When Lenovo bought IBM’s personal PC business in 2005, it inherited the company’s already well-respected business-centric ThinkPad laptop line. Since then, Lenovo has been fairly conservative about updating the look and design of its business and enterprise portables, despite accusations by some that the boxy black aesthetic makes the line look dated.
While the laptop’s tapered edges are appreciated, there’s certainly no mistaking the E431 for an Ultrabook.
But the company has made some subtle, though noticeable changes to its ThinkPads over the last couple of years. And the ThinkPad Edge E431, a small-business-focused machine with a low starting price of $527, wears most of those updates well.
Our $571 review model bumps the CPU up from an Intel Core i3 to a Core i5-3230M processor – a better fit for those who need a laptop that can handle more than just email and document creation without feeling sluggish.
But you’ll notice the processor has a “3” in front of it, signifying it’s a 3rd-generation processor instead of Intel’s latest 4th-gen “Haswell” processor that promises longer batter life and faster speeds. Is the E431 worth buying now with the previous generation processor? At less than $550, the price is right, but does the low cost suggest a cheaply made laptop, or is the E431 a brilliant budget business laptop? Let’s find out.
Less boxy, but still a bit chunky
The Edge E431 starts to move away from the boxy design typically found on older ThinkPads. The edges are tapered to make the system look a bit thinner than it actually is (a rather chunky 0.98 inches). The lid is subtly lighter than previous ThinkPads, leaning more toward dark gray than black. The plastic used on the lid, while pleasingly matte, is more flimsy than we’d expect from a Thinkpad, although the lower section of the laptop feels more rigid.
In what we guess counts as flair for a business-centric laptop, the red dot over the “I” in the ThinkPad logo, both on the lid and on the right side of the wrist rest, lights up when the laptop is on, and slowly pulsates when the lid is closed.
While we appreciate the laptop’s tapered edges, there’s certainly no mistaking the E431 for an Ultrabook. Aside from its thickness, it weighs 4.7 pounds, which is just a bit heavier than HP’s comparable ProBook 440s, which starts at 4.55 pounds.
You also won’t find much in the way of high-end or even mid-range niceties – at least without paying extra. The keyboard, while roomy and well laid out, isn’t backlit.
(Mostly) excellent input
As we would expect, given the E431’s ThinkPad branding, combined with its rather roomy chassis, the typing experience here is pretty great. The “smile”-shaped, chiclet-style keys offer a generous amount of travel, and they’re also well laid out. Only the arrow keys (plus Page Up/Down) in the lower right, plus the top row consisting of mostly function keys, get the shrink-ray treatment. The only thing missing here is a keyboard backlight. But it’s not an option, so you’ll have to live without it or look elsewhere.
While we mostly have nothing but praise for the spill-resistant keyboard here, that isn’t as true for the mouse input. ThinkPad loyalists will be happy to find the familiar red pointing stick is still here, and still works well. And those who opt for Windows 8 will especially appreciate the roomy (4.5 inches diagonal) touchpad. It’s flush with the wrist area, which will make swiping in from the sides and top easier.
But, the touchpad is designed for what Lenovo calls “5-point click,” meaning you can click the touchpad both on the traditional bottom edge, as well as on the top edge where your thumbs will fall when using the pointing stick. The click feels a bit hollow, and the act of clicking can sometimes cause the cursor to jump away from its target.
This seemed to be less common when using the pointing stick (and clicking with the top of the touchpad) than when clicking along the touchpad’s bottom edge. But really, we think the touchpad could do with a more shallow clicking mechanism, which seems like it would solve the problem of cursor jumping. However, occasional clicking issues aside, the touchpad felt precise and responsive.
Connectivity aplenty, with or without the optional dock
There’s little to complain about when it comes to the E431’s connectivity options. The left edge houses a VGA port and an HDMI jack (for monitors and projectors, old and new), as well as a pair of USB 3.0 ports and a headphone jack. On the right edge is a USB 2.0 port with a sleep-and-charge option, a DVD drive, an Ethernet jack, and the power connector. The front edge houses an SD card slot.
If that’s not enough connectivity, Lenovo also sells an optional OneLink Dock for $120. The dock plugs into the laptop’s power connector socket, and adds four more USB ports (two 2.0, two 3.0), as well as Ethernet and an HDMI jack. And because the dock connection uses a SATA connector (paired with the power connector) for connectivity, rather than much slower USB, there’s enough bandwidth to pass video and other data through the dock without compression, which means less stress on the CPU.
What we’d really like to see on a dock like this, though, is support for multiple monitors. Still, it’s nice that the dock adds extra ports and power via one cable. An audio jack is also present on the front of the device, and a button on the top of the dock replicates your laptop’s power button.
No screen envy here
In our experience, Lenovo has a tendency to cut corners on its ThinkPads (and sometimes elsewhere), when it comes to screen quality – and the Edge E431 is no exception. Considering the price, the 1366 x 768 resolution is to be expected – but there’s no option to upgrade to anything higher. And the lack of a touchscreen won’t be an issue for many, considering this is a business machine. Still, Windows 8 is far more intuitive with touch, but touch is not an upgrade option, either.
Those who need longevity should probably wait for Lenovo to update the E431 with Haswell chips.
The Edge 431E’s LCD panel wasn’t able to produce anything close to a good percentage on the sRGB scale, and panel uniformity was poor overall, with the worst spot occurring in the lower left-hand corner.
Viewing angles, likewise, are pretty poor, particularly vertically. Tilting the screen forward or back just a few degrees off the sweet spot resulted in heavy contrast shifts and color intensity. We don’t expect great screens in low-priced laptops; but the LCD on this ThinkPad is one of the worst we’ve seen in a while. It’s good enough for document creating and spreadsheets, but if you do any kind of work where color accuracy is at all important, you’ll want to look to a system with a better LCD.
Mostly reasonable performance
The 500GB hard drive in our mid-range review model, while a reasonably speedy 7,200RPM drive, lacks any solid-state cache or storage. You can opt for a 128GB SSD when ordering from Lenovo, but it adds a hefty $240 to the asking price. Alternatively, you can also opt for 24GB of cache storage for an extra $50.
The traditional hard drive in our review unit, combined with the Windows 7 OS (Windows 8 is also an option at no additional cost), means the E431 takes a bit over 30 seconds to boot to the desktop. That’s not terrible by mainstream standards, but Sony’s high-end Vaio Pro 13, for instance, with its PCIe SSD and Windows 8, boots in about eight seconds. Of course, it also costs more than twice as much as this ThinkPad. Opting for the $50 solid-state cache and Windows 8 should help shorten the E431’s boot time.
The Core i5-3230M CPU and 4GB of RAM in our review configuration delivers enough performance for mainstream productivity tasks. If you do a lot of multitasking, or have a tendency to leave lots of browser tabs open, you may want to opt for more RAM. Stepping up to 8GB adds $80 to the asking price.
The system’s CPU performance, both in our 7-Zip and SiSoft Sandra tests, bests some recent pricier machines we’ve reviewed, like the Sony Vaio Pro 13 and Acer’s M5. But the E431’s lack of solid-state storage means the ThinkPad does worse than those two systems in PCMark 7, which measures overall performance. Unless you really need to keep costs as low as possible, we’d strongly suggest opting for the $50 solid-state cache option when configuring this system.
Cool and quiet
Thanks likely to the E431’s inch-thick chassis, it runs very cool and quiet, even under full load. At idle, it was quieter than the background hum of the outside world (below 40db). And even with the CPU maxed out using 7-Zip, the system fans only managed to jump up to 42.3db. It was only when maxing the GPU (using Furmark) that the system started to get a bit noisy, at 45.8db.
Temperatures also remained low. At idle, the system started at a flat 95 degrees Fahrenheit at its hottest point on the underside. Under a full CPU load for five minutes, the temperature only jumped up to 95.3 degrees. And again, when maxing out the graphics using Furmark, the area around the exhaust on the left edge got a bit toasty, at 97.3 degrees degrees. But the bottom remained well below that, only feeling slightly warm. The super-thin Sony Vaio Pro 13, on the other hand, topped out at 107.4 degrees when maxing out the graphics, and its fan noise was much more noticeable, both at idle and under load.
No Haswell (yet) means battery life is a bit disappointing
Just as we saw with the ThinkPad Helix, the Edge E431 packs a 3rd-generation Intel Core processor, rather than the new 4th-generation Core (Haswell) CPUs found in new consumer notebooks. That’s not Lenovo’s fault, as Intel has yet to launch its Haswell processors for business devices, but because Intel’s brand new chips seem to be well optimized for better battery life, you may want to wait until they’re available in ThinkPads before buying.
In our demanding Battery Eater test, the E431 lasted just 1 hour and 35 minutes – nearly an hour less than the much thinner and lighter (and Haswell CPU-packing) Sony Vaio Pro 13. In the less-demanding Reader test, the ThinkPad E431 managed to hang on for a more respectable six hours and three minutes.
Those who need longevity should probably wait for Lenovo to update the E431 with Haswell chips. If you just need a bit more battery life, the company sells a 62Wh battery for $10 more than the 48Wh standard option that shipped with our review configuration. Given the small difference in price, the battery upgrade is another option we’d recommend to just about everyone – even if you do wait for a system with a Haswell chip.
The Lenovo ThinkPad Edge E431 isn’t without its sacrifices, but with a starting price for a business laptop that starts at less than $550, that’s to be expected. You’ll have to pay extra for solid-state cache or storage. And you’ll have to live without a touchscreen, HD resolution, or backlit keys. And the screen’s color and contrast washes out quickly if you aren’t sitting dead center.
But for productivity purposes (that don’t rely on accurate color) at a reasonable price, the E431 shines, with its excellent ThinkPad keyboard and roomy (if occasionally jumpy) touchpad. Those who want faster boot times and a generally more responsive machine when performing common tasks will want to opt for the $50 24GB solid-state cache drive. And those who want better battery life should opt for the $10 battery upgrade.
But if battery life is really important to you, we recommend waiting for a CPU model that starts with the number 4 (indicating a 4th-generation Core CPU) rather than the 3rd-generation models that are available as of this writing, as we suspect Intel will roll out its newer processors for business machines in the next few months.
- Excellent spill-resistant keyboard
- Low price
- Roomy touchpad
- Runs fairly cool and quiet, even under load
- Poor quality screen
- Short battery life
- Doesn’t feel as solidly built as pricier ThinkPads
- No niceties like a backlit keyboard or solid-state storage