By Neil Bennett | on June 13, 2002
Price: £2,484 plus VAT
IBM’s Thinkpad A31p is the first mobile workstation using Intel’s Pentium 4-M processor for laptops that we’ve reviewed. It also marks the debut of ATI’s first mobile graphics chip, the Fire GL 7800. At the heart of the Thinkpad is the 1.7GHz version of the Pentium 4-M chip, the fastest available at its launch – and only just bettered by the new 1.8GHz version – which sits on the 845 motherboard. As well as having a faster clock speed than the Pentium III-M chip, the set-up also features a faster 400MHz bus speed (up from 133MHz), has 512KB of performance-enhancing Level 2 cache, and supports 266MHz DDR SDRAM. There’s only 256MB of RAM in the standard A31p, but you can expand it to 1GB. The Pentium 4-M also runs cool, giving out only as much heat as a Pentium III-M. Graphics on the go The Fire GL 7800 is a generation ahead of NVidia’s popular Quadro2 Go – which has just been upgraded to the Quadro4 Go – which older mobile workstations have used. It’s extremely powerful and allows users to get some serious 3D going while on the move. Back in the office, you can plug in a monitor and obtain resolutions up to 2,048-x-1,536. All it’s missing is some of the application-specific optimizations that the Quadro offers – such as Maxtreme for 3DS Max. As you’d expect from IBM, the Thinkpad A31p comes straight out of corp-town. It looks and feels like a larger version of 12.1- and 14.1-inched models. Like the rest of IBM’s range, the A31p has a space-friendly pointer rather than a trackpad. Unless you’re one of the few people who prefer this, or you always plan to use a mouse, cursor control will drive you nuts. IBM has recently announced the company’s first model to feature both a pointer and a trackpad – the T30. The trackpad is programmable in a similar way to Toshiba’s cPad – and a version of the A31p with both devices is in the works. However, the corporate roots add to the A31p when it comes to the high build quality and some genuine innovation. The laptop is solidly made with a responsive and flexible keyboard, with a well-laid out design with easily understandable status and power indicators – plus practical features such as the ThinkLight keyboard light, Web-navigation keys and a volume control that doesn’t require messing around with Function keys. The innovative side is in the connectivity and modular bay architecture. As well as the usual USB, IEEE 1394, VGA, modem and Ethernet connection, the A31p can include both Bluetooth and 802.11b wireless connectivity (though our test unit lacked this). Alongside the Ultrabay 2000, which can accept a pretty standard list of batteries and CD-RW, DVD and hard drives, the A31p also has an Ultrabay Plus. This can take another Ultrabay 2000 device, or, if you pop in an extending adaptor, it can add external devices such as a a cradle for IBM’s Workpad PDA. The Ultrabay Plus is only in its first iteration but devices with a more creative flavour should be on the way – a mini graphics tablet would be nice. The Thinkpad A31p is an excellent solution let down only by the pointer – with a RAM boost it would be the top mobile workstation on the block. However, Dell’s successor to the popular and powerful Precision M40 – the Precision M50 with a 1.8GHz Pentium 4-M processor and NVidia’s GeForce 4 500 Go graphics chip – is on the way, so it might be worth waiting to see how these measure up.