Rugged Travel Gear for Adventurers: Lenovo ThinkPad 11e Review

ThinkPad 1

By definition, adventures are not designed for comfort and safety. When I’m on the road everything I own gets abused and thrown around a lot. Bags break, clothes get torn, things get stolen. Shit happens. After a year on the road, I will have inevitably replaced or repaired almost everything that I started with at the beginning of the year. Needless to say, having anything breakable or fragile with you on the road is generally not a good idea.

That said, I’m also a writer. That means that I need a laptop when I’m travelling. I’m hardly going to carry a paper manuscript or typewriter around with me. So, laptop it is. Some people may argue otherwise, but let’s face it: in the twenty-first century if you’re travelling for anything longer than a week or two, you’re going to need a laptop. Deal with it.

Now for the bad news: when compared to other things, such as the Nokia 3220, concrete, titanium, diamonds and drunk Glaswegians, most laptops are not very tough. Carrying a large bulky full-size laptop around is highly impractical, so any traveller is far better off using a small netbook, with a screen of around 10-13”. Unfortunately, netbooks tend to be even more delicate than standard laptops, and this can be a huge problem.

For security reasons, it’s often impractical and stupid to attempt to travel around the more dangerous parts of the world with more than one bag. We’ve all seen those backpackers with two huge rucksacks and another day-pack precariously strapped onto them. Don’t be those guys. They are a huge target. Even I’m tempted to rob them sometimes.

I travel extremely light. One medium-sized bag usually. Inevitably, said bag will get thrown around the luggage compartments of buses, hastily thrown onto the floor, hauled onto the roof of a Jeep or abruptly emptied out onto the tile floor by customs officials who really don’t care if my stuff gets fucked up. My rucksack often ends up being used as either a makeshift chair or, if I’m in a particularly tough situation, a makeshift pillow/bed. At least once, it has served as a very good air-bag to stop me from getting broken on some particularly rough journeys.

We’ve also got the searing heat, the altitude, the cold, the humidity and moisture, the sand, and the dust. Oh, and urine; my backpack got pissed on by a stray dog once too. As if all that weren’t enough, if the laptop actually makes it out of your bag in one piece, you also have the high risk of beer or coffee being spilt all over the keyboard. Then, finally, when you factor in various girls wanting to check their e-mail or Facebook whilst at your place, only to then pick your laptop up by the screen and/or drop it on the tile floor, the survival rate for your average laptop is reduced to pretty much zero.

When I was working in South America, I ended up going on a 4×4 trip through the Bolivian desert to the salt flats of Uyuni. I’d been working in a city in northern Argentina at an altitude of 100m above sea level. Uyuni is 5000m above sea level. I’d taken my relatively new Asus Eee PC netbook with me (this was back in 2011) and the change in altitude combined with the four-day journey across the desert in Land Rover with a broken axle killed the laptop instantly.

I didn’t realise this was possible at the time, but the air-cushion around the HDD at normal altitudes is dramatically reduced at low-air pressures and the head scratches the HDD with the slightest deviation from horizontal. I opened the lid to write my journal only to be greeted with a Matrix-esque black screen with green code full of words like ‘failure’ ‘damage’ ‘error’ ‘disk’ and ‘dump’. It never worked again. I had to partition the drive and install a pirated Bolivian copy of Windows, which lasted me a few more months, but by the time I returned home, it was hopelessly fucked and any attempt at copying more than a few Mb to or from the disk at any time resulted in complete system failure. So, a tougher netbook is required for high-altitude expeditions.

If you’re still not convinced of the fragility of most laptops, try this simple experiment.

1. Take your £1000 Macbook Air.

2. Drop it on the floor.

Now you see what I mean. And this is where the Lenovo ThinkPad 11e comes in.

thinkpad-11e_angle

DESCRIPTION

THINKPAD® YOGA 11E WINDOWS

Processor

Intel® Celeron N2940 processor (2MB Cache, Up To 2.25GHz)

Operating System

Windows 8.1 Pro

Graphics

Intel® HD

Memory

8GB max DDR3L 1600 MHz

Display

11.6″ HD LED IPS touch (1366 x 768)

Dimensions (W x D x H)

11.81″ x 8.5″ x 0.87″

WIMAX / WIFI

Intel 7260 2 x 2 AGN + BT 4.0 combo

Weight

3.3 lbs with 4 cell battery

Webcam

720p HD webcam

Storage

  • Up to 500GB 7200 rpm

  • Up to 128GB SSD

Audio

Dolby® Advanced Audio v2

Battery

4 Cell 35 Whr – 1 year Warranty

I/O (Input / Output ports)

HDMI 1.4, USB 3.0, USB 2.0, 4-in-1, RJ-45

The ThinkPad 11e is designed for education purposes, and it is Mil-Spec tested. Anyone who has ever taught before will immediately understand why a laptop for education has to be tested against military grade specifications.

Kids will drop it, draw on it, lick it, sneeze on it, throw it at their friend’s head, slam it shut, pick it up by the lid whilst running and wave it around whilst holding the screen. They will jam pencils and pens into the USB ports, use the power cable as a makeshift lasso and generally abuse the tech to the nth degree. Having seen how laptops were treated at some of the schools I used to teach in, I think a laptop in a war-zone would probably have an easier time

If you’re wondering what it means if a laptop is ‘Military Specifications Tested’, then it means that the laptop has survived the following tests for extended periods of time:

Low Pressure – Tests operation at 15,000 feet
Humidity – Cycles 95 percent humidity through the environment
Vibration (operational and non-operational) – Jostles and jolts the laptops to make sure they can withstand shocks
High Temperature – Simulates high heat conditions by baking the laptop up to 140°F
Low Temperature – Tests operation at -4°F
Temperature Shock – Fluctuates between -4 and up to 140°F to test operation
Dust – Blows dust for an extended amount of time

ThinkPad 2

So, to get to the point – the ThinkPad 11e is tough as fuck. It’s not pretty, don’t me wrong. It’s bulky, rugged and anything but streamlined. It’s the laptop equivalent of a Humvee. Except uglier.

But it’s certainly rugged. It has a metal roll-cage built into it, the edges of the thick screen have a rubber bumper to protect them, and the laptop lid has reinforced stainless steel hinges that won’t snap off very easily (I’m looking at you, Samsung.) The keyboard is spill-resistant with anchored keys, which means that you can pour an entire coffee over the keyboard with no effect. On top of that, the screen is made of reinforced Gorilla Glass, which means that you’ll have a hard time scratching it by accident.

It comes with two USB ports, one of which is ‘always-on’ meaning that you can plug your phone or camera in to charge even whilst the laptop itself is switched off. Along with the USB ports you get a standard Ethernet port and an SD-card slot.

Why do you need an Ethernet port? I hear you ask. Doesn’t all the world have WiFi nowadays?

No. Many places off the beaten track don’t even have internet yet, it may surprise you to hear. Of those places that do, you might only be able to connect the old-fashioned way, using wires. Then you’ll be very glad to have that Ethernet port on your laptop, whilst the guy with the MacBook Air sobs quietly in the corner because he can’t update his Twitter feed.

All of these ports are extra-durable, and meant to withstand considerable wear-and-tear. Unlike my old Acer Aspire, the entire laptop won’t shut down because you inserted a USB stick with too much force.

Overall, the ThinkPad 11e feels unbelievably solid and with it weighing in at around 3.3lbs you could probably kill an angry grizzly bear with it in one blow. For those hardy adventurers who don’t have a Nokia 3220 to hand, this laptop could literally save your life. 

The best part is yet to come. The 11e comes shipped with the ThinkVantage protection system. This sounds fancy because it is. The laptop contains a built-in accelerometer and can detect every movement of your laptop. You can even see a 3D-render of your laptop move in real-time on the screen as you move the laptop around. This will detect if the laptop is moving too fast – i.e. if it’s being knocked off your table as an angry revolutionary mob storms the coffee shop in Venezuela, or thrown up and down in a rucksack as you sprint for a bus in Zambia. Conveniently, it also works if you’re just an idiot and trip over the power cable, catapulting your laptop across the room. 

Once the laptop realises that it is airbourne, ThinkVantage protection will then kick in and immediately activate the Airbag Protection, which will lift the read/write head off of the spinning-platter HDD, protecting it from damage when the laptop slams into the floor/wall/ground. You can customize this, depending on how much abuse you expect your hardware to receive. Mine is on full-sensitivity.

The HDD itself is a Toshiba 500GB HDD, which is lightening fast at 7200rpm and I’ve been very impressed by the transfer speeds so far. Rapidly importing photos off of your camera whilst sitting in the back of a truck going at 90mph on a a dirt track in the mountains has never been easier. If you’re not a fan of traditional hard-drives, it’s easily accessible upon taking the back off the ThinkPad and can be replaced with a Solid-State drive.

If all of that has still not convinced you, it’s called a ThinkPad Yoga because it is completely convertible. You can move the screen all the way back to convert your laptop into a tablet, or you can use it in ‘tent’ mode or ‘reader’ mode. It is completely touchscreen integrated and comes shipped with Windows 8.1 Professional – which works like a dream. As an avid e-book reader whilst travelling, this is a godsend. Being able to flip my laptop around and use it in reader mode, I can put Kindle on full-screen and flick from page to page with my finger.

Two last points, regarding the operating system itself. The ThinkPad 11e comes in two versions – the Chromebook version, and the Windows 8 version. This review concerns the latter. Before any rabid Linux fans decide to spam this page with death-threats for praising Windows 8, let me explain myself. I love Linux. I would happily use Linux forever…if everyone else also used Linux.

The problem with Linux is that it works brilliantly…just not with anything else. It’s the least compatible operating system I’ve ever used. I have to transfer data to and from Windows on a regular basis and using Linux is just a nightmare, especially because the infrastructure of many developing countries is all based around Windows computer systems.

Why not use the Chromebook version? Because the Chrome OS relies heavily on being connected to the internet. I need to use my laptop and have full access to my tools even when I’m sitting in a tent in the desert. Internet access is a luxury, not a necessity. The Chromebook 11e is fine if you’re staying in developed countries, but you’ll find yourself royally screwed over if you wander too far into the third-world with any kind of Chromebook.

To quote the geophysicist and explorer Pasquale Scaturro:

For over 180 days a year I can be found on the road traveling with my ThinkPad laptop -sweltering in the hot jungle terrain and surviving frigid arctic and mountain blasts. From bugs and humidity, to sand and dust, heat and cold, my ThinkPad laptop has been exposed to them all. I’ve logged more miles on my ThinkPad in the roughest and most extreme environments in the world than perhaps any person alive. From the heights of Mount Everest to the full length of the Nile, the world’s longest river, it’s been with me.

The Active Protection System is a must in the rough environments I’ve taken this laptop into. Besides using my ThinkPad to help me navigate in my airplane when I’m flying in the African bush (it’s my real co-pilot) and send Internet dispatches to my website from Mt Everest, I depend on it to keep my geophysical business and my personal connections going. It has withstood every imaginable environment on Earth and is still performing without missing a beat.”

The ThinkPad 11e is the very definition of rugged tech for the 21st Century Adventurer, so if you’re planning on getting a new travel laptop any time soon, here is your answer.

ThinkPad 3

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