Lenovo ThinkPad X220 Review

The Lenovo ThinkPad X220 / X220i is the most popular selling laptop in the ThinkPad lineup, and for good reason. The X220 features both power and ultra-portability in the same package, all for a reasonable price of under $1,000 for many configurations. The ThinkPad X220 is a popular laptop in the world of business, but given its great battery life, portable size, and excellent durability it can also serve as a great student laptop. Students often look for laptops in the $800 or less range, but during good sales and by using coupon and student discounts available on Lenovo.com you can get the X220 for a good price.

Lenovo ThinkPad X220
Lenovo ThinkPad X220

ThinkPad X220 specs as reviewed

The specs for the X220 under review are as follows:

  • Screen: 12.5” 1366 x 768 Premium display (IPS screen)
  • Processor: Intel Core i5-2410m (2.30GHz, 3MB L3 cache, 1333MHz FSB)
  • OS: Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
  • Memory: 4GB RAM
  • WebCam: built-in 720p HD cam
  • Battery: 6-cell Li-ion
  • Battery Life: 7 hours and 50 minutes
  • Wireless: Intel N1000 (802.11 a/b/g/n)
  • Ports and Slots: Display Port, VGA Port, 3 USB 2.0 ports (1 Always-On port), Ethernet port (RJ-45), headphone/microphone jack combo, USB 3.0 port available with Core i7 configuration, SD card reader, 54mm ExpressCard slot
  • Weight: 3.34lbs
  • Optical Drive: none
  • Dimensions: 305.0mm x 206.5mm x 19-34.6mm (12.0” x 8.13” x 0.75 – 1.36”)

Lenovo ThinkPad X220 Buying Experience and Packaging

The extensive full specs and options for the X220 / X220i can be seen on this datasheet at Lenovo.com. The X220 configuration I purchased was bought during a sale on Lenovo.com and my total price after taxes came to only $738.48. The order was placed on 8/1/2011, it shipped from China on 8/6/2011 and arrived at my house on 8/11/2011, so it was a total of 10-days from order to actual delivery, shipping was free.

The X220 arrived well packaged, though the box was quite dirty after its intercontinental journey, the contents were tightly packed and very clean. Below are a few unboxing pictures of the ThinkPad X220:

Lenovo ThinkPad X220 unbox

In the box, you get the X220 laptop, battery, power adapter, and warranty/instruction manuals.

ThinkPad X220 Design

The ThinkPad X220 uses the same tried and true ThinkPad design that’s been used for several years now, sure it maybe is a little boring to some, but the all-black look with a rubberized matte finish is timeless and the red track point iconic.

Lenovo ThinkPad X220

The overall shape is boxy, there are no curvaceous corners but at the same time no sharp edges either. When the lid is closed you simply see the Lenovo badge on the left front side, ThinkPad logo on the right, and then the rugged metal hinges at the back. Once opened the keyboard is revealed, the red TrackPoint in the middle of the keyboard and red stripes on the mouse buttons draw the most attention on an otherwise all-black keyboard area.

One thing that does help the ThinkPad X220 look cool is its slim profile and small footprint. The thinnest point at the front of the X220 is only 0.75”, while at the back it goes up to 1.35”. The thickness range from front to back actually makes typing easier as the keyboard is naturally sloped up giving a more ergonomic design.

ThinkPad X220 Build Quality

The ThinkPad X220, like a Timex watch, is built to take a licking and keep on ticking. It has an internal magnesium “roll cage”, like a car you never know what will happen and so the internal skeleton is built to protect the insides during drop or bump situations. The top and bottom of the ThinkPad X220 are also made of a magnesium alloy for extra protection when the laptop is stowed away or being carried. The hinges on the X220 are made of metal, not plastic, so they will last and resist cracking. If you’re accident-prone and often find yourself drinking beverages near your laptop you’ll be happy to know the keyboard is designed to be spill-resistant, meaning if you spill a liquid into the keyboard it will be carried out the bottom. Below is an image with the spill drains circled in red on the bottom of the X220, the liquid simply drains to these locations:

Lenovo ThinkPad X220 build quality

Overall the X220 is a rugged little laptop that can take being bumped, dropped, and jostled as it is carried around campus or wherever travels may take you. It’s much more durable than your average consumer laptop and therefore should last you far longer.

ThinkPad X220 Weight

One major selling point for the X220 is the lightweight, I have the upgraded 6-cell battery and putting the X220 on the scale showed the weight to be 3lbs 5.5 ounces or 3.34lbs. That’s a very easy weight to carry around in a backpack, you’ll hardly even notice it. If you choose to take the power adapter and cord along the total travel weight goes up to about 4lbs. Still a very reasonable weight, but as you’ll find out later the need for dragging around a power adapter is limited as the X220 has amazing battery life and you may not need to charge during the day.

ThinkPad X220 Performance

One of the sacrifices you often have to make with an ultraportable laptop is having an underpowered or low voltage processor, usually resulting in good battery life but poor speed performance. This is not so with the X220, it uses the same 2nd generation Intel Core i5 / i7 processors that larger 15” and 17” laptops used. In other words, you’re getting all the performance of larger laptops in a smaller package.
My ThinkPad X220 configuration comes with my favorite Intel Core i5-2410m processor. I’ve reviewed several laptops using this same processor and find that the performance it provides to be excellent and it’s an affordable upgrade from the standard Core i3 processor. The Core i5-2410m offers 2.30GHz speed under normal conditions but with the Intel TurboBoost technology on board, it can overclock to 2.90GHz when necessary. This means that during normal usage such as browsing the web or editing a document the processor can just run at its normal speed, using a minimal amount of battery and keeping the laptop cool, and still handle multiple tasks without breaking a sweat. Then when you start doing more demanding tasks such as viewing HD video or maybe doing some light gaming, the Core i5 processor can kick it up a notch to make sure your experience is seamless, no choppy HD video. To test the processor out I streamed a 1080p preview of the movie 50/50 and found the playback to be absolutely fluid, the processor utilization only went up to 30% max indicating it had plenty of ability to continue to do other work in the background along with processing the video:

Lenovo ThinkPad X220 performance

For most people buying the X220 I would not spend any more money than is necessary and just stick with the Core i5-2410m, an upgrade to a faster Core i5 or Core i7 just isn’t really worth it unless you’re one of those people that just has to own the fastest technology money can buy. If you want to do some higher-end 3D gaming (I’m not talking Angry Birds, I mean Counter-Strike, etc.), it might make sense to spend more on a faster processor, but really the X220 isn’t intended as a gaming machine and you should consider a larger sized laptop or desktop with a dedicated graphics card if that’s your main purpose for using a computer.

Outside of the processor, you have a couple of other options that can affect overall performance, storage, and memory. I recommend getting at least 4GB of memory, you can add more but for most this will be the right amount. It’s easy to upgrade memory later on, and cheap, generally 2GB of memory is only around $20 – $30 depending on where you purchase it, Newegg.com is my favorite place to find memory. For storage, you have the choice between a standard spinning hard drive or a more expensive SSD flash drive. The SSD is significantly more expensive at around +$300 for the 128GB option but will offer faster performance especially related to boot up and shutdown times relative to the hard drive. I have a 320GB 7200RPM hard drive, which is a good option for most, it offers a good amount of storage and the 7200RPM spin speed of the drive means it is the fastest available hard drive rotation on the market. Lenovo also provides what they call “Enhanced Experience 2.0” which is software on board that is intended to speed up boot up, resume, and shutdown speed by 20 – 35%. They claim a 28-second boot uptime with the hard drive on Enhanced Experience 2.0 equipped laptops. During my testing, I found bootup time from pushing the power button to having the desktop loaded and being able to work as 35 seconds. That’s not bad at all. Shut downtime from pushing the button to having the laptop fully off was an impressive 18-seconds. If you had an SSD these performance times would be even better of course.

Overall, the X220 is a fantastic little performer and for 99% of students, it will be as fast as you need now and have enough extra performance capacity that it is future-proofed as well.

ThinkPad X220 Screen

The X220 has a 12.5” diagonal screen and comes with a 1366 x 768 resolution capable of 720p HD display. There are two different display panel options to choose between, you can get the standard LED-backlit screen that uses what’s called TN panel technology or for +$50 you can upgrade to the IPS panel Premium display, on Lenovo.com it’s called the “12.5-inch Premium HD display”. The IPS technology is the same thing used in many tablets such as the Apple iPad. It provides a very wide viewing angle in which colors remain true and crisp no matter where you view the screen from. I selected the Premium HD display for the X220 I configured and have to say I am glad to have done so, the colors and viewing angles are excellent. To demonstrate the excellent viewing angles on the IPS display for the X220 check out these image below:

Lenovo ThinkPad X220 display

No matter where you view it from, the IPS display on the X220 displays the same true colors. Compare that to the regular TN panel on the Dell Vostro 3450 laptop I recently reviewed and you’ll see how colors can be vastly different based on viewing angle and why an IPS panel is nice to have:

Lenovo ThinkPad X220 display 2

There is little to complain about with the X220 Premium HD display, I would recommend the $50 upgrade to anyone as it’s truly a treat in terms of viewing. The only minor downside is that the IPS display isn’t blazingly bright, so you can’t see the screen when viewing outdoors. Even though the IPS panel has a 300-nit brightness level compared to the 200-nit on the regular TN panel display, that does not mean the IPS display is brighter. IPS panel technology requires a stronger backlight to achieve the same level of brightness as a TN display, you can read this article comparing IPS to TN technology to find out why that is. Because the IPS display requires a stronger backlight, it also means battery life is somewhat lessened.

ThinkPad X220 Battery Life

Battery life is a very important feature for students, oftentimes in class, you won’t have access to a power outlet so you need something that’s going to last through long lectures. The X220 has several options to extend battery life, Lenovo claims up to 23 hours of battery potential if you get the large 9-cell battery and an optional extra battery slice. I didn’t need that much battery life, so the 6-cell seemed reasonable as it was standard (i.e. no extra cost) and most people were reporting 6-hours of battery life under normal usage. I’m happy to report that under my normal usage of having the screen at mid-level brightness (level 7 of 15), Wi-Fi on and doing things such as writing papers, browsing the web, installing a few programs and streaming video the battery life came in at between 6 – 6.5 hours. To see how far the battery could be stretched under minimal usage I ran BatteryMon and set the screen brightness to level 5 out of 15, Wi-Fi on, a browser open that refreshed every 30 seconds and set to Lenovo “Power Saver” mode I got 7 hours and 50 minutes of battery life. Now that’s amazing, and if you’re willing to scrimp on power usage and turn the screen brightness down you can probably squeeze out this almost 8 hour of battery life as well. If you upgrade to the larger 9-cell battery you can easily get over 10 hours of battery life on a single charge and probably surpass 11 hours without much problem.

ThinkPad X220 Keyboard and TouchPad

The ThinkPad line of laptops are known for having excellent keyboards and the X220 does not disappoint here. Despite the laptop’s small size the X220 makes no compromises and has a full-sized keyboard. The keyboard is very comfortable to type on, each key is nice and firm with just the right amount of travel and feedback. There is no flex on the keyboard to be found, just like the rest of the laptop body, it is a firm feeling. The only thing I would like to see as an option on the X220 is a backlit keyboard feature, instead, there is a light you can turn on that rests at the top of the screen, simply push Fn + PgUp to toggle this light on and off. Still, this is not as effective or attractive as a backlit keyboard option that’s showing up in more and more laptops.

Lenovo ThinkPad X220 keyboard

The ThinkPad X220 offers both a touchpad and Trackpoint option for moving the cursor around the screen. The TouchPad on the X220 has been updated from previous versions of the X-series and now offers a larger size. This is a good thing, though you do lose the buttons at the bottom of the trackpad on older X-series ThinkPads to gain this larger size, which might upset a few people. The touchpad has a textured finish making it easy to grip and is very responsive to touch. That said, I prefer using the TrackPoint, also referred to as the pointing stick by some, it allows you to quickly and easily move the cursor around the screen without having to move your fingers from the keyboard. The Trackpoint is both efficient and pleasant to use and many business users that are familiar with the ThinkPad line continue to buy ThinkPads simply because of this feature.

ThinkPad X220 Port Selection

The ThinkPad X220 comes with a good amount of input/output ports for its size, below is a quick rundown of which port you get on each side of the X220:

Left side: USB 2.0 port, VGA monitor out port, DisplayPort, USB 2.0 port, ExpressCard 54mm slot.

Lenovo ThinkPad X220 left sideports

Front side: no ports

Lenovo ThinkPad X220 frontside

Right side: SD card reader, USB 2. port with always-on power, Ethernet port, headphone/mic jack

Lenovo ThinkPad X220 rightside

Back side: power jack

Lenovo ThinkPad X220 backview

The one port missing many people want is HDMI for easy output to a TV or monitor. DisplayPort is a more common technology among business laptops and monitors and that’s what you get with the X220. DisplayPort input is provided by nearly all modern monitors so this won’t be a real limitation, if you were hoping to output video to your living room TV you’ll need to get a Display Port to HDMI adapter for around $9. While the USB 3.0 port might be an appealing option to some, you can only get it if you upgrade to an Intel Core i7 processor, which is expensive (an almost $200 upgrade).

Lenovo ThinkPad X220 Review Summary

If you need an ultraportable 12” screen lightweight laptop and have $800 to spend the X220 should be a strong consideration. The price is great for what you get, which is a very rugged laptop with a lot of power and various configuration options. I really love the Premium IPS screen option, for only +$50, it’s worth it. Other more expensive options such as an upgrade to a Core i7 processor or SSD storage aren’t necessary for most student needs, but if you really love having the latest and greatest technology it’s nice to have the option. My favorite part about the X220 is the excellent performance you get with the Core i5 processor and still to the moonbattery life, almost 8 hours with a 6-cell under conservative usage. At 3.3lbs with the 6-cell battery, the X220 is easy to carry in a backpack and you don’t have to bring the charger along during the day if you don’t want to.

The downsides to the X220 are of course in the eye of the beholder, but if you need a built-in optical drive such as a DVD player then you’re out of luck with the X220. For some people, the 12.5” screen will just be too small and the lack of a high-resolution display (typical for this sized laptop) will make a larger 14″ – 15” screen laptop a better fit for their needs. The popular HDMI port is also missing. The keyboard is almost perfect, but the one thing I’d love to see is the option for a backlit keyboard to make it absolutely perfect. Overall though the X220 is a great choice as a student or business laptop, it’s a workhorse, and if you need something that’s going to survive the 4-years of abuse that comes with trotting around campus and be future-proofed in terms of technology components the X220 is a fit.

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