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Lenovo ThinkPad T420 Review: Kickin' It Old School

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Subject: Mobile
Manufacturer: Lenovo

Introduction, Design, User Interface

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As you may already know from my ultrabook editorial, I’m not entirely sold on them. There are disadvantages to being thin.

And as if to remind me of it, a Lenovo ThinkPad T420 suddenly appeared at my doorstep. Okay, that’s exaggerating a bit - I did know it was coming - but the timing of receiving an old-school laptop couldn't have been better. Not only because I wanted to take a closer look at a laptop purposely designed to not be thin, but also because we haven’t had a ThinkPad T series for review in, well, forever. 

This is a return to form for me. I owned several ThinkPads during my late teens, my college days, and the years just after college. My favorite was a T42 with a 14-inch display. 

Of course, laptops have come a long way since then. The ThinkPad T420 we received for review is a good example of a mid-range model. Let’s look at the hardware specifications. 

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According to Lenovo’s website, this configuration is the second pre-configured option available. It can be had for about $1000 after an eCoupon provided by Lenovo. All of the features above are standard, even the 1600x900 display and Nvidia graphics. They are standard only for this model, however - some less powerful versions are available at lower prices. 

The only option that came with our review unit was a 9-cell battery, which will set you back $50. We received both the 6-cell and the 9-cell batteries, so we will be testing the laptop’s battery life with both.

Continue reading our review of the Lenovo ThinkPad T420 laptop!!

Design

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At first glance, the T420 doesn’t seem much different from the T42 I used about six years ago. The classic ThinkPad black matte construction remains present, of course, and it does a good job of obscuring the more subtle details of the chassis.

Not that there’s much to obscure. Besides the laptop’s ports and a display lid’s latch at the front of the laptop, there’s nothing notable here. That’s the point. A business laptop is supposed to be like a business suit - handsome, but unobtrusive. 

I don’t think everyone agrees with this philosophy, but this isn’t meant to be a debate about it. This T420 remains true to the core ThinkPad ideal of obsessive functionality. You either get it, or you don’t. If you do, then you’ll love how this laptop is built. 

Durability is evident throughout the chassis. Picking up the laptop from any edge results in no groans of protest, nor is any flex evident when pressing upon various surfaces of the laptop (the middle of the display lid is an exception - but almost all laptops show some minor flex there). The display is attached by two large metal hinges that make it possible to open 180 degrees. More importantly, these hinges do not allow for any display wobble when typing.

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Connectivity includes VGA and DisplayPort, four USB 2.0 ports (one of which is an eSATA combo port), a card reader, a 34mm Express Card Slot and a combo headphone/microphone jack. This impressive array is improved if you don’t have the discrete graphics option found on our laptop - the space freed by the missing GPU allows for the addition of two more USB 2.0 ports. USB 3.0 is notably lacking. 

Most of the ports are located near the middle or rear of the chassis, and none are located on the front, which means that connecting devices will interfere less with your working space. The power cable connects at the only proper spot - the rear of the laptop - keeping the cord and adapter out of your way.

User Interface

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Like the design of the chassis itself, the keyboard on the T420 is a bit of a dinosaur. It has refused to change over the years, ignoring the trends towards an island style keyboard layout. Even HP’s enterprise laptops have switched over to the more modern design.

But modern doesn’t always mean best. As I pointed out in our retrospective of the Acer Extensa 5420, an old-fashioned laptop keyboard like the one found here has strengths. The most noticeable is key feel. When you press a key, it responds with significant travel, and it doesn’t bottom out harshly. You can easily tell when you’ve fully depressed a key without looking at your display or the keyboard, resulting in more confidence when typing at high speeds. 

The layout is a bit fussy, as is often the case with ThinkPad laptops. The FN (or function) key is where the Ctrl key is supposed to be, and this will cause new users to stumble. Lenovo also uses double-height Esc and Delete keys which feel awkward at first, but are probably more effective once you’ve learned them. 

Below the keyboard is a small touchpad. It’s adequate. If you buy the T420 you’ll need to love - or learn to love - the trackpointer in the middle of the keyboard. The ThinkPad implementation remains the best, and once you become accustomed to it, you may never want to go back to a touchpad.

 

February 21, 2012 | 07:13 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I love thinkpads, not flashy, solid, reliable, with awesome keyboards. The 14 inch t42 with sxga+ (1440x1050) is my favorite so far.

Thanks for the review. I might try to convince my employer to pony up the dough to replace my t61.

I hope they continue the good work, and not go down the shiny plastic route(nauseated shudder...). But Im A little bummed about the 16x9. 16x10 is better for getting stuff done.

February 21, 2012 | 07:36 AM - Posted by amythompson (not verified)

Thanks for the review. Im going to try to get my boss to upgrade me for free. :D

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B004U5MV2G/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=...

February 27, 2012 | 09:19 PM - Posted by JL (not verified)

Just FYI, you can get this same thing on the Lenovo site for less right now... I just ordered a T420, but I went for the one without the graphics card.

February 21, 2012 | 09:29 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I like the review!

For actually working, traveling, and working while traveling, this laptop is hard to beat.

Typing this comment on a T520, which I work 6 to 10 hours a day on and what a relief compared to working on chicklet keyboards (looking at you HP, and most of the others!)

I will add the docking station may be small, but is well angled, also feels rock solid, and very sturdy.

Suggestion : When reviewing business class laptops, please include a section for their docks, useful for those working with their laptops instead of just sipping low fat mokachinos or something...

February 21, 2012 | 09:38 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

It is apparent that you don't work with this computer on a daily basis as we do. Lenovo T420 is a notebook that I wouldn't give to my worst enemy.

We have done over forty RMA's for the defective NIC's on this computer in the last 6 months. This is just a plain stupid design defect. The rentention clip on the NIC is plastic and breaks in matter days. Most times it ships broken.

The placement of the USB cables on this model is terrible. One USB cable on the back, one on the left and one the right side. What a bone-head devised this setup.

The driver support is terrible. We have had countless tickets for the audio on this model. We call this the "Summer Sound" problem. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.

Lenovo support is a joke. Call about any non-warranty issues and the standard response is "that will be a $700 charge".

The worst part of the last Transformers Movie for me was all the Lenovo product placement. Seeing Lenovo's name in that so-so movie just ruined it for me.

Stay away from this noteboo. You have been warned.

January 25, 2014 | 09:22 AM - Posted by MCP21 (not verified)

You seem to have phobia based on seeing a movie.

NIC clips don't ship broken as you state. The T420 machine here is fine. If you claim it isn't you should supply evidence.

Where do you want the USB ports. On the lid?

Driver support is automatic from the pre-installed Lenovo app. There are no issues with audio drivers, even in Win 7 64 bit.

You need to define what non-warranty support issues cost $700. Perhaps you exaggerate.

The T420 is as solid as they come. Unlike your comment.

February 21, 2012 | 11:45 AM - Posted by Annoyingmouse (not verified)

[quote]92.7 degrees Celsius at the rear left bottom of the laptop. The forward right bottom warmed no more than 82.1 degrees Celsius. These figures are low, and they translate to a laptop that’s comfortable to use in most situations.[/quote]Did you mean F? 92 and 82C would burn.

Nice review, I strongly considered a Thinkpad T last time I was notebook shopping.

February 21, 2012 | 04:36 PM - Posted by Matt Smith

Yes. 92 degrees Celsius would be a bit too toasty. I'll correct that...

February 21, 2012 | 02:08 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Typing this from a T420, and I love it.

My only complaints are that whatever is powering the audio seems to lose faith in itself when you plug in an extra monitor. It can be perfectly loud, and then you plug in a monitor and in a few minutes you'll notice the sound output has gotten significantly quieter.

The other is that the Intel graphics driver loves to crash when you have multiple monitors connected. I routinely hook up a monitor by DisplayPort, and another by VGA, but if I lock the computer and come back 5 minutes later, after it blanks out the screen, the Intel driver manages to crash and flashes the screens every few seconds. The only way I've found to get it to reset is to unplug the monitors wait for Windows to realize it only has the single laptop monitor, log back in, and then hook the monitors back up. Very annoying.

February 26, 2012 | 11:16 AM - Posted by Falik (not verified)

Since I work in IT... Flashing your BIOS would definenetly help...

December 20, 2012 | 11:17 AM - Posted by S2k (not verified)

nope, there's no BIOS update for me. Just the Windows 8 BIOS update. But I'm running Win7, so it's of no use. bummer.

December 20, 2012 | 11:09 AM - Posted by S2k (not verified)

I'm glad to know I'm not the only one with the crashing Intel driver problem. I'll have to try the BIOS flash the other commenter suggested.

February 26, 2012 | 08:06 AM - Posted by Falik (not verified)

We just received T420 at work with i5 processor ofcourse which was a deal breaker cause currently i am using a Dell E6420 with a i7 processor. Dell is a little bulky and never disapoints me over performance. I was thinking about switching my Dell E6420 with this Lenovo T420 but never had the guts to trade in my i7 processor with LED display for this Lenovo i5 processor. Only if it had a i7 with Led display, till than I am not trading in my E6420 for T420 or anythig with i7 processor.

February 26, 2012 | 08:08 AM - Posted by Falik (not verified)

meant to say "not trading in my E6420 for T420 or anything with an i5 processor because that would be downgrading for me.

February 26, 2012 | 08:17 PM - Posted by Brad (not verified)

Been using Thinkpads for more than 10 years. They are unbeatable for business. I use them at home as well. Present crop is x220s and T210s, they play older games fine but really are business machines. Lenovo often does 30% discounts so sign up to their mailing lists. The Lenovo software to keep the machines up to date is flawless as well. We have 15 in our office ranging from 12-28 months old. None have needed repairs of any kind to date.

February 26, 2012 | 08:17 PM - Posted by Brad (not verified)

Bah- should have been T410s.

February 27, 2012 | 09:42 AM - Posted by J (not verified)

I had a T410 and the noise from the fan was very annoying. Supposedly the new sandybridge based T520 and T420 have the same problem. Google Fan noise for Thinkpad T520 & T420.
Lenovo have released a few BIOS updates that so far have been very unsuccessful in rectifying the problem.

March 13, 2012 | 10:26 PM - Posted by Arpan (not verified)

I Bought this model recently. Absolutely love it. So far so good. No complains. i placed review on my blog as well.
Lenovo T420

July 7, 2012 | 07:21 AM - Posted by ghanshyam (not verified)

rate

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August 8, 2012 | 08:31 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I met one problem, my laptop can not show battery life, it show blank , the color is gray , no the green one.

So plea have solution please help to sent me by this email.

thanks

September 29, 2012 | 02:36 AM - Posted by Amon (not verified)

What is the language definition for the keyboard on Lenovo T420 Laptop?

October 11, 2012 | 01:57 AM - Posted by pickmeservices (not verified)

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May 25, 2013 | 09:51 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

At least, Lenovo kept some IBM tradition in terms of quality. In return IBM supplies China in state of the art super computer.

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