Lenovo ThinkPad T420s - mini review

openLast year I bought the ThinkPad T410s when the model with the Optimus graphics became available. It’s a great little machine so I was anxious to try the ThinkPad T420s with Optimus and compare the two.  I’ve done that now and I thought you would be interested in some of my preliminary findings.

Executive Summary

If you are looking for a powerful portable computer in a lightweight thin profile, look no further.  The T420s is capable of housing three drives and running advanced server operating system software. However, the ThinkPad T420s has fair battery life. If you need to run unplugged for more than five hours, you are going to need to resort to using an additional battery in the Ultrabay.

Specification Notes

The ThinkPad T420s comes in several different flavors and I thought I’d begin by talking about the processor, screen, storage and other features. After I describe some of the technical features we’ll look at some photos then move on to battery life and performance.

The Proc

The processor choices range from the Intel i5 right on up to the dual core Intel® Core™ i7-2620M processor (2.70GHz, 4MB Cache, Intel Turbo Boost 2.0 (3.40GHz),  DDR3 memory controller (up to 1333MHz),  and Hyper Threading technology.  I would have picked a different processor for the eval unit. I realize you want to put your foot forward with the fastest candidate, but fastest isn’t always best. The i7-2620m is extremely fast so for those of you that want something speedy, you won’t be disappointed. 

I wonder what the battery life is like with the Intel® Core™ i5-2520M processor (dual-core, 2.50GHz, 3MB Cache), DDR3 memory controller (up to 1333MHz), Intel Turbo Boost 2.0 (3.20GHz), HT technology.  Someone that has one needs to run some battery tests and let me know.  My details for the tests I ran are below.

The Screen

The screen that is on this model (4174-A21) is the new 16:9 aspect ratio 1600x900 HD+ native resolution panel.  At 250 nits, it isn’t as bright as my T410s but that’s fine by me.  I never crank the T410s to level 15 brightness anyway.  Like all of the panels in the T and W line, it’s a standard business class screen with a matte finish.  I like the 1600x900 resolution but I know my significant other would set the DPI to 125% right away. 

There have been a number of internet forum comments on this screen.  Some people describe the screen as having a screen door effect. On close inspection I can see some of what they are describing.  As a standard viewing distance from the screen I really don’t discern the pixels much.  I don’t know if there’s more than one supplier of the LCD screens but if there is, maybe I have the better screen.

For those of you that intend to use this machine with Hyper-V, the loss of vertical screen real estate is going to force you into some unnatural acts.  Get used to turning off the toolbars and such on your VM client.  You’ll probably need to auto hide the taskbar as well.  This is the sacrifice you’ll have to make due to the new resolutions and form factors.

Storage Options

The ThinkPad T420s has three drive bays.  Let me repeat that.  Three. There are the two typical drive bays, one for a hard drive and one for an optical drive, but Lenovo got creative and added a micro SATA capability to the machine.  The Intel Series 310 mSATA drives can be inserted into a micro PCI-E slot.  This slot is normally used for a wireless broadband card, but if you have no need for an embedded card like that, now you can use it for high speed storage.  More on that later when we talk about performance.

There is one thing to note about the primary storage bay.  The bay is a 7mm height bay which does present a problem.  Lenovo switched from the 1.8” form factor to a 2.5” wide drive, but it’s only 7mm high.  The Intel Series 320 SSD drives can be ordered as 7mm models, or you can take the plastic spacer off the top of the 9.5mm Intel X-25m SSD drives.  Warning: the cover screws need to be shorter after removing the spacer and I managed to scrounge four of them up from my stash of screws.

The drive that currently comes with the T420s is the second generation 160GB X-25M Intel SSD.  I expect Lenovo will switch over to the Intel Series 320 drives soon but I have no idea when.  I didn’t like the way Lenovo slapped the tape on the Intel case in order to give you a Mylar like pull tab for the drive.  It really isn’t needed and it was already trying to come off my drive after a couple of inserts. 

The third optical bay, also known as the Ultrabay is a standard size 9.5mm bay.  Therefore you can use an Ultrabay caddy like the 43N3412.  This gives you the ability to put yet another drive in the system.  This particular caddy can be used in last years T and W series ThinkPad's as well as this years models.  The bezel is quite small and will not cover the 12.7mm bay on the W510, W520, T520, or T420.  Expect to see a small gap.  Most people will use the 43N3412 with a high capacity hard drive but I’m sure that will change when 600GB SSD drives become more affordable.

There are two DDR3 SoDIMM slots in the T420s with easy access from the bottom of the machine. Today that means a max of 8GB of RAM but I have no doubt you can take the machine to 16GB with the right 8GB SoDIMM sticks.  Someone want to send me two? Grin.  The are prohibitively expense right now, but who knows, maybe they will be within reach by Christmas.  We’ll see.

T420s_hero_01Photo Tour

This time around I didn’t take pictures with my Canon G11.  I found a treasure trove of Lenovo albums on Picasa.  I downloaded the pics and stuck copies out on my server so they won’t move or disappear.  Here are my comments on the chassis, keyboard, ports, etc.

Front - there really isn’t anything special about the front edge other than it’s pretty thin.  It isn’t possible to see in the pic, but the front right portion of the machine is the slim battery.  For this reason, you can’t simply add a 9 cell battery to the machine to improve battery life.

Right - the right side has the wireless on/off switch, Ultrabay with a DVD burner, and a security latch hole.  As you can probably tell be looking at this pic, the machine is pretty darn thin.

Back - the back is interesting. You’ll notice the power port, Ethernet, USB 3.0 in blue, powered USB 2.0 in yellow, DisplayPort and a standard VGA port.  Unfortunately Lenovo dropped the combo USB/eSATA port present on the T410s.  I’m glad they added USB 3.0 but frankly I’m not that impressed with USB 3.0 speeds.  I also hate having the USB ports on the back.  It’s inconvenient.

Left - the left side shows a single USB 2.0 port, combo headphone/microphone jack, a spot for an ExpressCard 34mm slot or Ricoh Multcard reader, a smartcard reader slot (thank you!) and just below the smartcard reader slot is the cover to the 7mm drive bay.

Bottom - in the pic of the bottom, the top edge is the front of the machine.  Therefore, looking at the top left, you see the 7mm bay cover and tell tale screw.  Notice removing the cover provides pretty deep access into the bay.  This is good because you don’t need the special mylar tabs and tape to remove drives.  I like it.  In the top right portion of the pic you see the outline for the slim battery.  It’s really slim and as a result there isn’t much storage area for energy.  This is probably the biggest flaw of the machine.  In the middle of the pic you see the cover for the RAM slots.  Inside that cover is also easy access to the mSATA/WWAN PCIE slot.  Therefore installing RAM or a micro SATA drive is very easy.

Open - in the pic of the machine laid wide open, you can clearly see the keyboard layout.  This is the design that started last year and has now carried over to this years models.  I like it.  I like the mic mute button. If you look closely at the top bezel of the screen you’ll see the 720p webcam with dual array mics on both sides.  You’ll also notice if you look carefully the 16:9 screen size in the lid and the fat bezel below the screen.  That honestly doesn’t bother me but some people are particular about such matters.

The speakers on the T420s seem louder than my T410s.  That might be my imagination.  The keyboard seems nice and quiet with no overly clacky tone and the keys themselves don’t feel mushy or cheesy.  In other words, it’s a great keyboard though you Dell and HP users will have to get used to the FN and CTRL placement the first couple of weeks.  The trackpad and trackpoint are fine but I still prefer to use a mouse whenever possible.

Lid - this picture is important for several reasons. I want to draw your attention to the thinness of the LCD screen and bezel.  If you are in the habit of carrying your notebook by grabbing it by the LCD lid, don’t buy this machine.  Either break your habit or you are going to crack a LCD panel.  That lid is not designed as a handle. You were warned.  Treat this machine with care. 

Big Brother - I decided to include the T420 big brother shot.  It’s important for several reasons.  First, the T420 is really designed for most peoples needs.  It’s a great combination of power AND battery life.  Because it has standard sized bays, offers a 9 cell battery in that back, better port placement, and is still relatively small and light weight, you should strongly consider this machine.  I hope I get a chance to evaluate one like I did the T410.  There are a number of good reviews on the T420.

Battery Life

The one place the ThinkPad T420s falls down is battery life.  I had been reading a few reviews and early owner comments on this and didn’t want to believe it until I had tested this machine.  Unfortunately the machine I have didn’t fare well.  On the first two tests I ran the battery life was 2 hours and 15-20 minutes. 

I ran nearly identical tests on the T420s as I did on the ThinkPad W520.  I made sure the BIOS settings were on Optimus and the battery settings were optimized for saving power.  I used the miserly power plan settings in Power Manager and double checked the Control Panel settings for the Intel GPU, IE9, etc. 

Like the W520 tests, I set the screen brightness at 10 and looped a .MP4 movie.  Looping wasn’t really necessary since you are barely going to get through a single movie. 

So what on earth is going on?  Well, there are a couple of significant differences between the W520 powerhouse and the thin T420s.  The size and capacity of the battery is the main one.  The 66+ in the T420s only has 44Wh so there simply isn’t much there for real chores.  Sure, you can probably get five hours of battery life with the screen turned off and everything else at idle, but that isn’t a realistic work load.

If you need more battery life, plan on purchasing the Ultrabay battery or another 66+ spare battery.  They don’t currently offer a slice battery for the T420s though it is offered for the T420.  The battery connector and placement is probably a key factor.

Another potential power suck in the T420s is the configuration I tested. Although I tested with the factory configuration and Windows 7 image, I did already have the mSATA drive installed in the PCIE slot.  I don’t yet know how big of an impact this had but considering other reports are in line with mine, I’m thinking it had very little difference.  I will eventually yank the micro SATA drive and run another test and report back.

Performance and OS Support

weiThe performance of the dual core i7 is phenomenal.  I have just started testing this machine but you can tell right away it’s built to handle some pretty high performance workloads.

This machine is also a good example of where Intel, and the onboard Intel HD 3000 integrated GPU has closed the gap with some of the discrete GPU offerings on the market.  For your general computing needs, the integrated GPU is now sufficient for most people.  Having Optimus provides more external display support.

In the screen shot at right, I changed the configuration since the battery testing occurred. I pulled the original factory 7mm Intel SSD and inserted one of my own. It too is a second gen X-25M 160GB SSD with the spacer removed to thin it down to 7mm.

You can see the mSATA drive (C:) and the second generation SSD drive (D:).  I did a clean install of Windows 7 SP1 x64 to the mSATA drive and applied all patches and fixes.  I am storing all of my user data on drive D:.

Notice the performance rating from WINSAT on the mSATA drive.  Not bad, eh?

As usual I installed Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1 and ran some quick checks to verify it would work as a Hyper-V server if needed.  In my limited testing, I didn’t see any issues. The network adaptor drivers install and work, the Optimus drivers installed (much to my surprise), and I was able to create and run a 64 bit virtual machine.  I have no intention of doing any longer term testing of R2.

And for those of you that are linux fans, I have no intention of testing SLED or any other distros like Ubuntu.  Sorry, I just don’t have time for it this time around. Let me know if you do and have a blog entry somewhere.

Final Thoughts

For most people the big brother T420 is a better fit.  The T420 adds IEEE 1394 Firewire, eSATA, standard sized bays, longer battery life, etc.  The T420 is a little heavier and thicker but I think it offers the best combination of features.  If you really must have a lighter and thinner machine to carry from home to the office and back, the T420s should be on your list of considerations.  My wife will love a machine like this when she can pry the T410s away from me.

If you want something really small with long battery life, see all of the reviews on the X220.  The screen on that machine is a little too small for me, but a lot of people really dig it.  With battery life approaching 24 hours it’s no wonder.

[UPDATE for 4/17] Removing the mSATA drive did add some battery life.  Only 20 minutes.  That puts the max I was able to squeeze out of the battery at 2 hours 40 minutes. Not good.

[UPDATE for 4/21] Yesterday I went back to the drawing board to test the T420s and the W520 with the dock I have (433820U). I tested the configuration at the bottom of http://www-307.ibm.com/pc/support/site.wss/document.do?lndocid=MIGR-76617 to see if the T420s would drive three external monitors. It does.

I was able to drive the Dell E248WFP, Dell U2711, Dell 2407WFP and the T420s LCD all at the same time. The T420s would not drive the U2711 at it’s 2560x1440 native resolution. It would only go to 1920x1080. Everything else was running native.

[UPDATE for 5/5] Yesterday I ran another battery test on the T420s and managed to keep it running over 5 hours.  Now before you get all excited, let me first say the scenario was one that some of you might do, but not very often.  I went through my Lenovo Power Manager power profile and fine tuned the battery settings to be extremely miserly.  There was one exception.  I don’t let the LCD screen turn off.  However, the dimmer timeout was set so that after 5 minutes the screen would dim to 30%.  Thirty percent of the brightness while on battery is really dim.  Swipes on the trackpad or keyboard would brighten the screen back to the 13 brightness level.  I didn’t do that very often.

The actual test was pretty simple.  Start Microsoft Word and open a document.  Leave Word and the doc open (as if you are reading it).  In this state, the 6 cell battery lasted well over 5 hours.  I actually grabbed it at the 5 hour 5 minute mark and started recharging it.  Power Manager said it had 29 minutes left.

So there you have it.  Some battery tests ranging from 2-5 hours.  That is a wide spectrum so your action item is to really make sure you understand the Lenovo Power Manager profiles, their settings, and the effect of what you are doing and it’s power use.