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The ThinkPad X300 isn't sexy like the MacBook Air, but it just might be better designed
If laptops were romantic partners, Apple's MacBook Air would be a hot date. The new ThinkPad X300 from Lenovo (LNVGY) would be the one you'd marry. The X300 is not as thin or as glamorous as the MacBook, but I think most mobile professionals will agree that it is better designed for the long haul.
Both computers are crafted around 13.3-in., wide-screen displays and full-size keyboards, and both design teams had to make trade-offs as they aimed for maximum thinness. The ThinkPad engineers handled the matter more deftly, particularly in providing users with lots more connectivity options. In comparing the two machines I am deliberately setting aside the important matter of operating systems. The MacBook runs Mac OS X, which beats Windows XP or Vista running on the ThinkPad, in my opinion. But at the end of the day, lots of corporations still refuse to support OS X.
The X300 is an iconic, squared-off ThinkPad, with some new carbon-fiber composite technology hidden in that familiar black case. It can weigh as little as 2.9 lb. but comes in at a bit over 3 lb. in the configuration most buyers will want, with a full-power battery and a thin yet surprisingly sturdy-looking CD/DVD drive. Even at its thickest point, at the back, the X300 is never more than an inch thick, so it slips easily into a briefcase. Prices start at $2,458, but a well-equipped unit will cost close to $3,000.
Mobile executives need to connect to the Internet wherever they may be, and the X300 offers a choice for every occasion. In addition to Wi-Fi there is a port for wired Ethernet—the main option in many hotel rooms—and wireless broadband. At the moment, this works only with Verizon's BroadbandAccess service, but support for AT&T (T) (and other carriers around the world) is expected as soon as the deals are done. It's even ready for WiMax when it becomes available. The X300 also features three USB ports and a standard video port for an external monitor or projector.
Let's go back to the compromises Lenovo was forced to make. The biggest was the decision to rely exclusively on solid-state storage instead of the hard drive that is standard on the MacBook. Solid state provides higher performance, but adds cost and limits storage to 64 gigabytes; adequate, but hardly generous. The processor is a relatively slow, low-voltage Intel (INTC) Core 2 Duo, chosen to conserve battery life and reduce heat. Again, it's sufficient for most users, but it won't take your breath away. Some people may also miss having either a PC Card or Express Card slot.
Battery life came in at about 4 hours in heavy use, close to what I experienced with the MacBook Air. If you go for the lightweight battery, you'll save about 3 oz. but lose half the running time, a poor trade-off. You can replace the CD/DVD drive with an extra battery to get a few more hours of life, but it's probably better just to carry a spare—something you can't do with the MacBook.
In real work situations, the X300 feels just like every ThinkPad I have ever used, and in my book that's a compliment. It has a typical, excellent ThinkPad keyboard complete with both an "eraser head" pointing stick and a touchpad. The high-resolution (1,440 by 900 pixels) screen may cause icons and type to appear a bit small, but my aging eyes were able to handle it.
Many factors go into the choice of a laptop, but if mobility is a top concern the X300 does the best job I have seen of cramming a big screen and a wealth of features into a small, light package. The MacBook does without wireless broadband and a DVD player and I have to say I missed both. With the X300, you can use the broadband radio to grab those last few e-mails while your plane sits on the ground, then pop in a movie for entertainment during a long flight. If I were custom-designing a notebook to make my business travel easier, the ThinkPad X300 would be it.