- Review Price: £1298.00
IBM makes high-quality notebooks, but unfortunately they tend to carry a correspondingly high price. When I looked at the ThinkPad T41P a couple of months back I rated it as the best notebook I had ever used, but with a price of over £3,000 it was well out of my price range. I was therefore pleasantly surprised when the ThinkPad R50 arrived in the office, sporting a far more affordable price tag.
Of course I’m always wary when a manufacturer produces a value orientated range, especially when it’s built its reputation on the high-quality of its products. To this end I decided to put the ThinkPad R50 through its paces by taking it with me to CeBIT. Now with dimensions of 332 x 269 x 40mm (WxDxH) and a weight of 2.8kg, this isn’t the easiest notebook to carry around everywhere with you. That said, I did just that for a few days at CeBIT, and although it was a little heavy, it was definitely manageable.
The R50 is based on the Intel Centrino standard, so inside you’ve got a Pentium M processor running at 1.5GHz. The memory complement is a fairly standard 512MB with one SODIM slot left empty for future upgrades, while the 40GB hard disk is smaller than some, but still more than enough for most notebook users. If you do want to free up some hard disk space, IBM has been thoughtful enough to include a DVD/CD-RW combo drive, so you can burn important data off to CD.
But for me it’s not the base specifications that make IBM notebooks so special, it’s the build quality and design. In my opinion, IBM makes the best notebook keyboards out there, and this R50 hasn’t changed my view. Typing on the R50 for extended periods is a joy, with great feedback from every key depression. The travel on each key is just right and the break gives you positive feedback while typing. Important keys like Return, Backspace and Shift are all large for ease of use, while the cursor keys are laid out in the correct configuration and dropped slightly down from the main keyboard.
Nestling in the centre of the keyboard is a red TrackPoint which provides accurate and simple cursor manipulation. The TrackPoint is great since you never have to take your hands away from the typing position while you’re using it. Below the Spacebar are the left and right selector buttons for the TrackPoint, while in between these buttons is a scroll lock. If you press and hold the scroll lock, you can then scroll up and down a document or page by moving the TrackPoint up or down. If you don’t like using a TrackPoint, IBM has also included a touchpad, positioned below the TrackPoint buttons. The touchpad is slightly recessed and finished in the same matt black as the rest of the notebook. The touchpad also provides very accurate pointer positioning and directly below it are the two selector buttons.
The 15in TFT screen is a fine example of its breed – colours are bright and vibrant, while the lighting is even across the surface. The native resolution is 1,400 x 1,050 which is pretty standard for a notebook screen this size. This is a great resolution and I find it ideal for working on multiple windows. However, if you do need to quickly make things a bit bigger you can hit the Fn key and the Spacebar which will instantly zoom the resolution to 800 x 600. Of course dropping the resolution results in a loss of quality, but if you just want to quickly make some text larger and then switch back, it’s quite a good feature. Driving the screen is an ATI Mobility Radeon 9000 with 64MB of RAM. This is by no means the latest mobile chipset from ATI and you probably won’t be able to play the latest games on it, but it’s still a lot better than the Intel Extreme Graphics 2 in the Dell Inspiron 510m, which used 64MB of system memory.
Since the R50 sports the Centrino logo it obviously has an Intel Pro/Wireless WiFi adapter built-in, so you can connect to any wireless networks whether in the office or via the growing number of hotspots. But IBM has covered all of the wireless bases by including integrated Bluetooth as well. So now there’s no escape from your work emails – if you can’t find a hotspot to download your mail at, you can simply dialup from your Bluetooth enabled mobile phone. And if you want to do things the old fashioned wired way, the R50 has a 56K V92 modem, and a Gigabit Ethernet adapter, which of course also supports 10/100 standards.
The overall design doesn’t stray too far from the IBM norm, but that’s no bad thing. The matt black finish is stylishly understated and picks up less marks and scratches than the currently fashionably silver and white. As always there are nice design touches, like the keyboard light fitted into the top of the lid. This is ideal for working in low light conditions, allowing you to see the keyboard. Pressing the Fn and PgUp keys together will activate the amber light, while pressing it again will switch it off. There are also shortcut buttons just below the screen which control the audio volume with a quick mute button also present.
On the right of the chassis is the DVD/CD-RW combo drive as well as a D-SUB output. The latter will allow you to display an image on an external monitor, with the Mobility Radeon chipset managing a maximum external resolution of 2,048 x 1,536. Unlike many notebooks on the market, IBM has chosen not to position any controls or ports on the front of the case.
The left hand side is pretty well stacked with two Type II PC Card slots (it will also accept one Type III device), a four-pin FireWire port, two USB 2.0 ports, an S-Video output, an Ethernet port, a modem socket and finally headphone and mic sockets. Rounding things off at the rear are a parallel port and the power socket.
The R50 ships with Windows XP Professional pre-installed, while IBM has thoughtfully also included a copy of Norton Anti Virus 2003. I use Norton myself and I find it alarming how many email viruses it spots on a daily basis, so it’s good to see it included with a new machine. ThinkPads also ship with a few special features like the hard disk Active Protection System. This basically stops the hard disk from damaging itself if the notebook is bumped or moved during operation.
Another neat feature is the Rapid Restore application which can be configured to automatically backup your data to an external device, a network device, or even your primary hard disk. Amazingly, rapid restore will let you reload a system image stored on your primary partition. But the best thing about Rapid Restore is that it gives you access to very basic system even if your copy of Windows is corrupt. From here you can actually access the Internet, and could theoretically download an image of your notebook from an FTP site and repair your computer. Of course you’d need a pretty fast Internet connection for this, and the truly paranoid user is more likely to carry a system image around on optical disc or even a removable hard disk.
Performance is fairly close to the Dell Inspiron 510m that we looked at last week, although the 3D performance is far superior on the R50. Mobile Mark reported a battery life of three hours 42 minutes, which is good, but not spectacular. At least you’ll be able to squeeze half a day’s work out of the battery.
But for me, the most impressive feature of the IBM ThinkPad R50 is the price. With a street price of £1,298.37 it’s a very reasonably priced notebook even before you factor in the brand name.
To be honest I wasn’t sure about the R50 when I first saw it, but I’ve been using it for a few weeks now and during that time I’ve grown to like it more and more. As well as coming with me to CeBIT, it also accompanied me to Canada recently for a few days, where I used it to work on, to play music and even watch movies – all of which the R50 took in its stride. Yes it’s a bit big and it’s not the lightest machine on the market, but you are getting a well specified notebook at a good price. And let’s not forget, it’s still an IBM.
With the ThinkPad R50, IBM has proved that it can make affordable notebooks without compromising on quality. This may not be the slimmest or lightest mobile solution, but it’s well featured, beautifully built and doesn’t cost the earth.
Score in detail
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