Lenovo T500 ThinkPad Review

by Kevin O'Brien Reads (678,511)

by Kevin O’Brien

The T500 Thinkpad is the latest 15.4" refresh of the longstanding T-series out of Lenovo. Combining the latest generation of Intel goodies, ATI Hybrid graphics, and DisplayPort connection this notebook has many new things to offer over the previous ThinkPads. With all these changes taking place, is Lenovo keeping the ThinkPad as well built as we have come to expect, or has some quality slipped through the cracks? In this review we cover all aspects of the new ThinkPad T500 and tell you if we think it deserves a spot on your desk.

 

Our ThinkPad T500 specifications:

  • Screen: 15.4" 1680 x 1050 WSXGA+ LCD (Matte finish)
  • Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo T9600 (2.80GHz, 1066MHz FSB, 6MB Cache)
  • Memory: 2GB DDR3 RAM
  • Storage: 160GB HDD (7200rpm)
  • Optical Drive: DVD+/-RW
  • Wireless: 802.11a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 2.0
  • Graphics: ATI Mobility Radeon 3650 w/ 256MB or Intel X4500 integrated (hybrid switching)
  • Built-in web camera
  • Battery: 9-cell (84Wh rated, 81Wh actual)
  • Dimensions: 14.1" x 10/10.9" x 1.8"
  • Weight: 6lbs 7.2oz (w/ 9 cell battery)
  • Retail Price: $2,223


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Build and Design

The design of the T500 has changed a bit. 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. 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 than before, meaning less sliding on your desk surface. Moving past the minor case design changes, the ThinkPad is every bit as conservative (boring) as all of those preceding it. We have the same paint, same durable rubbery texture, and we still have our ThinkPad logo.


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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 keybard. 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 lock the user away from upgrading parts, they fully allow anyone to handle upgrading or adding components to their notebook without voiding the warranty. Processor swaps or messing with other advanced components might not be as kosher though. 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.


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Build quality is very similar to the previous generation 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. The molded plastic panels throughout the notebook feel sturdy, overall feeling much like the previous generation of notebooks. Compared to the pre-Lenovo Thinkpads, the T500 feels leaps and bounds better. Now the T500 is not without its flaws, and the new keyboard definitely falls into the flaws category.


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Keyboard and Touchpad

The keyboard layout has stayed the same, with only very minor changes in the feel of the key presses. Some of this may be attributed to the differences in keyboard suppliers (NMB, ALPS, and Chicony) though, as my T60 came with the "clickier" Chicony keyboard, whereas the T500 is much quieter. The keyboard strength seems to have changed, with more flex present on the right side of the keyboard. To find the culprit of this flex, I took apart the notebook and inspected the keyboard area.


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To my great surprise, I found Lenovo had completely redesigned the keyboard, with weight savings as the primary goal. The old design has a much stronger back-plate, which is removed on the new revision. This cuts weight by 25 percent (6oz to 4.5oz) from the old model, but at the huge disadvantage of tarnishing the long-standing ThinkPad keyboard reputation. For now I am leaning towards weight savings, instead of cost savings as the main redesign reason, but I still don’t like it. Anyone who knows the ThinkPad name knows at least two things; boring business notebook and great keyboard. If you take away the keyboard and make other weight reducing or durability reducing changes to the notebook design, you will no doubt alienate many of your followers. I really hope Lenovo takes notice at this, cause I would take a brick glued to the bottom of the case before over a keyboard change such as this.


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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.

The touchpad has grown compared to the T61, expanding to the width of the lower touchpad buttons. With the ThinkPad touchpads always being the 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. On the T60′s touchpad, the far left and right side tend to sag slightly, whereas the T500′s touchpad buttons have equal support from side to side.


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My only disappointment with the touchpad was the lack of red strips. After seeing the X300 and X200 that offered "legacy" red strips on the touchpoint buttons, I was upset to see that Lenovo didn’t include that finishing touch on the T-series keyboard.

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. One change that might anger individuals in an IT position is the removal of the native Serial/Parallel hookup inside the ultrabay for use with the adapter. With many older devices needing native serial connections, these individuals might be wary of upgrading their current notebook.
The power connection appears to have stayed the same for use with the UltraBay battery remained the same.

Display

The CCFL-backlit display on our T500 looked nearly identical to the display currently shipping with the older 15.4" T61 models. Brightness is much less than the LED-backlit panel found in the new T400, but still good when compared to other notebooks on the market. Don’t expect to use this notebook outside on a sunny day, since the bright light will wash out anything on the screen. Backlit evenness is very consistent throughout the display, with no excessive bright or dark areas. Contrast appears to be very nice, and the colors are bright and vivid without looking washed out. Viewing angles rate better than average, but not excellent. Vertical viewing has a nice sweet spot before colors start to wash our or invert, and the horizontal range is better still. Compared to the LED backlit T400 display, the vertical viewing range extended further, but still not coming close to the IPS FlexView panel on my T60.


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One defect or feature which was thankfully not present in our review model screen panel was a shimmering or dirty white texture. Some of the older matte ThinkPad screens had this problem that annoyed many users, and from what I can tell this screen had none of this in the slightest.

Performance and Benchmarks

Our Lenovo ThinkPad T500 came with the Intel T9600 processor, clocking in at 2.8GHz, and jammed packed with 6MB of cache. For graphics, Lenovo included an ATI Radeon 3650 video card with 256MB of GDDR3 memory. While not the latest SSD, Lenovo did include a 7200rpm hard drive which helped keep access times to a minimum and transfer data at a swift pace. This combination proved to be exceptionally fast in the Windows Vista environment, getting very high synthetic benchmark scores. The T500 also performed remarkably well in games which you generally don’t find running on most business notebooks (well non-workstations that is).

Gaming was not a problem with the T500, handling games such as BioShock at native 1680×1050 resolution at 15-20FPS. If you scaled the resolution back to 1280×800, 20-30FPS. Slightly less intensive games like Portal or Half-Life 2 ran even better, consistently averaging framerates above 40 even in high action scenes.

One unique aspect of the T500 is its ability to be able to switch between dedicated and integrated graphics with a simple click of an icon on the task bar. You can switch between the Intel X4500 graphics and the ATI 3650 chipset without rebooting, and doing so lets you conserve quite a bit of power if you don’t need to game.  

wPrime is a program that forces the processor to do recursive mathematical calculations, the advantage of this program is that it is multi-threaded and can use both processor cores at once, thereby giving more accurate benchmarking measurements than Super Pi.

Notebook / CPU wPrime 32M time
Lenovo T500 (Intel Core 2 Duo T9600 @ 2.80GHz)
27.471s
Lenovo T61 (Intel Core 2 Duo T7300 @ 2.0GHz) 42.025s
Dell Vostro 1500 (Intel Core 2 Duo T5470 @ 1.6GHz) 53.827s
HP Pavilion dv6500z (AMD Turion 64 X2 TL-60 @ 2.0GHz) 40.759s
Systemax Assault Ruggedized (Core 2 Duo T7200 @2.0GHz) 41.982s
Toshiba Tecra M9 (Core 2 Duo T7500 @2.2GHz) 37.299s
HP Compaq 6910p (Core 2 Duo T7300 @ 2GHz) 40.965s
Sony VAIO TZ (Core 2 Duo U7600 @ 1.20GHz) 76.240s
Zepto 6024W (Core 2 Duo T7300 @ 2GHz) 42.385s
Lenovo T61 (Core 2 Duo T7500 @ 2.2GHz) 37.705s
Alienware M5750 (Core 2 Duo T7600 @ 2.33GHz) 38.327s
Hewlett Packard DV6000z (Turion X2 TL-60 @ 2.0GHz) 38.720s

PCMark05 comparison results:

Notebook PCMark05 Score
Lenovo T500 (2.80GHz Intel T9600, ATI Radeon 3650 256MB GDDR3)   7,050 PCMarks
Lenovo T500 (2.80GHz Intel T9600, Intel X4500)  5,689 PCMarks
Lenovo T61 Standard Screen (2.0GHz Intel T7300, NVIDIA NVS 140M 256MB) 4,839 PCMarks
Dell Vostro 1500 (1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T5470, NVIDIA GeForce Go 8400M GS) 3,585 PCMarks
Dell Inspiron 1420 (2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7500, NVIDIA GeForce Go 8400M GS) 4,925 PCMarks
Sony VAIO FZ (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, Intel X3100) 3,377 PCMarks
Dell XPS M1330 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, NVIDIA GeForce Go 8400M GS) 4,591 PCMarks
Lenovo ThinkPad X61 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, Intel X3100) 4,153 PCMarks
Lenovo 3000 V200 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, Intel X3100) 3,987 PCMarks
Lenovo T60 Widescreen (2.0GHz Intel T7200, ATI X1400 128MB) 4,189 PCMarks
HP dv6000t (2.16GHz Intel T7400, NVIDA GeForce Go 7400) 4,234 PCMarks
Sony VAIO SZ-110B in Speed Mode (Using Nvidia GeForce Go 7400) 3,637 PCMarks

 

3DMark06 comparison results:

Notebook 3DMark06 Score
Lenovo T500 (2.80GHz Intel T9600, ATI Radeon 3650 256MB GDDR3)   4,371 3DMarks
Lenovo T500 (2.80GHz Intel T9600, Intel X4500)
809 3DMarks
Lenovo T61 Standard Screen (2.0GHz Intel T7300, NVIDIA NVS 140M 256MB) 1,441 3DMarks
Dell Vostro 1500 (1.6GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T5470, NVIDIA GeForce Go 8400M GS) 1,269 3DMarks
Dell Inspiron 1420 (2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7500, NVIDIA GeForce Go 8400M GS 128MB) 1,329 3DMarks
Sony VAIO FZ (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, Intel X3100) 532 3DMarks
Dell XPS M1330 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, NVIDIA GeForce Go 8400M GS 128MB) 1,408 3DMarks
Samsung Q70 (2.0GHz Core 2 Duo T7300 and nVidia 8400M G GPU) 1,069 3DMarks
Asus F3sv-A1 (Core 2 Duo T7300 2.0GHz, Nvidia 8600M GS 256MB) 2,344 3DMarks
Alienware Area 51 m5550 (2.33GHz Core 2 Duo, nVidia GeForce Go 7600 256MB 2,183 3DMarks
Fujitsu Siemens Amilo Xi 1526 (1.66 Core Duo, nVidia 7600Go 256 MB) 2,144 3DMarks
Samsung X60plus (2.0GHz Core 2 Duo T7200, ATI X1700 256MB) 1,831 3DMarks
Asus A6J (1.83GHz Core Duo, ATI X1600 128MB) 1,819 3DMarks
HP dv6000t (2.16 GHz Intel T7400, NVIDA GeForce Go 7400) 827 3DMarks
Sony VAIO SZ-110B in Speed Mode (Using Nvidia GeForce Go 7400) 794 3DMarks

 

As an added bonus, we also tested the T500 with the new PCMark Vantage benchmark, and the T500 with ATI Radeon 3650 enabled returned a score of 4,176.

HDTune storage drive performance test:


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Heat and Noise

The cooling system worked very well, keeping overall system temperatures down, and doing so without making a ton of noise. At idle and under low activity the T500′s fan stayed at a slow speed (nearly inaudible), keeping processor temperatures in the low 40C range, and GPU around 50C. While gaming, greater temperatures made the system fan speed up, but even at its highest speed it still seemed quieter than my T60. The outside temperatures are great in all situations besides gaming. Sitting around surfing the web or typing a document, the notebook is very cool and doesnt build up that much heat. Gaming is different, and the T500 gets much hotter all around the case, and gets some hot points on the bottom of the case.

Heat Under Stress/Gaming (listed in degrees Fahrenheit):


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Battery Life

Unlike the T400 which saw a massive jump in battery life over the previous generation 14" notebook as a result of the LED-backlit screen, the T500′s battery life was in line with the 15.4" T61. While the 9-cell battery in the T400 gave 7-8 hours of battery life, the same capacity in the T500 barely manages six hours. The key differences between each notebook are the screen size, backlit technology, and graphics card model, as all of the other options are identical.

In dedicated graphics mode, the screen brightness set to 60%, and wireless active the T500 managed 5 hours and 6 minutes before it shut itself down at 5% remaining. Even though it is still way under the T400 by a couple of hours, it is still very impressive for a 15" notebook. In integrated grahics mode with the same settings, the system squeezes out an hour and a half more, bringing the average consumption from about 13 watts down to 11 watts. The 9-cell battery gives you more than enough time to watch a movie or two on a flight, or even get some work done.

Speakers and Audio

The sound system on the T500  is fairly week compared to other mainstream notebooks, but that is fairly common for a business notebook. The speakers lack most all bass and midrange, but are find for watching the occasional movie or YouTube clip. Headphones are a much better option to enjoy music and video. The headphone jack on the T500 put out clean static free audio.

Ports and Features

The port selection on the T500 rates slightly above average, but still shows room for improvement. The DisplayPort is nice, but with current TV’s and monitors finally starting to show HDMI, it would have been a better choice as the T500 cant output any resolution higher than the DVI spec. Three USB ports is cutting it close for a highend 15.4" notebook, and with them grouped together, if you have any large devices you will overlap. Moving past those complaints the rest of the port selection is fine. Some may argue that the headphone and microphone located on the front will cause problems, but there was no space what-so-ever left on the sides even if Lenovo wanted to mount them there.

Front: Firewire, Wireless On/Off, Headphone/Mic, SD-Card Reader


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Rear: Kensington Lock Slot, AC Input, Battery


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Left: VGA, DisplayPort, LAN, three USB, PC-Card Slot, ExpressCard/54


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Right: Optical Drive, Modem


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Conclusion

The Lenovo T500 as a whole is a great step up from the T61, with a faster processor lineup, much better graphics card, better cooling, larger touchpad, and even a digital video output from the notebook itself. System performance was phenomenal, coming close to workstation or gaming notebook levels. What is not so great is the famed ThinkPad keyboard going floppy on us where they used to be rock solid. No matter if this change was to cut weight or cut costs, Lenovo should have known better not to mess with the most important part of ANY ThinkPad notebook. Don’t get me wrong, the keyboard is still much nicer than a budget notebook keyboard, it just isn’t as good as what it used to be.

Overall the Lenovo ThinkPad T500 is a fine notebook worthy of a spot on many office or dormroom tables, but it could have come closer to perfection if Lenovo didn’t mess with the keyboard.

Pros

  • Very powerful
  • Cool and quiet under normal conditions
  • Great battery life for a 15.4" notebook (5.25 hrs with dedicated graphics, almost 7 hours with integrated)
  • Impressive switchable graphics, would you like gaming or battery life?

Cons

  • ThinkPad with keyboard flex
  • Screen could be brighter




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