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Lenovo ThinkPad X120e Review: AMD Fusion Infused
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Date: Feb 21, 2011
Section:Mobile
Author: Ray Willington
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Introduction and Specifications


It's good to see that AMD's Fusion technology is finally shipping. The convergence of the CPU and GPU has been looming for some time now, and while there have already been a few CPU / GPU hybrids available form the likes of Intel, the thought of having another low-power, economical to produce, cutting edge CPU / GPU combo on a mobile platform is particularly exciting. 


Over the course of the past 2-3 years, we've critiqued most of the major ultraportables and netbooks to hit the market. The vast majority of them relied on Intel's Atom, which has always been somewhat underpowered in most of its incarnations. The two areaa that Intel did trump AMD on the netbook front, however, were battery life and heat. AMD's prior netbook platform, Neo, was perhaps more powerful than anything that an Atom (and an integrated GPU) could muster, but it drew more power to make that happen.

Fusion bakes the CPU and GPU into one single piece of silicon, and while we have already reviewed the E-350 APU by its lonesome, we've been patiently waiting for a system maker to integrate the chip into a retail-ready notebook. Lenovo has become one of the first to do it, offering two major builds of the ThinkPad X120e: a $399 build with the E-240 APU, and a $579 build with the E-350 APU, 4GB of RAM and a roomy 320GB (7200RPM) hard drive. Both use an 11.6" display and ship with Windows 7. Here's a look at our review rig, which was the higher-end of the two:

Lenovo 11.6" ThinkPad X120e Ultraportable
Specifications and Features (as tested)
  • AMD E-350 Zacate @ 1.6GHz, dual-core Fusion
  • 4GB of DDR3 RAM
  • 11.6" LCD (1366x768); LED backlight, matte
  • AMD Radeon HD 6310M graphics
  • 320GB (7200RPM) Hitachi Travelstar 7K500 Hard Drive
  • 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi
  • No Optical Drive
  • 1.3 megapixel webcam
  • VGA output
  • USB 2.0 x 3
  • Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR
  • RJ-45 (Ethernet 10/100/1000)
  • Headphone / Mic Input Jacks
  • SD / MMC / SDHC Multimedia Card Reader
  • VGA and HDMI Output
  • Stereo Speakers
  • 3.3 Pounds (with 6-cell battery installed)
  • Removable 6-Cell Li-ion Battery
  • 11.22" x 8.26" x 0.61-1.16" (Dimensions)
  • Windows 7 Home Professional (64-bit)
  • Price (as tested): $579.99
  • Price (starting): $399.99
  • 1-Year Warranty





At $579, this is definitely not a bargain machine that you'll buy on impulse. But for an 11.6" ultraportable with Lenovo's well-known build quality, impressive (and cutting-edge) internals and Lenovo's under-stated style, it's not outrageous by any means. There's a lot of competition in the $350-$600 space, so the X120e definitely has its work cut out for it. Fusion's promise was to provide notebook-level performance in netbook-sized machines, but without the excessive heat and power drain associated with AMD's prior Neo chips. How'd it do on delivering? Find out in the pages to come.
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Design and Build Quality



This machine exudes quality. In fact, every ThinkPad machine that we have touched is impressive from a quality standpoint. The ThinkPad brand has earned a reputation for being well-built machines for use in business, which means they're built with enough rigidity to be hauled around daily. And of course the "timeless" styling is still here. That means a matte black exterior, and all-black interior, a TrackPoint in the middle and a standard touchpad + mouse buttons at the bottom.


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This is a ThinkPad through and through. It's built like a small tank, and despite being thin and light, it's quite rigid from top to bottom. Even the LCD panel is sturdy, and while the keyboard does have minimal flex if you really mash down on it, you won't feel any 'give' when typing normally. The LCD also reclines nearly flat, making this a great machine to get for those who end up in cramped airline seats or other strange angles when needing to use their notebook.

    
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Along the left edge, there's a headphone jack, an Ethernet port, a single USB 2.0 port, a full-size HDMI output, an exhaust vent (which gets used a lot, but more on that later), and a Kensington lock port. Along the rear, there's a VGA output and an AC input, and considering that we have a unit with the extended 6-cell battery, quite a large bulge between those two ports. Over on the right edge, there are two more USB 2.0 ports (which are smartly spaced out so your peripherals don't bump into one another) and an SD/SDHC card slot.


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If you remember back to our ThinkPad X100e review, most of the design remarks we had there ring true here. It's almost the same machine from a design standpoint. The TrackPoint functions well, and if you're not into that, the trackpad + mouse buttons are best-in-class. And we really mean it. The pad isn't textured, enabling smooth movements, and it's a multi-touch pad as well. That means that scrolling down web pages is possible by simply putting two fingertips on the pad and pulling down.


    
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We can't emphasize enough how much of a productivity booster this is if you're using your laptop as your main machine. The mouse buttons have an ideal amount of travel, and we struggle to understand how other companies simply cannot get this right. The input devices are the most important on a machine from a design standpoint, yet many can't nail them. Lenovo can, and has, on the X120e.


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User Experience


From a user experience standpoint, it's hard to find a whole lot of things to dislike. We liked AMD's Neo platform from a performance standpoint, but felt they ran a little hot and didn't have very good battery life, relatively speaking. With Fusion, AMD has taken another stab at it, and we feel that this time, they really have something worth gloating about. Despite being a sub-$600 ultraportable, the ThinkPad X120e felt like something far more powerful. Boot up was snappy, and the desktop was usable within seconds. 


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Despite Internet Explorer being loaded with the "Bing Bar," it managed to load that far, far more quickly than Dell's Inspiron Duo did. We would obviously recommend ditching IE right away and using Chrome or Firefox, but it was a simple thing that proved that the Zacate has significantly more power than even a newer Atom. Of course, having 4GB of RAM (versus 2GB in the Duo) makes a difference as well. We wouldn't care to see the X120e without at least 4GB of RAM, so if you opt for the lower-end version, make sure to budget for 4GB. If there's anything that's worth it, it's RAM.

    
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While the desktop feel was cramped somewhat, it's no worse than any other 11.6" machine, and the 1366x768 screen resolution is actually fairly high for this form factor. The matte display is one that we really like. Glossy displays aren't very useful on ultraportables, which tend to be taken outside and in sunlight quite a bit. This panel does an outstanding job of negating glare, and the colors and viewing angles are both impressive.



Multi-tasking on this machine is also very good. You really forget that you're working on what would normally be considered a low-end machine. It's just marginally more expensive than some of the nicer netbooks out there, yet it feels much faster. Just opening applications, browsing the web, firing up video clips and transferring files just felt smoother on this machine than what we've felt on the vast majority of Atom-based notebooks.


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But, there's a catch. AMD has certainly worked on the heat output and the battery drain, as we never felt our test unit become uncomfortably warm. And as you'll see in the battery testing, it managed to eek out a surprising amount of life. But the trade-off is noise: our exhaust fan on the left edge rarely ever stopped, and in most cases, it was cranking full-bore. It's not terribly loud, but it's noticeable in a library or quiet office. But you have to ask yourself: would you rather the fan work overtime, or your lap to be uncomfortably warm? We'd rather than fan do its job, even if it's working harder than on most ultraportables and netbooks, as long as it's not too intrusive.


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Futuremark 3DMark 06 / 11 and PCMark Vantage


 
HotHardware's Mobile Test Systems
Covering the bases
 Lenovo ThinkPad X120e

AMD E-350 Zacate (Fusion)
(1.6GHz)

4GB DDR3

AMD Radeon HD
6310M Graphics

On-Board Wi-Fi
On-Board Audio

1x320GB Hard Drive         
7200 RPM SATA

Windows 7
 Professional (64-bit)

11.6" LED LCD Display
(native 1366x768)
Lenovo ThinkPad X100e

AMD Athlon Neo (MV-40)
(1.66GHz)

2GB DDR2

Radeon HD 3200 IGP

On-Board Ethernet
On-Board Audio

1x250GB Hard Drive          
5400 RPM SATA

Windows 7
Professional (32-bit)

11.6" LED LCD Display
(native 1366x768)
HP Mini 311

Intel Atom N270
(1.6GHz)

2GB DDR2

NVIDIA Ion GPU
(Based on 9400M)


On-Board Ethernet
On-Board Audio

1x250GB Hard Drive          
5400 RPM SATA


Windows 7 Home
Premium (32-bit)

11.6" LED LCD Display
(native 1366x768)
Asus Eee PC 1201N

I
ntel Atom 330
(1.6GHz)

2GB DDR2

NVIDIA Ion GPU
(Based on 9400M)

On-Board Ethernet
On-Board Audio

1x250GB Hard Drive          
5400 RPM SATA

Windows 7 Home
Premium SP1 (32-bit)

12.1" LED LCD Display
(native 1366x768)



 Performance Comparisons with 3DMark06
 Details: http://www.futuremark.com/products/3dmark06/

The Futuremark 3DMark06 CPU benchmark consists of tests that use the CPU to render 3D scenes, rather than the GPU. It runs several threads simultaneously and is designed to utilize multiple processor cores.



Take note of the X120e compared to last year's X100e. Night and day difference. In fact, in these 3DMark 06 scores, the X120e basically doubles the scores put up by the X100e last year. And we felt that the X100e was a very, very solid machine for the money in its day. These results are really impressive, as you see the Fusion APU even beating NVIDIA's Ion when paired with an Intel Atom.


  Lenovo ThinkPad X120e 3DMark 06 Score

Now that Futuremark's 3DMark 11 is out, we're just starting to test our review machines with that build as well. Eventually that'll become the standard benchmarking program, but for now, we're including both since there isn't a vast library of test results in 3DMark 11 yet to use for comparison. Below, you'll find the full 3DMark 11 benchmark report for the X120e.


Lenovo ThinkPad X120e 3DMark 11 Score


 Performance Comparisons with Futuremark PCMark Vantage
 Details: http://www.futuremark.com/benchmarks/pcmarkvantage/introduction/

We ran the system through Futuremark’s latest system performance metric PCMark Vantage as well. This benchmark suite creates a host of different usage scenarios to simulate different types of workloads including High Definition video and movie playback and manipulation, gaming, image editing and manipulation, music compression, communications, and productivity. We like the fact that most of the tests are multi-threaded as well, in order to exploit the additional resources offered by multi-core processors.


Yet again, this is a great example of how the Zacate E-350 APU is much more powerful than the Neo before it, and definitely more powerful than an Atom + ION combo. These numbers are proof that AMD really cranked up the performance on Fusion, and you can definitely feel it in real-world use.


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SiSoftware Sandra & Multimedia Benchmarks


Testing with SiSoft SANDRA 2011
Synthetic Benchmarks

We continued our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA 2011, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant.  We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests (CPU Arithmetic, Multimedia Memory Bandwidth, Physical Disks). All of the scores reported below were taken with the system running in its stock configuration.

 
CPU Arithmetic Test; Click To Enlarge


CPU Multimedia Test; Click To Enlarge


Memory Bandwidth Test; Click To Enlarge


Physical Disc Test; Click To Enlarge

Our gauntlet of SiSoftware SANDRA tests show that the E-350 is capable of hanging with some pretty stout competition. There's no Atoms in this list of rivals; the E-350 has the capability to hang with more advanced CPUs, and as we've stated throughout, you feel it. At last, we see a netbook chip that makes the netbook experience one that's enjoyable.



To test multimedia capabilities, we attempt to play back a 720p WMVHD clip, a 720p H.264 clip and a 1080p clip. We've also included a screenshot of the 1080p clip from the Mini 311 (which uses the first gen NVIDIA Ion GPU) to give you a better idea of CPU utilization from a different type of system.


Click To Enlarge; 720 H.264 - ThinkPad X120e


Click To Enlarge; 720p WMVHD - ThinkPad X120e


Click To Enlarge; 1080p - ThinkPad X120e


Click To Enlarge; 1080p on HP Mini 311 w/ Ion

We assumed the E-350 would be plenty capable of handling 720p and 1080p multi-media playback, and indeed it was up to the task. It actually pegged the system resources a bit higher than we had imagined, but loading the clips was quick and playback was perfectly smooth throughout. It may not be the same if you have a lot of encoding or number crunching going on in the background, but so long as you don't treat your X120e like a mobile workstation, you should enjoy crisp, stutter-free playback. Please note, however, that GPU accelerated Flash video playback is still a work in progress and will require updates drives / plug-in at some point.
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Gaming Benchmarks


 Performance with Left 4 Dead 2, Half Life 2: Episode 2 and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars
Gaming Performance

For our next set of tests, we moved on to some in-game benchmarking with Left 4 Dead 2, Half Life 2: Episode 2 and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars. When testing processors with HL:E2, L4D2 or ET:QW, we ran a pre-recorded demo of each at a resolution of 1280x720. Since these are more entry-level game tests on highly mobile platforms, we left anti-aliasing turned off and image quality settings set from moderate to high levels where possible.



       
In all of these tests, it's clear who the winner is: Zacate. Yet again, AMD's Fusion has proven to be a real contender, putting the older Neo platform in the X100e to shame. Granted, this APU isn't strong enough to allow hardcore gamers to churn out high framerates on an external monitor, but it's plenty powerful to play some of the more modern titles at lowered resolutions. For a sub-$600 machine, we find this pretty impressive, particularly on a notebook that is likely tailored to get business done first, and play second. It also shows just how weak the Atom looks in comparison; we know we keep harping on that fact, but we're very excited about the possibility of Intel seriously overhauling their Atom line now that Fusion has delivered the first real competition in the new year.
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Battery Performance

If there's one thing a netbook (or an ultraportable) needs to be really competitive, it's great battery life. No matter how great the software or the hardware, an ultra-mobile machine needs great battery life to be really useful in the field. The X120e is a unit where we were paying particularly close attention to battery life. Remember, the Fusion APU was supposed to be more powerful than Neo, while also improving on energy drain.

 

The X100e that we reviewed last year only managed around 2.1 hours of life, while the X120e (both using a 6-cell battery) managed around 3.5 hours in the same test. We have seen reports that this machine will last even longer if you disable Wi-Fi and go easy on the screen brightness, and we believe it. Either way, over 3 hours when in use constantly is pretty impressive, and it's a very real upgrade over the X100e's battery life.
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Summary and Conclusion


Performance Summary: In our SiSoftware Sandra tests, the ThinkPad X120e performed well. It's performance level wasn't in-line with Atom and Neo CPUs, but rather somewhat more powerful CPUs; that could be found in mainstream notebooks and desktops just a few months ago. The performance that AMD has been able to squeeze out of this platform is notable, and the E-350 Zacate APU is a real workhorse of a mobile chip. In our Futuremark and Gaming benchmarks, the X120e was also a strong performer, often doubling the performance of the X100e (Neo-based) machine that we reviewed last year. Intel's older Atom chips are much lower performers than this first Fusion APU, and we're hoping that this hits home at Intel driving them to re-tool Atom with a bit more multimedia muscle.

To say that we were anxious to test out a consumer-level Zacate device is an understatement. AMD has played up Fusion for what feels like forever, and when a company builds hype around a product, expectations are obviously high. It's good to say that AMD has really nailed it in most ways. Zacate and the Brazos platform far more powerful than Neo, it doesn't drain the battery as much, and it doesn't cause excessive heat build-up. The X120e performed great, particularly for a machine of this size and cost. It's as mobile as a netbook, but on a different scale in terms of performance. Sure, it costs a bit more that the average netbook at $579 but the X120e has more of an ultra-light notebook design and we feel the price premium is justified, given just how enjoyable the user experience is.
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The design of the ThinkPad X120e is also great, predictably. Lenovo has a history of making quality machines in their ThinkPad lineup, and despite being small, the X120e is rigid, sturdy and well-built, just like the more mainstream 15" ThinkPads. The keyboard is fantastic to type on, and the touchpad + mouse buttons are among our favorites at this size. The TrackPoint provides yet another way to control things, which is a real boon if you're into that. The design is minimalistic, but it gets the job done without drawing too much attention to itself. We also love the matte display; few companies realize that these mobile machines are meant to be used outdoors, and glossy displays are so incredibly difficult to see in direct sunlight.



At $579 (or $399 for the E-240 entry level model), the X120e drives a hard bargain. There are plenty of alternatives to consider in the 11.6" ultraportable market, but few offer the performance benefits of AMD's Zacate, the rigidity of a ThinkPad and the little extras (touchpad, TrackPoint, matte panel, etc.) that make this machine so attractive. Using it was a real pleasure, and it's really impressive to think about how capable this machine is while being portable enough to use in cramped spaces. We're excited that Fusion is shipping in consumer products, even more excited that it was worth the wait. Now it's time to see what Intel will do in response in this space. It should be interesting to say the least.


     
  • Outstanding build quality
  • AMD Fusion platform
  • Great performance
  • Great trackpad
  • Matte display

  • Fans Always Spinning
  • No USB 3.0
  • Battery bulge (with 6-cell)
  • High-end is a touch pricey

 



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