At the All Things Digital conference last June, I had a chance to question Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer about when Windows laptops would be able to compete with the iPad when it comes to battery life. He said to stay tuned. I have stayed tuned but haven't heard much from Microsoft about battery life. However, I did just get my hands on a new Windows 7 notebook PC from Lenovo, which claims to actually outlast the iPad's rated 10 hours of battery life.
The ThinkPad X220, which will be available in April as both a standard notebook PC and as a convertible PC/tablet, boasts an amazing 24 hours of battery life with an add-on external battery pack that attaches to the bottom of the unit. Even without the external battery, Lenovo says the laptop can get an impressive 15 hours on its internal 9-cell battery. There are caveats to those claims -- your actual time will vary and will probably be less.
I didn't do any formal battery testing but I did use it for several hours with no sign of the battery dying. My sense is that the iPad's battery will still outlast the Lenovo's if you don't add the external battery or take advantage of every conceivable battery saving tip. But the fact that it comes close is impressive considering that the Lenovo is a fast, full-fledged PC with a spinning hard drive.
The unit Lenovo sent me to test had one of Intel's new Sandy Bridge processors running at 2.7 GHz, which Lenovo says is 20 percent faster than previous generations with twice the graphics performance. It comes standard with 4 gigabytes of RAM (expandable to 8) and a 320 GB hard drive. The company hasn't announced pricing, but I believe it will start at about $900.
The new machine has a gorgeous 12.5 inch high-definition display that looked great when running websites and playing movies, and you can actually hear the speakers, which is not the case with some other lightweight machines. One of my pet peeves about some laptops are speakers that aren't loud enough to hear without headphones.
Lenovo has also improved the microphone to reduce background noise when using it as a phone or for Web conferencing, and to pick up sounds from across the room when using it as a speaker phone.
The unit I'm testing is sitting right next to the 11-inch MacBook Air that I purchased just a few weeks ago. If I hadn't bought the MacBook, I would be seriously tempted to buy the Lenovo. True, it's eight ounces heavier and the standard model has an old fashioned hard drive instead of a solid state drive that uses flash memory instead of a spinning disc, but it's still quite portable and the extra screen real estate is welcome, as is the more spacious hard drive. For those willing to pay extra for a flash drive, Lenovo will offer it as an option. Like the MacBook Air, it wakes up from sleep very quickly, which was one of Apple's major selling points when it announced the Air.
I also love Lenovo's excellent keyboard and pointing devices. Lenovo, which bought IBM's PC division in 2004, has maintained IBM's tradition of great PC keyboards, even on its ultraportable models. Like the MacBook Air, the keyboard has the same spacing as a desktop keyboard. But unlike the Air, the keys themselves have a lot of "travel" or motion, which provides more positive feedback and helps me type with fewer errors. Lenovo is one of the few PC makers to offer users a choice between a pointing stick, which sticks up between the G, H and B keys to let you move the cursor with one finger, and a button-less trackpad.
My Lenovo test machine arrived a few days before Apple started selling its new iPad 2, which is about one-third of an inch thick and weighs only 1.33 pounds. Of course, there's no direct way to truly compare a notebook PC with a tablet -- they're different animals. Still, there are people who are now using iPads and other tablets instead of laptops and there are those, including Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who talk about the "post-PC era," implying that tablet PCs will take over a big slice of the portable computing market.
Ironically, the biggest challenger to that premise is Apple, whose 11-inch MacBook Air is only a pound heavier than the iPad 2. And even though the Lenovo is more than twice the weight of the iPad 2, it's still light enough to carry around all day.
Lenovo will ship a convertible version of the X220 with a touch screen in addition to the keyboard, but it will actually be heavier than the keyboard-only model I tested. Somehow, I think that's a bit of a non-starter for most people. If you want a tablet, buy an iPad or one of the Android tablets that will be coming out this year.
While the difference between tablets and laptops will start to blur over time, for the moment at least, there is a big market for little laptops, especially for people who do a lot of writing and need a good keyboard and those who need to be able to run Windows or Mac OS X. That may change. But until it does, I'm a big fan of lighter laptops with longer battery life.
This article first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News