Lenovo ThinkPad S431 Touch review £799
29th Oct 2013 | 20:22
Your daddy's ThinkPad gets a modern refresh
Lenovo isn't the number one PC manufacturer on the planet by chance. No, the world's largest PC maker has claimed the top spot because it has consistently and repeatedly cranked out a number of different laptops and tablet devices across all use cases, form-factors, and categories.
ThinkPad is the company's workhorse; when you bring up the brand with road warriors, the conversation you tend to get into is not unlike talking about classic cars and memorable drives with a car enthusiast. Boxy, black, with a simple logo, that ubiquitous red Trackpoint mouse controller (still present here), and an emphasis on security, the ThinkPad will always be a more serious-looking counterpoint to the sleek, silver MacBook Pro and MacBook Air.
Lately, Lenovo has begun to shift the image of the ThinkPad a bit. Last year, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon introduced a sharp-looking, ultra-light form-factor to the ThinkPad line-up. This year, the upcoming ThinkPad Yoga 2 Pro will present business users with tremendous versatility and multiple use modes more common to the consumer space.
So where does the ThinkPad S431 Touch reside on this continuum? Squarely targeting small business owners and more basic use cases, the S431 is a simple machine, but like many Lenovo rigs these days, it packs a solid amount of power and versatility under the hood.
Relatively speaking, $949 for this system is a solid deal, particularly in light of the performance, which blows away the tier immediately below the S431 Touch, and competes favorably with the price tier just above it.
Lenovo calls the S431 an ultrabook, and on a technical level, we'd agree. With a touchscreen, a slim profile, and sensible power/performance ratios, it does qualify for this category. However, after using the system in everyday fashion for a full week and a half, calling this device an ultrabook feels like it is selling it short. We'll call it a premium ultrabook instead.
Basic black kit 2.0
On the surface, there is nothing particularly flashy or striking about the ThinkPad. Stark, black, and serious-looking, the S431 upholds a fine ThinkPad tradition dating all the way back to 1992.
We'll say this much: in a land populated by all kinds of colorful, chromed-out, and flashy systems, it's actually quite refreshing to carry around this sleek, simple-looking system. Other people clearly feel this way too. We received a number of questions and comments from ThinkPad fans asking us what exactly we were carrying. And when people saw the ThinkPad logo, they were excited.
The big difference is the S431's slim profile and its slightly glossy look and feel, which is a departure from the matte-finish ThinkPad of yesteryear. Made of sand-blasted aluminum on a magnesium frame, the chassis itself has a slightly shiny surface, with the ThinkPad logo prominently displayed in the bottom right-hand corner of the system. Like other modern ThinkPad portables, the "I" on the logo lights up when it's operating.
Thanks to the lightweight-but-sturdy magnesium chassis, this laptop feels more substantial and solid than most consumer systems. Measuring 13.11 x 8.8 x .8-inches, it's surprisingly thin, and at 4.1 pounds, it doesn't tip the scales. It's not as light as we hoped, but at the same time, it is certainly not a burden to carry around. At least the sturdy, solid feeling at least justifies the weight.
If you haven't seen a Thinkpad in a while, you may be comforted and/or surprised to see the familiar presence of the red dot thumbstick between the G, H, and B keys. The keyboard itself utilizes modern, Chiclet-style keys. We confess that, initially, the clickpad, which exhibits a surprising amount of travel on downward mouse presses, concerned us. We were worried that over time, it would feel too boggy for rapid-fire, day to day use.
Both feel phenomenal, by the way—but we'll get into that a little later in this review.
Finally, we absolutely love that you can lay the laptop flat at a 180-degree angle. Not that we'd do that very often, but it means that during stand-up meetings, you can push the screen back far enough that everyone can look at it. Given the screen's sub-par viewing angles, this is important.
Like a lot of business- and productivity-oriented systems, Lenovo's S431 Touch eschews state-of-the-art components in favor of mid-range, current- or last-gen parts. The overall goal is to maintain a solid baseline of performance while keeping the cost as low as possible.
As such, you won't see Intel's new Haswell processor here. The brains behind the S431 Touch is the ultra-low voltage Ivy Bridge Intel Core i5 3337U. Introduced to Intel's line-up in early 2013, this processor runs at 1.80GHz, but can dynamically boost clock speeds up to 2.5GHz with both cores active, and boost clock speeds up to 2.7GHz with one core active.
The Core i5 3337U supports Hyper Threading, which doubles the thread count to 4. It features Intel's integrated HD Graphics 4000 part, which roughly puts it in the same league as AMD's Radeon HD 6620G. This means the S431 Touch is not a gaming system, but you should be able to run some mid- to low-end games (hello indie games on Steam) with no problems.
Here is a list of the S431 Touch's complete specifications:
- CPU: 1.8GHz Intel Core i5 3337U
- RAM: 4GB (upgradeable to 8GB)
- Storage: 7,200 RPM 500GB, with a 24GB SSD
- Camera: 720p, front-mounted
- Ethernet: Gigabit Ethernet jack
- Ports: 2 USB 3.0 ports (1 on each side); 1 HDMI out; 4-in-1 SD/MMC card reader; 1 audio out
- Security: biometric fingerprint scanner
The price of the above configuration is $949, which is a square deal, particularly in light of the performance the system exhibits.
Because the CPU is a 64-bit processor, the system we tested ran the 64-bit version of Windows 8 Pro. At press time, we still hadn't been able to upgrade into Windows 8.1, but you can read all about Microsoft's much-anticipated upgrade here.
The ThinkPad S431 Touch features a 14-inch LCD screen that is built into a 13-inch laptop chassis thanks to thin, barely-there bezels. The display itself is a basic 1600 x 900 LCD touch display that supports 10-point touch. We weren't big fans of the display quality—more on this later.
For security, this system integrates the now-standard ThinkPad fingerprint scanner. ThinkPad fans who have become frustrated with the often human-induced inconsistency of this biometric scanner will appreciate the introduction of a slight dimple right above the fingerprint reader, which allows you to properly center your finger before swiping it.
Eyeballing the specifications, the only weak links we perceived were the mechanical hard drive and the 4GB of memory. However, while an SSD would be nice, we appreciated the greater storage capacity the 500GB drive provides without breaking the bank. Lenovo made a nice compromise here—at least the mechanical drive operates at 7200 revolutions per minute, which is a nice upgrade over a 4500rpm drive.
Finally, we appreciated the presence of an RJ-45 Ethernet port. It is an essential feature for a productivity-minded laptop, and something that numerous slim-and-light portables are beginning to omit.
Like most ThinkPads, the S431 is available in a number of different configurations. You can increase the memory to 8GB, and improved graphics options should also be available—including a full HD display—in the near future. Non-touch models of the S431 offer a configuration with a discrete graphics processor, which is something we hope Lenovo will offer soon.
In its most base configuration with a slower processor, Lenovo says the ThinkPad S431 Touch will start at $699.
Business and productivity-minded users will appreciate Lenovo's optional OneLink Dock ($120), which uses Lenovo's new proprietary OneLink Connector to charge the laptop and connect it to a monitor and keyboard.
Measuring 5.32 x 1.5 x 3.59 inches and weighing 0.3 pounds (small enough to travel with), the discrete-looking black dock has two USB 3.0 ports and an audio jack on the front. Located on the back are two USB 2.0 ports (for keyboard/mouse), HDMI video out, the OneLink connector for the S431, and a Gigabit Ethernet jack. On top of the dock is a second power button.
We like the OneLink Dock because it is a one-cable solution that produces no visual or performance degradation in any way, unlike some USB-based docking connectors.
The S431 comes with Lenovo's standard load-out—Norton Security, Nitro Pro 8 PDF reader, LoJack's Absolute Data Protect package, and Lenovo's proprietary system management suite. There's no obvious bloatware here, although power users might disagree. We've seen a lot worse on productivity-oriented systems from Dell and HP, that's for sure.
Hidden away in Lenovo's proprietary settings option is an interesting touch that we wish was built into Skype as a default feature. Lenovo's audio settings tool allows you to toggle on a keyboard-click noise reduction filter for your microphone, which in theory prevents your co-workers from hearing you typing away (and not paying attention) during calls. In practice, this worked very well for the built-in keyboard (which doesn't have a loud clack anyway), but only moderately well for the loud clack of the mechanical keyboard we plugged into the system. Whatever the case, it's a nice touch.
Business class keyboard and mouse
There's no better way to test a laptops keyboard and mouse controls than by writing a beefy TechRadar review on one. As deadline approaches, the cadence of inputting words and data tends to accelerate in a way that flushes out all the flaws of a laptop's keyboard or track pad.
As mentioned up at the top of this review, we initially had concerns regarding the S431's track pad. Most other laptops—Apple's MacBooks included—don't travel much upon click. In contrast, the S431's pad moves downward a great deal when you press it. Surprisingly, we discovered that after a few days of pounding away on the clickpad, it didn't bother us at all, and took no getting used to. In fact, in relatively short order, we found ourselves convinced that this is actually one of the best PC laptop track pads we've ever tested. (Apple's MacBook is still the standard bearer for mouse controls, however.)
Here's why we think it works. Far too often with other PC pads, the absence of a strong, audible and tactile "click" on most non-Mac laptops results in a frustratingly high number of false-positive mouse-clicks—moments when you think you've pressed the mouse button, but really haven't. The travel and the distinct-sounding "plunk" you get when you left- or right-click here eliminates that entirely.
More important than the clicking sensation of the pad, the ThinkPad's track pad exhibited the right amount of sensitivity to mouse controls, swipes, and even Windows 8 gestures. For business users, this is a mission-critical feature, and we're pleased that Lenovo got it right. We encountered sensitivity and input errors about as often as we do on our MacBook Air, which is to say not really at all. That's world class.
The keyboard itself, like most of the Lenovo keyboards these days, is top notch, with excellent responsiveness, and a satisfying amount of tactile feedback. The S431's magnesium chassis creates a pleasantly sturdy, decidedly non-flexing experience while typing away.
It's also backlit, which is not just nice, but increasingly an essential feature for modern laptops.
Only two aspects of the keyboard annoyed us, and both are fairly subjective. The first thing that slowed us down was the relative placement and half-sized nature of the of the cursor keys, which are located in the bottom right-hand corner of the laptop in the same three by three grid as the PgUp and PgDn keys. This close proximity, combined with the smaller size of the cursor keys resulted in us accidentally striking the PgDn key while attempting to maneuver the right cursor with our pinkie.
The second was the location of the Function key, which is just to the left of the CTRL key, and often led to us incorrectly entering keyboard shortcuts. Not surprisingly, FN + C does absolutely nothing when pressed. Hey, maybe this is good incentive to begin reaching up to touch the screen instead of operating the cursor like cavemen.
And what about the red thumb control? Sad to say, but 10 years after being red button devotees, we're over it. Truthfully, it was always a compensation of sorts for insufficient touchpad controls, and now that laptop makers have mastered them, we see no need to operate our Windows pointer with our thumbs. This said, it's there if you're still attached to it, which some long-time ThinkPad users will certainly appreciate.
Finally, the ability to just reach up and touch the screen works well as a primary OS interface—particularly when navigating between Metro (which we still don't use that much) and the Windows desktop itself.
- 3DMark: Ice Storm: 27,757 // Cloud Gate: 3,089 // Fire Strike: 416
- PCBench 8: Home score: 2,535 (non-accelerated) // Battery test: 153 minutes, 16 seconds
- Battery Eater: 101 minutes
- Cinebench: 8,214
- 3DMark06: 4,133
The upshot of the above numbers is that the S431 Touch isn't going to win any benchmarking medals. However, at the $939 price point, it definitely holds its own, and outputs solid performance across basic productivity-oriented and CPU-intensive tasks.
Not surprisingly, this ThinkPad and Intel's integrated graphics part gets absolutely hammered by the more graphics-intensive benchmarks like 3DMark's Cloud Gate and Fire Strike tests. For what it's worth, we were able to play indie games on Steam like Papers Please or even the slightly more graphically challenging The Wolf Among Us. You will not be able to play modern shooters at anything above 640 x 480, however—and that's at the lowest quality settings across the board.
The good news is that, in comparison to less expensive ultrabooks like ASUS' V550CA or Acer's Aspire v5, this ThinkPad justifies the roughly 10% jump in price with a greater-than-10% leap in performance. And while it comes close to the range of higher-caliber laptops and ultrabooks like Samsng's Ativ 9 and the ThinkPad X1, it's not close enough to call the S431's performance a coup.
Like many Windows 8 ultrabooks, we found day-to-day performance to be snappy and responsive in all regards. It turns on quickly and instantly drops out of sleep mode. Concerns about the mechanical drive slowing the system down were unfounded; the presence of the 24GB of solid state memory attached to the main drive provided rapid access to our most frequently used files, and the 7200rpm mechanical meant that standard file access was quite quick.
Ultimately, this laptop performs exactly as we'd expect for a small business- and productivity-oriented system, with one unfortunate exception: the display.
Display quality is lacking
The non-Full HD resolution didn't bother us that much. Although it does prevent the side-by-side Windows working style we prefer, 1600 x 900 pixels on a 14-inch display doesn't feel too cramped for a productivity-oriented desktop. (Using the dock allows you to leap up to a 1080 display with no problems, anyway.)
The big problem is the display quality itself. When viewed head-on, display quality is not great, but acceptable. However, when viewed at anything other than a 90-degree angle, visual clarity rapidly degrades into a shimmery haziness. Finally, no matter how high up we turned the brightness, the screen doesn't deliver the brightness of say, a MacBook in well-lit environments.
If you intend to dock this system, this is no problem at all. However, if you frequently work in bright, sunny rooms, or constantly share your screen with co-workers, this is a legitimate concern.
Battery life is a mixed bag
The S431 delivers surprisingly mediocre battery life for a business-oriented ultrabook. In both PC Bench's battery test and Battery Eater, we witnessed disappointing results. And in real life, we consistently saw about 4 hours of battery life while performing basic productivity tasks like writing, browsing the web, and listening to music.
Our take? If you can't use a laptop on battery alone for a cross-country flight, it's not a true business device. Using Intel's new Haswell processors would have probably resulted in power savings of up to 20% here, with a commensurate increase in performance. An SSD would have also boosted battery performance. Both would have upped the price of this system into the $1,200 to $1,300 range.
One nice touch is Lenovo's RapidCharge technology, which can generate an 80% charge of the S431's battery in just under an hour. More importantly, you can get to 30% or 40% in a pinch in just under 30 minutes.
Audio quality was above average for a business-minded laptop. The stereo speakers put off decent high and mid-range tones, but like a lot of laptops, there's no bass to speak of. Skype and voice chat sound great, however. The S431 also includes v4 of Dolby's Home Theater protocol.
Just two keys over from the space bar—to the right of the R ALT button—you'll find a key on the S431 Touch that most 13- and 14-inch laptops lack entirely: a dedicated Print Screen button. It's a small thing, but this simple design feature embodies the focused, productivity-oriented bent that makes us appreciate the S431 Touch. (For many people—TechRadar writers and editors included—Windows screen captures are a daily component of life.)
In fact, the best thing we can say about this laptop is that it is a well-thought out system with clear, focused intent around personal productivity and business use.
There is a lot to like here because ultimately, the ThinkPad S431 Touch gets a lot of things—big and small—right. First and foremost, we like the price, and the relatively high level of performance (both synthetic and day-to-day) it provides in tandem with Windows 8.
Second, we like the way this ThinkPad looks, and how slim a profile it possesses. Thin laptops packing this much power greatly please us. 14-inch screens packed into 13-inch laptop chasses also make us smile.
Most importantly, we love the way the S431 feels. Working on it for long stretches of time is no problem at all, thanks to the sturdy, comfortable keyboard and the ultra-reliable clickpad, which we continue to marvel at. We also appreciate the presence of the old-school red thumbstick—we imagine that a number of ThinkPad devotees will never want to see it disappear. This extends to the touch screen.
Also likeable: the relatively low amount of bloatware pre-installed on the system. It's nice to not be constantly prompted to purchase, install, or register numerous pieces of unwanted software upon set-up.
Finally, it's a peripheral that costs $120 extra, but we like the OneLink Dock, which provides a nice, single plug-in solution for desktop use. The OneLink connector is the real star here—we witnessed no degradation of video or overall performance while docking the S431.
Our biggest beef with the S431 is the display. In our minds, a $900 laptop—particularly one for business and productivity—should offer better clarity at indirect viewing angles. It's not bad enough to be a deal-breaker here, but it is immediately noticeable. The only saving grace here is that the way most people use their laptops means that this will rarely be a major source of frustration.
Aside from this, the only other major beef we have is the battery life. At 5 hours of normal operating, it just barely meets the ultrabook threshold, and falls short of the cross-country flight test. (Although you could argue that between the 20-minute delays for takeoff and landing, it does actually make the grade.) Yes, we know we're being greedy here.
While the keyboard peccadilloes—specifically, the awkward, error-inducing placement of the FN key and the frequent mis-strikes we encountered due to the reduced size of the cursor controls and their proximity to the Page Down keys—were annoying, these will be minor concerns for most people, and we found ourselves adapting over time.
Finally, while we love the OneLink Dock, we dislike that it costs over 10% of the total price of this system. This effectively turns a $939 laptop into a $1,050 system.
Ultimately, verdict-izing a mid-range laptop or ultrabook boils down to two simple questions: Would we use such a system in our day to day life, and/or would we recommend it to friends and family?
After spending 10 days toting this system with us to meetings, on planes, and in our home office, the answer is a slightly qualified yes. At this price point and in this configuration, the S431 Touch is certainly a winner. It is comfortable to type and work on, with reliable mouse controls and snappy performance. And it has very few of the kinds of recurring annoyances that so many other PC laptops (at all price levels) possess.
Furthermore, the S431's heavy-duty chassis and OneLink Dock would make this an ideal higher-end laptop for students—who tend to be rough on their stuff—as well. (In this case, the inability to play games would actually be a bonus.)
The only real negatives are the sub-par screen and battery life. Neither will be a deal-breaker, however, for people who mostly use their laptops in their office plugged into a dock, display, or power socket.
This said, if the S431 Touch had an even average screen and offered 50% more battery life, it might literally be the perfect laptop. At $949, it's hard to complain too vociferously about such things, however.