Lenovo ThinkPad X390 review: Solid, compact and travel-ready

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  • Editors' rating
    8.2 Excellent

Pros

  • Classic ThinkPad design
  • Good security options, including ThinkShutter camera cover
  • Plenty of ports
  • LTE mobile broadband option

Cons

  • Screen could be brighter
  • Keyboard action can be a little stiff

The latest addition to Lenovo's ThinkPad line of business laptops is the small-format 13.3-inch ThinkPad X390. It would be an easy addition to your hand luggage and has a tough outer shell, making it suitable for mobile professionals who don't want to carry a beast of a laptop. The 13.3-inch screen might be small for some users, but with up to a Core i7 processor on board there's plenty of power available. The option of LTE mobile broadband will be an additional lure for regular travellers.

The ThinkPad X390 follows the traditional ThinkPad design ethic. The chassis is a solid black, with the silver ThinkPad logo sitting askew in one corner of the lid.

I found I could flex the lid a little more than I'd like, but the base is very solid. Lenovo says the laptop has been tested against 12 military-grade requirements and more than 200 quality checks, and has soldered-down memory. It measures 311.9mm wide by 217.2mm deep by 16.9mm thick, and should fit into a small rucksack or bag. It's reasonably light at 1.29kg, too.

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The 13.3-inch ThinkPad X390 squeezes into a 12-inch chassis and has a starting weight of 1.29kg, making it a compact and reasonably lightweight travel companion.

Images: Lenovo
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The webcam's sliding ThinkShutter covers the lens when it's not required.

Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

Open up the lid and there is much more that's familiar: the keyboard includes Lenovo's characteristic TrackPoint and the touchpad is designed with three physical buttons, just like other ThinkPads.

There's a ThinkShutter for the webcam: slide it across the lens and nobody can surreptitiously use the camera to watch what you are up to. This useful feature is well on its way to becoming a ThinkPad mainstay.

Lenovo does not try to compete with other 13.3-inch laptop makers who reduce screen bezel to a minimum. The bezels are narrow, but if you want the leader in this respect, take a look at the Dell XPS 13. (NB: if you want minimal bezels, you may have to put up with a webcam mounted below the screen, giving a less than flattering 'up the nose' view during video calls.)

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The X390's hinges don't allow the screen to do a full 360-degree rotation, but they do allow the screen to lie flat on a desk. If you want full rotation, look to the ThinkPad X390 Yoga model.

There are three off-the-shelf variants of the ThinkPad X390 available (see below), all of which have a 13.3-inch, IPS anti-glare 300nits display. The two most expensive have touch screens, while the entry level machine does not. It's possible to tweak the specifications to your own preference.

SEE: 20 pro tips to make Windows 10 work the way you want (free PDF)    

The screen's anti-glare finish will please mobile professionals: bright lights -- from a train window, for example -- can be a real problem on a reflective screen. The recommended screen brightness for working on battery power is around 80 percent, but viewing angles aren't great at this setting. I used the machine on its recommended setting during the test period, but it was difficult to view the screen even slightly off centre. Switching to 100 percent brightness improved viewing angles, but at the cost of lower battery life.

Lenovo says the battery will deliver over two days of life. I doubt that is achievable in practice, but an all-day battery life should be possible even with the screen at 100 percent brightness. In one session I worked for five hours using the internet for music streaming with several browser tabs open at the same time. The screen alternated between 80 percent and 100 percent. The battery depleted from 99 percent to 64 percent during this time.

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The X390's keyboard is somewhat cramped in places, but otherwise up to the usual ThinkPad standard.

Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

The keyboard looks every inch a ThinkPad keyboard. The pot-bellied keys are a ThinkPad trademark, as are the TrackPoint and trackpad design. The TrackPoint works as expected, and when it's in use the thumb sits neatly on the physical buttons at the top of the trackpad.

ThinkPad keyboards are among my favourites to use. In this case the keys are springy and bouncy, with plenty of travel. However, they are a little too resistant on the downstroke, although they ping back nicely. I am a very light-touch typist, and heavier-handed typists may not notice the resistance.

The keyboard is also necessarily narrow. A number of the right-side keys, including the apostrophe, hash and square brackets, are narrower than usual, and it may take a while to get used to this. Also, it feels as though there's a little less space between the QWERTY keys than usual. People with large hands may feel the whole thing is a bit squished, but that's the price you pay for a 13.3-inch laptop in a 12-inch chassis.

There's a fingerprint sensor on the wrist rest, and an IR sensor for Windows Hello login next to the 720p webcam. A further security measure comes in the shape of an app called Glance, which can be configured to snooze the laptop under particular conditions that you configure.

Mobile professionals regularly need to conduct video calls or run presentations on their laptop, so sound quality is important. The X390's single speaker delivers a fair amount of volume, but the audio quality is distinctly tinny at the top end. Travellers should carry a headset and maybe a small external speaker too.

Here are the three off-the-shelf configurations of the ThinkPad X390 on Lenovo's UK website:

  • Intel Core i3-8145U, Windows 10 Home, 13.3- inch 1,920 x 1,080 pixel anti-glare non-touch screen, integrated Intel UHD Graphics 620, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD
    £1,069.99 (inc. VAT; £891.66 ex. VAT)
  • Intel Core i5-8265U, Windows 10 Pro, 13.3- inch 1,920 x 1,080 pixel anti-glare touch screen, integrated Intel UHD Graphics 620,  8GB RAM, 256GB SSD
    £1,219.99 (inc. VAT; £1,016.66 ex. VAT)
  • Intel Core i7-8565U, Windows 10 Pro, 13.3- inch 1,920 x 1,080 pixel anti-glare touch screen, integrated Intel UHD Graphics 620, 16GB RAM, 512GB SSD
    £1,549.99 (inc. VAT; £1,291.66 ex. VAT)

My review unit's configuration, while not identical with the most expensive off-the-shelf option, shared many of its features, including the Intel Core i7-8565U processor, Windows 10 Pro, 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD. The screen was not touch-enabled, though.

None of the three pre-configured options have integrated LTE, but my review sample did have mobile broadband. The slot is on the back edge of the base section, where it's protected by the lid when the laptop is in use. The caddy accepts a MicroSD card as well as a Micro-SIM.  

The left and right edges house a good array of ports and connectors. The right edge has a SmartCard reader and USB 3.1 port, but the bulk of the connectors are on the left edge: power in; USB-C with Thunderbolt 3; Ethernet extension for USB-C (a special adapter is needed); USB 3.1; HDMI; and 3.5mm audio.

Conclusions

Lenovo's ThinkPad X390 is a solidly built small-format laptop that frequent travellers should find easy to carry. Optional LTE broadband is welcome, but the keyboard feels a little squished and the screen could be brighter. All-day battery life is feasible, but users may struggle to achieve Lenovo's claimed two-day figure.

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