Monday, January 18, 2010

Lenovo ThinkPad T400s thin & light laptop

Monday, January 18, 2010
Lenovo's ThinkPad T400s is a very thin, very light, and fully featured 14-inch widescreen laptop. Most people are familiar with Lenovo's ThinkPad line and the T400 is a well featured, all-around bread & butter laptop. While the T Series was once the uber-svelte, latest & greatest flagship notebook of the ThinkPad family, recent iterations have seen proportions grow and uniqueness dwindle. Today Lenovo announced the ThinkPad T400
* Thin, lightweight design
* Loaded with features
* Bright LCD with vibrant colors
* Excellent keyboard

* Average battery life
* High cost (for the market)
* Low end models have slow HDD


At first glance, the T400s looks like any other ThinkPad: black and rectangular. If you look a little closer, you will notice the subtly rounded edges, surprisingly thin profile, and very non-T400 port placement. The T400s brings in a number of design cues from the super-sleek X300/X301 models, including the same material construction. Carbon fiber is used for the top cover, with a unique glass fiber for the edges of the top cover to allow for un-diminished wireless signals. You'll find a magnesium alloy in use on the bottom cover and keyboard bezel, adding to the chassis stiffness provided by the internal magnesium roll cage.

Open the black rectangle and you will see a familiar sight with a few tweaks. The TrackPoint and toucpad are redesigned with usability in mind, featuring larger TrackPoint buttons and a larger, textured multitouch-capable touchpad. Some of the system information LED's have been redesigned and consolidated, leaving you WiFi, Bluetooth, and hard disk activity LED's in the LCD bezel. However you also now have a Caps Lock LED on the key itself, mute and mic/webcam disable buttons with status LED's, and the power button slowly blinks to indicate the system is in standby. These complement only two LED indicators on the exterior: a battery icon indicating AC power, system powered on, and battery status along with a sleep icon. Lenovo also updated their keyboard design, you will see the enlarged Esc and Del keys which have altered the layout. I will discuss more on that later.

The hinges are still silver, unlike the black metal hinges present on the X300/X301 models, and the speakers are placed on either side of the keyboard for optimal listening. Many people took exception to the T400's off-center 14-inch widescreen, but the T400s has a centered screen. If you take a look at the bottom panel, you will see a fairly clean chassis with a single expansion cover to remove and standard 6-cell battery integrated into the front of the machine. Note that there is no room for an extended battery with this design.
Size and Weight

Having spent a lot of time with a regular T400, I can say that it is a bit on the portly side. Most configurations will weigh in at over 5 lb and it is about 1.1-inches thin. Combine that with the dimensions of a 14-inch widescreen and it is quite unwieldy as a portable machine. The T400s is like the T400's skinny relative, weighing in at only 3.91 lb and a mere 0.83-inches thin. That difference in numbers really adds up when you get it in your hands. Thanks to the advanced materials and internal roll cage, the T400s is not only thin but incredibly rigid as well. Picking it up by one corner feels exceptionally sturdy and lightweight, like a heavy duty (paper) notebook.
Keyboard and Touchpad

ThinkPads have always been crowned as having the world's best keyboards and the T400s continues, if not elevates, that lineage. The full 7-row layout is still present here and the typing experience is immaculate. Tactile response, key travel, and general stiffness are all amazing. Some of the regular T400 systems were plagued with extremely spongy keyboards, but the T400s looks to be void of any such problems. Ignoring the layout change for a moment, Lenovo also enlarged the size of the base of the keys to reduce any crumbs and such from getting in the keyboard tray. This doesn't affect the key spacing itself, it appears they simply added more of a sloped base to each key to fill in the gaps; it appears to be a rather effective technique.

As I alluded to earlier, Lenovo did change the keyboard layout a bit. They did a study and found that the Esc and Del keys were highly utilized, but also a bit harder to use accurately and efficiently. To help remedy this, they enlarged the Del and Esc keys to nearly double their previous dimensions. To make room for this, they did have to compress the Function keys a bit and move the Ins key to the top row of the keyboard. In my experience typing on this machine, these changes were not overly detrimental. I found reaching for some of my common Fn combinations with my left hand to be trying, as I was always a key off from what I intended. Also users who relied on the Ins key will be very affected, as it is in a very distinctly different position now. I personally never had trouble hitting the Del and Esc keys, but I can see how this change would help those with smaller hands or who had other accuracy problems.

For those of you not familiar, the TrackPoint is Lenovo's "pointing stick" device that provides the same functionality as a mouse or touchpad. The red nubbin acts like a joystick and for those adjusted to the device, it proves to be highly accurate and allows you to mouse around without removing your hands from your typing position. The TrackPoint mouse buttons have been enlarged and softened a bit, with more of a curve than the sharp peak on other designs. I did not find this to impact my usability at all and I don't think anyone will have trouble adjusting.

The touchpad is another area Lenovo changed in the name of usability. In an effort to keep the system as thin as possible, the touchpad was brought flush with the palm rest and given a unique texture to differentiate from the palm rest. It is also larger than the rather small one found on regular T400 models, and now support multitouch features. The T400s' touchpad is incredibly responsive and natural to use, with a sufficient surface area to be comfortable and efficient.
Display Quality

ThinkPads are traditionally business models and aren't exactly known for high quality displays. A few models had exceptional LCD panels, but most are just average, including the regular T400. The new T400s uses a 14.1-inch 16:10 ratio widescreen LCD running 1440x900 resolution. This LCD is exceptionally bright, with plenty of brightness steps to find the optimum level. When viewing at the sweet spot angle, you will be in love with the T400s' screen. It is bright, vibrant, and features crisp, dark blacks. Unfortunately, like most ThinkPad LCD's and many matte LCD's too, move about 5-10 degrees off the centerline and you dramatically lose dark details. Advance much further and you will see significant color inversing, although light colors remain in good contrast throughout. There is enough of a sweet spot on this panel that you won't constantly be fidgeting, and the brightness and colors really are superb, but the T400s' display doesn't quite impress.
Ports & Connectivity

Despite being uber thin and light, the T400s has literally every port or connection you might need. Every acronym and abbreviation you can think of is included for wireless: 802.11a/b/g/n WiFi (with three card choices), Verizon or AT&T WWAN, UWB, Bluetooth, and WiMAX. Ethernet is included as well, although the prehistoric modem has been dropped and you can get a USB model if you need it. You'll get 3 USB 2.0 ports on the T400s, including one that doubles as an eSATA port, and the choice between an ExpressCard34 slot or 5-in-1 card reader.

* Right side: Wireless switch, Ultrabay/optical drive, Kensington lock slot
* Left side: ExpressCard 34mm slot, mic/headphone combo port, USB 2.0
* Rear: AC adapter, VGA output, Ethernet, powered USB 2.0 port for phone charging, eSATA/USB 2.0, DisplayPort, fan vent


Keeping the corporate IT departments in mind, Lenovo made upgrading the T400s an extremely simple operation. One screw is all that stands between you and the RAM & PCI Express mini cards; no more removing the keyboard to change the RAM. But what if you did need to remove the keyboard for some reason? After opening the same panel as for the RAM, you remove an additional two screws to change the keyboard. The SSD/HDD is a single additional screw as well. I'm not sure what more you could really ask for in upgrading simplicity for these components, which are going to be the most common to change.

The T400s uses DDR3 PC3-8500 1066MHz RAM, with 2GB generally standard and upgradeable to a total of 8GB (4GB per slot, only with 64-bit OS). This is plenty of RAM capacity for a notebook and is very easy to change out on your own. The hard/solid state/storage/whatever you want to call it drive is unfortunately limited to a 1.8-inch form factor, so users are very limited in their upgrade options. Both 1.8-inch SSD and HDD's are relatively uncommon in the marketplace and generally command a higher price, despite lower performance and capacity. This was a necessary move to get the T400s as svelte as it is, but a hit to expandability.

What does the T400s not have? An extended battery. An archaic 56K modem. Firewire, and HDMI. That's about it. At only 0.83 inches thin, the T400s is loaded to the hilt with features and even has a wide range of docking options to extend those features further, at your desk anyway. Below is a list of the tech features on the T400s and I'll discuss some of the more unique ones after.

* Standard USB 2.0 port, selectively powered USB 2.0 port for device charging, eSATA/USB combo
* VGA & DisplayPort output
* Combo mic/headphone jack
* ExpressCard34 or 5-in-1 card reader
* 2MP webcam
* Multitouch touchpad
* Hot swappable Ultrabay: optical drive (Blu-ray available), 2nd HDD adapter, or 2nd battery
* Fingerprint reader with LED indicator

As you can see above, the T400s is well loaded. The eSATA combo port is new to the ThinkPad line, and welcome indeed. Another innovation is the powered USB port. Within Lenovo's power management software, you can set the port to be powered up even when the system is in standby, hibernate, or powered off. Here's the only catch: the AC adapter must be connected. This is very handy for travelers who don't always have an AC or DC port to charge their phone, but kind of defeats the purpose if you must have a wall jack to use it.

Lenovo was able to keep the ThinkPad T400s cool and quiet while stuffing in a normal voltage Core 2 Duo processor. Between this and the SSD options, it is lightning fast in normal usage. It does use the Intel 4500MHD integrated graphics, which won't win any performance awards, but do keep the power consumption down.

For more information on our testing practices, see here.
Lenovo ThinkPad T400s 7502
Dell Latitude E6400 5529
Lenovo ThinkPad T400 4810
HP 6930s 4599

As you can see, the T400s packs quite a punch in the "general usage" area. Its fast Core 2 Duo CPU and slick SSD make up the majority of the reason why it wipes the floor with everyone else here.
Asus F6Ve 3184
Lenovo ThinkPad T400s 984
Lenovo ThinkPad T400 942
Lenovo ThinkPad X301 716

And how the tables have turned. Unless you're gaming or watching a ton of HD movies, there isn't much need for discrete graphics as they just suck down extra power. Accordingly, Lenovo's flagship ThinkPads here all have Intel's X4500MHD integrated graphics, which get creamed by the Asus F6Ve's 512MB ATI Mobility Radeon 4570 and T9550 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo processor.
Battery Performance

We did something a little different this time with battery life, to hopefully ensure greater consistency in our testing and provide better data for our readers. We are testing the use of a tool that has been around for a while: Battery Eater Pro. This tool at its core measures runtime for you, but does include a few usage scenarios.

The "Classic" test consists of rendering a 3D image full screen at native resolution until the battery runs out; clearly a high-stress test that is more indicative of a "minimum run time." The "Reader" test consists of scrolling text, as though you are reading a book; clearly a very low usage test representing a potential "maximum run time." Both of these tests were run with WiFi on, since these days your WiFi is generally always on and it is a very real factor in power consumption.
Runtime in hour:minutes
Reader Test 4:58
3D Rendering Test 2:46

Lenovo advertises a 5.5 hour run time on the T400s with the lone 6 cell battery, which is a bit optimistic. The Reader test is optimistic on its own, doing very little actual work and really deriving most of the power consumption from the LCD and WiFi. On the other end, you have almost 3 hours of runtime while rendering a large 3D image, which consumes a fair amount of CPU and GPU cycles. Your realistic usage is going to fall somewhere in the middle, closer to 4 hours if you're a light web/email/video users and closer to 3 hours if you're doing some CPU or disk churning activities. Not bad for a 3.8 lb package that actually has a lot of horsepower behind it.
Real Life Usage

The T400s can do it all, and in great comfort. The screen is large enough to be the primary display, while the system is petite enough to go almost anywhere. The performance in Vista, even with "only" 2GB RAM, is excellent. While the 80GB SSD our model came with might not be enough for some users, there is a slower 250GB 5400rpm drive option and a 128GB SSD. The typing experience is downright blissful and even touchpad lovers have an excellent pointing option. Heat and noise are practically nonexistent, a testament to Lenovo's engineering prowess.

The chassis size is on the high end for what I would consider an "ultraportable" device, but still very much an ultraportable. Handling a T400 and T400s back to back will make the T400 look like a bloated desktop replacement, weighing in over 5 lb and 1.1-inches thin. You also need to have an extended battery sticking out the back for the T400 to get decent battery life, while the T400s will break 4 hours on its standard, and slim, 6-cell battery.

What would I change about the T400s? HDMI output is the only big one on my list, but there are DisplayPort to HDMI adapters that are fairly cheap. A larger capacity battery would be helpful, but you can add the bay battery and increasing the size of the main battery would impact the system's svelte design. The speakers are just satisfactory, which is about the best you'll find on a ThinkPad, so as always they could go louder.

The ThinkPad T400s delivers as well as, or in some cases better than, previous ThinkPads. It should also set the standard for 14-inch widescreen notebooks in the industry and show up most competitors, even if the pricing is not entirely comparable. Performance is snappy as ever and the T400s has nearly every feature in the book, even adding a few new ones that will hopefully become more common.

A $1599 starting price is not considered "cheap" these days when it comes to notebooks, and rightfully so in the T400s' case. While most people expect everything for nothing, quality products deserve a fair market price, for many reasons. I digress, but the bottom line is the T400s is a premium product at a fair price. If you're shopping for a notebook and can afford to look in the T400s' price range, you owe it to yourself to give it a hard, long look. Accordingly, we have selected the ThinkPad T400s for LaptopLogic's Editor's Choice Award.


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