capsule review

IBM ThinkPad R51

At a Glance
  • Generic Company Place Holder Lenovo ThinkPad R51 Notebook

IBM ThinkPad R51
Artwork: Rick Rizner, John Goddard

It doesn't have a hip new wide screen, a six-in-one media card reader, or a built-in DVD burner. But if you're looking for a terrific deal on a mainstream notebook, the IBM ThinkPad R51 delivers. The excellent keyboard, expandable design, long battery life, and 5.5-pound weight add up to one great portable for $1694.

The keyboard features deep-depressing keys in an easy-to-navigate layout. Both pointing devices, touchpad and eraserhead, are included. Each has its own set of mouse buttons, and eraserhead fans get two additional bonuses: a good scrolling button and three swappable caps (we found the smooth soft dome the most comfortable). If your work keeps you in the dark a lot--say, on a plane or in meeting rooms--you'll appreciate the ThinkLight, an LED mounted in the screen frame that softly illuminates the keyboard. Do you find yourself squinting at the screen, even under plenty of light? Launched by the combination keystroke of Fn-Space, the spacebar magnifier zooms the current window to fill the screen. The result is not 100 percent crisp, but it's plenty readable.

Like to keep your upgrade options open? Think you might want more RAM, a bigger hard drive, more connections, or longer battery life down the road? It will cost you, but the R51 offers more choices for expansion than any other notebook we've reviewed in this price range. Our unit had 512MB of RAM installed. You get 256MB built in, leaving you one open memory slot to fill with an additional DIMM up to 1GB for a total of 1.28GB. That's short of the up to 2GB of main memory some expensive notebooks offer, but it should be plenty for most users. You can easily access the socket by removing one screw from a bottom panel. Ditto for the 40GB hard drive, which you can pull out of the right side of the notebook by its cover.

You get expansion possibilities galore with the battery and docking options--not that you necessarily need them. The R51's standard battery, a rear detachable unit, turned in excellent performance in our tests, lasting almost 4 hours on one charge. For even longer-lasting independence from an outlet, swap in the extended-life replacement battery ($99), which lasts 30 percent longer, according to IBM (we did not test it). Finally, you can use either the standard or replacement battery in combination with a second 3.5-hour battery ($170) in the notebook's right modular bay (you will have to remove the combination drive first). When you aren't using the bay for the optical drive or a battery, you can insert a second hard drive. A release on the side, instead of the bottom, of the notebook lets you pop devices out using one hand.

The Wi-Fi-ready R51 comes with a full set of notebook connections, including a parallel port (but no serial) for legacy fans, two USB 2.0 ports, and FireWire and TV-out ports. But for easier desktop cable management and for expanding your horizons, IBM offers three docking options, ranging from the simple (the $179 ThinkPad Port Replicator II) to the slightly more sophisticated (the $229 ThinkPad Mini-Dock, with its own power adapter and two additional USB ports) to a high-end base that includes an additional modular bay (the $399 ThinkPad Dock II).

The R51 should be fast enough to handle just about any type of application. In our testing it set a WorldBench 5 mark of 67, which is 3 percent faster than the average score for notebooks equipped with Intel's 1.5-GHz/600-MHz Pentium M processor and 512MB of RAM.

Wrapping it all up is the excellent on-screen user manual, in our opinion the best in the industry. Considering this manual's dedicated launch button and step-by-step animated tutorials, it's hard to fault IBM for dropping print documentation.

We have just a couple of minor complaints: The set of mouse buttons provided for the touchpad sit a tad too close to the front of the notebook. We were able to press them most of the time, but occasionally we instead thwacked the edge of the case with our thumbs. And like most ThinkPad notebooks, the R51 is not a music machine, despite a nice set of press-and-hold volume buttons at the top of the keyboard. The sound quality is fine, with no distortion or extreme tinniness, but a bit too low for more than casual listening.

Slim, fully featured (including an excellent keyboard), and extremely expandable, the R51 strikes just the right balance for individuals and businesses desiring mainstream features more than bells and whistles. No other $1700 notebook we know of offers so many docking and battery expansion options. You do, however, have to pay extra for business software, starting at $130 for Microsoft Office Basic Edition 2003.

Carla Thornton

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At a Glance
  • Generic Company Place Holder Lenovo ThinkPad R51 Notebook

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