Lenovo ThinkPad T420s Review

As I have said many times before, when buying laptops, I tend to stick to Apple, ThinkPads, and now HP EliteBooks.  Lately, I’ve found ThinkPad quality to be lacking and have been instead recommending EliteBooks.  My reasoning is that great build quality, keyboard, battery life, and warranty are the most important purchasing decisions for the people that I buy and recommend systems for.

Lenovo ThinkPad T420s

In general, IBM was very guarded about what it released under the ThinkPad name.  Perhaps understandably, Lenovo has been less so over the last several years.  They call the X120e a ThinkPad, the Edge-series, and more.  While the X300 and X301 were great, the X2xx series has been getting bigger, thicker, heavier, and I think generally of lower build quality over the last several iterations.  I use the following ThinkPads at work and home:  An X61, T60, R50p, and X40.  These are all older models.  I’m sticking with them because I have felt that they are superior to Lenovo’s offerings.  This appears to have changed with the new Lenovo ThinkPad T420s.  In my opinion, it is by far the best combination of size, weight, speed, battery life,  screen, and price of any ThinkPad in the last five years.  I was beginning to give up on the ThinkPad brand, the T420s has renewed my interest and faith in Lenovo’s ability to produce a true quality business-grad laptop.  Please, read on.

Hardware

The ThinkPad T420s is a 14″ laptop.  Despite the size, it is remarkably thin and light.  The default screen resolution is 1366×768.  The model I am reviewing has an upgraded 1600×900 display that I would absolutely recommend.  As configured, the T420s is as follows:

  • CPU: Intel Core i5 2540M (2.6GHz)
  • 8GB of DDR3 RAM
  • 14″ 1600×900 LED display
  • 3 USB ports, including one combo eSATA
  • Intel HD graphics 3000
  • SD Card reader
  • VGA and DisplayPort
  • GB Ethernet
  • DVD RW drive
  • ThinkPad Dock expansion option
  • 3.7 lbs with included 6-cell battery rated for 5.5 hrs

In my opinion, the last great ThinkPad was the incredibly expensive X301.  These machines were about 3lbs and had a 13″ 1440×900 display.  However, the size and weight came at the expense of expansion, power, and price.  As noted, these machines were very expensive, in part because of the 128GB SSD 1.8″ SATA SSDs.  They were also underpowered with a ULV 1.4GHz Core 2 Duo CPU.  Finally, their biggest flaw was the lack of a proper dock connection.  While the T420s is about a half a pound heavier, it addresses all of these shortcomings.  Like the X61 before it, the T420s has a standard 2.5″ SATA drive, it is a full Core i5 and yet still offers great battery life, and it can accept an optional ThinkPad dock.  It is also worth noting that it isn’t even obvious that it weighs more than the X301.  This machine has a great balance of speed and weight

The fantastic keyboard of the T420s

Screen, Keyboard, ThinkPad Light

As mentioned, the T420s has an optional 1600×900 display.  The extra screen resolution makes a huge difference to me.  This is a great resolution for a 14″ screen and is even a significant upgrade from the X300s 1440×900 display.  The display is also much thinner and brigher than previous ThinkPad displays, yet this doesn’t seem to affect build-quality.  Yes, this is a proper matte display.

Next. we have the keyboard.  In short, it is perfect.  If you are a long-time ThinkPad user, you will be delighted.  This is a traditional, excellent ThinkPad keyboard, not the odd chicklet-style used on the X120e.  The keyboard, trackpoint, and trackpad are great and are subtle improvements over previous offerings.  The ThinkPad light is present and accounted for.

Heat, Noise, Odd and Ends

I am very fussy when it comes to system noise.  This ThinkPad is among the quietest I’ve used, and I certainly haven’t felt it get very warm.

The extra width of the 14″ widescreen display has been put to good use on the T420s.  The great keyboard is flanked by the best speakers I’ve heard on a ThinkPad.  They still aren’t great but are a vast improvement over most ThinkPad speakers.  In the miscellaneous category, it’s worth noting that the included power adapter is nice and small – much smaller than any other stock Lenovo ThinkPad adapter I’ve seen bundled.  It is the usual T60+ style with the grey and yellow plug.

The T420s between an 11" MacBook Air and a 12" ThinkPad X61

Overall Build Quality

I’m happy to report that the T420s is also a standout with respect to build quality.  Despite being quite thin for the size, the laptop is very sturdy.  The thin display has a slight flex if forced, but is also very solid.  They keyboard is perfect, no flex at all.  The T420s incorporates the traditional ThinkPad black plastic finish over a roll cage, and the keyboard has the usual drip holes out the bottom of the laptop.

Cases Closed. Again, the MBA, T420s and X61

Linux Compatibility

I installed Ubuntu 11.04 AMD64 on the machine in a wubi install.  All hardware was detected and is properly supported.  Great job, Canonical!  I haven’t tested but would be willing to bet that there would be some issues with the new Intel integrated video in older releases.

Wrapping Up

I think that just about says it all.  This unit (type 4171-52U) was $1500 to start.  Upgraded from 4 to 8GB of RAM and with an 3-year NBD on-site warranty covering accidental drops, it was $1850 before taxes.  Not cheap but not terribly expensive either.  This is a great machine that easily lives up to the ThinkPad name and heritage.  I highly recommend this machine as a full-time, every day working machine and would be sure to get the high-res 1600×900 version.  In my opinion, Lenovo has produced the first great post-X300 ThinkPad.  It is an excellent meld of the X300 and T60 lines.

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4 Comments to “Lenovo ThinkPad T420s Review”

  1. Have you been able to get some real-world estimates on battery life? I’ve read a lot of differing accounts of its battery life, but Lenovo insists on being sketchy and advertising “10 hours with bay battery.” Have you just left this on until it drains, just browsing the web/word processing? I’m really curious to see how long it lasts

  2. Nice review. The display panel gets some bad reviews. How does it compare to the other notebooks you use? E.g. for Viewing angles, colour accuracy for photo editing (e.g. how are the face tones), and evenness e.g. with a solid grey background. Can you see the screen door effect? I.e. a grid between the pixels? Would you recommend this display?

  3. Hello,

    Thanks for posting a question! Unfortunately, I didn’t get too much time with the T420s. Battery life seemed to be much better than the T61 that it was replacing. I mostly played with it in Linux. I’d say it was getting a very respectable 4:45ish without any tweaking whatsoever. Again, this is based on a fairly cursory check. I’ll ask the person that ended out with the machine and will post back about his real-world experiences when I can.

  4. Hello, Bob. Great questions. I wish I had better answers for you. My favourite displays are on an old IBM ThinkPad R50p with a 15″ 1600×1200 IPS display, my MacBook Pro (again, IPS) and a pair of HP EliteBooks (8710w and 2710p)

    The ThinkPad T420s display didn’t annoy me greatly, which means that it was a pretty good display. With very limited use, the colours seemed good, the brightness was great, and I remember noticing the good viewing angles. It certainly outclassed the T61 it replaced, as well as the X61 that I use on a day-to-day basis. I was pleasantly surprised by it, given Lenovo’s recent display quality.

    One comment I have received from the user: The T420s display is about 1.5cm shorter than the T61 display. He had been using a 1440×900 display, the new one is 1600×900, but the screen size is the same. So, business as usual: Stretch it wider, make it shorter. At least he didn’t lose any vertical pixels, the pixel density is just higher. He also commented that the keyboard is noisier than the old machine, which is not something that I noticed.

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