Lenovo ThinkPad T480s review

The ThinkPad T480s struggles to find its place in the modern world

If you really want a ThinkPad, skip the T480s and pick up the X1 Carbon instead.
If you really want a ThinkPad, skip the T480s and pick up the X1 Carbon instead.
If you really want a ThinkPad, skip the T480s and pick up the X1 Carbon instead.

Highs

  • Robust build quality
  • Decent battery life
  • Excellent connectivity
  • Good touchpad and keyboard

Lows

  • Subpar display
  • Thicker and heavier than alternatives
  • Expensive

DT Editors' Rating

Lenovo’s ThinkPad represents one of the most iconic lines of laptops ever made, appealing specifically to people who want great performance and robust build quality. Lately, though, a host of other machines offering as much or more value have been exerting some real pressure on the brand. Enter the ThinkPad T480s, which slots in next to the X1 Carbon to present ThinkPad-level business acumen without the thin-and-light focus.

We looked at a lower-end ThinkPad T480s configuration, with an 8th-generation Intel Core i7-8550U CPU, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB PCIe solid-state drive (SSD), and a 14-inch touch display. That configuration comes in at $1,700 (on sale right now for $1,360), though you can beef it up to a whopping $2,665.

The ThinkPad T480s isn’t inexpensive, it’s not particularly small or light, and it competes directly against its sibling, the X1 Carbon. Does it bring enough to give it an edge?

If you like the ThinkPad design, you’ll like this one

You can identify a ThinkPad from across a room, and the ThinkPad T480s is no different. It features the same jet-black exterior with glowing red “i” as every other ThinkPad. Opening it up, you’ll find the familiar black keys with white lettering surrounding the usual red TrackPoint nubbin and an extra set of buttons. If you prefer the ThinkPad look, you’ll be welcomed by the familiar aesthetic. However, long gone are the days when the ThinkPad was the only laptop with a distinct look. For example, the Microsoft Surface Book 2, Dell XPS 13, and MacBook Pro all have a unique, visual identity we like — and even prefer to the ThinkPad.

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

The ThinkPad T480s also upholds the line’s typical focus on providing a robust build quality. There’s the usual adherence to the MIL-STD-810G spec for durability and protection against the elements, and the materials feel good in the hand and evoke confidence in the notebook’s ability to withstand a few tumbles. But the lid is a little more flexible than we’d like, and the ThinkPad T480s doesn’t seem like it’s in a different class against competitors like the MacBook Pro, XPS 13 and the Huawei MateBook X Pro.

If you prefer the ThinkPad look, you’ll be welcomed by the familiar aesthetic.

Compared to the ThinkPad X1 Carbon, the T480s is rather chunky at 0.73 inches thick (compared to 0.62 inches), and it’s heavy at 2.9 pounds (compared to 2.49 pounds). That also makes it quite a bit larger than the XPS 13 and thicker than the MateBook X Pro, but it’s still competitive with the Surface Book 2 with its large fulcrum hinge.

One advantage of being slightly thicker and larger than the competition is it affords dramatically improved connectivity. The ThinkPad T480s is a prime example, packing in a host of connections while supporting Lenovo’s innovative USB-C side docking stations. Out of the box, the ThinkPad T480s has a USB-C Gen 1 port, two USB-A 3.0 ports, a USB-C with Thunderbolt 3, a full-size HDMI port, a gigabit Ethernet port, an SD card reader, and an optional smart card reader. Whew. And then there’s the typical 3.5mm combo audio jack and 2×2 MU-MIMO Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.2 radios. That’s all important stuff for business people, who will appreciate never having to carry dongles or adapters with them.

The inputs live up to the ThinkPad reputation

It’s not just the ThinkPad look and feel that are so iconic. It’s also the input options that identify a machine as a member of that line. It all starts with the keyboard, and the ThinkPad T480s sports the newer ThinkPad island keyboard style with the usual sculpted and backlit chiclet keys (two brightness levels). The switch mechanism provides deep travel and snappy feedback, but it also requires more than normal pressure.

If you like lots of feedback during typing, then you’ll probably love this keyboard. Some people, though, might find it more fatiguing than, say, the much lighter touch of the keyboards on the Dell XPS 13 and even the ThinkPad X1 Carbon. We found it difficult to adjust to after using so many keyboards that require a lighter touch.

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

The touchpad is nicely sized, even considering the extra buttons to accommodate the usual TrackPoint nubbin (more on that in a bit), and Lenovo smartly placed the fingerprint reader outside the touchpad. It’s a Microsoft Precision touchpad, and as with all such designs, we found it responsive with reliable support for Windows 10 multitouch gestures. We’re delighted to see that the MacBook line no longer holds such an advantage over Window touchpads.

At the same time, if you’re a ThinkPad fan, then you might prefer the TrackPoint, that little red nubbin sitting in the center of the keyboard. It’s a fine alternative to the touchpad, mainly because it lets you leave your keys on the home row for quick mouse movements. The version on the ThinkPad T480s was as accurate as ever, and it’s obvious why Lenovo keeps it around.

There’s also a touch display that we found a bit less responsive to light pressure, but it remains convenient for scrolling web pages and quickly tapping the occasional on-screen button. The fingerprint scanner worked well for logging in via Windows 10 while using Match-on-Sensor technology that keeps the fingerprint data on the chip for added security. Finally, the webcam also enhances security thanks to the ThinkShutter physical privacy filter that slides into place to keep out prying eyes.

A matte display that avoids glare, but that’s about it

Our review unit came with a 14-inch Full HD (1,920 x 1,080) touch display with an anti-glare coating that succeeds in reducing glare. Lenovo also offers a WQHD (2,560 x 1,440) that’s quite a bit sharper and will appeal more to pixel-peepers.

In our colorimeter tests, the display was decidedly subpar for such an expensive notebook. Brightness was a disappointing 240 nits, which is low even for an anti-glare display. Color accuracy was just okay, contrast was a bit low at 780:1, and the color gamut was downright poor.

The matte display avoids glare as designed, but that’s about all it has going for it.

We won’t even bother to highlight any comparison machines, because all the systems in our group of competitors have significantly better displays. Just check out the graph, and you’ll see the ThinkPad T480S as the low-quality outlier. Our subjective experience wasn’t any better – the display came across as lifeless, with little to recommend it except for the reduction in glare compared to glossy displays.

The audio was also underwhelming, with unimpressive volume and distortion at maximum noise levels. Lows, mids, and bass were all lacking, whether watching a movie trailer or listening to music. You’ll want a pair of headphones for anything but quick YouTube clips.

Good performance, but nothing unexpected

Our review ThinkPad T480s was equipped with the increasingly common 8th-generation Intel Core i7-8550U. That’s the latest quad-core CPU that can scale up for demanding tasks while spinning down when possible for increased efficiency. Typically, it’s a great performer.

As it turned out, the ThinkPad T480s matched other similarly equipped notebooks in our tests. In the synthetic Geekbench benchmark, it was generally in line with competitors like the very fast Dell XPS 13 and the slightly slower Huawei Matebook X Pro. And in our Handbrake test, which encodes a 420MB file as H.265, the ThinkPad T480s again fell in between those two comparisons.

Next, Lenovo equipped the notebook with the Samsung PM961 PCIe SSD, a fast drive that typically means that booting, opening apps, and accessing large files won’t slow a machine down. Here, the ThinkPad T480s provided performance that was just slightly behind the curve compared to other similar notebooks.

lenovo thinkpad t480s front full open
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Overall, the notebook’s performance was nothing special, and that’s not really a bad thing – the ThinkPad T480s is a solid performer for just about any productivity user. You’ll be able to churn through all but the most demanding tasks without delay, but you also won’t find the notebook to be the speediest option around.

Integrated graphics mean casual gaming is the best choice

You can configure the ThinkPad T480s with a discrete GPU, specifically the Nvidia GeForce MX150, but our review unit was limited to integrated Intel HD 620 graphics. We weren’t too excited about running our gaming benchmarks.

Unsurprisingly, the ZenBook S performed the same as other thin and light notebooks. It fell just slightly behind the ThinkPad X1 Carbon and XPS 13 in the 3DMark synthetic benchmark, with scores that promise nothing better than casual games or older titles at lower resolutions and detail. In Rocket League at 1080p and performance mode, it ran at 49 frames per second (FPS), which dropped to 22 FPS in high-quality mode.

In short, don’t buy this notebook, or at least this configuration, if you’re looking for portable gaming. You’ll at least want to step up to a configuration that includes the MX150 GPU, or better yet invest in a real gaming laptop instead.

Battery life was – surprise! – also average

Lenovo built 57 watt-hours of battery capacity into the ThinkPad T480s chassis, which isn’t terrible, though it seems that there must be some wasted space inside. Nevertheless, the Full HD display and efficient processor had us hoping for good battery life.

As with so much else about this notebook, the ThinkPad T480’s battery life was decent but not great. It managed just under four hours in our most aggressive Basemark web benchmark test, which fell short of every machine in our comparison group except the Dell XPS 13 – and that notebook was equipped with a power-hungry 4K display.

In our web browsing test, the ThinkPad T480s lasted for just under nine hours, behind all our comparison machines except, oddly enough, the slower X1 Carbon that did unusually poorly here. And in our test that loops a local video until the battery runs out, the ThinkPad T480 did better, going for almost 11 hours and slightly edging out the Huawei Matebook X Pro and the XPS 13. It once again soundly beat the X1 Carbon.

While its build is robust, and the classic ThinkPad look is all there, it doesn’t stand out from the competition in any meaningful way.

In short, the ThinkPad T480s will likely last you a working day on a single charge, but that doesn’t stand out. Most of its competitors will do the same, and they’ll do so while also being thinner, lighter, and easier to carry around.

Our Take

The ThinkPad T480s doesn’t make as much sense as its predecessors. It’s not as thin and light as the ThinkPad X1 Carbon, and its performance likely isn’t any better when comparing the same processor configurations. While its build is robust, and the classic ThinkPad look is all there, it doesn’t stand out from the competition in any meaningful way.

Is there a better alternative?

If you want a ThinkPad, then choose the X1 Carbon instead. It’s similarly priced at $1,754 ($1,315 on sale) for the same Core i7-8550U, 8GB of RAM, 256GB SSD, and 14-inch Full HD touch display. And if you crank up the configuration to a faster Core i7-8650U, 16GB of RAM, 1TB SSD, and WQHD display with Dolby Vision, you’ll add just $100 more. That will provide you with an equally robust build that’s thinner and lighter, a more comfortable keyboard, and a display that supports high dynamic range (HDR) video.

Or, you can step down a bit in size and look at the Dell XPS 13, which performs equally well and battery life in a chassis that’s significantly smaller. You’ll also spend less money, at $1,450 ($1,250 on sale) for the same configuration. You won’t enjoy MIL-STD-810G build quality, but the XPS 13 is no slouch in that department, either.

The ThinkPad T480s can also be equipped with an Nvidia GeForce MX150 GPU, and if you’re looking at that configuration, then the Huawei Matebook X Pro is a competitor. It, too, uses that GPU in a slightly thinner and lighter frame, and it offers superior performance at a $1,500 price point 16GB of RAM, a 512GB SSD, and a higher-resolution 3,000 x 2,000 display.

How long will it last?

The ThinkPad T480s is built extremely well and will hold up to some abuse. Lenovo built in the latest components, and so the notebook should keep up with most of the productivity tasks it will be asked to perform well into the future. The warranty is a little disappointing for a business-class notebook, providing only a year of coverage.

Should you buy it?

No. The ThinkPad brand alone doesn’t make the T480s stand out. There are better laptops out there around this price — and even better ThinkPads.

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