ThinkPad X120e Review (X120e vs X61)

I bought a Lenovo X120e today thinking that it would be a great small work machine for the next three years.  I’m taking it back tomorrow and opting instead for a used ThinkPad X61.

Lenovo ThinkPad X120e

The context
I’m a Systems Specialist at the School of Computing at Queen’s University.  In my role their, I have used many, many machines.  Among these, my consistent favourites have been ThinkPads, Apple machines, and HP’s EliteBooks.  Between work and home I own and use on a daily basis the following ThinkPads: X40, X61, T60, R50p.  Of these, the X40 and X61 are my favourites.  The X40 is as small and light as they come, the X61 is marginally bigger is blazingly fast, and is almost as light with a full 2.5″ SATA drive.  Both of the Xs, from ebay for $150 and $340 respectively, belong to me personally.  I tend to avoid ebay for long-term day-to-day work machines, so thought the X120e would make an excellent work machine.

I liked the X120e in principal because the X2xx series that have replaced the X6x line are much larger and heavier than the older sub-3lb ThinkPad X machines.

Having read the initial poor reviews of the X100e and then the subsequent overwhelmingly positive reviews of the X120e, I felt it was time to take the plunge.  After all, a slightly under-specd 11″ MacBook Air is my current favourite all-around machine.  Like the X120e, the low-end MBA is an 11″ dual-core system with 2GB of RAM.  It must be close, right?  Read on…

The hardware
The Lenovo ThinkPad X120e is a fairly high-quality netbook.  However, it is a very low-quality ThinkPad.  Having used ThinkPads since the A30, I expect certain things with the ThinkPad name.  Here’s what was missing with the X120e:

  • The keyboard, while spacious for a netbook, pales in comparison to every other X-series keyboard available. Specifically, it is missing common keys (such as ScrLck), it has no CapsLk light, no dedicated volume keys, and the overall feel of it is much cheaper.
  • It has no ThinkPad Light, and no backlit keyboard.  For me, if it doesn’t have a ThinkPad Light, it’s not a ThinkPad.
  • There’s no fingerprint reader, and Bluetooth is an optional module
  • It’s loud.  The X61, with an SSD, is silent under light load.  The X120e fan is always running and is quite a bit louder than my other ThinkPads under load.
  • The overall design is cheaper than every other ThinkPad I have owned.

ThinkPad X61 (Left) and X120e (Right)

While it is true that the X61 that I’m typing this on was originally a $2000 machine and the X120e was $589 as configured, I bought the X61 for $350 on eBay, and this is a completely normal price.  There are always X60 and X61 ThinkPads on eBay for under $400.  As far as I am concerned, these are such a clearly better purchase than the X120e, that it is simply no contest.  The plastic is cheaper, there’s no roll cage, no dock option, the X120e is fairly thick, and the entire thing feels like a netbook.

Then there’s Linux support.  The AMD Fusion APU is new and is not well supported in Linux yet.  I have no doubt that this will improve quickly over time, but the X61 works perfectly in Ubuntu 10.04 and RHEL 6 today.  This isn’t a big stumbling block, but for me it is yet another reason to select a used X61 over a new X120e.

Having said as many negative things as I have about the X120e, there is one place where it shines:  The screen.  The 11″ 1366×768 screen is much nicer than the 1024×768 12″ screen in the X61 and earlier.  However, for me, the tradeoff between the lower build quality, sub-par keyboard, lack of raw CPU power, and noise, to say nothing of the higher price, make the new Lenovo ThinkPad X120e a poor substitute for a used Lenovo ThinkPad X61 or X60.

ThinkPad X120e keyboard close-up

Conclusion

In case I wasn’t clear enough above, I would recommend skipping the ThinkPad X120e.  Instead, pick up an older X60 or X61.  The X61 is faster, cheaper, more expandable, can handle 8GB of RAM, and is easily repairable.  If I were Lenovo, I would be very careful about what they put the ThinkPad name on.  It used to mean something.  Between Apple’s top-notch MacBook Air and HP’s EliteBook line of laptops, I have a very difficult time recommending a ThinkPad these days.  It’s good to see Lenovo trying a 3lb machine again but the X120e is an inferior product.  Compared to older X series ThinkPads, the X120e proves that newer isn’t always better.  I’m honestly not sure why it is receiving positive reviews.

Lenovo ThinkPad X120e ($589 as configured)
+ Better screen resolution (1366×768 vs 1024×768)
+ Well placed secondary PgUp and PgDn buttons
– Build quality mediocre at best
– No ThinkPad light
– Keyboard is missing keys!
– No capslock light
– No ScrLk, pause
– No dedicated volume
– Keyboard isn’t as nice, period.
– 2.5hrs on small battery, 5+ on 6-cell
– No fingerprint reader
– Constant fan noise
– Mediocre Linux support

Lenovo ThinkPad X61 ($350 with dock on eBay)
– Fast (2GHz C2D)
– 2.5hrs on 4-cell battery, 5+ larger
– Up to 8GB RAM
– ThinkPad light
– Better keyboard
– Dock option
– Firewire
– Quieter (Silent with SSD under low load)
– Perfect Linux support

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9 Comments to “ThinkPad X120e Review (X120e vs X61)”

  1. really looks superb! no doubt about it! but if your looking for a mid-range laptop you can look at his cousin Ideapad Y560

    http://www.ideapadtoday.com/lenovo-ideapad-y460p-review-new-%E2%80%9Csandy-bridge%E2%80%9D-boost.htm

    Tell me what you think!

  2. I really didn’t like the X120e. I honestly think most people considering the X120e would be better off with a used ThinkPad X60 or X61.

    I work at a University with people who are travelling constantly. IdeaBooks aren’t really suitable for this market. I just wish Lenovo would reserve the ThinkPad name for business-quality machines, as HP does with the EliteBook line.

  3. Interesting review. I think one thing to point out however is that you are comparing two different classes of laptops. The x120e is meant to be something in-between a netbook and a full laptop. There really aren’t any decently powerful laptops with an 11-inch screen in the $400-600. In this price range, or cheaper, they mostly have atom processors or older AMD processors (like a Neo). The X61 is more powerful, but is a “full laptop” with a more powerful processor and of course, worse battery life. You mentioned this, but they originally retailed at over twice (up to five times) more expensive. To me, the x120e is more for people who want something like a netbook, but with a little more power and screen real estate without paying $700+ or sacrificing battery life. If someone wants a primary work machine, they’d opt for something with a larger screen, like a 14 or 15.6″ screen which often offers more powerful specs at a lower price. As far as Linux support, it will only get better in time.

    That’s my opinion anyways! I would agree that if this is your only/primary computer, something with a more powerful processor, even the x61, would be better. I would get the x120e as a cheap secondary ultra-portable to lug around. Of course, now you see many people these days spending $250-350 on super-cheap laptops on sale at Walmart opposed to getting something decent. :/

  4. Hi Ryan,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. My point for comparing the X120e and X61 is that both are small and light ThinkPads with similar weight, size, etc.

    I take your point about these machines being in different classes when they were originally released but the fact now is that the X120e is $400-600 today and that you can easily find a ThinkPad X61 on ebay for less than half the price of a mostly inferior X120e. In fact, savvy buyers can easily pick up an X61 used for less than the $250-350 super-cheap Walmart laptops you mention. If speed isn’t a concern, the ThinkPad X40s are an even better deal, often selling for less than $150.

    I suppose that my ultimate point was that newer is clearly not always better and that if you’re willing to accept used, you can easily get something decent for well less than the price of the X120e.

  5. All I meant is that someone who wants something netbook-size would be the target audience for this. You do certainly make a great point though. If a thin 14″ laptop works for someone and they don’t mind buying used, there are some great deals out there.

  6. Can you elaborate on how the APU is “not well supported in Linux”?

  7. Hi Ryan,

    I again take your point, but the ThinkPad X61 is a 12″ ultraportable 1024×768 machine. It’s a bit taller than the X120e because of the 4:3 aspect ratio but is not as wide, about as think, and the same weight as the X120e. (Hence my reason for the comparison.)

    The X40 and X60 series were released before the Netbook category existed. By the time the EeePC hit the market, Lenovo has replaced the X60 with the much bigger X200 series.

  8. Hi Chris,

    The AMD APU can certainly be made to work well in Linux and I’m sure that the latest distributions work reasonably well. However, stock Ubuntu 10.04 installs to an unaccelerated desktop with no networking without extra work. It’s a bit foggy now, but I believe this was also the case in Scientific Linux 6 (RHEL 6 community rebuild.) I stick to LTS releases at work, so this is an issue for me.

  9. Ah, Ok. For some reason I thought it was a 14″ machine. 12 inches is certainly comparable.

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