Lenovo ThinkPad X220 Review

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Today I review the best ThinkPad to date: The X220. Released in 2011, it represents the pinnacle of ThinkPad design. In my opinion, it’s been downhill ever since.

For the past couple of years, it feels like Lenovo has been doing everything it can to systematically destroy the once-great ThinkPad name. I know, I know, people have been saying that since IBM’s sale of the brand to Lenovo a decade ago, but in many ways, Lenovo dramatically improved the ThinkPad for the first several years of ownership, and critically, largely left it alone until recently.

The problem in models newer than the ThinkPad *20 is that Lenovo has finally started messing with what was the one key ThinkPad differentiator: The amazing keyboard. As far as I’m concerned, the ThinkPad keyboard achieved perfection in the X220/T420/W520, all of which shared the exact same part number, which was also available in Lenovo’s excellent USB ThinkPad keyboard. Thankfully, while all three of the ThinkPad *20 models machines are now several years old, they are still reasonably fast, very expandable, and generally a pleasure to use in 2015.

Today I will write about my favourite of these iconic ThinkPad models, the diminutive ThinkPad X220.

A well-balanced machine. Small enough, light enough, expandable enough, powerful enough.

The ThinkPad X220 is the successor to the X201 and X201s, two of my favourite ThinkPads. Where the X201 had a 12″ 1280×800 or 1440×900 display, the X220 has a 12.5″ 1366×768 display. While I consider this a definite step down from the 1440×900 display of my X201s, the drop in resolution is more than compensated by the fact that the X220 comes in a variant with an IPS panel, meaning proper colour and off-angle viewing. As I’ve been doing more print work, an IPS panel has become a must for me. The X220 screen, while lower resolution than I’d like, is a top-notch screen needing no colour calibration. This coupled with the finest keyboard to ever grace a laptop, make it an absolutely fantastic machine.

Weight wise, the X220 is a bit heavier at 3.5lbs than the X201s’ 3lbs. For the slight bump in weight, you get a bigger screen, a much faster GPU, a faster CPU, the ability to add more RAM, a roomier keyboard, the option of an IPS display, and excellent battery life. Like the X201s, the X220 has a dock connector, takes a full 2.5″ SATA drive (as well as mSATA), and has two RAM slots. Mine has been upgraded to 16GB of RAM and a 500GB SSD. Couple that with the 2.6GHz i5 CPU and this machine just flies. This isn’t a low-powered CPU variant, but the newer Intel i5 CPUs are efficient enough that I haven’t noticed it being any noisier than the X201s or my Dell XPS 13.

Here it is: the keyboard perfected.

The X220 has all of my favourite features: It takes a standard 2.5″ SSD, is easily upgraded with more RAM (at least 16GB) can work with a dock, and has a slot for an SD card, as well as the traditional ThinkPad light. It also has three USB ports (One of which is USB 3.0) in addition to the VGA, DisplayPort, and Ethernet jack. It may not be as thin as my Dell XPS 13 or a MacBook Air, but it’s almost as light and has every conceivable port. No adapters necessary.

Of course, years after the initial release, Ubuntu Linux 14.04 runs just perfectly on the ThinkPad X220. All buttons do as expected (play/pause on the keyboard, brightness, volume, etc.) which is far more than can be said for newer ThinkPad models.  As Lenovo has shifted critical features like mouse buttons from physical hardware buttons to software-controlled touch-aware versions, the need for complex drivers has increased.  This has lead to progressively worse trackpad and trackpoint experiences in all operating systems, even Windows. The X220 suffers none of these indignities. I should note that I disabled the trackpad in the BIOS, as I’m very used to the TrackPoint and found that I was accidentally moving the mouse when I meant to type. I’m sure it’s fine, it’s just not my cup of tea. If you’re reading this review, you’re likely a long-time ThinkPad user who will also want to turn it off.  Battery life in Linux is also excellent. I easily get 4-6 hours on a six cell battery running Unity, Firefox, text editors, terminals, etc. I suspect that a lighter UI, such as Elementary OS Luna, would likely further improve battery life.

The X220 is getting to be pretty long in the tooth now. Lenovo has released the X230, X240, X1 Carbon, ThinkPad Helix, and ThinkPad Yoga since the 220. I’ve used them all, and given the choice between any of them and my X220, I’d take the X220 every time. The only thing that would make this laptop better would be a higher-resolution screen. However, I’ll settle for a great IPS display and perfect keyboard any day of the week. Perfect Linux compatibility is the icing on the cake.

You can easily pick up an X220 on ebay for around $350 as of January 2015. This is an amazing bargain for a laptop that holds up so well over time. Given the weight, battery life, screen, keyboard, and upgradability, I don’t think you’ll do better.

GoSaBe Blog - Jan 11, 2015 | Hardware, Linux