Lenovo ThinkPad X240 review $1099
25th Jan 2014 | 00:22
This 12.5-inch ultrabook packs everything but punch
Since IBM let it go, Lenovo has gone to great lengths to keep the ThinkPad brand alive and well-regarded. The ThinkPad X240, a no-nonsense, 12.5-inch business-grade ultrabook, is no exception. That's not to say that this professional laptop doesn't try some new things–au contraire.
For one, the ThinkPad X240 is proof of what Lenovo can cram into a tiny form factor. This business laptop sports a full-size, spill-resistant chiclet keyboard and roomy glass touchpad centered between spacious palm rests.
Built with a fiberglass frame coated in a smooth, slick graphite-colored soft touch paint throughout, the ThinkPad X240 has all the same trappings of Lenovo's business range. You'll find the TrackPoint mouse and Lenovo's new take on the staple ThinkPad touchpad. (It's all one button now with contextual functions, like the ThinkPad Yoga.) Plus, all the glowing, shiny ThinkPad iconography is present and accounted for.
This clamshell might be sleek, but it's rather square and boring to look at. What I can't help but marvel at is the breadth of connectivity options from a 12.5-incher. Lenovo stuffed two USB ports, VGA and mini DisplayPort, three different card readers (including SIM), and an Ethernet port into this machine. Oh, and it has a fingerprint reader squeezed in there.
Of course, all of this–plus the 1366x 768 IPS screen with 10 point multi-touch control–makes for quite a dense notebook. Measuring 12.02 x 8.19 x 0.79 inches (W x D x H), the ThinkPad X240 weighs a considerable 3.2 pounds with the included 3-cell battery. By comparison, the HP ZBook 14 weighs just another few tenths of a pound and offers a 14-inch display. A 13-inch MacBook Air this laptop is not, but I still forgot that it was in my backpack at times.
Batteries bridging the gap
Perhaps the most interesting trick up Lenovo's sleeve with the ThinkPad X240 is its Power Bridge battery technology. In short, this machine has both internal and external batteries, meaning users can swap external juice packs while the system is still on.
The cool kids call this hot swapping, and it should prove to be a lifesaver for the globetrotting worker. While the extra batteries will cost you (or your company), the extra expense might be worth the peace of mind–no more sweating between outlets on travel days.
What's even better about this tech is that Lenovo's X240, T440 and T440s ThinkPad models all use the same external batteries. This means that a company can share external batteries across its fleet of machines, effectively cutting costs and reducing the footprint and all that good stuff).
I tested the X240 on its internal and external 3-cell batteries, and saw times in line with the other recent business ultrabooks I've tested. But more on that later.
Lenovo's keen eye on mobility above all with the X240 is glaringly obvious. It's important for business rigs to have focus, and portability is a noble one. That said, no matter the lengths you go to, the quest for true mobility will always have its hurdles.
For instance, this laptop's 12.5-inch screen isn't exactly spacious and not the sharpest around, which made writing this review a bit a struggle. (The slightly squishy keyboard didn't help much either.) However, that Lenovo managed to cram all of this connectivity and hot swappable batteries in such a small system is, well, crazy. Let's see what else the Chinese vendor crammed inside the X240.
The ThinkPad X240 sure packs a ton of features in its diminutive form factor, but this rig comes right up against good old physics. For one, Lenovo couldn't have crammed another port or connectivity feature into this laptop. Which makes me wonder: Why not just go for 13.3 inches?
A 12.5-inch screen starting at 1366 x 768 resolution is rough to work on for longer than that trip between New York and Los Angeles. And if you consider the optional 6-cell battery that can bring this laptop to a hefty 3.6 pounds anyway, the move for a tiny screen grows dubious.
At any rate, the ThinkPad X240 is a fine showing of what Lenovo can do with its mobile computing prowess. This ultrabook manages more connectivity than the 12.5-inch ThinkPad Yoga thanks to its focus on business use over versatility. And while this laptop doesn't hold a candle to the HP ZBook 14 in terms of raw power and inputs or outputs, the 13-inch MacBook Air can't compete here–at least in terms of connectivity.
This is the ThinkPad X240 configuration that Lenovo sent to TechRadar:
- CPU: 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U (dual-core, 3MB cache)
- Graphics: Intel HD 4400
- RAM: 8GB DDR3
- Screen: 12.5-inch 1366 x 768 IPS with 10 point multi-touch
- Storage: 256GB SSD
- Ports: 2 USB 3.0 (1 charging); Mini DisplayPort; VGA; 3.5 mm headphone/mic combo; 4-in-1 card reader; Ethernet
- Connectivity: Intel Centrino 7260 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi; Bluetooth 4.0; SIM card slot
- Webcam: 0.9-MP, 720p front-facing camera with face-tracking technology
- Security: Fingerprint reader; secure lock slot
- Weight: 3.2 pounds
- Size: 12.02 x 8.19 x 0.79 inches
All of this will cost you a cool $1,605 (about £968, AU$1,827) after an instant web coupon. Unfortunately, a number of these features do not come standard, namely the fingerprint reader, amount of RAM, Core i5 chip, solid-state drive and touch panel. Coming in at the entry-level $944 (after coupon) would net you a Core i3 CPU, 500GB hard drive at 7,200 rpm and 4GB of RAM–standard specs for a standard price.
With this configuration, the ThinkPad X240 would need to be souped up quite a bit to even come close to the HP ZBook 14 I tested. (Plus, HP's solution is one of the few to put up dedicated graphics processing at entry level.)
Meanwhile, the ThinkPad Yoga can match this in terms of storage and RAM, and offer a faster 2.1GHz Core i7 chip and sharper 1080p touch display, for nearly $100 less at its priciest. The MacBook Air can provide the same amounts of SSD storage and RAM, a snappier 1.7GHz Core i7 chip, a slightly sharper screen and 802.11ac networking for about $50 less.
If, when put into perspective, the X240 isn't quite up to snuff, a decked out model goes for a crazy $2,064 (about £1,245, AU$2,350) after the web coupon through Lenovo. This price doesn't even include the integrated mobile broadband option. But this much will get you the 2.1GHz Core i7 chip, 1080p display and 6-cell battery.
Frankly, the X240 can't compete in the specs arena. At this configuration, it's easily outclassed by the MacBook Air, of all things. This business laptop's value rests solely on the vast amount of connectivity options available at this size, coupled with the useful hot swappable battery tech. Of course, there's much more to be said of how a system performs on the whole.
The ThinkPad X240 didn't do much to surprise me during my time with it. Synthetic test results show this business ultrabook performing similarly to the other Core i5-equipped rigs around. Here's how the laptop handled a few tests:
- Cinebench 11.5: Graphics: 16.65 FPS; CPU: 232 pts
- 3DMark: Ice Storm: 41,285; Cloud Gate: 4,104; Fire Strike: 548
- PCMark 8 Battery Life: 3 hours, 26 minutes
In short, you won't be doing much gaming on the X240 beyond the occasional Angry Birds session. More importantly, the Intel HD Graphics 4400 inside this model's Core i5 CPU will be more than capable for general computing tasks. But if you're heavy into photo or video editing for work, steer toward the HP ZBook 14 or a MacBook Pro. Besides, this 12.5-inch screen is too small and not sharp enough. The point here is to bridge the general business user from desk to desk, even if those desks are miles away.
At any rate, the X240 booted from a shut down state in seconds, thanks its speedy SSD. The Haswell processor and 8GB of RAM inside were able to handle anything I threw at them. I saw no hiccups, sluggishness or stuttering when switching between Google Chrome (with over 15 tabs open), Spotify (streaming high bitrate audio), a GIF-heavy chat app and a PDF reader. This was all running during a Lenovo Solution Center system scan with no discernable slowdown.
But again, it's growing more difficult to wear a machine down during everyday computing with the latest processors and SSDs. But considering this CPU can reach a 2.6GHz max frequency, it should be able to handle some more intense processes like spreadsheet macros and such.
With both its internal 3-cell and external 3-cell batteries, PCMark 8 measured an estimated 3 hours and 26 minutes of lasting power for the X240. That's right on par with other 12.5-inch laptops I've tested. PCMark 8 runs the system through a series of tasks, such as web browsing, image editing, video chatting and more on loop with the volume muted and keyboard backlight off.
In my own experience, the laptop lasted a slightly more respectable 4 hours and 5 minutes. This test was conducted while running more than 15 Google Chrome tabs, streaming high bitrate tunes from Spotify, using a chat app and manipulating a number of PDFs with the volume set halfway and the keyboard backlit. Both of our tests are run using the "High performance" power setting and at maximum screen brightness.
While those numbers aren't even close to the 9 hours we measured on the 13-inch MacBook Air, the difference here is that the X240 can last as long as the amount of batteries you have. But Apple's clamshell already offers all-day lasting power from an internal battery in a thinner and lighter chassis. In that case, is the ability to swap batteries a moot point regardless of how simple the process is?
Typing in not-so-top form
Admittedly, I've long been a fan of the typing experience on a Lenovo laptop, but the ThinkPad X240 is somewhat of a disappointment. While I appreciate that Lenovo centers its touchpads for more even palm rests, this keyboard was just a bit too flimsy for my liking. In typing out this review, it lacked the snappy travel I'm used to, especially in the space bar.
This led to countless typos and a slightly daunting experience in that I had to backtrack quite a bit on misplaced spaces. That the curvature and placement of the smooth, plastic chiclet keys felt fantastic under my fingertips doesn't overshadow their squishiness.
Of course, the ThinkPad touchpad is in top form, offering both the TrackPoint and touch experiences in a single-button glass surface. While the give upon clicking is a bit too dramatic for my taste, the tracking is fantastic and velvety smooth. But again, the TrackPoint's days are numbered, mark my words.
A dull if dutiful display
Look, the laptop world is slowly but surely moving past 1366 x 768 as the default resolution, and its time that the ThinkPad range catches up. This many pixels will prove just fine for the general business user at 12.5 inches, but it's one of the features that hold the X240 back from providing a truly premium experience.
Plus, if this laptop were to drop touch control as an option, I'd have no qualms with that. In my time with the laptop, I had only used the touchscreen to test its responsiveness. While I'm happy to report that this is quite the smooth and snappy touchscreen, I see little to no utility to the professional.
And that touch control is tacked onto the option for a 1080p screen at checkout is, frankly, a nuisance. If the device isn't a laptop-tablet hybrid, it's better off eschewing touch control altogether–it offers little to no actual utility and only serves to hike up prices.
Fingerprint reader almost seals the deal
How Lenovo managed to fit a fingerprint reader where it did on the X240 is a mystery. And while it doesn't come standard, it only costs $20 extra. At that point you'd be silly not to slap it on that keyboard deck, especially considering how simple it is to use.
After registering one of your ten fingerprints with a few slow swipes using Lenovo's Fingerprint Manager Pro software, you can use your finger to log into your system. But as simple as it is, the software doesn't extend fingerprint logins to other apps and services like HP's on its ZBook 14.
Fingerprint scanning is poised to come standard on all mobile devices within the next few years, and it started with laptops. Now, all Lenovo has to do is extend the reach of its software.
Lenovo isn't a major bloatware offender, but the X240 comes packing a number of apps that don't have much place on a business laptop, like Kindle, Rara Music, Zinio and more. Thankfully, the company loaded a bunch more apps that are much more relevant, like a system update tool that pulls driver updates from Lenovo, a cloud storage service powered by SugarSync and custom settings for this laptop's key features among others. Here's a closer look at the more notable apps on offer:
- Lenovo Companion: This Modern UI app acts as a hub for most of Lenovo's custom apps and a guide for users that are new to Windows 8.
- Lenovo Instant On: With this, the ThinkPad enters a low-power state when the lid is closed, making for quicker resume times. But Lenovo warns that it's a power drain. With an SSD and how fast Windows 8 is to start already, turn this one off.
- Lenovo QuickCast: The ThinkPad can share files with other mobile devices on the same Wi-Fi network with this tool. However, it requires said device to have the app, which is not yet available on iOS.
- Lenovo QuickControl: Over Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, QuickControl allows a mobile device with the matching app installed to directly control the ThinkPad. Unfortunately, both methods are such a pain to configure that I simply gave up.
- Lenovo Solution Center: Offering system-wide monitoring and alerts as well as access to support from Lenovo, this is one of the more useful apps available.
- ThinkVantage Active Protection System: Similar to Toshiba's hard drive protection system, this tool can lock down your storage in the event of a sudden shock to prevent damage. But with a largely motionless SSD, this isn't as useful.
For a 12.5-inch machine, the ThinkPad X240 is an impressive mobile workhorse, but not for its internals. No, this ultrabook's specs are easily outclassed by its competitors. What's more compelling here is the amount of hardware features and connectivity options Lenovo managed to fit into this frame.
With its hot-swappable batteries, SIM card support, Ethernet and multiple display output options, the X240 offers more connectivity than some competing 13 and 14-inch options. However, its touch panel and external batteries make for quite a dense machine, which in turn makes its small size less appealing. With that in mind, it's clear that this business laptop was designed to fill a very specific niche.
Again, the breadth of connectivity and hardware features available on the X240, for its diminutive frame, cannot be overstated. You'll be hard pressed to find many other 12.5-inch laptops that offer as many methods for interacting with other devices. A lack of connectivity has always been counted against smaller laptops, but Lenovo has officially bucked the trend.
The ability to swap batteries on the fly to keep going on those long monthly or even weekly cross-country commutes will prove indisposable for a number of users. But more importantly, the X240's battery life is practically unlimited. At the very least, the only limitation is the amount of batteries you're willing to buy and carry.
Despite its vast amount of external connections and features, this laptop has trouble competing on spec sheets. For what the X240 configuration that I received is worth, you could buy a faster, lighter machine with a sharper, larger screen and more premium build. (Or you could score one with just as many hardware features, more screen real estate and a dedicated GPU.)
The typing experience that the X240 offers is simply not on par with Lenovo's other laptops. I've come to count on Lenovo machines to offer one of the best keyboards around, but this notebook's keys just don't pack the same punch. They felt squishy under my fingers, making me realize how badly I take a snappy keyboard for granted. While writing this review, I had to switch over to my main machine halfway through. That doesn't bode well for a machine designed to last as long as the amount of batteries you have.
A 12.5-inch screen might be fine for most mobile users, but a panel that small better mean a laptop that's feather light. The X240 might be small, but the combination of a touch control and 6-cell external battery brings this laptop to 3.6 pounds. At that point, does it matter how small the frame is when the system is that dense? If you want features like external batteries in a more mobile form factor, this is the price you pay.
For me, that price is too steep when competitors like the MacBook Air offer all-day endurance in a larger, lighter frame. The ThinkPad X240 is inarguably an impressive display of what's possible in mobile computing today. You'll find few, if any, other laptops that offer this many hardware features at 12.5 inches.
But what good are those features if the product struggles to compete elsewhere? For one, the typing experience on a laptop is paramount, because you're ultimately stuck with what you get. In this regard, the X240 fails to live up to Lenovo's legacy, at least with the unit I've been typing on for the past week.
When it comes down to dollars and cents for silicon, this ThinkPad's competitors offer better internals inside larger frames for less, plain and simple. That leaves the X240 with its vast feature set as its only weapon, one that isn't hard to best at 14 or even 13 inches. The ThinkPad X240 is a fine showing of engineering prowess, but is easily outstripped in terms of premium feel and power for that price.