Aside from remarkable build quality and reliability, the ThinkPad brand has always been known for its excellent usability. Especially its keyboards have a well-deserved reputation as being the best mobile ones going, and the X121e does nothing to alter that perception.
Layout is excellent, with intelligent shortcut placement and dedicated Page Up and Down buttons to either side of the cursor keys. Our only niggle is that Lenovo seems to be one of the very few manufacturers to still place the Fn key to the outside of Ctrl (though you can switch their assignments around in the BIOS).
The matt keys are slightly curved to ideally accommodate your fingertips. They’re also raised much higher than on the average chiclet keyboard, giving as much travel as you could possibly hope for, with a lovely defined click. Basically, the X121e offers one of the best typing experiences of any ultraportable, and we would happily use it as our main text-editing machine all day long.
Unfortunately Lenovo’s implementation of the buttonless touchpad isn’t exactly top of its class, and we’d rather use the versions found on the Acer Aspire S3 or Samsung Series 9. Nevertheless, it still proves a reasonably accurate and responsive tool, and as with all ThinkPads you also get an alternative in the red, rubber-topped mini joystick (called a TrackPoint) located at the keyboard’s centre. This nubbin also has three of its own physical buttons, which are simply superb and can also be used in conjunction with the pad. However, in incorporating the TrackPoint, we can't help but conclude Lenovo has compromised the touchpad experience - that alternative stylish model we were talking about; drop the TrackPoint too.
Where the X121e’s 11.6in screen is concerned, it’s mostly good news again. Haters of gloss will be glad of its reflection-killing semi matt finish, and though its 1,366 x 768 resolution is standard for most laptops, on a panel this small it makes for a very sharp display. Contrast is quite decent though the darkest shade on our greyscale test was virtually indistinguishable. Still, for a matt display blacks were deep and colours punchy, with no nasty backlight bleed or artefacts to spoil the party.
In fact, the screen’s only real weakness is its viewing angles, which are about average. Colour and contrast shift both creep in if you move too far off-centre and you have to angle its hinge right to get the most out of it, but overall it’s still good enough, especially considering the X121e’s price.
On the audio front we weren’t expecting much, and not much is exactly what we got. We’ve heard worse from ultraportables, but even so the speakers here don’t exactly excel. Maximum volume would have trouble filling a small bedroom or office cubicle and the bass quotient is so low it’s almost nonexistent. You can certainly get by watching a bit of catchup TV or a YouTube clip, but for anything more involving, a decent set of headphones or external speakers is a must.