Lenovo ThinkPad T420s Review

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I bought a Lenovo X120e today thinking that it would be a great small work machine for the next three years. I’m taking it back tomorrow and opting instead for a used ThinkPad X61.

Lenovo ThinkPad X120e

The context
I’m a Systems Specialist at the School of Computing at Queen’s University. In my role their, I have used many, many machines. Among these, my consistent favourites have been ThinkPads, Apple machines, and HP’s EliteBooks. Between work and home I own and use on a daily basis the following ThinkPads: X40, X61, T60, R50p. Of these, the X40 and X61 are my favourites. The X40 is as small and light as they come, the X61 is marginally bigger is blazingly fast, and is almost as light with a full 2.5″ SATA drive. Both of the Xs, from ebay for $150 and $340 respectively, belong to me personally. I tend to avoid ebay for long-term day-to-day work machines, so thought the X120e would make an excellent work machine.

I liked the X120e in principal because the X2xx series that have replaced the X6x line are much larger and heavier than the older sub-3lb ThinkPad X machines.

Having read the initial poor reviews of the X100e and then the subsequent overwhelmingly positive reviews of the X120e, I felt it was time to take the plunge. After all, a slightly under-specd 11″ MacBook Air is my current favourite all-around machine. Like the X120e, the low-end MBA is an 11″ dual-core system with 2GB of RAM. It must be close, right? Read on…

The hardware
The Lenovo ThinkPad X120e is a fairly high-quality netbook. However, it is a very low-quality ThinkPad. Having used ThinkPads since the A30, I expect certain things with the ThinkPad name. Here’s what was missing with the X120e:

  • The keyboard, while spacious for a netbook, pales in comparison to every other X-series keyboard available. Specifically, it is missing common keys (such as ScrLck), it has no CapsLk light, no dedicated volume keys, and the overall feel of it is much cheaper.
  • It has no ThinkPad Light, and no backlit keyboard. For me, if it doesn’t have a ThinkPad Light, it’s not a ThinkPad.
  • There’s no fingerprint reader, and Bluetooth is an optional module
  • It’s loud. The X61, with an SSD, is silent under light load. The X120e fan is always running and is quite a bit louder than my other ThinkPads under load.
  • The overall design is cheaper than every other ThinkPad I have owned.

ThinkPad X61 (Left) and X120e (Right)

While it is true that the X61 that I’m typing this on was originally a $2000 machine and the X120e was $589 as configured, I bought the X61 for $350 on eBay, and this is a completely normal price. There are always X60 and X61 ThinkPads on eBay for under $400. As far as I am concerned, these are such a clearly better purchase than the X120e, that it is simply no contest. The plastic is cheaper, there’s no roll cage, no dock option, the X120e is fairly thick, and the entire thing feels like a netbook.

Then there’s Linux support. The AMD Fusion APU is new and is not well supported in Linux yet. I have no doubt that this will improve quickly over time, but the X61 works perfectly in Ubuntu 10.04 and RHEL 6 today. This isn’t a big stumbling block, but for me it is yet another reason to select a used X61 over a new X120e.

Having said as many negative things as I have about the X120e, there is one place where it shines: The screen. The 11″ 1366×768 screen is much nicer than the 1024×768 12″ screen in the X61 and earlier. However, for me, the tradeoff between the lower build quality, sub-par keyboard, lack of raw CPU power, and noise, to say nothing of the higher price, make the new Lenovo ThinkPad X120e a poor substitute for a used Lenovo ThinkPad X61 or X60.

ThinkPad X120e keyboard close-up

Conclusion

In case I wasn’t clear enough above, I would recommend skipping the ThinkPad X120e. Instead, pick up an older X60 or X61. The X61 is faster, cheaper, more expandable, can handle 8GB of RAM, and is easily repairable. If I were Lenovo, I would be very careful about what they put the ThinkPad name on. It used to mean something. Between Apple’s top-notch MacBook Air and HP’s EliteBook line of laptops, I have a very difficult time recommending a ThinkPad these days. It’s good to see Lenovo trying a 3lb machine again but the X120e is an inferior product. Compared to older X series ThinkPads, the X120e proves that newer isn’t always better. I’m honestly not sure why it is receiving positive reviews.

Lenovo ThinkPad X120e ($589 as configured)
+ Better screen resolution (1366×768 vs 1024×768)
+ Well placed secondary PgUp and PgDn buttons
– Build quality mediocre at best
– No ThinkPad light
– Keyboard is missing keys!
– No capslock light
– No ScrLk, pause
– No dedicated volume
– Keyboard isn’t as nice, period.
– 2.5hrs on small battery, 5+ on 6-cell
– No fingerprint reader
– Constant fan noise
– Mediocre Linux support

Lenovo ThinkPad X61 ($350 with dock on eBay)
– Fast (2GHz C2D)
– 2.5hrs on 4-cell battery, 5+ larger
– Up to 8GB RAM
– ThinkPad light
– Better keyboard
– Dock option
– Firewire
– Quieter (Silent with SSD under low load)
– Perfect Linux support

GoSaBe Blog - Apr 25, 2011 | Hardware