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Lenovo ThinkPad X240 Ultrabook Review: A Philosophical Shift

Subject: Mobile
Manufacturer: Lenovo

User Interface, A/V Quality, Cooling

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User Interface

Although Lenovo specifies the X240’s spill-resistant keyboard as simply ThinkPad Precision Backlit Keyboard (the same name as the keyboard in the T440s), it’s actually quite different.  It’s also not the same as the X230’s AccuType keyboard before it.  The keys have a very high-quality feel to them, with the same smooth-textured finish as that of the T440s and absolutely no rattle at all.  The key travel distance is only medium and the feedback is adequate, with a bit of a softer stop than we would have (subjectively) liked.  Plus, the slightly-higher-than-usual actuation force means that you’ll have to type a bit harder than you might be used to on the X240, especially if you are seeking ample feedback.  Still, keystrokes are quiet in all circumstances, which is a huge plus, and with a bit of practice, you’ll be typing very quickly with few errors.  The keyboard is also backlit, with two levels of brightness (plus OFF) available for selection.

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Above: X220 (left), X240 (right)

Overall, in comparison to the T440s’ keyboard, we’d have to proclaim the T440s the winner—simply because its size allows for greater key travel, the actuation force is lower, and the feedback is much more certain, with a discerning click that more closely matches that of the beloved classic ThinkPad keyboards.  Still, in spite of all minor quibbles, the X240’s keyboard is overall great, and certainly far above that of most other Ultrabooks.  It’s just not as good as the X230’s or the X220’s.

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The touchpad is another story.  Our impressions of it were identical to that of the T440s’ before it, probably because both pads are nearly identical: in other words, unfortunately noisy, tragically imprecise, and just overall not up to par with previous ThinkPad input devices.  Each “click” involves depressing the entire pad, and the positioning of the finger on the pad determines which virtual “button” was clicked.  This is perhaps a solid concept, but sadly, with each button press, the pointer’s position is affected (however slightly), which is truly annoying.  Not to mention that more force is required to actuate the clicks, something which quickly becomes tiring.  Other factors of the pad’s design are all positive, from the smooth finish to the luxuriously large surface area to the gesture interpretation and accuracy—but without the ability to comfortably click, odds are you’ll be reaching for an external mouse in no time.

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The optional touchscreen (with which our review unit was outfitted) is a 10-point multitouch model, and—again, like the T440s’—it’s excellent.  The finish is not glossy, but rather semi-glossy (although Lenovo refers to it as matte, which isn’t exactly accurate if you compare the two finishes side-by-side).  This thankfully helps to diffuse some obstructive reflections in indoor environments, though outdoor usage is still a bit of a trial.  It is lacking any sort of Gorilla Glass NBT protective surface material, but the finish is at least conducive to easy finger gliding and manages to avoid fingerprints to some small degree.

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A/V Quality

Although some variants of the X240 come with a standard TN HD panel installed, ours shipped with an IPS panel of the same resolution (1366x768).  Originally it was reported that Lenovo would be offering a 1080p (FHD) panel option in the X240—and in fact, in some regions, this is supposedly already available—however, the more recent Lenovo Q&As have indicated that this is regrettably not the case.  The display in our unit is specified to have 300 nits brightness and a 700:1 contrast ratio (versus 200 nits and 300:1 for the TN iteration), and overall, we were pleased with our subjective interpretation of its quality.  It looks to have very similar performance to the one in our X220—we just wish it were a 1080p panel!

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Above: X220 (left), X240 (right)

In the previous section, we briefly touched on the screen finish, which is semi-matte.  In truth, like the T440s, it’s probably around halfway between matte and glossy, which is enough to make it easy to deal with indoors, but not enough to render outdoor usage (even with the bright screen) truly easy.  In shade, it’s not so bad, but in sunlight, it’s difficult to manage.  Moreover, the fingerprints from the use of the touchscreen obscure the view as well—something which is an issue with all touchscreen devices.

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The X240’s speakers are bottom-mounted and down-firing, and oddly enough, the one on the right side of the notebook (when it’s sitting upright) is further back than the one on the left.  In practice, this isn’t really noticeable, but the speakers are nonetheless disappointing.  The audio is incredibly tinny and lacking bass (even more so than that of many other notebooks of its size), and the maximum volume is insufficient, even while resting on a hard surface.  Distortion becomes evident above the 40/50 volume mark.

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Cooling

The X240’s cooling takes about as conservative an approach as the T440s, with one significant difference: the fan’s tone in the X240 is a notable whine akin to the one in the X220 and X230 before it, and that makes it more difficult to tolerate even at lower noise levels.  That’s unfortunate, because on our Windows 8 machine (which lacks compatibility with the Lenovo Power Manager software that previously could be used to configure fan speed boosts for better performance), the conservative fan speed is still sort of annoying to listen to.  It’s nothing we aren’t familiar with, however, as our X220 had precisely the same issues.

The rest of the story is what sort of temperatures we see from the system under load.  The fan does a reasonably good job of keeping the internal components fairly cool under load—with max CPU and GPU temperatures of 77°C and 74.1°C, respectively—but the case doesn’t fare so well, as the bottom-left area in the center (underneath the exhaust vent) climbs to a pretty hot temperature while the system is under stress.  It’s hot enough that the unit is uncomfortable for use on the lap, but then again, most likely it will be resting on a table if you’re doing anything truly intensive.  Fortunately, the rest of the unit remains totally comfortable—especially the top of the base unit, which becomes merely warm above that same area.  The palm rest is cool under all circumstances.

February 25, 2014 | 07:57 AM - Posted by Graham L (not verified)

I have been a Thinkpad fan for many years. I've purchased a lot of Thinkpads in both the X and T series.

But I can't say that I'm a fan of what they did to the X-Series. The exlusion of a tablet edition of this laptop is very frustrating. And with a promised 1080p screen that seems to be some kind of Unicorn model, I don't really understand why this would be appealing over the T440s. Sure the size is smaller, but the weight difference isn't much, and the performance on the T440s is better.

I also don't like the soldered on DIMM fused with a single DIMM slot, this makes Dual Channel memory difficult to accomplish and a 12 GB cap on memory is kind of lame with the previous model could go up to 16 GB. Also the Previous model could get long batter life with the addition of a slice battery, sure it was extra weight, but I didn't have to compromise on memory, or loss of usb port.

February 25, 2014 | 10:14 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I'm liking my decision (X230 with Windows 7) better every day.

February 25, 2014 | 06:08 PM - Posted by John Foster (not verified)

Knowing there would be an X240 along within a year I pondered long and hard whether to buy an X230, but I did, summer 2013. I'm glad I didn't wait for this model. Looks like Lenovo are selling out on their previous culture of loading a small laptop with top quality components in a strong and desirable frame. Yes it's only a marginal deviation from the past but it's the thin edge of the wedge.

Looks like the X230 is the last of Lenovo's high quality 12.5" laptops.

The X230's chicklet keyboard is wonderful.

February 25, 2014 | 11:59 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Sadly, we have reached the end of usable keyboard layouts on notebooks, following the lack of quality high-res 16x10 displays. Such a shame.

No Insert key. (Seriously? Fn+I?)
Other keys, like SysRq, are also magic sequences.
Broken Fn/Ctrl, and different sizes so they aren't physically swappable after changing the firmware setting.
Page Up/Page Down is in the wrong place. (I have used it every day for the last 9 months and still can't really get used to it.)
WTF is with a dedicated large print screen button?
And WTF is with this new mouse crap? It's why I didn't wait for a W540.

People were crying about the chiclet keyboard in the past, but that isn't the problem (I use a W530 and x120e daily and the feel is fine). The problem is the inane locations of buttons and how they deviate so much from model to model now. I wasn't a big fan of the previous IBM/Lenovo keyboard layouts but they were consistent and I could live with and adjust to them. With the new models though, the inconsistencies continue to grow, and some things are just retarded - like no space between function key groups on the W530 (that's about the one thing the X240 gets right...). And I can't edit code on my W530 then tweak it on my X120 without problems as ins/del and home/end are mixed up, for example... and the X240 doesn't even have Insert!

Dell decided to ruin keyboard layouts about 3 years ago, and in the last year Lenovo has fallen in line.

With the X240, we now see the immediate future. And this future shows that there are no longer _any_ notebooks on the market at any price with usable screens and usable keyboard layouts.

February 26, 2014 | 12:00 AM - Posted by mathew7 (not verified)

Reading the review, I kept feeling better and better over my x230 aquisition in november. I saw then the official pictures of x240 in the lenovo psref pdf and I hated the hinges since you lose back space (also on a cluttered desk, you need extra space for the screen).
I guess I'm gonna use it a long time from now. I am very conservative on laptop designs, and Lenovo/IBM kept their designs the longest (ok...I may be biased...but every time I looked at other brands, I kept getting back to Lenovo designs).

February 26, 2014 | 04:55 AM - Posted by Pes5 (not verified)

I have been using ThinkPads since mid-90s, and my current X230 is most likely the last one to be sort of happy with. I cannot accept loosing the dedicated F-keys. I am barly accepting changes in pgup and pgdn keys... It is all against productivity users that prefered their hands on the keyboard, and using the red stick..Yes, Lenovo ruins Thinkpads and this is very sad.

February 26, 2014 | 01:21 PM - Posted by waffle (not verified)

Agreed, this is sad.

February 27, 2014 | 05:56 AM - Posted by Steve (not verified)

The review doesn't mention the msata capabilities. Can it take the standard 50mm cards or is it stuck with the 40mm? Being able to accept industry standard msata in the msata port is vital. Thank you.

March 20, 2014 | 10:51 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

42mm

March 3, 2014 | 08:08 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

X220 is still the best.

May 13, 2014 | 02:02 AM - Posted by TechSolvers (not verified)

For anybody needing help with changing the keyboard in this model, you can find a full tutorial here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HTN-CO_flVs

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