Lenovo Tablet/Laptop Hybrid is a Gem

Laptop aficionados wondered whether Lenovo's acquisition of the ThinkPad line from IBM would hurt the class act of the notebook world. Now, Tablet PC fans have to be wondering if the new Windows Vista operating system would help or hurt the usability of tablet PCs.

The first answer came last year: Lenovo has maintained the strong quality of the ThinkPad line. The ThinkPad X60 tablet/laptop hybrid answers the second question unequivocally: Vista is a strong asset for Tablet PCs.

The combination of Vista's new Tablet PC features and ThinkPad quality make for a compelling mobile computer. While its standard configuration is a bit underpowered, the ThinkPad X60 is a jewel of a laptop, particularly when you add RAM to the basic configuration, and a lovely Tablet PC.

The basics

That X60's basic configuration comes with a meager 512MB of RAM, although our test unit came with 2GB of RAM. The extra RAM is absolutely necessary. The test X60 reported RAM utilization of around 40 percent, which means that trying to run Vista with the standard RAM would have been painful.

The rest of the X60's standard configuration is a mixed bag. Standard, it comes with a 60GB hard drive, no Bluetooth and a 4-cell battery supporting the Intel Core Duo L2500 processor running at 1.83 GHz. The built-in Wi-Fi radio is supplemented by a WAN radio that works with Verizon’s EV-DO data network.

The review unit, by contrast, came with a 100GB hard drive, Bluetooth, an 8-cell battery and the Ultrabase docking station, which includes a recordable DVD drive. While the RAM upgrade is essential, these other upgrades depend on your specific needs and your budget since these options raised the price of the review unit from US$1,998 to $2,691.

Performance of the test unit was generally good, with processor, RAM and hard drive scores of around five in Vista's Windows Experience Index, a testing feature in Vista that scores various subsystems in a computer on a scale between 1 and 5.9. Microsoft claims that any score above 3 is sufficient for most users.

However, while the primary system scores were good, the X60's overall score was dragged down a 3.1 subscore for gaming graphics performance, which shouldn't be an issue for most ThinkPad customers, and a 3.3 score for desktop performance using the Vista Aero interface, which could be an issue.

A laptop and a tablet

As a conventional laptop, the X60 is certainly a little gem. The 12.1-in. screen, with its 1024x768 resolution, feels a bit cramped if you’re used to a greater expanse of display space; Vista’s Sidebar is not really useful on such a small screen at that resolution. On the other hand, the X60 is small enough to let you work pretty comfortably -- if that’s the right word -- in an airline coach seat. And the keyboard lives up to ThinkPad's much-praised high standards.

But what’s truly exceptional about the X60 is that it’s also a Tablet PC. The raised screen swivels 180 degrees and snaps down over the keyboard, leaving the screen, which is pen-enabled by Wacom Co., as the only control surface.

If you’ve never used a tablet PC, you’ll probably be surprised at how natural an experience it can be. You won’t want to do intensive word processing in tablet mode; typing is faster, even if the X60’s handwriting recognition is surprisingly good. But there are a ton of vertical applications that are quite excellent on a tablet.

Also, showing video or presentations in small gatherings on a tablet is a more powerful experience than on a conventional laptop. Even creating PowerPoint decks or viewing Web sites are well adapted to tablets. And between Microsoft’s included OneNote application and Vista’s new Clipping Tools, which enable you to circle text or images and either save them or send them via e-mail, Tablet PCs are a comfortable place for people who take a lot of notes but, at heart, really don’t want to give up paper.

Vista improves the tablet experience compared to previous operating systems. In particular, pen flicks -- small gestures that substitute for keystrokes like PgUp, Del or Back -- are now integrated into the operating system, although some of the flicks are turned off by default in Vista. Although the screen will respond to finger points, you’ll want to use the included stylus because it has a button for right clicks and an eraser (at the back end, of course) to rub out mistakes.

There are a few features that would be nice to add to the X60 to improve the tablet experience. Faster graphics would be nice -- tablet-based video editing, for instance, would rock. And, again, the 512MB base memory is absurd for use in the graphics-intensive tablet environment.

But at 3.76 pounds (about a half-pound more with the larger 8-cell LiIon battery) plus power brick, the X60 is about at the top of the ultraportable crowd. Add the tablet capabilities and you’ve got a very special machine well worthy of the ThinkPad brand.

Dan Rosenbaum has been writing about technology and digital media for 30 years. He's the former editor of NetGuide, Time Digital, and Mobile Office magazines, and was the author of the popular WinLetter.

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