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ThinkPad X31 review: ThinkPad X31

ThinkPad X31

John Morris
8 min read
We tried hard to find a crack in the ThinkPad X31's armor, but this ultraportable is virtually flawless. True, the design is old-school ThinkPad--black and boxy--but this 3.7-pound, Pentium M-based ultralight is functional and versatile, and it comes with every conceivable feature, including both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Add to the mix its excellent performance and true all-day battery life with the optional extended-life battery, and the ThinkPad X31 goes straight to the head of its class of business-oriented ultraportables.

On its own, the ThinkPad X31 weighs 3.7 pounds, which is virtually identical to the weight of its closest competitors, the Dell Latitude D400 and the HP Compaq nc4000. Yet it's a little smaller than both of these rivals, measuring 10.8 by 8.8 by 1.4 inches. (The Dell Latitude X300 and the Toshiba Portégé R100 are the only business ultraportables from major manufacturers that are significantly smaller and lighter, though neither offers the same features.)


ThinkPad X31

The Good

Versatile design; tons of hardware and software features; great performance; awesome battery life; includes both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

The Bad

Keyboard feels a little cramped; can't insert extended battery in Ultrabase; stingy stuck-pixel policy.

The Bottom Line

With loads of features, speedy performance, and awesome battery life, the ThinkPad X31 series is the ultimate ultraportable for executives on the go.
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The keyboard is solid, if a little cramped.
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The pointing stick and three cursor-control buttons work well.

When you throw in its power adapter, the ThinkPad X31's total travel weight is still only 4.3 pounds. We also tested the ThinkPad X31 with an optional extended-life battery ($189), which snaps securely onto the base. It adds another pound to your bag but is well worth the weight, since it not only lets you work a full day without plugging in, but also lifts the back of the ThinkPad X31 about one inch, making typing more comfortable.

Speaking of typing, the ThinkPad keyboard is smart, as usual. Its 87 keys are logically arranged and have a nice feel, thanks to a 2.5mm keystroke. But because IBM crammed the slightly undersize keyboard (18.5mm key pitch) into the narrow notebook, things feel a bit cramped, and your hands tend to slide off the edges as you type. (Maybe Big Blue should bring back the Butterfly.) The pointing stick and the three cursor-control buttons work well--the scrolling feature is handy once you get the hang of it--but unlike the Dell and HP models, the ThinkPad X31 does not offer a touchpad.

The 12.1-inch display has a maximum resolution of 1,024x768 pixels, typical for this class. The steel hinges and recessed bezel give the display a sturdy feel and add a little flair. The design also leaves room for a keyboard light--helpful when working in a dimly lit airplane cabin or hotel room.

Like most ultraportables, the ThinkPad X31 does not have an internal optical drive. Our test model, however, included an optional Ultrabase X3 Media Slice ($169) with a combination CD-RW/DVD drive ($199). The drive bay on the media slice can also support a wide range of optical drives, hard drives, batteries, and other Ultrabay peripherals, or you can skip the media slice altogether and choose one of the external drives. The Ultrabase X3 also includes a slot for yet another battery, plus all the usual ports (Gigabit Ethernet, modem, USB 2.0, serial, parallel, and VGA) and stereo speakers. It would be nice, however, if the actual battery inside the extended-life battery module could be removed and used in the Ultrabase, since you can't use both add-ons simultaneously.

One of the first ultraportables to offer Intel Pentium M processors, the ThinkPad X31 remains the one to beat in terms of features. All models include either a 1.4GHz or a 1.6GHz Pentium M chip, 256MB or 512MB of system memory (expandable to 2GB), hard drives that range from 20GB to 60GB, and the ATI Radeon Mobility graphics chipset with 16MB of DDR memory.

The model we tested, the 2672RHU, included a 1.6GHz Pentium M; 512MB of PC2700 DDR memory; a 5,400rpm 40GB hard drive; and both wireless LAN and Bluetooth. Though ThinkPads have a reputation for costing more than their peers, on its own, this $2,324 configuration, which is currently on sale for less than $2,000, is competitive with the Dell Latitude D400 and the HP Compaq nc4000.

The ThinkPad X31's wireless options are among the features that set it apart. Our test system included a multiband IBM 802.11a/b/g mini-PCI adapter, but you can also opt for a Cisco or Intel 802.11b solution. A diversity antenna built into both sides of the display improves the wireless range, according to IBM. The ThinkPad X31 is one of only a handful of ultraportables that also offer integrated Bluetooth for wirelessly synchronizing data with a handheld, using a Bluetooth phone as a modem, or creating quick networks.

In addition to the usual VGA and parallel ports, the ThinkPad X31 has two USB 2.0 ports, a FireWire port, a single PC Card slot, and a CompactFlash slot that can handle Type II cards, such as the Microdrives now sold by Hitachi. The ThinkPad X31 has many little touches that improve usability, too, including a screen magnifier for zooming in on details, browser Forward and Back keys, the ThinkLight keyboard light, and the Access IBM button, which provides quick access to IBM's system help and bundled utilities that actually help you solve real-world problems and get the most out of the notebook.

IBM boasts that the ThinkPad is the most secure PC available, and it makes a convincing case with unique hardware and software features. The IBM Embedded Security Subsystem 2.0 consists of a microchip, available on some models (including our test unit), and downloadable security software. The software stores digital keys, usernames and passwords, and other confidential data on this chip, keeping it secure even if the operating system is compromised. You can also use the software to encrypt and decrypt folders and files on the fly. The security scheme is designed to work with wireless security protocols such as Cisco's LEAP and 802.11x, third-party biometric solutions, and VPNs.

The remaining software includes a system migration tool for transferring settings and documents to a new ThinkPad, a utility for creating and deploying a single software image containing multiple applications, and a variety of administrative tools. Like all IBM systems, the ThinkPad X31 also includes licenses for Lotus SmartSuite Millennium Edition and one Lotus Notes client, though it is not preinstalled and many companies will choose other software. The default OS is Windows XP Professional, but you can also choose XP Home, Windows 2000 Professional, Windows 98 Gold, Windows 98 Second Edition, or Windows NT 4.0 with Service Pack 6a.

The IBM ThinkPad X31 is one of the fastest ultraportables available. The configuration we tested notched a MobileMark 2002 score of 170, good enough to essentially tie with the Dell Latitude D400 for fastest in this featherweight class. (The Latitude D400 had a marginally faster processor.) It trounced the HP Compaq nc4000, which was equipped with only half the memory as tested.

One reason for the ThinkPad X31's good performance was that the model we tested had an ATI Radeon Mobility graphics chipset with 16MB of its own memory. By comparison, both the Latitude D400 and the Compaq nc4000 use graphics chipsets that borrow system memory, which can be a drag on performance. The ThinkPad X31's scores varied slightly depending on whether we tested with the default battery or with both the standard battery and the optional extended-life battery, but either way the system was very fast.

Mobile application performance  (Longer bars indicate better performance)
BAPCo MobileMark 2002 performance rating  
Dell Latitude D400
IBM ThinkPad X31 (single battery)
IBM ThinkPad X31 (both batteries)
HP Compaq nc4000

The ThinkPad X31 really shined in our battery tests. With its standard 10.8V, 4,400mAh battery, the ThinkPad X31 kept running for more than four and a half hours, easily outlasting both the Dell Latitude D400 (11.1V, 3,900mAh battery) and the HP Compaq nc4000 (10.8V, 3,600mAh battery). In fact, the ThinkPad X31's MobileMark 2002 battery score was a whopping 73 percent better than that of the Compaq nc4000.

And that wasn't the impressive part. When we tested with the extended-life battery, a $190 10.8V 3,600mAh battery that you use in addition to the main battery, the ThinkPad X31 lasted a full eight hours. That's the best score we've ever seen from a mainstream notebook PC, making it money well spent in our book. Among the notebooks we've tested, only the ThinkPad X31 delivers true, all-day computing without ever plugging in.

Battery life  (Longer bars indicate better performance)
BAPCo MobileMark 2002 battery life in minutes  
IBM ThinkPad X31 (both batteries)
IBM ThinkPad X31 (single battery)
Dell Latitude D400
HP Compaq nc4000

To measure mobile application performance and battery life, CNET Labs uses BAPCo's MobileMark 2002. MobileMark measures both application performance and battery life concurrently using a number of popular applications (Microsoft Word 2002, Microsoft Excel 2002, Microsoft PowerPoint 2002, Microsoft Outlook 2002, Netscape Communicator 6.0, WinZip Computing WinZip 8.0, McAfee VirusScan 5.13, Adobe Photoshop 6.0.1, and Macromedia Flash 5.0).

Find out more about how we test notebooks.

System configurations:

Dell Latitude D400
Windows XP Pro; 1.7GHz Intel Pentium M; 512MB DDR SDRAM 266MHz; Intel 82852/82855 Graphics Controller-0 (up to 64MB shared); IBM Travelstar 40GN 40GB 5,400rpm

HP Compaq nc4000
Windows XP Pro; 1.6GHz Intel Pentium M; 224MB DDR SDRAM 266MHz; ATI Radeon IGP 350M 32MB (shared); Toshiba MK6022GAX 60GB 5,400rpm

IBM ThinkPad X31
Windows XP Home; 1.6GHz Intel Pentium M; 512MB DDR SDRAM 266MHz; ATI Mobility Radeon 16MB; IBM Travelstar 40GN 40GB 5,400rpm

IBM provides a three-year warranty on parts and labor, though the battery is covered for only one year. Onsite service is not included, but you can choose from several extended warranties with onsite or depot repair ranging from two years ($98) to five years ($449). The company covers the shipping costs for warranty repairs. Our only gripe is with IBM's stingy LCD policy: it won't replace an XGA display unless you have a total of nine dead pixels (or eight pixels all stuck in either on or off position).

During the warranty period, you also receive toll-free, 24/7 telephone support. Support calls after that cost $35, but you may never need to pick up the phone. The system help and documentation both on the local disk and on IBM's Web site is comprehensive and well organized, and all of it is easily accessible from the Access IBM button. We especially like that IBM stores a disk image on a separate partition (it uses about 3GB) rather than on a CD, so that you can easily restore the system in an emergency. Alternately, you can use the Rapid Restore utility to back up important applications and data.

To find out more about how this product's warranty really stacks up and what you should look for in terms of service and support, take a look at CNET's hardware warranty explainer.


ThinkPad X31

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 9Performance 9Battery 9Support 9