Christmas time, this wonderful time of the year which always gives the retailers an added boost by the end of the year. In my case, it was a wonderful gift my parents gave me: a Lenovo ThinkPad X121e netbook/subnotebook. And it’s nice!
But how nice is it? And why did I get it in the first place? And why not another make or model?
I decided to put this into a series of posts, the first of it deals with the motivation, the requirements and selection. In other words, you won’t read that much about the actual device here.
Today, it seems, everybody has mobile computing needs. And for most of these, I also had solutions. There is my power notebook, which I specifically got for doing high-performance realtime audio processing, not for portability, small size or something. And I already talked about this Dell Studio here. I also had, for some time, access to my company notebook, which with time first suffered from a completely failing battery, then from a completely failing display. And finally, an old, non-smart mobile phone (a Sony K800i), which I do actually like and which allows me to check emails or twitter.
So I already had a really powerful portable computer for doing realtime audio stuff, the occasional recording thingie (for the A Tätowierte Katz session, the Dell was used both as a DAW and as a virtual grand piano with sub-1ms-latency). I also had a phone to use to do simple tweets or check email. But I had nothing for the stuff in-between. So what is this stuff in-between for me?
By analyzing all those “now I wish I had a…” moments, I found that it’s mainly to have something to quickly write a blog post. Or to review a requirement specification. Perhaps read a text, and occasionally surf the internet (and have access to something like a bandcamp player). And to do that without running for a power socket every two hours or so. And without breaking my back (or bag) carrying it.
With the availability of various kinds of mobile devices, the choice was a little bit more complex. A smartphone might have been the first choice of many, but as writing texts was one of my first requirements, it’s obvious that this wasn’t my first choice. And I already had a phone for doing phone calls. A tablet would be a consideration. It solves the problem of screen real estate, but not that of the text input. Sure, you can connect a bluetooth keyboard, but that would jeopardize the portability benefit (and at the same time drain battery). No, my choice was a netbook – or subnotebook, I wasn’t exactly sure about that.
For the writing/blogging thing, it would also be nice to integrate photos seamlessly. Now netbooks, contrary to smartphones, usually don’t sport a decent camera, but I already had that base covered with my dumbphone (and, should the need arise, my trusted Olympus C5050). And in addition, it would surely be nice to do some basic music stuff: perhaps change the track spacing on an audio master, or even work on a music score. And finally watch the obvious movie on a boring train ride or so.
And finally, I didn’t want to spend more than €300-€400.
So the next step was to sketch out my requirements. In an informal fashion, they looked some like.
- small size and weight
- long running time on batteries
- decent keyboard
- decent display
- WLAN integration
- low price, <€400
- sufficient screen real-estate
- xD card reader
- watch movies
- run audio applications
To bring those requirements further down, a look at some of them is necessary:
Of course, WLAN (1.4.) is a no-requirement, as all available devices have that covered. The screen real-estate thing is not so much something of area, but more of screen resolution. When we look at the 2.5. requirement, it simply takes some space to use an application such as, say WaveLab. And for watching movies, the heralded “HD-readiness” is also nice.
Of course, “HD-readiness” does not only mean display resolution, but also graphics performance. And finally, the audio apps thingie would mean indirectly “sufficient harddisk capacity”, simply because I was aiming for a slim Linux for the usual stuff, yet wouldn’t want to move away from my Steinberg-centered music design flow – which means two OS installations.
The form factors here (which directly affect 1.1. and 2.1.) are either built around a 10.1” or a 11.6” display – with the computer with a 11.6” a little larger, or so it seems. Interestingly, the keyboard is also a dominating form element here, so it seems that netbooks with a 10.1” display ususally waste surface on the lid, simply because they couldn’t make the thing smaller because of the keyboard.
As for the computer’s CPUs, it’s the usual juxtaposition of Intel vs. AMD. While Intel had initially completely dominated the market with the original Atom N270, things have changed now. AMD have launched their Fusion series, and that with a trick:
For semiconductors, the manufacturing price is roughly proportional to the chip’s surface area. Now in days of old, it was typically a linear scaling which meant higher performance meant higher number of transistors meant higher surface area meant higher price. Now with today’s integration levels, it’s sometimes not possible to get all the required connectors (the fanout) onto the chip for a given surface area. Which means a low-performance CPU might need more area (and thus higher price) simply because of all the wires emanating from the CPU. AMD was wise enough to optimize on this: they simply integrated a graphics processor onto their Fusion CPUs, which not only saved them the necessity to have a large bus from the CPU to the GPU, but also made use of the silicon real estate required anyway.
So while the Fusions perform roughly equally or a little bit better than the current dual-core Atom counterparts (e.g. the N570) for math-oriented benchmarks, they completely run away for graphics-oriented benchmarks (the N570 and relatives do have some GPU functions, albeit rather basic ones). Not bad for the “watch movie” requirement.
Of course, Intel didn’t just stand and watch: while the (single-core) Pineviews already have integrated graphics (albeit rather weak one), the new Cedar Trail family of Atom CPUs targets just those Fusions: power-efficient dual core CPU with decent integrated graphics processor, but only available recently. And finally, the Sandy Bridge family also has their ultra-low-power Core i3 variants, the 2357 and 2367, also with embedded graphics. However, those come at a considerably higher price tag, with a recommended customer price of $250 for the 2367.
Of course, when talking about performance, it’s also wise to look at the RAM size: ever since the day that i86 architectures have started to crawl out from under Gates’ “640k should be enough for everyone” dogma, it was well-known that usually, additional money for bigger RAM is better invested than for a faster CPU. This might even be more relevant for those mobile, low-power applications: lacking RAM means lots of disk access, which not only decreases performance, but also drains power. So I decided to specifically keep my eye open for the RAM setup.
As for makers, I always had heard from friends an colleagues that the makers to look for with regard to netbooks were Samsung, Acer and MSI. So I browsed those manufacturer’s web sites, checking the famous Geizhals for street prices to compare. Samsung always had that website which I didn’t like. Also, for the affordable models, they still seemed to be on a technology level from their first generation of netbooks from three years ago – which means single core Pineviews and 1GB RAM, and maximum screen resolution of 1024×600. Still, with a running time of over 10 hours, they’re at the leading edge of that requirement 1.2., (together with ASUS).
To a degree, the same holds true for MSI. Their U270 model comes with the AMD Fusion E-350 and can be expanded up to 8GB of RAM (usually shipped with 2), however, the maximum screen resolution is 1024×600, which is not nice for the 10.1” models, but for this computer, which sports a 11.6” display (coming with increased size), I consider it unacceptable.
Acer has two contestants available: the smaller one, the D257, is a 10.1” netbook sporting Intel’s N270 and either 1 or 2 GB of RAM, and comes with the genre-typical 320 or 500GB harddisk. Like all Acer models, it accepts xD memory cards (requirement 2.3) but sadly, does not offer Bluetooth (2.2.). The 722 model is an 11.6” subnotebook based on AMD’s C-60 and a maximum memory of 4GB. It comes with the same harddisk options as the D257, and offers Bluetooth and xD-Card reader in all models. Most Acer models come with Windows 7 Home Premium (for the 722, the 64bit variant) installed. However, variants without OS or with a MeGoo Linux are distributed (simply for competitiveness on the price front). This got me thinking: I don’t need (or want) a Windows 7, so why pay for it in the first place? It also offers a 1366×768 pixel display resolution. Comparing to the D257 with a battery capacity of 8 hours, the 722 comes in slightly below that with 7 hours.
I also decided to go to a store and have a look what they had on display. That store sported a selection of Samsung N150, MSI, Acer, Asus and Toshiba models. Comparing them for the haptic impression, I found that only the Acer and, to a lesser degree, the Samsung, had a decent keyboard (requirement 1.3.). Total disappointment on behalf of the Asus.
About that time, I thought about another player altogether: IBM/Lenovo. The subnotebook variants of their ThinkPad series had always been considered a little bit classy (read: huge price in violation of 1.6.). Add to that the first IdeaPads, which had powerful features but a battery capacity good for about 3.5 hours, this wouldn’t look like your first choice. However, I found something in their ThinkPad X series: the ThinkPad X121e sports an AMD E450 (at least in the affordable variants, there’s also Intel-i3-powered ones for roughly double the price), comes with 4GB RAM expandable to 8GB, has (in some models) bluetooth integrated, and while, due to the 11.6” screen, slightly longer (but about as wide) as the benchmark Samsung models, they’re actually a little slimmer, and only weight a tiny bit (~150g) more. And they come at a price which sits in my planned price range.
So there’s the perfect device, or is it? Has IBM/Lenovo simply done some very clever and cost-effective design, or did they put the ThinkPad label on a cheap piece of crap?
One plot to keep the price low is certainly what IBM has begun some time ago: ship their low-end notebooks without any OS. No, not with a free thingie, but with nothing at all, meaning a computer with an empty harddisk and without any media accompanying it. And this, of course, is also the case with the X121e in question. But an integrated OS wasn’t part of my requirements. In fact, with the exception of the xD card reader, all requirements are fulfilled. Measuring in at 29x21x2.3 cm and weighting 1.5kg, it’s a little longer (but less thick) than the typical 10.1” netbooks by e.g. Samsung (1.1.). The specified running time of 8.4 hours is considerably below that of the small Atom-powered netbooks (which sometimes exceed 10 hours), but on par or above all competitors with a decent CPU and memory, such as the aforementioned Acers (1.2.). For the keyboard (1.3.), I decided to take a blind dive (and perhaps make use of a return policy), simply because ThinkPads were always quite ok in that department. The display at least brought the 1366×768 resolution (1.4.), and the WLAN requirement was, as mentioned already, a no-requirement.
2.1. also came with the display dimensions and resolution, 2.2. was fulfilled, 2.4. (watch movies – see AMD Radeon GPU) and 2.5. (audio performance) could also be seen as fulfilled. Missing was 2.3., the xD card reader – which could be worked around by a small card reader costing about five bucks. And 1.6., the price requirement? With prices at €370 on Geizhals, the requirement was still fulfilled. So I opted for that very computer, and had it ordered from computeruniverse.net.
So how did it work? Wait for part 2, where I’ll address first impressions, first attempts at OS installation and some first trials with proper applications!