IBM has rejuvenated its roster of notebook computers, this time with a new set of lightweight models. Experts say the venerable ThinkPad product line that set the standard for notebook computers more than a decade ago is still a viable enterprise player.
Due out later this month, the company's X40 line features "ultra portable" notebooks that each weigh just 2.7 pounds with a four-cell battery -- which is 25% lighter than its predecessor, the X31. The new notebooks also offer a bevy of improved hardware and software usability features.
For instance, the enhanced "rescue and recovery with rapid restore" features serve as an embedded, pre-boot emergency system, so that if the computer is unable to boot, it can, with the push of a button, operate in emergency mode. From there, users can retrieve individual files, restore the system from one of a half-dozen backup options, and download patches with an embedded Web browser.
Grant Shenk, product manager for IBM's X-series of ThinkPads, said that the enhanced rescue and recovery features will be made available via download for use with nearly all ThinkPad models produced during the last three years.
Maria DeGiglio, principal business analyst with the Robert Frances Group in Westport, Conn., said that the improved data and system recovery features will be beneficial to business users who travel frequently, because users will now be better equipped to fix their own problems -- without the assistance of their companies' IT staff.
The X40 also offers a feature called "access connections." Grant Shenk, IBM's ThinkPad X-series product manager, said that this feature allows a user to create and save several location-based connectivity profiles, such as a LAN connection profile for the office and a Wi-Fi profile for the airport. Then the machine can sense how best to connect to the Internet and can automatically change its settings to take advantage of the best available connection.
IBM has made significant strides in reducing the ThinkPad's thirst for power. Shenk said the X40 line utilizes a 12-watt Pentium-M processor, along with a more efficient, integrated graphics card that shares 64 MB of memory with the standard system memory.
An optional 8-cell extended-life battery provides up to 10 hours of power. The hard drive is composed of a 1.8-inch platter, which Shenk said is smaller and more shock-resistant than the 2.5 platter used in many other notebooks.
Other handy features for travelers include a powered USB 2.0 port that supports external optical drives without a separate AC adapter, a redesigned docking station that can be securely connected to the notebook using a new lock-and-key mechanism, and IBM's "active protection system," which temporarily parks the hard drive's read-and-write head in the event of a fall or sudden jolt.
Of course, the X40 offers any combination of built-in 802.11a/b/g wireless connectivity options. Shenk said that wireless antennas are built into every model, making it easy to upgrade the radio in the future if necessary. He said pricing for the X40 line falls between $1,499 and $2,399, depending on features.
DeGiglio said the X40 is an important announcement for IBM because it not only extends the momentum of the company's notebook business but will catch the attention of business travelers as well.
"You not only have the greater longevity of the battery life, but it's also enabled you to try to fix [problems] yourself, or gives you other options so you can keep working if you can't get in touch with your IT department. It will improve people's productivity and help to reduce IT costs for the support of laptops," DeGiglio said.
Alan Promisel, a research analyst with International Data Corp., in Framingham, Mass., said that while there's "essentially nothing new" in the X40 line, it does re-establish IBM's position in the business notebook market, specifically against Dell Inc.'s Latitude X300 series.
Though the competitive landscape has changed greatly since the first ThinkPad debuted more than 11 years ago, the product is credited with being the first notebook computer to offer a color screen and full-sized keyboard. It even spawned one of the first iterations of the tablet PC.
Going forward, Promisel said, the ThinkPad will remain one of the top notebooks in the enterprise market, especially when sold in conjunction with other IBM products and services, but it's best chance for continued success will be in the high-growth small-business market.
IBM's ThinkPad X40