Lenovo ThinkPad X390 review

Lenovo's new ThinkPad is small, sturdy, and annoyingly short on stamina

The ThinkPad X390 is the classic ThinkPad design, but it won’t win any new fans.
MSRP $1,299.00
The ThinkPad X390 is the classic ThinkPad design, but it won’t win any new fans.
The ThinkPad X390 is the classic ThinkPad design, but it won’t win any new fans.

Highs

  • Typical excellent ThinkPad build quality
  • Very good productivity performance
  • Great keyboard and touchpad
  • Strong security features

Lows

  • Short battery life
  • Hinge is too tight
  • Glance feature keeps webcam light turned on

DT Editors' Rating

The ThinkPad series hasn’t always been a trend follower, often bucking modern stylings for tried-and-true conventions. But even the ThinkPad couldn’t resist the wave of change that is thin bezels. Enter the ThinkPad X390, which equips a larger 13.3-inch display and uses smaller bezels to fit into a still-small chassis.

We received a ThinkPad X390 configured with a Core i7-8565U, 16GB of RAM, a 512GB PCIe solid-state drive (SSD), and a Full HD (1,920 x 1,080) IPS touch display. Like all ThinkPads, the configuration is priced at a premium, coming in at $1,649 ($1,237 on sale right now). The base model starts at $1,000 for a Core i5, 8GB of RAM, a 128GB SSD, and an HD (1,366 x 768) display.

ThinkPad fans should rejoice at the option of a smaller laptop that offers the usual ThinkPad advantages without compromising on screen size. Did Lenovo deliver?

Looks and feels just like every other ThinkPad, only smaller

The ThinkPad has a very specific look, and the X390 doesn’t do anything to change that. It has the same all-black aesthetic with the usual angled ThinkPad logo with red LED dot on one corner of the lid, another (unlit) logo on the keyboard deck, and the same red trim on the touchpad/TrackPoint buttons. ThinkPads remain one of the most recognizable laptop lines around, and the X390 doesn’t buck that trend.

The build quality is also excellent, as expected. You can bend the lid if you try hard enough, but the keyboard deck and chassis bottom are rock-solid and exude durability. Lenovo subjects its ThinkPads to MIL-STD-810g military certification, and the X390 is sure to have passed with flying colors. The military standard is something the laptop shares with the Asus ZenBook 13 UX333, although Asus asks a less premium price for the luxury.

The ThinkPad X390’s build quality is excellent, as expected.

The bottom portion of the laptop’s chassis combines magnesium and aluminum for a good balance between weight and rigidity, with the typical ThinkPad soft-touch feel to the keyboard deck, and the lid is constructed of polyphenylene sulfide (PPS) plastic. The hinge is very tight, though, and you’ll need both hands to open it.

Although this is Lenovo’s ThinkPad entry in the 13-inch laptop sweepstakes, there’s no attempt here to keep up with the Joneses. The display bezels are thinner on the sides than on the top and bottom than the previous version, but Lenovo didn’t even try to make them as tiny in any dimension as the class-leading Dell XPS 13 and Asus ZenBook S13. That makes the ThinkPad X390 a small but not tiny laptop – it’s 12.28 inches wide by 8.55 inches deep compared to the XPS 13, for example, at 11.9 inches by 7.8 inches.

The X390 isn’t extremely thin either. Although it’s 12 percent thinner than the previous version at 0.67 inches, it’s bit thicker than the XPS 13 (which is 0.46 inches at its thickest point). The ThinkPad weighs 2.84 pounds (5 percent lighter), making it just slightly heavier than the XPS 13 at 2.7 pounds. Note that the slightly larger 14-inch ThinkPad X1 Carbon is just 0.62 inches thick and weighs only 2.49 pounds – meaning that the X390 isn’t the most portable ThinkPad you can buy.

Here’s what’s interesting, though: hold the ThinkPad X390 side-by-side with the XPS 13 and you’ll certainly notice the difference in size and weight. But when simply using the ThinkPad by itself, it’s more than small enough and offers some advantages in its soft-touch and high-quality materials. Unless size and weight are your most important considerations, you’ll probably like the way the ThinkPad X390 feels in hand.

The keyboard borrows from its larger siblings, and that’s a good thing.

The slightly thicker chassis does allow the ThinkPad X390 to have a robust selection of ports. Along the left-hand side, you’ll find two USB-C ports (one with Thunderbolt 3), an Ethernet connection, a USB-A 3.1 Gen 1 port, a full-size HDMI 1.4 port, and an audio combo jack. Along the right-hand side, you’ll find a USB-A 3.1 Gen 1 port, a Kensington lock connection, and an optional smart card reader. A microSD card reader is on the rear of the chassis. An Intel dual-band chip provides gigabit Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 5.0, and an optional LTE radio and SIM support are available.

The usual excellent ThinkPad input options

The ThinkPad X390 borrows its keyboard mechanism from its larger siblings (along with the reversed Fn and Ctrl keys that we always trip over at first), and that’s a good thing. We found the keystrokes to be deep and to provide a satisfying click that produced a precise and consistent feel. The keyboard is one of the primary selling points of the ThinkPad line, especially for those coming from a low-travel keyboard like the MacBook Pro.

That being said, the mechanism required slightly more pressure than we’ve experienced on other ThinkPad keyboards, and a lot more than the lighter touch on the XPS 13 and the HP Spectre x360 13. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing comes down to personal preference, but we do wish the keyboard was a bit less stiff.

Lenovo ThinkPad X390 review
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

You’ll find the usual bright red TrackPoint nubbin in the middle of the keyboard, along with two buttons at the top of the touchpad that can be used with either cursor control option. The TrackPoint works as smoothly as always, and if you’re a fan, you won’t be disappointed. The touchpad fills the available space on the keyboard deck, and it supports Microsoft’s Precision touchpad protocol. As such, Windows 10 multitouch gestures are precise and a real productivity boost.

The touch display was responsive and nice to have for swiping through long web pages and tapping the occasional on-screen button. There’s no pen support, as is most common with clamshell laptops. If that’s something you want, then Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 2 is one of the few that provides it.

Windows 10 Hello password-less login support is provided by two convenient methods. There’s an optional infrared camera that provides facial recognition support, and if you prefer, an optional fingerprint reader can be configured. The ThinkPad X390 provides for webcam security with Lenovo’s physical ThinkShutter that slides over to keep users safe from prying eyes.

ThinkPad X390’s display is very good and we have nothing to complain about.

In another nod to privacy and security, Lenovo will be offering an optional PrivacyGuard display in the summer that, like HP’s SureView privacy screen, renders the display unviewable from any angle other than straight on. The privacy panel will be augmented by Lenovo’s PrivacyAlert software that will let you know when someone is looking over your shoulder.

But wait, there’s more! Lenovo also implemented a new feature that will lock the laptop when you step away and unlock it via Windows 10 Hello when you return. Also, the Glance software can snap your cursor from window to window and from display to display just by glancing, if you’re connected to an external monitor (or more).

We’ll note that the Glance feature requires the webcam to be constantly active, meaning the webcam light is always on – and it’s quite bright. Also, neither auto-login and lock nor Glance will work if you’ve engaged the ThinkShutter privacy feature.

An average display drags down this laptop’s average

Lenovo offers a few display options for the ThinkPad X390: HD (1,366 x 768) anti-glare, Full HD (1,920 x 1,080) IPS anti-glare, and Full HD anti-glare with touch. Our review unit equipped the latter.

We applied our colorimeter, and the display tested out as completely average. This is becoming a theme in our reviews: A contrast ratio of around 750:1, a brightness level of around 275 nits, around 71 percent coverage of AdobeRGB and 95 percent coverage of sRGB are where many of our latest reviews have fallen.

And that’s almost where the ThinkPad X390 falls as well. Its contrast was 750:1, its brightness was 274 nits, it covers 71 percent of AdobeRGB and 94 percent of sRGB. Look at our comparison group, and you’ll see that some displays are better and some are worse but for the most part, they fall in the same range. Interestingly, the least expensive ZenBook 13 has one of the best displays here.

The thing is, the ThinkPad X390’s display is quite enjoyable in real-life use. It’s plenty colorful, its gamma is perfect at 2.2 and so video is neither too bright nor too dark, and the display can overcome ambient light in most environments. And so today’s average display, of which this is one, is very good indeed and nothing to complain about.

Lenovo ThinkPad X390 review

If you’re a creative professional who needs very accurate colors and a wide color gamut, then you’ll want to look elsewhere. But for productivity and media consumption, the ThinkPad’s display is very good.

The audio was also average, but that’s less of a compliment. Volume was sufficient for interacting with Windows 10 and playing the occasional YouTube video, but bass was non-existent, and mids and highs just barely got by. You’ll want to use headphones for listening to music or enjoying Netflix binges.

Excellent productivity performance

The ThinkPad X390 is built around the increasingly popular Intel 8th-generation Whiskey Lake Core i7-8565U. This quad-core processor invariably provides strong productivity performance and good efficiency.

First, we ran the Geekbench 4 synthetic benchmark, and the ThinkPad X390 performed extremely well. It scored 5,331 in the single-core test and 17,704 in the multi-core test. These are strong scores that beat out the other laptops in our comparison group using the same CPU. For example, the closest competitor was the Huawei MateBook 13 that scored 5,041 and 17,070.

Next, we ran our Handbrake test the encodes a 420MB video to H.265. The ThinkPad completed the test in 274 seconds, which is average. The MateBook 13 completed the test in 243 seconds, demonstrating that Huawei did a slightly better job than Lenovo of translating synthetic benchmark results to the real world.

We also tested the ThinkPad X390’s storage speeds using the CrystalDiskMark 6 benchmark. It scored 627 megabytes per second (MB/s) in the read test and 560 MB/s in the write test. This was in the upper tier of our comparison group, falling in second place behind the Huawei MateBook X Pro at 674 MB/s (read) and 658 MB/s (write).

Lenovo ThinkPad X390 review
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Note that although the ThinkPad X390 was just average in our video encoding test, it’s nevertheless plenty speedy for even demanding productivity tasks. During our testing, we never noticed it slowing down no matter what we threw at it.

Another advantage of the ThinkPad’s materials is that it does a good job of keeping heat away from your body parts. No matter how hard we pushed the laptop, neither the chassis’ bottom nor the keyboard was uncomfortably hot. The highest temperature we registered during our testing was 104 degrees F on the bottom of the chassis directly over the CPU/GPU, and that was during a 3DMark stress test.

Entry-level gaming is in the cards

The ThinkPad X390 is limited to integrated Intel UHD 620 graphics. As usual, that meant we didn’t expect to enjoy playing anything more than casual games or very old titles.

According to the 3DMark Fire Strike test, our expectations were reasonable. The ThinkPad X390 scored 1,173, which was in line with the other laptops in our comparison group using the same integrated graphics.

We then ran Fortnite and recorded the laptop’s performance. At 1080p and both High and Epic graphical detail, the ThinkPad X390 was essentially unplayable. You’ll need to step up to a laptop like the Acer Swift 3 with at least the Nvidia GeForce MX150 GPU if you want to play this or any other modern title.

Disappointing battery life

Lenovo only managed to squeeze in 48 watt-hours of battery capacity into the ThinkPad X390’s chassis. That’s less than the smaller XPS 13’s 52 watt-hours, and the HP Spectre x360 13 makes better use of its own slightly larger chassis to fit in 61 watt-hours worth of battery. The CPU is efficient and the display is only Full HD (as opposed to a more power-hungry 4K resolution), but we weren’t too optimistic about the laptop’s longevity.

As it turns out, our doubts were justified. In our most demanding Basemark web benchmark test, the ThinkPad X390 managed just over three hours. The MateBook X Pro lasted a few minutes less, but the rest of our comparison group lasted longer.

Switching to our web browsing test, the ThinkPad X390’s performance dropped off even further. It lasted just a little over seven hours, almost an hour less than the 2019 MacBook Air and almost five hours less than the Spectre x360. The results in our video test had the ThinkPad X390 lasting for about 11 hours, almost identical to the MateBook X Pro and slightly more than the MacBook Air. The Asus ZenBook 13 UX333, though, lasted for around 13.5 hours while the Spectre x360 lasted for a whopping 17.5 hours.

The ThinkPad X390 would have benefitted from a larger battery. The chassis is big enough, and as it stands, we’re not sure the laptop will get you through a full working day without needing to plug in. That’s a shame, especially for the price point the X390 fits in.

Our Take

The ThinkPad X390 is a ThinkPad through and through. It’s built like one, it feels like one, and it’s just as much of a pleasure to work with. If you love ThinkPad but want a smaller version – and the previous 12.5-inch display didn’t excite you – then the ThinkPad X390 is a great alternative.

At the same time, battery life is a real concern for a laptop that’s meant for business-oriented road warriors. And nothing except the ThinkPad brand stands out compared to some better – and less expensive – laptops.

Is there a better alternative?

The most obvious comparison is the Dell XPS 13. This is a tiny 13-inch laptop indeed, and while it’s constructed of different materials, it feels nearly as robust. You’ll get better battery life out of the Dell and similar performance, and you’ll likely pay slightly less depending on your configuration. You’ll pay $1,559 ($1,303 on sale) for a Core i7, 16GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD and a Full HD touch display.

Another option is the Asus ZenBook 13 UX333. This is a great-looking laptop that’s not nearly as conservatively designed as the ThinkPad X390, and it sports the same military standard testing. You’ll also pay considerably less, at just $850 for a Core i5-8265U, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD. There aren’t many configuration options available in North America, though, so your choices will be limited.

Finally, if MacOS can work for you, then the Apple MacBook Air is another option. It’s also a smaller laptop and has its own rock-solid build quality, and it’s also quite premium in spite of its slower, low-power Core Y processor. The MacBook Air costs $1,400 for a Core i5, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD.

How long will it last?

As usual, the ThinkPad X390 feels like it will last forever, and it has the components to match. It should last you for as long as you need it to, and then some. The 1-year warranty is disappointing, though.

Should you buy it?

Not unless you’re a diehard ThinkPad fan. The X390 is a pleasure to use, it’s fast, and it exudes durability, but its battery life is a real concern.

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