Lenovo X230 Laptop Review

With my MacBook Pro dying a slow death from component failure, rather than jump to immediately fixing it and dragging it on for another few years I thought I’d try my hand at straying away from Mac.

Luckily, I managed to get my hands on a ThinkPad branded Lenovo X230. Well known for providing features such as a track-point, and the surprisingly useful “ThinkLight” the ThinkPad brand was my first choice for a decent MacBook Pro alternative. Even though the brand has long since passed from IBM to the capable hands of Lenovo, the X230 is built like a brick outhouse, and has all the design cues to make it clearly a ThinkPad. When I say “first choice,” I actually mean it was the only brand I even bothered looking at; the world of windows-based computers is a daunting and complex one. ThinkPad is the only brand I’ve consistently heard good things about from fellow geeks.

It’s not easy for me to be productive on Windows. I’ve used OSX for so many years and find it difficult not having a terminal at my fingertips and various programming languages and server technologies an install away. I wanted to do some Ruby tinkering on the Lenovo X230, work with the Xilinx ISE WebPack to program the Papilio Pro FPGA and run the Arduino IDE amongst other things. The obvious solution was to install Linux.

I decided upon SUSE Linux because it was the flavour my Systems Admin colleague was ranting about at the time. It also has generally excellent compatibility with the Lenovo X230 hardware, which is always handy.

The X230 came with Windows 7 pre-installed on its spacious SSD. My first task was to re-size the Windows partition, which was trivially accomplished in Partition Manager (“Create and format partitions” if you search for it in the Start Menu). With the empty space I created a new partition.

The next step was to get hold of some install media. With no USB memory stick to hand, and absolutely no desire to mess about creating an installer on one, and no CD drive in the X230, I decided I needed some media-free way of installing. I searched Google for a way to install Linux in a dual boot setup without using a USB memory stick or CD. Google came up trumps with a free utility called Unetbootin. This lets you extract the contents of a Linux install CD and set up a bootloader to get you into an installer.

I ended up unable to locate the extracted contents of SUSE Linux after rebooting into the installer, this was trivially although somewhat wastefully solved by doing a Net Install instead. The Net install works by grabbing the latest version of SUSE package-by-package from the internet. The install went as smooth as butter, and rebooting let me pick between Windows 7 and SUSE Linux using a freshly installed bootloader. You can just as easily erase the entire disk and forsake Windows altogether in favour of Linux, but it’s handy to keep around even though the Lenovo X230 is never going to be particularly great for modern gaming. That said, I managed to use it to play Torchlight 2 pretty smoothly.

After some time using the Lenovo X230 I’ve easily found myself using Windows as much as Linux. Windows came in handy for tinkering with Adobe Fireworks to whip up graphics for the Arduino Due game engine I’ve been working on, but SUSE Linux has proven indispensable. It’s been fast, stable and achieved a great battery life. I also haven’t run into any compatibility brick walls which caused me to, as I’ve done in the past, waste hours and hours trying to fix silly software problems. It’s gone pretty smoothly, in fact, and I’ve been pretty comfortable using the X230 for the last few weeks as a result.

The compatibility of SUSE with the Lenovo X230 is brilliant, but I don’t believe Lenovo had much of a hand in this fact. Linux hardware support is much more comprehensive these days than it was even a few years ago. When I started playing with Linux well over a decade ago, most of my time was spent installing and configuring and I don’t recall ever doing anything actually productive.

Lenovo are, however, wholly responsible for the brilliant hardware and for capably keeping the ThinkPad brand alive with a thoroughly thought through product.

Despite seeming absurd at first. The “Think Light” is actually a very handy alternative to back-lit keys, although it’s optional and you can have back-lit keys if you desire. However I recommend avoiding these, and avoiding a webcam in favour of the ThinkLight. Not only is it more comfortable on the eyes for the keyboard to be naturally lit, rather than glowing from within, but the ThinkLight casts enough light to light a pad of paper, or a little bit of electronics tinkering. This makes for a night-time friendly, readily available light-source which is very, very handy. My only complaint is that the LED light is not shrouded well quite well enough for it not to glare slightly in my eyes, but it doesn’t cause enough bother to outweigh its usefulness.

Perhaps my favourite feature of the X230 is the presence of a “nipple mouse.” Known also by its more politically correct but much less descriptive moniker: “track point”. Track points are essentially just a very tiny joystick. They sit nestled between the G, H and B keys and can easily be operated with an index finger of either hand, while the thumb handles the 3 mouse buttons. The track point solves the problem of the awful, awful, tiny trackpads that plague every Windows laptop I’ve tried. Furthermore, it’s much higher up the surface of a propped-up laptop, making it easier to reach and keeping your hands over the keyboard. It also never gets accidentally pressed or moved; unlike trackpads, which tend to require a lock during typing to avoid accidental cursor relocation.

Aside from the “nipple mouse”, the X230 is brimming with features and considerations that clearly set it aside as a good quality, long life workhorse machine. If you ever come across one, turn it upside down and look for a little keyboard icon with a water drop under it. You may me surprised to hear that the hole denoted by this icon is water drainage for keyboard spills. I’m not sure how practical this is, since most spills happen directly on the desk and tend to flow into the side or bottom of a laptop, but it’s a great talking point none the less.

There’s also a well protected port for docking on an expansion dock, a spacious screw-on door for accessing the RAM, and icons labeling any screw you might care to undo when manually repairing or maintaining your laptop. There are even screw-threads around the VGA port to keep a VGA cable securely in place and avoid unnecessary strain in the mainboard. the X230 is absolutely built to last.

Coming from a glossy MacBook Pro to a matte Lenovo X230 which still has a high quality IPS display has also been a blessing. Yes, it still gets glare from bright light sources just as lamps and windows, but this happens rarely. I’m no longer staring at my reflection when computing, and I can’t honestly say I’ve seen any loss in quality over glossy displays.

The wonderful form-over-function design of the ThinkPad series lends itself extremely well to use as a robust, no-nonsense, long-lived and upgradable business/productivity machine. The X230 and Linux complement each other perfectly, and it’s a small wonder I’ve heard so much buzz about it.

The Lenovo X230 is brilliant. The simple proof that it’s good enough to meet my standards is evident in the fact that I’m using it to type this article, and have left my MacBook Pro unused at home for the past few weeks. I have become adept at using the “nipple mouse”, and find myself fruitlessly reaching for it on the odd occasion that I use my MacBook. If you’ve not used one before, give it a try and you won’t want to go back- moving your hands to and from the keyboard is an unnecessary chore!

The torch that is the ThinkPad brand has been faithfully carried by Lenovo, and the X230 or it’s future successor will most-likely be first non-Apple laptop I’ll own for years.