Lenovo ThinkPad T400s Review

by Kevin O'Brien Reads (167,605)
  • Pros

    • Excellent build quality
    • Good keyboard changes
    • eSATA and DisplayPort ... finally
  • Cons

    • Limited battery options
    • 1.8" storage drive
    • Different docking connector

by Kevin O’Brien

It seems a common trend at Lenovo right now is making super thin and lightweight ThinkPads. First the X300 hit the market, offering a super thin and lightweight chassis with the ruggedness we have come to expect from a ThinkPad. Now Lenovo has done it again with the T400, bringing a newer, lighter, redesigned T400s to the table. In this official review we show you what’s changed on this new 14″ ThinkPad, which even includes the legendary keyboard.

Our ThinkPad T400s specifications:

  • OS: Windows Vista Business (SP1)
  • Screen: 1440 x 900 WXGA+ LED Backlit (Matte finish)
  • Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo SP9600 (2.53GHz, 1066MHz FSB, 6MB Cache)
  • Memory: 2GB DDR3 RAM (2GB x 1)
  • Storage: 128GB Samsung SSD
  • Optical Drive: DVD+/-RW
  • Wireless: 802.11a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 2.0
  • Graphics: Intel X4500M Integrated
  • Built-in web camera
  • Battery: 6-cell 11.1 44Wh
  • Dimensions: (LxWxH) 13.27 x 9.49 x 0.83″
  • Weight: 3lbs 14.3oz
  • Starting Price: $1,599

Build and Design
The new ThinkPad T400s looks completely revamped and polished compared to the regular T400. The chassis has slimmed down significantly, and the weight of the notebook has also dropped by almost a pound. The exterior is still wrapped in Lenovo’s much-loved rubberized black paint, but the design just looks cleaner and less busy than previous ThinkPad models.

Looking inside, the main changes start to become obvious. Besides the new keyboard and touchpad that we will go over shortly, Lenovo changed the shape of the palmrest around the touchpad, with the touchpad resting flush with the palmrest instead of being slightly recessed. The screen bezel is smooth all around the perimeter of the display, unlike the T400 which shows rough plastic grids near the built-in antennas and cutouts near the light and webcam. Even when compared to the ThinkPad X301, the new T400s looks more refined. The speaker grills are larger and look better suited to the design. Even the fingerprint reader manages to blend in better, with an all-black design instead of gold and silver like past models.

Build quality is still fantastic, with barely a hint of chassis flex even as it has decreased in thickness. The screen has some minor side-to-side flex when open, but no more than previous models. Protection for the screen, even with the super thin cover is surprisingly good, showing only small amounts of screen distortion when you are squeezing the back of the display. The new chassis feels quite rugged.

With the thinner design Lenovo completely reworked the chassis for the T400s, and it looks completely different than the T400 once you start opening it up. The hard drive is now accessed through a panel under the left side of the palmrest, which is now 1.8″ instead of the 2.5″ found in the T400. System memory and wireless cards are found under a single access panel on the bottom of the notebook. Compared to removing the palmrest on previous models, you now just loosen one screw and pop off a single panel to upgrade memory. With most of the slots changing location to the underside of the notebook, removing the keyboard is now only required to replace a broken one, or to get access to a half-sized mini-PCIe slot used for Wireless USB on some models. I really hope future ThinkPads follow a similar design to the T400s, since it is so much easier to upgrade components now.

Screen and Speakers
The LED-backlit WXGA+ (1440 x 900) display on the T400s rates above average, with good color reproduction and very good peak backlight brightness levels. The display part number is LTN141BT08001, which may indicate that it has a Samsung panel. Colors appear bright and vibrant for a matte-finish display, and it has very nice contrast when the backlight isn’t at the brightest setting. At 95-100% brightness the screen starts to look slightly washed out, which is pretty normal for higher brightness displays. My comfortable viewing brightness range for this notebook is between 50-60%, giving great black-levels and no hint of backlight bleed. Viewing angles are average for a TN-panel LCD, with colors quickly inverting or washing out as you tilt the screen forward or back. With the matte finish and higher backlight power the screen is readable outdoors and quite visible in your car on a bright day.

Speaker performance was lackluster, but that is common on most business notebooks. They work well for streaming audio or having a VOIP chat, but for movies and entertainment the headphone jack is a much better alternative.

Keyboard and Touchpad
Yes, Lenovo significantly changed the look, feel, and layout of the keyboard on the T400s. After you pick yourself up off the floor from fainting, you will quickly see most of the changes are for the better. The feel of the keys remains mostly untouched from past models … outside of the fact that the spacebar seems to click loudly if you press it on the edges. The biggest change comes with a redesigned function key section, offering larger “escape” and “delete” keys. Through in-depth research Lenovo found that those two keys were used more than other function keys. As a result they doubled the height, and moved the position of the insert key and F1 key.

I think the coolest difference is the new media buttons and power button. The power switch and mute keys light up when activated, so instead of the power icon showing up on the bottom edge of your screen, the button itself is the indicator. The caps lock button now features a translucent window with an LED that lights up to indicate the caps lock is turned on. One thing that is missing is an AC and battery indicator light facing you with the screen open, as they are now external only.

The T400s offers one feature I have yet to see on any other notebook to date: a speaker AND microphone mute button. While I am not sure how often I personally need to turn off my microphone, if you videoconference or use Skype frequently then a quickly accessed mute button would come in handy. Another minor change is the key tolerances have decreased, meaning there is less room for crumbs or dust to fall in-between keys.

The new touchpad is different, but I am having a hard time figuring out if that is a good or bad thing. The old design used a slightly rough matte plastic finish, which gave some traction and made it easy to move your finger around even if sweaty. The new design has a raised dimple finish with a softer texture that feels strange. I found myself increasing the sensitivity in the Synaptics control panel to make movement feel more fluid, but then found it too sensitive. It seems that you need to apply consistent pressure when moving over the new touchpad, where before it was easy to flick your finger across. I think if the bumpy surface was glossy or more slick I might enjoy it more.

Another change is the shape and size of the trackpad buttons. The buttons have a radius contour that goes through the buttons to the edges where they meet the palmrest. From a design standpoint they flow better with the notebook than previous attempts, and it is even easier to access them from the touchpad now.

Ports and Features
Port selection on the T400s has been greatly improved over the T400 model. New to the back of the T400s is an eSATA port for storage expansion and DisplayPort out, giving you digital video from the notebook itself. Just like the T400 it has three USB ports, one through a combo USB/eSATA port. Lenovo has kept the VGA port for legacy connections, since it is still used frequently for projectors. With the decrease in thickness the T400s lost its dual card slots, only keeping an ExpressCard/34 slot. The T400s offers a docking station connector on the bottom, but it is a new design that is incompatible with older models. The last big change came with the T60, and I can just hope that this docking station format stays the same for a few notebook generations to come.

Internal features include integrated 3G WWAN and a handy GPS receiver. While 3G is pretty common these days GPS seems to always be passed over. Lenovo includes software for initializing the GPS receiver, and translating the NMEA data through a virtual COM port for applications. Since I am fond of Garmin GPS receivers, I installed a trial version of Garmin Mobile PC. Installation was simple and the software will automatically find the virtual COM port for communication with the GPS unit. The T400s was quick to acquire our location with a six satellite lock inside our office. So if you don’t own an automotive GPS receiver yet, this $60 piece of software might come in handy paired with the T400s.



Performance
With an Intel Core 2 Duo SP9600 and 128GB Samsung SSD the T400s was no slouch … despite the Intel X4500 integrated graphics. The T400s was extremely fast to boot, and was quietly waiting at the desktop idle much sooner than other notebooks we have reviewed. The T400s handles day-to-day uses, such as typing a paper, watching Hulu while the boss isn’t watching, or enjoying an HD movie all with ease. Gaming presented a problem with the X4500 integrated graphics, so instead of playing Left 4 Dead you might have to compromise with Peggle. 720p and 1080p HD video decoded with no problems at all thanks to the fast processor, although outputting it to a home stereo might be tough without digital audio out through the DisplayPort. One original concern we had with system performance was the speed of the 1.8″ drive, but as we found out the 128GB Samsung SSD included with our T400s blew the socks off most 2.5″ drives. The only downside to this is the SSD is fairly expensive and the small size has few aftermarket options, whereas the 2.5″ market is loaded with affordable alternatives.

wPrime processor comparison results (lower scores mean better performance):

HP Pavilion dv4t (Intel Core 2 Duo T9600 @ 2.8GHz) 26.972 seconds
Lenovo ThinkPad T400 (Intel Core 2 Duo T9600 @ 2.8GHz) 27.410 seconds
Lenovo ThinkPad T400s (Intel Core 2 Duo SP9600 @ 2.53GHz) 30.328 seconds
Dell Latitude E6400 (Intel Core 2 Duo P9500 @ 2.53GHz) 30.497 seconds
Toshiba Satellite E105 (Intel Core 2 Duo P8400 @ 2.26GHz) 33.961 seconds
Lenovo ThinkPad SL400 (Core 2 Duo P8400 @ 2.26GHz) 34.628 seconds

 

PCMark05 measures overall system performance (higher scores mean better performance):

Lenovo ThinkPad T400s (2.53GHz Intel SP9600, Intel X4500) 7,590 PCMarks
Lenovo T400 (2.80GHz Intel T9600, ATI Radeon 3470 256MB GDDR3) 6,589 PCMarks
Dell Latitude E6400 (2.53GHz Intel P9500, Nvidia Quadro NVS 160M 256MB) 5,780 PCMarks
HP Pavilion dv4t (2.8GHz Intel T9600, NVIDIA 9200M GS 256MB) 5,463 PCMarks
Lenovo ThinkPad SL400 (2.26GHz Intel P8400, NVIDIA 9300M GS 256MB) 5,173 PCMarks
Toshiba Satellite E105 (2.26GHz Intel P8400, Intel 4500MHD) 4,836 PCMarks

 

3DMark06 measures video and gaming performance (higher scores mean better performance):

Lenovo T400 (2.80GHz Intel T9600, ATI Radeon 3470 256MB GDDR3) 2,575 3DMarks
Lenovo ThinkPad SL400 (2.26GHz Intel P8400, NVIDIA 9300M GS 256MB) 2,211 3DMarks
Dell Latitude E6400 (2.53GHz Intel P9500, Nvidia Quadro NVS 160M 256MB) 1,818 3DMarks
HP Pavilion dv4t (2.8GHz Intel T9600, NVIDIA 9200M GS 256MB) 1,741 3DMarks
Toshiba Satellite E105 (2.26GHz Intel P8400, Intel 4500MHD) 1,030 3DMarks
Lenovo ThinkPad T400s (2.53GHz Intel SP9600, Intel X4500) 996 3DMarks

*All 3DMark06 benchmark tests are set at 1280 x 800 screen resolution.

HDTune storage drive performance results:

 

Heat and Noise
The T400s managed heat and noise very well during our tests, keeping external temperatures low with minimal noise from the cooling fan. After continuously stressing the notebook over a period of 30 minutes the fan never went above a whisper level. You had to put your ear to the vent to hear it above normal ambient noise. Under light activity the case barely warmed up above room temperature. Under heavier loads such as watching an HD movie or playing a quick game the temperatures increased slightly, but overall stayed very lap-friendly. External temperatures listed below are shown in degrees Fahreheit.

Battery Life
Time on battery with the T400s was good, but not as impressive as the 10 hours experienced on the T400. Currently the only battery size offered is a 6-cell battery with a reported size of 45Wh. Compare this to the 9-cell on the T400 with a capacity of 84Wh, almost twice the size. Even with the smaller battery the T400s managed 5 hours and 48 minutes with the screen brightness set to 70%, Vista set to the Balanced profile, and wireless active. During the test power consumption varied between 6.5W and 8W depending on load. Compared to the T400 the power consumption drop most likely comes from the 1.8″ SSD and integrated graphics chipset. Lenovo doesn’t have plans to offer a larger main battery for extended battery life, similar to the 4-cell, 6-cell, and 9-cell options on the T400. What they will offer though is an ultra-bay battery to run in place of the optical drive, which should extend battery life by up to an additional three hours.

Conclusion
Overall I think Lenovo put a lot of time into thinking through the changes they made with the T400s so they wouldn’t offend too many ThinkPad customers. The keyboard change is significant, but for all intents and purposes they stuck with the tried-and-true design. The keys feel the same, the core layout is the same, the only thing that changed were the function and media keys. Even though the keys look weird at first it takes about 3 seconds to adapt to the new layout. I think the super slim and lightweight design is excellent, moving to a layout that is easier to service by the end-user. The inclusion of eSATA and DisplayPort is something that should have come sooner, considering that the T400 doesn’t offer a digital video output without a docking station.

The only complaint I have is with the price, starting well above the standard T400, and the costly drive upgrade options since it is limited to 1.8″ models instead of the cheaper and more widely available 2.5″ size. If you are in the market for a new ThinkPad and don’t mind spending a bit extra for something thin and lightweight, the T400s is a great choice.

Pros:

  • Excellent build quality
  • Good keyboard changes
  • Nice polished design
  • eSATA and DisplayPort … finally
  • Very fast even with integrated graphics

Cons:

  • Limited battery options
  • 1.8″ storage drive
  • Different docking connector


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