ThinkPad X Series

It's past time that I spent a few words on our ThinkPad X Series notebooks. The T Series may get the most press, but by far and away, the X Series has the coolest name. Over the years the series has evolved, but in such a way that changes from one generation are subtle rather than revolutionary. The X currently comes in two flavors: the X61 and the X61s. There is only one fundamental difference -- the processors. The X61s (think "s" for small) is the more diminutive of the two. It uses Intel Low Voltage (LV) and Ultra Low Voltage (ULV) processors. In addition to requiring less power from the battery, ULV and LV processors generate less heat than normal voltage processors. Thus, the X61s is thinner and lighter because the cooling solution needs to be less robust. The only drawback is that LV and ULV processors usually 2 or 3 steps down from the fastest processor frequencies available. The X61 uses normal voltage processors and has available most of the Intel's latest processors. (We generally don't provide the fastest speeds on day one because they introduce at a significant price premium that very few actually pay for.)

Lenovo ThinkPad X61s The X61s is thinner and lighter, but most people cannot tell them apart, even when they are side by side. The X61s exists because in certain markets it is absolutely essential to be at or below the magic 1.2kg weight threshold. By choosing the X61s over the X61, you'll also get approximately 20 -30 minutes of extra battery life per charge owing to the LV and ULV processors. Most people will see the LV and ULV processors and their lower clock speeds and think that they are trading a significant amount of performance. We've found that this is not the case. The much bigger bottleneck is the hard disk drive itself. One major change we made from the ThinkPad X40/X41 lineup of systems is that we moved from using a 1.8" hard disk drive to industry-standard 2.5" technology. Though 1.8" technology allowed us to get thinner and lighter at the time, the machines were performance dogs and our customers let us know it. At the X60 timeframe, switching to 2.5" technology allowed us to get faster performance. This was due to higher rotational velocities as well as faster angular velocity allowing more of the disk to pass under the read/write head with every rotation. Performance shot up remarkably, and this continues to be one of the X Series family's advantages vs. many of our competition. Many, but not all, use 1.8" hard disk drives and are trading off major performance because of it. The ThinkPad X series isn't the thinnest and lightest ultraportable out there. I know from reading your comments that being super thin and super light is a "meets min" requirement for a leadership product in the marketplace. Toshiba, Sony, Apple and others all have thinner and lighter models than we do. Our design point wasn't to be the thinnest or the lightest (though we are always designing to be as thin and light as possible). Our design point was that we are designing business-grade machines that have to stand up to the abuse of being used on the road. Yes, some of my competition has sexier designs, but here are just a few things they're giving up to get there:

  • Durability - If you get too thin, your display rigidity is nil which puts your display at high risk for breakage. The display hinges are not as robust. You may not be able to open your display a full 180 degrees. Our X series uses the many of the same design points as the rest of our ThinkPad family. Try holding one of my competition's ultraportables at the corner and see how much it flexes in your hand. Flex is terrible as it stresses the solder joints on the system board which practically guarantees premature failure.
  • Usability - As far as I know, we have the industry's only 7-row keyboard on an ultraportable machine. Everyone else has 6 row keyboards which put the same number of keys in a smaller space which saves cost and space. It also makes their keyboards less usable for touch typists.
  • Battery life - Four hours with a single battery isn't enough in our estimation. We wanted to design to have a single battery that can offer 7 or 8 hours of battery life.
  • Performance - I think I pretty much covered this already, so I won't belabor the point. Many of these super thin machines use 1.8" HDD technology. Even if you don't care about performance (all three of you in existence), then at least consider capacity. There are 200GB+ mobile HDDs on the market (we don't offer them yet), but I think the biggest 1.8" HDD available is 80GB. That really isn't enough, especially for Vista. Some machines also excaberate poor performance by only offering one total memory slot.
  • Thermal performance - Our ThinkPad X series also qualifies under our coolest and quietest systems ever leadership claim. We use the same technology to keep system temperature down and noise low as in its bigger siblings, the T and the R series.
  • Docking - Our ThinkPad X Series has a slice that adds an optical drive plus additional ports. Many people use this as a port replicator while they are at their desks, but it is also designed to be mobile. While it does add to thickness, an X series plus a slice with a DVD drive still weighs a bit less than a T series.

I'm sure I'm going to receive many heated disagreements in the comments following this post, but at least you know what we were designing for. Our thought is that executive jewelry is nice, but it's better if the machine is usable after a year or two.

Lenovo ThinkPad X61 with WWAN There are two points that have been coming up in many of my conversations, and I'll take a minute to address them. One is "Why isn't the X series a two spindle machine?" and the other is "Why no Roll Cage." I'd like to give some explanation, but in the end I understand the cognitive dissonance at work. Let me address the lack of a Roll Cage first. I've been a huge cheerleader for our Roll Cage technology, but many have rightfully pointed out that our ThinkPad X Series systems have neither a system Roll Cage nor a Display Roll Cage. If this technology is as great as we say it is, then it stands to reason that all of our systems should include it. The short and the long answer to this question is that adding this technology would make the X too big and heavy -- well outside of the realm of what is considered an ultraportable. I did say in a previous post that our Display Roll Cage technology was weight neutral, and that is true -- for a system the size of a ThinkPad T or an R. When put into a system the size of an X, it adds weight as well as thickness. Also, the X Y dimensions of the ThinkPad X Series mean that less stress is transmitted to the system board when it is held by one hand. To minimize system board flex, we use a combination of a Mg bottom as well as a floating planar design with ribs underneath the planar to help increase rigidity. I'm also told by our design team that the 12" display size of the X series is adequately supported by the Mg top today and adding a Roll Cage would not have as much of an effect to help protect the display as in our larger systems. In the end though, weight and thickness trump the added protection afforded by our Roll Cage technology. We have to sell them, after all. The next question is going to be even more controversial for me to address. Why isn't the ThinkPad X Series offered in a two spindle design? By the way, I think I may have mentioned this before, but spindles is an industry term. It tells you how many rotating motors are inside a system. A one spindle design includes a hard disk only. A two spindle design includes a hard disk + an optical drive (CD/DVD, etc.). A three spindle design (not used any longer) includes all of those plus a floppy disk drive. It's likely that these terms will continue to survive even once hard disk drives are solid state and no longer include rotating media. To call the debate between the one-spindle X series vs. the two-spindle X series "heated" is an understatement. It's one that rages externally with our customers as well as within the halls of Lenovo. Yes, there are other machines both thinner and lighter that have built in optical drives. Yet even if we weren't the thinnest and lightest out there, why wouldn't we design a ThinkPad X Series with a built in DVD drive? People don't want this for a business reason. They want it so that they can watch movies on the plane. That's not a problem, but there just aren't enough of you. With the exception of company executives, most people want a bigger machine with a bigger display. In order to create a machine that fits a business case, we have to sell several hundred thousand of them over its lifetime to earn back all of the expenses for testing, development, tooling, etc. In the scheme of things, ultraportable sales are a small fraction of anyone's portfolio and of the total market. There just aren't enough machines being sold to justify the cost. Also, if you assume that movies are the driving force behind wanting built in optical drives, these next generation high definition drives are only available today in 12.7mm thicknesses. Today's ultraportable machines use 9.5mm or 7mm drives. As technology marches on, eventually with improvements in processors, LCDs, and optical technology, it will be possible to offer a sub 3 lb., two spindle with 8+ hours of battery life. Also, the majority of our customers have been telling us that based on today's available technology, durability, usability, battery life, and performance outweigh any need to have a built in optical drive. We're able to provide those today with our current designs. That said, the debate is not settled. Lenovo is constantly reevaluating its portfolio and our product teams are deciding right now what the 2008 and 2009 products should look like. We'd love to hear your feedback.

* Edited on July 2 after original posting to add some additional facts and discussion points around Blu-Ray and docking