Its petite size, light weight and silvery skin made the MacBook Air this year's must-have laptop. However, amid all the hoopla and hype, Lenovo has quietly introduced its ThinkPad X300, a travel-friendly notebook that may not be as seductively thin, but provides more of the creature comforts that travellers expect.
Easily the thinnest notebook on the market, the Air has a profile of 0.2 inches, which rises to 0.8 inches at the rear, making it look downright anorexic compared to the typical notebook. By contrast, the X300 has a somewhat thicker silhouette of 0.8 and 0.9 inches – which is needed to accommodate its built-in DVD drive – but it still beats almost anything else on the market for slimness.
At 3.1 pounds, the X300 is an ounce heavier than a comparably equipped Air, but its weight rises to 3.3 pounds with its removable DVD drive.
Differences in look and feel
Unlike the Air's rounded aluminum case, Lenovo wraps its X300 in a more conventional black color scheme. To make it more comfortable to use, key areas – like the wrist rest – have a soft rubbery coating.
Under the skin, these notebooks both offer Intel Core 2 Duo processors, 2GB of system memory and 13.3-inch screens, although the X300 has a higher resolution display and can hold up to 4GB RAM. On the other hand, Air buyers have the choice of 1.6GHz or 1.8GHz processors, while the X300 uses a sedate 1.2GHz chip.
Both systems come with 64GB of rugged solid-state flash memory for storing files, although the Air can be ordered with a conventional 80GB hard drive that cuts US$1,000 from the price.
Without a doubt, the X300 is better equipped for life on the road. For example, standard equipment includes an internal DVD drive, a GPS receiver, a fingerprint scanner and stereo speakers – features that may not be absolutely necessary for some, but make life a lot easier, not to mention more secure. Both notebooks boast full keyboards, but the X300's keys have more depth than the Air's, making for more comfortable typing.
In addition, the X300 has three USB ports and jacks for attaching peripherals such as an external monitor, Ethernet connection, headphone or microphone. By contrast, the Air's ports are minimalist to say the least: one USB, a headphone and a mini-DVI connector. Neither has a slot for a PC Card or flash memory module.
Going online anywhere
The X300 can get online just about anywhere with a built in 1X EVDO cell network data card that works with Verizon's high-speed network; a WiMax option is coming. (The Air, in contrast, doesn't currently offer any type of cell network or WiMax option.) Both notebooks have Bluetooth and Wi-Fi data radios, but the X300 covers 802.11a networks as well as the expected 802.11b, g and n networks, with an 802.11g range of 200 feet.
That's the longest range I've seen in a Wi-Fi notebook – external radios can go to 200 feet and beyond, but due to size, cooling and antenna design, internal radios usually only get to 100-120 feet. This advantage could be due to the X300's carbon fiber lid, which allows more of the system's Wi-Fi radio waves to slip through the case, increasing its range.
Like most Apple products, the Air is a beauty to behold. I love its swing-open port door, large touchpad and magnetic lid lock, but hate that you can't swap batteries. In contrast, long-distance X300 travelers can carry an extra power pack; you can also trade the DVD drive for a second battery. Unfortunately, neither system has an LED battery gauge to show how much power remains.
Over two weeks of everyday use, including a couple business trips, I was impressed with the X300's balance of size, weight and power. It never let me down, and its scores of 396 and 3,415 on the PassMark Performance Test 6.1 and PCMark 05 benchmarks show it to be a reliable mid-range performer. The 4,000 milliamp-hour lithium polymer battery ran for an impressive 3 hours 45 minutes of continuous use with its Wi-Fi turned on, which translates into 6 or 7 hours of stop-and-go use.
The software that comes with these notebooks is a toss-up. The Air has Apple's wonderfully integrated OS X 10.5 Leopard operating system and a slew of useful programs. The X300 can come with Windows XP or Vista and includes Norton Internet Security and ThinkVantage utilities for doing just about anything I could think of.
Neither of these small wonders is cheap, however. The Air, which has a faster processor, costs $3,197 for the solid-state drive model, over $200 more than the $2,935 Lenovo X300. (If you prefer the larger but more fragile 80GB hard drive option that the Air offers, the cost of the Apple notebook drops to $2,197.) Both come with a one-year warranty; upping the coverage to a more realistic three years adds $219 for the X300 and $250 for the Air.
While it may not be as thin as the MacBook Air, Lenovo's ThinkPad X300 is still one of the slimmest and lightest notebooks available. On top of its DVD drive and high-resolution 13.3-inch screen, the X300 has a good assortment of ports and one of the most comfortable keyboards around.
Both the Air and the X300 are extremely impressive and should satisfy their users, but the ThinkPad X300 is a better device for serious work on the road.