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Lenovo ThinkPad X240 Ultrabook Review: A Philosophical Shift

Subject: Mobile
Manufacturer: Lenovo

Introduction and Design

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Alongside our T440s review unit was something slightly smaller and dear to our hearts: the latest entry in the ThinkPad X series of notebooks.  Seeing as this very review is being typed on a Lenovo X220, our interest was piqued by the latest refinements to the formula.  When the X220 was released, the thin-and-light trend was only just beginning to pick up steam leading into what eventually became today’s Ultrabook movement.  Its 2012 successor, the ThinkPad X230, went on to receive our coveted (and rarely bestowed) Editor’s Choice Award, even in spite of a highly controversial keyboard change that sent the fanbase into a panic.

But all of that has since (mostly) blown over, primarily thanks to the fact that—in spite of the minor ergonomic adjustments required to accustom oneself with what was once a jarringly different keyboard design—the basic philosophy remained the same: pack as many powerful parts as possible into a 12.5-inch case while still maintaining good durability and battery life.  These machines were every bit as capable as most other 13- and 14-inch notebooks of their time, and they were considerably smaller, too.  About the only thing they lacked was higher-resolution screens, discrete graphics, and quad-core CPUs.

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But with the X240 (and the T440s), portability has truly taken center stage, suggesting a complete paradigm shift—however subtly—away from “powerful (and light)” and toward “light (and powerful)”.  Coupled with Intel’s Haswell CPUs and Lenovo’s new Power Bridge dual-battery design, this will certainly yield great benefits in the realm of battery life.  But that isn’t all that’s different: we also find a (once again) revamped keyboard, as well as a completely new touchpad design which finally dispenses with the physical buttons entirely.  Like in the X230’s case, these changes have roiled the ThinkPad purists—but is it all just a matter of close-minded traditionalism?  That’s precisely what we’ll discover today.

Continue reading our review of the Lenovo ThinkPad X240 Ultrabook!!

Our exact configuration is actually not currently available for purchase, but the closest configuration (Lenovo model #20AL008PUS) is identical except for a slightly better processor (the i5-4300U vs. our i5-4200U).  MSRP for this unit is $1,679, with a current street price of just above $1,600.  Having said that, here’s what our review unit includes:

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Much like the T440s, the X240’s most telling components are its low-voltage Intel Core i5-4200U CPU (up to 2.6 GHz Turbo Boost) and its maximum supported memory of 8 GB.  In comparison, its predecessor (the X230), was configurable with up to a Core i7-3520M (up to 3.6 GHz Turbo Boost) and up to 16 GB DDR3 RAM—considerably more capable by any measure.  The major benefit of the switch to low-voltage CPUs is—of course—reduced power consumption, which drops from 35 W TDP in the X230’s case down to just 15 W TDP.  That’s a huge plus, but coupled with the RAM limitations, it refines the target market of the X series to exclude those needing workstation-level capabilities (sans the discrete graphics).  It’s a change which won’t bother many people who are simply looking for a quick portable business machine, but for that segment which appreciated the X-series’ ability to transform from four-pound ultraportable into all-purpose powerhouse back at home or the office (while docked or otherwise), it’s an unfortunate regression.

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Case in point: your editor’s current machine is (as previously mentioned) a Lenovo X220 with the following specifications: i7-2620M, 16 GB DDR3 RAM, 240 GB Mushkin Enhanced mSATA SSD (primary storage), 500 GB Samsung 840 Series SSD (secondary storage), and 9-cell battery.  Under this configuration, battery life of roughly six hours is common, and there are few things the machine cannot handle for which a more powerful desktop would be needed to suffice.  Weight is a bit higher than may be ideal (at 3.73 lbs. versus the X240’s 3.29 lbs.), but we’re only talking a half pound difference.  It’s entirely possible to spend an entire day unplugged with this machine, then return to a dock with an external monitor and use it for everything from video editing to even some lightweight gaming.

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Design and Portability

Aesthetically, not much has changed with the X240’s case versus its predecessors.  It’s still the trademark matte black with red accents—as understated as ever, and thankfully so.  The materials have changed, however: the case is now (reportedly) entirely comprised of a glass fiber-reinforced plastic, which feels similar (though slightly smoother) on the display lid, but which has a rougher texture on the palm rest surface which we actually prefer to the T440s’ smoother finish (though it’s completely subjective), as it helps prevent palm slippage while resting one’s wrists.  The magnesium bottom cover of the T440s also feels a little smoother than the X240’s plastic bottom, but neither feels sturdier than the other.

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The workmanship is still quite good, though as with previous X-series laptops, there are some areas where the casing gives way under pressure.  To begin with, the left palmrest compresses the top of the smart card slot without much effort, and in fact, the entire center of the base unit near the touchpad can be depressed with only moderate pressure.  On our review unit, we even encountered a clicking sensation from the right palm rest when this pressure was relieved—the existence of which really makes the build feel cheap, even though it isn’t.  The top center plastic strip between the hinges (above the keyboard) is also quite susceptible to flexing under pressure, though this area isn’t likely to be a problem in practical use (unlike on the X230 and X220, where this area shared space with the control center and power button).

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The display lid exhibits only reasonable torsion resistance, twisting under moderate pressure and exhibiting distortions on the panel which were not visible on either the X220 or X230.  It closes fairly tightly against the base, however, so this is unlikely to be a problem unless the unit is dropped while open.  The hinges do a fine job of supporting the display, holding it tightly in place and preventing the wobble that is associated with typing on many ultraportable units.  Tapping still produces a momentary vibration, but it’s relatively minor.

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Interestingly, while the X220 and X230 offered three USB ports, that number actually been cut to two on the X240, both of which are USB 3.0, and one of which is powered.  Consuming a slight bit of extra real estate is the same right-side-mounted SIM card bay that we found on our T440s, which saves you the trouble of having to remove the battery to insert/remove a SIM card.  Elsewhere, you’ll still find Gigabit Ethernet, a card reader, VGA out, mini DisplayPort, the aforementioned smart card slot, and combo audio.  Rounding out the bunch is a Kensington Lock port in the back left corner.  The number of USB ports is the obvious (and only) disappointment here, compounded by the fact that the left side port is crammed in between the DisplayPort and VGA ports, making connection of larger USB devices difficult or impossible if the other ports are in use.

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Finally, on the subject of maintenance, the X240 is a little bit more stubborn than the T440s, but no harder to get into than the X220, seeing as replacement of anything other than RAM or the 2.5-inch drive (such as the mSATA SSD/WWAN/WLAN adapter) on the X220 required removal of the keyboard and palm rest.  There are only eight Phillips-head screws securing the bottom cover to the base unit, but unlike the T440s, the clips on our X240 review unit were considerably harder to disengage.  At a couple points we were concerned we might damage the unit, but with a bit of patience and care it eventually came off without a problem.  Underneath the cover, you’ll find access to practically all of the major FRUs, with one major exception: the keyboard.  Let it be known that should you ever need a keyboard replacement for the X240, the entire machine must be disassembled, and everything from the system board to the LCD assembly must be removed first.  It’s literally a bottom-up operation.

February 25, 2014 | 10:57 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 | 01:14 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

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

February 25, 2014 | 09:08 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 26, 2014 | 02:59 AM - 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 | 03:00 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 | 07:55 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 | 04:21 PM - Posted by waffle (not verified)

Agreed, this is sad.

February 27, 2014 | 08:56 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 21, 2014 | 01:51 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

42mm

March 3, 2014 | 11:08 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

X220 is still the best.

May 13, 2014 | 05:02 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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