Home > gadgets > Lenovo Thinkpad T430s Review (i5 with Nvidia Optimus)

Lenovo Thinkpad T430s Review (i5 with Nvidia Optimus)

June 24th, 2012

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.

T430s open

Specs

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.

T430s closed

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.

T430s keyboard

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.

Screen

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.

T430s with screen at a normal angle

Normal

T430s Screen Angled Back

Angled back

T430s Screen Angled Forward

Angled forward

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.

T430s screen comparison 90 degrees

90 degrees

T430s screen comparison 120 degrees

120 degrees

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.

T430s playing movie

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.

Benchmarks

Windows Experience Index

WEI is not the best measure of performance, but it is a good starting point.

WEI scores: Processor - 7.2, Memory - 5.9, Graphics - 4.9, Gaming - 6.4 (6.3 on Nvidia), Hard Disk - 6.8

WEI scores: Processor - 7.2, Memory - 5.9, Graphics - 4.9, Gaming - 6.4 (6.3 on Nvidia), Hard Disk - 6.8

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 Vantage

3DMark is a staple of graphics benchmarking, and I tested the T430s with Nvidia graphics enabled and disabled, with the following results:

Score - P3162

P3162 (Nvidia graphics disabled)

Score with Nvidia Graphics P4498

P4498 (Nvidia graphics enabled)

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.

Geekbench

A newer, general benchmark that has seen more use of late.

Score: 5895

Score: 5895

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.

Nvidia Graphics

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.

T430s Nvidia Control Panel

T430s Nvidia Control Panel

w520 Nvidia Control Panel

w520 Nvidia Control Panel

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.

Conclusion

Pros

  • Best chiclet keyboard I’ve used
  • Solid build
  • Lightweight
  • Speedy processor
  • Quick boot times
  • Lots of ports
  • Works with existing docks

Cons

  • 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

Final Thoughts

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.

Resources

Feel free to leave a comment. I will try to answer any questions as I have time.

Categories: gadgets Tags: , , , ,
  • Tim

    Thanks for the review mate, I was considering the i5 + nvidia graphics now I will probably get the i7 ;) thanks for the heads up.

  • http://forums.lenovo.com Mark

    Josh,

    Thanks for your well considered and balanced review. Will look into our supported configurations and work to get this clarified.

    Thank you for highlighting this!

    Mark

  • http://pirsquared.org/blog Paul Ivanov

    Thanks for the review.

    I have a similar machine (smaller 120G SSD, 8G RAM, different wireless card, no fingerprint reader) – and wanted to report that I was able to run a projector (VGA out) under Debian GNU/Linux (sid) [ I've only tried mirroring so far ] . I have not yet been able to go through to set up Bumblebee to see if using the NVIDIA card for CUDA will work under Debian.

    I have to disagree with the keyboard assessment: it may be just that I got a bad one, but my “Y” key was a bit wonky when I got the machine, and broke off after 3 days of use. And it’s not like I’m some ogre that doesn’t know how to use laptops, my previous machine was a Dell E1405 that lasted me 6 years (and is still functional, though with a pretty dim screen, loose hinge, and short battery life). Depending on the outcome of fussing around with bumblebee, I may be sending the machine back, otherwise just contacting Lenovo support to get a replacement keyboard shipped.

    As for battery – I am disappointed that rapid-charge doesn’t seem to be present. I was at 49% charge (from dead state) after 40 minutes.

  • Roger

    @Paul Ivanov I’ve seen reports that to get rapid charge you need a different battery pack, and that it is 4 cell instead of the regular 6. The reason is because the charging generates heat and 4 cell generates less of it. Of course that leaves you with even less battery capacity too.

  • http://forums.lenovo.com Mark

    Josh,

    We have done some additional testing and found that the T430s can support 3 displays total if two of the displays are connected via digital. The regular T430/T530 with optimus can support 4 displays.

    Here are the Configs we tested today:

    T430s Optimus can support up to 3 independent displays in the following configurations:
    1. ThinkPad LCD + digital1 on dock + digital2 on dock (no VGA)
    2. VGA on dock + digital1 on dock + digital2 on dock (no ThinkPad LCD)
    3. ThinkPad LCD + miniDP on ThinkPad + digital on dock (no VGA)
    4. VGA on dock + miniDP on ThinkPad + digital on dock + (no ThinkPad LCD)

    T430s Optimus can only support 2 independent displays in the following configuration:
    5. ThinkPad LCD + VGA on dock

    In other words, it is not possible to use ThinkPad LCD + VGA + digital at the same time. The only way to get 3 independent displays is for 2 of them to be digital, then the third display can be either VGA or the ThinkPad LCD.

  • http://www.joshuamorse.com Josh

    @Mark

    I have tried every combination I can think of: dual DVI on dock, DVI + DP on dock, and DVI + DP on laptop. Nothing works – I can see all of the displays, but cannot enable in Windows resolution settings or Intel graphics. I have an older model Series 3 mini dock, but I wouldn’t think that would be an issue.

    I took some screen caps to illustrate my issues. If I try to enable a third monitor in resolution settings, the second just turns off.

  • Willem

    @Mark/Josh

    I can confirm Josh’s findings. I have the T430s i7 w/integrated graphics and the (old) 170w dock with dual-DP … I work happily with 3 displays active, 1x internal 1600×900 and 2x DP external 1920×1200

  • el

    @Mark

    What OS did u tested?

  • Mike

    Just wondering if those of you with the older Series 3 minidocks have tried the e-sata port with the 430s docked? They swapped it for a USB3 port in the new docks, but if it still works and everything else is fine, I will opt for the older generation. I would still have access to at least one USB3 on the right-hand side.

  • http://forums.lenovo.com Mark

    Josh, el, We were working with 32 and 64 bit versions of Windows 7. A formal tip is in progress of being released that should provide more details. I’ll check back with the engineer that did the testing to see if he has any thoughts why you still aren’t getting 3. He demonstrated all the combinations for me – with 2 different docks. I’ll try to get part numbers just to confirm we are using same things. Sorry for not stopping back by here sooner.

    Mark

  • John

    Josh, noticed you were using Corsair Force 3 SSD, which apparently is the typical 9.5mm height. Does it fit into the chassis OK? Lenovo rep claimed that the drive must be 7mm height for this T430s. Thanks.

  • http://www.joshuamorse.com Josh

    @John Hi John. The Corsair drive I used is 7mm. I believe it is this one. A 9.5mm drive will not work.

  • Andre

    Josh, great review, much appreciated as I’m considering finally upgrading from my T60 /T61′s dual core Thinkpads. Their Windows Experience indices (with SSD, running Win 7) are ‘only’ 10-20% less than the T430s but I figure the newer T430 would run photoshop and other office apps much faster.

    Two questions:
    1- you mention here that the T430s has a USB/ eSATA connector. Is this correct? it was true of the T420, but it is not listed in the T430s Lenovo specs page
    http://www.lenovo.com/products/us/laptop/thinkpad/t-series/t430s/T430s-datasheet.pdf
    2 – re multiple monitors, have you tried using the mini displayport, w orw/o vga/ digital adapter ?

  • Yuki

    @Josh
    Josh, thank you for your review on T430s. I was about to purchase it and noticed that I can only configure T430s with i5 and NVS5200M paired. You indicated that Intel can support 2 monitors. You were able to use 2 monitors simultaneously. So, you can enable 2 external but not LCD on laptop with NVIDIA? If I were to get i7 configuration, would I be able to still power 2 external monitors, but not LCD? I forwarded your posting to Lenovo rep and she came back saying that I need to get new Mini Dock part#433815U and I should be able to use 4 monitors.

  • http://www.joshuamorse.com Josh

    I have not used the i7, but users in forums report that they can power 2 external monitors + internal at the same time using the i7 with a dock. My i5 has never been able to power more than 2 displays simultaneously (either 2 external or internal and one external, even with the dock). The rep you spoke with is incorrect; no T430s models can power 4 displays because the Nvidia graphics card has no access to the display adapters.

  • Yuki

    @Josh
    I have been using T 15 inch models for last 6 years and my current one has i7. I read your review and other one which indicate that T430s had to beefed up with RAM16MB in order to just keep up with T430 with 4MB. Where is the effect of THUNDERBOLT? I read above that T430 can handle 4 monitors fine with NDS5400M (only $50 upgrade on T430 vs $330 on T430s). It seems like saving of 0.7 lbs is causing a lots of shortcomings. Do you agree that maybe I should stay with T430 and I can have i7 with NVS5400M?

  • http://www.joshuamorse.com Josh

    @Yuki
    If you want to run 4 monitors, you must get the T430 rather than the T430s. I really liked the size of the T430s, but there are definitely more compromises concerning video this time around. If you do go for the T430s, get the i7, but if you want dedicated graphics that can run multiple monitors, get the T430 (or another brand of computer).

  • vfsvfl

    Thanks for this review. I literally had a T430s configured & ready to buy before I stumbled across the news on external monitors.

    You saved me some money & a LOT of aggravation. I was willing to try Lenovo but now I’m leaning more to HP Envy…

  • http://www.makeitmindful.com @mindful_mktg

    my T430s automatically shuts off the wireless antenna when I dock, but does not turn it back on when I undock. My corp tech support gave me a ridiculous response: “manually turn off the switch before docking, and manually turn on the switch after undocking”. I have to imaging there’s a better (automated) way to do this. any ideas?

  • Hai

    I have one question. I have the same laptop as you do (even to the model version). I am currently running on the 320gb HDD. I want to upgrade to a SSD (which can you suggest me a good fit for this laptop). I ask the tech support at Lenovo as to what’s the max capacity I can upgrade to and he said 180gb. I see that you’re running on a 240gb SSD. Was he lying to me or he just didn’t know his stuff? Thank you in advance.

  • John

    We just ordered a batch of the i7 T430s models with the Optimus upgrade. I can confirm that at this stage they still haven’t fixed the number-of-displays issue. The Nvidia driver doesn’t detect any monitors, Windows 7 and Windows 8 both show all the displays going out the HD4000 card, and I’ve yet to get my 2 DVI monitors working with the onboard display.

    I’ve heard that displayport instead of DVI would work, but I’ve been unable to test as my monitors are only DVI. My Displayport to DVI adapters (one dell cable, DP/N 0XT623, and one Accell dual-link adapter, the “UltraAV DP to DVI-D”) do not work.

    I found your post, and this one on the Lenovo support forums – http://forums.lenovo.com/t5/T400-T500-and-newer-T-series/Multiple-monitors-with-T430s-Nvidia/td-p/776971 . Someone’s reported some tips to getting it to work, but I’ve not had success.

    In short, the more-than-2 display problems on the t430s are not resolved with the i7 model w/ the optimus upgrade, off the manufacturing line in January of 2013. Shame, really – my great experience with the T420s was why I went to the T430s without a second thought.

    Lenovo: I’ll be looking at Dell a little harder for my department’s upcoming purchases. This was a serious faux-pas.