People often ask me what’s the difference a netbook and a laptop. The answer lies in what you plan to use it for. A sales rep worth his salt will ask you what you want to use it for before making any recommendation. By default people look at aesthetics as the first criteria when selecting a laptop. Another often used criteria is price. In reality we should list out more than looks when deciding on an expensive investment like a laptop. In fact looks should be the last thing you think of when deciding what to buy.

  • Portability (weight and size)
  • Functionality (screen size, keyboard size, connectivity, computing power, heat dissipation)
  • Aesthetics (look and feel)

Some people want to have a laptop at home over a desktop so they can easily move from living room, to bedroom, to dining table, to just about anywhere in the house. For them a laptop with a screen size of 14 inch or higher is ok. But if you have to lug your laptop from home to office or other places, a 1.5 kg (3.3 lb) laptop may be all you want to own as you need to add the weight of the adapter (at least 1 lb) or the extended 6-cell battery (1 lb or more). If you add the carry bag and the external DVD-CDROM drive (1 lb), you could easily exceed 3 kg  (6.6 lb) by time you leave your house.

The good news is that there are a variety of laptops out in the market today. You have a choice. You just have to think things through before you take out your wallet.

As a traveling person, my choices are down to a  laptop with a 12″ screen (maybe smaller but nothing smaller than 10″ otherwise you can tire easily reading or writing a document on an 8″ screen – been there done that). Wireless connectivity is important for work (and leisure if you ae active on facebook or other social networking platforms). Having a built-in camera (1.3MB or up) is great bonus since I like to stay in touch with my family using Skype. I used to own a Dell Latitude D410 laptop that would last me 2.5 hours of normal use on a 6-cell battery. Of course this is not good for me particularly when I am traveling on business as I do presentations, check emails, write and go over notes intermittently over a 10-hour day.

Lucky for me, I was upgraded to a Lenovo Thinkpad X200. It had everything I needed in terms of screen size (12.1″), connectivity (WiFi), security (comes with a built-in finger-print scanner), computing power (Intel Core 2 Duo P8600 2.4GHz with 3MB L2 cache). At 4 lbs (1.8 kg) though it gets very heavy quickly since I bring it with me every day. Don’t get me wrong, the Thinkpad X200 belongs to the ultra-portable category and holds enough of everything I need to do most of what I need for work and play. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt if it came in 2 lbs lighter.

Asus is credited with starting the netbook craze. Netbooks are the true ultra-portable laptops. At 2 lbs or under, these are truly backpack friendly computers. So what’s the catch? Everything else (depending on your view)! Netbooks come with smaller screens (10 in or under), smaller keyboards (70% smaller keys), less USB ports, and most importantly – less computing power. The good news is that the smaller screen, fewer features (meaning less components) and lower processing power means longer battery life. Netbooks are purported to keep you tapping on your screen from 5-12 hours (depending on make, model and number of battery cells).

At the recently concluded Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, China’s very own Lenovo was one of the earliest vendors to announce a slew of netbooks based around Microsoft Windows 7 (not retrofitted like many of the netbooks and laptops launched in 2009). One such announcement was the Lenovo Thinkpad X100e.

I was very happy when Lenovo’s Hong Kong PR agency (Text100) offered to let me test drive the new Thinkpad X100e.

The X100e is the first Thinkpad to carry the netbook label. It is designed as the traveling companion for business executives who want the reliability, ruggedness and reputation of the Thinkpad series minus the bulk that is the hallmark of the series. (Most business executives I know who carry a Thinkpad usually lug these heavy weights of portable computing in equally heavy suitcases with wheels and they so because Thinkpads can average 2 kg or more).  The loaner I got came in hot rod red  (or Heatwave red as they call it) although you can also get in the traditional black or white versions).

Lenovo dispensed with the traditional Intel Atom processor in favor of the more powerful AMD Athlon Neo processor. Memory starts at 2GB although the test unit I got came with 4GB. The average netbook is designed for mostly menial tasks like surfing the Internet, wordprocessing and light spreadsheet work. Multimedia is restricted to playing music and some movies. As a result most come standards with 1GB of memory and 160GB of hard disk space or 32GB if using solid state disks (SSD). The X100e can play hi definition video courtesy of the ATI Mobility Radeon 3200 graphics chipset so you can watch a decent copy of iRobot and appreciate the video quality of this diminutive workhorse.

Most laptops come loaded with software. Some reviewers claim these add-on software do more harm then good (as in slowing down the machine). I installed Uniblue SpeedUpMyPC (version 4.1.0.1) and scanned the X100e’s registry. SpeedUpMyPC listed 172 things in the registry that needed fixing – that is a lot of things to fix for a brand new unit out of the box.

What I like

The X100e lives up to the tradition of the Thinkpad series in a modestly compact formfactor. The external packaging doesn’t veer too far from tradition so if you love the Thinkpad series you won’t be disappointed with the X100e. The keyboard takes a little getting used to. It is a very quiet machine and you sit in a corner of a room and no one will notice you as you type away to your heart’s delight.

What I don’t like

The X100e can get very hot on its underside if you run it long enough. The middle section of the keyboard as well as the ample-sized touch pad also gets warm. I read somewhere this is a AMD chipset issue. When I first handled the X100e I was surprised by the heft of the unit. It is heavy for a machine that claims to belong to the netbook family of portable computers. I asked a couple of colleagues in the office to weigh it on their hands and everyone agreed it weighed in like a normal laptop. Against my Thinkpad X200, the weight is barely noticeable unless you put them on a scale. The default setting of the Thinkpad power management software is too aggressive for me as the screen kept going dark on me every so often. But you can correct this easy enough.

Against the competition

I met Matt Kohut, a competitive analyst working for Lenovo, a couple of years ago. In my view he is one of those few analysts who understands the importance of knowing the market, the competition and more importantly the customer. In the video below, he talks about the X100e difference.

Basic Specs

The X100e comes with a 11.6 inch widescreen LCD display with a resolution of 1366 x 768, an  AMD Athlon Neo MV-40 processor (faster than current generation Intel Atom processors) and up to 4GB of RAM (the test unit I had RAM). Storage capacity ifor the unit I tested was 320GB although you can order the X100e with a 160GB, 250GB 2.5 inch 540 rpm hard drive. Other inbuilt features include 3 USB 2.0 ports, VGA out, a 4 in 1 card reader, built in 802.11b/g/n WiFi. Bluetooh is optional. 

Conclusion

Why would I buy the Thinkpad X100e? The real question is when should I buy the X100e (or for that matter any netbook)? If I was looking for a truly portable, lightweight computer – I would probably stick with cheaper netbooks from the likes of Asus, Acer, Dell, HP or Samsung. On the other hand if I want a tradition steep in reliability and am willing to sacrifice weight for performance and peace of mind, I’d buy the X100e since its still cheaper than most laptops. But if I tend to multi-task applications a lot – run email, surf the web, do animation-intensive PowerPoint presentations, edit videos, and even play video games (once in a while), I have to stick with the traditional (and heavier) laptops.

At a suggested retail price of US$449, the X100e is not the cheapest in the netbook class. In fact its closer to premium netbook models from the likes of Sony.  Lenovo touts the business class design for which the X100e was built. Lenovo’s Matt Kohut even suggests that if you want a cheaper netbook, the Lenovo ideapad S series offers more comparable pricing in line with competition.

Like most people I usually read through reviews over and over again before I decide what to buy. But over the years I’ve learned that product reviews only tell you one piece of the story. Reviews are often done to check that a product meets the specifications its marketers sing, plus the expectations of the reviewer. Most reviews are grounded on specific issues. Mine is around usability. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been disappointed with what I bought based on the review and recommendation of someone else.

My suggestion, look for reviews that highlight the worst of a product so the only surprise you get are the good ones. My wife may disagree with me but I think that when it comes to buying electronics, patience rewards big time.

My wish list

The X100e meets almost everything I am looking for in a laptop. The only thing missing is a capacitative screen to take advantage of Windows 7’s multi-touch feature. Any vendor listening out there?

References:

Hands on:  The Lenovo Thinkpad X100e Netbook

Minilaptop CPU showdown: Atom vs. Neo vs. Nano

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