Lenovo ThinkPad SL400 Review

by Jerry Jackson Reads (320,094)

by Jerry Jackson

The Lenovo ThinkPad SL400 is the latest addition to the ThinkPad family and promises to offer features and performance at a fraction of the cost of other ThinkPads. Lenovo’s new IdeaPad line of notebooks might give consumers plenty of attractive options, but The new SL series is the first line of small business notebooks designed with ThinkPad styling at an affordable price. Is there more here than just traditional ThinkPad shape and a low price? Our full review of the SL400 shows why this laptop might (or might not) be perfect for you.


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Our ThinkPad SL400 has the following specifications:

  • Processor: 2.26GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8400 (1066MHz FSB, 3MB Cache)
  • Graphics: NVIDIA GeForce 9300M GS 256MB
  • Screen: 14.1" WXGA, Anti-glare (1280×800, 200nit)
  • Memory: 2GB(up to 4GB configurable)
  • Storage: 160GB SATA HDD (5400rpm)
  • Optical Drive: Dual layer CD/DVD recordable drive
  • Wireless and Communications: Intel 4965AGN (802.11 a/b/g/n wi-fi), BlueTooth 2.0 EDR
  • Battery: 6-cell Li-Ion
  • Dimensions: 13.2" x 9.7" x 1.3"-1.5")
  • Weight: 5.5lbs with battery
  • Operating System: Windows Vista Home Premium
  • Warranty: 1-year

The pricing on the SL400 starts at around $799. As configured, the price of our review unit of the ThinkPad SL400 is $1,119. While that puts it above the range of most "budget" laptops, this configuration does offer a new Intel "Montevina" processor, and dedicated graphics card at a reasonable price. Needless to say, this is one of the more budget-friendly ThinkPads on the market. More to the point, Lenovo has gone out of its way to give you multiple reasons to consider the SL series over the competition.


Build and Design


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The ThinkPad SL400 is quite solid in terms of build quality, though the plastics used in the chassis construction do give in to some case flex when squeezed. The entire chassis exterior is plastic and while the appearance is nice, the "feel" of the notebook is a little less rugged than we’ve come to expect from ThinkPads. Unlike with the other ThinkPads, you don’t get a double latch mechanism with button release to make sure the screen is held down when it is closed and being carried. Instead, the SL400 uses hinge tension to hold the screen in place.

Speaking of the tension hinge, the hinge on our review unit didn’t provide nearly as much tension/resistance as we would have liked. Specifically, if you pick up the base of the SL400 and lightly shake the base of the notebook forward and back the screen will "flap" forward and back as you shake the notebook.



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The glossy black plastic display cover is probably the most interesting design element on the SL400. Lenovo also decided to modify the traditional ThinkPad logo by adding a small red LED to the dot above the "i" in ThinkPad. I suppose someone still thinks "bling is the thing" in the world of small business. In any case, this certainly isn’t a boring ThinkPad.


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Expandability and expansion are pretty simple with this chassis design. The two access panels on the bottom of the notebook provide access to the wireless cards, RAM, processor and graphics. The side panel on the opposite side of the optical drives allows you to swap out the hard drive for a replacement drive.


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Input and Output Ports

The number of ports the SL400 has is fairly good and certainly much better than the average budget notebook designed for small business. Here’s a run down of the ports:

  • 4 USB 2.0 ports
  • Firewire
  • ExpressCard slot
  • Gigabit Ethernet and modem
  • 5-in-1 multi-card reader
  • Audio out, microphone in
  • VGA monitor out
  • HDMI (video and audio)
  • Kensington lock slot

About the only thing you might consider "missing" on this notebook is an eSATA port. Since eSATA is rapidly becoming a new standard for external data storage, it would have been nice to see an eSATA port on the side of the SL400. On the other hand, it may only be a matter of time before we see USB 3.0 ports that surpass the performance of eSATA.

There’s also no option for a docking station, you have to go with a USB-based port replicator (or ExpressCard/34) to get the additional ports you would want at a desk. Obviously engineers had to make design trade offs and you can’t have it all on a notebook in this price range. Personally, I feel like the SL400 provides an excellent balance of ports for its size and cost.


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Performance and Benchmarks

Although it’s nice that Lenovo is bringing a small business solution to the market for less than $800, the price wouldn’t matter if the SL400 can’t provide great performance for your dollar.

The Intel Core 2 Duo P8400 processor in our review unit provided ample processing power and never presented any problems when running applications or encoding video and audio files. The synthetic benchmarks below suggest the P8400 processor is one of the more capable processors from Intel and should satisfy the needs of any business professional.

Likewise, the NVIDIA 9300M GS dedicated graphics card with 256MB of RAM allows you to play most average games at a reasonable frame rate. This certainly isn’t the laptop designed to play Crysis, but you’ll have enough power to handle 1080p Blu-ray movies and some games (during non-work hours, of course).

Let’s take a look at a few basic benchmarks so you can get an idea of how the SL400 stacks up.

wPrime is a program that forces the processor to do recursive mathematical calculations, this processor benchmark program is multi-threaded and can use both processor cores at once, it measures the amount of time to run a set amount of calculations.

wPrime comparison results (lower scores means better performance):


Notebook / CPU wPrime 32M time
Lenovo ThinkPad SL400 (Core 2 Duo P8400 @ 2.26GHz)
34.628s
HP Pavilion dv5z (Turion X2 Ultra ZM-80 @ 2.1GHz) 39.745s
Dell Inspiron 1525 (Core 2 Duo T7250 @ 2.0GHz) 43.569s
Dell XPS M1530 (Core 2 Duo T7500 @ 2.2GHz)
37.485s
HP Pavilion dv6500z (Turion 64 X2 TL-60 @ 2.0GHz) 40.759s
Sony VAIO NR (Core 2 Duo T5250 @ 1.5GHz) 58.233s
Toshiba Tecra A9 (Core 2 Duo T7500 @ 2.2GHz) 38.343s
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
HP Pavilion dv6000z (Turion X2 TL-60 @ 2.0GHz) 38.720s

 

PCMark05 is a benchmark that measures the overall system performance, so it considers the processor, hard drive, memory and OS as part of the mix. The ThinkPad SL400 once again fairs pretty well with this benchmark:

PCMark05 measures overall notebook performance (higher scores are better):

Notebook PCMark05 Score
Lenovo ThinkPad SL400 (2.26GHz Intel P8400, NVIDIA 9300M GS 256MB)
5,173 PCMarks
HP Pavilion dv5z (2.1GHz Turion X2 Ultra ZM-80, ATI Radeon HD 3200) 3,994 PCMarks
Dell Inspiron 1525 (2.0GHz Intel T7250, Intel X3100) 4,149 PCMarks
Dell XPS M1530 (2.20GHz Intel T7500, Nvidia 8600M GT 256MB) 5,412 PCMarks
Dell Inspiron 1520 (2.0GHz Intel T7300, NVIDIA 8600M GT) 4,616 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
Fujitsu N6410 (1.66GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400) 3,487 PCMarks
Alienware M7700 (AMD Athlon FX-60, Nvidia Go 7800GTX) 5,597 PCMarks
Sony VAIO SZ-110B in Speed Mode (Using Nvidia GeForce Go 7400) 3,637 PCMarks
Asus V6J (1.86GHz Core Duo T2400, Nvidia Go 7400) 3,646 PCMarks

 

3DMark06 comparison results for graphics performance (higher scores are better):

Notebook 3DMark06 Score
Lenovo ThinkPad SL400 (2.26GHz Intel P8400, NVIDIA 9300M GS 256MB)  2,211 3DMarks
HP Pavilion dv5z (2.1GHz Turion X2 Ultra ZM-80, ATI Radeon HD 3200)   1,599 3DMarks
Dell Inspiron 1525 (2.0GHz Intel T7250, Intel X3100) 545 3DMarks
HP Pavilion dv6500z (2.0GHz AMD Turion 64 X2 TL-60, NVIDIA 8400m GS)  1,551 3DMarks
Sony VAIO NR (1.5GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T5250, Intel X3100) 504 3DMarks
Dell XPS M1530 (2.20GHz Intel T7500, Nvidia 8600M GT 256MB) 4,332 3DMarks
Dell Inspiron 1520 (2.0GHz Intel T7300, NVIDIA 8600M GT) 2,905 3DMarks
Dell XPS M1330 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, NVIDIA GeForce Go 8400M GS 128MB) 1,408 3DMarks
Alienware Area 51 m5550 (2.33GHz Core 2 Duo, nVidia GeForce Go 7600 256MB 2,183 3DMarks
HP dv6000t (2.16 GHz Intel T7400, NVIDA GeForce Go 7400) 827 3DMarks

 

HDTune storage drive performance results:


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Screen

The 14.1" WXGA, Anti-glare (1280 x 800) is nice and reasonably bright at 200nit brightness,  color, contrast, and viewing angles are all good. More importantly, the display on our review unit uses a anti-glare matte finish … something important to many business professionals and something we’re glad to see.



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Like most budget laptop displays, the screen on the SL400 does suffer from some minor color inversion at the lower vertical viewing angles … but this is rarely a problem unless your laptop is resting on a desk and you’re looking at the screen from down on the floor.

Keyboard and Touchpad


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The keyboard on the ThinkPad SL400 has zero flex and excellent key travel with quiet presses. The keyboard is remarkably similar to the keyboards on the older ThinkPad R-series notebooks. There’s little to complain about here from a functional standpoint. Sure, it’s not the most attractive keyboard on the market … but it works great. Of course, the SL400 wouldn’t dream of calling itself a ThinkPad if it didn’t include the iconic red Trackpoint pointing stick in addition to the standard touchpad.


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The palm rest area is pretty plain: it has a matte black finish so it both feels and looks nice. It’s very smooth and the touchpad is nicely textured with a responsive surface. Lenovo also decided to include the standard fingerprint reader for those businesses concerned with security.

Speakers and Audio

The built-in speakers are … well … average built-in speakers. In short, the speakers are small, underpowered, and produce tiny sound with plenty of highs and acceptable mid range but almost no bass. This is similar to what we’ve seen from other laptops in this class such as the Dell Vostro 1510 and Toshiba Satellite Pro L300. In other words, this ThinkPad is designed for small business and consumers who want a laptop that isn’t flashy. Don’t expect amazing speakers in this type of notebook.


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On the bright side, the headphone jack produced distortion-free audio and works perfectly for earphones or external speakers.

Heat and Noise

The ThinkPad SL400 does a good job keeping heat under control. Even when the system was under stress during the performance benchmarking tests the SL400 remained relatively cool. Most users certainly won’t have any trouble using this as a "laptop" since the these low heat levels won’t cause any discomfort to your lap. Below are the external temperature readings listed in degrees Fahrenheit:



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Noise was never an issue with the SL400, and this is one of the quietest notebooks we’ve seen (or rather heard) in this class. The system fan is extremely quiet, the hard drive rarely makes a peep even when it’s actively writing data, and the DVD drive is fairly quiet (though not as quiet as some tray-loading DVD drives we’ve seen. In other words, the ThinkPad SL400 won’t disturb your coworkers or the person seated next to you on a long flight.

Battery Life

With the notebook power settings in "balanced" mode, wireless on and the screen brightness set to 50 percent, the SL400 drained it’s full battery after 3 hours and 13 minutes. Interestingly, Lenovo’s proprietary Power Manager software accurately monitored the power consumption during the course of the battery test as the estimated battery time remaining changed depending on the level of activity. The battery life estimate jumped between a little more than four hours (when the notebook was left idle) to a little less than two hours when I was typing Word document and opening several applications at the same time.

While road warriors will cerrtainly want more battery life than what the SL400 has to offer, the notebook does a reasonable job in terms of travel power and provides battery life similar to the competition in this class.

 

Conclusion

Overall, there is a lot we can say in favor of the ThinkPad SL400. Lenovo is offering a solid budget ThinkPad for only $799 and also offering pre-configured models with better performance and features for $1,249 or less. That said, like most notebooks in the small business class, the SL400 suffers from cheap plastics used in the chassis construction, weak built-in speakers, and an overall build that is slightly thicker and heaver than needed.

As it stands now, there are a number of reasons you might want to pick up an SL400 rather than a similar notebook from the Dell Vostro lineup or Toshiba Satellite Pro line. That said, diehard ThinkPad owners might criticize the glossy lid, lack of lid latch, and the type of plastics used in some places. The performance of our test configuration suggests the SL400 packs enough raw power to satisfy most small business owners, but it’s clear that the new SL series isn’t the same ThinkPad we’ve seen before.

Pros:

  • Affordable price

  • ThinkPad quality keyboard and trackpoint

  • Good screen (matte option is great)

  • Solid performance

  • Nice pre-configured options

  • Stays cool and quiet

Cons:

  • Thick and boxy overall

  • Weak speakers

  • Glossy lid is a magnet for fingerprints and dirt

  • Plastics are thin and weak in some places

  • Weak hinge tension on display lid


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