Very thin and light; strong performance; durable design; very good audio reproduction; perfect keyboard
Poor battery life; mediocre graphics performance; narrow viewing angle for video; pricey
The Lenovo ThinkPad T420s delivers better performance than its predecessor thanks to Intel’s latest Core i5 platform, but the thin machine skimps on battery life.
Processor: 2.6GHz Intel Core i5-2540M
Memory: 4GB RAM
Storage: 320GB hard drive
Optical Drive: DVD±RW (swappable bay)
Screen: 14 inches (1,600×900 native resolution)
Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 3000
Weight: 3.9 pounds
Dimensions (HWD): 0.9×13.4×9.0 inches
Operating System: Windows 7 Professional (64-bit)
While laptop buyers have been flocking to 13-inch platforms for portability or 15-inch models for mainstream affordability, the happy-medium 14-inch thin-and-light has been all but forgotten. But Lenovo continues to update its venerable T-series in lockstep with Intel’s processor upgrades. The ThinkPad T420s employs the same extra-thin chassis as the T410s it replaces, now with the latest, second-generation Core i5 and Core i7 CPUs. laptop Battery life could be better and the price ($1,389 for our midrange configuration) will keep it out of reach for most consumers, but the T420s delivers a road-worthy platform that any business buyer will envy.
Battery Type: Li-ion
Battery Voltage: 10.8V
Battery Capacity: 4400mAh
Battery Color: Black
Battery Condition: Brand new
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The T420s uses the same super-slim chassis as the T410s, and that’s a good thing. It costs more than the non-“s” T420, but averages a scant nine-tenths of an inch thick (compared to 1.25 inches for the T420) and weighs 3.9 pounds (compared with 4.8 pounds for the T420). To put that weight in perspective: The T420s weighs just 3.2 ounces more than the 13.3-inch ThinkPad X1 we reviewed recently, and we would happily carry an extra few ounces to gain the larger screen.
On the outside, the T420s is classic ThinkPad: blocky, matte-black, and some might say boring. The non-slip paint treatment gives a sure grip and hides fingerprints, but there’s no denying that the brushed-metal enclosures of competing high-end laptops have more visual appeal.
The ThinkPad T420s sports a swappable bay that can accept an optical drive or a second battery.
More thrilling—at least to road warriors rough on their machines—is the design on the inside. The T420s features Lenovo’s “roll cage:” an internal carbon-fiber skeleton that protects internal components from flex. The bottom cover and keyboard bezel are made out of magnesium alloy for added strength with minimal weight. The T420s has also passed eight U.S. military testing specifications (Mil-Spec for short), including those for humidity extremes (up to 98 percent), low/high temperature, sand, altitude, vibration, and mechanical shock. And for that unexpected turbulence on the plane, the T420s keyboard is spill-resistant, and the machine has drainage holes on the bottom to quickly whisk wayward liquid—tested up to 4 ounces—out of the machine.
Another welcome design touch is the swappable bay, a laptop feature that is going the way of the wooly mammoth. You can slide the lever on the bottom of the T420s to pop out the standard optical drive and swap in an extra lenovo laptop battery (a $119 option). In addition to the bay, you’ll find a decent selection of ports arrayed on the edges of the machine. The left side houses a USB port, a headset jack, and a memory card reader. (There’s also a spot for the optional 34mm ExpressCard slot.) Around back are two more USB ports, a LAN jack, a DisplayPort connector for attaching to a TV, and a VGA connector for hooking up an external monitor or projector. This platform doesn’t have an HDMI port, which is the more popular connector for HDTVs here in the U.S., but a DisplayPort-to-HDMI adapter is only a few bucks if you need one.
The reason to buy the T420s over the likes of the ThinkPad X1 is the larger screen, and here the T420s does not disappoint. The 14-inch panel has an impressive native resolution of 1,600×900, which gives you enough pixels to have two application windows open side-by-side when needed. Of course, it also means that text at default settings will be tiny—crisp, but tiny—so plan on utilizing Windows’ font scaling and the zoom commands in applications if your age is north of 40.
The left side of the machine houses a USB port, a headset jack, and a memory card reader. There’s also room for the optional ExpressCard reader.
The LED-backlit panel is very bright, although we noticed the anti-glare coating does rob some “pop” from colors. Video playback looked excellent, with natural color reproduction and no motion blur, although for videos (and games for that matter) the panel has a narrow sweet spot; move to the left or right, and you’ll see a color and brightness shift. This could be an issue for business users who want to use the T420s as a presentation device and tend to use video in their programs.
You won’t need to apologize for the audio quality, however. The stereo speakers flanking the sides of the keyboard deliver a surprising amount of volume for such a thin laptop, and we did not detect distortion even at max volume. There’s even some bass presence—a rarity among sub-4-pound laptops. Enhancing the audio experience is the Dolby Home Theater v4 technology, which gives more presence and creates a wider perceived sound stage. The Dolby utility offers a range of audio settings, including equalizer presets for music, movies, games, and custom settings you can save. A virtual surround-sound slider lets you select the amount of surround enhancement; while we noticed the difference in headphones, we didn’t hear the difference through the speakers (although as noted, the sound was terrific to begin with). We did appreciate the utility’s Dialog Enhancer checkbox, which helped make dialog easier to hear in movie scenes with too-loud background music.
Most of the ports on the T420s are on the back: LAN, two USB, DisplayPort, and VGA—but no eSATA connector.
In addition to the extra screen real estate, the other reason to buy the T420s over the ThinkPad X1 is the keyboard. While the X1 incorporates a very good Chiclet-style keyboard that tries to mimic the classic ThinkPad keyboard feel and sound, the T420s includes the real deal. The full-size keyboard is solid, with just the right amount of key travel (the up-down range of motion) and tactile feedback as you type. Lenovo had improved the keyboard in the T410s generation, and those changes carry over: a smaller gap between keys (to keep crumbs from collecting underneath), a larger Escape key, and an LED indicator on the Caps Lock key. As with other ThinkPad models, Lenovo has included both its classic TrackPoint stick and a touch pad. And as with other ThinkPads, we love the precise movement the stick delivers and appreciate the pebbled low-friction surface of the touch pad, but we wish the pad were larger.
It wouldn’t be a T-series without the pitch-perfect ThinkPad keyboard. You’ll also find both a pointing stick and (smallish) touch pad, fingerprint reader, and dedicated volume buttons.
Above the Function key row you’ll also find dedicated volume/mute buttons and a microphone mute button—handy on those working-from-home days when the kids come barging in while you’re on a call. And speaking of handy conferencing features, the T420s incorporates some neat extras. Most notably, the Lenovo Communication Utility offers two microphone settings. Private Chat focuses the mic pickup in front of the laptop and suppresses background noise, so your party can hear your voice over the din of, say, an airport waiting area. Conference Call mode opens the audio capture field to a full 360 degrees around the machine, which is ideal for a group of participants around a table. In our trials, with the microphone setting on “one voice,” the voice of the speaker directly facing the screen was pronounced, while the voice of a speaker off to the side was much more muted. When set to multiple voices, we were able to walk around the T420s in a complete circle, and at all points the voice pickup was nearly the same.
The Lenovo Communications Utility also includes an option to suppress keystroke noise during a VoIP call, but in our Skype calls we noticed only a slight difference. And speaking of Skype, it is the only preloaded way to make use of the 1,280×720 Webcam. There is no dedicated camera utility for grabbing stills and video as you’ll find on most laptops. The Communications Utility does include a variety of very granular settings for the Webcam, including brightness, contrast, saturation, sharpness, and backlight compensation. In our trials, the low-light camera delivered a very good image in a dim room, with decent color reproduction and an acceptable amount of motion blur. In a dark room, with only the light from the screen, we got a dim but usable image. As with most low-light cameras, however, the image in bright light (with sunlight coming through an adjacent window) was overexposed.
The T420s has a slim profile, perfect for work and travel.
The T420s delivers the Lenovo Enhanced Experience 2.0 features, which work with the Windows 7 operating system to speed up such tasks as booting up, resuming from sleep/hibernate mode, and reconnecting to Wi-Fi networks. On the security front, the T420s includes a fingerprint reader standard, as well as TPM (Trusted Platform Module) circuitry and utilities. TPM solutions allow a company’s IT department to manage log-ins and passwords, communications access, platform integrity, and drive encryption.
Speaking of drives, enterprise customers can order the T420s with storage ranging from a 7,200-rpm 320GB hard drive, as on our unit, to an optional 128GB ($350) or 160GB ($430) solid state drive. Naturally, the traditional hard drive features active protection, where an accelerometer sense bumps and drops and signals the drive to park the heads to protect against data loss. Customers ordering CTO systems can select from two 802.11a/g/n chipsets and two 802.11b/g/n chipsets, or an 802.11a/g/n + WiMAX configuration. There are also four embedded wireless broadband radio chipsets available, the most popular choice being the Gobi 3000 Sierra Wireless EV-DO/HSPA Minicard (a $125 option).
Options continue on the performance-component front, where build-to-order models can be ordered with a Core i3 CPU, one of two Core i5 CPUs, or even a smoking Core i7 CPU. Our T420s came with the midrange Core i5-2540M processor running at 2.6GHz, along with 4GB of 1333MHz DDR3 memory. This CPU is very close to the 2.5GHz Core i5-2520M in the ThinkPad X1 and X220 we tested, and performance was on a par—which is to say, very good.
For example, on our productivity benchmarks, the T420s delivered a strong score of 7,779 on the 64-bit version of PCMark Vantage, which measures overall system performance. That’s well ahead of the 5,214 of the Toshiba Portégé R830, a 13.3-inch business laptop, and also beats out the thin-and-light class average of 5,860. On our 64-bit Cinebench 10 benchmark, which tests all CPU cores, the T420s scored a very impressive 10,823— the highest score we’ve seen on that test from a thin-and-light.
The T420s’s “Sandy Bridge” CPU, hyper RAM, and fast 7,200-rpm hard drive also made quick work of our multimedia tests. Need to convert your music library from MP3 to AAC format? No problem. The T420s converted 11 tracks on our custom iTunes Conversion test in 2 minutes 47 seconds. The Portégé R830 took 3:27 here, and the category average is 3:51. On our Windows Media Encoder test, where we encode a 3-minute, 15-second video clip, the T420s took just 3:08 seconds. That trounces the times from the R830 (4:34) and the category average (5:01).
As with other Sandy Bridge platforms with Intel’s integrated HD Graphics 3000 chipset, 3D acceleration is good for daily Windows chores and low-impact DirectX 9 3D gaming, but not more demanding DX10 games. The T420s delivered a score of 4,079 at 1,024×768 resolution on 3DMark06, which measures DirectX 9 graphics performance. That’s below the 4,555 the Portégé R830 turned in but ahead of the 3,871 category average. What does that mean for business types-turned-gamers when work is done? Well, a DX9 title like Company of Heroes can be played with some satisfaction if you dial back the effects settings and turn off anti-aliasing; we saw a frame rate of 47.4 frames per second under these conditions. But on the more demanding Just Cause 2, the T420 delivered an unplayable 8.77 fps at 1,366×768 resolution.
The only area where we were a little disappointed in the T410s was in battery life, and that carries over to the T420s. The slim six-cell laptop battery lasted just 2 hours 29 minutes on our DVD battery-rundown test, where we watch a DVD movie until the machine shuts down. That’s better than the 2 hours 13 minutes we saw on this test from the T410s, but still behind the three-and-a-half hours typical for thin-and-light laptops and way short of the Portégé R830’s 5:32. If runtime is important to you, be sure to pick up the optional bay battery ($119), which could get you another couple of hours, but you’d still be shy of all-day wireless computing.
Beyond the Windows 7 Professional operating system and aforementioned Skype utility for audio and video calls, you get Lenovo’s own excellent software tools accessible via the blue ThinkVantage button. In this suite you’ll find applets for rescue and recovery, managing connections, a password manager, and system health and diagnostic tools. You also get a communication utility to assist with Web conferencing. We especially like Lenovo’s Access Connections utility, which makes it easier to set and enable/disable your Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and (if present) wireless broadband connections.
The price of our T420s includes a generous three-year warranty, with 24/7 tech support and on-site service. As with other business portables, a range of warranty upgrades and insurance protection plans is available.
With the ThinkPad T420s, Lenovo has updated its ultraportable and thin-and-light lines to have a fast Sandy Bridge offering at every screen size—12-inch (X220), 13-inch (X1), and 14-inch (T420s). Given the noticeable bump in convenience of the larger screen and swappable bay and the not-so-noticeable weight penalty, we’ll take the T420s all day long. It is arguably the best business thin-and-light money can buy.
Tags: Lenovo ThinkPad T420s Laptop Reviews, Lenovo ThinkPad T420s Laptop, Lenovo Laptop Batteries, Lenovo Thinkpad Laptop Battery, Lenovo Thinkpad t61 battery, Thinkpad r60 battery, Thinkpad r61 battery
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