Lenovo Thinkpad T430s Review (i5 with Nvidia Optimus)
I’ve had a Thinkpad T410s for the past 2 years, but the non-Trim Samsung hard drive was hurting my productivity, and IT agreed to buy me a new computer. Naturally, we turned to the recently released T430s. As I really wanted to run 3 displays with the Series 3 Mini Dock Plus I already had, we decided to get the Core i5 model with Nvidia Optimus graphics. I’ve had the machine now for a few days, and while I’m still waiting to upgrade from 4GB to 16GB of RAM, I thought I’d share some thoughts and benchmarks for those who may be considering purchasing this machine.
Here are my T430s specs (model version is 2352-CTO):
- 14.1 inch, HD+ LED display (1600×900)
- Intel Core i5-3320M processor (3M Cache, up to 3.30 GHz)
- 240GB Corsair Force 3 SSD
- NVidia Optimus 5200m + Intel HD 4000 graphics
- 4 GB PC3-12800 DDR3 (1 DIMM) (will update when I get 16GB)
- Intel Centrino Ultimate-N 6300 AGN
- Integrated Bluetooth 4.0
- Mobile Broadband Ready
- 6 Cell Primary Battery
- Ultrabay battery
- Fingerprint reader
- Multi-touch Touchpad
- 720p Webcam
- DVD-RW Drive
- Windows 7 Professional 64-Bit
- ThinkPad Mini Dock Plus (Advanced Series 3)
- Weight: 3.89 lbs (haven’t weighed it personally)
- Full Specifications at the Lenovo site
Body and Keyboard
The feel of the T430s is excellent, very similar to my T410s. The computer feels incredibly sturdy; the ThinkPad quality still remains, with solid steel hinges and a magnesium chassis. The palm rests have less flex than my T410s. At the same time, the laptop is under 4 pounds. While this is becoming more common with today’s ultrabooks, they don’t possess the array of ports and docking connection. Compared to many laptops at this price-point, Lenovo continues to lead in build quality.
I was originally concerned about the chiclet keyboard, especially coming from the T410s. I can say that the general keyboard is still a pleasure to type on, with good feedback, comfort, and tactile response. The touchpad seems a little more accurate then my T410s, as I haven’t had a problem with gestures so far. I’m adjusting to the new key placements; so far it isn’t bad. The BIOS still allows the switching of the Fn and Ctrl keys, something I did almost immediately. I miss the hibernate key, but I appreciate having a dedicated Print Screen key at the bottom. I don’t particularly care for the top row of the keyboard, however; the function keys are squashed together and raised a few millimeters from the rest of the keyboard, making them more difficult to touch-type with.
The backlighting on the keyboard is fine, with two levels of strength. I will probably continue to use the tried and true think-light near the webcam when it is necessary, but it’s nice to have options.
The fingerprint reader is one of my favorite features, and it seems to work well, though there is a little bit of an aesthetic change. I appreciate that the green light is not on when the computer is turned off (though you can still scan your finger). I’ve missed swipes more often than on my T410s, but it may just be me adjusting to a new layout.
Thinkpads are not known for having great screens, and the T430s continues that tradition. The high resolution screen is crisp, and the horizontal viewing angles are acceptable.
Unfortunately, the vertical viewing angles are quite poor, slightly worse than my T410s. Playing the the gamma helps a little, but this is not a screen that will work well to share a movie or even a webpage with another person if you are at different heights.
Overall, I’m disappointed in the screen, especially with some companies, notably Apple, really producing some excellent displays at this time.
In addition, I’ve really noticed issues with greys and off-white colors blending into white backgrounds. See the image below where I compare Apple’s store; you can hardly make out the adapters on the left side of the page on the T430s, but they look fine on my external monitor. The only way to see them is to tilt the screen back about 120 degrees, and then the rest of the colors begin to warp. This issue is becoming more noticeable the longer I use the machine. Setting Gamma to .8 and Saturation to 15 does seem to help significantly, though my external monitor is still superior.
Ports and Docking Station
I’m still using my previous generation Mini Dock Plus Series 3 (433810U), but it seems to work just fine, save for the understandable lack of USB 3.0 support.
The Thinkpad itself has the following ports:
- 2 USB 3.0
- 1 Powered USB 2.0
- 1 USB/eSATA
- Gigabit ethernet (10/100/1000)
- Expresscard 34mm (I have an SD card reader in here)
- 3.5mm audio
- VGA out
- Mini Displayport
The introduction of two USB 3.0 ports was welcome, especially in this age of ultrabooks with only 2 USB ports total. Note that the Displayport has changed size, so older adapters will no longer work. It is, however, now compatible with Macbook adapters.
Noise, Heat, and Battery Life
The fan runs a little louder under load than my T410s, but not enough to really be bothersome. Even when running graphics benchmarks, the computer didn’t become very hot.
In daily use (some web browsing and document editing) I was able to get around 4 hours of use with Nvidia graphics enabled, and closer to 5 with them disabled. I am at 75% display with the maximum better life settings in the Lenovo Power Manager and an extra bay battery.
I ran a DVD with Windows Media Player on battery at 80% brightness with balanced power settings. The computer lasted 2 hours and 15 minutes before going to sleep. This was with the primary battery alone (DVD drive was in the bay). Though slightly better than my T410s, I really don’t feel that an extra battery should be necessary just to hit 4 hours, especially since it adds a little extra weight.
As a final note, the T430s is not “rapidcharge” out of the box. My batteries take 4+ hours to fully charge from a dead state.
Performance & Connectivity
So far, the T430s has handled nearly everything I’ve thrown at it without a hiccup. I timed it, and from a total shutdown state it boots to the Windows desktop in almost exactly 30 seconds. I’m not a huge gamer, but I fired up Mass Effect 3, and was able to play on max graphics settings without any issues.
Sound quality was solid for a laptop. The dual speakers project well, and while you won’t see rich bass, they are perfectly acceptable for a laptop of this size.
My wireless card has been great, giving a consistant 300 mb connection to my 802.11n dual band network on both 2.4 and the 5 Ghz bands. Copying a 1 GB file over the network took just under a minute with a constant 18.5 megabyte stream. I’ve done some bluetooth tethering, and it also works flawlessly.
Windows Experience Index
WEI is not the best measure of performance, but it is a good starting point.
The processor is a powerhouse, and the Corsair SSD also pulls its own weight. I expect the memory score to increase once I jump to 16 GB of RAM, and will update the review accordingly. Interestingly, the Intel HD 4000 graphics posted a slightly higher score than when I enabled the Nvidia Optimus (more on that below)
3DMark is a staple of graphics benchmarking, and I tested the T430s with Nvidia graphics enabled and disabled, with the following results:
The graphics score is passable for some moderate mainstream gaming like Starcraft 2 or Mass Effect 3, but this is not a machine built to run Crysis 2. The Intel HD 4000 score seems low, but I believe that the 4GB of RAM is keeping that score down.
A newer, general benchmark that has seen more use of late.
A score of 5895 is a little on the low side. For reference, the newest 2012 Macbook Air with a 1.8 Ghz i5 processor scored a 6,195 when reviewed by Engadget. The 4GB of RAM is again dragging the score down, as the processor is scoring a respectable number. Again, I will update the benchmark once I get more RAM.
This is where things really started to go downhill. Nvidia graphics are a $300 upgrade, but I really wanted to run 3 displays at a time. As I noted above, battery life takes a noticeable hit when the Nvidia graphics are enabled in the BIOS, so that is already one knock against this feature.
Looking at benchmarks above, the Nvidia graphics do make a difference when compared with the integrated solution. However, with 16GB of RAM I expect the integrated graphics to close the gap, as this forum post with the i7 and 16GB of RAM shows a score of P4200, just barely below the Nvidia score. It appears that the Nvidia solution offers no real benefit over the Intel 4000 HD integrated graphics.
But at least I can run multiple monitors, right? Unfortunately, I am unable to power more than two displays simultaneously. I have connected two monitors through the VGA and Displayport on the laptop, and through the DVI ports on my dock. In both cases, I can see the 2 external monitors and the internal LCD in the Intel and Windows settings, but can only ever enable two of them. The Nvidia control panel, which normally has a “multiple display” setting, only shows 3D options. Lenovo sales assured me that the computer could power 4 displays, and their web documentation is such a mess that I struggled for hours trying to figure out the problem.
After hours of investigation, it seems that all of the display adapters are powered by the Intel graphics, which is a departure from the T420s, when the Nvidia graphics powered the digital output (Displayport and DVI). The readme documentation for the Nvidia driver seems to confirm this problem, stating that “No display is connected to this display adapter” for the 5200m. The Nvidia control panel also seems to show that only the Intel graphics powers all of the display adapters, as you can see in the screenshots below, where it is compared with the w520.
I went so far as to endure a frustrating, hour long support call. The support staff and supervisor kept insisting that the Nvidia graphics would power up to 4 displays, even when he remotely logged in and I showed him the readme and Nvidia control panel. He eventually sent me recovery disks, insisting that it would solve the problem. While I appreciate that Lenovo offers USA-based phone support, this was not a great experience for me.
Finally, one of my coworkers also ordered the same machine and tried to install two different Linux distros. Even with the Nvidia graphics disabled in the BIOS, he was unable to reliably power just one external monitor in addition to his T430s. Eventually, he was forced to return the machine and ended up with a Mac.
In the end, it’s clear that the Nvidia graphics serve no purpose but to add unnecessary 3D acceleration, and can even be a net negative over integrated graphics (such as when using Linux). My advice is to purchase the i7 model with integrated graphics; it is cheaper and offers more value.
- Best chiclet keyboard I’ve used
- Solid build
- Speedy processor
- Quick boot times
- Lots of ports
- Works with existing docks
- Poor viewing angles on the screen
- No support for more than 2 simultaneous displays, even with Optimus graphics.
- Nvidia graphics offer no real graphics performance gains to the Intel HD 4000
- Mediocre battery life
- Top row of keys is a little difficult to press
- Frustrating sales and support experience
I had always been a fan of Thinkpads, despite their history of mediocre displays. The solid build quality, great keyboards, powerful internal components, and great docking solutions have generally outweighed their issues. The T410s and T420s have been able to keep all of these aspects in a sub 4 lb form-factor with dedicated graphics, a feat very few competing machines can match.
With the wave of ultrabooks being released, Lenovo faces increasingly impressive competition, and I feel that the T430s risks falling behind. An extra battery is required just to hit the low-end of battery life in the ultrabook market. The screen quality is barely acceptable. Worse, the T430s removed support for multiple external displays that was present in the T420s, and the Nvidia Optimus graphics provide no value on top of the integrated card. I could probably live with the screen, but the lack of external monitor support coupled with the frustrating hours I spent to finally figure out the problem (despite the best efforts of Lenovo sales, marketing, and support) have left a very bad taste in my mouth.
Despite my personal concerns, the T430s remains a solid machine, with powerful internal components, a great keyboard, and solid construction. At the end of the day, if you don’t mind buying a bay battery, don’t need more than 1 external display, and can live with poor viewing angles, the Thinkpad T430s is still probably a worthwhile purchase. If you decide to purchase the T430s, I would definitely recommend the i7 version with integrated graphics. For myself, I am debating whether to return my T430s for a notebook from another vendor that supports their own marketing and sales claims, powers multiple monitors, and provides a better quality screen.
Feel free to leave a comment. I will try to answer any questions as I have time.