(Lenovo X61 review - continued - KurtTG)
(Part 2 of 2)
The computer performs quite well. It is a solid business machine, as you would expect from a ThinkPad with these processor and disk drive specifications Not surprisingly, the graphics are the weak link. I am not using the X61 for games, so this isn't a real problem for me. If you're looking for a good Crysis machine, this probably isn't it.
The more distinctive elements are in the performance of the X61 as a tablet PC. I have already mentioned the solid hardware elements. As a tablet I find the writing surface responsive and reasonably accurate. There is, of course, a little parallax, but it is easy to get used to. The active digitizer provides a marker for the pen tip, so it is easy to see where you are and to get used to the writing process.
The display automatically changes orientation when you switch from tablet to laptop design. It will also automatically sense the computer orientation. Of course you can override the automatic orientation with the button on the bezel.
My X61 has “multi-touch”—which means that you can use either the stylus or your finger, rather than the newer iPhone meaning of multiple touch points. The active stylus works very well. I am less enamored of the fingertip performance. My expectation when I ordered this configuration was that having the freedom to use your finger would be helpful in a seminar or lecture setting when you don't want to be keeping track of the stylus pen. In fact I find the fingerprint input rather frustrating. It isn't that accurate in the regular mode and has rather poor performance around the edges of the screen—where many of the important menus are located (the picture below shows the problem with a non-active stylus rather than a finger for accuracy). A truly effective operating system for a finger-input tablet might automatically resize critical menus for finger input around the edge of the screen—or maybe some screens are just better at registering pressure at the edges of the display.
So, if I had to do it again, I would probably get the higher resolution display without the multitouch.
The X61 pen docks securely in the left front corner. The pen has the Wacom eraser on the back and while it is not quite a fine writing instrument, it is well-sized and performs adequately.
The X61 tablet is in the thin and light category, which seems to mean weighing in around 4 pounds and having a thickness less than one and a half inches. Here I will confess to having been spoiled by the Sony Vaio ultraportable at less than an inch thick and just below 3 pounds. I always expected that the march of technology would mean that I would never again have a laptop over the 3 pound mark. But, here I am. This seems to be a necessary compromise to get the tablet form factor with a reasonable keyboard and a snappy enough processor for Vista.
So, while portability is clearly adequate, I give the X61 a little bit lower marks here. I'm sure many will take exception to my quibbling over less than a pound of travel weight and a half inch of thickness. My response is carry one for a week and then the other and get back to me. For me it makes a significant difference.
A confession: this is my second X61 tablet. I sent the first one back. It had the very irritating habit of returning to hibernation on its own just a few seconds after turning on. This was extraordinarily irritating, and a touch embarrassing. On several occasions I took the first machine to meetings or presentations only to find that I couldn't get it to turn on and stay on.
The only upside to this is it gave me a chance to experience ThinkPad service responsiveness. I'm pleased to report that their responsiveness was consistently excellent. They always answered the phone quickly and were very anxious to help with my problem. When we decided that the machine needed to be sent in for service they sent a return box by DSL next day and the total turnaround was about three days.
On the other hand, while responsiveness was great, they didn't actually succeed in fixing the problem. Instead they went through their service protocol and swapped out the motherboard. As so often with intermittent problems, it seems to have performed fine in the shop but not in the field.
I then had to return the machine altogether and get a new one. Now, here is the interesting thing: the new one has the same problem. In this case, however, the time before shutting down is a bit longer. The first one would shut down after twelve seconds. The second one goes for two minutes and thirty three seconds before re-hibernating. Having had more time I have isolated the problem, which is absolutely consistent. When you use the fingerprint reader to come out of hibernation and then don't press any keys or use the pen it reenters hibernation after the two minutes and thirty three seconds. I don't know if the first machine would have had this same pattern, since I no longer have it.
Apparently, the fingerprint reader isn't sufficiently registered to turn off the hibernation timer. I'm guessing that the difference between the two machines is something in the boot-up order, but that is just guesswork. I don't have the skill or inclination to sort this out further. My acceptable work-around is to use sleep more and hibernation less and to make sure to press a key after waking from hibernation.
Surprisingly, I couldn't find any evidence online that others have had this problem and the ThinkPad service providers don't seem to have encountered it either.
I purchased an extra battery, an extra power supply, and the USB powered CD read-write/dvd read external drive.
The external drive is nicely compact and does the job it needs to. I don't need to use it much, but when you do need to do a CD install it's nice to have.
I purchased a Tom Bihn Brain Cell case to carry the X61 around it (). It is a minimalist case that just does the job and is clearly well designed for effective protection. It could be about ¼ inch deeper for carrying the X61 with the extended battery. It is a great fit for the X61 with the regular battery and the power supply.
First, I have to register the traditional complaint about the loads of crapware that comes pre-loaded. My first action was a clean install using the custom option to prevent all of this from being reloaded.
As a ThinkPad, it also comes with the ThinkVantage suite of utilities. Many of these seem reasonably helpful. My only complaint is that there are several that significantly overlap with Windows native utilities. It is sometimes difficult to keep track of which one is the right one to use, and I worry about potential conflicts. So, for example, the task bar shows both the Vista network and sharing center and the ThinkVantage Access connections utility. Likewise, there is both a windows power manager and a ThinkVantage power manager. Both are running. Which are better? How do they interact? I don't know!
Additional Software Applications
I use the X61 with a pretty normal suite of Office applications. OneNote is a terrific application on the tablet platform. I also frequently use the R statistical package, which runs fine for my purposes. Photoshop also runs well—and is a great program for the tablet functionality.
The two applications that make the biggest difference for my portable tablet PC life are Bluebeam Revu and Microsoft's Windows Live Foldershare (beta).
Bluebeam Revu is a PDF markup program (www.bluebeam.com). It facilitates the easy conversion of other documents to PDF and then ink-based mark-up. This has been terrific for grading papers and for making notes on articles and other documents.
Foldershare allows me to sync my home and office computers with the tablet all seamlessly over the internet (www.foldershare.com). It has worked very well and stays nicely in the background. As long as I remember to make sure the tablet has had a moment connected to the internet before taking it out somewhere, the work I do on the desktop machines is always available wherever I go with the X61.
Assessing performance relative to goals:
I started this review with a list of goals for the computer to meet. Let's grade performance on those dimensions.
A small portable machine I can carry to the library and other off-site locations for research.
Something I can carry to meetings both for taking notes and for bringing relevant background materials with me.
A computer I can take to classes and to seminars for making presentations and for bringing relevant materials.
A PC that I can take to conferences and that will give me the ability to do work on the road.
A computer that can help me move towards a more paperless workflow.
A responsive machine that can serve all of my computing needs on the road.
Overall Grade: A-
The A- and B grades are all for it not being quite as lightweight or as thin as I would like. The A grades are for the tablet functionality—so you can see the trade-offs that are still involved for Tablet PCs. The grades would also be a little worse if we added in the still sizeableTablet PC price premium.
The Bottom Line
The Lenovo ThinkPad X61 tablet is a solidly built and excellent performer. I bought it because it strikes me as about the best implementation of the tablet form factor currently available. That said, I hope to see some strides towards a slightly more portable option that maintains the same high-quality keyboard and computing power. A tablet version of the Mac Air (with removable battery, please!) or the Lenovo X300 will really bring this all together.