Thin Is In: Mac Air Vs. PC Thinkpad

Locations in this article:  San Diego, CA

Macbook AirThin and light notebooks are not new, but they’ve recently become big news with the introduction of Apple’s new MacBook Air and Lenovo’s new ThinkPad X300.

Sony, Toshiba and Fujitsu have had models with similar weights and dimensions, albeit with more compromises, but haven’t captured the attention that these products have.

I’ve been using the X300 and the Air for two weeks and like them both.

Since they each use a different operating system, they really don’t compete with one another, but it’s interesting to see the vastly different approaches taken.

Lenovo ThinkPad X300
While the X300 is the first ThinkPad with the Lenovo brand emblazoned on the cover, it was developed by the same team that created the ThinkPad models for IBM. It’s the thinnest (1 inch) and one of the lightest of any ThinkPads, yet it’s the first of the long running ultra-light X-series to contain a built-in DVD drive and wide screen.

It also incorporates two of the latest notebook advances, a 64GB solid-state drive (SSD) and LED screen backlighting. An SSD uses memory chips instead of a hard drive to store the OS, programs and files. The LED backlighting replaces fluorescent tubes, which contain mercury, and provides a whiter, more uniform illumination. Both consume less power, as well.

Lenovo Thinkpad X300The X300 has ThinkPad’s excellent keyboard and a 13.3-inch-wide screen with 1440 x 900 resolution, slightly higher than most screens this size. It also has both a track stick and track pad. The X300 is slightly larger and a few ounces heavier than the X61, which remains in the line.

There’s no skimping on features. There’s an LED that illuminates the keyboard and surprisingly good-sounding speakers forward of the keyboard on the palm rests. An illuminated ThinkVantage button brings up help, setup and maintenance menus.

My test unit was equipped with Windows XP and the extended six-cell battery, (Microsoft says they’ll be discontinuing XP in July and only allow computer manufacturers to ship Vista). The X300 performed well, using it for writing, surfing, and general business use. Startup from sleep was just under 15 seconds, the fastest I’ve ever encountered, which may be attributed to the SSD.

The quality of the screen image was very good, but the matte screen reduced the contrast compared to glossy screens, such as that on the MacBook Air. Still, some prefer the matte screen because of its ability to diffuse strong reflections. Maximum screen brightness was about half that of the Air.

The X300 has three USB 2.0 ports, but no slot for SD memory cards as on earlier ThinkPads. It’s well-equipped for wireless with built-in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS and EVDO. The GPS may be the first in a notebook, but it needs additional software for navigation.

The X300 is the best ThinkPad I’ve used for travel use. It’s thin and light without making any sacrifices other than the reduced storage capacity. Battery life was slightly more than four hours, better than on previous X models, and the low voltage processor helped the notebook run very cool. Cost is $2,580.

MacBook Air
The MacBook Air is clear evidence of Apple thinking different. While some of their choices of what to include and what to leave out may be controversial, there’s little disagreement that it’s the sleekest, thinnest and most beautiful notebook ever.

It’s constructed of aluminum with most of the parts appearing to be machined out of a solid block. Fit, finish and workmanship are superb; parts fit together precisely, leaving no gaps.

Macbook Air 2Whether sitting back in a lounge chair outdoors or at a desk indoors, the brilliant, sharp and high contrast screen has no equal in brightness or readability. Its comfortable full-size backlit keyboard is a pleasure to use, and the housing never gets hot as other Mac notebooks sometimes do. Its huge track pad lets you use finger gestures to zoom in and out, pan, and even rotate, much like the iPhone. When reading an article on the Web, a two-finger gesture quickly increases font size.

The Air attracted lots of oohs and aahs from strangers. When others picked it up for the first time they were surprised by the combination of thinness and stiffness.

But in creating this three-pound product, there are a few sacrifices to function: a sealed-in battery, a single recessed USB port, no Ethernet port and no internal DVD drive. There are simple workarounds to the limited ports; I used a mini USB hub (Belkin USB 2.0 4-Port Mini Hub) to add more USB ports and Belkin’s Flexible USB Cable Adapter to attach my Novatel EVDO USB modem. Apple offers a $20 USB-to-Ethernet adapter to connect to a wired network.

The battery life is rated at five hours, but I got three hours and 15 minutes while doing word processing and surfing using a Wi-Fi connection with the screen at about 60 percent brightness. That’s an hour longer than my MacBook. Recharge time was a reasonable four hours. Because the battery is sealed inside, you cannot carry spares. While batteries degrade over time, Apple has minimized the problem by providing while-you-wait battery replacement for $129, the same cost as a replacement battery for the MacBook, and they recycle the old battery.

I was able to extend the runtime between charges by using a $120 Duracell Powerpack 100 (, a one pound rechargeable battery/inverter that provided an additional hour-and-a-half of computing.

The Air costs $1,799 with an 80GB drive (tested) and $3,098 with a 64GB SSD. An external DVD drive costs $99. While not inexpensive, it’s competitive with products in this category.

In comparison with the Lenovo, the Air is a much more radical departure in design. The Lenovo is a more practical approach focused on their Windows business market. What they each have in common are lightweight, great keyboards and excellent screens.

Recycling policies:

Lenovo will recycle any manufacturer’s PCs, monitors and printers for $30, including shipping. Currently, those purchasing the recycling service will receive a $50 rebate towards a new Lenovo purchase.

Apple will recycle your old computer and monitor at no charge, regardless of brand, provided you purchase a new Apple computer. You must opt in to the program when you make the purchase and use the option within 90 days. You pack up your old equipment and drop it off at FedEx. Not valid for residents of Alaska and Hawaii.

By Phil Baker, originally published in the San Diego Transcript. Visit Phil’s blog at

Want more info on the Air? Check out Phil’s review: Apple Air: Travel-Friendly Computing?

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