Hands on With the ThinkPad Edge

I’ve said it before and I’ll say I again: Unless very small size or very low price are absolutely paramount, laptop buyers will probably be happier if you they pass on netbooks in favor of one of the new breed of low-cost thin and light notebooks now available from every major computer manufacturers.

For between around $300 and $500, you can buy a netbook that weighs around 3 lb., with a 10” or 11” display, 1 GB of RAM, and a barely adequate Intel Atom processor.  For $500 to $800, you can get a thin and light that weighs about 3 1/2 lb., has a 13.3” display, 4 GB of RAM, and a much more powerful Intel Core 2 Duo or AMD Athlon or Turion processor. For me, this choice is a no-brainer.

For the past couple of weeks, I have been spending a lot of time working on a new Lenovo ThinkPad Edge, an outstanding example of this new breed. The Edge fills a gap between Lenovo’s consumery IdeaPad line and the traditional corporate-oriented ThinkPad. For consumers and small business buyers, the Edge brings a lot of the goodness of the ultra-sleek ThinkPad X301 at a dramatically lower price.

The Edge comes in two base models: One is powered by an AMD Athlon Neo X2 L325, with ATI Radeon HD 3200 integrated graphics, 2 GB of RAM, a 4-cell battery, and a 250 GB 5200 RPM hard drive at $579. The other uses an Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300, Intel 4500MHD integrated graphics, 4 GB of RAM. A 6-cell battery, and  320 GB, 7200 RPM hard drive for $799. Lenovo sent me the Intel version for testing.

Using, and especially traveling with, the Edge was a delight. With a Thickness of about an inch and a weight of just over 3 1/2 lb., it travels easily in a backpack or bag. Lenovo claims up to 7.8 hours of running time with the 6-cell battery, I found I got between 5 and 6 hours of hard work including a lot of video playback. (With an AMD processor, the claimed life drops to 5.2 hours. However, Intel chips tend to do better than AMD’s on standard benchmarks; in real use, they would probably be significantly closer to each other.)

ThinkPads have been my Windows laptops of choice for a very long time, mainly because of their excellent keyboards and my addiction to the TrackPoint eraserhead pointing device. I was dubious about the Edge because Lenovo did the unthinkable and radically redesigned the keyboard. The new keyboard uses gently curved chicklet-style keys in place of the traditional ThinkPad sculpted keys. But somehow it retains the distinctive ThinkPad keyboard feel, a very good thing.

The comparison of the Edge keyboard layout to the X301’s is interesting, since the two live in laptops with the same footprint. The Edge replaces the X301’s double row f half-height keys at the top of the keyboard with a single row. Following an increasingly common trend, the old F-key functions are now secondary; the primary use of these keys is to control volume and screen brightness, turn wireless on and off, and other housekeeping functions. My only real complaint is with the placement of the small insert and delete keys, the fourth and third from the right in this row. At the bottom right, the navigation keys are arranged as an inverted T. PageUp and PageDown keys are on either side of the up arrow, cleverly designed so that the key caps sit a little lower than the arrow keys for easy tactile identification. Below the spacebar and and a set of mouse buttons is a flush-mounted touchpad, much wider than the X301’s, with another set of buttons below it. One oddity: The Windows context menu key, usually found between the right alt and ctrl keys as been replaced by PrntSc. I won’t miss the menu key, but I doubt that I’ll ever use PrntSc either. (The ScrollLock and SysReq keys are nowhere to be found; good riddance.)

The Edge is hardly a screaming performer with the Intel consumer low-voltage procesor. But with 4 GB of RAM, Windows 7 Professional certain zipped along nicely and the performance was more than adequate for the sort of tasks that anyone is likely to ask of a system of this class.

The Edge is a bit more stylish than we have come to expect from ThinkPads. It comes in a polished black or red finish that’s something of a fingerprint magnet (flat back is available for traditionalists.) I thought that glare would be a problem on the polished glass display, another break from the ThinkPad past. But I had no problems under a variety of lighting conditions and I appreciated the  much improved crispness of video. In a nice branding touch, the dot over the “i” in ThinkPad on both the case top and palm rest is an LED that glows red when the system is powered up and flashes slowly when it is in sleep mode. The build quality of the Edge seems to be up to ThinkPad standards.

The big question is why anyone would pay $1,889 or more for an X301 when the Edge is available. Yes, the X301 weighs about a half pound less, has a built-in DVD drive (which you’ll have to replace with a bay battery to match the Edge’s running time), a faster processor and a faster but much smaller (128 GB maximum) solid-state hard drive. The Edge lacks the X301’s eSATA connector, but adds HDMI out and a SD card slot. When all is said an done, $1,000 or more is an awful lot to pay for a DVD drive I would rarely use and a half-pound or so less weight. Fortunately for Lenovo, the X301 is built to meet the technical requirements of corporate bid sheets and the Edge isn’t, which will help sell nits of what is probably a high-margin but low-volume product. But the Edge ought to sell by the boatload.

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