capsule review

Lenovo ThinkPad SL400

At a Glance
  • Generic Company Place Holder Lenovo ThinkPad SL400 Notebook

    PCWorld Rating

Usually, ThinkPads don't come cheap. You expect to pay dearly for the classy keyboard, rugged chassis, and whatever top-notch parts lie under the hood. That's not quite the case with Lenovo's SL400 series of laptops.

These affordable, all-purpose machines start in the neighborhood of $650 and yet still offer much of the look and feel you'd expect from a more expensive ThinkPad. The SL400 model we received for evaluation was at on the upper end of the series, selling for about $1223 as of October 23, 2008, and it's a fairly solid deal.

Inside lies a reasonably speedy Intel Core2 Duo 2.26-GHz P8400 CPU backed up by 2GB of RAM and a 256MB nVidia GeForce 9300M GPU. Not too shabby. In our tests, this combination performed well, garnering a score of 84 on our WorldBench 6 benchmark test suite. That's well short of the Micro Express Microflex JFL 9290, which notched a 92, but it makes a strong enough showing to finish near the top.

Lenovo rolled out the SL400 before nVidia unveiled its GeForce 9400M, which debuted in the new Apple MacBooks--and the laptop suffers for its bad timing, as nimbler graphics processors will soon appear in new all-purpose notebooks.

Still, this Lenovo is a good performer for the price. Its six-cell battery kept the SL400 working for a little over 5 hours on a single charge--that's plenty of juice to keep you at the keyboard nonstop during a cross-country flight. The laptop's layout, screen, and beefy-meets-boxy 6.1-pound case indicate that Lenovo was shooting for a "strictly business" approach here.

A matte treatment on the screen does a good job of preventing sunlight from bouncing back in your face. The 14.1-inch, 1440-by-900-pixel-resolution panel is amply bright when cranked up all the way, but it's a tad dim in its native habitat (a standard fluorescent-lit office). As a result, in most settings, you'll be tempted to crank it up to full intensity, which unfortunately muddies the colors a little. On the bright side (pun fully intended), you can adjust the brightness for Video Playback mode (or any of five other default settings--or text size) with one click on a Lenovo application in the taskbar.

The SL400 has a fairly full-featured layout for an all-purpose machine. Four USB slots-- two on the left, two on the right--adorn the machine. HDMI- and VGA-out ports cover higher- and lower-end video support. In addition, you get a fingerprint reader, a Webcam, a four-pin FireWire port, a WWAN card, and GPS. The hard-drive bay is easy to unscrew, and popping in a replacement is equally effortless. Less pleasingly, this budget-minded business laptop has a boxier, less-rigid (though still sturdy) case than most ThinkPads have.

You won't buy this notebook for hi-definition audio, either. Music sounds slightly tinny (and hollow), though it got loud enough to distract my neighboring cubemates. Video streamed from Hulu sounded fine, but not robust enough for me to forgo headphones.

One corner that remains uncut is the SL400's keyboard, which--in the tradition of superb ThinkPad keyboards--is solid and buttery smooth to the touch. There was no loud clicker-clack as I typed away on the nigh-silent keyboard, and at the same time I could readily discern every key.

Another familiar ThinkPad trend: The SL400 has both a touchpad and a touch-point navigation device; not many laptops provide both these days. A couple of multimedia shortcut keys appear on the left side of the keyboard, but alt-function keyboard combos handle basic volume controls and practically everything else (for example, Fn + down arrow is the combination for Play/Pause multimedia). The one button to rule them all: a helpful blue backlit key that links to the Lenovo Cares utility suite.

The depth and breadth of the ThinkPad's software bundle goes well beyond what you normally get at first powerup. Many laptops content themselves with a 60-day trial of MS Office or some obnoxious antivirus package. Here, you receive a beefy Lenovo Cares application suite, which provides handy shortcuts and user-friendly apps without getting in your way. Everything from the ThinkVantage GPS tool (which tethers to Google Maps by default) to the proprietary Sidebar gadgets points to a well-conceived package.

Overall, the SL400 is a sound business laptop. Though it doesn't pack the firepower of some high-end machines, it gets the job done handily. Its combination of performance and value places it near the top of our charts.

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At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    This entry-level ThinkPad offers features (and software) one expects, once limited to lower-end models.

    Pros

    • Great connectivity options
    • Fantastic software suite

    Cons

    • Case isn't as solid as other ThinkPads
    • Not a huge shock, but lackluster sound
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