These days, it seems we're hearing more and more about tablets eating away at market share that was once ruled by netbooks and notebooks. Netbooks we can believe -- we haven't seen a compelling wave of new netbooks in months -- but are people really choosing tablets with limited functionality over full-scale laptops? That argument is expected to hit an even higher note once Windows 8 launches this autumn, bringing a full "desktop operating system" to a tablet form factor. But for now, there's Windows 7, and that's exactly what's onboard Lenovo's newest convertible tablet, the ThinkPad X230T.
ThinkPad historians may recall the X220 (laptop) and X220T (convertible tablet / notebook) from last year. Both were formidable machines, but Intel's 3rd-gen series of Core processors weren't out yet. Turns out, that kind of horsepower was missing in certain models. Now, however, the company's dual-core Ivy Bridge CPUs are out in full force, bringing a nice boost in computing throughput as well as energy efficiency to a space that's begging for both.
The X230T is a netvertible in its truest sense. Open it up, and it's a 12.5-inch ultraportable notebook that seems a bit heftier than the competition. This is a machine that will have additional value proposition down the road, however, when Windows 8 is released. Spin the reversible IPS panel around and fold it down, and you've got yourself an extremely spacious touchscreen tablet (albeit one with Windows 7 instead of the more common Android or iOS tablet operating systems).
That two-faced nature is just the start; let's take a look at what's under the hood.
720p front-facing webcam (low-light capable with Face Tracking)
Ports and Connectors
USB 3.0 (2); VGA (1); DisplayPort (1); Always-on USB 2.0 (1); 4-in-1 Card Reader (1); 54mm ExpressCard Slot; 3.5mm Headphone Jack
Productivity & Entertainment Software
• NortonTM Internet Security 2012
• Microsoft® Office 2010
• Adobe® Acrobat® Reader®
• Microsoft® Windows Live Essentials 2011
• Lenovo Cloud Storage by Sugarsync
• Symantec VIP (Verisgn Identify Protection)
• Power Manager 6.0
• Access Connections 5.9
• Active Protective SystemTM • Password Manager 4.0
Operating System Options
• Genuine Windows® 7 Home Premium 64 bit
• Genuine Windows® 7 Home Premium 32 bit
• Genuine Windows® 7 Professional 64 bit (as tested)
• Genuine Windows® 7 Professional 32 bit
• Genuine Windows® 7 Ultimate 64 bit
$1249 as tested - Core i5-3320M, 4GB DDR3, 320GB HDD
Our test unit hits right in the middle of what's offered, boasting a Core i5 CPU, 4GB of RAM and a 320GB (5400RPM) hard drive. The slightly lower-end specs enable a price point below $1300, but that's still quite lofty given the fierce competition these days in the Ultrabook and tablet space. In fact, $1300 will grab you quite a nice tablet and Ultrabook together these days, but is the price premium here worthwhile? Are the compromises made to shove two products into one too much? Join us in the pages ahead as we explore these questions and the requisite performance profile of the Lenovo ThinkPad X230T.
Design and Build Quality
It's a ThinkPad, and with that comes a certain set of expectations in terms of design and build quality. IBM at first, and now Lenovo, has gained a significant amount of loyalty due to the ruggedness and balanced utility of the ThinkPad line, and that name now carries a bit of weight. Despite being one of the smaller ThinkPads out there, and despite being only partly a notebook, we're happy to say that the near-legendary build quality is still here. Lenovo has ushered in a very slightly adjusted keyboard, but honestly, we didn't notice a difference in typing. It remains one of the most comfortable notebook keyboards on the market hands-down, and there's a new dampening feature that really does make each key press nearly silent.
When you first lay hands on the X230T, you know it's a ThinkPad first and foremost. It's far more boxy, plainly colored and thicker than other netvertibles, but it's to be expected. It comes with the ThinkPad territory. All of that rigidity means a machine that's somewhat heftier and perhaps less graceful than some of the more stunning, albeit fragile rivals. There's no flex in the lid nor the keyboard, but at over 1" thick, we wouldn't have expected any.
Upon opening the lid, you will immediately feel the real estate pinch with such a small machine. While the keyboard itself sure feels like a full-size arrangement, everything else is mini-sized. The trackpad is almost laughably small by comparison to competitive thin and lights on the market today. It possesses the typical "dimpled" texture, but it's so tiny that we found ourselves frustrated by its functionality even with the sensitivity level cranked. Moreover, the dedicated left / right click buttons are on top of the trackpack. This is obviously a move made so that they are below the heralded pointer nub in the middle of the keyboard, but those not used to such a layout will be flustered. The nub worked admirably, and it quickly became our input method of choice. Clicking down in the right or left corner of the trackpad initiates a left or right click, but the pad is so small that even this doesn't feel well-implemented. Along this same thought, the palm rest area practically doesn't exist; it feels really uncomfortable trying to contort your wrists to fit on the sliver of space provided when typing for long periods. Granted, this machine really doesn't cater to those who would do such a thing, but if you're a road warrior, you never know when you'll need to crank out 4,000 words.
Our test unit didn't ship with a backlit keyboard, but it's an option we'd strongly recommend springing for. Using a keyboard without a backlight feels almost wrong in 2012. Particularly when you're paying over $1,200 for a pro-grade machine. We honestly felt this machine was just too thick to ship sans an optical drive. In addition, 1.06" to 1.23" inches in depth, it's tough to believe how few ports are on here. You'll get just three USB ports (two are USB 3.0), a DisplayPort, a VGA port, a 4-in-1 media card reader, and an optional ExpressCard slot. That's a lot of connections for a tablet; but it's too few for a $1,200+ laptop.
The battery included in our test unit stuck out of the rear quite a bit; again, it's the ThinkPad function-over-form mantra. Outside of the nicely arranged keyboard and the understated matte black color, there's really nothing pretty about this thing. It's awkward, bulky, and juts out. But hey, there's a lot of battery power in there.
Now, onto the display. It's obviously a huge deal. Lenovo has equipped the X230T with a 12.5" multitouch IPS panel. It's clearly one of the most impressive screens to ever find its way onto a convertible notebook. In the past, we've lamented the fact that netvertibles were typically equipped with subpar displays that weren't even fit to be touched or interacted with. This display has above-average viewing angles, but the mediocre 1366x768 resolution keeps it from being one of our favorites.
As a notebook display, it functions fine. It's not exceptional, but colors are sharp enough that it doesn't garner any major gripes. However, once you flip the display around and turn it into a tablet, we see once again why this model is so badly broken. Even with a higher-quality display, the panel doesn't respond well to touch. It routinely registers touch points incorrectly. (We'll dive more into that on the next page.) The good news is that you don't have to mash overly hard to register a touch, but the bad news is that your fingerprints are going to end up all over this thing, making it really difficult to look at in notebook mode. Frustrating and practically unavoidable. Windows 8 might improve the experience, however, but alas it's don't have that option just yet.
Software and User Experience
Our test unit shipped with Windows 7 Professional, but you'll have to forgive us for already looking a few months ahead -- especially with this form factor. We have a pretty good idea of how much more impressive the X230T would be with Windows 8 onboard, and it's getting harder and harder to recommend a Windows 7-based hybrid tablet/notebook form factor given Win8's impending release this fall.
Lenovo loads up its typical ThinkVantage suite of management tools, and per usual, we found these largely unnecessary. We greatly prefer using the Control Panel and built-in Windows tools to manage things like wireless networks; Lenovo's suite just feels like bloatware. They take longer to load, and mostly just duplicate functionality that's already in Windows. We often found ourselves wondering whether to consult the Settings within Windows or Lenovo's own management suite, and there's really no clear indication as to which is superior in a given scenario.
Outside of that, there isn't too much bloatware, but the usual anti-virus pop-up takes up the bottom right of your screen upon first boot. Talk about an uninvited guest. We're obviously fans of protecting one's PC, but a "trial" version of software you never asked for isn't our idea of accomplishing that. You shouldn't have to uninstall various pieces of software before you can enjoy your new PC. (That's a topic we've covered at length here before.) We know it's all about money and placement, but when you break open a new PC, it shouldn't feel like someone already opened it, installed some unwanted software, repacked it and then shipped it on to you.
There is one particular piece of software that's worth talking about given that this is designed to be used (at least partially) as a tablet. Lenovo's SimpleTap software isn't new -- it's been on machines for well over a year -- but it remains a useful app in touch mode. Basically, it pulls up a grid of app icons that you can customize, enabling easier launching into programs while it's being used as a tablet. It's a really simple grid, not unlike what Android, iOS and Metro in many ways, but there's one problem: once you (easily) launch into a program, it's not tailored for touch.
If you launch into Internet Explorer, the same IE shows up in either touch mode or notebook mode. In other words, it's really difficult to tap on that tiny address bar, pull up the virtual keyboard, poke your URL in there, and hit enter. Then, you have to remove the keyboard to swipe around the webpage. It's a completely broken experience. There's no two ways about it. Windows 8 is en route to solve this exact problem (with "Metro apps" and "standard apps"), but we're reviewing this unit with Windows 7 -- and the experience isn't pleasant.
We can't think of a single time when we'd actively want to use this machine in tablet mode. As we were alluding to in the prior page, once you're in tablet mode, touch points are almost never accurate. You effectively have to recalibrate your brain to always aim about a centimeter higher than you mean to in order to land on the right spot.
The real issue here is that our expectations of what a tablet should act like has been defined by the iPad and competitive Android devices. The touch response and touch point accuracy on virtually all current generation tablets is so incredibly precise, and so incredibly well done, that anything you touch should feel at least that good… or else it'll feel really, really frustrating. And that's what happens with the X230T. The touch response and accuracy is so far and away worse than that of the iPad, that you find yourself struggling to believe the $1,200+ price tag. How can touch response be so good on a full-fledged tablet, but so poor on this? It's hard to know if it's a driver problem, Lenovo's problem, or a Windows problem -- or some combination of the three. But it really doesn't matter. Five minutes attempting to use this as a tablet will have you switching back into laptop mode, and at that point, why not just buy the standard ThinkPad X230 and save yourself the trouble?
The only out here is for those who simply prefer pen input. There's a built-in Wacom digitizer, which does indeed contribute to the lofty price, and it's one of only a handful of machines to offer it. Pen input, as you'd suspect, is good. For drawing and note-taking apps, pen input is enjoyable, but the relatively large size of the device makes it beg for a kickstand of sorts. We don't typically take notes with a pen, but for those who work with charts or more visual applications, that alone may be enough to overshadow the other cons of this machine, simply because it's such a unique feature.
SiSoftware Sandra and Cinebench Performance
Preliminary Testing with SiSoft SANDRA 2011
We started off 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, Memory Bandwidth, Physical Disks). All
of the scores reported below were taken with the processor running
at its default clock speed with 4GB of DDR3 RAM running in
Sandra didn't reveal anything surprising; the X230T struggled in the hard drive department, where the 5400RPM spindle rate of the 320GB Seagate drive hindered it significantly. The Core i5 CPU managed to hold its own, however. Unfortunately, Memory Bandwidth scores recorded here were well below average for an Ivy Bridge system. It appears Lenovo decided to configure the machine with a single 4GB stick of memory in single channel mode. We're use to seeing Ivy Bridge machines offer up in excess of 18GB/sec of memory bandwidth. The X230T is only able to put out a little over 10GB/sec in this setup. Lenovo didn't do the system any justice with this memory configuration and it's going to hurt in multimedia workloads especially where graphics is a concern.
Cinebench R11.5 64bit
Content Creation Performance
Cinebench R11.5 benchmark is based on Maxon's Cinema 4D software used
for 3D content creation chores and tests both the CPU and GPU in
separate benchmark runs. On the CPU side, Cinebench renders a
photorealistic 3D scene by tapping into up to 64 processing threads
(CPU) to process more than 300,000 total polygons, while the GPU
benchmark measures graphics performance by manipulating nearly 1 million
polygons and huge amounts of textures.
Our Cinebench scores were solid and the X230T was able to best these previous generation Sandy Bridge-based rivals in both CPU and graphics (OpenGL) testing. Impressive actually.
Futuremark 3DMark 06 / 11 and PCMark Vantage
continued testing and fired up Futuremark's system performance
benchmark, PCMark Vantage. This synthetic benchmark suite simulates a
range of real-world scenarios and workloads, stressing various subsystem
in the process. Everything you'd want to do with your PC --
watching HD movies, music compression, image editing, gaming, and so
forth -- is represented here, and most of the tests are multi-threaded,
making this a good indicator of all-around performance.
Futuremark PCMark Vantage
Simulated Application Performance
full Vantage score is below.
Here we see the X230T spring back with a
relatively robust score, in the top end of our test pack for this general purpose
and multimedia benchmark suite. It's actually pretty surprising to see the machine notch these scores.
Light Duty DX9 Synthetic Gaming
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.
The third-generation of Core i5 processors are strong performers, as
shown here. The Core i5 here outpaced the second-generation Core i5 and its HD 3000 graphics engine across the board. The full score is below.
Synthetic DirectX Gaming
latest version of Futuremark's synthetic 3D gaming benchmark, 3DMark11,
is specifically bound to Windows Vista and 7-based systems because it
uses the advanced visual technologies that are only available with
DirectX 11, which isn't available on previous versions of Windows.
3DMark11 isn't simply a port of 3DMark Vantage to DirectX 11, though.
With this latest version of the benchmark, Futuremark has
incorporated four new graphics tests, a physics tests, and a new
combined test. We tested the graphics cards here with 3DMark11's
Extreme preset option, which uses a resolution of 1920x1080 with
4x anti-aliasing and 16x anisotropic filtering.
3DMark 11 is still a new benchmark, and
we're still building up our database of machines that we've ran through
this test. These were set on the "Performance" setting, just to
give you a vague idea of comparisons. It actually landed pretty much in the middle of the rival pack, which is fairly impressive given its integrated HD 4000 graphics, which was also able to edge out even a couple of older discrete solutions . The full score is below.
Gaming Benchmarks and Battery Life
FarCry 2 and Left 4 Dead 2 Gaming Tests
DirectX Gaming Performance
the original, FarCry 2 is one of the more visually impressive games to
be released on the PC to date. Courtesy of the Dunia game engine
developed by Ubisoft, FarCry 2's game-play is enhanced by advanced
environment physics, destructible terrain, high resolution textures,
complex shaders, realistic dynamic lighting, and motion-captured
animations. We benchmarked the test systems in this article with the
FarCry 2 benchmark tool using one of the built-in demo runs recorded in
the "Ranch" map.
The somewhat dated Far Cry 2 benchmark isn't as
hard on current gen systems, but in this case the X230T couldn't quite keep up. It's obvious that the HD 4000 integrated GPU isn't meant for serious hardcore gaming but what's really killing frame rates here for the X230T is its low memory bandwidth we showed you in the SANDRA test. This CPU should be able to punch out in excess of 22FPS here but not while it's hamstrung in memory bandwidth.
Left 4 Dead 2, though it has reasonably good visuals, is a bit easier on
the graphics subsystem. This was a game engine that the Lenovo IdeaPad X230T could handle a bit better as well.
Here we see playable frame rates right up
through 1280X720 and almost playable at native res of the X230T panel.
BatteryEater Pro tends to measure worst case scenarios, in that it
doesn't really take into consideration power saving features, instead
working the system's hard drive, CPU and graphics moderately until it
dies out. We kept our test machines with Wi-Fi
on, and screen brightness hovering at 50% for the life of the test.
A 63Whr battery is included here,
and Lenovo makes the claim that you can get up to eight hours of
productive use (up to 18 with an external pack). As these tests typically go, our rundown test -- which does a great job of replicating tough usage in the real world -- managed to choke the life out of the battery far more quickly. That said, it's still not bad for a small laptop at almost 7 hrs under light duty workloads such as web browsing.
Summary and Conclusion
Performance wise, the ThinkPad X230T fared far better than the weaker X220T before it, but that's still not saying much. The 5400RPM hard drive that shipped in our test unit was far too sluggish, and it dragged the performance of the entire machine down. The integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics wasn't designed to handle even medium-duty gaming, so those who are longing for something more serious than Fruit Ninja should probably look elsewhere. Then again, this is an ultralight tablet/notebook convertible so expectations need to be set accordingly. The machine's Core i5 CPU, from Intel's Ivy Bridge family, was indeed worthy of praise, but it never felt as if it met its true potential due to the slower HDD holding things back. In our opinion, these days, a machine of this stature should ship only with an SSD, or at the very least a small SSD cache module with Intel SRT enabled for a more responsive HDD subsystem. Lenovo does have SRT as an option for this machine and we'd highly recommend it.
The ThinkPad X230T is a very interesting machine. It's not that we haven't seen convertible notebooks / tablets before, but honestly, we're living in an age where these kinds of machines are less necessary than ever before. How so? In just a few months, Windows 8 will be out. And with that will come a bevy of Windows 8 tablets -- not hybrid devices, but actual tablets. Compact, highly mobile tablets. However, these tablets will have a full copy of Windows 8 onboard, enabling tablets -- for the first time -- to truly act as desktop replacements while also shining as a tablet. Windows 7 tried this on a few machines, but the incomplete tablet side of the UI left a bad taste in the mouths of most who tried it.
The truth of the matter is that convertible notebooks have never really been well executed. Every one that we've ever touched has made too many compromises to be exceptionally great at anything. Plus, Windows 7 wasn't made for touch. It just wasn't. Shoehorning Windows 7 onto a touch-centric device is just a bad idea, and yet, it continues to happen. Even if you spruce up the launchpad (as with SimpleTap), the fact remains that Windows 7 applications aren't engineered for touch-first inputs. They're engineered to accept commands from a mouse cursor. Even the virtual keyboard in Windows 7 is a pain to use; compare to the keyboard on the iPad, and the difference is immediately obvious. We know the iPad isn't a competitor to the X230T, but some elements of Apple's tablet best even this full-scale $1,200+ machine.
As a notebook, the machine serves the purpose, but it's not exceptionally quick at handling traditional notebook tasks. And moreover, it's nearly double the thickness of most Ultrabooks, and there's not even an optical drive here to use as an excuse. The X230T is also well over $1,200 -- a fact that cannot be overlooked. As a tablet, the X230T simply falls short of what a ThinkPad should. Touch points are almost never registered with accuracy, and Windows 7 just isn't built for touch. It's two wrongs making an even bigger wrong. What's odd to us is that clearly someone is buying this; otherwise, the X220T would've been viewed as a failed experiment and the X230T would've never seen the light of day.
The only potential saving grace here is the impending release of Windows 8; you could buy this machine now and upgrade to Windows 8 for what's likely to be a software experience that better matches what this hardware is capable of delivering. But why would you do such a thing? You're better off waiting for hardware to ship that was built from the ground-up with Windows 8 as the test-bed operating system. And if you truly love the X230T's layout, we'd strongly recommend opting for the non-convertible X230 and getting a Win 7 machine that doesn't compromise in a bid to be two things at once.