Review: Lenovo Unveils A New Low-Cost Laptop

Although this portable is targeted at small business, our reviewer says it's also ideal for consumers.

While Lenovo caused a stir with its innovative ThinkPad X41 Tablet PC in June 2005, many market watchers passed off Lenovo's success as something it had purchased from IBM. Almost a year later, the next generation of portables has arrived. This time, Lenovo is introducing a new notebook under its own label: the Series 3000 N100. The Lenovo 3000-branded line of notebooks is specifically targeted at small-business professionals, but pricing across the lineup should make it an attractive option for consumers as well.

Lenovo has released a range of systems under the "N100" banner. The $999 basic unit comes with a 1.67GHz T2300 processor, combo DVD player/CD burner, Windows Home Edition, Intel's integrated graphics, an 80GB hard drive, and a 14-inch display. Intel's Pro/Wireless a/b/g Network Connection, a 10/100 Ethernet port, a 56K V.90 modem, four USB ports, side-mounted mic and earphone jacks, and an external monitor port are also part of the package.

For this review, I optioned this up just a bit to $1,300 to get a larger (100GB) hard drive, Intel's T2400 Core Duo processor running at 1.83GHz, nVidia's GeForce Go 7300 graphics, a dual-layer DVD burner, Bluetooth, Windows XP Professional, and a 15.4-inch wide-screen WSXGA+ VibrantView display.

One of the primary things you expect of a portable computer is that it will be light enough to be carried around. Unfortunately, that's not always true; although listed at 8.1 pounds, my Inspiron 9300, for example, felt like it was more appropriate for forklift transportation. At exactly 6 pounds, the N100 feels much lighter, and its 15.4-inch screen keeps the overall size down to something that's much more manageable.

VibrantView Display
Lenovo offers two different sizes of LCDs, 14-inch and 15.4-inch, and then adds two varieties to each: VibrantView and Anti-Glare. Anti-Glare is the usual matte approach to LCDs that reduces reflections and glare (and sometimes also dulls the color just a little bit). VibrantView, on the other hand, is highly reflective and will bother the heck out of you if you're sitting with your back to a light source. Its saving grace is that it's breathtaking — the N100's vivid colors, especially for pictures and video, will knock your socks off.

Which type of display you choose depends on how you plan to you use notebook. Because my passion is video, the polished look and brilliant color rendition of the VibrantView is a welcome change from the somewhat duller view supplied by the typical LCD. However, if my concentration were on business graphics, I would probably prefer the Anti-Glare.

When I read through the list of specifications and saw that the 14-inch WSXGA wide-screen display had a 1680x1050 resolution, I was prepared for any number of readability issues. There weren't any.

On my Inspiron, I had pumped up the dots per inch to mitigate the effect of the tiny screen icons on its 17-inch display rather than drop the 1280x1024 resolution. Yet as I sat in front of the N100, with a vastly wider field of view and a 1.6-inch smaller screen, I had no problem seeing tiny objects and text. At the risk of gushing: It was honestly amazing.

I can now understand all of the excitement about the Intel Core Duo processor in the new Macintosh portables. The N100 with its 1.83GHz T2400 Core Duo CPU is much faster than my overclocked (3.56Ghz) Pentium 640 desktop box.

The real surprise, however, was that while the N100 is not quite up to par with my 3.2GHz dual-core Pentium 840 Extreme Edition computer, the difference was only slightly noticeable when I used each for editing videos. (And, of course, I've never had the desire to carry my 45-pound desktop from room to room.)

Nits And Niceties
The N100 does have one noticeable fault — or perhaps one that's not noticeable enough: its integrated speakers. Positioned on top of the base, next to the display, they're certainly pointed in the right direction. However, the speakers provide no presence, no brilliance, and no audio impact worth mentioning. They are the quintessential tin cans on a string. Even at full volume, the sound could barely reach my ears. Where it does succeed, at least to a better degree, is in a totally quiet room, listening to the spoken word. And even the cheapest pair of headphones turns the N100 into a concert hall with all of the expected audio nuances. It's an incredible transformation.

Had the N100 been available when I purchased my Inspiron, I probably would have tossed in the extra $100 and switched to the N100.

I have only one additional nit to pick, and that concerns the power switch. Positioned dead center at the upper portion of the base by the display hinge, the push-button power switch is thin and nestled into a neat recess that will keep you from accidentally shutting down the system. However, it also means that those of us with full-sized fingers must make two or three attempts to start the N100. Those with more petite digits should have no problem.

Lenovo carries over the fingerprint biometric security from the ThinkPad X41 to the N100, although it's been improved. Instead of just the nub of a scanner for you to swipe your fingertip across, the N100 has a recessed profile that gives you a definitive spot in which to place your finger before you begin the swipe.

The keyboard also appears to be a carry-over. It was quite good on the ThinkPad; it's just as good on the N100. The glide pad, however, is much too sensitive. Personally, I prefer a real computer mouse, but that being said, the N100's glide pad often translated even the smallest lift and landing of my fingertip as a button press.

Lenovo claims five hours of battery life for the N100's 9-cell Lithium Ion battery. While Lenovo freely admits that, "Battery life (and recharge times) will vary based on many factors including screen brightness, applications, features, power management, battery conditioning and other customer preferences," I managed an honest four hours without really scrimping on anything.

Had the N100 been available when I purchased my Inspiron, I probably would have tossed in the extra $100 and switched to the N100. The enhanced portability alone is worth the small premium. The better display and biometric security are no-cost extras.

To put it another way: Lenovo has created a "Thinkpad" for the rest of us. While the company doesn't have the track record of a Dell or Acer, Lenovo's combination of light weight, good screen visibility, relatively long battery life, and a range of prices and models to fit most budgets and tasks should earn at least one of the available N100 models a place in your backpack.

Lenovo 3000 N100
Price: $999
Summary: Lenovo's new small-business low-cost notebook shows that the company can do it right even without the ThinkPad brand.

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