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Comparative Review: Tiny Laptops From IBM, Dell

Small is a big thing for road warriors, at least when it comes to laptops, and two of the best sub-three pounders are from Dell and IBM. Here's how they compare.
Connectivity . It should go without saying these days but, for the record, both the X1 and the X41 are Wi-Fi-ready, both sporting Intel Centrino chipsets. Both also have built-in Ethernet ports and standard modems. Beyond that, though, these two devices have different mixes of connectivity, particularly when it comes to how they connect to the world and to outside devices.

The X1, for example, has built-in Bluetooth while the ThinkPad doesn't. However, the X1 doesn't have a PC Card while the ThinkPad does. Both ultraportables have SD Disk slots, but the X1 also supports CompactFlash slot.

While Lenovo has an optional docking station, the X1 doesn't. The ThinkPad's docking station includes USB ports, a monitor connection and a DVD/CD-RW drive. However, our Dell test unit came with an optional combined DVD/CD-RW drive. Because of these differing connectivity capabilities, neither ultraportable has an advantage, but they are different.

Advantage: Tie

IT-Ability And Security

Hard-nosed IT shops will undoubtedly prefer the ThinkPad with its wealth of management and security features. For instance, it comes with biometric security, in which you can set the device to require a fingerprint swipe using the included fingerprint reader before either booting or logging on to Windows. The fingerprint capability can even work in lieu of application and Web site passwords.

However, while biometric security is strong, it was also sometimes frustrating. It often took half a dozen swipes of my finger over the reader before I could start using the computer.

Beyond that, there are many more security and manageability options in the ThinkPad than on the Dell X1. The ThinkPad has, for instance, what Lenovo calls the Embedded Security Subsystem for things like securely managing passwords and encryption and the keys required to manage the encryption process. It also has built-in wireless security support, including support for 802.1X and Cisco's Light Extensible Authentication Protocol and other WLAN security-related specifications.

The ThinkPad also comes with a similarly impressive array of data recovery and management features. The Dell X1 comes with only a relatively small subset of these security or manageability capabilities.

Advantage: ThinkPad

Making The Decision

Both the Lenovo ThinkPad X41 and the Dell X1 are highly usable, powerful and flexible ultraportable laptops. Both vendors handle well the inevitable sacrifices caused by making devices smaller. But they also handled them differently.

The ThinkPad is the more enterprise-ready of the two with far more security and management features than the Dell X1. Its input capabilities are excellent for a device this small and it also has a more solid feel. On the other hand, the Dell is lighter, easier to deal with in cramped quarters and has an unusually-sized display that offers several advantages.

Bottom line: Most users would be happy with either laptop. On balance, though, and admittedly subjectively, I found the Dell more usable because its non-standard display is more compatible with the way I work. Now if I could only graft the ThinkPad's keyboard and pointing system on to the X1's form factor, I'd be in tray table heaven.

Editor's Choice
Brian T. Horowitz, Contributing Reporter
Samuel Greengard, Contributing Reporter
Nathan Eddy, Freelance Writer
Brandon Taylor, Digital Editorial Program Manager
Jessica Davis, Senior Editor
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing