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Though we have a soft spot for Lenovo’s ThinkPad line, of late we’ve been a little underwhelmed, with the much-hyped ThinkPad X1 leaving us feeling especially short-changed. Fortunately, essential ThinkPad strengths like superb build quality and the best mobile keyboards available remain, so we have high hopes for the ultraportable X121e we’re checking out today.
Essentially a high-powered sequel to the X100e, the X121e is an 11.6in ultraportable which comes with either an Intel Core i3 or AMD C50/E-350 CPU at its heart. The former gives you a more powerful CPU with less versatile graphics, while the latter emphasises graphics performance over processing power and is essentially a netbook, hence its starting price of under £330. This being the case, we’ve gone for the i3 version - which incidentally also comes with 3G, all for a mere £510.
The X121e certainly isn't an ultrabook of the Acer Aspire S3 ilk, being as it's quite a square and chunky beast with a depth of 24mm. Nonetheless, its 1.56Kg weight combined with a small footprint (89mm x 208mm) makes it a very portable machine.
What's more, the X121e’s signature ThinkPad soft-touch finish makes it very pleasant to hold. As it’s also quite rugged and prevents fingerprints, this is still our favourite finish on a laptop. Whether the industrial look appeals to your aesthetic sensibilities will vary, but we mostly like the utilitarian design. Also, if you’re not too fond of unrelieved black you can find a red-lidded version of this laptop too.
The red dot on the ThinkPad logo across the lid (and palm-rest) also lights up red when the laptop is turned on, which is handy for checking its status without needing to open the machine up. It does clash a little with the green power LED on the laptop’s side though. In fact, it's here that we would like to see Lenovo show just a little more design flare. There are a number of elements, like the yellow sockets, the blue labelling on the keys and the aforementioned clash of red and green, that add up to give this laptop just a little bit too much of a wantonly fashion-unconscious look. By all means there's a market for this ultra practical design, but we think a version of this (and all Lenovo's ThinkPad range) finished with just a dash more style would be a hugely appealing proposition.
Like the finish and design, build quality is what we’ve come to expect from Lenovo’s professional range; despite the cheap starting price the X121e is built like a brick, except for some minor flex in the keyboard. This is a noticeable contrast to the efforts of many other manufacturers, which even on premium business lines aren’t always as solid as this little unit. It really does feel like it's built for a life on the road, not just to look good for the first few months you own it.
Moving onto connectivity, this is in line with a high-end netbook or no-frills laptop. On the left is a VGA port, HDMI, USB 2.0, Gigabit Ethernet and a combined headphone/microphone jack, while to the right we have an SDXC card reader and a further two, well-spaced USB 2.0 ports, one of which supports sleep charging (allowing you to charge devices even with the laptop turned off). There’s also a power jack with its own LED indicator.
Of course we do miss niceties like USB 3.0 or eSATA, but every other base is covered (including Bluetooth 2.0 on all X121e versions) and it’s not really fair to criticise such a low-price machine.