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Nobody does notebooks better. Most of the time Lenovo makes solidly capable systems, whether style-conscious consumer models like the IdeaPad Y450 or corporate fleet fodder like the ThinkPad T400 and T500. But every so often, Lenovo lets its engineers loose on a showpiece and we end up swooning like schoolgirls at a Jonas Brothers concert. Fourteen months ago, it was the 13.3-inch ThinkPad X300/X301, and we gushed, "Best notebook ever." Now it's the 14.1-inch ThinkPad T400s. Brace yourself. The s stands for swoon.
Actually, Lenovo will probably tell you it stands for slim: The T400s takes the T400 and gives it the X301 treatment, with a carbon- and glass-fiber lid and magnesium alloy case helping to trim its weight by 20 percent (to 3.9 pounds, including the optical drive omitted from many lightweight laptops) and its thickness by 25 percent (to 0.83 inch). Along the way, it turns what was an IT department workhorse -- a bread-and-butter system for the suit-and-tie set -- into a state-of-the-art temptation for small-business and solo operators as well, a 14.1-inch notebook that's more portable than many vendors' 13.3-inch models. You find yourself picking it up with one hand and waving it around just because you can.
And while the T400s is far from cheap, it stays short of the X301's super-premium price: A base model is $1,599 with a somewhat skimpy 120GB hard disk, adequate 2GB of RAM, and more-than-adequate CPU -- Intel's Core 2 Duo SP9400, with a 1066MHz front-side bus and whopping 6MB of Level 2 cache shared between two 2.4GHz cores. The model you probably want, with 3GB of memory and a 250GB drive, will cost you $1,729.
Our test unit was the 2GB version with three options -- Bluetooth ($29), a 1.3-megapixel webcam with noticeably above-average low-light reception ($30), and a whizzy 128MB solid-state drive in lieu of a hard disk ($240).
Deep-pocketed shoppers can substitute a Blu-ray burner for the ultrathin DVD±RW drive ($560); step up to a 2.53GHz Core 2 Duo SP9600 processor ($125); upgrade memory to 4GB ($100) or 8GB ($1,160); and add integrated AT&T or Verizon mobile broadband ($80 or $150, respectively). Our system also came with the 32-bit version of Windows Vista Business; Lenovo offers direct buyers both a free downgrade to Win XP Professional and a free upgrade to Windows 7.
The Keys To Quality
The T400s is a 9.5 by 13.3 by 0.8-inch matte black slab with the square-cornered styling of ThinkPads throughout history. A manual on/off switch for the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios is next to the DVD burner on the system's right side; at the left are a USB 2.0 port, headphone jack, and ExpressCard/34 slot. The last can be replaced by a 5-in-1 memory-card reader as a $10 option.
At the rear are old-fashioned VGA and newfangled DisplayPort connectors -- the video generations in between, DVI and HDMI, are not supported -- along with an Ethernet port and two more USB ports, one powered to recharge peripherals and the other serving double duty as an eSATA port for external storage devices.
The newest ThinkPad lives up to the brand's reputation for keyboard comfort with a full-sized keyboard with a, well, perfect typing feel. The layout does take a day or two's getting used to, with a Fn key usurping Ctrl's proper place in the bottom left corner and Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn keys clustered at top right, but the Delete key is double-sized, as on many desktop keyboards, for easy access.
So is another frequent finger target, the Escape key -- an example of Lenovo's incremental improvements over the original T400 keyboard, along with narrower spaces between keys to resist crumbs and crud plus drainage holes in the system's bottom to combat liquid spills. There's also a cute and genuinely handy little lamp, turned on and off with a function-key toggle, that shines down from above the display to illuminate the keyboard in dark environments. A fingerprint reader is standard, as are separate mute buttons for the speakers and microphone.
Only real rodent diehards will buy a notebook mouse to use with the T400s, because the keyboard offers not one but two pointing devices -- both Lenovo's TrackPoint mini-joystick embedded mid-keyboard and a good-sized, textured touchpad, with two pairs of mouse buttons to match. The touchpad supports multi-touch gestures, pinching or spreading two fingers to zoom in and out of images or swiping with two fingers to scroll a document.
The Fn key pairs with the cursor arrows to provide play/pause, stop, and previous/next track keys, but multimedia isn't the main point of the ThinkPad; the display snubs the currently fashionable 16:9 HD aspect ratio in favor of the older 16:10 widescreen layout (1,440 by 900 pixels). The LED-backlit screen is bright and crisp, though, with vivid colors and fine details.
Plenty of Power
The system also snubs wild arcade-game and FPS action, with mediocre Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 4500 MHD integrated graphics the only video hardware option (the regular ThinkPad T400 is available with discrete graphics). But while its 3DMark06 score was a tepid 1,083, its potent processor and Samsung SSD gave our test unit otherwise impressive benchmark performance, including a SysMark 2007 rating of 133 and PCMark05 score of 6,179 (CPU 6,054; memory 5,101; hard disk 15,402; graphics 2,041). The Lenovo rendered Cinebench R10's sample scene in 3 minutes and 3 seconds.
Battery life was moderately impressive as well, with real-world work sessions -- well, work mixed with viewing some favorite DVD scenes, though not entire movies -- lasting between three and a half and four hours in our tests. A second, lithium-polymer battery pack can be fitted in place of the optical drive for another two to three hours' runtime, though we couldn't find the pack listed or priced on Lenovo's online accessories page.
All told, the T400s is simply another of the simply exceptional notebooks that Lenovo produces on a regular basis. The older, chunkier ThinkPad T400 is still available starting at $749, but if your company gives you one your boss is either on a tight budget or doesn't like you very much. P>
Lenovo ThinkPad T400s
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