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What I Use: Lenovo ThinkPad Edge 420S

A month ago, I caused a not totally unexpected ripple when I discussed over two articles (HERE and HERE) my experiences with running Windows 7 on a 13-inch MacBook Air. For me, the experiment was ultimately a failure, and while I know some of you are thinking, "right, duh," as I noted in part one of that series, I've actually been using Macs for a decade now. So I figured I had a handle on how well things would go. I was wrong, but not for the reasons you may expect.

First, Apple artificially stacks the deck against Windows on its Macs, which is both understandable--they are, after all, selling you a Mac, not a Windows PC--and deplorable. It does this by ensuring that Windows only gains access to the inferior PCI storage interface instead of the superior AHCI. (Look it up.) Ditto for video. The end result is that Windows lags Mac OS X from both performance and power management perspectives, even though it wouldn't normally. Boo.

Second, while I have in fact had one or more Mac in my home for the entire past decade, the truth is, none of these things were a primary machine. Less, I'd travel with the occasional MacBook to a trade show or other event, but it was never my primary portable computer, let alone my daily use machine. My goal with the MacBook Air was to get a machine I could use exclusively on the road, as my primary portable computer. And this is where the Windows-on-Mac equation falls apart. When I spend $1500 on a computer--something I very rarely do--it has to be perfect. The MacBook Air just had too many compromises for such a premium price.

Third, I have come to really rely on the ThinkPad-style "eraser head" pointing stick, called the TrackPoint, instead of the less accurate and jumpy trackpads you see on most laptops (including Apple's). Reason being, I am always creating associated promo graphics for the articles here on the SuperSite for Windows, and the absence of a TrackPoint means I need to pack an external mouse. (Lenovo, which makes the ThinkPad line, isn't the only PC maker to bundle such a pointer on their notebooks. But Lenovo's are the best. There's just no comparison.)

OK, so that's enough about why the MacBook Air wasn't cutting it. The thing is, I knew exactly what I was going to get to replace it, and even though the ThinkPad Edge 420S isn't exactly a household name--to be fair, it's a brand new model--it does represent exactly the kind of compromise I was hoping to find with the Air. It's not as pretty, light, thin, or whatever. But it's a sensational PC, and on my most recent business trip--a 6-day trip to Atlanta for TechEd during which I relied on the Edge and the Edge alone for my daily computing duties--this machine proved its worth. Unlike the Air, this one is a keeper.

The ThinkPad Edge 420S.

Stepping back a bit, allow me to briefly describe my long-time love affair with ThinkPads. These are the finest laptops, bar none, and while they haven't exactly been known for Apple-type style (more like industrial strength reliability), that's been changing in recent years, similar to the way that modern Volvos are moving beyond the staid image of the past and getting more sporting. I've owned several ThinkPads over the years and have used many, many more thanks to Lenovo's (and, before that, IBM's) friendliness towards reviewers. And each one of them has left an indelible mark.

My previous daily-use laptop was a ThinkPad SL410, which I purchased in late 2009 partially for the new Windows 7 out of the box experience. It is a somewhat large and heavy "classic" ThinkPad, a mid-level daily grinder that doesn't offer much in the way of looks but more than makes up for it with the single best laptop keyboard I've ever used. (The SL line was ThinkPad's answer for small businesses; it's being phased out for the visually identical L line right now.) Like most machines of the day, it's pretty straightforward: Core 2 Duo processor, integrated graphics, and mid-line Windows Experience Index (WEI) scores. Truth is, I could have continued using this machine for another year if I wanted to, thanks in part to a recent SSD conversion, which breathed new life into this faithful road companion.


Why didn't I just keep using the SL410? First, and most curiously, with Intel shipping second generation Core i-series processors in early 2011, I was suddenly two processor generations behind the curve. That's right: Until this ThinkPad Edge, I had never owned anything higher-end than a Core 2 Duo. (Well, OK, my daily use desktop is a Core 2 Quad. Same generation.) This wasn't a deliberate thing, it just kind of happened.

Second, as much as I still love that old ThinkPad, it's pretty big and heavy compared to what's available today. And it was pretty much time for a change.

I wrote about my quest for the perfect compromise (so to speak) in the MacBook Air series. And using the same criteria, the non-Air machine I pretty much knew I wanted all along was the ThinkPad Edge 420S. I say "pretty much" because Lenovo announced it in January at CES 2011 (which I didn't attend), and all I had to go on were a smattering of hands-on previews from the show and Lenovo's own press materials.

For those not as intimately familiar with the ThinkPad lineup as I am, the Edge series debuted in early 2010, and I reviewed the very first Edge model, the ThinkPad Edge 13, about a year ago. The Edge series is all about design and flair, and Lenovo sacrificed somewhat on its epic, market leading keyboard by creating a new kind of ThinkPad keyboard that could fit within a thinner, lighter machine and appeal to the MacBook crowd. That first Edge was pretty nicely decked out for what it was, even for today, other than the ultra-low-voltage Core 2 Duo processor, so I figured this year's models, with much more modern 2nd generation Core i-series processors, would put it over the, um, edge. Well, that and some other neat design changes.

This year's ThinkPad Edge lineup is much deeper and broader than last year's (which ultimately ended up with two additional models, 14- and 15-inch versions). In keeping with the ThinkPad T-series, Lenovo now offers both normal and "S" versions of some Edge machines, so there are new Edge 420 (where the "4" means 14-inch screen and the "2" equates to 2nd generation Edge) and Edge 520 (15-inch) mainstream models, but also new Edge 220S (12-inch) and Edge 420S (14-inch) premium models.


By opting for the T420S, I was picking a 14-inch screen and the premium model, which buys you a bit less thickness and weight than the mainstream models, but also more of a premium finish, with a nice metal accent ring around the screen and deck lid and a truly unique soft-matte exterior that is soft to the touch. (Don't worry, it still picks up fingerprints.)

Remember that I was replacing a MacBook Air, however. So I saved $400 right up front and in the bargain got a machine with a much faster processor (2nd generation Core i5 2410M vs. the Core 2 Duo in the Air), the same amount of RAM (4 GB, but now upgradeable to 8 GB), the same storage capacity (128 GB SSD), and a slightly larger screen (14- vs 13-inches) albeit with a lower resolution (1366 x 768 instead of the Air's 1440 x 900).

The Air, of course, is thinner (0.11-0.68 inch, vs. 1 inch for the Edge) and lighter (2.3 pounds for the Air, 4.1 for the Edge). So there's no comparison there.

The Edge includes a slot-loading DVD drive which I don't care about and will rarely use. (That said, I should add the cost of Apple's DVD drive for the Air, which I did buy, to the cost of that machine.) It also includes much more substantial hinges than last year's Edge 13, and like the Air, a built-in battery that can't be replaced by the user or swapped out on a trip.

But again, every purchase is a compromise of some kind. And what I get in the Edge is a machine that is immediately trustworthy and reliable, that works exactly the way I want it to, that offers a superior (if not the very best) keyboard in tandem with the very best possible pointing device. Like the Air running Mac OS X (but not Windows), it boots quickly and resumes nearly instantly. It features a fingerprint reader so I can sign into the computer with a swipe of a finger. It gets the same battery life as the Air, roughly speaking (somewhere north of 5 hours, but I really need to measure that) and offers excellent all-around performance.

This is less easy to quantify, but I feel confident about this ThinkPad in ways I never did with the Air. I'm sure Apple's machines supply a sense of smugness or whatever to Mac-loving users. But it always felt dicey to me, running Windows. This ThinkPad is professional looking, speedy, and built to last. It garnered a lot of comments from people at the show, including both coworkers and even a couple of Microsoft employees I interviewed (many of whom had ThinkPads of their own, perhaps not surprisingly).

Anyway, I'm going forward with the Edge 420S. After a week on the road with this machine, I can see a long road ahead for a machine that inspires a lot more confidence than the MacBook Air its replacing. More important, it's a viable and modern replacement for the trustworthy SL410 as well. I'm sorry for temporarily leaving you, ThinkPad. I'll never make that mistake again.

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