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Lenovo ThinkPad SL400 Review

Highs

  • ThinkPad durability and feel; bright and sharp display; reasonable pricing

Rating

Our Score 7
User Score 8

Lows

  • Glossy lid is fingerprint prone; slow boot times; certain functions are buggy
The SL400 may be one of the most attractive notebooks in Lenovo's line for the budget-minded business buyer.

Summary

With the introduction of the SL Series notebooks, Lenovo continues its trend of pushing the ThinkPad name out of its lofty perch and into more affordable territory. The 14.1-inch version bulks up a bit for the sake of keeping price low, but retains Lenovo’s signature ThinkPad durability and feel, along with competent performance for a business machine. But some minor issues still need to be ironed out.

Our Lenovo SL400 came with the following hardware:

14.1-inch WXGA VibrantView Display
Intel Core 2 Duo P8600 2.4GHz CPU
2GB PC-5300 DDR2 RAM
250GB Hard Drive (5400 RPM)
Nvidia GeForce 9300M GS Video Card
DVD-RW 8x Max Dual-Layer Drive
Intel Wireless Wi-Fi Link 5100
9-Cell Battery

Features & Design

Lenovo positioned the SL400 as a middle-of-the-road notebook – it has enough power to pull off almost all business computing needs, but doesn’t quite come with the same extravagant extras or compact packaging as more expensive machines. Its spot in the Lenovo line-up, between the budget R-series and high-end T-series, reflects that compromise.

Inside, you can get your SL400 whipped up with Intel Core 2 Duo processors up to 2.53GHz, a max of 3GB of DDR2 RAM, and hard drives spanning up to 320GB in capacity. Some of the frilliest (optional) extras include an integrated webcam, fingerprint reader, Nvidia GeForce 9300M GS video card, and WWAN modem for use on AT&T.

It’s a ThinkPad, so the SL400 of course gets Lenovo’s signature red-dot TrackPoint pointer. But wisely, its designers also found room for a conventional touchpad, creating a dual-input configuration Lenovo calls UltraNav.

What’s it missing? Not much. Moving up to the Lenovo T-series buys a slimmer and lighter shell, and a handful of other options that most users would probably be fine without, such as a higher resolution WUXGA screen, GPS capability, and wireless USB.

Aesthetics

Most ThinkPad notebooks barely warrant discussion of looks at all – they’ve looked almost exactly the same for years – but the SL series has actually departed quite a bit from its ancestors. Most strikingly, Lenovo discarded the ThinkPad’s signature matte black finish for a smooth, glossy piano black on the SL400’s lid. While it looked fantastic from afar, and garnered a lot more comments than your run-of-the-mill ThinkPad, it also suffered from the standard fingerprint-magnetic syndrome that comes with all glassy smooth surfaces, making it a tradeoff at best.

Other elements of the reworked ThinkPad aesthetic bothered us a bit, as well. The base has a strange trapezoidal profile that gives the front and side edges an odd 45-degree slant, instead of the squared-off edges we’re used to seeing on ThinkPads. On its own, this wouldn’t really be a deal breaker, but all the notches carved into the slant to make room for ports and connectors make it look a little goofy.

Lenovo ThinkPad SL400
Image Courtesy of Lenovo

Performance

In Windows, our well-optioned SL400 ripped through everything we could throw at it with ease, leaving us wondering what use most business users would really have for a 2.8GHz processor (only available on the T-Series) anyway. The machine handled buckets of Firefox tabs, IM windows, and even live voice messaging without flinching, leading us to assuredly say that the SL400 will not disappoint when it comes time to multitask.

The flip-side to this coin was boot time, which turned out to be quite abysmal, even for a Vista notebook. The SL400 took 1 minute and 4 seconds to even reach the Vista login screen, and nearly another 25 to reach the desktop and open a Firefox Window. As mentioned, we’ve seen this problem consistently with Vista notebooks, but the SL400 was a particular disappointment. If you need to bring the SL400 to life in a hurry to share something with a client, you had better be good at small talk, because it’s going to be a while.

Since our machine came equipped with an Nvidia GeForce 9300M GS video card, we took that as an invitation to run it through the ringer with a few games. Unfortunately, the card falls on the lower end of Nvidia’s 9-Series notebook cards, so gaming performance wasn’t one of the notebook’s highlights, but it’s passable if you’re not playing the latest and greatest titles. For instance, it squeaked by with modern games like Need for Speed ProStreet and BioShock, but needed the settings toned down to play nicely, and still choked on certain scenes that demanded that extra bit of computing horsepower. Given the machine’s position as a business machine, though, we can hardly count it against it; just know that paying the extra $125 for discrete graphics won’t turn a mild-mannered business notebook into a screaming gaming rig.

With the extended nine-cell battery our SL400 came equipped with, we managed to milk a hair over three and a half hours out of the machine with average use. That can’t be considered bad, but considering that it’s with the largest battery you can plop into this thing, it certainly doesn’t come off looking like an energy miser either. If you plan on working away from home for long, you’ll definitely need to bring the power brick along. Fortunately, it’s lightweight and won’t add much bulk to your notebook case.

Lenovo ThinkPad SL400 Keyboard
Image Courtesy of Lenovo

Size & Weight

The SL400 starts at 5.5 pounds, which puts it dead in the middle of the weight spectrum for 14.1-inch machines, right on par with competitors like the Sony CR, Dell Latitude E5400, and Gateway T-Series. If you’re unfamiliar with notebook weights, this is the kind of heft you can expect to throw in a bag and carry quite easily, but not exactly forget it’s there. Options that add some significant weight, like the 9-cell battery, start to push the SL400 into the uncomfortable-to-carry category.

As far as dimensions go, the SL400 could definitely be considered on the chunkier side. It measures a uniform 1.5 inches deep, which is really nothing to be proud of when a 15-inch MacBook Pro is just a hair over 1 inch. Lenovo has positioned the SL series as a budget machine, though, and that extra flab piled on under the keyboard gets shaved directly off the price tag.

Software

Lenovo’s basic ThinkVantage suite of programs worked to our satisfaction, but some of the supplied shortcuts seemed like pure clutter. For instance, our machine had a link to ThinkVantage GPS 2.0 placed on the desktop, even though our computer didn’t come equipped with any GPS features, and the SL400 in fact cannot come equipped with any internal GPS. Meanwhile, we had to dig hard and actually search online to find any information about ThinkPlus maintenance, one of the most hyped services available for the SL-series notebooks. Spraying shortcuts all over the desktop of a brand new machine is bad enough, but finding irrelevant ones stuck in the mess makes the situation even worse. Lenovo needs to spend more time tailoring the preloaded software to the hardware it actually ends up on. “One size fits all” is for oversized t-shirts and cheesy vacation hats.

Ports & Connectors

Lenovo certainly doesn’t skimp when it comes to connectivity on the SL400 – it had everything we would expect for a practical business machine, and a little more. You have your basics: four USB 2.0 ports, Ethernet and modem jacks, headphone in and out jacks, and VGA video output. But Lenovo also steps up the game with a few more exotic choices. HDMI, for instance, is usually only available on higher end multimedia notebooks, but makes a useful addition to the SL400 since many newer projectors and flat-screen TVs use it, and a 1394 FireWire port can come in handy for hard drives and camcorders.

Display

Our SL400 came optioned with Lenovo’s glossy 14.1-inch VibrantView display, which ratchets up contrast at the expense of adding harsher glare in well-lit situations. Fortunately, it costs nothing as an option when you go to customize your machine, meaning its less an “upgrade” and more a matter of preference. We found that it delivered exceptional brightness and much livelier color than Lenovo’s antiglare equivalent, which always struck us as a little dull. Of course, the tradeoff comes when you try looking at darker screens, like those in many games, at which point it basically turns into an opal mirror. Individual preferences reign here, but business users who will be taking in a lot of black-on-white text and poring through spreadsheets will probably find the crisp VibrantView option more suited to their liking.

Build Quality

No surprises here. As usual, Lenovo has built a rock solid notebook that offers barely so much as a squeek or flex in its shell. From the crisp click of its keys to the smooth and sturdy wrist surface, Lenovo hasn’t cut any corners, despite the budget nature of the machine. The only feature that stood out as a potential weak spot was the DVD-ROM tray, which wiggled a little more than we would have liked, but this is a common problem across notebook optical drives.

Annoyances

Every notebook inevitably delivers a few quirks we’re not too fond of, and while the SL400 was overall quite a tame machine, it did have a few irritating habits. The worst of the them turned out to be the fussy Wi-Fi, which worked reliably after initially connecting, but refused to connect after bringing the machine back from standby, forcing a reset. We’re sure this could be fixed with a driver update or other fiddling, but for a stock machine, this type of enormous headache really irked us.

The fingerprint reader also gave us some hardware issues. It took us far too long to get the hang of scanning with it, and even then, we encountered some problems beyond simple user input error. Sometimes Windows stalled at the login screen while waiting for the results of a scan, leaving us waiting indefinitely and eventually forcing us to just use a password. Overall, it’s one feature we don’t recommend shelling out $25 for.

Finally, the bleep this notebook lets out when plugged in is enough to wake the dead. OK, that’s an exaggeration – and a bad cliché – but it’s more than enough to draw all eyes to you in the back of a quiet conference room or lecture hall when you plug it in, which is just as bad as zombies, as far as we’re concerned.

Conclusion

With the SL400, Lenovo has taken the best features of its iconic T-series, stripped out the fluff, and put a nice gloss (literally) on the final product. Unfortunately, it could use a little more polishing on the inside, given the unusually long nag list that we usually don’t find with Lenovo notebooks. But a few pinholes won’t sink this sturdy business notebook, and we would definitely recommend it to power users who don’t mind figuratively grinding a few rough edges off the notebook themselves. Considering these machines can be had for as little as $639 in usable configurations, they may be some of the most attractive notebooks in Lenovo’s line for budget-minded business buyers.

Pros:

• ThinkPad durability and feel
• Powerful Core 2 Duo processor options
• Sharp, bright display
• Reasonable pricing

Cons:

• Glossy lid captures fingerprints easily
• Extraordinary slow boot time
• Glare can be an issue with VibrantView display
• Certain functions seemed buggy