capsule review

IBM ThinkPad X31

At a Glance
  • IBM ThinkPad X31

IBM ThinkPad X31
Artwork: Rick Rizner, John Goddard

Ultraportables don't get much better than the ThinkPad X31. Though it weighs less than 4 pounds, it boasts a keyboard better than that of many full-size notebooks, and it squeezes in an impressive selection of data ports, including FireWire and a CompactFlash slot.

There's just one hitch: no internal optical drive. To get that you'll have to spring for IBM's $199, near-2-pound UltraBase docking station. A 1.5-inch slice that snaps onto the bottom of the notebook, the UltraBase provides the X31 with one multipurpose bay that holds a wide range of add-ins, among them a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combination drive (included in the $199 price), a secondary hard drive, a secondary battery (for up to 10 hours of work, according to IBM), a pop-out PDA cradle, and a Zip drive. You can easily remove devices from the bay using the conveniently located side tab, and you can also attach a secondary battery to the bottom of the UltraBase.

If you don't require the UltraBase's add-in options, though, you might be better off with a USB optical drive. The UltraBase has stereo speakers, but they don't sound much better than the X31's tinny monoaural speaker. And the only bonus connections are serial and PS/2 ports--no TV-out port. The X31 also works with several other docking devices that might suit your needs better, ranging from a simple $179 port replicator to the $529 ThinkPad Dock II with dual bays.

The X31's keyboard is as quiet and well organized as a full-size ThinkPad's. Though it's undeniably smaller, it feels almost as roomy, with none of the half-size keys or rickety action that mars other ultraportable keyboards. There are even finger wells on the last row of keys--a new ThinkPad feature to guide typing. The only pointing device is an eraserhead, but the wide, nubby rubber cap installed on our review unit made the stick easy to steer, as well as to use for scrolling pages in conjunction with the center mouse button.

The X31 comes with 256MB of RAM on the motherboard and just one user-accessible slot--a bit limiting if you want to upgrade from 512MB to 1024MB. A Centrino notebook, the X31 uses Intel's 802.11b Mini-PCI card.

Equipped with a 1.3-GHz/400-MHz Pentium M CPU, the X31 turned in impressive performance numbers for an ultraportable: 4.8 hours on one battery charge, and a PC WorldBench 4 score of 116--one of the best scores in the ultraportable category.

IBM sets the standard for electronic documentation. The X31's on-board manual is easy to search, and it's complemented by animated step-by-step instructions for such procedures as removing the battery and upgrading the hard drive. The only print documentation consists of some troubleshooting information.

The ThinkPad X31 is the near-perfect ultraportable notebook. If IBM could find a way to include an internal optical drive, too, this dream machine would be complete.

Carla Thornton

To comment on this article and other PCWorld content, visit our Facebook page or our Twitter feed.
At a Glance
  • IBM ThinkPad X31

Notice to our Readers
We're now using social media to take your comments and feedback. Learn more about this here.