Lenovo ThinkPad X240 Ultrabook
Lenovo's ThinkPad X240 is a very different beast compared to the X230, but still one of the best small laptops on the market
- Slim and solid design
- Very good keyboard
- Battery life
- In-built features
- Keyboard not backlit by default
- Some keys are smaller compared to the previous model
- Virtual TrackPoint buttons are not comfortable
Lenovo's ThinkPad X240 is a 12.5in Ultrabook that's small and sturdy, yet comfortable to use. Most importantly, it's a very reliable machine, and it has a dual battery system that allows for a very long run time away from an outlet. It's one of the best little business machines on the market.
The Lenovo ThinkPad X240 Ultrabook is what we like to call the miniature version of the ThinkPad T440s. It's very much a similar product in terms of design and features, but in a smaller, 12.5in form factor that's more portable and easier to carry around on a daily basis. We used the ThinkPad X240 for a prolonged period of time and found it to be nothing short of reliable and well equipped to handle regular office tasks with ease.
Design and build quality
It's the build quality that first captures your attention with this laptop. There is a solid feel to the chassis that's noticeable from the moment you pick it up and lift the lid, and it just feels like it's a laptop that means business. That's good, because it's a model that's primarily aimed at business users rather than the mainstream crowd, but we think that even if you're a non-business user who's looking for a solid little laptop, then the X240 is well worth considering.
The matte black finish of the laptop has a grip to it that feels good against the hands, making it tough for the laptop to slip through your fingers. However, after prolonged usage and us just throwing the laptop into a backpack for transportation, we noticed that the finish did get tarnished quite easily, especially at the corners. While it's a tough laptop overall, its finish isn't immune to mistreatment, so you'll definitely want to put it in a protective sleeve and treat it gently if you want the finish to hold up over time.
The profile is slim (20mm with the lid closed) and the weight isn't much of a concern. It houses a built-in battery in its thin base, and that acts as a power source only once the external battery is used up. This is one of the things that we love about the X240: it has two batteries and the external one is hot-swappable as long as there is a charge left in the internal battery. With its slim, 3-cell battery, the X240 weighed in at 1.42kg on our digital scales. There is an option for a 6-cell battery that's thicker, and with that battery the X240 weighed in at 1.6kg.
Differences between the X230 and X240
The combination of internal and external batteries is a new concept for this laptop series, but compared to the previous model, the ThinkPad X230, there are many other differences, too. Primarily, the ThinkPad X240 is now more of a sealed unit, which means you can't easily access the memory (there is one memory slot) and storage compartments. The cover comes off, but you need to have a Phillips-head screwdriver with you and take care while removing the cover from the base (it's not easy).
A drainage system is missing from the new chassis, it has a slimmer docking connector, and the rubber feet are now a long, rectangular shape rather than paws. The chassis overall is slimmer than the X230, and the hinges are L-shaped and allow the screen to tilt all the way flat on a desk without angling it down (on the X230, the hinges were mounted high on the chassis and allowed the screen to go back slightly more than 180 degrees). In fact, a lot of the design cues of the X240 have been taken from the ThinkPad T440s, which we reported last September.
Other major differences between the ThinkPad X240 and the ThinkPad X230 include a different keyboard and touchpad. The keys on the X240 are a little smaller (particularly the Enter, Shift and Backspace keys), and the keyboard has been pushed up closer towards the screen in order to give more room to the palmrest and touchpad. The touchpad itself is bigger and it has a smooth surface rather than little bumps on it. It also houses virtual tap zones for the TrackPoint, which are only activated when the TrackPoint is being used, so this means that there are no physical left or right buttons for the navigation devices (the whole pad acts as a button).
In fact, many physical buttons and switches are no longer present. Of particular note are the physical switch for toggling Wi-Fi and the buttons for changing and muting the volume, which are all missing. Instead, these are all software controls that reside on the F keys (to use the F numbers, you have to press Fn, though this can be changed in the BIOS). The bright side is that the X240 is a much more streamlined unit, and a more minimalist-looking unit compared to the X230. The changes might take some getting used to if you are a long-term ThinkPad user.
Connectivity changes have also been made along the edges of the notebook, with the most obvious being the location of the USB 3.0 ports. There are two USB ports, which is one fewer than on the X230. These USB 3.0 ports reside on each side of the chassis and we like this arrangement very much. Furthermore, the built-in Gigabit Ethernet port has been relocated towards the back of the unit, which means you are less likely to be inconvenienced by a cable while you are physically plugged into a network.
The power socket is now a rectangle that's located on the left side, rather than a round plug on the spine, and the SIM slot is easily accessible on the right side, just above the full-sized SD card slot. A VGA port is still present, and it still has screw-in points that allow you to secure a VGA cable so that it doesn't accidentally come loose while you're giving a presentation. There is a Mini DisplayPort for plugging in to a high-resolution monitor, you get a headset port, and there is an option for a Smart Card slot. A fingerprint reader resides just to the right of the keyboard.
Some subtle changes have been made to the colour of the unit, which is now a lighter shade of black, and the logos on the lid have been turned around so that users can more easily read the branding while you are sitting at a cafe or airport lounge. An indicator light has been added to the 'i' of the logo, so you can easily see if the unit is in sleep mode or actually switched off.
Specifications and performance
The biggest change on the inside of the unit is the inclusion of a fourth generation Intel processor. In our case, the X240 came with a Core i5-4300U CPU running at 1.9GHz (with two cores plus Hyper-Threading), as well as 4GB of DDR3 SDRAM and a 256GB solid state drive (SSD). Graphics were handled by the Intel CPU (Intel HD 4400), and they drove a 12.5in panel with a native resolution of 1366x768. The graphics recorded 3890 in 3DMark's Cloud Gate test, and 491 in the Fire Strike test, which are results that are slightly slower than what the bigger T440s recorded using the same CPU and graphics combination (though that laptop had double the RAM).
In our Blender 3D test, the CPU recorded an expected result of 45sec, while in HandBrake it took 22min 15sec to turn a DVD file into an MP4. More importantly, the unit never missed a beat during our review period — it felt swift and responsive, and was completely reliable as a machine with which to work on office documents, encode and transcode media files, and view and edit pictures.
It got only a little warm during normal usage, with heat becoming more noticeable when running CPU-intensive tasks. For those tasks, you will want to keep the unit on a flat surface rather than in your lap. A cooling fan makes some whirring during high periods of CPU activity, but for the most part, the X230 runs quietly.
The SSD proved to be quite fast, recording a read rate of 517.6 megabytes per second (MBps) and a write rate of 254.9MBps in CrystalDiskMark. It has a formatted capacity of 216GB, so it will take lots of programs and large files before it fills up. You can add an SD card up to 64GB if you want to expand the laptop’s storage space on a temporary basis, and the 64GB SanDisk Extreme Pro SDXC card we used for testing showed that the X240 can read from the SD card slot at a fast rate of just over 70 MBps (when copying thousands of JPEG photos). SD cards sit fully inside the spring-loaded slot.
Other features of the ThinkPad X240 include TPM 1.2, a webcam, Bluetooth 4.0, and 802.11n, dual-band Wi-Fi (via an Intel Dual Band Wireless-N 7260 module). The Wi-Fi put up consistent transfer rates of 20-22MBps when copying large files to a NAS device on our network through a Linksys EA4500, 450Mbps (megabit per second) router, which is a very good result. Lenovo also offers 802.11ac networking (via an Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 7260 module).
Bluetooth performance was also very good, as it allowed us to easily stream music from the laptop to a Bluetooth-capable Rotel amplifier without any problems. On the other hand, the speakers on the laptop are fairly loud, and decent if you need to listen to something in a pinch.
A mobile broadband module (Ericsson N5321) as an option and a full-sized SIM slot is located on the side of the unit.
This is where things get very interesting for the ThinkPad X240, mainly because you can easily swap out batteries and carry spares around with you. The standard battery is a slim, 3-cell (23.5 Watt-hour) model that complements the internal (23.5 Watt-hour) battery. In our rundown test, in which we disable power management, enable Wi-Fi, maximise screen brightness and loop a video file, the X240 lasted 8hr 7min. This is great result for an Ultrabook, though the smaller screen and lower resolution compared to the traditional 13.3in size of most Ultrabooks has to be taken into account.
When we used the X240 with the optional 6-cell (72 Watt-hour) battery, the life went up to 13hr 15min. During regular usage, in which we just browsed the Web, viewed some streaming videos, performed word processing, and viewed and lightly edited photos, we didn't have to charge the notebook for a couple of days at a time. This includes periods of idle time in which we closed the lid to put the unit to sleep, as well as a brightness level suitable for our environment (usually around the 50 per cent mark).
Basically, if you're after an Ultrabook that can provide supreme battery life, the X240 is it.
Our biggest gripe with the ThinkPad X240 is its screen. We tested a model that came without an IPS (in-plane switching) screen, which meant that vertical viewing angles were not good as we were expecting (especially since the screen is designed to tilt all the way back). We constantly had to adjust the tilt angle in order to get proper contrast and clarity in photos and videos. Ours was a test model, though, and Lenovo's Web site only lists the X240 as coming with an IPS screen, either with or without touch, so we expect this to be much better on the retail models.
On the bright side, the screen had a matte finish that was well suited to our office environment, and its 1366x768-pixel resolution looked sharp across the 12.5in space. The hinges were also very strong and kept the screen sitting firmly at precisely the angle we required.
Typing on the X240 was a pleasure, as it is on most (if not all) ThinkPad laptops, though some of the keys are slightly smaller in order to allow a bit more room along each side. Primarily, the Enter, Shift, Backspace, Backslash, Alt, Print Screen, and right Control keys are all smaller than they were on the X230. The Insert key has been removed, leaving only the Home and End keys sitting next to Delete. The F keys are optimised for Windows 8 (though, funnily enough, our test machine came with Windows 7), meaning that they perform tasks such as brightness and volume control as their primary function, and there are keys to press to get specific folders to pop up.
Disappointingly, the keyboard isn't backlit by default (and there is no ThinkLight mounted in the screen), which means you have to specifically order a model with a backlit keyboard.
The touchpad is a good one overall, with a smooth surface, accurate tracking and responsive tapping. Because the whole pad is essentially one big button, it tended to move a bit as we moved our finger across it, but we got quite used to it and think it's a vast improvement over the touchpad on the X230. Its size of 87x67mm provides lots of space for performing gestures, of which we regularly used two-finger scrolling and three-finger flicking.
We didn't use the TrackPoint much, but we can say that it did feel awkward without having physical left- and right-click buttons. The zones on the touchpad were just a tad too stiff to press comfortably.
There's no doubt that the Lenovo ThinkPad X240 is one of the best small laptops on the market. Despite its small size, it doesn't really compromise user comfort — it's especially good for long sessions of typing. We love the overall look of it, the sturdy construction, and the features that are available, including the dual battery configuration. Indeed, the battery life of the X240, owing to the 12.5in screen and the use dual batteries, is sensational.
We just wish that a keyboard backlight was standard, and that the virtual TrackPoint buttons didn't feel so awkward. Some users may also feel that the lack of access panels for the RAM and storage is a drawback, but we don't mind that aspect of the design.
Note: the price of our configuration ($2088) was valid at the time of writing and included an IPS screen, 3-cell rear battery, and Windows 8 Pro. In New Zealand, the same model cost $2380.
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