X300 vs Air
Got a preview of ThinkPad X300 today, which Lenovo is pitching against the thinnest - and most talked about - notebook on the planet, Apple's MacBook Air (right).
Having now had a fleeting hands-on look at both, I offer the following mini head-to-head:
Lenovo squeezes in what Apple leaves out. The X300 includes a DVD burner 3 USB ports and gigabit Ethernet. On the wireless front, the X300 combines wi-fi (the Air's only native means of connecting to anything, bar a single USB port and Micro-DVI) with a welter of trendy new options: Wi-Max, GPS and 3G Wireless (which should work out of the box on Vodafone's network; we haven't had the chance to test it yet), plus extras like a fingerprint reader.
Despite their tiny frames, both the Air and the X300 feature a roomy 13.3-inch widescreen, and full-width keyboard.But the Air is slightly thinner, and marginally lighter in its default configuration (though if you swap its optical drive for a half-size battery, it becomes just lighter than Air at 1.3kg vs 1.36kg). Still, fat is relative in this new sub-sub-notebook class. As my scientific analysis shows (left) the X300, closed, is still only the depth of a 50 cent coin at its thickest point.
The X300 is handsome, featuring the ThinkPad's trademark charcol black with dashes of red. But the Air is yet another design classic from Planet Jobs, with its tapered edges making it look much slimmer than the Air, even though the real-life difference is marginal.
The first head-to-head battery test I've seen - by Walter Mossberg at The Wall Street Journal - gives the nod to the Air, with both notebooks in their default configurations. But inflexibility is the Air's downfall. While the Air's single battery is famously sealed in, the X300 offers a second clip-on battery, plus its DVD drive can be swapped out to accomodate a third. That's enough juice to power anyone's day.
Being tiny, neither of these puppies use much electricity, and both get high Energy Star ratings for power efficiency.
But in terms of an EPEAT rating, which measures stuff like green manufacturing processes (such as leaving mercury out of the equation) and promises to recycle, the Air gets a Silver rating, while the X300 gets a Gold.
The Air's touchpad supports the "pinch" and other multi-touch gestures popularised by the iPhone and iPod Touch. And you also get an ambient-light sensor that automatically adjusts the brightness of the keyboard and screen. But like other ThinkPads, the X300 gives you both touchpad and touchpoint - which personally I've always found more precise.
The X300 has a sharper native resolution (1440x900) than the MacBook Air; its backlit LED LCD display was readable in a presentation held directly in the midday sun; can be bent 180 degrees to lie flat, and seems pretty tough. The Lenovo-ans were happy for me to pick it up by the edge of the screen and swing it around.
But importantly given these two notebooks are duelling to be the planet's most ultraportable portable, the X300's screen stands taller than the Air's. Although it's native resolution is only 1280 x 800 (acutally as about as sharp as I want to go and what I use on my 15-inch notebook, least icons and text get too tiny), the Air's shorter screen, which actually hangs off the back of its case - is more airplane tray-table friendly.
And, like all MacBooks, its picture is crisp and georgous.
Hey, we're not called PC World for nothing. Air's Leopard is cute, and secure, and its back-up software is very 2001: A Space Odyssey. But we prefer to live in the wider world opened by the X300's Windows Vista. Of course, the likes of Bootcamp now let you run Windows on a Mac and, for the really pervese, Hackintosh will put the MacOS on a PC. But for best performance, keep things native.
Although slimmer, the Air wins the clock cycle war, being available in 1.6GHz and 1.8GHz versions to the X300's 1.2GHz. The X300 is powered by Intel's Core 2 Duo SL7100 LV low-voltage chip, operating at 1.2GHz. Like the Core 2 Duo processor specially developed for Apple's MacBook Air, Intel shrunk the SL7100 LV processor to make it 60% smaller than standard-sized processors belonging toits Merom family.
The X300 ships with 2GB of RAM, expandable to 4GB while the Air's 2GB is - like its hard drive and battery, sealed in. But 2GB is good, and I've never upgraded memory on a laptop. It's too expensive.
You've got to love the 64GB "solid state" (that is, Flash memory) hard drives featured on both the high-end version of the Air and the X300. PC World tests have shown they boot and run Windows faster than trad hard disk drives. They're also physically smaller, use less power and, since there are no moving parts, run silent and have a lower MTF (mean time before failure; an Intel engineer present at Lenovo's Auckland X300 launch said the MTF stat was good, but noted that most hard disk drives have a rated MTF of 100,000 hours. It's a pity then that out there in the messy, real world, hard disk drive manufacturers won't back themselves with a warranty of more than one year - 8736 hours, fact fans, assuming you compute 24/7).
The downside: flash memory is very, very expensive, and it in commercial usage it currently maxes out at 64GB. That's barely adequate, and puny compared to the 500GB+ hard disk drive found on other top-shelf notebooks. I'm falling out of love.
The Air also comes in an 80GB hard disk drive option but, it's not upgradable. Personally I'd find it difficult to buy any laptop with less than 250GB, let alone at this heady price-point. Lenovo says that if you want a subnotebook with bigger drive options, check out its ThinkPad X61.
Neither is a notebook any road warrior would want to buy on their own ticket. In its 64GB solid state drive iteration, the Air comes in at a lofty $5139 (the 80GB hard drive model, which also steps-down to a 1.6GHz processor, is $2999). And on top of that most will want to throw in an external DVD drive ($150, an ethernet jack that plugs into the Air's sole USB port ($80) and a 500GB external hard drive ($498). Lenovo are pretty pleased that the X300 has come in "cheaper" at $4725. But at these sorts of prices, both models will remain show ponies, selling few units in these parts.
As not always the most coordinated user, I was glad to see the X300 has not only sported a spill-resistant keyboard, but two super-sized holes on its undercarriage (one is highlighted in my pic above) which quite literally drain the spilled liquid out the bottom. Also, while, to me, the case didn't feel especially tough, it is made of carbon and glass-fibre reinforced plastic which, Lenovo says, is three times stronger tha the magnesium used in most laptops, plus 60% lighter. Apparently it's the stuff used in the Airbus 380.
The Air feels tough enough, but the fact there's no latch to hold the screen shut makes me hope the hinge would stay strong over its lifetime. And although the way the screen hangs off the back of the case helps make it conviently less tall, I also have visions of hooking it on stuff.