In my retrospective of 2009 ("2009: Goodbye to You" ), I lamented that netbooks, despite all their utility and value, just didn't make any sense for businesses because they're too cheaply made. I wrote, "What I'd love to see is a netbook-class ThinkPad. Lenovo?"
Less than a month later, Lenovo announced its new ThinkPad X100e, which is exactly what I was looking for. The X100e isn't technically a netbook. It's something much better: A netbook-sized machine fit for the enterprise.
Most important, the X100e is a true ThinkPad and not some watered-down netbook with cheap plastic parts. It comes with an enterprise-class ThinkPlus warranty and not some consumer-oriented (i.e., limited) warranty. This includes priority 24x7 support and even onsite response. (Try getting something like that for your Eee PC.) It can be configured with any version of Windows 7, including the business-class Professional edition.
The hardware is interesting. Instead of the standard netbook-class Atom processor, Lenovo utilizes a multicore AMD Athlon Neo processor (or, on a very low-end machine, a single core AMD Turion Neo). I'm not familiar with these very new AMD wares, but Lenovo tells me they offer better price/performance than similar Intel chips and don't come with any of the fan noise and heat that accompanied older AMD mobile chipsets.
The X100e is a bit bigger than the average netbook. It utilizes a 11.6-inch widescreen display (rather than a netbook-ish 10-incher) and a full-size (and spill resistant) keyboard. As I've discussed previously, I feel that this "next size up" type offering represents the ideal compromise between portability and usability, whereas most netbooks are simply too small.
The X100e keyboard is quite interesting. Anyone who is familiar with the ThinkPad line understands that these machines come with the best mobile keyboard, bar none. In fact, for years, Lenovo (and its IBM predecessor) found dedicated customers exclusively because of the keyboards, even when the machines were stodgy and otherwise uninteresting. With the X100e (and some other new ThinkPads), Lenovo has rethought the keyboard for the first time in years. And if this freaks you out—as it did me when I first saw the machine—you can relax. Lenovo got it right.
Visually, the X100e has something of an island-style keyboard, with keys that resemble those on a MacBook Pro. But there are some important differences between the keyboard on the X100e and that on any other non-ThinkPad. First, the feel is pure ThinkPad: When you type, it feels as good as any other ThinkPad. To accomplish this, Lenovo engineered the keys with a slight bevel and made them a bit bigger. (The key shape is odd. Like a shield, the keys have straight top corners and curved bottom corners. When I noted that this shape mirrors the shape of some of the new Lenovo notebooks, I was told that it was coincidental. In fact, they hadn't noticed it.)
The keyboard also goes edge-to-edge on the device's topside, giving maximum space to what is arguably the most important part of the ThinkPad experience. It features all the standard parts you'd expect—3 USB ports, VGA out, a 4-in-1 media reader, a gigabit Ethernet port, and a combo TrackPoint/touch pad—but no internal optical, cutting down on weight. (The X100e weighs just 3 pounds.) It comes in two colors (red and black) unless you're in the Far East, where you can also get it in white. Wireless WAN (WWAN) 3G is also an option. And battery life, while not netbook-excellent, is still good: Up to 5 hours with a 6-cell battery.
Aside from the small form factor and the new keyboard, this just sounds like yet another ThinkPad, right? Well, check out the price: The X100e starts at less than $500. And that, folks, is an excellent example of consumer market trends making their way into businesses. You get all the benefits of a netbook with none of the problems.
I'm sure that other PC makers can and will come out with their own netbook-sized, enterprise-class PCs. But for now, let's give Lenovo credit for giving people what they want.