By Jon L. Jacobi
IBM's desktop-replacement notebook, the brawny ThinkPad A series, comes in a range of configurations and prices—from $1,599 to a whopping $3,599—that will suit just about any user. IBM might have chosen an H for high class rather than an A for this series because it's distinguished by an elegant combination of innovative design, solid construction, excellent performance, a long-lasting battery, and a host of unique features and options. Any of the models are a good choice for small or large businesses.
Big Blue offers nothing but mobile Pentium processors in the A series. The ThinkPad A30 line includes PIII-M processors from 1 GHz to 1.2 GHz, while the ThinkPad A31 line uses strictly P4-M chips at speeds of 1.6 GHz to 1.8 GHz. The Pentium III-M models use SDRAM, while P4-M models use DDR SDRAM. All ThinkPad A-series notebooks accept a maximum of 1 GB of memory (the one exception is the holdover A22p configuration, which can take up to 512 MB and is available only with a 1-GHz PIII-M part). Disk sizes vary from 20 GB to 60 GB. All current models use ATI graphics controllers ranging, on the low end, from a Mobility Radeon with 16 MB of memory to a workstation-class FireGL 7800 with 64 MB of memory on A31p models. The ThinkPad A series competes with desktop replacements such as the Compaq Evo N800v, the Dell Latitude C840, the Gateway 600XL, and the Micron TransPort GX3.
|IBM ThinkPad A Series – CNET Rating: 8 out of 10|
There are a whopping 29 models in the ThinkPad A series, all of which can be customized; to date, we've tested two. One of the two systems, the A31p, includes a 1.7 GHz P4-M chip, 256 MB of memory, and a DVD/CD-RW combo drive for $3,599. We also tested a ThinkPad A30p with a 1.2 GHz Pentium III-M, 256 MB of memory, and a DVD/CD-RW combo drive for $3,099. Unless you're planning to do 3D modeling or CAD work, you'll get more bang for your buck with a midrange model of the A31. We'd opt for the $2,674 A31 with a 1.6-GHz P4-M, 256 MB of memory, a 30 GB hard drive, a 32 MB ATI Radeon 7500 mobility GPU, a 15-inch screen, a combo DVD/CD-RW drive, and IBM's embedded security chip. It's a well-rounded, state-of-the-art machine.
The ThinkPad A-series notebooks aren't for the thin-and-light crowd, but considering the functionality they provide, they're about the size and weight you'd expect. All models, except for the slightly shorter A22p, measure 13 inches wide by 10.7 inches deep. A30s are 1.8 inches high; A31s are just a fraction taller. Travel weight ranges from 7 to 8 pounds or more, depending on the model and the configuration. On all models, the upper shell is made of rugged, lightweight titanium alloy, and throughout the line, the overall construction is solid.
A-series laptops are as expandable as any notebook on the market. A30 and A31 models offer two Type II (one Type III) PC Card slots and two modular bays—one Ultrabay and one Ultrabay Plus. The Ultrabay can host a second battery or any of a number of drives: CD-ROM, CD-RW, DVD-ROM, combo DVD/CD-RW, Zip, LS-120, and LS-240. The Ultrabay Plus hosts drives as well, but it's also designed to handle a number of unique I/O modules, such as a full-sized numeric keypad and a docking cradle for the WorkPad (Palm) 505/505c PDA (IBM discontinued its WorkPad line earlier this year, but the docking station works with the identical Palm models). Finally, on top of the screen, both A30 and A31 models feature a handy, proprietary USB UltraPort that accommodates a camera, a Bluetooth adapter, a microphone array, or a CompactFlash card reader.
The standard ports and jacks on A-series models include parallel, serial, two USB, RJ-45 Ethernet, speaker, headphone, microphone, line-in, analog VGA, S-Video-out, RJ-11 modem, and infrared. Some high-end A31 models also feature an S-Video input and a four-pin mini-FireWire port.
Port replicator or docking station?
Integrated 802.11b (Wi-Fi) wireless is offered on many models, and the top-end A31p even comes with integrated Bluetooth for personal-area networking with PDAs, mobile phones, printers, and other peripherals. Lastly, there's an expansion connector for docking stations. A bottom-mounted $179 port replicator is offered, as well as a full-featured $529 docking station with a single modular bay and a half-sized PCI card slot.
One unique feature of this series and of other IBM ThinkPads is the company's integrated security chip (Embedded Security System 2.0). It provides hardware encryption and password security that's harder to crack than software-only solutions. If you're working with sensitive data, this feature alone should sell you on IBM's notebooks.
Keys to success
As a company that once manufactured typewriters, IBM has always produced excellent keyboards; those you'll find on the A-series notebooks do nothing to spoil that reputation. They feel great and are a cut above anything you'll find elsewhere, except on some Dell notebooks. Users either love or hate the TrackPoint eraserlike pointing device that resides in the middle of the keyboard between the G,B, and H keys. It's more accurate than a touchpad, but many find it tiring. IBM recently announced that it will be incorporating touchpads into its ThinkPad T-series thin-and-light laptops, but no word yet on the A series.
The A series' active-matrix screens range in size from a 14.1-inch, 1,024 x 768-pixel unit on lower-priced models to a 15-inch, 1,600 x 1,200-pixel display on the A31p mobile workstation. Every unit we've seen has had a bright, sharp picture, but the newer, wide-viewing-angle units are available only in high-end models.
Solid performance, battery life
Both the A30p and the A31p performed well in our tests, though not in first place for their class. A large part of their success was due to their 5,400 rpm hard drives—most of the competition still uses 4,200 rpm models. When it came to CPU-intensive trials, such as SysMark2001's Internet-content creation, the A30p lagged slightly because of its older ATI Mobility Radeon GPU but still performed quite well for a 1.2-GHz Pentium III-M unit.
The A31p lagged a bit, as well, but its ATI Mobility FireGL GPU is optimized for graphics-workstation and OpenGL performance, not the standard 3D performance that our tests measure. Despite this, the unit's overall score fell only 6 points shy of the 1.8-GHz P4-M Dell Latitude C840's.
The A31p exhausts its 4,000 mAh, 10.8-volt, lithium-ion battery in 2 hours and 1 minute—not a great showing, considering that the Micron TransPort GX3 runs 40 minutes longer. The ThinkPad A30p managed a more respectable 2 hours and 39 minutes on a 3.6 mAh, 10.8-volt, lithium-ion battery; the default-screen settings can be reduced to obtain considerably more life.
You can choose among Windows 2000, XP Home, and XP Professional; the A series does not include an office suite, but Lotus SmartSuite Millennium Edition and Microsoft Office Small Business Edition are available as options. You do get Access ThinkPad support software, a recovery-disk image on a hidden partition, in case of catastrophe; on some models, Veritas's RecordNow for CD mastering is also included. The paper documentation that accompanies A-series notebooks is typically thorough, and online help is abundant, if a bit difficult to wade through.
The standard warranty for the A series is one year of carry-in service for less expensive models and three years of onsite service for the high-end machines. If you choose a system with a one-year warranty, you can increase it to two ($98) or three ($147) years. While we don't normally buy into the extended-warranty theory for appliances and TVs, it's a good idea for a complex system that travels.
The IBM ThinkPad A series is about as good as a desktop replacement gets. These notebooks are a bit pricier than the competition, but their dual modular bays, innovative features, and strong performance add up to a superior notebook experience. We recommend the A31p over the A30p because of its newer technology and better connectivity options, but the odds are you'll be happy no matter which A-series laptop you buy.
This article was first published by CNET on 6/11/2002.
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