What's hot: The ThinkPad A31 sports ATI's Mobility Radeon 7500 video chip set with 32MB of dedicated RAM, as well as a 15-inch screen with a resolution of 1400 by 1050. The A-series ThinkPads are nothing if not flexible: Either of the A31's modular bays can hold the DVD-ROM/CD-RW combination drive you get at this price--or an extra-cost second battery, second hard drive, LS-120 SuperDisk drive, or Zip 250 drive. The extra-flexible right bay also can accommodate a numeric keypad or a pop-out syncing cradle for IBM's WorkPad, a Palm OS-based PDA.
The A31 features the familiar and comfortable red-eraserhead-equipped IBM keyboard, which now sports a bright-blue Enter key and an Internet scroll key centered between the mouse buttons. Six additional Internet shortcut buttons, the first three user-reprogrammable, march down the left side of the keyboard in a separate vertical panel. On the top edge of its screen the A31 has both a ThinkLight, an LED that helps illuminate the keyboard in dark rooms, and an UltraPort, IBM's proprietary USB 1.1 port. The UltraPort takes any one of several small devices IBM sells, including a basic digital camera.
What's not: The A31 turned in disappointing performance. In our battery-life tests, it lasted only 2 hours, 33 minutes, not much longer than the ThinkPad A30p we tested a few months ago (which used up its charge in 2 hours, 19 minutes). Despite its 1.6-GHz Pentium 4 processor, the A31 also fell down in speed, with a PC WorldBench 4 score of 90, well below the scores of most notebooks we've tested with the older 1.13-GHz Pentium III processor. IBM's desktop replacements no longer come with floppy drives; a modular-bay model now costs $79 extra.
What else: Other than the new processor, more graphics memory, and a higher screen resolution, the A31 doesn't differ much from its predecessor, the A30. The case slopes from a height of 2.3 inches at the hinges to 1.75 inches at the front, giving the keyboard a built-in tilt. In addition to all standard notebook connections, you get two stacked USB 1.1 ports and an S-Video-out port on the back. The speakers are on the front, where they are muffled a bit by the overhang of the case when it's closed, but they're fine for casual CD listening, aided by volume buttons above the keyboard.
The A31 comes with IBM's fine Access ThinkPad on-screen manual, the best in the business because of its slick and enlightening animation. For instance, you can click on a play button to see each step required to upgrade the hard drive, beginning with an animated screwdriver removing the screw, then the drive sliding out, the brackets falling away, the new drive sliding in, and the screwdriver replacing the screw. However, the printed manual is rather skimpy, and an online manual won't help you much if you get stuck halfway through swapping the hard drive.
Upshot: Although the A31 provides plenty of features for the price, those looking for the most features in a notebook should check out the A31's pricier sibling, the $3599 A31p. It boasts a 1600-by-1200 screen, a 60GB hard drive, and an even more powerful ATI video chip with twice the dedicated graphics RAM. By Carla Thornton