I've finally done it. Four years and a bit after purchasing my first notebook, a Dell Inspiron 6400, I've bought a new machine: Lenovo's ThinkPad Edge E420s. Here is my review.
The decision process has already found its way into a blog post in which I explained why I decided against integrated 3G. It also alluded to why I picked the E420s over Sony's VAIO SB, which would have been a marginally smaller and more expensive choice — the E420s is a 14-incher, while the SB's screen is a 13.3in. affair.
I will admit, when I opened the box I did find the E420s a bit bigger than I'd anticipated. Seeing as it only has a 1,366-by-768-pixel resolution, this does mean I'm not getting the crispest images out there. It's also not especially bright. For that, I'd need to get a Samsung Series 9, which is extremely pricey and lacks discrete graphics — a must for me, as I like the occasional game. As it is, the E420s configuration I chose comes with a 2GB AMD Radeon 6300M GPU, which I haven't had a chance to seriously test out yet.
Now, the E420s also comes with Intel's 2.3GHz Core i5-2410M CPU, which has pretty good integrated graphics — good enough for DVDs and web-surfing, but unlikely to handle Civilization V. Because the GPU is AMD, it doesn't use Nvidia's Optimus graphics-switching technology.
However, Lenovo has included the ability to assign the option of low-power or high-performance graphics to the profiles of various applications. This is how Optimus works, more or less, but the AMD implementation is a lot more opaque, and I find myself longing for a simple speed/stamina switch, as is found on the VAIO.
The E420s's screen uses 'Infinity Glass' — that is, it stretches from one end to the other — and is very reflective. It is readable in direct sunlight, but judicious angling is recommended.
By the way, have a look at that battery gauge on the bottom right of the screen. It does give a good indication of how much juice is left, graphically speaking, but its estimates of remaining battery time are way off. This is another reason why I'd like to know whether integrated or discrete graphics are in use.
At least it's a chronic underestimator of remaining battery time, rather than promising what can't be delivered. I haven't done a lab test on battery life, but it easily manages five hours. Lenovo promises seven hours, and simple web surfing with a dimmed screen could probably achieve this.
Lenovo's E420s has a minimalist approach to LEDs. Apart from the small green LED next to the power input, which lets you know whether mains power is connected or not, all the notebook has is the two red lights that form the dots on the ThinkPad logos.
The light can be constantly on, flashing or off, indicating different power states.
One reason I chose the E420s was Lenovo's reputation for decent keyboards — I am a journalist, after all, and will be using this thing for work. I am not disappointed.
The keys are sized and shaped as well as notebook keys could ever be, and have excellent travel and feedback. They're not backlit, but the excellent ThinkLight is present to illuminate from above when needed.
The touchpad is enormous. However, its buttons are integrated into the bottom of the touchpad, and take a bit of getting used to. I've never really got to grips with the ThinkPad's little red TrackPoint nubbins, but this one seems to work all right, and I hear it's a skill worth acquiring. I'm already using it, together with the middle TrackPoint button, for some very smooth page-scrolling.
I'm also trying to get used to using the fingerprint biometrics for logging in. Still feels odd.
This is also the first notebook I've had with a slot-loading DVD drive. It handles smoothly and certainly adds to the style of the E420s. I rather like the big yellow power socket, too. The SD card slot is to the right of the DVD drive.
I have a slight concern about the speaker quality, though, and it may possibly have to do with the DVD drive. Here's what happened: I was playing Civilization IV, and the music started to cut out intermittently. Left the DVD in and watched a Tool video on YouTube, and the sound was slightly shonky there too. I then killed the game, ejected the DVD and watched the Tool video again — and it then sounded fine.
Then again, I later tested a DVD of This Is Spinal Tap, and the speakers were handling that fine. I may report back later if I find further issues.
Here are the E420s's USB ports, along with HDMI and the combo headphone/mic jack. It's all USB 2.0 — sadly, I'm not future-proofed for USB 3.0, but I don't really care about that right now.
The fan's on this side too. It's reasonably quiet, particularly when nothing taxing is running, and even when a heavy load is on it's not obtrusive — a problem, according to reviews, with the VAIO.
Gigabit Ethernet, eSATA and VGA connections are on the back. This shot also shows off the matte black lid, which I find a good thing. Not sure why everyone says they don't collect fingerprints, though.
And finally, the underside of the E420s, which I think shows off the rigid construction quite nicely. It doesn't have an easily accessible battery, though, so banish all thoughts of swapping that out in extra-long meetings.
So, am I happy with my choice? Kind of. It's not perfect, but it is tough and light, and... well, it's a notebook. Unless you're willing to shell out a couple of grand, any laptop will be something of a compromise, and that's what this is.
Pros: a mid-sized screen, a DVD drive, beefy discrete graphics, the latest Sandy Bridge processor, a high-quality webcam, a superb keyboard and what I consider to be attractive styling. Cons: low-res and slightly washed-out screen, lack of USB 3.0, slightly mystical graphics-switching.
Considering the spec I got was just north of £900 including VAT (and only because I bumped it up to 8GB of RAM rather than 4GB), I think it worked out as a very good deal.
I'm conscious, by the way, that this has been quite a consumer-ish review. For those considering this as a business machine, well, it's a ThinkPad. Lenovo's pushing it as an SMB machine, and it will certainly be an excellent choice for the besuited crowd as well.
Just beware of navigating Lenovo's appalling online purchasing system. That, as they say, is a different story...