Lenovo ThinkPad SL500 Review

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by J.R. Nelson

In the past few months, Lenovo has tried to shake up its product availability a bit with the introduction of new lines of notebooks.  The SL series is a budget line of laptops aimed at the small business segment.  In fact, they’re also the cheapest laptops you can buy from Lenovo, barring their new sub-$500 netbook.  Corporations can’t cut costs without cutting features, however, and the SL500 is no exception; there are clear cut differences separating the SL500 from the new T500 line of notebooks.  Having said that, is the new ThinkPad SL500 a worthwhile investment?

Our SL500 had the following specifications:

  • Screen: 15.4″ 1680×1050 (WSXGA+) matte finish display
  • Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo P8600 (2.4GHz, 1066mhz FSB, 3MB cache)
  • Memory: 2GB PC2-5300 RAM (one DIMM)
  • Storage: 320GB SATA hard drive (5400RPM)
  • Optical Drive: DVD+/-RW
  • Wireless: Intel 5100 802.11 a/b/g/n
  • Graphics: NVIDIA GeForce 9300M GS 256MB
  • Built-in webcam
  • Battery: 10.8V, 7.8AH    
  • Dimensions: 14″ x 11.2″ x 1.5″ (including feet and 9-cell battery)   
  • Weight: 6lbs, 11.8oz
  • Price as configured: $1,393.

Build and Design

The 15.4-inch SL500 is a larger version, naturally, than the 13.3-inch SL300 or 14.1-inch SL400 that we’ve looked at previously.  It follows the same stylings, with a glossy back lid and strip beneath the LCD, while everywhere else is coated in a black matte plastic.  Set in the corners of the glossy back are the various Lenovo, ThinkPad and Energy Star logos.  The superscript dot above the “i” in the ThinkPad logo is once again replaced with a glowing red LED; it remains constantly lit while fully on and pulses creepily when in sleep mode.  Lenovo has chosen to carry their famous color keyboard color scheme to this line as well, with a blue enter key, red trackpoint and striped trackpoint buttons.

One nice thing about the matte finish covering most of the notebook is that it does a great job of hiding fingerprints and other marks.  The same cannot be said, however, for the glossy outer covering, and just picking up the computer will leave it marked by skin oils.  The speaker grill beneath the display, while attractive, suffers from some of the same issues and shows fingerprints easily.

Lenovo designed the SL500 with a square top half and an inset wedge on the bottom.  The wedge-shaped bottom half gives an illusion both of thinness to the laptop as well as making it appear as if the computer floats in midair.  By and large the SL series maintains decent build quality, but it’s obvious that this is an SL500, not a T500.  When you pick it up, it’s possible to flex and twist both the screen and base components, but it isn’t too serious.  The LCD bezel is attached solidly to the base, with the friction of the hinges themselves enough to keep the lid in position.

Screen

The screen on the SL500 is above average, though not exceptional.  Horizontal viewing angles are good, with some dimming but little color shift at extremes.  Vertical angles were more in line with expectations; at upper viewing angles, the screen begins to fade and lose contrast.  Lower viewing angles were better but similarly affected, with the image fading to black right before the notebook was shut.

The display was sufficiently bright for the indoor office environment and even limited outdoor viewing, though direct sunlight would pose a problem.  Fortunately, the SL500 comes with a matte display screen, which is much more easily viewable in bright light than traditional glossy screens.  As a trade off, images don’t have the wet, saturated look that glossy displays present, but the SL500’s color reproduction was still more than acceptable.

Speakers and Audio

The speakers are located beneath a black grill above the keyboard.  They’re a little above average in terms of notebook speaker fidelity, but nothing astonishing.  They are lacking in bass, and a little tinny.  The speakers are loud enough for casual use, and fine for spoken word playback, like podcasts.  The audio controls are located on the left side of the notebook, right beneath the always-lit Lenovo support button.  There are discrete buttons for increasing volume, decreasing volume and mute.

Naturally, speakers aren’t your only option, as headphones can always be used.  To this end, there are audio in and out jacks on the right side of the notebook, towards the front.  This is essentially the perfect location for a headphone jack as it’s within easy reach and yet out of the way in the unlikely event that you want to hook up an external set of speakers.

Keyboard and Touchpad

Lenovo’s notebook keyboards are known for their stability and ease of typing, and the keyboard on this laptop is no exception.  The keyboard is very easy to type on, with just the right amount of travel in each key.  There has been some questions raised lately about flex involved with Lenovo’s new keyboards.  All notebook keyboards suffer from flex to a certain extent; this laptop is no exception and features some flex centered around the ‘A’ key.  It is, however, not really noticeable in the course of normal typing and shouldn’t be a cause for concern.  Just don’t expect a rock-solid keyboard.  The keyboard is well spaced, but could be bigger, simply because there’s a good inch or more of mostly unused space on each side.

The keyboard on the SL500 features the same well-known ThinkPad designs that people either love or hate.  My biggest gripe is having the function key located to the left of the left control key instead of to the right, as it throws off known key combinations.  This is obviously a matter of personal preference, however, and is in no way a slight on the laptop.  In the center of the keyboard sits the famously red touchpoint pointing device.   Unlike most laptops, the pointing stick on the SL500 is actually usable as it accurately reflects movement as opposed to casting the cursor wildly about the screen.

The touchpad also works very well, with driver-supported dedicated scroll regions along the bottom and right sides of the pad.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that Lenovo had decided to go with the Synaptics touchpad in the SL500 as opposed to the non-Synaptics touchpad used in the other SL-series notebooks.  The high quality of the touchpad is evident when you compare it to my Dell Latitude D630 as the touchpad on the D630 suffers from a degree of lag, and light touches simply don’t respond.  The touchpad on the SL500, is the complete opposite, as even the slightest touch will register and move the cursor with zero delay.  The only issue I took with the touchpad is that when making minute gestures, the cursor stuttered and stopped.  When I uninstalled the driver, however, the issues ceased, meaning that it’s entirely a software, and not hardware, issue, and one that will likely be resolved in future driver updates.

To the right of the touchpad is Lenovo’s fingerprint sensor.  I didn’t do a lot of testing with the fingerprint sensor, but what testing I did reflected positively.  Logging into Vista initially took a mere swipe of an index finger, which was recognized on the first try at least nine out of ten times.  I didn’t test out the included Lenovo security software which lets you use the fingerprint sensor to store passwords for use when logging into various websites, but if it works as well as the initial login does, it’ll be very useful indeed.

Benchmarks and Performance

The SL500 is a business notebook, so don’t expect excessive 3D/gaming performance.  That being said, it held its own very well.  Performance was acceptable with smooth desktop rendering.  The computer never felt bogged down even with several applications open at one time thanks to the dual-core Intel processor buried within.

There were some peculiarities found when I ran our benchmarks on the SL500.  Several times, I ran wPrime’s 32M benchmark to completion, only to find that it reported a time sixteen seconds slower than the SL300 review unit, which used the exact same processor.  To stave off objections, I always make sure that the notebook is running at maximum performance, with wPrime in multithreaded mode.  Sometimes the scores were in-line with what we expect from a P8600 processor, and sometimes not.  A similar event occurred with the PCMark benchmark.  Since the lower wPrime and higher PCMark scores are reproducible, we are publishing those results, but be advised that (at least in our review unit) there were some oddities surrounding the synthetic benchmark performance. The “real world” performance, however, was flawless.

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 SL500 (Core 2 Duo P8600 @ 2.4GHz) 32.275s
Lenovo ThinkPad SL300 (Core 2 Duo P8600 @ 2.4GHz) 32.059s
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.

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

Notebook PCMark05 Score
Lenovo ThinkPad SL500 (2.4GHz Intel P8600, Nvidia 9300M GS 256MB) 5,390 PCMarks
Lenovo ThinkPad SL300 (2.4GHz Intel P8600, Nvidia 9300M GS 128MB)   5,554 PCMarks
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 SL500 (2.4GHz Intel P8600, Nvidia 9300M GS 256MB) 2,242 3DMarks
Lenovo ThinkPad SL300 (2.4GHz Intel P8600, Nvidia 9300M GS 128MB)   1,695 3DMarks
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: 

Ports and Expansion

Being a 15.4″ notebook gives the SL500 the flexibility to offer a number of different ports and expansion technologies, and the SL500 takes advantage of the room. Lenovo also smartly scattered the ports around the sides of the notebook rather that putting them all in the back, so users don’t have to turn the notebook around anytime they want to plug something in.

  • Four USB 2.0 ports
  • FireWire
  • HDMI
  • VGA
  • Audio in/out jacks
  • 10/100 Ethernet
  • 56.6k modem
  • Expresscard/54
  • Kensington lock slot
  • SD card reader

Front: LED status display, physical wireless connectivity switch

Back: Battery, VGA out, Kensington lock slot, A/C jack

Left: Two USB ports, HDMI, FireWire, SD card reader, heat exhaust

Right: Two USB ports, Ethernet, modem, DVD+/-RW, Expresscard slot, headphone and mic jacks

Heat and Noise

Lenovo did a fantastic job when engineering the SL500’s heat dissipation methods.  The notebook remained cool to the touch even while running 3DMark.  The only place on the entire laptop that gets noticeably warm is the hard drive and graphics card region, which did manage to break the triple-digit barrier.  Fortunately, it’s in the middle right side of the notebook, meaning that your palms and fingers will stay cool when typing.

 

As far as noise is conerned, you generally only hear the fans when the notebook is under stress or overly hot.  Even then, it’s hard to hear them unless the room is pretty quiet.  Given most office environments, the noise the SL500 emits will hardly be noticeable. 

Battery

Our notebook came with a 9-cell battery, which is an additional $79 but unless your notebook stays plugged in all day, I’d say it’s a necessity.  For the battery test, I set the screen to sixty percent brightness, wireless networking on, and loading different webpages every so often.  The SL500 managed to stay on for 5 hours and 14 minutes.  That’s generally enough to get most things done, but remember that this was on the extended battery and with very light use.  Given that the extended battery sticks less than an inch out of the back of the notebook, I definitely recommend upgrading to the 9-cell battery.


Conclusion

Lenovo has managed to put together a business notebook computer for the budget conscious market.  They’ve cut costs while remaining true to the ThinkPad’s image as a solid computer built to take the abuse today’s executives dish out.  While there are notable difference in construction between the SL500 and the T500, there are also notable differences in price, as the SL500 has a base price of around $500 less than its T-series counterpart.  This can add up to a monumentous cost savings when you consider that a company might deploy several hundred laptops for employees.  

At the end of the day, the SL500 is a worthy addition to the ThinkPad line, as it allows consumers to sacrifice a certain degree of build quality while saving enough money to almost buy a second computer.  Small businesses looking to expand their productivity while keeping costs down would do well to look at the ThinkPad SL500 as a mobile solution.

Pros:

  • Lots of ports, including FireWire and HDMI
  • Physical wireless connectivity switch for easy compliance with flight regulations
  • Fantastic heat dissipation
  • Modern business design
  • ThinkPad quality without ThinkPad prices!

Cons:

  • Wedge design makes accessing some ports difficult
  • Glossy lid is a fingerprint magnet
  • Wasted space that could have been used for full-sized arrow keys
  • Excellent TouchPad but buggy TouchPad drivers


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