Ultrathin showdown: Apple MacBook Air vs. Lenovo ThinkPad X300 vs. Toshiba Portege R500

Which is really the best ultrathin notebook? We put the three best-known models through rigorous usability testing to find out.

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What we tested

Even though we couldn't try out every sort of task that people would use these notebooks for, Perceptive Sciences came up with a representative mix for their testers to try.

1. Take the computer out of the box, plug it in and turn it on.

There were no clear-cut winners in this out-of-the-box test -- and each laptop had a glitch. Thornton said that the ThinkPad X300's battery wasn't initially connected to the laptop, which took testers additional time to correct. Some testers were confused about whether to use the extra power cord extension that was included in the Air's box, which also took a bit of time to sort out. The Toshiba Portege R500 had the longest boot time, and "people were frustrated by that," Thornton said.

2. Connect to the wireless network.

The MacBook Air and Lenovo performed similarly, with testers taking, on average, about 2 minutes 30 seconds to connect. The Toshiba took, on average, about 3 minutes 45 seconds.

"People had more errors [with the Toshiba] as far as going to the wrong place [in the interface] to connect," said Emily Swinkels, research scientist at Perceptive Sciences. "Also, the Toshiba has a wireless switch on the side. One user accidentally turned that off."

3. Access a pre-established Yahoo Mail account and send an e-mail.

One focus of this test was to evaluate the keyboard and trackpad, areas in which the MacBook Air had a clear advantage.

Observation

Staffers at Perceptive Sciences observe as testers try out the notebooks.

Click to view larger image

"It took about a minute longer to type an e-mail on the Lenovo and the Toshiba than on the Mac," Thornton said. "People had more trouble typing and had more errors, particularly on the Toshiba. People commented they didn't understand key placement [on the two PC notebooks]; there were a lot of keys where they didn't expect them. The Mac keyboard is more like a full-size keyboard."

Swinkels noted errors caused by the trackpads on both the Lenovo and Toshiba. "There are three buttons on the top of the trackpads that [testers] were touching accidentally," she noted. Thornton added that key placement and trackpad buttons were more a consistent complaint for the Toshiba than the Lenovo.

4. Connect a USB flash drive, create a folder and copy an MP3 file from the flash drive to the folder.

Overall, the Lenovo ThinkPad X300 bested its competitors in terms of time to complete this task, but Thornton noted that the results of this particular test were directly related to how familiar each tester was with either PC laptops or Mac laptops.

"The Lenovo was much faster; it took about 2 minutes to complete the task," Swinkels said. "The Mac and Toshiba took closer to 3 minutes."

One significant failing of the MacBook Air was that not all flash drives fit the device well because of the device's ultrathin nature. "We wound up having to use a small, thin flash drive for the Mac," Thornton said. In addition, most users had to lift the Air off the table and twist it a bit to get the drive connected.

The time required to create a folder and copy a file correlated with how accustomed the testers were to the Mac or Windows operating systems.

5. Plug in headphones, listen to an MP3 file and adjust the volume without using the trackpad.

The goal of this test was to use the hardware, not the operating system, for tasks related to listening to music. The overall winner was the MacBook Air, although users found the headphone jack was more clearly marked and easier to find on the ThinkPad X300. Testers of all three laptops had a hard time finding the volume controls, although once found, users found the Air's controls easiest to use and most precise.

6. Eject the USB flash drive and delete the folder.

The three laptops were roughly even on this task, with one operating system-related exception. The MacBook Air provided a message when a user pulled out the flash drive, but Windows laptops didn't. As a result, some people stuck the drive back into the USB slot of the Lenovo and Toshiba laptops, which added to the time required to complete the task.

7. Open an e-mail and click on a link to watch a movie preview, adjusting the display as necessary.

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