I know it’s not good practice to use superlatives when you write a review, but that’s what I feel about the Lenovo Thinkpad X220, a 12.5 inch ultraportable laptop which I like so much that I bought one for myself.
Announced at the beginning of 2011, the Lenovo X220 started shipping in April, so it’s still a new device, one that will most likely be replaced by Lenovo only when Intel announces the third gen Core processors, probably sometime next year.
Configuration and options
First thing first, let’s see what the Lenovo Thinkpad X220 really is. The screen diagonal is 12.5 inch, a new ‘standard’ introduced by Lenovo, that’s supposed to offer better portability than 13.3 inch laptops (too close in size to 14.1 inch models) and still not suffer from shrinkage problems of 11.6 inch laptops and netbooks (screen and keyboard too small).
One thing worth knowing is that Lenovo still uses a full size keyboard, the same size as the one in their Thinkpad T series (14.1 and 15.6 inch laptops) so you’re not sacrificing the best thing about Thinkpads: the keyboard. Unlike ultraportables like the Apple MacBook Air you get full voltage CPUs with no compromise on performance. You can install SSD drives running on SATA III interface (if you find 7mm tall drives) and get a choice of 3-cell, 6-cell and 9-cell batteries together with a slice battery that mounts under the X220 taking battery life up to 23 hours (Lenovo’s estimates).
You can add RAM up to 8 GB and opt for a high quality IPS display. The only thing the Lenovo x220 lacks is dedicated graphics, so you’ll have to do with the Intel HD Graphics 3000, which in my opinion is a great graphic card if you don’t do gaming (which is also a stupid idea on a 12.5 inch laptop).
Other features and options include a 720p webcam, fingerprint reader, USB 3.0 (only with the Core i7-2620M processor), Bluetooth 3.0, a better WiFi card (Intel 6205 with 2×2 antennas). You can configure the X220 to be a real beast, matching the performance of larger 13.3, 14.1 and even lots of 15.6 inch laptops. The graphics department is the only compromise you must make.
My Lenovo X220 configuration
- Processor: Intel Core i7-2620M (2.70GHz, 4MB L3 cache) with Turbo Boost @3.4GHz
- OS: Windows 7 Home Premium (64 bit)
- Display: 12.5″ (1366×768) IPS LED Backlit Display
- Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 3000
- RAM: 8GB PC3-10600 DDR3
- Web Cam: 720p HD
- HDD: 320GB Hitachi 7200rpm + Intel 310 80GB mSATA SSD
- Battery: 94Whr, 9 Cell Li-Ion Battery
- Bluetooth: Broadcom Bluetooth 3.0 with antenna
- WiFi: Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6205 AGN
- Extra: Fingerprint reader, USB 3.0
- Weight: 1.7 kg as configured
- Price as configured: $1600
Purchase the Lenovo X220 ultraportable
Design and construction
Design is not something the Thinkpads are famous for, not in the good way at least. Lenovo kept the same design initiated by IBM many years ago, so you don’t get a brushed aluminum body like the Apple MacBook Pro’s. Lenovo X220’s look is a classic black square-ish case with every design cues pointing towards the early 2000’s laptops.
Here’s an overview video of the Lenovo Thinkpad X220:
The case is made from plastic, one that I have to admit looks good, not cheap at all. I especially like the part covering the screen with a rubbery finish. It’s nice to the touch and doesn’t catch fingerprints and smudges as easy compared to glossy panels.
Even if plastic was the material of choice I have to say the Lenovo X220 feels like a very well build machine thanks to the inner magnesium frame, with a craftsmanship level only surpassed by Apple products. There are problems nonetheless, with the palm rest bending a little bit under heavy pressure on the left side above the 34 mm ExpressCard slot. There’s also a problem with the two screen hinges when your shake the laptop (which, normally, you have no reason to do), as they tend to make the screen tilt to the back. But that’s not a problem during normal use and I find them to have a very linear and smooth action when adjusting the screen inclination. And speaking about inclination, the screen goes back more than 180 degrees. What more can I say.
And when talking about construction I have to mention the weight: only 1.7 kg with the 9-cell battery. That’s amazing and makes the X220 a really ultraportable. At first it felt almost abnormally light, but now I find it perfect to throw in a small bag and carry around with me everywhere. It’s not the slimmest laptop, not by a long shot, but the weight is what really matters to me.
If you want to upgrade the components on the Lenovo X220 you’ll find the laptop very user friendly, with RAM slots (maximum two modules) being available underneath a door that can be opened by unscrewing only two screws. The hard drive needs a screw to be removed, but it can only accommodate a 7 mm high drive (notebook drives are 9.5 mm standard) so it’s a problem finding a larger hard drive or a new SSD model with a 7mm height.
On the upside there’s the possibility to install an mSATA SSD drive into the miniPCI-E slot normally used for the WWAN module. So if you don’t need 3G you can always install an mSATA SSD drive as a system disk and use the other 2.5 inch mechanical drive for storage. This is what I did and it works wonderfully. Putting an SSD inside a notebook is the best thing you can do to increase performance.
Here’s a video I put together to illustrate how you can upgrade RAM memory and the 2.5 inch hard drive on the Lenovo X220:
Even if normally ultra-portables don’t have enough room for a full array of ports I have to say I’m pleasantly surprised by Lenovo who managed to include the following with the X220: 2 USB 2.0 ports (one with Sleep and charge), 1 USB 3.0, VGA out, Display Port, Ethernet, SDXC card reader, 34 mm Express Card, Headphones/Mic combo jack and Kensington lock.
As you can see there’s nothing really missing from the X220 that you get on other laptops except HDMI (but you can get a DP to HDMI adapter, plus DisplayPort supports higher resolutions) and Firewire (not used that much) and Thunderbolt (not many compatible peripherals yet).
Keyboard and touchpad
If there’s one thing Lenovo Thinkpads are best known for that is the keyboard. Imagine how anxious I was to test this claim, and I have to say the Thinkpad X220 keyboard is amazing, to say the least. Lenovo managed to put a full size keyboard on the X220, the same size as the one found in the T420, T520 and W520 Thinkpads, so you’re not missing on the key size when choosing the X220 ultraportable.
Don’t look for a Chiclet (island keys) keyboard, as the Lenovo X220 comes with an classic format with large keys that have very good feedback and amazing travel. That’s what makes this keyboard special. There’s also a row of multimedia keys on top for Mute, Volume Up/Down, Mic Off and the blue Thinkvantage button which launches the Lenovo special utility to control your system.
There’s one thing I don’t like about the Lenovo X220 keyboard: Fn and CTRL keys are inversed, but you can change that in the BIOS, which somehow solves this problem.
Now let’s take a look at the trackpad, which was enlarged significantly compared to the previous generation X201. This was possible because the two mouse buttons are included in the lower part, so we actually have a clickpad (you can still tap for left click). The trackpad has a dotted surface that works well with providing feedback to your fingers. Multi touch gestures like pinch to zoom and two finger scroll are supported, but sensitivity is not great (actually it sucks compared to the glass trackpad from Apple MacBook Pros). On the other hand the cursor is pretty accurate, but don’t try and use the clickpad for right click, as you’ll probably left click by mistake.
There’s also the classing red dot touchpoint between the letters G, H and B. This one provides very accurate movement and I find it better than the touchpad, which I rarely use. Overall there’s not much bad news about the keyboard and pointing solutions offered by Lenovo X220, which is great considering we’re dealing with a business device.
This is probably the best thing I have to say about the Lenovo X220. I got sick of bad laptop displays, so I opted for the Premium HD display for the Thinkpad X220. Premium means IPS technology, the same used in the iPad, which means great viewing angles (amazing actually), a very high 750:1 real contrast ratio and good color accuracy.
On top of that the screen is matte, not glossy as it happens with 99% of the laptops sold today. I can only hope the use of IPS screens on laptops becomes a trend. The Premium HD display is a $50 upgrade, but it’s worth much more than that.
Is it perfect? No, there are situations where ghosting is quite perceivable, but I don’t have a problem with that. There’s also the problem with the lower 1366 x 768 pixels resolution, which is quite limiting for photo editing and code writing, two actions I do often, but you a higher resolution would mean a lower dot pitch that can affect your eyes on the long term (I come from a 16.4 inch Full HD screen, so I know how a lower dot pitch can mess with your eyes).
As with most business or ultraportable laptops, the X220 features weak speakers. They are mounted on the front, under the palm rest, so if you’re holding the Lenovo X220 on your lap there’s a great chance the volume will be even lower because you’re blocking them. That being said the speakers are loud enough to use in a quiet room. A good pair of headphones is recommended.
I love the fact Lenovo doesn’t fill the Thinkpad X220 with lots of bloatware. Besides links to Office 2010 Trial and Norton Internet Security there isn’t much installed by default except Lenovo’s own apps which I like and use.
Lenovo Power Manager is the utility that deals with your power profiles and provides a nice taskbar toolbar for displaying current battery status. One thing you won’t find on other laptop brands is the instant power consumption meter.
Lenovo Thinkvantage Toobox is a centralized app that points you towards various apps to control and diagnose your Thinkpad system including Backup, Security, Updates, Storage, Hardware, Network, Power and Performance.
There’s also the Communications setting utility that provides settings for the webcam, microphone and conferencing settings. Keyboard suppression noise is one nice feature for those moments when you type and talk to someone.
As any business tool, the Lenovo X220 excels when it comes to security. The obvious fingerprint reader is one such tool, as it allows not only for Windows authentication, but also can serve as BIOS, System Boot and Restart password.
One nice touch from Lenovo is the Power on Fingerprint, which turns on the system and logs you into Windows 7 automatically with the swipe of a finger (no need to press the Power button). There are also options in BIOS for hard drive encryption and a TMP module can be used with specific security protocols. There’s even a Computrace option in BIOS (service for locating stolen laptops and other gadgets), but this one requires a paid subscription.
No matter how you configure the Lenovo Thinkpad X220 ultraportable you get a powerful full voltage dual core processor and that’s enough for most apps you’re running. If you choose to go all the way up to a Core i7, 8GB RAM and an SSD drive (be it only mSATA, which are slower than most 2.5 inch SSD drives) like I did you’ll get a real beast. Simply put this is the fastest (and smallest) laptop I’ve ever owned. I’m sure for the money you can get more powerful laptops, but none will have the weight and battery life of the X220. Here are a few screenshots with the Lenovo X220 performance.
And a video with Lenovo X220 boot performance with the Intel 310 series 80GB mSATA SSD:
Heat and noise
The Lenovo X220 is probably the coolest running laptop I’ve ever owned. It’s also one of the quietest during normal use. If you load up the system noise and heat will increase considerably, but not to a dangerous or annoying level. It’s amazing how Lenovo managed to cool down a configuration like mine, but I’m glad they did it.
This is the second thing I love about my Lenovo X220: it gets amazing battery life with the 9-cell battery. Considering I’m using a balanced power profile that provides power on demand, and then switches back to a lower power state and the screen is running at 11/15 I get consistently over 7 hours of use.
That’s with Flash browsing, photo editing in Photoshop, downloading, transferring large files over WiFi to a NAS. I’m sure I can get over 8-9 hours by lowering screen brightness and using a more conservative power scheme, but I like to use a balanced profile more that provides me with the power I need at a given moment.
Also note that I have the Core i7 top end CPU, two sticks of RAM and two hard drives. Choosing a cheaper configuration will improve on battery life even more.
If you don’t like the bulk created by the 9-cell battery which sticks out an inch of the back you can opt for the 6 cell battery which should provide roughly two thirds of the battery life I get. Also, if you want to extend battery like further you can get a 6-cell slice battery that mounts to the bottom of the X220.
As with any new laptop there are reported issues. I’m happy to say some were fixed already (the mSATA was not recognized in BIOS by some models) and I don’t experience any of the problems mentioned on Lenovo Forums. I suggest you read about those issues here to see what you can expect, if you feel unlucky that is.
Simply put if you want an ultra fast ultraportable with no compromise on connectivity there’s currently no better option than the Lenovo Thinkpad X220. I hope this review has convinced you about this. If you have further questions don’t hesitate to leave a comment below and I’ll promise to help you.
Purchase the Lenovo X220 ultraportable