The ThinkPad X220 is the latest edition in Lenovo’s venerable ultraportable X series notebooks. The ThinkPad X series are well-known for their toughness, long battery life, portability and great keyboards. Like it’s predecessors, on paper, the X220 is shaping up like a champ. It offers the newest full voltage Intel Sandy Bridge dual core CPUs, long battery life, durable construction and (gasp!) an optional IPS LCD, but the devil’s in the details. Read on to find out if the X220 comes out to be a contender or a pretender.
Here are the specifications of the model under review:
- Model: ThinkPad X220i 4286-CTO
- Operating System: Windows Seven Home Premium
- CPU: Intel 2.1GHz Core i3-2310M(3MB L2 Cache 1333MHz FSB) 35w
- Chipset: Intel QM67
- Memory: 3GB DDR 1333MHz(8GB Max)
- Hard Drives: 80GB Intel 310 mSATA/500GB Hitachi Z5K500
- Screen: 12.5” 1366×768 Matte LED IPS LCD
- Graphics: Intel HD3000 Integrated
- Network: Intel Ethernet/ThinkPad(Realtek) A/B/G/N Wireless Card
- Inputs: 88 Key Keyboard, Pointstick with Buttons and Touchpad with Integrated Buttons
- Buttons: Power, ThinkVantage, Volume Up and Down, Mute and WiFi On/Off
- Three USB 2.0 – Two Left Side, One Right Side(Powered)
- Combo Headphone/Microphone Jack
- Dock Connector
- SD Card Reader
- ExpressCard 54 Slot
- Dimensions(Six-Cell): Width 12.0”, Depth 8.13” and Height .75”(Front)/1.36”(Rear)
- Weight: 3.3 Pounds
- Warranty: One Year
Design and Build
There’s not really much new to report with regards to the styling on the X220. The original ThinkPad design was based on a Japanese lunchbox and it hasn’t changed much over the years. It’s boxy and black like most other ThinkPads released since the 700 series hit the market in the early 90s. I like the ThinkPad design. It’s simple, elegant and timeless. Form follows function, which you will appreciate when you use one. They’re like a good suit that never goes out of style, but if you’re looking at your notebook as an accessory, it’s probably not for you.
New to the X220 is a 16:9 LCD aspect ratio. It makes the X220 a bit less deep than it’s predecessor, the X201. It’s also wider, though the screen size is slightly larger as well. The X220 is mostly an inch thick, but is a bit thicker in the rear where the battery sticks out of the bottom. It’s not quite as anorexic as the new Ultrabooks coming to the market, but is still svelte in my opinion. The LCD has a new latchless design. I was a bit concerned when I read about it, but after having used it for months, it would seem my concerns were unfounded. Did I mention it was light? With the six-cell battery, it tips the scales just over three pounds (3.3 pounds to be exact). If you can live with the four-cell battery, the X220 can be had under three pounds.
Along with the design not changing much, the construction should be familiar to ThinkPad users. The top lid and bottom case is made of magnesium, and very durable. The top and bottom are rubberized to give better grip when carrying it around, though this can wear off over time. The inside LCD housing and palm rest are made from ABS plastic which has a nice feel to it. The steel hinges are stiff. It is tough to open it with one hand. The screen barely moves, even when tossed around. Fit and finish are excellent.
To say the X220 LCD is good would be an understatement. That’s of course if you chose the optional Premium IPS screen. Lenovo also offers a TN LED panel for those on a very tight budget. At $50 to upgrade to the IPS LCD, I don’t know why anyone would forgo it.
The screen on the X220i is 12.5” and comes with a resolution of 1366×768. Both screens are matte. There’s none of the glare issues that are sometimes present with a glossy screen. I chose the IPS LCD. It’s one of the few notebooks offered with an IPS screen and the least expensive by a pretty good margin. The two ingredients for a good screen are contrast and viewing angles. The X220 IPS LCD offers these in spades. You can push the screen all the way back and use it if that floats your boat. Colors on the X220 IPS are rich and vivid.
The IPS screen brightness is rated at 300 nits. I took it outside on a sunny day to test how well it worked outdoors. For the most part it’s very usable, except in direct sunlight. The standard LED screen is rated at 200 nits and probably won’t do as well.
It’s not all perfect with the screen. There is a bit of backlight bleed on my X220i, though its’ mostly noticeable when booting the machine. I suppose some might wish for a bit more resolution, but I prefer quality to quantity, and would be concerned about the pixel density at a higher resolution. From a cost to benefit perspective, the X220 LCD shines. It is a huge advantage, which none of the competition offer.
CPU & Performance
The X220i is offered with the latest and greatest second generation of Intel Core Sandy Bridge CPUs – the i3, i5 and i7 dual core CPUs. These are full voltage CPUs, not the low voltage CPUs that are often seen in ultraportables. Performance on the X220 is very good. The i3-2310M in my X220i had a wPrime score of just under 24 seconds, which is more than respectable for the i3.
The X220 is designed as a portable corporate productivity notebook. Most of them will probably live out their lives doing Office, email, internet and other business related tasks. Those tasks are not particularly CPU or performance oriented. Any of the Sandy Bridge CPUs will offer more than enough oomph for those users, but if you need a bit more performance, the i5 and i7 are there.
The best option to increase performance for these users is to add a SSD. A SSD is made from flash memory, they are very fast and will make any system much more responsive, much more so than the CPU. I added a SSD to my X220i. Boot times are under 20 seconds and it’s very snappy.
Drives & Storage
Lenovo has some interesting new options when it comes to storage on the X220, which gives it a big leg up on the competition. Lenovo has added a mSATA drive option for the X220. What’s mSATA?
It’s a miniaturized SSD that plugs into the motherboard via the miniPCI slot, right next to the WiFi card. Once installed it acts as another hard drive, giving you two drives. It’s the best best of both worlds, a small fast SSD as the boot drive and a larger platter drive in the main bay for storage where performance isn’t an issue. No longer are you forced to choose between speed and space. mSATA drives aren’t quite as fast the newest SATA III drives, but are still a big step up from a platter based drive. Lenovo is offering the mSATA on most of its new notebooks and few other manufacturers are, but I suspect that will change as the mSATA is the greatest thing since sliced bread.
In order to keep the machine slimmer Lenovo chose to use a 7mm single platter hard drive for the main bay. This will limit how big of a drive you can put in the X220. 500GB is the largest size 7mm drive at the moment, but with a mSATA drive, that’s still much less expensive than a 500GB SSD.
Keyboard, PointStick and TouchPad
The X220 uses the same tried and true six row keyboard found in the larger T and W series ThinkPads. One small notable design change is the escape and delete keys have been enlarged. They now take up two key spaces. I use backspace more than delete so it was not a big difference to me. Thankfully, Lenovo has resisted the temptation to put the chiclet style keyboards in the traditional ThinkPads. ThinkPads are well-known for their good keyboards. The X220 is no exception. The keyboard on the X220 is a pleasure to type on. It’s firm. Pressing one key does not cause the next to move. Key pitch and travel are near perfect.
For moving the cursor Lenovo gives X220 users two choices – a pointstick with mouse buttons and touchpad with the mouse buttons integrated into the touch. The pointstick, which has long been associated with ThinkPads, is something people either like or don’t in my experience, but I’ve not found many who use both. I use the pointstick and disabled the touchpad when I received my X220i. The benefits of the pointstick are it keeps your hands closer to the keyboard and it minimizes hand movement. The pointstick mouse buttons are buttery smooth. You don’t get any noise or click when pressing them. ThinkPad mouse buttons are among the few good mouse buttons you can find on the market and it’s one of the reasons I like them.
If the X220 has an Achilles Heel, the touchpad surely is it. Lenovo faces a dilemma here. ThinkPads have long been associated with the little red nub, but a large subset of users don’t like them or won’t use them. With limited palm rest real estate, how do you make those users happy? The X201 had buttons for both the pointstick and touchpad, which lead to complaints of a postage stamp sized touchpad. This time around Lenovo decided to integrate the touchpad buttons into the touchpad. While in theory this seems like a good idea as it makes the touchpad larger, it ends up being a compromise which makes the end result worse.
When using the touchpad I found it required more pressure than normal to use the pad. Two finger scrolling either didn’t work or went too fast, but never worked smoothly. Since the touchpad buttons are not marked on the pad, I sometimes missed clicks, which was annoying. I also had a tendency to hit between the buttons, which did nothing.
I’d like to see two palm rests, one with and one without the touchpad. Without the pointstick buttons the touchpad could be made larger and better without integrated buttons, but we’ll have to leave that to the X221.
The X220 has four battery options – four, six and nine cell batteries, along with a slice battery. The four cell is flush with the back and bottom of the machine. It makes for a one inch thick machine. The six cell and nine cell stick out the bottom of the machine, raising the rear a bit. The nine cell also protrudes from the rear as well. The slice battery attaches to the bottom of the X220 via the docking port and is used in conjunction with one of the other batteries. Lenovo claims with the nine-cell and slice battery an amazing 23 hours of battery life. Even if that’s overly optimistic, I can’t imagine using my notebook continuously for that long of a time.
Since I didn’t need a ton of battery life, I opted for the six cell battery. With the CPU parked in low power mode, the screen set to 10/15 and WiFi on, just doing normal stuff like surfing, listening to music or typing up this review, I’m getting a solid six plus hours of battery life on my X220i. If you lower the screen brightness, you’ll do better. That’s probably about two to three times what I actually need in one sitting. I kind of wish the four cell was an option when I ordered, but suffice it say, Lenovo has you covered whatever your battery life needs are.
Heat & Noise
When I first got my X220i it was a bit more like a vacuum cleaner than I’d like. Out of the box the fan was noisy. The fan ran at a high RPM, though the machine was not running much hotter than room temperature. A few weeks after I received the machine Lenovo came out with a BIOS update that offered much better fan settings, allowing the fan to run a lower RPM i.e. more quiet. When the machine is in low power mode I do hear the fan occasionally, but it’s never too long or loud. When the CPU is set to higher power consumption, the fan can is more audible, but I think you’ll find that’s the case with most notebooks. The machine never goes above warm, even when pushing it. The standard 65w adapter is small and doesn’t add much weight to the package.
Wireless & Networking
Being my X220 is mainly a home bound machine, where there’s only one network, and I’m cheap, I chose the ThinkPad A/B/G/N wireless card. It’s a Realtek card. I’ve used it at home, work and around town. I’ve never had any issues with connecting or throughput, though I really only use it for internet purposes. In addition to the ThinkPad card, Lenovo offers several Intel WiFi cards on the X220 – the 1000, 6205 and 6250, which includes WiMax.
The X220 can be configured with a two or three wireless antenna setup. The three antenna set up should allow for better range and throughput, but choosing the third antenna will remove the integrated camera as an option. The X220 can also be configured with a Sierra Gobi WWAN card for those need WWAN. Getting the WWAN card will mean you cannot use the mSATA drive because they use the same miniPCI slot. Oh yeah, there’s an Ethernet port on the X220 too, for those wanting to do things old school.
Ports & Connections
The X220 includes most of the ports users are looking for in a notebook with one obvious exception, USB 3.0. You can get the X220 with USB 3.0, but you have to order the i7 CPU to get it., which is a costly upgrade if you don’t want or need it. Competitors like the Toshiba R series or Sony S series have found a way to add it to their notebooks without charging a premium for it. The left side of the notebooks has a USB port, VGA port, displayport, ExpressCard 54 slot, another USB Port and a WiFi on/off switch.
The right side of the machine has a combo microphone/headphone jack, Ethernet port, card reader and a powered USB port, which you can use to charge your phone or other USB devices while the machine is off.
The lonely power jack on the back.
The bottom of the machine has a docking connector. In addition to the slice battery, you can also a attach a dock. Docks are great if you plan to use the machine at a desk with peripherals like a monitor or external hard drive drive. You don’t have to hook them up every time, but just plug the machine into the dock and you are ready to work. In the past the X series had their own docks, but Lenovo has changed that with the X220. In addition to having its own dock, the Ultrabase 3, the X220 can be used with the docks from the T and W series ThinkPads, giving you even more connection options.
After cramming in all the goodies, the speakers seem to be an afterthought for most ultraportables. The X220i has two speakers, which I think is the first for an X series notebook. They pump out 1w each. If you keep your expectations subdued, you’ll find they offer decent, not great, sound. The sound is clear. There’s not much bass. The volume could be a bit better, but it’s certainly good enough for some music or a YouTube video. The speakers are placed on the bottom of the machine, just over the edge from the trackpad. I did notice when using the machine on my lap the sound could at times be a bit muffled if it was pressing against your body.
Most X220 users will get their machine with some flavor of Windows 7, but the X220 can also be purchased with DOS for Linux users who don’t wish to pay the “Windows tax”. Oddly enough the DOS versions of the X220 are often more expensive than the Windows machines. This isn’t a Windows review, but no ThinkPad review would be complete without mention of the ThinkPad’s ThinkVantage tools. They are a set of software tools that cover most aspects of using your ThinkPad. From battery life, to network connections, managing and securing your data, diagnosing problems, etc., are all there to help you get the most out of your ThinkPad. They’re easily the best and most comprehensive tools offered in the industry, and are one more perk to buying a ThinkPad.
Warranty & Support
Most X220s will come with a standard one year depot (mail-in) warranty. There are some pre-configured top seller models that will have three year warranties, but most will have one year. Regardless of whatever you have, Lenovo will let you upgrade the warranty any time your machine is under warranty, for a fee of course. In addition to a depot warranty, Lenovo offers on-site and/or accidental coverage. With on-site a technician will come to your home or place of business to make any necessary repairs. This a good option for users who cannot afford the down time sending their machine in for repair would cause. Most laptop warranties do not cover accidents such as dropping your machine or spilling liquid on it. Accidental coverage, as the name implies, covers these unfortunate events. You’d be covered regardless of how your laptop was broken. Lenovo offers warranty coverage of up to five years, though accidental coverage is limited to four years and must be added within the first 90 days of purchase.
I’ve been a long time ThinkPad user. I haven’t had occasion to call support very often in the past. The last time being when the hard drive on my T42 crashed. When I received my X220i one of the trackpoint buttons was sticky. I decided to call support to get it replaced. ThinkPad support is based in Atlanta, Georgia. My call answered on the first ring and I was quickly connected to a support technician. I explained the situation and the technician quickly offered to have a replacement keyboard sent to me. The replacement keyboard arrived the next day. A few days latter I received an email from Lenovo asking me whether my case had been successfully resolved. I also got a voice mail from Lenovo giving a special number to call if anything had not been resolved. While my case was relatively easy to resolve, I’d say the support I received was excellent.
To continue the boxing analogy, the X220 packs a lot of punch for a little machine. Pound for pound I can’t think of a better notebook. It’s portable, durable, offers long battery life, a superb screen and plenty of performance. The best part is if you know how to work the system i.e. coupons, the Lenovo outlet and ebay, they can be had dirt cheap. Mine, directly from Lenovo, cost $750 including tax and shipping. That’s with the IPS screen and I’ve seen them go even lower. That’s barely more than a netbook and you get much more value with the X220. Unless you’re on a tight budget or are a resolution freak and want WXGA+ on your ultraportable, I don’t know why you’d look elsewhere for an ultraportable.
- Gorgeous IPS Screen
- Dual Drives with mSATA Option
- Great Keyboard
- Portable form factor
- Long Battery life, 6+ hours with standard battery
- Good price
- Touchpad, Touchpad and Touchpad
- No USB 3.0 for i3 and i5 models
- Fair Sound
- DatedStyling (For Some)