Has Lenovo created the “perfect” laptop?

Posted by Rob Enderle, Principal Analyst, Enderle Group

Analyst Opinion - Apple’s MacBook Air may be the coolest notebook to have these days, but early reviews revealed some downsides many of us may not want to live with. That may be different with Lenovo’s X300, another ultra-thin laptop, that is the first Thinkpad in a long time you could lust for. Is it the perfect laptop?

 

 

 



In many ways, the X300 is a much more practical version of a new category of notebook computer we saw launched with the visually aggressive and less compromising Macbook Air and the idea Lenovo has come up with suggests that a new “Perfect” notebook for our time is approaching quickly and turning into a moving target. (Business Week has a first look at the X300).

So, what makes this X300 a better Macbook Air and what can we expect from this category in the long term. How will Intel’s Silverthorne, hybrid graphics, ready-boost/turbo memory/hybrid drives, fuel cells, Wi-Max, modularity, and “Cloud Computing” impact this new category?  


The X300:  Pretty practical

If you’ve ever dated someone who had those incredible looks, but clearly was not the person you’d marry, you know the Apple Air. It is visually stunning, but it makes so many tradeoffs you’d be hard pressed to live with it. The X300, while much better looking in person than it is in photos, isn’t quite as attractive but it is eminently more practical. And it is a ThinkPad, which means, by definition, it is business ready.  

But it isn’t inexpensive and the high price isn’t because Lenovo is greedy, it is because the darned flash drive that both the Apple Air and the X300 are designed around is very expensive. Having said that, the notebook has a removable battery, it has an optical drive, it has lots of USB ports and it will also fit in an interoffice envelope (sorry, I couldn’t resist).   

The X300 also has a ThinkPad keyboard (ThinkPads had the best keyboards on the planet for years) and a finish that has been known to hold up incredibly well under normal day to day abuse.   From a personal standpoint, this is the first ThinkPad I’ve lusted after since the great Butterfly of the mid-90s - and that wasn’t anywhere near as practical.  But this is still the beginning of what could become an amazing change.


Looking To the Future

Silverthorne is Intel’s next-generation technology for UMPCs and it has thermal advantages that enable even thinner and more power efficient products. Hybrid Graphics - a combination of chipset and discrete graphics - deal with the current performance bottleneck and allow a notebook in this class to actually have a balanced performance range between long battery life and high-end graphics performance. Flash is too expensive by itself but is dropping like a rock in price and can be used in a blended form successfully as kind of a super cache, but we are still working out how to do that. Fuel cells provide the promise of nearly unlimited unplugged electrical power.  WiMax will give us (hopefully) cheap high-bandwidth wireless connections.  Modularity gives us the ability to morph (think Transformers) the product.  And, finally, cloud computing will give us unlimited storage.
All of this is aggressively being worked on, even if we have some wild cards like wireless electrical power coming in from the sidelines to make mobile computing even more interesting.    

In the end, we are talking about what is likely the most amazing change ever in personal computing, with the biggest near term impact likely coming from the cloud.

Why EMC’s Pi acquisition + WiMax could have the biggest impact

In looking at all of this stuff, I believe the biggest changes will come from Cloud Computing and WiMax (assuming it gets off the ground).  EMC just bought Paul Maritz’s company PI, which is developing a solution, now backed by a powerful EMC back end, to make your files accessible across any network on any device. Combine this concept with affordable wireless broadband and you eliminate the problems of expensive storage and the risk of data loss.
   
By doing this, you move the bottleneck from the local drive to the network. Aggressive flash caching, however, should be able to eliminate that bottleneck. In the end, you could end up with an ultra-thin laptop that is substantially cheaper, lighter, and potentially safer than anything on the market today.   
The reason it is safer is that the storage is up on a service and will be safe regardless of what happens to you or the laptop itself. This probably makes you feel all warm and fuzzy that you can be in a plane crash and your data will live on, but it also means you can’t lose it, for example when your laptop is stolen.  

Wrapping Up

Everywhere you look, there is massive change going on. In the foreseeable time, we may no longer be able to tell where your laptop leaves off and your cell phone begins. Both Apple and Lenovo should be applauded for taking an aggressive path to defining this future but it may be companies like EMC and Intel (Wi-Max/Silverthorne) who make the future “Perfect Computer” possible.
 
All of this being said, if you get a chance to see the ThinkPad X300, take it, as it is an amazing product.  

 

Rob Enderle is one of the last Inquiry Analysts.  Inquiry Analysts are paid to stay up to date on current events and identify trends and either explain the trends or make suggestions, tactical and strategic, on how to best take advantage of them.  Currently he provides his services to most of the major technology and media companies.