capsule review

Lenovo ThinkPad Edge E420: Lenovo Style in an Affordable Package

At a Glance
  • Lenovo ThinkPad Edge E420

    PCWorld Rating

    Fans of ThinkPad keyboards and input devices should welcome this affordable, not-too-heavy model, but gamers and hard-core number crunchers should look elsewhere.

Lenovo ThinkPad Edge E420 all-purpose laptop
Lenovo positions its ThinkPad Edge series as being slightly more stylish than its other lines while retaining the usability features that have long made ThinkPads popular with corporate users--and that's a pretty fair assessment. What the PR people don't mention is that the performance may not be great. For general business use, however, the ThinkPad Edge E420 we tested would certainly be adequate, and its price will appeal to small-business owners and other people in search of an affordable all-purpose laptop with a 14.1-inch display.

Configured with an Intel Core i3-2310M CPU (the low-end chip in Intel's current-generation lineup), 4GB of DDR3 1.3MHz RAM, Intel HD 3000 graphics, a 500GB 7200-rpm hard drive, and the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Professional, our test system came with a modest price tag of $719 (as of July 21, 2011). This laptop also includes a built-in fingerprint reader, Bluetooth, an integrated 720p webcam, a 34mm ExpressCard slot (unusual in a budget laptop), an SD/MultiMediaCard slot, and a DVD burner.

The major downer with our test unit, as previously mentioned, was its performance. It turned in a lackluster WorldBench 6 score of 98, and frame rates on our Far Cry 2 and Dirt 2 gaming tests were equally disappointing, topping out at 32 frames per second for Dirt 2 running at 800 by 600 resolution with the lowest detail settings on the laptop's 1366 by 768 display. Of course, those scores were not particularly surprising given the low-end Core i3 CPU and the integrated graphics, but they should give pause to anyone who needs to run processor-intensive applications such as large databases or video editors. The good news is that Lenovo offers faster processors and more memory as customization options--but you'll pay handsomely for such upgrades.

In our tests, battery life was 5 hours, 5 minutes--not bad for an all-purpose notebook, but nothing special. You can opt to improve the result by paying extra ($50) to upgrade the six-cell battery in our test machine to a nine-cell battery, but in addition to the extra expense you'll likely add weight.

That would be a pity, since one of this laptop's selling points is its relatively compact and (for an all-purpose machine) lightweight form: At 4.7 pounds, the ThinkPad Edge E420 is definitely one of the more portable units in its class, and its presence in a backpack shouldn't overly tax a frequent flyer.

The E420's soft-touch black lid, with gently rounded corners and a silver-colored edge, adds a subtly classy note to the traditional ThinkPad aesthetics. With the lid open, you can see that the soft-touch finish repeats on the surface below the keyboard, which (as usual) is one of the best reasons to consider any ThinkPad. Here, the keys are gently curved, contoured, and separated, making touch typing a delight.

Lenovo has upended the way you use the row of function keys at the top: Now, the controls that you once had to press the Fn key to access (brightness and volume adjustments, Wi-Fi on-off toggle, media pause and play, and so forth) are the defaults for those keys. If you want an actual function key (F1, F2, and the like), you must actually press the Fn key. This approach is an innovation that makes a lot of sense, given that most people use the system controls a lot more than they use the function keys. But the arrangement can be reversed in the system BIOS, if you prefer.

As usual, you get both the red-dot joystick and a spacious touchpad for navigation. The touchpad supports multitouch functions, which will likely appeal primarily to people who like to pinch and zoom Web pages; I found it nicely responsive, but you can opt to turn it off if you elect to add a mouse. The only regrettable omission is a backlight for the keyboard.

The ThinkPad Edge E420's LED-backlit display is another selling point. The antiglare screen on our unit (you can opt for a glossy display at no extra cost) offers better-than-average off-axis viewing, both from the side and--more atypical at this price--the top and bottom. The built-in webcam is one of the better models I've seen, with lots of image-quality controls; however, when I set it to the highest resolution, video started to get a little choppy. Audio quality is less exciting: While the speakers are capable of reasonably loud volume for a laptop, they produced somewhat tinny and jangly sound.

The port array is fairly typical for a laptop of this class: Although its lack of USB 3.0 support is disappointing, it does boast four USB ports, one more than usual. Lined up on the left edge, from front to back, are the SD/MultiMediaCard reader atop the headphone jack; one HDMI and three USB 2.0 ports (including one combo USB-eSATA port); and a VGA-out port. On the right edge, in front of the DVD burner, the ExpressCard slot sits atop an always-on USB port (great for charging peripherals even when the E420 isn't in use).

One other disappointment is the lack of 5GHz 802.11n Wi-Fi support; you get only the 2.4GHz frequency band. Even though that isn't uncommon at this price point, the limitation confines you to an often-overcrowded frequency, which can slow down or interrupt connections significantly in busy urban environments. Lenovo offers an upgrade that adds both dual-band 802.11n and WiMax support, and I'd recommend paying the extra $55 for it.

Lenovo preloads a slew of its ThinkVantage utilities to help with everything from biometric security to Web conferencing; also preinstalled are the starter edition of Microsoft Office 2010, Skype, and Corel apps for video editing, DVD burning, and DVD playback. Some unusual software options include an introductory edition of Biztree's Business in a Box business-document templates, plus Lenovo's SimpleTap software for easy access to frequently used settings (including the ones on the top row of keyboard keys), apps, websites, and documents. Even better, these programs are not installed by default: You get to decide whether to load them.

All in all, the Lenovo ThinkPad Edge E420 shapes up as an attractive general-use laptop if gaming and processor-intensive tasks--or superlong battery life--aren't of major concern. It's good looking, easy to type on, and equipped with a useful array of features and software. None of its minor flaws should be deal-breakers for its intended audience of budget-minded users.

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At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    Fans of ThinkPad keyboards and input devices should welcome this affordable, not-too-heavy model, but gamers and hard-core number crunchers should look elsewhere.

    Pros

    • Great ergonomics, fairly lightweight
    • No 5GHz Wi-Fi
    • Good webcam, four USB ports, and ExpressCard

    Cons

    • Mediocre performance and battery life
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