Lenovo Thinkpad X120e User Review

Discussion in 'Lenovo' started by MidnightSun, Mar 26, 2011.

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  1. MidnightSun

    MidnightSun Emodicon

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    By David Li

    The X120e is Lenovo’s latest entry to the somewhat hazy category of ultraportables that pack more performance than netbooks, yet are also smaller and less powerful than full-sized laptops. As a member of the legendary Thinkpad family, the X120e has high standards of durability and usability to meet. Equipped with AMD’s Zacate Accelerated Processing Unit (APU), the X120e blends power, portability, and battery life in a small package.

    Competitors
    In today’s world of cutthroat PC pricing and tight wallets, consumers have many similar-yet-distinct options to choose from for every PC segment. The X120e is in no different position, with competitors from many major laptop OEMs, including but not limited to the following:
    • HP Pavillion dm1z
    • Dell Inspiron M102z
    • Sony Vaio YB
    • MSI Wind U270
    • Acer Aspire One 522
    Ordered Specifications: Lenovo Thinkpad X120e
    • CPU/GPU: AMD Fusion E-350 APU with Radeon HD 6310M
    • Screen: 11.6” LED-backlit 1366x768
    • Memory: 2GB DDR3 PC-10600 1333 MHz (1 DIMM)
    • Hard Drive: 250GB 5400RPM
    • WiFi: Thinkpad b/g/n WiFi
    • Webcam: 0.3 MP lowlight w/ microphone
    • Battery: 6-cell 56Wh
    • AC Adapter: 65W, 20V
    • OS: Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
    • Warranty: 1-year standard depot
    • Price: $334 (no tax)
    I bought my X120e during Lenovo’s pricing glitch, when adding Adobe Acrobat X during configuration would actually lower the price rather than add to it. I didn’t actually expect Lenovo to honor the price, but thought that if they actually did, the X120e would be a nice portable addition to my T500.

    Initial Impressions
    The X120e arrived exactly two weeks after I placed the order (1 week build, 1 week UPS Ground shipping from Shanghai), which is faster than I had expected for a just-released product. My T500 took about the same time to arrive as well.

    Since I had bought my T500, it seemed Lenovo had cut down on most extras. Whereas my T500 came with some extra screws, alternate Trackpoint nubs, and many documentation booklets, the X120e came very minimally packaged, with only the Adobe Acrobat X disk, a quick-start sheet, and a thin service manual.

    I was surprised to see that there was no protective layer placed between the screen and keyboard (and in fact, there were two dirty fingerprints on the screen), although everything in the box was secured well and there was no damage whatsoever.

    As usual on Thinkpads, stickers were limited to the Win7, Energy Star, and Lenovo Enhanced Experience 2.0 labels, which I promptly removed.



    Build & Design
    At first glance, the X120e looks like any other Thinkpad, but upon closer inspection, there are many key differences.

    The X120e has great build quality, and feels strong and tightly-fitted throughout. Surprisingly, I would actually say that the X120e has better fit and finish than my T500, with all panels fitting tightly together and no signs of cheap plastic molding. The plastic panels of the palmrest feel very solid, with no flex even when pressing hard with my fingers. The plastic panels around the ports are well-molded and feel solid, with little chance of breakage over time.

    The plastic used on the X120e is different from that of my T500—the matte black panels of the palmrest are smooth instead of the T500’s rough plastic. Overall, the X120e’s plastic gave a high quality feel that felt even nicer than my T500’s panels.

    The lid is quite tough as well, and it is not possible to cause a rippling effect onscreen when pressing on the lid. The screen also exhibits very minimal flexing when attempting to twist it from both of the top corners. The metal hinges appear to be identical in design to those on traditional Thinkpads, although they are painted black to match the rest of the laptop. There are no latches on the lid, and the X120e is held closed by hinge tension (I did not notice any magnets), with a slight edge along the top of the lid to facilitate opening the laptop. There are rubber bumpers along the edge of the screen to prevent the screen from touching the keyboard when stuffed into a tight bag with books.

    The 6-cell extended battery fits tightly, with no wobbling as seen on many other Thinkpads, including my T500 and its extended 9-cell battery. It uses a dual locking system that differs from older Thinkpads. One thing of note relating to the battery—the rear “feet” of the X120e are on the battery, so without it installed, the back of the laptop can slide around, and also slopes downwards.

    Upgrading most major components is very easy on the X120e. The entire metal bottom panel of the laptop slide off with the removal of 3 screws, exposing both RAM slots, the hard drive, WiFi half-height card, cooling system, and more. Most of these components are easily replaceable, although the Bluetooth module has been relocated to an obscure location that requires disassembling much of the laptop to access.

    There are several changes from traditional Thinkpads that I dislike on the X120e. Lenovo has removed the status lights under the screen that are seen on the Tx00 generation of Thinkpads, which indicate power-on status, hard drive activity, Caps and Num Lock status, Bluetooth, WiFi, and WWAN status, and more. Instead, the only indicator lights on the X120e are on the front edge, indicating battery status and sleep status, and around the power button, indicating power on status. The lack of hard drive activity and WiFi status lights particularly bother me.

    Also, the hardware WiFi switch present on other Thinkpads is absent on the X120e, which relies on a software Fn + F5 master switch to toggle wireless power status. In the interest of saving space, the volume buttons are also placed on the Esc, F1, and F2 keys instead of on separate buttons. It is nice to see a microphone mute key on Fn + F3, however, as such a feature is useful when web conferencing.

    Size & Weight
    The X120e was smaller than I expected, having dimensions barely larger than a Dell Inspiron Mini 10v. Compared to my 15.4” T500, the 11.6” X120e looks positively tiny. The X120e measures 11.1" x 8.2" x 1.2": that is nearly exactly the same length as a standard sheet of printer paper, and not quite as deep as the paper is wide.

    The front edge of the X120e slopes inwards, giving the laptop a very slim look that seems thinner than 1.2”.

    The X120e comes with a light, 65W AC adapter identical to the ones bundled with other X-series laptops and integrated graphics versions of T-series machines.



    Keyboard & UltraNav
    The X120e features a redesigned keyboard identical to the previous-generation X100e and shared, with minor changes, with the Thinkpad Edge family. The most noticeable difference is the island (chiclet, separated, etc.) key design. Each key has straight non-sloping edges, and is separated from the others by blank space, unlike the traditional Thinkpad keyboards, which have very little gap between keys, with sloping front and side edges.

    Although I disliked the look of the keyboard when this design was first leaked, the style grew on me ever since I tried out the X100e’s identical keyboard. The island keys give a cleaner look, lending the X120e a simple, professional look. The tops of the keys are curved, much like normal Thinkpad keyboards. Spill protection is also present, although the drainage holes present on traditional Thinkpads are absent from the bottom of the X120e. The 7-row layout has been compressed into the more ubiquitous 6-row layout to fit on the small chassis, and the dedicated volume, microphone, and ThinkVantage keys have been removed. The keys, however, are the same size: the only keys that are compressed are the right Shift, Backspace, Enter, and forward-slash keys, and the Menu key has been removed. The traditionally blue Enter key is now the same black as the other keys. The back and forward keys next to the arrow keys have been removed, unfortunately, and are replaced with also-useful Page Up and Page Down keys.

    Typing feel, however, is just as good on the X120e as it is on my T500. Key pitch is satisfyingly deep, despite the reduced pitch from traditional Thinkpad keyboards—I couldn’t tell the difference between my T500 and X120e’s keyboards. The pressure required to depress the keys seemed ever so slightly higher on the X120e than my T500, although it did not negatively impact my typing. Despite the island design, key spacing is almost exactly the same, as I verified using a ruler. There is no keyboard flex whatsoever when typing, although I can get the keyboard to flex slightly if I press very hard with one finger. As I verified when replacing the hard drive, the keyboard backing is the same as other recent Thinkpads, with a perforated metal backplate. Keyboard noise is quieter than on my T500’s keyboard.

    Although the palmrests are shorter on the X120e, I had no problems when typing, and resting my wrists on the palmrests is comfortable.

    Also, a note for those users who dislike the traditional Thinkpad Fn | Ctrl layout: these keys can be reversed in the BIOS, and the keycaps can actually be carefully popped off and swapped, as the two keys are the same size on the X120e’s keyboard.

    The “UltraNav” touchpad and trackpoint, with its two sets of mouse buttons, is also preserved on the X120e. The TrackPoint behaves exactly the same as it does on my T500, and the colored striping is again present on the mouse buttons. In fact, as Lenovo was missing the UltraNav driver for the X120e, I installed the latest T500 release, and everything worked properly. One anomaly I’ve noticed with my X120e’s TrackPoint right-mouse button, however, is that if you do not fully depress the key (which is common if you lightly tap only the far left corner, as I do on my T500), the right-click will not register. A little habit adjustment later, however, and it was a nonissue.

    The touchpad does not have the bumps present on other recent Thinkpad touchpads, and is about the same size as my T500’s touchpad (X120e: 75 x 35mm, T500: 70 x 34 mm). I had no problems with it, and tracking was accurate with no lag.



    Display
    The X120e has a matte 11.6” 1366x768 LED-backlit display. Thankfully, Lenovo stuck with a matte coating instead of using a glossy screen like most of the laptops currently on the market, cutting down on screen reflections and enabling use in brighter areas.

    The display is quite bright when compared to my T500’s 200-nit CCFL-backlit display, although the X120e’s panel is technically also rated at 200 nits. The X120e is quite usable outside, and on a cloudy day, the 8th (out of 15) brightness setting was sufficient. Indoors, I had to turn the panel’s brightness down to use it comfortably, even in my relatively bright room (with the desk facing towards a window).

    Viewing angles are average compared to other laptops. Horizontal viewing angles are adequate to share a movie with two other people seated next to you. Vertical viewing angles are relatively narrow, but since the panel is so small, there are no problems finding a good angle to view the entire screen.

    The panel has a cool tinge to it when compared to my T500’s warmer display. Colors appeared less saturated, with noticeably lower contrast than my T500’s display. Some tweaking in AMD’s Catalyst Control Center did help make colors appear nicer, however. I decreased brightness and boosted contrast, using my T500’s screen as a reference.

    The 1366x768 resolution on the 11.6” display worked quite well, resulting in a DPI of about 135—text and images were crisp, and the admittedly low number of vertical pixels didn’t bother me.

    Like other Thinkpads, the X120e’s screen can be tilted flat until it touches the battery on the rear—with the 3-cell, I would imagine that it can tilt even further back.



    Audio
    The speakers on the X120e are quite average, playing relatively faithful highs and mids, but lacking bass. Overall speaker quality is a bit lower than my T500, which is to be expected on a business-oriented ultraportable. Max volume is, however, significantly lower than on my T500 (possibly due to the speaker placement on the underside of the front edge), but it will likely not be an issue if you are playing music to yourself or web conferencing.

    The headphone/microphone combo jack worked with no issues. I would recommend headphones for listening to music.

    Web Conferencing
    The X120e is equipped with a 0.3 MP low-light webcam. Image quality was as expected, and the white balance adjusted relatively well to a variety of different-hued lights (including both incandescent and fluorescent lights).

    Skype worked well, and callers on the other end reported clear video and sound. The only intermittent issue I had with the webcam was when it failed to start at the beginning of some calls, with an error message saying the webcam was in use (when no other applications were running). After a little while, though, the webcam would turn on.

    The audio jack is a combination headphone/microphone port, so you can use headsets designed for cell phones with the X120e, which I found to be a large plus. The headphone and microphone on my BlackBerry headset were recognized by Skype as a second set of audio-in and –out, and the onboard speakers and microphone were automatically overridden.

    Port Selection
    Port selection is above average for a machine of this size and price, and port placement is commendable as well.

    On the left edge, we have a Kensington lock slot, HDMI-out, one USB, Ethernet, and a combo headphone/microphone plug.

    On the right edge, we have one USB, one always-on yellow USB (which supplies power even when the laptop is off, if it is plugged in), and a 4x1 card reader. The card slot appeared to be connected through a USB interface, as the X120e was able to boot from an SD card (unlike many PCIe-linked card slots, which are not available through boot).

    On the back, we have the power jack (identical to all other modern Thinkpads) and a screwless VGA port.

    If one of the USB ports were eSATA, port selection would be even better, but the lack of eSATA is understandable on a budget ultraportable machine.



    Software
    The X120e thankfully came with nearly no bloatware, and it seemed simple to get rid of the little there was. The laptop comes with the same ThinkPad login screen and UI customizations present on other recent Thinkpads, and a full complement of ThinkVantage software.

    The X120e does not come with recovery disks, but has a recovery partition on the system drive. Upon double-clicking on this partition in Windows Explorer, prompts appear to create recovery media, either on CDs and DVDs or on a USB drive.

    Performance
    As benchmark data is readily available for the Zacate platform online from other reviews, and in light of the fact that most X120e users will not be benchmarking or stressing the system in very intensive use, I will not be providing a very quantitative performance analysis in my review, instead focusing on how the X120e does in general usage.

    The X120e handled HD content beautifully, playing back 720p and 1080p content without a hitch. The X120e also had no issues outputting video to a Samsung 1080p HDTV.

    Gaming had mixed results. Vindictus did run on the laptop, at native resolution and most settings turned to low. Frame rates, however, were barely at 30 FPS, and it was definitely not pretty to look at. Other less intensive games such as Osmos and World of Goo, however, ran well on the Radeon 6310 graphics.

    With the stock Western Digital Scorpio Blue 250GB 5400RPM drive, boot times were quite fast (likely aided by Lenovo Enhanced Experience 2.0), and applications opened with little delay. I soon replaced the conventional HDD with a Samsung 470 series 64GB solid state drive, however, and clean-installed Windows 7 Home Premium from an SD card (the X120e’s card reader is bootable, incidentally, as it appears to be connected via a USB interface). Boot time after the replacement was very quick, and applications opened nearly instantly. There seemed to be more of a delay than on my T500, although both computers’ SSDs perform approximately equally—this is likely due to the X120e’s far weaker CPU.

    I added an additional stick of RAM to the existing Hynix 2GB stick, for a total of 4GB. With 4GB of RAM installed, the X120e handled office multitasking very well, and there was always more than enough RAM.

    (SEE EDIT BELOW) I did, however, observe one performance anomaly with the X120e. Every once in a while, the laptop would lock up for a quarter of a second or so: during this time, the mouse cursor would freeze for a moment, and audio and video playback would stutter. As of 03/19/11, Lenovo engineers are aware of the issue (which appears to stem from Power Manager) and are working on a fix.

    EDIT: The audio stutter issue seems to have been resolved as of 03/31/11 with the BIOS 1.11 update, available from Lenovo's website here. I did not experience the audio stutter or mouse lag after flashing from 1.08 to 1.11, with the Power Manager 3.45 software.

    Heat & Noise
    The last-generation X100e’s Achilles heel was its high operating temperatures, even at idle. The X120e, however, promised to bring an end to that problem, with its new cooler-running AMD Zacate and revamped cooling system.

    Unfortunately, CoreTemp does not support AMD Zacate as of the latest version, 0.99.8, so I was unable to use that as a metric. HWMonitor does not have official support for Zacate either, as seen in the screenshot. Take the HWMonitor temperatures with a grain of salt: although the laptop felt cool to the touch, the GPU temperature was listed as 48C.

    The X120e runs very cool, with the top and bottom both cool to the touch on idle, at an ambient indoor temperature of around 65F. Even around the heat vent, typically the hottest part on a laptop, the X120e is only barely warm to the touch. On load, as when I ran Vindictus (a 3D online MMORPG game), the heat vent area was only warm, and the entire laptop was quite cool. When using Skype in a 30 minute long call with video on both sides, the laptop pushed out some warm air, but the bottom panel stayed cool. Overall, the X120e is very lap-friendly.

    Noise, however, was an issue to me, although I should probably note that I am easily annoyed by laptop fans. Compared to my entirely silent T500, the X120e’s fan was loud. There is a constant whooshing noise of expelled air, although thankfully there is little to no motor noise. A larger fan would likely have reduced the noise level, although it would probably be difficult to accommodate in such a compact chassis.

    To minimize the amount of time that the fan is on, I set my cooling profile set to “Passive” in Power Manager for both AC and battery power—I did not notice a difference in temperatures with the two cooling profiles. On AC, the fan is on for about 70% of the time, during which there is a constant sound that is detectable in a quiet room. The other 30% of the time, though, the fan is off and the laptop is entirely silent (particularly with an SSD). On battery, the fan is off most of the time, sometimes spinning up to a relatively quiet low speed.

    Not satisfied with the noise level, however, I installed the third-party TPFanControl program by troubadix (link here: http://www.staff.uni-marburg.de/~schmitzr/donate.html), using the default fan profile included with the program. The fan immediately shut off, and remained off for general usage. Monitoring the temperatures through HWMonitor, the average temperatures were increased a few degrees from the default BIOS fan settings—an acceptable tradeoff, in my opinion. The bottom of the laptop remained mostly cool, although it was a tad warmer near where the CPU is installed, as expected with the fan off.

    Battery Life
    The X120e is quite strong in the battery life department, with AMD’s power-efficient Zacate platform helping it to have both great performance and minimal power usage. I was able to use the X120e for nearly 7 hours on the 6-cell battery while web browsing and word processing, using the display on the lower brightness settings (usually between the lowest setting and the third-lowest setting, which is actually very usable indoors). This is only a little bit less than most Atom systems, and considering the graphics and processing advantage that the X120e has, it is a very impressive figure.

    According to Lenovo Power Manager, I was using between 6-9W of power, which is in line with the battery life I achieved from the 56Wh battery.

    It is worth noting, however, that at similar settings, the HP dm1z (also equipped with the AMD Fusion E-350) achieves slightly better battery life figures. Given the near-identical hardware, I am not sure what is making the difference. One possibility is that Lenovo’s drivers are not as well-optimized as HP’s drivers for its dm1z.

    Networking
    WiFi performance is average, with the Thinkpad b/g/n option (standard). The WiFi card appears to be a Realtek half-height 1x1 PCIe card, supporting up to 150 Mbps over Wireless N. The card did not give me any problems with file transfers (syncing ~5GB of data through Windows Live Mesh), web browsing, or downloads. Range was inferior to my T500’s Intel 5300 a/b/g/n 2x2 card, which I expected. For about $20, there is an available upgrade to a Broadcom a/b/g/n 2x2 card, which may be worth it if you know you will face limited WiFi connectivity.

    The Ethernet jack worked with no issues.

    Conclusion
    Overall, the X120e is a great machine with unexpected performance and battery life in one well-built package. Fit and finish is very good, and the traditionally top-notch ergonomics expected on Thinkpads is preserved. Yes, there are weaknesses, primarily the annoying fan noise and low-contrast screen, but the positives of the entire package outweigh the negatives.

    One note about pricing, however: with all the other AMD Zacate competitors from other OEMs, the X120e enters into a relatively crowded market. The HP dm1z in particular is priced particularly well, typically including more extras and selling for a lower price than the X120e. The Sony Vaio YB also provides the same hardware in a more consumer-oriented chassis that would likely appeal to less business-oriented consumers. In addition, some low-price offerings from Acer that use the Zacate platform in laptops with larger form factors provides the same performance in a much cheaper (albeit less portable) package, carving away some budget-oriented consumers from the X120e’s customer base.

    I managed to snag my X120e during a pricing glitch when adding Adobe Acrobat X to the order reduced the base price with the E-350 CPU to barely over $300, making the X120e even cheaper than the dm1z. At that price point, I believe the X120e is a no-brainer choice. At the usual MSRP of nearly $500, however, the X120e is a tougher sell, and I would be hesitant to recommend it whole-heartedly.

    For the consumer who needs a matte screen and great keyboard and UltraNav inputs in a professional-looking chassis, however, the X120e is a great choice, and one I would recommend.

    Pros:
    • Pricing (as tested)
    • Cool operating temperatures
    • Very well built, quality construction
    • Great keyboard and UltraNav
    • Handles office, media, and web conferencing tasks with ease
    Cons:
    • Pricing (MSRP)
    • Relatively loud fan noise
    • Screen has low contrast, could be brighter
    • Battery life could be a bit better
    • WiFi connectivity could be better (likely improved with the $20 upgrade), hardware WiFi switch missing
     
  2. MidnightSun

    MidnightSun Emodicon

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    And here's my X120e review, as promised! Pictures aren't too great, since I was a bit rushed, but hopefully they'll suffice ;)

    I did not run any benchmarks, but if you really would like to see some, let me know which ones you'd like to see. If I have time, I'll post some up!
     
  3. Tsunade_Hime

    Tsunade_Hime such bacon. wow

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    Nice review! Get some gaming benchmarks up? Maybe like a Source game or something to that matter. :p

    Out of all those other competitor products, I'd take the ThinkPad for the support alone and not getting a shoddy consumer grade laptop.
     
  4. anodize

    anodize Notebook Deity

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    Nice price and nice detailed review. I take it you reside in a tax free state? Surely envious.
     
  5. lineS of flight

    lineS of flight Notebook Virtuoso

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    Nice review. Thanks.
     
  6. MidnightSun

    MidnightSun Emodicon

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    Thanks :)

    I've only run Vindictus on the X120e, which uses the Source engine. With low (and some medium) settings, I was able to get a bit short of 30 FPS at native resolution. Obviously not pretty, but at least playable.

    Definitely. The X120e definitely exceeded my expectations in the build quality department, much better than most netbook-ish ultraportables currently on the market.

    Thanks! No, actually. I live in California, where taxes are as high as the deficit--I just didn't include the taxed price so that it's easier to make price comparisons. After tax, the X120e was ordered at about $365.

    Thanks :)
     
  7. Tsunade_Hime

    Tsunade_Hime such bacon. wow

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    How is the keyboard feel? Is it comfortable enough to do office work? I've used many chicklet keyboards and I feel I cannot do any productive work on it. Apple chicklet feels the best IMO but I can't justify Apple's price.
     
  8. vēer

    vēer Notebook Deity

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    Great review!
    Made me start to really consider this one as my next/additional laptop :D!
    If only they would release one with 2Gz CPU!
     
  9. kaede

    kaede Notebook Consultant

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    one of the best review. more on user experience. no benchmark whatsoever.

    that make all of us drooling even more. :D

    @veer

    possible, if only they make another flavour with intel board. :D
    the next AMD APU also not reaching 2GHz CPU clock
     
  10. viox

    viox Notebook Guru

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    Same "complaint" here :) some benchmarks!

    For that matter i may give a hand in help in a couple of weeks. I have just ordered one on Thursday morning. Crossing my fingers for an early arrival..

    One question: how hard is it to switch the wireless card with an Intel 6300?
     
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