Saturday, December 31, 2011

Lenovo ThinkPad T420s

A new year, a new laptop. Well three years that is. After six years of using ThinkPad X-series ultraportable, yesterday I bought my first ever T-series ThinkPad, the T420s. The deal was just too good to pass up on. For £650, I got an almost-new T420s that would normally cost £1202 from Lenovo direct. It was originally sold for £1614 in this configuration. And as expected, it comes with standard three-year transferable warranty (got to love business-class warranties!).

The T420s retains the same beloved ThinkPad design that has graced all its predecessor. Much like a Porsche 911, the design is tweaked subtly with each new model, but always retain the same design language that makes it instantly recognisable: that is the rectangular boxy black bento-inspired shapre that every ThinkPad fan likes about it. It is understated, classy and does not shout 'look at me'. The T420s is all about function, before form and yet the classic design means that it will never age. My only complaint about the T420s, design wise, is it isn't quite as beautiful to look at as the X220-series.

It isn't all just looks though. Hiding underneath all that black is a series of rollcage made of hybrid carbon fibre reinforced plastic, designed to reduce flex on both the internal motherboard as well as the LCD display. This design keeps the weight down (my T420s weighs a feather light 1.7kg) while also retains the robustness that has always been known in a T-series ThinkPad.While I am not one to test the durability of a new laptop, my previous experience with other ThinkPad notebooks gives me confidence that the T420s is similarly well built and is able to withstand a couple of rough knocks. The lid is covered in matte rubber - none of that glossy nonsense that came with the Edge-series.

The 14" LCD display with LED backlighting isn't the best display out there, but at least it is anti-glare one. The move from 4:3 to 16:9 aspect ratio annoys me, but at least the 1600x900 resolution meant I did not lose any vertical resolution. The widescreen aspect ratio also means that while this is technically a 14" laptop, the footprint of the T420s is equal that of an older 15" laptop with 4:3 aspect ratio. The bezels are quite thick, but no more than what you will find on a Macbook Air (yes I measured!). Personally I would welcome a move back to 4:3, if only so the full size keyboard would not look so awkward sandwiched by the stereo speakers.

Specification wise, the T420s is pretty much top of the line when it comes to the T-series. The high-end mobile Intel Core i7 2640m 2.8 GHz processor ensures that this blows my old X61 away (which was running on a first generation Intel Core 2 Duo mobile processor). I have not done any benchmarks, but Windows Experience Index gave it a score of 7.1. The max TDP of the 2640m is 35W. Sounds high, but this also includes the Intel HD3000 IGP. It supports of turbo clockspeed of 3.5 GHz.

Powering the display is a nVidia Quadro NVS 4200M Optimus GPU with 1GB VRAM. This is a power hungry discrete GPU, optimised for CAD rather than gaming. Despite the high power requirements, it is only just slightly better than the Intel GMA HD3000 integrated GPU, which can be found lurking inside the T420s. While the NVS 4200M GPU isn't capable of playing many modern games, it is more than capable of powering some great DirectX 9 titles like Half-Life with the settings set to maximum.

My T420s comes with a single 4GB DDR3 RAM stick, giving me plenty of opportunities to stick in another 4GB stick and enable the dual channel mode, though the large 4MB cache on the i7 would mean it is likely any performance boost will not be as apparent as it was back in the old DDR days.

Storage comes courtesy of a 320GB harddrive that spins at 5400rpm. The best bit? The T420s has three storage bays. Three! The mSATA slot that is normally used for integrated WWAN mobile broadband can also be used to run a mSATA SSD drive. For example one could get an Intel 310 mSATA SSD and use it as their primary storage. In addition to that the DVD-RW drive can be removed and used with an Ultrabay HDD caddy. Actually, thinking about it, you could add yet another storage solution via the ExpressCard 34 PCI-express slot. So make that four storage bays.

The seven row keyboard is brilliant as usual. The only one thing that bugs me is that the keyboard here is based on the US-version, meaning the pound sterling symbol (£) is missing, and the @ symbol are in the wrong place. Other than that the keyboard is standard ThinkPad affair - meaning this is quite literally the best keyboard one can ever find on a laptop, with each keys having the right amount of key travel. The keyboard here isn't your typical rubbish island style keyboard popularised by Sony and Apple - this is the real deal. It isn't even noisy, offering just the right amount of tactile feedback required to using it efficiently. The T420s keyboard is quite possibly the best keyboard I have ever used, on a notebook or standalone. The keyboard is illuminated by a single ThinkLight LED (FN+PgUp), which sits just above the 720p webcam.

Nestled conveniently in the middle of the keyboard is the famous TrackPoint mouse. The hate it or love it pointing stick is a huge favourite of mine, and is the single biggest reason why I buy ThinkPad notebooks rather than more glamorous brand. This mouse allows me to move the mouse pointer around, with great precision, without having to move my palms aways from the home row of the keyboard. There is a regular touchpad on the bottom, but I disabled it almost immediately after I bought this. If there is an option to remove the touchpad physically altogether I would have gone for that.

While ThinkPads has always come with generous amount of ports, some of these are legacy. It is not different on the T420s. You get two USB 2.0 ports, as well as a single USB 3.0 port. One of the USB port is also always-on. A VGA and DisplayPort will handle your external monitor needs. It will be nice to have a HDMI port, but you can easily get a DisplayPort to HDMI adapter. The back also houses the Ethernet jack. While there is no built-in memory card reader included, the ExpressCard 34 slot can be used to run one. The modular DVD-RW drive is housed in the UltraBay. This can be swapped out for either a 3-cell battery or HDD caddy.

Running on default mode, the T420s remains cool at all times. Even cooler than my X61, and that was running on a low-power chip. The single owl-inspired fan can be found on the top left and back of the notebook, remaining ever so quiet when the laptop is idle or in normal use. The fan does get noisy, and the laptop warm, when the i7's Turbo Boost kicks in or when the nVidia GPU is in use.

With such a large screen, i7 processor and discrete GPU, the T420s battery life isn't something to write home about. The six-cell battery offers roughly 3 1/2 hours of usage, conservatively. This is a far cry from the ThinkPad X220 which manages 7-8 hours battery life. Lenovo offers a three-cell battery that you can use in the UltraBay to boost your battery life. While the battery life was disappointing, for me, this is enough as my T420s will primarily be used as a home laptop. If you are planning on getting a ThinkPad primarily as a road warrior tool, I would recommend the X-series instead.

Best laptop yet? No, of course not. Admittedly the design isn't suited for everyone, and while it does ship with a screaming fast processor, the nVidia GPU is slightly underwhelming when compared to the HD3000, and it may take a driver update or two before it reaches its potential. It would have been better if this shipped with a 4:3 display - a far more usable aspect ratio for web browsing. After all I would rather watch a film on my HDTV than on a 14" screen. Unfortunately it isn't Lenovo's position to decide on screen aspect ratios as most LCD makers have switched production to the dreadful 16:9 aspect ratio.

Still a top notebook the T420s is. If you are looking for a light business-class notebook with 14" display and a great keyboard, this is the notebook to get. The regular T420 might suit others who are looking for additional battery options, though do keep in mind that it is quite a bit heavier. And don't forget the venerable X-series. The new X220 has been lauded as one of the best ultraportable ever made.

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