IBM ThinkPad T43 Review (pics, specs)

by abaxter Reads (1,277,579)

by Andrew Baxter, New York

IBM ThinkPad T43 (view larger image)

The specific ThinkPad T43 being reviewed here has the following specs:

IBM ThinkPad T43 Specs as Delivered

  • Intel Pentium M 750 (1.86GHz, 2MB L2 Cache, 533MHz FSB)
  • 14.0″ SXGA (1400 x 1050) display
  • 60GB, 7200RPM Hard Drive
  • 512MB DDR2 SDRAM
  • CD-RW/DVD-RW (CD 24x Read, 16x Write) (DVD 3x Read, 2x Write)
  • Standard 6-cell battery and optional 9-cell extended life battery
  • Ports: 2 USB 2.0, 1 ExpressCard slot, 1 PCMCIA card slot, 56K Modem, Ethernet LAN port, PS2 port, headphone jack, microphone jack, parallel port, VGA out port
    Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 2
  • ATI X300 Graphics Card with 64MB RAM
  • Intel PRO/Wireless 2915 802.11 a/b/g internal wireless card
  • Fingerprint scanner for security

T43 Datasheet (1.8MB): IBM T43 Datasheet

ThinkPad Overview

The latest ThinkPad thin-and-light T series notebook addition comes in the form of the T43.  The ThinkPad brand has been built over many years now and has come to stand for high-quality, solidly built notebooks that are rugged in their matte black look, yet sleek and professional at the same time.  Usability is second-to-none with the ThinkPad line and consumer oriented bells and whistles such as multicard readers or widescreen LCDs are shunned in favor of things such as adding keyboard lights, biometric security readers, hard-drive shock protection or other things that generally add to the usability, durability and security of a notebook.

T43 Design

Aside from the new fingerprint reader (optional), we find that the design for the T43 does not deviate from previous T4X models.  Since the ThinkPad T43 is intended for and targeted at business buyers, continuing on this look is just perfect.

Important to note is that there is both a 15.0″ and 14.1″ screen configuration available, our T43 is the 14.1″.  Settling for the smaller sized screen results in a smaller overall footprint, less weight and longer battery life and so is better for someone that desires to be more mobile.

A 15.0″ model T42 on the left, 14.1″ screen model T43 (with extended life battery installed) on the right (view larger image)

Like IBM’s previous T4X series models, the T43 is a textbook definition of physical quality.  From the first time you touch it, you know it’s just good. The screen cover for the ThinkPad T42 is constructed of magnesium alloy and prevents any screen flexing.  With other laptops you can usually push on the back of the lid and get a worrying ripple effect on the LCD screen, the T43 protective case will prevent such a thing from happening. The ThinkPad’s insides are housed in a case of titanium-reinforced plastic. The whole thing is held together by a pair of sturdy metal hinges that attach the screen and main body of the laptop.  These metal hinges ensure that there is no screen wobble, even when on a turbulent plane ride. The T43 simply looks like it’s been designed to take a beating (although you should still avoid abusing the notebook when possible).

Input and Output Ports

Below are some pictures of each side of the ThinkPad T43 that displays what ports we have on each side of the notebook.  Please note that I have the optional 9-cell extended life battery installed so the battery sticks out, the standard 6-cell battery is flushed with the back of the T43.

On the right side of the T43 we have the optical drive and what’s called the D-SUB port (can be used to carry analogue video signals to a monitor).  With this configuration the optical drive comes in the form of a CD-RW/DVD-RW drive.  This bay is actually completely modular and is called the UltraBay by IBM.  You can use the UltraBay to put in an extra battery, a different type of optical drive or even a sled that contains a secondary hard drive that is possible to boot to.  Also of note is the hard drive for the T43 is at the front right side and you simply remove a screw from the bottom of the laptop and then slide out the tray it’s stored in to swap the hard drive out if you wish.

ThinkPad T43 right-side (view larger image)

On the left side of the ThinkPad T43 we have a majority of our ports.  Two USB 2.0 ports are on the back right side.  Personally I’d like to see more than just 2 ports, but for a thin and light this is acceptable, although not optimal.  We also have an S-Video output port available.  The modem and Ethernet jacks reside next to the S-Video port.  Headphone out and microphone in ports are sandwiched between the Ethernet port and fan vent.  On the front right side we have a PC card slot (PCMCIA slot) and ExpressCard slot.  It’s nice to have the ExpressCard slot as that will be the standard of the future for allowing accessory expansion on notebooks.  However, for right now there are very few ExpressCard compatible accessories available.

ThinkPad T43 left-side (view larger image)

On the back of the T43 you can see the battery (sticking out in this case because it’s an extended life battery), power jack input and parallel port.  The parallel port is a legacy port hangover and is completely unnecessary for the consumer, but there are some corporate customers that still need this.

ThinkPad T43 back-side (view larger image)

On the front of the notebook the only thing we find are the two latches to hold the screen down (two latches work much better than one for keeping the lid down and tightly closed by the way) and an IrDA port for wireless infrared communication with other devices or laptops.

ThinkPad T43 front-side (view larger image)

ThinkPad T43 under-side (view larger image)

Screen

My IBM T43 notebook came with an SXGA (1,280 x 1,024) resolution display.  Personally I prefer having an SXGA screen over XGA.  I used a 15-inch screen IBM T42 with an XGA screen (1,024 x 768 resolution) for a period of time, and I can verify that you are able to see more on the screen using a T43 14-inch SXGA (1,400 x 1,050) resolution screen.  You can probably see about 10% – 15% more on the 14-inch SXGA screen relative to a 15-inch XGA screen.  It’s very reasonable to have more than one document open at a time with an SXGA 14-inch screen.

ThinkPad T43 Screen (view larger image)

The screen quality and brightness is middle of the road.  When compared to other notebook screens such as the Sony XBrite screen or Toshiba TruBrite screen, the IBM T43 falls short.  Brightness and clarity on the T43 does not match the top screens out on the market today.  The whites on this screen are also not pure white but rather have a very slight tint of yellow, it’s not uncommon to find that an LCD presents whites with either a very slight yellowish or bluish hue. 

Although the screen brightness is not the best out there, I find the horizontal viewing angle of the T43 to be quite excellent.  At a 45 degree horizontal viewing angle things are very readable and viewable still, and even from a full 90 degree viewing angle horizontally I am able to read text on web pages and in MS Word.  There are no dead pixels present on the notebook’s display.  Ghosting on the display (a phenomenon in which fast motion on a screen causes streaks or trails of ghost images) has not been an issue with this display, some T42 users reported such issues, especially on 15-inch display models.

Keyboard / TouchPad / TrackPoint

IBM T43 keyboard / TouchPad / TrackPoint view (view larger image)

The TrackPoint navigation featuring a pointing stick, touchpad and multiple mouse buttons lets you choose your favorite way to navigate the cursor on the screen.  I’m a huge fan of the pointing stick.  The pointing stick and TrackPoint navigation are great for three reasons.

  1. The pointing stick makes it really easy to get the cursor where you want it to go on the screen.  I’ve never met a touchpad that gives you precise control and gets the cursor where you want it to go 100% of the time.  With the pointing stick the cursor goes exactly where you want it, and if it begins to act funny and not go where you want it to, simply let go and the machine recalibrates the pointing stick automatically.
  2. When the pointing stick is combined with the scroll button (located between the two upper mouse buttons) you can scroll through web pages and long documents with ease.  Just hold down the scroll button and push the pointing stick up or down to scroll to where you want on a page.
  3. The mouse buttons are raised very nicely making it easy to feel the buttons and push them.  Competitors often have buttons that are barely raised, or even worse, flat.

The keyboard on the T43 is in line with the usual IBM exacting standards, there’s not a notebook out there with as usable a keyboard.  In fact, I prefer the T43 keyboard to even some external computer keyboards I’ve used.  The IBM ThinkPad keyboard uses 7-rows of keys as opposed to the usual 6-rows competitors’ use, this makes for more typing room and less cramping of the fingers.  Each keyboard key is firm and has excellent travel, and each key feels individual.  On a lot of notebooks you’ll get flexing of the keyboard, so when pushing in a key you’ll see other keys around it get slightly depressed and if you push in on the keyboard you’ll see the entire keyboard sag.  Not so with any ThinkPad, the keyboard is solid with zero rattle and zero flex.  The usability and ergonomics of a keyboard is hugely important for a laptop, IBM has done much research and exerted great effort to ensure this important feature is as good as it can be.

IBM ThinkPad keyboards are sealed and sit inside of a tray so that spills do not get to the electronics underneath.  Now this doesn’t mean the T43 is waterproof and 100% spill proof by any means (liquid can still get in the vents if your aim is really bad), what it does mean is that if you spill some water onto the keyboard then you’ll have time to tip up the notebook and pour the liquid out before it seeps down into the internal components of the notebook.

One thing I should note regarding any ThinkPad keyboard is that IBM has always been stubborn about not putting a “Windows” key on the bottom left-side that nearly every other notebook has.  Pushing this key by default pops up the start menu in Windows.  Some people like having this and find it annoying when it’s not there, personally I don’t care, and I’m sure some Linux fans are just plain chuffed that IBM chooses to leave this Windows friendly button out!

Above the main keyboard are a few hardware buttons: the power button, volume up and down buttons, a mute button and the blue “Access IBM” button.  The Access IBM button will launch an IBM software application called Access IBM that will guide you in using, protecting, configuring and updating software on your T43.  Once again, this shows IBM is highly concerned about the ThinkPad’s usability and end user experience.  It would have been nice to have play, pause and stop buttons for the DVD player, but these are more consumer oriented features and in general IBM shies away from such things.  Apparently in the future this “Access IBM” button is going to be named “ThinkVantage” due to the Lenovo buyout of the IBM PC division (more on that later).

Processor and Performance

This particular ThinkPad T43 I’m using comes with a Pentium M 750 1.86GHz processor, and for using standard work applications this is absolutely more than enough for what you’ll need.  In general, with a 7200RPM hard drive and 512MB of RAM (my T43′s configuration) you’ll be very happy with the overall T43 speed performance.  Running programs such as Microsoft Visual Studio, Adobe PhotoShop, Microsoft Word and Media Player at the same time, and flipping between them, were common tasks I performed and never made the T43 hiccup.

We use Super Pi to get a benchmark of processor speed.  The Super Pi program simply forces the processor to calculate Pi to a selected number of digits of accuracy.  Calculating to 2 million digits is our benchmark:

Comparison of notebooks using Super Pi to calculate Pi to 2 million digits (plugged in):

 Notebook Time to Calculate Pi to 2 Million Digits
IBM ThinkPad T43 (1.86GHz Alviso Pentium M) 1m 45s
Fujitsu LifeBook N3510 (1.73 GHz Alviso Pentium M) 1m 48s
IBM ThinkPad T41 (1.6GHz Banias Pentium M) 2m 23s
Compaq R3000T (Celeron 2.8GHz) 3m 3s
Dell Inspiron 600m (1.6 GHz Dothan Pentium M) 2m 10s
Dell Inspiron 8600 (1.7GHz Banias Pentium M) 2m 28s

Although the T43 is fast for common applications, if you want to play games, it’s a bit of a different story.  The T43 I have comes with an ATI X300 64MB graphics card.  This is certainly better than integrated graphics, but the X300 won’t deliver enough power to run Doom 3 with any type of satisfactory playing experience.

Benchmarks for ThinkPad T43 compared to Fujitsu N3510 (both have X300 64MB Graphics Card)

 Futuremark PCMark04 Scores
  IBM T43 (1.86GHz) Fujitsu N3510 (1.73 GHz)
 Multithreaded Test 1 / File Compression 3.33 MB/s 3.24 MB/s
 Multithreaded Test 1 / File Encryption 27.19 MB/s 25.58 MB/s
 Multithreaded Test 2 / File Decompression 23.4 MB/s 22.72 MB/s
 Multithreaded Test 2 / Image Processing 10.88 MPixels/s 10.03 MPixels/s
 Multithreaded Test 3 / Virus Scanning 1914.17 MB/s 1752.97 MB/s
 Multithreaded Test 3 / Grammar Check 2.82 KB/s 2.8 KB/s
 File Decryption 54.11 MB/s 51.45 MB/s
 Audio Conversion 2496.87 KB/s 2346.96 KB/s
 Web Page Rendering 5.27 Pages/s 5.25 Pages/s
 DivX Video Compression 51.71 FPS 46.08 FPS
 Physics Calculation and 3D 159.19 FPS 168.02 FPS
 Graphics Memory – 64 Lines 868.44 FPS 1486.18 FPS
Futuremark 3DMark05 Scores
3DMark Score 727 3DMarks 721 3D Marks
CPU Score 3414 CPUMarks 3242 CPUMarks
Gaming Tests
GT1 – Return To Proxycon 3.3 FPS 3.7 FPS
GT2 – Firefly Forest 2.2 FPS 1.8 FPS
GT3 – Canyon Flight 3.4 FPS 3.5 FPS
CPU Tests
CPU Test 1 1.18 FPS 1.6 FPS
CPU Test 2 2.9 FPS 2.9 FPS

So the graphics performance specs aren’t terrible for a thin-and-light, but if you compare it to the Dell Inspiron XPS2 desktop replacement/gaming ntebook’s(http://www.notebookreview.com/default.asp?newsID=2282) 3DMark05 score of 4,915 3DMarks…well, you can see that a gaming notebook will put the ThinkPad T43 to absolute shame.  So a gaming notebook the T43 is not, but you will be able to play a few recent 3D games on their low settings or run older games without any problem.

Sound

I’ve used one laptop in the past two years that has truly impressed me with its built-in speaker performance (and I’ve lost count of how many total laptops I’ve used!), that computer was the Dell Inspiron 9100.  Ironically, Dell made the 9100 for all of six months before ending its production.  The ThinkPad 43 does not end the streak of disappointing laptop speakers.  The T43 speakers are very average, there’s no bass whatsoever provided by them and any high notes sound thin.  Headphones or a pair of external speakers are a necessity for decent sound.  I can say the same for just about every other laptop I use though.

Heat & Fan

The palm rest areas on the T43 are extremely sturdy and, more importantly, don’t get too hot, even with prolonged use.  I recently used a Dell Inspiron 600m and on the left palm rest the heat build was a big annoyance at best, uncomfortable at worst.  The ThinkPad T43 won’t make you sweat though.  The bottom does get warm after a while, but not to the point of discomfort if you are using it on your lap.  The right side palm rest does get warmer than the left side because that’s where the hard drive is, but never has that area become hot to the point of being uncomfortable.

The cooling system of the T43 is not entirely dependent upon the fans.  Clever internal design and placement of vents goes a long way to keeping the T43 cool enough.  However, a fan is of course necessary after a point.  The fan on the T43 is on the left side; it doesn’t run very often and makes a quiet “whirr” sound when it does.  No loud vacuum cleaner sounds here.  You’ll get a little bit of vibration in the left side palm rest when the fan runs, but nothing bad.  The internal heat and frequency of the fan running on the T43 is largely dependent upon how many and what applications you are running and what the external environment temperature is.  This is the same for any laptop.  I ran the program HD Tune (http://www.hdtune.com/) for a few days and found the average temperature of the hard drive to bounce between 96 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  Not bad.

Wireless Connectivity

The ThinkPad T43 I have comes with an Intel 2915 PRO/Wireless 802.11 a/b/g internal wi-fi card.  I had no problems using wireless on the T43.  Using the built-in IBM Access Connections application makes it very easy to find networks and manage various wireless connection profiles.  IBM places what it calls the UltraConnect Wireless Antenna in the upper right-hand part of the screen.  You can’t see it of course as it’s enclosed in the casing, but it really helps to extend your wireless range.  Most manufacturers take the cheap route and put the antenna in the base part of the system where it’s susceptible to interference from all the other components there.

The T43 has an antenna in the screen area for better reception

There is no internal Bluetooth in the T43 I have, but Infrared (IrDA) is integrated into the ThinkPad and can serve as a useful way to connect to PDAs or cellphones.  When a ThinkPad with IrDA gets close to another ThinkPad with IrDA you’ll get a noise effect that sounds like a spring and you’ll be asked if you’d like to transfer files between the two machines.

Battery

The battery included with the T43 is a standard 6-cell Lithium Ion rechargeable battery.  If you crave more battery life you can buy an extended life 9-cell battery for around $140.  Using the 9-cell battery I was able to get 5 hours and 39 minutes of life just doing things like web browsing and using Word.  I had the screen brightness just above half (4 bars out of 7) and wi-fi was on.  Using the 6-cell battery you can expect 33% less battery life, but it’s still pretty good.  With the 6-cell I’d usually run out of battery at about 4 hours of usage.

You can also swap out the CD drive and place an UltraBay Slim battery there so that when your #1 battery gets low you can just tell the notebook to switch to using the #2 battery, or it will do this automatically for you if battery #1 gets low.  An ultrabay slim battery retails for around $120 (UltraBay Slim Battery).  If you have an extended life battery and UltraBay battery you’ll have all day usage of your T43 without needing to plug in — but it’ll be a lot heavier with those two batteries!

Fingerprint Reader Security and Software

The T43 can be configured with a built-in fingerprint reader on the right side to provide biometric security.  The fingerprint reader is unobtrusive in nature and won’t be noticed unless you know to look

Fingerprint reader on the lower right-side of the T43 (view larger image)

The first question to answer regarding this feature would be, why is IBM even offering it?  According to Big Blue, the fingerprint reader provides a convenient means for unique user identification to a Windows system and eliminates the need for users to remember multiple passwords.  In a large corporate environment this reduces the number of calls to support for forgotten passwords.

Moving away from the rational factor and onto the usability factor, the biggest concern I had with the biometric security was that it would be a pain to get things setup.  This is not the case though.  The first time you start using the T43 with biometric security you’ll get the following screen that prompts you to “enroll” at least two fingers for the ability to scan and use as your Windows logon.

As soon as you start using the T42 a wizard pops-up to guide you through setting up biometric security (view larger image)

You can pick any two fingers of your ten to enroll (view larger image)

You have to do three successful finger swipes, using the same finger, over the reader and then the software will record your fingerprint and converge the three successful swipe images (view larger image)

Once you’ve successfully enrolled two fingers you will be prompted by the software as to whether you’d like to now use finger swipes to logon to Windows.  In addition to substituting a fingerswipe for Windows logon you can also use the fingerscan for what IBM calls “Power Up” security.  This means that when you turn your computer on it will sit and wait for you to scan your finger before it will even start to boot.  So for the ultimate security use both the Power Up and Windows logon passwords/fingerscan.

Actually using the finger reader is relatively easy.  Just slide the end of your finger over the reader, and if it does not read right the software will actually coach you to move your finger to the right or left.  It does take a little bit of training to use the reader properly, you can move your finger too fast or too slow and you do need to line the finger up right, I can basically get the read right in one or two tries, but I won’t say it’s sure fire to work every time on the first try.

Although biometric security sounds really secure, it’s not necessarily more secure than a good password.  In fact, there is a just slightly less than .5% chance that some random person could authenticate as you using their own finger.  This is actually a lot worse security-wise than what a secure password can achieve.  A secure password consists of at least 6 characters (more is better) with combined alpha, numeric and lower/upper case characters.  If you use a secure password, there’s slim to no chance anyone will get into your windows account.  The trouble is that people use their favorite pet’s name, spouse’s name, the city they live in, or their last name as passwords.  Using these for passwords is very insecure and hackers will get into your machine in seconds if they know just a little bit of personal information about you.  And that’s when biometric security is better than a typed password.

Also, consider the fact that when you do use a very secure password, our feeble human mind is much more likely to forget that password.  If you are at work, where a secure password is much more important for a computer, a forgotten password insinuates a call to the IT department and lost time.  Fortunately, the likelihood of losing your finger is pretty low (please be careful when handling knives and scissors) so if you’re using biometric security there’s little chance of a “forgotten password”.

For a white paper resource that covers all the advantages of biometric security check out this link: http://www.research.ibm.com/journal/sj/403/ratha.html

It’s the Little Things

Having covered a lot of the basic features of a notebook, it might sound like the T43 is just a darn good machine that rises above the crowd with a basic approach to better quality for each notebook feature.  But it’s the extra little things that you get on an IBM notebook that makes it that much better too.  For instance, the ThinkLight is a small light at the top of the screen that can be turned on by holding “Fn” + “Pg-Up”, this light illuminates the keyboard in a dark room — pretty handy.  Or Hold in “Fn” + “F7″ and a utility to easily select what presentation mode/monitor-output/screen resolution mode you want will pop up.  If your notebook all of a sudden one day is behaving strangely and crashing, you can use the built-in Restore and Recovery utility and take your notebook back to a point in time so everything is setup exactly as it was at that chosen time. If you want to “zoom-in” to and enlarge images and text on your screen, use the “Fn” + “Space Bar” and the screen will enlarge so you can zoom more easily see a character that might have been too small to read in normal resolution mode.  There are also two keys next to the arrow cursor keys that are dedicated to allowing you to go “Back” and “Forward” in a web browser simply by pushing these buttons.  The unique IBM Active Protection System (APS) will save you in the event of dropping the T43 by causing the hard drive to shut off and prevent data loss.

The list of little features and utilities built into the T43 goes on and on.  It’s these things people don’t think about when buying a notebook, but once you start using a ThinkPad your eyes are opened and you become dependent on certain features — and then you can’t switch to anything else!

Service and Support

The ThinkPad T43 comes with a standard 3-yr parts and labor warranty when you purchase through IBM.com.  This is very good, many manufacturers will give just a year unless you want to cough up more money.

There’s a disaster story for every manufacturer out there in which a person has had a bad experience with a broken laptop and then subsequently being mistreated by customer service and support for that manufacturer.  I won’t deny IBM is immune from this, but in general IBM is the best there is for service and support.  They got the second best support rating in PC World’s latest reader survey.  So yes, it is good.  Their support department is in Atlanta, Georgia.  So unless you have problems understanding a Southern accent, you’ll be able to communicate with these nice people just fine.

Survey Results from PCWorld.com for customer satisfaction with notebooks, IBM placed 2nd (view larger image)

The Lenovo Factor

By now everyone has likely heard about the fact that Lenovo, a Chinese computer manufacturing company, has bought the PC division of IBM.  Many people are concerned that this would mean all of the design, production and support for the IBM ThinkPad would be revamped and shifted overseas.  But this is not the case, it is in fact business as usual within the IBM PC division and Lenovo has no intentions to change the ThinkPad brand a whole lot because it would be foolish to tinker too much with a business unit that has been able to produce and support quality computer products for years now.  What Lenovo will be doing over the next 5-years is figuring out how to get costs of production down while maintaining the ThinkPad brand and quality, not a small feat by any means.  However, the design team, marketing team and product development team will all stay the same for the ThinkPad brand.  I don’t foresee any major changes in the way ThinkPad’s are designed, made and supported for a few years yet and so you can feel safe buying a ThinkPad product that will have the same quality and support as IBM has established in years past.  That might sound like a sales pitch for IBM, but in all honesty I’ve read about this a lot and talked with those in the know and it will be interesting to see if things are still the same in 5-years time, but I don’t think a whole lot will change before that amount of time.

Conclusion

If what you are looking for is a highly durable yet light laptop, with great performance, great usability and from a company that will provide good service and support, then the ThinkPad T43 is the hand that fits the glove. On paper you will be able to configure a Dell Inspiron with the same specs as a T43 for a lower price, but you won’t get the same build quality and usability with an Inspiron.

The T43 is particularly good for business related work and for computer programmers — two occupations in which you spend a lot of time using a computer and keyboard and also might need extra security to protect your data.  If you’re going to be parking your laptop on a desk and want a lot of multimedia options, the T43 is not a good choice as it has no flash card readers, no FireWire port, limited USB ports and just so-so graphics performance.  Alternatively, anybody that travels a lot and desires a thin and light notebook that can be a real workhorse should look to the T43 as a fantastic solution.

Pros

  • The best keyboard around, combined with TrackPoint navigation allows for easy use and input
  • Tough case (titanium reinforced plastic) and rugged design, yet still thin-and-light
  • Using finger scanner as a substitute for password logon makes for easy yet secure protection of your account.
  • Great wireless range and features
  • UltraBay provides option to easily put in an extra hard drive, different optical drive such as a DVD burner, or an extra battery.

Cons


  • Pricey, you’ll pay $2,000 and up for a good configuration
  • No FireWire port or media card reader, only two USB 2.0 ports
  • If you’re upgrading from a ThinkPad T40, T41 or T42, nobody will notice you got a new notebook because it looks the same (I had to find one more con!)

Pricing and Availability


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