Monday, July 21, 2008

Lenovo ThinkPad SL400

by Jerry Jackson

The Lenovo ThinkPad SL400 is the latest addition to the ThinkPad family and promises to offer features and performance at a fraction of the cost of other ThinkPads. Lenovo's new IdeaPad line of notebooks might give consumers plenty of attractive options, but The new SL series is the first line of small business notebooks designed with ThinkPad styling at an affordable price. Is there more here than just traditional ThinkPad shape and a low price? We took a first look at the SL400 to give you some idea of whether this laptop is right for you.

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Our ThinkPad SL400 has the following specifications:

  • Processor: 2.26GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8400 (1066MHz FSB, 3MB Cache)
  • Graphics: NVIDIA GeForce 9300M GS 256MB
  • Screen: 14.1" WXGA, Anti-glare (1280x800, 200nit)
  • Memory: 2GB(up to 4GB configurable)
  • Storage: 160GB SATA HDD (5400rpm)
  • Optical Drive: Dual layer CD/DVD recordable drive
  • Wireless and Communications: Intel 4965AGN (802.11 a/b/g/n wi-fi), BlueTooth 2.0 EDR
  • Battery: 6-cell Li-Ion
  • Dimensions: 13.2" x 9.7" x 1.3"-1.5")
  • Weight: 5.5lbs with battery
  • Operating System: Windows Vista Home Premium
  • Warranty: 1-year

The pricing on the SL400 starts at around $799. Unfortuantely, at the time of this writing we don't have pricing information on the configuration that we are testing ... but we'll have that information in our full review coming soon. Needless to say, this is one of the more budget-friendly ThinkPads on the market. More to the point, Lenovo has gone out of its way to give you multiple reasons to consider the SL series over the competition.

Build and Design

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The ThinkPad SL400 is quite solid in terms of build quality, though the plastics used in the chassis construction do give in to some case flex when squeezed. The entire chassis exterior is plastic and while the appearance is nice, the "feel" of the notebook is a little less rugged than we've come to expect from ThinkPads. Unlike with the other ThinkPads, you don't get a double latch mechanism with button release to make sure the screen is held down when it is closed and being carried. Instead, the SL400 uses hinge tension to hold the screen in place.

The glossy black plastic display cover is probably the most interesting design element on the SL400. Lenovo also decided to modify the traditional ThinkPad logo by adding a small red LED to the dot above the "i" in ThinkPad. I suppose someone still thinks "bling is the thing" in the world of small business. In any case, this certainly isn't a boring ThinkPad.

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Input and Output Ports

The number of ports the SL400 has is fairly good and certainly much better than the average budget notebook designed for small business. Here's a run down of the ports:

  • 4 USB 2.0 ports
  • Firewire
  • ExpressCard slot
  • Gigabit Ethernet and modem
  • 5-in-1 multi-card reader
  • Audio out, microphone in
  • VGA monitor out
  • HDMI (video and audio)
  • Kensington lock slot

About the only thing you might consider "missing" on this notebook is an eSATA port. Since eSATA is rapidly becoming a new standard for external data storage, it would have been nice to see an eSATA port on the side of the SL400. On the other hand, it may only be a matter of time before we see USB 3.0 ports that surpass the performance of eSATA.

There's also no option for a docking station, you have to go with a USB-based port replicator (or ExpressCard/34) to get the additional ports you would want at a desk. Obviously engineers had to make design trade offs and you can't have it all on a notebook in this price range. Personally, I feel like the SL400 provides an excellent balance of ports for its size and cost.

Performance and Benchmarks

Although it's nice that Lenovo is bringing a small business solution to the market for less than $800, the price wouldn't matter if the SL400 can't provide great performance for your dollar.

The Intel Core 2 Duo P8400 processor in our review unit provided ample processing power and never presented any problems when running applications or encoding video and audio files. The synthetic benchmarks below suggest the P8400 processor is one of the more capable processors from Intel and should satisfy the needs of any business professional.

Likewise, the NVIDIA 9300M GS dedicated graphics card with 256MB of RAM allows you to play most average games at a reasonable frame rate. This certainly isn't the laptop designed to play Crysis, but you'll have enough power to handle 1080p Blu-ray movies and some games (during non-work hours, of course).


The 14.1" WXGA, Anti-glare (1280 x 800) is nice and reasonably bright at 200nit brightness, color, contrast, and viewing angles are all good. More importantly, the display on our review unit uses a anti-glare matte finish ... something important to many business professionals and something we're glad to see.

Keyboard and Touchpad

The keyboard on the ThinkPad SL400 has zero flex and excellent key travel with quiet presses. The keyboard is remarkably similar to the keyboards on the older ThinkPad R-series notebooks. There's little to complain about here from a functional standpoint. Sure, it's not the most attractive keyboard on the market ... but it works great. Of course, the SL400 wouldn't dream of calling itself a ThinkPad if it didn't include the iconic red Trackpoint pointing stick in addition to the standard touchpad.

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The palm rest area is pretty plain: it has a matte black finish so it both feels and looks nice. It's very smooth and the touchpad is nicely textured with a responsive surface. Lenovo also decided to include the standard fingerprint reader for those businesses concerned with security.

More to Come

As of this writing we've only had the ThinkPad SL400 in our office for a short while now. We typically find a few things to complain about after "the honeymoon" is over, but right now there is a lot we can say in favor of the SL400.

As it stands now, there are a number of reasons you might want to pick up an SL400 rather than a similar notebook from the Dell Vostro lineup or Toshiba Satellite Pro line. That said, diehard ThinkPad owners might criticize the glossy lid, lack of lid latch, and the type of plastics used in some places. The performance of our test configuration suggests the SL400 packs enough raw power to satisfy most small business owners, but it's clear that the new SL series isn't the same ThinkPad we've seen before.