The Laptop Has Been Liberated

IBM's X30: At last, a subcompact with a solid keyboard and a long battery life

Long ago, I decided that even "thin and light" laptops were bigger and heavier than what I wanted to carry on most trips. But two things discouraged me from switching to a subcompact notebook: battery lives that were too short and keyboards that were too cramped and creaky.

These are not easy difficulties to overcome. For any given combination of processor and display, the only way to achieve a major gain in battery life is to use a bigger, heavier battery. And the subnotebook's slim design requires shrinking the keyboard, limiting how far the keys travel when pressed. At the same time, it skimps on the supports that stiffen the keyboard assembly--shortcuts that lead to bad keyboards.

After trying the IBM ThinkPad X30, however, I'm ready to swear off full-size notebooks. At 3.7 lb., it's a pound heavier than a Toshiba Portégé 2000, typical of the extreme thin-and-light notebooks that have been popular mostly in Japan. But the weight has gone where it is needed most--into the battery. Where the Portege's battery dies short of two hours, IBM claims five hours on a charge--and you can get it if you choose power setting for maximum life.

It gets more interesting if you snap on the $189 accessory battery that attaches simply but securely to the bottom of the unit. It adds nearly 1 pound of weight, and its 3/4-in. thickness lifts the unit in the back to give a more comfortable typing angle. With both batteries, you get eight hours of working time, even with the optional built-in Wi-Fi wireless local-area networking turned on.

Endurance that lets you stop worrying about battery life changes how you think about and work with a laptop. It becomes more like a cell phone or a handheld--an always-handy tool you can use away from AC power through an entire workday or an intercontinental flight. In fact, I've not seen a Wi-Fi handheld that can last as long as the X30, even with a supplementary battery. With both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth short-range wireless communications available, communications cables can be left behind on your desk along with the power cord. And IBM's (IBM ) excellent Access Connections software lets you switch easily between different networking setups for, say, home and a couple of corporate facilities. The laptop has been liberated.

An appealing thing about the X30 is how little you have to sacrifice for extreme mobility. ThinkPads have always set the standard for laptop keyboards, and the X30 makes almost no concessions to being a subcompact, with the same rock-solid feel as its bigger brethren. Unlike the larger new ThinkPad models, it comes only with the traditional pointing stick, but I don't find the lack of a touchpad any loss. The laptop lacks a traditional serial port but includes a parallel connection for a printer, a standard video connector for use with an external monitor or projector, two USB and one Firewire ports, and slots for a PC Card and a CompactFlash memory card.

Processors up to a 1.2 gigahertz Pentium III-M are far from the fastest Intel offers, but you're not going to use an X30 for video editing. Similarly, the 30-gigabyte hard drive is good for any likely use. Most people will find the X30 just fine as a primary computer, perhaps with an external monitor, keyboard, and mouse.

I miss the 14-in. displays of bigger notebooks, but not enough to go back to their weight and bulk. And the 12.1-in. display works a lot better on airplane tray tables. The biggest sacrifice is the absence of a CD or DVD drive. There are several solutions, including an awkward $199 media base that clamps on to the bottom, a $239 external drive bay, and a $529 docking station (drives are $79 and up extra). I found that for loading software the CD drive on a networked PC did fine. But the X30 is not your best choice if you like to use your laptop to play music CDs or DVD movies on the road.

Until now, at least in the U.S. and in Europe, subnotebooks have been niche products because the loss in function was too great to justify the gain in mobility. The X30 rewrites the equation in a way that should put the subnotebook squarely into the laptop mainstream.


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