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ThinkPad A series review: ThinkPad A series

ThinkPad A series

Jon L. Jacobi
7 min read
IBM might consider renaming its brawny ThinkPad A series the
H series, for high class. This desktop-replacement notebook offers an elegant combination of innovative design, solid construction, and a unique feature set, and it comes in a range of configurations and prices--from $1,399 to a wallet-busting $3,949--that will suit just about any user. We expected a higher performance score from the A-series Pentium 4-M configuration we tested, and surprisingly, the A series' battery life doesn't quite measure up to the competition's. But if you don't need the absolute top-of-the-line screamer, any of the A-series models makes a stellar choice for small or large businesses, even though it has an only average ValueWatch rating. Like most desktop replacements, the ThinkPad A series trades portability for power. Its size and weight would hardly qualify as thin and light, but both are average for a desktop replacement--not bad considering the ThinkPad A series provides even more features than most in its class.

The A31p's profile.

Rear panel.

All models measure 13 inches wide by 10.7 inches deep. A30s run 1.8 inches high, while A31s comen in at just a fraction taller. Travel weight ranges from 7 to 8 pounds or more, depending on the model and the configuration. On all models, the notebook's upper shell is made of rugged, black, lightweight titanium alloy. ThinkPads are known for their solid, strong, all-black cases with no colorful accents, and the A series is no exception.
Just like its smaller sister, the IBM ThinkPad T series, the A series keeps all standard ports and jacks--parallel, serial, two USB, RJ-45 Ethernet, analog VGA, S-Video-out, RJ-11 modem, and infrared--out of the way on the back panel. Some high-end A31 models also feature an S-Video input and a four-pin mini-FireWire port. Headphone, line-in, and microphone jacks line the left side of the notebook, and handy volume buttons reside above the keyboard.

The A series' TrackPoint and mouse buttons.

The A series' volume buttons and power button.

As a company that once manufactured typewriters, IBM has always produced excellent keyboards; the A-series notebooks do nothing to spoil that reputation. The A series' keyboard feels sturdy and responsive, a cut above anything you'll find elsewhere, except on some Dell notebooks. You'll either love or hate the eraserlike TrackPoint pointing device that resides in the middle of the keyboard between the G, B, and H keys. While the TrackPoint is more accurate than a touchpad, you may find it tiring to the hand after a while. Unfortunately, although IBM recently starting putting touchpads on its ThinkPad T series thin-and-light laptops, the A series offers no such choice.

The ThinkPad A series offers a wider range of high-end features and more configuration options than most other desktop replacements. Big Blue offers nothing but high-end mobile Pentium processors in the A series. The sole ThinkPad A30 configuration on the market includes a 1.13GHz Pentium III-M processor, while the ThinkPad A31 line, including the ThinkPad A31p we tested (with a 2GHz Intel Pentium 4-M processor, 256MB DDR SDRAM, and a 60GB hard drive), offers only P4-M chips at speeds of 1.6GHz to 2GHz. The PIII-M model uses SDRAM, while P4-M models use speedier DDR SDRAM. All ThinkPad A-series notebooks accept a maximum of 1GB of memory. Disk sizes vary from 20GB to 60GB. All current models use ATI graphics controllers ranging, on the low end, from a Mobility Radeon with 16MB of memory to a workstation-class FireGL 7800 with 64MB of memory on A31p models.

The A series' UltraBay Plus.
The A series' classy active-matrix screens range in size from 14.1-inch, 1,024x768-pixel units on lower-priced models to 15-inch, 1,600x1,200-pixel displays on the A31p. Every A-series unit we've seen has had a bright, sharp picture, displaying stunning color photos and graphics. But newer, wide-viewing-angle screens come in high-end models only.
The best desktop-replacement notebooks offer two drive bays, and the ThinkPad A series is no different, with a bay on each side of the case: one UltraBay and one UltraBay Plus. The UltraBay can host a second battery, a weight saver, or any of a number of drives: CD-ROM, CD-RW, DVD-ROM, combo DVD/CD-RW, Zip, LS-120, and LS-240. The UltraBay Plus hosts drives as well, but it's also designed to handle a number of unique I/O modules, such as a full-sized numeric keypad and a docking cradle for the WorkPad (Palm) 505/505c PDA. Finally, on top of the screen, both A30 and A31 models feature a handy, proprietary USB UltraPort that accommodates a camera, a Bluetooth adapter, a microphone array, or a CompactFlash card reader.

The A series' UltraBay.
IBM also offers integrated 802.11b (Wi-Fi) wireless on many models, and the top-end A31p even comes with integrated Bluetooth for personal-area networking with PDAs, mobile phones, printers, and other peripherals. Lastly, there's an expansion connector for docking stations. IBM sells a $179 bottom-mounted port replicator, as well as a full-featured $529 docking station with a single modular bay and a half-sized PCI card slot.
One unique feature of this series, as with many other IBM ThinkPads, is the company's integrated security chip (Embedded Security System 2.0). This chip provides hardware encryption and password security that's harder to crack than software-only solutions. If you're working with sensitive data, this feature alone should sell you on IBM's notebooks.
As with the specs, the software on the A series is excellent. For the operating system, you can choose Windows 2000, XP Home, or XP Professional. All models come with Lotus SmartSuite Millennium Edition and Lotus Notes Client. Microsoft Office Small Business Edition and Microsoft Office are available as options. IBM also supplies its Access ThinkPad support software, a recovery-disk image on a hidden partition, in case of catastrophe and on some models, Veritas's RecordNow for CD mastering.

The ThinkPad A31p is not the fastest desktop replacement, but it's more than powerful enough for just about any mainstream task you can throw at it. With its 2GHz P4-M processor, 256MB of DDR RAM, and 5,400rpm hard drive, it didn't fare well in mobile performance compared to its competition. The ThinkPad A31p finished a full 34 points behind the similarly configured Dell Inspiron 8200 and only 2 points higher than the lower-speed 1.6GHz Sony VAIO PCG-GRX570, although it must be said that the VAIO has twice the RAM as the ThinkPad.
Mobile application performance  (Longer bars indicate faster performance)
BAPCo MobileMark2002 performance rating  
Dell Inspiron 8200
IBM ThinkPad A31p
SysMark 2002 performance
In the Internet-content-creation test, the ThinkPad shows its real muscle, placing just 2 points behind the Inspiron 8200. It does suffer, however, in the office productivity test, finishing 17 points behind the Inspiron. Although the ThinkPad has great multimedia power, its performance in office apps is somewhat lacking.
Maximum application performance  (Longer bars indicate faster performance)
BAPCo SysMark2002 overall rating  
SysMark2002 Internet-content-creation rating  
SysMark2002 office productivity Rating  
Dell Inspiron 8200
IBM ThinkPad A31p
To measure maximum notebook application performance, CNET Labs uses BAPCo's SysMark2002, an industry-standard benchmark. Using off-the-shelf applications, SysMark measures a desktop's performance using office-productivity apps (such as Microsoft Office and McAfee VirusScan) and Internet-content-creation programs (such as Adobe Photoshop and Macromedia Dreamweaver).
3D graphics performance
The ThinkPad's ATI Mobility FireGL 7800 64MB video card allows it to compete very closely with the Inspiron's Nvidia GeForce4 440 32MB in 3D graphics performance. The ThinkPad scored about as well as we expected in this area.
3D graphics performance  (Longer bars indicate faster performance)
MadOnion's 3DMark2001 SE  
Dell Inspiron 8200
IBM ThinkPad A31p
Sony Vaio PCG-GRX570

To measure 3D graphics performance, CNET Labs uses MadOnion's 3DMark2001 SE. We use 3DMark to measure desktop-replacement notebook performance with the DirectX 8.1 interface at the 32-bit color setting at a resolution of 1,024x768.
System configurations:
Dell Inspiron 8200
Windows XP Pro; 2GHz Intel Pentium 4-M; 512MB DDR SDRAM 266MHz; Nvidia GeForce4 440 32MB; Toshiba MK4019GAX 40GB 5,400rpm
IBM ThinkPad A31p
Windows XP Professional; 2GHz Intel Pentium 4-M; 256MB DDR SDRAM 266MHz; ATI Mobility FireGL 7800 64MB; IBM Travelstar 60GN 60GB 5,400rpm
Windows XP Home; 1.6GHz Intel Pentium 4-M; 512MB DDR SDRAM 266MHz; ATI Mobility Radeon 7500 32MB; Toshiba MK4018GAS 40GB 4,200rpm

The ThinkPad A31p's battery life doesn't impress. The ThinkPad A31p's 10.8-volt, 4,000mAh battery conked out in 127 minutes. In comparison, the VAIO lasted 132 minutes, and the Inspiron 8200 cranked for 159 minutes. Why such a short-lived battery? Perhaps because the ThinkPad screen has a 1,600x1,200 resolution, compared to the Inspiron's resolution of 1,400x1,050; higher resolutions have been known to drain battery life. Also, the Inspiron has a more powerful 14.8-volt, 4,460mAh battery. Although the VAIO has the same resolution as the ThinkPad, its lower-speed CPU and more powerful battery aid its battery performance.
Battery life  (Longer bars indicate longer battery life)
BAPCo MobileMark2002 battery life (in minutes)  
Dell Inspiron 8200
IBM ThinkPad A31p
To measure mobile application performance and battery life, CNET Labs uses BAPCo's MobileMark2002. MobileMark measures both application performance and battery life concurrently using a number of popular programs (Microsoft Word 2002, Microsoft Excel 2002, Microsoft PowerPoint 2002, Microsoft Outlook 2002, Netscape 6.0, WinZip Computing WinZip 8.0, McAfee VirusScan 5.13, Adobe Photoshop 6.0.1, and Macromedia Flash 5.0).
System configurations:
Dell Inspiron 8200
Windows XP Pro; 2GHz Intel Pentium 4-M; 512MB DDR SDRAM 266MHz; Nvidia GeForce4 440 32MB; Toshiba MK4019GAX 40GB 5,400rpm
IBM ThinkPad A31p
Windows XP Professional; 2GHz Intel Pentium 4-M; 256MB DDR SDRAM 266MHz; ATI Mobility FireGL 7800 64MB; IBM Travelstar 60GN 60GB 5,400rpm
Windows XP Home; 1.6GHz Intel Pentium 4-M; 512MB DDR SDRAM 266MHz; ATI Mobility Radeon 7500 32MB; Toshiba MK4018GAS 40GB 4,200rpm

IBM offers one year of carry-in service for less expensive models and three years of onsite service for its high-end machines. If you choose a system with a one-year warranty, you can increase it to two ($98) or three ($147) years. While we don't normally buy into the extended-warranty theory for appliances and TVs, it's a good idea for any complex system that travels, including the ThinkPad A series.
The paper documentation that accompanies A-series notebooks is typically thorough, and online help at the IBM site is abundant, if a bit difficult to wade through. An onscreen manual, called Access ThinkPad, provides great information for beginners and experienced users alike.

ThinkPad A series

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 9Performance 7Battery 7Support 9