The Lenovo ThinkPad T420 14-inch screen laptop is one of the latest additions to the iconic ThinkPad lineup of business laptops. While the ThinkPad T420 is positioned as a business laptop, I’ve always been a fan of ThinkPads for use in an educational setting as well. ThinkPads are built to be durable and give a reliable performance, both of these qualities are important to a student who has to lug a laptop all over campus and use it to do work in various settings and conditions. While there isn’t anything flashy regarding the design of the ThinkPad T420, it does have everything you need in a laptop for simply getting work done. This review of the ThinkPad T420 will focus on the strength of the laptop as a work tool in an education setting and not so much on performance and benchmark numbers, though rest assured with the inclusion of the latest Intel Sandy Bridge processor technology it’s no slouch in the horsepower department.
Before getting started it’s important to go over the specs of the ThinkPad T420 under review that was configured and purchased from Lenovo.com.
I bought the ThinkPad T420 direct from Lenovo.com. The configured laptop is a T420i, essentially the T420i is the most basic entry-level spec T420 with a lower price to match, but it still has the same quality build and design as any other T420. Because my configuration is mostly basic, except for the screen which I upgraded to the HD+ 1600 x 900 resolution, the price was held below $1,000. The final price after a 10% off coupon active at the time was $782.10 before taxes. That’s an amazing price for such a high-quality laptop, and for me, all the expensive upgrades such as the fastest processor available just didn’t make sense – I’m willing to bet that’s true for most students configuring this laptop.
The purchase experience from Lenovo.com was fairly smooth, after placing the order I got an order acknowledgment email and then several days later a notification the laptop had shipped. The email notifications were pretty basic and didn’t contain any mention of what I had bought, but you could click a link to see your order summary that did. The online experience you get when buying from HP.com is much better, Lenovo.com recently redesigned their site and it’s slick but ironically pretty hard to navigate and then the email order updates are far from slick looking, they consist of badly formatted text emails with odd spacing and no graphics.
The actual delivery and packaging were flawless, the box that arrived was nicely taped and not covered with so many packaging stickers you’d think it had just toured the world with multiple stops (I got that with a recent HP purchase). The ThinkPad T420 was snugly secured inside along with the 6-cell battery, power cord, and getting started package, warranty guide, and other documentation. Below you can see everything you get in the box and then the process of piecing the laptop together so it’s ready to use!
The basic cosmetic design of the ThinkPad hasn’t changed a whole lot since the line was introduced almost two decades ago – that being black and boxy. This is fine, get the design right the first time and you don’t have to mess with it later. Now, there have of course been changes in terms of dimensions and features, laptops are wider and thinner these days thanks to the advent of wide-HD resolution screens and new technologies that provide for ever smaller components and therefore less laptop thickness needed to house the “guts”. Internally there’s a lot of changes of course, but externally the ThinkPad T420 looks the part of a professional business laptop and from 30-feet away you probably couldn’t distinguish it from the ThinkPad T23 made 10-years ago.
The stickers on the lower left side of the laptop are easily peeled off and once removed you have a clean all-black finish laptop. The metal hinges provide an appealing industrial and rugged look while also serving to give a durable feel to the lid opening and closing experience.
The blue Enter button is nice to have as it makes that often used key stand out, this is probably more useful for the hunt and peck typist who have to look to find keys though.
The TouchPad is large and nicely textured, I found it easy to use but since I’m a Trackpoint fan myself I used that method to push the cursor around the screen. For those unfamiliar, the red nub in the middle of the keyboard you see is the TrackPoint stick and probably the most iconic design touch the ThinkPad has. It’s not a ThinkPad unless it’s black with a red nub in the middle! Notice the red stripes on the mouse buttons as well, again this is a nice design touch that makes finding the buttons a little easier than if they were all black.
The finish on the ThinkPad T420 case lid is nice and easy to grip, it’s a slightly rubberized feel that prevents slipping from the hands. No shiny and glossy lid here, it’s a 100% matte finish that helps to reduce the number of greasy fingerprints that show up, though you will still of course get that.
The build quality of the ThinkPad T420 is one of the most important features, it features a magnesium alloy internal chassis to hold everything together and protect the internal components. The outer case is made of rigid plastic and the underside is made of a glass-reinforced plastic to provide extra protection there. The keyboard is spill-proof so that if you spill a liquid it is carried safely out of the bottom of the laptop. The hinges are very stiff and as you can see thick and rugged so there is no worry of the screen getting wobbly and flopping closed. A latch on the lid keeps the lid securely closed. Overall this is one of the best-built laptops for the price and designed to stand the rigors of campus.
A laptop intended for school use needs to be portable and easy to slip into a backpack. The ThinkPad T420 weighs in at 4.8lbs without the power adapter, when you add in the weight of the power adapter it’s about 5.5lbs total carry weight. Considering the battery life comes close to six hours (see battery life section later on) you can probably get away with not carrying the charger around with you to keep weight down. Once you get over 5lbs you start to feel the weight of textbooks combined with a laptop if you’re doing a lot of walking.
The ThinkPad T420 is not the thinnest laptop out there at about 1.20 inches thick from front to back, but it’s still thin enough to easily slip into your backpack and thinner than your average-sized science textbook. The width is quite wide at 13.4-inches, this is to accommodate the new and wider 16:9 aspect ratio screen (previously it was 16:10). Laptops now use the same screen technology and resolutions as the TV in your living room, so their overall shape is a much wider rectangle than they used to be.
When configuring the T420 I purposely went for the lowest end components to keep the price down and because I knew that for my needs, which doesn’t involve any gaming or use of other 3D applications, the basic selections would be just fine. The Intel Core i3-2310m processor this laptop is equipped with is the entry-level processor for Intel’s latest Sandy Bridge processor family (the second generation of “Core i” processors). The Core i3-2310m clocks in at 2.0GHz of clock speed and is dual-core. You can get up to an Intel Core i7-2620m 2.70GHz processor and at the time of this writing that’s a $190 upgrade feature. I only configured 2GB of RAM in the T420 due to the fact Lenovo was overcharging for an upgrade to 4GB (+$80), I will be buying another 2GB from NewEgg.com for much cheaper than $80 to bring the total to 4GB as this is an Achilles heel for overall performance. I went with the standard 250GB 5400RPM hard drive instead of splurging on the very expensive upgrade to an SSD (+$400). Having an SSD would certainly help performance but can only be justified for those with money to spare and a penchant for wanting fast boot times and file loads that an SSD is so good at.
I use a laptop for writing, web development, multimedia (YouTube, DVDs, etc.), Skype, and a few other utilities. In other words, my usage pattern is fairly standard compared to other students, my most egregious use of resources is having several browser tabs open at the same time which can tend to eat up memory. The T420 as configured had no issues performing fast under all usage conditions. HD video on YouTube played back flawlessly and opening programs were always snappy. Even if you have some graphics-intensive applications the integrated Intel 3000 HD graphics are quite capable, much better than Intel integrated graphics of a couple of years ago, you can get away with doing some light gaming using the Integrated graphics without a problem.
All that said, if you know your usage demands will be more than mine you can make some nice component upgrades and have a very fast T420 configuration – it’ll just cost you!
For those that prefer some raw numbers, I ran a couple of benchmarks to get scores. Remember, this was with the only 2GB of memory onboard and the scores will surely go up with just a $25 2GB memory upgrade.
PCMark Vantage Version 126.96.36.199
Windows Experience Index
Battery life is probably one of the most important features for students. If you’re like me and get hives watching the battery meter tick down to 0% as you sit stranded doing work far from any power outlet you can appreciate a long-lasting battery. I’m happy to report that the T420 offers a very comfortable battery life of 5-hours under normal usage and screen at 2/3 brightness, and if you’re a road warrior that doesn’t mind dimming the screen way down and doing work then you can easily top 6-hours. I pulled the plug and dimmed the brightness to level 5 of 15, left wireless on, and let the computer idle and after 6 hours and 2 minutes, it went into hibernation when battery life was worn down to 5%. If five hours of sustained battery isn’t enough for you, there’s a couple of options to get longer battery life. You can upgrade to a larger 9-cell battery that should give you around 7.5 hours of battery life, or remove the optical drive and use a 3-cell bay battery in place of it for another couple of hours of battery life.
The legendary keyboard is the main reason a lot of people will only buy a ThinkPad laptop. The ThinkPad T420 keyboard is of course the same as it ever was on former ThinkPads, each key feels individual with just the right amount of travel and feedback. The texture of the keys is great, the finish is matte and prevents fingers from slipping and hides dirt well. The keyboard is very firm and no-sag can be found. Honestly, everything is pretty much perfect about the keyboard, my only wish is that there was an option for a backlit keyboard as I love the ability to easily read key lettering in dark rooms. The included “ThinkLight”, a light in the top of the lid that can be turned on to illuminate the keyboard, does not do an adequate job of illuminating the entire keyboard area.
You have two options for how to move the cursor around the screen built into the T420, either touchpad or Trackpoint. I favor the TrackPoint as it prevents the need of having to lift your hands from the keyboard to move the cursor to another location. The Trackpoint has a red rubber cover on it for easy grip and the sensitivity can be adjusted using built-in software. For those more used to a touchpad you will find the one included on the T420 is easy to use due to its textured surface and decent size. It’s not as good as say the huge Apple MacBook Pro touchpad, but that uses an integrated mouse button approach while Lenovo always favors having obvious and dedicated buttons.
One nice thing about the ThinkPad T420 is that you have a couple of screen resolution options. I like being able to fit as much on my screen as I can by having a high-resolution so I went for the 1600 x 900 upgrade instead of the 1366 x 768 standard resolution, it means smaller text and icons but my eyes are still young enough to tolerate that. So the high resolution is appreciated, but outside of that, the screen itself is fairly standard in the world of laptops. The brightness is very good, it’s more than bright enough at the highest setting to use in any type of indoor setting. It is not bright enough to use outdoors in the sun, you need a specialized (and expensive) laptop to do that. If you look at the screen straight on the colors are vivid and true, but adjusting the vertical angle of the screen away from perpendicular to your eyes will mean the colors start to invert and simply not look right. A demonstration of the viewing angles can be seen in the below pictures.
Overall what you see above is typical of any laptop that does not have an IPS screen. The ThinkPad X220 offers an IPS screen if you dig being able to view a screen from any angle and seeing the same colors. The Apple iPad is another example of a consumer device that has an IPS screen.
The number of ports offered on the T420 is excellent, the only thing missing is an HDMI port, instead, you get a DisplayPort as that’s more standard in business devices than the more-consumer-oriented HDMI port. Here’s a rundown of the ports you get and where they are located.
ThinkPad T420 left side: VGA monitor out port, Gigabit Ethernet LAN port, DisplayPort, USB 2.0 port
ThinkPad T420 right side: headphone/microphone port, ExpressCard 34mm slot, 4-in-1 media card reader, USB 2.0/eSata combo port
ThinkPad T420 back: IEEE-1394 (FireWire) port, USB 2.0 port always-on powered port (vertically aligned), power jack
ThinkPad T420 front side: No ports here, just the screen latch
Some people may also be disappointed not to have the latest USB 3.0 included, but to be honest, since you have eSata as a way to quickly move data to external devices the need for USB 3.0 is reduced.
The speakers for the T420 are located on either side of the keyboard. They serve just fine for watching DVD movies and streaming audio, though as you’d expect the bass isn’t all that great. There’s a headphone jack on the right side toward the front and I recommend plugging in a set of decent headphones to get the best audio experience.
The ThinkPad T420 or T420i is a great option as a college laptop. It has the battery life, usability, and build quality it takes to get work done around campus. The option of configuring either a budget level laptop of around $800 or high-end laptop configuration of $1,400+ is great and allows you to design a laptop that fits your needs, but still get the same build and design quality no matter what you include. I like the fact the option for a higher resolution screen is present, for those of us that find we can do work more efficiently using two windows open at once on the screen you will appreciate the 1600 x 900 resolution screen. Overall a thumbs up on buying the T420 that is a worthy successor to the previous ThinkPad T410 and improves on an already great line of laptops.