by Kevin O'Brien
The T400 ThinkPad is the much-loved 14.1" business notebook sold by Lenovo. Since our last review of this notebook Lenovo has added a new high-brightness screen option as well as quietly updated the keyboard structure to hopefully limit some of the flex we noted in our first review. Let's see how well this screen works in an active outdoor setting and most importantly find out if the flexing keyboard has been fixed. Read on to find out what we think about the newest generation of the T400.
Our review unit of the Lenovo ThinkPad T400 features the following specifications:
Build and Design
The design of the T400 has changed a bit since previous generation ThinkPads. The changes are subtle to the untrained eye, but they are there. The right side is now gently sloped similar to what can be found on the older T4x series, where the sides angle inward instead of dropping off flat. The first clue about this is the optical drive bezel which sports a nice beveled edge. The rubber feet have also been slightly tweaked, now feeling softer, and you get an additional springy nub on the bottom of the notebook. Getting past the minor case design changes, the style of this ThinkPad is every bit as boring as all ThinkPads preceding it. We have the same paint, same rubbery texture, and we still have our ThinkPad logo.
Upgrade and expansion is a step harder than most notebooks, but still very simple. To gain access to all user-replaceable parts, you simply remove five screws and carefully remove the palmrest and keyboard. Here you gain access to an open WWAN slot, another for Turbo Memory or UWB, two DDR3 memory slots, and your wireless card. At this stage you can also see the processor and heatsink, but a few additional items must be removed before you can lift those items out. Although this setup does seem like Lenovo is trying discourage the user from upgrading parts, Lenovo fully allows owners to handle upgrading or adding components to their notebook without voiding the warranty. That said, advanced component replacement, such as removing the processor, might void a warranty. The hard drive is the only item accessible from the outside of the case (besides the battery) and is easily removed with a single screw.
Build quality is very similar to the previous generation ThinkPad T61, with all of its strengths and weaknesses. Fit and finish are great with most parts, but you still have a good amount of battery wiggle in the back, as well as the cheaper feeling plastic LCD lid. This configuration offered both PC Card and ExpressCard/54 slots, so it included the spring loaded dust flap. This is different from the T400 we reviewed last year that had a blank card instead of the flap since it was equipped with a SD card reader taking one of the slots. The flap adds support on the left side of the palmrest, so unlike the other T400 this model is rock solid on the left.
What still works and what doesn't
Those who have older ThinkPad accessories from the T6x/R6x generation will be happy to know all of the older docking stations are still fully compatible with the new notebooks. I can't say for certain that the older equipment won't be replaced with newer revisions that offer different connections, but at least you won't need to upgrade.
The optical bay connections have changed from the previous generation, moving more towards a SATA style connector, rendering older drive incompatible. The power connection for use with the UltraBay battery remained the same though.
The newest option on the T400 is the 678 nit high brightness LED-backlit WXGA panel. I don?t recall any prior ThinkPad model that incorporated a true sunlight visible panel. Throughout the review I never actually needed to use the screen at full brightness to outshine an indoor lighting environment. Coming from the IPS Flexview panel on my T60 (which is already considered dim) the 678nit screen makes the T60 screen look like it's turned to the lowest brightness setting.
Image quality is surprisingly good for a high brightness panel. Many of the higher brightness panels on the market sacrifice contrast and black levels to ramp up the backlight as bright as possible. In normal brightness ranges (30-80%) the black levels are great and the contrast levels are on par with standard panels. As you start to go higher you start to notice some black levels turning noticeably grey and a hint of backlight bleed. Contrast also starts to take a dip, mostly because the dark colors start to wash out. Viewing angles are good for a TN panel, with a broader sweet spot than some panels that seems to be attributed to the higher brightness levels.
Vertical viewing range is about 15 degrees up or down with normal brightness levels, and expands out to 20-25 degrees if you bump up the backlight. Horizontal viewing angles are excellent with colors staying true and accurate even at very steep angles. The screen dims slightly at extreme angles, but you can still view what is on the screen to share a movie with people sitting next to you.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The latest generation of T400 includes additional support for the thinner keyboard found on the latest ThinkPads. Nothing is inherently bad about the keyboard being thinner as long as the notebook chassis is design to adequately support it to prevent the keyboard from flexing. In our original review we noted substantial keyboard flex under strong pressure from your fingertips when compared to typing on an older 15? T60 model. One fix was to replace the keyboard with the older revision which had a thicker and stiffer back plate. It appears that Lenovo took another route and added bracing over open cavities underneath the keyboard to prevent the plate from flexing inward. The solution appears to work pretty well and solves most of the flexing problem. The keyboard still slightly bows under strong pressure, but far less than the original T400.
Original T400 keyboard support structure.
New T400 keyboard support structure.
The keyboard itself is very comfortable to type on with precise action in the keys and positive feedback on each key press. Each key gives off a soft click when pressed, not as loud as the Chicony keyboard on my T60, but louder than the average notebook keyboard. Coming from someone who spends 10+ hours on their ThinkPad a day I can easily say it is one of the best, if not the best keyboard you can find on a notebook.
As with older models, the liquid drains are still in place, ready to get your notebook out of harm's way if a stray coffee or soda spills all over it. One should note that the spill-resistant keyboard is designed to handle a spill with the notebook in a near-flat position, not tipped over. I know the first instinct is tipping the notebook over to pour the fluid out, but if you do that you run the risk of spilling the fluid over the edge of the keyboard and down into the motherboard. Just leave the notebook flat, turn it off, and let the fluid drain out.
The touchpad has grown compared to the T61, expanding to the width of the lower touchpad buttons. With the ThinkPad touchpads always being runts compared to other notebook designs, this change was very welcomed (even if they did paint scroll arrows on it). The texture is identical to the older touchpad, and sensitivity is just as good. Compared to my T60, the touchpad buttons feel much firmer, and have more support from edge to edge. The far left and right side of the touchpad buttons on the T60 tend to sag, while the T400's touchpad buttons have equal support from side to side.
My only disappointment with the touchpad was the lack of red strips. Sure, it's just a matter of nostalgia, but after seeing the X300 and X200 that offered "legacy" red strips on the touchpoint buttons I was sad Lenovo didn't include this "finishing touch" on the T-series.
Ports and Features
Port selection is average on the T400, with three USB ports and no digital video output. You do have VGA, but it is not the best option if you want to hook the notebook up to an HDTV. As mentioned in the build and design section, the T400 with the SD-Card reader option nixes the PC card (PCMCIA) slot. For those thinking about using legacy external cards, you may want to reconsider that option.
One feature that has been on ThinkPads almost forever is the ThinkLight, which is a small white LED located above the screen that illuminates the keyboard. On every other model that has this light, it works as intended and gives a little light on the keys. On the T400 the shroud in front of the LED isn't big enough, and the end result is a light shining directly in your face. Your night vision is taken away and in the end it is a useful feature turned worthless by lack of proper design. I'm not exactly sure how this keyboard light design made it past quality control, but unless you have the screen tilted forward to an extreme degree you end up as blind as a bat.
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