolution is adequate for work, but having an external display for intensive work in my office is a major help. The only weaknesses of note are the static dithering of the screen, and for those who might miss them, the lack of a optical drive and touchpad.

Long term update: (9/12/09)
Everything in this review is still true. The X200 continues to perform well, and I have gotten used to both the different feel of the keyboard and the static dithering. I do watch a lot of streaming Netflix on my laptop even in spite of the static dithering pattern. If you wanted image quality hopefully you have a nice HDTV. Battery life continues to be very good, and long enough to get real work done before having to return to an outlet. All and all the X200 continues to perform very well. The X200s price on a Core 2 Duo has been made more attractive since the time of writing making it a tempting choice for current adopters. With even cheaper lower performing options the X series has become very affordable. The X200 continues to be the most powerful X series machine. The line is probably due for a refresh in the not to distant future though.