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Lenovo ThinkPad Edge

Lenovo ThinkPad Edge

At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2010 in January, ThinkPad maker Lenovo showed off a surprising range of new laptop, netbook, tablet, and desktop PC models. And while there is much to discuss around this company's 2010 lineup, the one model that really caught my eye was the ThinkPad Edge. It's the type of machine I've been looking for, in the sense that it neatly straddles the line between low-end netbooks and mainstream notebooks from a form factor perspective. Plus, it's a ThinkPad. And anyone who's used one knows there are only two kinds of portable computers in this world: ThinkPads and everything else.

With the Edge, however, Lenovo was shooting for a different vibe. That's most likely because the all-business demeanor of most previous ThinkPads was a turn-off to image-conscious consumers awash in the Apple-centric media of today. (No matter that Apple's own admittedly gorgeous laptops have horrible, chiclet-style keyboards.)

Lenovo ThinkPad Edge

So what we get in the ThinkPad Edge, frankly, is Lenovo's take on the Apple MacBook. And while it's hugely successful on a number of levels, I do one concern I need to raise right away.

It's the chiclet-style keyboard, a first for any ThinkPad. (And no, Apple didn't invent--or pioneer, or innovate--the chiclet-style keyboards that are so prevalent in portable computing today, though they did arguably popularize them.) Generally speaking, this kind of keyboard is horrible, assuming, of course, that what you want to do is actually type.

When you compare the ThinkPad Edge with, say, my own middle of the road ThinkPad, a tank-like SL410 model, two immediate differences are obvious. First, the Edge is much thinner, lighter, and prettier. And second, the keyboard on the tank is vastly superior. I mean, it's not even close: The SL410 features that perfect ThinkPad key feel, with just the right amount of tactile feedback and the silky smooth response that ThinkPad fans have come to expect. The Edge, meanwhile, features a keyboard that is quite likely the best-ever chiclet-style keyboard. But that's like being the king of shantytown. It's still not as good as a true ThinkPad keyboard.

Lenovo ThinkPad Edge

When I first talked to Lenovo about the Edge back in January, they were quite proud of what they had accomplished with the ThinkPad Edge keyboard and assured me that they had managed to replicate the ThinkPad feel in this new design. I just don't see it. The Edge keyboard is very good, yes, but good for a chiclet keyboard. It's not as good as a real ThinkPad keyboard.

That said, the Edge really is about compromise. And when looked at in this way, the tradeoff we're making here is clearly around size and weight, and price, and if we need to sacrifice a bit on the keyboard, so be it. It's still very usable, and it's full sized, and I can type effortlessly on the thing. It's just that when you switch back and forth between ThinkPads, yes, you can really notice the difference.

Before we leave the subject of the keyboard, there are two other interesting design decisions to point out. First is a big change in the way the function keys work. On most PC notebook keyboards, including previous ThinkPads, the function keys along the top of the keyboard do double duty as special keys, and are typically used in combination with a special function (Fn) key. (So for example, Fn + F5 displays Lenovo's special wireless widget on my ThinkPad SL410.) On the Edge, however, Lenovo has reversed things. Now, the special functions are what happens when you click a key by default, and if you want to use the old function keys, you need to hold down Fn as well. This was probably a good move, given the Edge's target market. But for old timers like me, common keyboard shortcuts like ALT + F4 are now hard to use by default. Fortunately, you can revert this behavior if you'd like.

Lenovo ThinkPad Edge
A closed ThinkPad Edge on top of an open ThinkPad SL410.

Second, unlike with other keyboards, there's no keyboard lighting options. ThinkPads have offered a lid-mounted keyboard light for years, and I find this functionality vastly superior to the backlit keyboards that are currently in vogue. But the Edge offers neither function.

This string of negativity may cause you to believe that I'm quite down on the ThinkPad Edge. That's not the case. In fact, there's a lot to recommend here, and for a PC that values form over function, the ThinkPad Edge actually does deliver some serious value.

The form factor is just right. The Edge features a 13.3-inch screen at 1366 x 768, weighs about 4 pounds with the bundled 6-cell battery, and gets 5 to 6 hours of real world battery life, depending on use. That's the same as Apple's Macbook, but in a package that weighs much less (4.7 pounds vs. under 4 pounds), and costs less too, of course. As with many smaller PC notebooks, the 6-cell battery requires a bit of an external bump. But rather than push the battery out the back as many other ThinkPads do, the Edge provides this external growth on the bottom of the machine, where it serves as a nice lift, giving the machine a better typing angle.

The design is, well, somewhat controversial. Lenovo was clearly aiming at the image conscious market here, but more than one person told me they thought the Edge was an older machine. I find that curious, since the machine is attractive, with a unique (for ThinkPads) flat silver edging and your choice of matte or glossy red or black lids. (Only a child with no laptop experience would ever choose smudgetastic glossy, but Lenovo tells me that's what sells.) Certainly, it bears little resemblance to other ThinkPads, which I believe was the point.

From a specs department, the ThinkPad Edge comes in exactly where it should, considering its market placement between netbooks (too small, underpowered) and full-sized notebooks (too expensive). It features an ultra-low voltage (ULV), dual core Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300 processor (though lower-end options are available, including an AMD part) and integrated graphics. But that combo is indeed entirely acceptable for both desktop applications and digital media (including full-screen movie playback). And that it ships with a whopping 4 GB of RAM out of the box is a wonderful indication of where the PC industry is, circa early 2010.

Storage is ample, with at least 250 GB of 5400 RPM hard drive capacity, and up to 320 GB with a 7200 RPM drive. All the usual ports are present, including VGA out, Ethernet, E-SATA, USB (x3, the minimum, in my opinion, for any portable machine), headphone/mic, and SD memory card. In a nice touch, the power port and one of the USB ports are both colored yellow; this indicates which of the USB ports is powered and thus can charge an attached device, even when the Edge is powered off. Nice!

There's an integrated web cam, of course, and a nice large multi-touch-compatible trackpad, in addition to the standard ThinkPad eraser-nubbin pointing device, which I prefer. (And this is yet another reason why ThinkPads stand head and shoulders above all notebooks: That pointing device is so precise that you'll forget you ever used a mouse.) The Edge features both wired and wireless (802.11bgn) networking as well as, optionally, an internal 3G radio with GPS.

What the ThinkPad Edge lacks, at least in 13.3-inch guise, is an optical drive of any kind. In this day and age, that's actually an advantage in my opinion, since these types of drives are rarely needed now and just take up space and add weight. (Since first writing this review, Lenovo has added 14- and 15-inch versions of the Edge; these models do include an internal optical drive.) I'm surprised optical-less configurations aren't more prevalent yet. But I'm sure when it happens, Apple will take credit for it.

Lenovo is also pushing something it calls the "Lenovo Enhanced Experience," which denotes those PCs that it developed in part with Microsoft to ensure the best possible Windows 7 experience. These machines feature faster boot times and, in business models like the ThinkPad, a set of utilities that are actually useful (i.e. are not crapware), including power and network management solutions. Best of all, perhaps, is the wake experience: Open the lid and the Edge springs to life in a mere couple of seconds. That type of wake-up performance that requires tight interaction between the software and hardware.

I used the ThinkPad Edge over several business trips between January and March 2010, and came away largely impressed. For my own workload, the Edge was just about right, and the only area of complaint aside from that mentioned above is that I currently need to use Visual Studio for my web site work, and the Edge's relatively low-res screen isn't really up to the task. (Visual Studio doesn't work well unless you've got a very high-res display.) Beyond that, the speed, style, and power of the ThinkPad Edge are exactly what I'm looking for. And let's face it, compared to what most people are using, even the Edge's keyboard is excellent. If your work requires a lot of typing, a bigger and more pedestrian ThinkPad will give you a better experience. Otherwise, take a look at this interesting hybrid machine. I think it's hitting the sweet spot of the market right now.

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