capsule review

IBM ThinkPad X40

At a Glance
  • Generic Company Place Holder Lenovo ThinkPad X40 Notebook

IBM ThinkPad X40
Artwork: Rick Rizner, John Goddard

In the notebook downsizing race, IBM finally catches up to the competition with the new ThinkPad X40. The thin wedge-shaped unit weighs just 3.2 pounds and measures 1.3 inches tall at the hinges. Fujitsu and Compaq conquered that territory a long time ago with sub-3-pound versions of the LifeBook and Evo, respectively. But this is IBM's thinnest and lightest notebook yet, which should excite ThinkPad fans. And the X40 enjoys one huge trump card over all other ultraportables: It has a great keyboard.

The $2299 X40 remains true to the ThinkPad look and feel with the same trademark black case, red eraserhead, blue Enter key, and tidy set of audio buttons and help shortcuts. Though the screen is only 12.1 inches, it's bright and crisp. But the real star of the show is the keyboard. It is by necessity smaller than a standard notebook's keyboard, yet it still feels full-size. The X40's secret is a near full keystroke and pitch: 2.5mm and 18.5mm, respectively, compared with 3mm and 19mm for many other models, according to IBM. It's an amazing feat considering that on other ultraportables we struggle along with typing that feels cramped, shallow, or both.

The X40 should be easy to upgrade, another minor miracle in the ultraportable world. It comes with 256MB of RAM built in, and offers one accessible slot, located in a bottom compartment. The 40GB hard drive, secured by just one bottom screw, is especially easy to reach, as you can pull it out of the front of the case by its cover. The X40 is 802.11b Wi-Fi ready (with Bluetooth also an option) and includes an SD Card slot, a small but potentially handy extra feature.

Size does have its limitations, though. Connections are sparser than on the ThinkPad X31, which covers all the bases and then some with a FireWire port, CompactFlash slot, and other features. The X40 is limited to the basics: a couple of USB 2.0 ports, a monitor connection, basic audio, and network and modem jacks. Like its predecessor, the 3.6-pound X31 (still being sold), the X40 is a one-spindle notebook--it has no built-in optical drive--and it provides only one pointing device, IBM's TrackPoint eraserhead, which will disappoint touchpad fans.

To add an optical drive to the X40, you can go one of two ways. IBM sells USB 2.0 units (up to a $499 multiformat DVD burner), but they require a second power source to burn discs. (Plugging one into the X40's proprietary optical-drive power outlet on the left side of the case supports only read mode.) Or you can opt for the $199 X4 UltraBase Dock, a lightweight 1.3-pound slice that snaps onto the bottom of the notebook and has a modular bay for a combination drive. The dock also serves as a simple port replicator and adds a few connections the notebook doesn't have, including a parallel port and a third USB 2.0 port. But you still don't get TV-out or FireWire.

The X40's speed and battery life are not bad, but they're limited by the X40's size. The fastest processor available for this notebook is the ultra-low-voltage 1.2-GHz/600-MHz Pentium M. With that CPU, the X40 earned a WorldBench 5 score of 55, 6 percent higher than the average of ultraportables we've tested.

In battery tests, our unit's standard four-cell battery lasted just 2.6 hours, a far cry from the 5 to 7 hours some standard notebooks now deliver. You can beef up the X40's battery life in several ways, but be prepared to shell out some bucks. The simplest upgrade is IBM's $199 eight-cell replacement battery, which doubled battery life in our tests. Standard in some X40 configurations, it weighs about a half-pound more than the 6.6-ounce four-cell battery and protrudes an inch in the back. Then there's the Extended Life battery, a 1-pound $199 slice that uses the dock connection to provide an additional 3.5 hours for a total of 10 hours, according to IBM. (We did not test it.) A third possible configuration is combining an eight-cell battery on the notebook with a $189 UltraBay Slim lithium polymer battery inserted into the dock's modular bay, for up to 7.5 hours.

If you're rough on your laptop, the X40's Active Protection System for notebooks may buy some peace of mind. Introduced by IBM last year, it features a set of built-in motion sensors that detect movement, such as in a fall off a desk, and spin down the hard drive so you don't lose data. It's difficult to test such a feature, but the utility did not slow down our work and it could come in handy, so what's the harm? Another offbeat feature is the ThinkLight, found on most ThinkPads. An LED embedded in the lid and controlled by a combination keystroke, the ThinkLight shines a pale light on the keyboard, helping you type in the dark.

The ThinkPad X40 may not be a perfect ultraportable, but it does have a lock on the perfect ultraportable keyboard. The keyboard quality may be enough to help you forget you're spending $2299 on the X40 and its docking station, without getting a set of business applications, a touchpad, long battery life, or all the latest connections.

Carla Thornton

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At a Glance
  • Generic Company Place Holder Lenovo ThinkPad X40 Notebook

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