Friday 14 December 2012

Lenovo ThinkPad T430s

Lenovo ThinkPad T430s Review


Business users looking for a balance between power and portability can't do better than the T430s. A laundry list of durability, communications, and usability features adds to its appeal.

The ThinkPad T Series didn't get to be the best-selling business-notebook nameplate of all time by accident, and the latest iteration makes clear how it won that distinction. Lenovo's ThinkPad T430s blends portability, performance, features, and creature comforts in a near-perfect execution of a thin-and-light laptop that will suit corporate types, small-business buyers, and power users alike.

In past reviews (dating back to, oh, around 2001 or so), right about now is when we would start apologizing for the T Series' high price and arguing that it was justified. Not this time: The platform starts at just $790—a bargain—and our well-appointed Core i5 configuration checks in at a very reasonable $1,174.

One of the strengths of the T430s is that configure-to-order is alive and well for the platform. Lenovo lets you mix and match components to suit just about any need and budget, ranging from an Intel Core i3 CPU and 4GB of RAM to a Core i7 processor married to a whopping 16GB of memory. Another rare commodity is the UltraBay, which lets you slide out the standard optical drive and pop in a second battery or up to a 1TB hard drive. Sweet.

Call it classic or call it boring, but the T430s is available in any color you want so long as it's black.

What you can't change, however, is the look of the T430s. The squared-off matte-black case is classic ThinkPad, take it or leave it. Admittedly, we have a touch of envy seeing the parade of brushed-metal laptops in a rainbow of silver shades pass by, but the sure grip provided by the almost-rubbery finish of the ThinkPad T430s keeps our lust in check. The laptop weighs at just under 4 pounds and measures a hair over an inch thick. Both measurements are more than reasonable for a 14-inch slimline machine, although they seem downright chunky next to all the svelte ultrabooks that have debuted this year. But hey, which among the latter have optical drives, let alone swappable bays? Correct: few and none. And if you're deciding between the ThinkPad T430s and its less expensive stablemate, the ThinkPad T430, note that the T430s is a quarter-inch thinner and 0.8 pound lighter.

The T430s is no less durable than its larger sibling. Both are considered business-rugged laptops and feature Lenovo's internal carbon-fiber skeleton to protect their internal parts. The T430s has also passed eight U.S. military testing specifications (Mil-Spec, for short) including those for humidity extremes, low/high temperature, altitude, vibration, and mechanical shock. The T430s keyboard is spill-resistant and has been tested (by Lenovo, not us) to survive up to 4 ounces of water poured directly into it with no damage to internal components.

Speaking of the keyboard, that's the most obvious major design change. The ThinkPad T420semployed the traditional-style keyboard that made the T Series a favorite of fast typists everywhere. Opening the lid of its T430s replacement, we were confronted with—say it ain't so!—a newfangled chiclet- or island-style keyboard, with keys jutting through a recessed backplane. Lenovo switched to this kind of keyboard on its X Series, its ThinkPad Edge models, and others, but we thought the T Series would be immune from such tinkering. Not so, and the T430 wasn't spared, either.

Heresy! The T430s switches from a traditional keyboard to a chiclet-style unit. But the feel of the keyboard is still darn good, and you gain an optional backlight in the bargain.

But a funny thing happened as we started to dash off a letter of complaint to Lenovo: We found we actually liked the new keyboard. It's rock solid—none of the flex in the middle that we've experienced on others—and the key plunge (the amount of up/down travel) seems better than on other chiclet-style keyboards we've tried. The spacing of the keys is perfect, and the concave curve of the keytops feels comfortable. What's missing is the spot-on audible and tactile feedback of the old ThinkPad keyboards, but as far as island-style keyboards go, this one is arguably the best. And, in the bargain, Lenovo was able to make this keyboard backlit, something the company couldn't do with the old-style unit. So, in addition to the standard ThinkLight (a small white LED above the screen that casts a gentle light on the keys), for $40 you can opt for a backlit keyboard with two brightness levels.

The T430s is chock full of other features that add to its usability, convenience, and security. The most visible is the 14-inch screen, a mainstay of T Series models for years. The LED-backlit panel is very bright, and the 1,600x900 resolution makes for crisp text. While that high-res panel allows you to have a couple of application windows open at once, if you're over 45 you'll probably want to click on "Make text and other items larger" in Windows' Control Panel to hike the default size of text and icons. If you think it will still be an issue, opt for a 1,366x768 panel and save yourself $50. Both screens use an advanced anti-glare coating that cuts down on glare and reflections without muddying up the onscreen image.

Our one complaint about the screen is that the TFT panel is of the twisted nematic (TN) rather than in-plane switching (IPS) variety, which means somewhat limited viewing angles, especially in the vertical direction. So if you're stuck in coach and can't open the lid far enough because the yahoo in front of you insists on reclining, you'll see a noticeable color/brightness shift. Similarly, the viewing sweet spot for video playback is rather small. On the plus side, DVD video looked terrific on the screen, with no noticeable blur and lifelike color reproduction.

Above the screen, the T430s delivers a new 720p HD Webcam with face tracking. It's a noticeable step up from the T420s camera, delivering very good low-light sensitivity, although highlight areas tended to be overexposed in bright light. Held over from the previous generation are a couple of features to make videoconferencing more convenient. First, there's a dedicated microphone mute button above the Function keys, which lets you quickly disable the mic—ideal for when the dog starts barking during that GoToMeeting session when you're working from home.

Second, 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 T430s in a complete circle, and at all points the voice pickup was nearly the same.

ThinkPad purists will be happy to see that, while the keyboard has changed, the stick remains the same: The T430s keeps the TrackPoint pointing stick nestled at the intersection of the G, H, and B keys, and the associated left- and right-click buttons are large and responsive. As expected, however, that setup steals some room from the touch pad, which is on the small side. The latter's pebbled surface is comfortable to use, though, and we found mousing action using either the stick or pad to be precise.

For those who hate to use a headset, the stereo speakers flanking the keyboard are another nice touch. They deliver very good sound quality for videoconferencing, as well as for movies. We were a little disappointed with the playback quality for music, as the sound was lacking bass—that is, until we discovered the included Dolby Home Theater v4 utility. This good-looking app offers precise control over audio settings, including equalizer presets for music, movies, and games, plus five custom settings. We dialed up the low-frequency sliders on the onscreen equalizer to add more bass to The Killers' "Sam's Town" and were impressed. Other slide controls let you adjust the virtual surround sound, enhance dialogue, and level the volume. And we're happy to see that Lenovo has not done away with the dedicated volume and mute buttons. Other laptop lines have switched back to function-key control of audio, claiming that buyers really didn't care about having handy buttons. Really? We think it's a sorry excuse for saving five bucks in manufacturing costs.

We also like Lenovo Enhanced Experience 3 for Windows 7. The improved-for-2012 edition features RapidBoot technology that optimizes system files, processes, and hardware settings to start the laptop, Lenovo claims, 40 percent quicker than a typical Windows 7 system. As before, Enhanced Experience also speeds up resume from sleep and connection to Wi-Fi networks upon wakeup.

As mentioned, stepping up in size from an ultrabook to a thin-and-light nets you not only an onboard optical drive but a modular bay configuration. Our T430s came with the standard multiformat DVD burner plus the three-cell bay battery option ($120). You can also opt for a 500GB, 7,200rpm second hard drive ($90) or a 1TB, 5,400rpm drive (a rather pricey $350).

The T430s comes standard with a multi-format DVD burner, and the swappable bay allows you to pop in a second battery or hard drive. (Alas, there's no 3.5-inch floppy disk module as on our old T20.)

Our unit came with an internal 500GB hard drive, and you can augment that with a 16MB SSD cache drive that speeds performance. Alas, if you do so, you can't add an integrated mobile broadband option ($250, and not part of our build).

Another optional component that was part of our configuration is dual graphics. Our ThinkPad included the standard Intel HD Graphics 4000 integrated graphics (part of the Intel processor in this machine), plus a discrete Nvidia NVS 5200M graphics chip with that company's Optimus technology. Optimus switches between the two graphics subsystems depending on application demand to balance performance and battery life.

We also got the $30 Bluetooth option in our configuration, along with Intel's Centrino Advanced-N 6205 adapter for Wi-Fi connectivity. On the convenience front, the ThinkPad T430s includes the new ThinkPad Mobile Hotspot feature, which lets you share its Wi-Fi or optional WWAN connection with up to five other devices within range.

On the wired-connectivity front, the T430s comes with the standard selection of ports. On the left side you'll find a USB 3.0 port, a headset jack, and your choice of a 4-in-1 memory card reader, a 34mm ExpressCard slot (as on our build), or an ExpressCard/memory-card combo reader. Around back are the Gigabit Ethernet jack, another USB 3.0 port and a powered USB 2.0 port, and DisplayPort and VGA connectors for attaching external displays. We prefer HDMI to DisplayPort since HDMI monitors are more common here in the United States, but an adapter can be had for around $5 online.

As a corporate standard, the T430s platform delivers a number of features targeted at the enterprise IT department. The available Lenovo Transition Service can be used to load a customer's unique hard drive image (meaning the OS and all applications and settings) at the factory, and Lenovo can even pre-encrypt the drives, saving IT staff four to six hours of deployment time per machine, according to Lenovo's estimates.

If a corporate customer experiences a hard drive crash under warranty, Lenovo will replace the failed drive without requiring that the latter be sent in, so the company always retains possession of its data. Finally, the T Series batteries are common among Lenovo's T, L, and W series ThinkPads, with docking options shared among those models, as well as the X series. This makes it easier for an IT department to stock accessories, even if everyone isn't on exactly the same ThinkPad platform.
(Note: As of August 2012, Computer Shopper is using a new set of benchmarks for desktop and laptop reviews. Direct comparisons are valid between systems within each review's bar charts, but not between linked reviews using different tests.)

This exhaustive feature set would be for naught if the Lenovo was a disappointment where it counts most—in the boardroom. But with the 2.6GHz Intel Core i5-3320M processor (yes, one of the improved third-generation "Ivy Bridge" series), 4GB of fast DDR3 RAM, and—especially—the dedicated Nvidia NVS 5200M graphics, the T430s is the complete package.

For comparison, we chose four other 14-inch business laptops—the HP EliteBook 8470p, the Dell Latitude E6430s, and the "Sandy Bridge"-based Acer TravelMate 8481T-6440, as well as last year's Lenovo ThinkPad T420s. In general, the T430s acquitted itself admirably, despite certain competitors' features, such as a Core i7 chip in the HP EliteBook and a 128GB SSD in the Dell Latitude.

Productivity Tests
In our PCMark 7 general performance benchmark, the T430s trailed only the Latitude E5430s, which was boosted by its abovementioned SSD (PCMark 7 skews toward solid-state storage)...

In our CPU-centric Cinebench test, which makes use of all available cores to render a test image, the T430s punched above its weight, keeping close to the 2.8GHz Core i5-3360M-powered Dell Latitude and 2.9GHz Core i7-3520M-based HP EliteBook while trouncing the two "Sandy Bridge" systems...

Results were similar in our Handbrake video-encoding and Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-editing benchmarks, which respectively transcode a five-minute 1080p video to smartphone size and apply a dozen complex filters and effects to a large JPEG...

The ThinkPad T430s' strong performance on these demanding media-crunching tests shows that the laptop is more than equal to whatever media tasks a business or consumer user might toss its way. However, if photo and video editing are your mainstays, you'll want a machine with Core i7 power and more RAM.
Graphics Tests

In our GPU-intensive tests, the T430s really put daylight between itself and most of the competition (though the HP EliteBook 8470p, with dedicated AMD Radeon HD 7570M graphics, joined it in outrunning the Intel-integrated-graphics set).

For starters, our 3DMark06 synthetic graphics test was no contest...

That 3D power translated into real-world gaming prowess—a rarity for a business-oriented thin and light laptop—as long as we didn't go overboard in dialing up the resolution and detail settings. On our Lost Planet 2 (DirectX 9) and Crysis (DirectX 10) real-world gaming tests, the Lenovo posted 33 and 59 frames per second (fps), respectively, at 1,024x768 resolution with medium quality settings, trailing only the EliteBook's 48fps and 62fps, respectively. Like its competitors, it fell far short of the 30fps threshold of playability at its native resolution with high quality settings, but it should suffice to let a casual gamer manage a practice round during business-trip downtime.

Battery Life & Conclusion
Of course, more important to most slimline-laptop buyers than gaming ability is battery life. Here, the T430s won't win any awards, but the swappable bay more than pays for itself. In our MobileMark 2007 battery-rundown test, the T430s wound up next to last among our competitive set...

To be honest, 4:45 is an acceptable result for a four-pound, inch-thick machine that's pushing major pixels on its high-res screen. But popping in the bay battery in place of the DVD burner upped the MobileMark result to 7 hours and 30 minutes—just enough for a typical workday (with a typical lunch break). Note, too, that the ThinkPad T430s comes with Lenovo's Rapid Charge Technology, which returns the main battery to 80 percent charge in only 30 minutes.

On the software front, Lenovo keeps inclusions appropriately light—business buyers generally don't want the hard drive cluttered with non-approved applications. So most of the inclusions are Lenovo's own handy utilities, accessible via a blue ThinkVantage button above the keyboard. In this suite, you'll find applets for rescue and recovery, as well as managing connections and passwords, plus system-health and diagnostic tools, a communication utility to assist with Web conferencing, and more. We especially like Lenovo's Access Connections utility, which makes it easier to set and enable or disable your Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and (if present) mobile-broadband connections. The one third-party extra on our Windows 7 Professional configuration was a 15-month subscription to Norton Internet Security. Our unit also came backed with a one-year international warranty with onsite service.

If the ThinkPad T430s has an Achilles' heel, we didn't find it. You can equip it with a more-than-adequate amount of processing horsepower without breaking the bank, while getting all the convenience and durability features that come standard with the platform. Sure, we're a little sad to say good-bye to the classic ThinkPad keyboard, but the other strengths of the machine will likely have us past that in short order. All things considered, the ThinkPad T430s is as close to perfect as we've seen from a business thin-and-light.

No comments:

Post a Comment