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ThinkPad Buyers Guide: Which Broadwell ThinkPad to buy?

Build Quality

Most ThinkPads have a very solid build quality, even E-Series and L-Series are often robust enough in that department, at least compared to what you get as a consumer device in this price range.

The real deal however are the T-series, the X-series and the W-Series models. They share common premium features: carbon fiber and glass fiber materials, making them extremely light and strong at the same time, unlike the more affordable L and E, which are mostly plastic. And of course then there is the magnesium structure frame that is in almost every T-series, X-series or W-series model, called roll-cage.

While the normal T-series, W-series and X-series are already great, there are a two models that are the absolute top of the line: The ThinkPad T450s and the ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 3. These models are built with the most premium materials found in all ThinkPads, and they have the most premium finish materials and coatings. If you want the best of the best, these are the way to go.

Of course, the rest of the T/X/W-series are excellent too. The T550, W550s, X250 and T450 are all very robust and solid builds. And if you are on a budget, L and E are great for the price you pay.

Mobility

Mobility is the sum of battery performance, the weight and the size. While most ThinkPads of today are very mobile, the do differ a bit in their mobility.

For example, take the Lenovo X1 Carbon Gen 3: It is a very lightweight system, starting at 1.29 kg (with a Full HD display panel). While it has the superior 14″ 2560×1440 display, the highest resolution panel on all ThinkPads with the exception of the FHD++ screen in the 15″ models of course, it has a footprint of a typical 13″ system, like the first X1 Carbon. It is of course also the thinnest ThinkPad of all. So you could say, it is the model with the best weight/size ratio in relation with the screen size. Whats the catch? The battery performance. While improved compared to the last gen X1 Carbon, with a bigger 50 Wh battery, with 9 hr under low load, its still not the top of the line battery performance you get with other models.

You want the ultimate battery performance? Then you have to accept a thicker and heavier system, but the payoff is great: T450(s), X250 and T550/W550s all are top when it comes to battery life, thanks to their innovative dual-battery design. With the optional 6-cell battery, we can be sure, even without actual reviews yet, that the battery performance will be absolutely stellar. Both the X250 and the T450(s) can come with up to 95 Wh battery capacity, meaning they should max out at around 16-18 hrs (first review of X250 says 18 hrs, the T450(s) will probably be slightly lower, but not far away). The T550 and the W550s however give you 114 Wh (!) with the optional 6 cell battery. 20 hrs might be possible, but may be difficult if you have the recommended 2880×1620 FHD++ screen…

All in all, if you want the best weight and size with a large screen, take a look at the X1 Carbon. If you want the big screen and stellar battery performance overall, and great CPU performance, T450s and T550/W550s are the best choice. The ultimate mobility ThinkPad of course is the X250 – smallest machine, weight almost as low as the X1 Carbon, and also stellar battery performance. Screen is only 12.5″ big though, and its not as thin and light, or as sexy as the X1 Carbon though.

Keyboard

Great keyboards are a hallmark feature of ThinkPads, and none of the current models should displease you. There are some small differences however: The smaller and more mobile models, like the X250, New X1 Carbon or ThinkPad Yoga 12, have slightly less travel. Also, the 12.5″ and smaller models have a keyboard that’s slightly less wide, which means some keys are smaller and the Insert key is missing on those models (accessible via FN + Home). 15.6″ model of course have the same, full size layout like 14″ models, only with the addition of a number-pad, so if you work a lot with numbers, that might be a nice option.

Another major differentiator between premium and mainstream ThinkPads is the backlit feature. E-Series and L-Series don´t have this feature. T, X and W models all come optionally with a backlit keyboard. The X1 Carbon always has one, as well as the various ThinkPad Yoga models, with the exception of the ThinkPad Yoga 11e.

Sometimes its nice to change the keyboard – maybe if you like a foreign keyboard layout more than the one available in your home market. So what also might be important to you: How easy is it to exchange the keyboard, for the time after the warranty? Well, its very easy for most models. All T, W, L and E models have very easily removable keyboard. ThinkPad Yoga 14 and 15 as well. The only models where it is more difficult: ThinkPad Yoga 12, X250 and the New X1 Carbon. On the ThinkPad Yoga 12 and on the X250, you have to take apart the whole unit to exchange the keyboard, on the X1 Carbon you have to change the whole palmrest to change the keyboard. So, if you often want to change the keyboard, these models might not be for you.

Display

Display quality was a very difficult for ThinkPads for many years. Since the discontinuation of FlexView in 2007, it was always a topic in ThinkPad forums. But no more: Since 2013, there are plenty very good screens available in nearly all models.

You do want Ultra-high resolution? No problem! 15.5″ 2880×1620 FHD++ IPS screens are available in T550, W550s and W541, and 14″ 2560×1440 WQHD IPS is optional for the X1 Carbon.

Want IPS for wide viewing and brilliant colors? Its not an option on nearly all models. T450s comes with brilliant 1920×1080 FHD IPS screens, made by LG and AUO (and yes, its not the same LG screen as in the T440s – the new screen is the LP140WF3-SPD1, the old one was the LP140WF1-SPK1). The X250 is available either with FHD IPS screens or HD IPS screens, both made by LG. Yoga 12, 14 and 15 all come standard with FHD IPS screens made by LG (12) or LG and AUO (14 ) or LG and Samsung (15). T550, W550s, W541 and the New X1 Carbon are available with the mentioned high-res IPS screens, the 15.5″ screen is made by Panasonic and the X1 Carbon screen is made by LG. Also, models like the L450 and the ThinkPad Yoga 11e come with IPS screen options (FHD on the L450, HD on the Yoga 11e). So plenty of IPS options, in all sizes.

sRGB? No problem for the IPS screens in T450s, W550s, T550 and X1 Carbon.

Of course, base TN options are still available for all ThinkPad except the Yoga models, although not recommended. But if you are on a budget, they might be your only option – with the exception of the L450, which should be very affordable, the most affordable 14″ IPS ThinkPad yet. Only models without IPS are T450 and the E450/E550.

Performance

All ThinkPads equipped with Core i CPUs will deliver very good performance. Most ThinkPads today come with 15 W U CPUs, which provide mainstream performance for most needs. They run cool, quiet and efficient. The models that stand out of the crowd CPU performance wise are the W541 as well as the last gen T440p and T540p (not yet updated to Broadwell). Here you get 37 W and 47 W, even 57 W Extreme (on the W541) Quad-Core CPUs with plenty of performance for workstation tasks.

The W-Series is also the series with the most powerful GPUs in ThinkPads. Wether you want to do you CAD work or gaming (which is kind of blasphemic on a ThinkPad, I admit – but I do it too), these will suit you the best. The X-Series is the only series where dGPUs are not available in general, so for graphic intensive stuff, T, L and especially W are better. Notice however that the T450(s) doesn´t come with a docking-port if you choose the optional nVidia 940M GPU, so be careful with that. All machines with nVidia GPUs have Optimus, which means that the Intel GPU is used when the system is used for office and internet and the dGPU is used for more heavy stuff.

RAM is a topic hotly debated around the ThinkPad forums. Some people can´t do without 16 GB minimum, for others 4 GB are enough. All ThinkPads today are based on DDR3L RAM, DDR4 might be available with Skylake, we will see. The W541 is the machine with the most RAM slots and the most RAM in general: 32 GB maximum. Most other current ThinkPads (T450, L450, T550, W550s, T440p, T540p, L540, Yoga 15) have two DIMM slots and a maximum of 16 GB (until 16 GB sticks are available, maybe). The T450s is in the middle with 4 GB soldered to the motherboard and one DIMM slot, so 12 GB maximum. X250 and the Yoga 14 have 1 DIMM slot and a maximum of 8 GB – also, single channel only, which means some loss of GPU performance. The New X1 Carbon, the Yoga 12 and the Helix 2 have either 4 or 8 GB soldered to the motherboard, though different from the 1 DIMM slot machines, in dual-channel mode.

Storage is the last part of the performance chapter. All current ThinkPads are limited to SATA 3 speed. All current ThinkPads? No, the New X1 Carbon is available with PCIe SSDs, which are blazing fast. That’s the only model with this feature in the current lineup. All other models still also use 2.5″ HDDs and SSDs, not 80mm M.2 SSDs like the X1 Carbon.

Connectivity

We all need 6 USB ports, 2 express card slots and 3 ODDs right? Just kidding.

The ports and connection options with ThinkPads are wide. On some models a bit narrower, but still wide. First off, all ThinkPad T / W / X and L feature the dockingport for the current generation CS13 docks (ThinkPad Basic, Pro and Ultra Docks) – with the exception of the X1 Carbon and T450(s)/L450 with dGPU. The machines without the classic mechanical docking port are available with the OneLink docking port – E-series, S-series, ThinkPad Yoga and New X1 Carbon. All of the docks provide more ports and the ability to use your ThinkPad as a desktop replacement.

For the devices itself, there also is this “enterprise business models” and “small business prosumer models” separation, with the X1 Carbon sitting in between. The 2nd group doesn´t have miniDisplayport and comes with HDMI instead. They also lack details like WWAN, a SmartCard reader, and also the legacy VGA port. These are E-series and the ThinkPad Yoga models. Also missing from the ThinkPad Yoga models is a native Ethernet port, which is only available via the OneLink docks. The X1 Carbon doesn´t have VGA and SmartCard, but HDMI and miniDisplayport, and also a proprietary Ethernet port (for which you get an adapter with your X1 Carbon).

Obviously, the best connectivity is offered by the thicker models. The W541 certainly has the most ports: 4 USB ports, Expresscard, an Optical disc drive, VGA, Thunderbolt, Ethernet, SD-card, smartcard-reader, the dockingport. That’s a pretty decent port-folio.

The now standard “Ultrabook” models like T450s, T450, L450 or T550 all have a typical standard set of ports: 3 USB ports, VGA, miniDisplayport, Ethernet, SD-card, smartcard, dockingport. The X250 is pretty similar, but because it is smaller, you have one USB port less.

 

 

Convertible

Here the choice for us was quite obvious to choose three models that stood out.

First of all there is the ThinkPad Helix 2 with a diagonal screen size of 11.6″. The ThinkPad Helix 2 is a premium high-end tablet with a Broadwell-Y Core M processor and up to 8GB of RAM. While the price may be a little bit high, you would be surprised what you will have in your hands as soon as you have it. Because it is worth every penny. The ThinkPad Helix 2 can also be configured with a digitizer panel and digitizer pen.

Then there is the ThinkPad Yoga being 12.5 inches in size. The ThinkPad Yoga is a perfect balance between being a convertible and a laptop because of its size. Also there is no real tradeoff of mobility because of the slightly added weight. The ThinkPad Yoga has excellent build quality due to the material choice of the chassis being aluminum magnesium alloy.

Then there is the bigger brother of the ThinkPad Yoga, the ThinkPad Yoga 15, which is my personal favorite. This model can be configured up to a Geforce GT840M or GT940M, a Broadwell-U Core i7 CPU and 16GB of RAM. The downside is that is is a little bit large to be a convertible (15 inches). But this may be the fastest convertible you will see on the market in 2015. It is 300-400 grams lighter than the ThinkPad W540/W541. This may be your convertible of choice to get some serious work done.

Don’t forget that all ThinkPad Yoga 12/14/15 models can be configured with a digitizer panel and digitizer pen as well.

VoIP

If you do a lot of video conferencing, you likely want a ThinkPad with excellent camera quality and microphone audio quality. Here is our ThinkPad of choice:

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 3: The microphone and camera quality are amazingly good, but also not the best. But they are the best among all ThinkPads you have in the new early 2015 lineup.