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ThinkPad T420: A Classic Workhorse

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At a Glance
  • Generic Company Place Holder Lenovo ThinkPad T420 4177QKU Notebook

No one ever got fired for buying a ThinkPad, as the saying goes, and without a doubt no one will get fired for buying the latest Lenovo T420. This scintillatingly fast Sandy Bridge refresh of the familiar business-black, boxy-but-impressive, all-purpose laptop remains a reliable 4-pound workhorse, and you won't find a better keyboard anywhere. It's not pretty, as members of the IdeaPad series are, but it can do the job and then some.

Normally, Lenovo laptops earn an A+ for their ergonomics. The T420 comes close, but the rough surface of the T420's touchpad might be off-putting to some users. Nevertheless, the touchpad's texture makes it easy to locate by feel, and the placement and feel of the buttons are excellent.

The T420 scored a 124 on our WorldBench 6 test suite--an impressive score for an all-purpose laptop, even with an Intel Core i5-2520M, 4GB of DDR3 memory, and a 500GB, 7200-rpm hard drive on board. The frame rates sustained by the unit's Nvidia NVS 4200M GPU in our gaming tests were less impressive: The T420 is playable at low detail in resolutions up to 1024 by 768, but it's a near miss at higher detail settings.

At Lenovo's default power settings, we noticed a slight stuttering in high-bitrate video when the unit ran off of its battery. The stuttering didn't occur when the unit was plugged into the wall, or when we switched to less miserly power settings. On the other hand, choosing a different power profile means that--if you watch movies without the plug--you probably won't get the outstanding 8 hours, 37 minutes of run time that we recorded in our battery test.

The T420's audio is loud and clear, but lacking in bass through the speakers. The picture from the 720p webcam is outstanding, but while 720p is fine for taking photos or recording, unless you're on a local network, you should use a lower resolution for smooth video conferencing or calls.

The port selection on the T420 has a slight legacy bent. You get four USB 2.0 ports--one of them a combo eSATA/USB, and another always-on--but no USB 3.0 port. There's VGA and DisplayPort video output, along with SD/MMC and ExpressCard slots. Connectivity includes 2.4GHz and 5GHz (optional) wireless, plus gigabit ethernet. Bluetooth and WLAN antennas are integrated , but neither technology was on board our test unit.

The T420 is available with either a 1366-by-768-resolution or a 1600-by-900-resolution 14.0-inch display. Our $1249 test configuration came with the latter display, which proved crisp, bright, and flawlessly backlit. A DVD-RW burner comes standard, but there's no Blu-ray option to show off the screen to best effect.

Also available are a plethora of docking stations and accessories, a fingerprint scanner, and Smart Card reader. The many T420 configurations all seem to be on sale, all of the time. A barebones unit costs $799 (as of August 25, 2011) while one with the full panoply of extras, including an SSD, runs about $1600.

The T420 is available with Windows 7 Home Premium or Professional; a number of other software packages are available. Our test unit shipped without antimalware software, but Microsoft's Security Essentials is free for the download.

The T420 is solidly constructed and offers racehorse performance. It's highly configurable with multiple warranty options, as befits a business laptop. Just about every IT person we know swears by the T series--for their clients and themselves. That should tell you everything you need to know about the long-term reliability of these laptops.

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At a Glance
  • The venerable T420's staid countenance belies its outstanding performance, reliability, and features.


    • Solidly built
    • Fast performer with a great keyboard


    • No USB 3.0
    • Textured touchpad has an odd feel
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