Average user rating
- Solid build quality
- Large, high-resolution screen
- Built-in mobile broadband
- Attractive price
- Hardware design makes it fiddly to access ports and connectors
- Webcam lacks features
- Battery life could be better
Lenovo's ThinkPad notebooks are prized by business users for their robust build, good security features and solid performance. The new SL series is specifically designed for small businesses and offers, says Lenovo, a cost-effective mix of performance, wireless and multimedia features. One of the star attractions of the SL series — which comprises the 15.4in. SL500, 14.1in. SL400 and 13.3in. SL300 — is built-in mobile broadband. We looked at the SL500, which comes in two configurations: our top-end review sample (NRJ4FUK) costs £700 (ex. VAT), while the lower-spec model (NRJ4DUK) comes in at £550 (ex. VAT).
The SL500 has a shiny piano-black lid that gives it a superficial resemblance to many of today's consumer-focused notebooks. But behind this façade, the design remains businesslike and the build quality robust.
The corners and sides are particularly tough, and we especially like the rim that runs all around the lid section. Although there's no clasp between the lid and the system unit, this rim ensures a very firm fit between them when the notebook is closed.
The SL500 has a modest footprint for a 15.4in. system (35.8cm by 26cm), although it's quite thick at 3.7cm. It weighs 2.9kg, so you'll notice it in your bag if you take it on your travels.
The screen is a major plus point. It has a native resolution of 1,680 by 1,050 pixels and is very easy on the eye. The anti-glare coating doesn't stop it being a little difficult to read with a light source directly to the rear, but it's far easier to live with in this respect than the shiny screens on many consumer notebooks. The cheaper SL500 model has a lower-resolution (1,280 by 800) screen.
The spill-resistant keyboard has a row of full-height number keys above the QWERTY layout, and a two-thirds-height Function key row above that. The usual inverted-T arrangement of cursor control keys incorporates media playback controls via Fn key combinations.
There is a fair amount of give in the keyboard, which heavy-handed typists may find disconcerting. Individual keys have a good return, though, and we found the keyboard comfortable to use. There is a fingerprint scanner on the right-hand side of the wrist rest.
Beneath the keyboard, a two-button touchpad incorporates vertical and horizontal scrollers. Above the touchpad are three further buttons for use with a trackpoint that sits between the G, H and B keys. The central button can be held down to turn the trackpoint into a vertical and horizontal scroller.
Our only real gripe with this arrangement is the touchpad itself. It's relatively small compared to the screen area and it takes the better part of three full sweeps to get from the left edge of the screen to the right. If you do a lot of work with the cursor rather than using keyboard shortcuts, our advice is to use a mouse.
To the left of the keyboard is a vertical strip of four buttons. Three of these are volume controls (up, down and mute), while the fourth opens a sidebar headed Lenovo Care. This gives access to a range of on-board and external features. For example, you can search for wireless networks within range, change the display settings, configure the trackpoint and touchpad, change power settings, backup and restore the notebook, and 'get help from a Lenovo expert' — which effectively means going online to get assistance.
Our £700 (ex. VAT) SL500 review model, the NRJ4FUK, has a 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T5870 processor. The less expensive (£550 ex. VAT) NRJ4DUK runs on a 1.8GHz T5670 CPU.
The standard RAM complement is 2GB, expandable to a maximum of 4GB. Windows Vista Business is preinstalled, although you can downgrade to Windows XP Professional if required.
Graphics in our review sample are handled by a discrete Nvidia GeForce 9300M GPU with 256MB of dedicated graphics RAM. The cheaper model makes do with Intel's integrated GMA X4500 module.
Networking facilities are the same in both SL500 models. Wireless connectivity comes courtesy of Intel's WiFi Link 5100 AGN (802.11a/b/g and Draft-N Wi-Fi) and Bluetooth 2.0+EDR; you can also activate Vodafone mobile broadband simply by dialling the number on the provided card to kick off a 30-day free trial. On the wired side, there's Gigabit Ethernet and a V.90 modem.
In both models the optical drive is a dual layer DVD-R drive, which sits on the right-hand side of the notebook. The hard drive is a 160GB SATA unit spinning at 5,400rpm.
Both models have a webcam above the screen, in the middle. This is a fixed-position camera, so you'll normally need to move the notebook around to get the best picture. Lenovo provides a Camera Centre, which acts as a hub for both video conferencing and image capture.
The image capture software is from Roxio, and you need to register before using it. It will then capture images, video and audio. The maximum still image resolution is a decent 1,600 by 1,200 pixels. Video conferencing is handled by the Skype client, which you'll need to download.
The camera itself is pretty basic. It auto-adjusts brightness depending on lighting conditions, but coped very badly in our tests. With a window to the rear, you are rendered as a dark and undefined image; turn the camera into the room and your face is overexposed. You can manually adjust the camera settings, but it's not convenient to have to do this frequently. Other usability features, such as face tracking, are also lacking.
There are plenty of ports and connectors around the edges of the ThinkPad SL500. On the front is an on/off switch for wireless connectivity. On the right edge, in front of the optical drive, is a pair of audio jacks and two USB 2.0 ports, with a PC Card slot above. The Ethernet (RJ-45) and modem (RJ-11) ports are at the back of the right-hand side.
The left side carries a FireWire (IEEE 1394) port, a flash card reader that accepts most SD- and Memory Stick-compatible cards, an HDMI port and two further USB 2.0 connectors. Depending on the peripherals involved, it may prove difficult to use both of these USB ports at the same time as they are vertically stacked. At the back you'll find the power input and a VGA-out port.
The front and sides of the notebook slope rather steeply inwards. Icons on the top edges locate the position of the various connectors, but we found we had to either tip the notebook on one side or lean over to use them. This could become annoying over time.
Our review sample had a Windows Experience Index (WEI) of 4.4 (out of 5.9). The overall index corresponds to the lowest subsystem score, which in this case was Graphics (desktop performance for Windows Aero).
The highest-scoring subsystem was Primary hard disk (Disk data transfer rate) with 5.3. In between came RAM (Memory operations per second with 4.7, Processor (calculations per second with 4.9 and Gaming Graphics (3D business and gaming graphics performance) with 5.1. Taking all these scores into account, the SL500 can be judged an above-average all-round performer.
Lenovo rates the provided 6-cell battery for a maximum of four hours' life. We set the power scheme to Energy Star, which is designed to offer performance and battery life in equal measure. We then asked the notebook to play a DVD movie continuously, which it did for just 1 hour 39 minutes before giving up.
On this admittedly somewhat anecdotal basis, we think you'd be lucky to get through a solid morning's work involving some Wi-Fi and/or mobile broadband use without recourse to mains power.
The ThinkPad SL500 is attractively priced, solidly built and a good performer. We're particularly impressed with the high-resolution 15.4in. screen. However, its inward-sloping edges can make it difficult to locate ports and expansion slots, the webcam is basic and battery life could be longer.
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