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ThinkPad Buyers Guide: Which Skylake ThinkPad to buy?

Skylake ThinkPads Buyers Guide

Just as we did last year for the Broadwell lineup, this article is supposed to help people navigate through the jungle of the ThinkPad lineup when deciding which ThinkPad to buy.

Build Quality

While we can´t say anything about long-term build quality yet of course, there are certainly a few things we do know already.

As last year, there are certain systems that use more expansive materials, and other that use less expensive ones. The top-of-the-line when it comes to materials of course is the X1 Carbon line, which was extended with the addition of the X1 Yoga this year. Both of these machines use Carbon-Fiber for the lid, as well as a new Magnesium alloy, which Lenovo´s marketing calls “Super Magnesium”, which allows Lenovo to build the new models even thinner & lighter of course. A little below these models are models like the T460s, Yoga 260 and Yoga 460, which all also use Carbon fiber for the lid and Magnesium for the base-unit. Then we have models like the T460, X260, T560 & P50s, which are all more or less using the same chassis as their predecessors, which means the same material mix as before, Glass-Fiber Plastic for the base and display cover, as well as a Magnesium roll-cage bonded with the palmrest for extra strength. New this year is the T460p, which interestingly uses Magnesium alloy for the base unit, and normal ABS plastics for the display cover, an odd choice for a T-series device. Also new are P50 and P70, with a Glass-Fiber Plastic lid and a Magnesium/Aluminum base unit. Sitting beneath all of these models of course are models like the E460, E560, L460 & L560, which are all around made out of ABS plastic to save on costs.

Of course, when it comes to build quality, not only the materials are important – just as important is the construction. So the X1 Carbon & Yoga may have the most luxurious materials of all ThinkPads, but of course, with their exceptional thinness, structural rigidity will suffer compared to thicker machines. A special mention should go to P50 & P70, which actually introduce a brand new mechanical design for their base-unit: They not only sport the traditional structure-frame thats present in ThinkPads since the T60 days, but also a Magnesium/Aluminum base-cover, which means they sort of have a “sandwich” construction, where the mainboard and the internal components sit between two layers of Magnesium. Very impressive, and this also shows in real life: These machines are rock-solid.

To close this section, its worth mentioning that models with more “consumer-crossover” like the ThinkPad Yoga 260 & 460, as well as the ThinkPad 13, are available in Silver as the chassis color. The silver colored version of these machines sport an Aluminum lid, something that may remind some people about the ThinkPad Z-series, which sported silver Titanium lids back in the T60 days.

Mobility

In this category, when it comes to the battery, we have four stand-out models this year: T460, X260, T560 & P50s. These are the ThinkPads with the best battery performance, due to their usage of Lenovo´s “Powerbridge” feature, which essentially means having an integrated battery as well as a hot swappable, expandable external battery. So if battery life is your top priority: These are the models to pick, in conjunction with the extended 68+ 6 cell battery of course. Special mention also for the X1 Tablet, which also might achieve very good battery life numbers with the optional productivity module.

If you don´t care for a battery performance of 10 hrs and more and just want a machine as thin and light as possible, then you also may consider machines like X1 Carbon, T460s, Yoga 460 or Yoga 260. They all feature internal batteries with a battery capacity of around 45 – 52 W, which should give you a decent battery performance in conjunction with the Skylake U CPUs (around 5 -7 hrs). Of course that depends on the hardware you buy. Something to keep in mind with these new systems: A lot of them are optionally available with high-res screens, which often significantly reduce the battery life. Somethings that worth mentioning with this new ThinkPad generation for the first time ever, as there are a more models with high-res screen option now then before. Also different this year compared with last is the move of the T460s from the Powerbridge design of the T450s to the internal battery this year. If this represents a trend, we don´t know yet. Look out for next years models to see if anything changes in that regard.

The “Performance” models like P50, P70 and T460p are of course heavier and bigger, and with their Quad-Core processors and powerful GPUs, the battery performance suffers. Still, if you opt for the biggest battery available on these models, they should give you a decent battery performance also at least.

Keyboard

As last year, the bigger and the thicker your ThinkPad is, the better is the keyboard. That is with the notable exception of the T460s, which still has a full-sized 2.1 mm travel keyboard, despite its amazing thinness and small footprint. All bigger and thicker systems, like T460p, T460, T560, P50s, P50 & P70 of course all have full-sized 2.1 mm travel keyboards as well, with the 15.6″ and 17″ systems also still sporting numpads. Smaller systems like the Yoga 260, X260 and X1 Tablet have a slightly smaller version of the ThinkPad keyboard, as well as reduced travel of 1.8 mm. The reduced travel also applies to the X1 Carbon and X1 Yoga keyboards, though these are full-sized keyboards in every other aspect.

As always, the budget lines don´t get backlit keyboards, which includes the L-series, E-series, ThinkPad 11e and ThinkPad 13. So if you want a backlit keyboard there is no way around T/X/P models, or a ThinkPad Yoga at least.

Display

Different from last year, IPS displays are now an option for all models. In fact if you buy a new ThinkPad this year, there will be a much higher chance it will be IPS and FHD resolution at the minimum. 1600×900 options are now gone altogether from the ThinkPad lineup, as well as 1920×1080 TN options. These are the display options you have on the new ThinkPad models:

  • 1366×768 TN – T460, T560, L460, L560, E460, E560, X260, ThinkPad 11e, ThinkPad 13
  • 1366×768 IPS – X260, ThinkPad Yoga 11e, ThinkPad Yoga 260
  • 1920×1080 IPS – T460, T560, T460p, T460s, L460, L560, E460, E560, X260, X1 Yoga, X1 Carbon, ThinkPad 13, ThinkPad Yoga 260, ThinkPad Yoga 460, ThinkPad P40 Yoga, P50s, P50, P70
  • 2160×1440 IPS – ThinkPad X1 Tablet
  • 2560×1440 IPS – T460p, T460s, X1 Carbon, X1 Yoga, ThinkPad Yoga 460, ThinkPad P40 Yoga
  • 2880×1620 IPS – T560, P50s
  • 3840×2160 IPS – P50, P70

Thats the basics. It does get more complicated of course, if you add things like touchscreens and Wacom AES digitizers into the mix: Convertibles like  Yoga 260, Yoga 460, P40 Yoga, X1 Yoga and X1 Tablet obviously are equipped with those features. Also optionally equipped with them are P50 and P70, though the lack the convertible feature of course, and only the FHD version can be configured with touch & pen. Besides these there is also the T460s, which features a matte touchscreen with no glass overlay, as well as T460, T460p, T560 and P50s. All of these don´t feature a pen and are only available with FHD IPS touchscreens, no higher res screens.

You often work with colors? Then the color gamut should be something to always keep in mind when buying a new laptop. Luckily, Lenovo tries to improve in this area compared to last year, where only certain models offered sRGB coverage. This year, the new 2560×1440 screens Lenovo uses should very much cover sRGB, and the 3840×2160 4K screens available in P50 and P70 cover even a wider color gamut then sRGB, with 90 % of NTSC color gamut on the P70 and 99 % on the P50 – big improvement over the sRGB covering 2880×1620 screen of W541 and W550s, which is still also available of course, on the P50s and T560.

Performance

When it comes to the performance of a PC, there are four main components that come into play: Storage, RAM, the CPU as well as the GPU. The first choice in the category would be the series which replaces the W-series, the P-series, which is even named after the word “Performance”- Without any doubt the best choice for people who just want pure, no compromise performance would be the ThinkPad P70. This device is the most powerful ThinkPad ever of course, its top-notch in every single aspect: i7-HQ and Xeon Quad-Core CPUs, nVidia Quadro MXM GPUs, up to the M5000M (a professional GPU based on the GeForce GTX 980M), 64 GB of DDR4 RAM (which even is ECC RAM if you have a Xeon) and multiple NVMe PCIe SSD, which are much faster then conventional SATA SSDs. These amazing components come at the cost of a very thick,big and heavy machine of course, thats also not exactly cheap. As an alternative, there is the P50, Lenovo´s 15″ Workstation brother of the P70. This machine is almost as powerful, just missing the more powerful Quadro GPUs, being limited to the still impressively powerful Quadro M2000M (based on the nVidia GeForce GTX 960M).

Beneath these two machines, as the ThinkPads become smaller, thinner and lighter. There will be more compromises to the performance of course compared with P50/P70. Lets start of the with GPUs: Some smaller ThinkPads have GPU options, others don´t. The most powerful of these smaller/thinner models would be T460p & T560, which offers a GeForce GT 940MX. Their other two siblings in the T-Series also offer nVidia GPU options: The T460 offers the GT 940M, and the T460s has the GT 930M optional (making it the thinnest, smallest and lightest ThinkPad with a dGPU). Other then the T-series, there are of course also two other models in the P-series, P50s and P40 Yoga, which are based on T560 & Yoga 460 (which also offers the GT 940M) in their basic design. They both offer the Quadro M500M as an option for people who want smaller and lighter machines but still want to do GPU focused CAD on the go. At last, there also are the budget lines, the E & L series. Different from the more expensive models these are being offered with AMD GPUs. L460 is offered with an optional R5-M330, The same is true for E460, though this one also has the option for a R7-M360. Finally, the E560 offers a R7-M370. All other ThinkPads with Intel Core i5 / i7 CPUs are exclusively being offered with the Intel HD 520 iGPU. Of course this iGPU is on board on every U CPU ThinkPad, if combined with a dGPU it runs via nVidia Optimus. Other GPU chips found in various special ThinkPad models include the Intel HD 515 (used in the X1 Tablet) as well as the Intel HD 510, used in models like L460 or L560 if configured with Celeron CPUs.

Moving on to CPUs besides the two Quad-Core Workstations P50 and P70 there is only one machine thats stands above the crowd of 15 W Core i5 / i7 U CPUs: The T460p, which uses Core i5 and i7 HQ CPUs. All other ThinkPads, except the X1 Tablet and ThinkPad Yoga 11e are based on the U CPU plattform. These two are based on Intels ultra-low-power Core M plattform (11e is also available with ATOM based CPUs as well). Oh, and one thing to notice about Skylake CPUs: They are all soldered down, regardless if they are Quad-Core HQ based or Dual-Core U CPUs. So if you are buying, be sure to buy the CPU you want to use for the lifetime of the device. There is no upgrading later, without changing the motherboard.

As far as storage is concerned, 2.5″ HDDs/SSDs are slowly being replaced by 80 mm M.2 SSD (also known as NGFF / “gum-stick” SSDs). Certain models like T460s or the Yoga 260 don´t offer 2.5″ drives anymore, and models like P50/P70 mostly use M.2 SSDs as the primary drives (though 2.5″ drives are still options here). So if you choose a machine and want to buy 3rd party storage, make sure its fits in your new ThinkPad! Not only the format the storage is delivered in is changing, but also the technology: NVMe PCIe SSDs are replacing traditional SATA SSDs. NVMe SSDs are much fasters, but there are some gotchas (much more expensive, and they have some problems with older OS versions). NVMe drives are options on nearly every high-end ThinkPad (as 80 mm M.2 SSDs or 2.5″ drives), so if you have the money, these will definitely speed up things quite a bit, especially if you are often transferring huge amounts of data.

Last but not least the RAM: This year we are seeing the first big shift from DDR3 to DDR4. However not all models are moving this year, there are some that are still using DDR3 memory, namely, P50s, T460, T560, L460, L560, E460, E560, E465. E565, Yoga 460 and P40 Yoga all continued to use low powered DDR3L memory. Also, X1 Carbon, X1 Yoga and X1 Tablet, the only ThinkPads where all of the RAM is soldered, use LPDDR3 RAM, an even lower-powered variant of DDR3 memory in order to save some battery life. Models based on DDR4 are the T460s, T460p, X260, Yoga 260 as well as mentioned P50 and P70. DDR4 RAM basically means the RAM is clocked faster and that increases performance of course. Besides the performance, the amount of RAM a system can accept is also important. Since Broadwell basically every system is 16 GB of RAM minimum, and thats not changing. If anything, there is more RAM available, as P50 and P70 move to 64 GB as their maximum, and the T460p has 32 GB now (16 GB on the T440p).

I want to conclude this category with E465 and E565. These two are special, since they are the only ThinkPads not based on Intel products. Both ThinkPads are based on AMD Carrizo APUs. E465 can be bought with up to the A10-8700P, the more powerful A10-8800P is available in the E565. Both are Quad-Core chips with a TDP of 15 W (in this case, they can be configured to run at 35 W as well). To give you a general idea of the performance of these CPUs, the A10-8800P is as fast as the last gen Broadwell Core i7-5500U in Multicore performance. However, being a AMD CPUs, they fall back when it comes to Single-Core performance, in this category its more on the level with an i3-5005U. GPU wise they available with various integrated GPUs as well as AMD dGPUs, like the Radeon R5 M330.

Connectivity

Connectivity this year is even more diversified then last year. It was known since long that VGA would go away in 2015, but the move away from VGA to HDMI actually was delayed till 2016. However, where there are rules, there are exceptions: L460 and L560 are the only two models left in the lineup with VGA, as an option for customers with existing VGA hardware, like universities. All other T/X/P and Yoga ThinkPads are now sporting HDMI and miniDisplayport, with the exception of the X1 Tablet (which needs the productivity module for that). Models like the ThinkPad 13 and the E-series only feature HDMI, as they are more “consumer focused” (though the 13 also features USB type C, which might include DP video too).

In the past, we have speculated that the Skylake lineup might sport USB type C or even Thunderbolt 3 as a big “gamer changer”, maybe even to the point of replacing the old classic dockingport as well as the Onelink docking port. Thats not happening. As mentioned, ThinkPad 13 will sport USB type C, the same is true for the X1 Tablet. P50 and P70 feature USB type C too, with Thunderbolt functionality. All other models sadly don´t feature this port, so I guess we will have to wait a little longer for the port revolution to happen. On the other hand, there are a few new features to talk about when it comes to connectivity: The old Onelink port is replaced by the Onelink+ port, which is smaller, faster and separated from the charging port (but still delivers power of course), and select models can be configured with WiGig docking. Wrapping up this docking talk, traditional mechanical docking is still there and the docks remain the same this year, for the last time I might add, next year we should get new docks once again. But this year if you own a ThinkPad Basic, Pro or Ultra dock, your safe. There is a new dock though, specifically for P50 and P70, the ThinkPad Workstation dock. P70 is only compatible with the Workstation dock, P50 is also compatible with the other docks (with a 170 W charger of course).

All mainstream laptop models (T460s, T460, T560, T460p, P50s, L460 etc.)  have provide a certain set of ports: 3x USB 3.0, HDMI, mDP, Ethernet, SD card. Only exceptions are the X1 Yoga and X1 Carbon models, as they ditch Ethernet because of their thinness. Thats also true for the SD card slot, though they offer a smaller Micro SD card slot in exchange. Both (no Ethernet & micro SD) also true for the Yoga 260. Yoga 460 has a normal sized SD card slot, but also lacks Ethernet. The models with the most ports & best connectivity options are of course P50 and P70, the biggest and thickest models. They both offer a legacy Expresscard-slot for easy expandability, four USB 3.0 ports and also as already mentioned Thunderbolt 3 (P50 has one Thunderbolt 3 port, P70 has two).

Convertible

Lenovo is betting big on Convertibles. Big changes in this category this year: Last year we had the ThinkPad Helix 2, ThinkPad Yoga 12, ThinkPad Yoga 14 and ThinkPad 15. This year, the ThinkPad Helix line is replaced by the ThinkPad X1 Tablet, the Yoga 15 has been discontinued and there is a new premium ThinkPad Yoga, the ThinkPad X1 Yoga, which is much lighter then the other 14″ Yogas. The normal 12.5″ and 14″ Yogas are named Yoga 260 and Yoga 460, with their naming moved closer to other ThinkPad models. Additionally, Lenovo launched the ThinkPad P40 Yoga, the first Yoga with ISV certified graphics.

All of these models are Convertibles. The X1 Tablet is a “Tablet first” device, in the style of the Microsoft Surface line. It has a magnetic add-on keyboard and a modular design with add on modules. Its the smallest and lightest choice of the bunch, and it has a 3:2 display, ideal for reading and note-taking. For pen users there is a drawback though: The device has no silo, as a pen that fits into the silo would be too small to be used comfortably. The only pen which is available for the X1 Tablet is the ThinkPad Pen Pro.

That pen can also be used on the ThinkPad Yogas, but different from the X1 Tablet, all of them have a built in silo pen. Unlike the ThinkPad Pen Pro, which uses battery, this pen is a super-capacitor pen thats charged in the system. What, you may ask, isn´t Lenovo using Wacom pens? Do Wacom pens need batteries no? Well yes, in a way: Lenovo switched from the old Wacom EMR technology to Wacom AES, which, to make it simple, means the screen assembly can be build thinner now and the pen needs to be powered now.

  • Petr Vones

    It would be fair to warn customers that P50 and P70 have a lot of issues, typically BIOS and hardware related, just read Lenovo forums. There are also quality issues of P50 4K displays that are not acceptable for given price tag. The same for P70 4K display that suffers from low PWM flickering in whole brightness range.

    I would wait for .60 series user experience because it seems as Lenovo has lost competence to produce laptops without serious reliability flaws.

    • ImThink

      Thats not what this article is for, this article is meant to give people a general overview of the lineup, pointing out the differences between the models.

      Also, if you are following the forums, many of the issues are already solved or are being solved right now. This is an ongoing process, commenting on this topic in this article would be pointless as people should be able to find this article in 3 or more months when none of these issues are existent anymore.

      Rest assured, when I review my P50 eventually, I will address this topic.But this article isn´t a review of P50 or P70.

      • Mark Benson

        PWM is a serious issue if you plan to use the laptop more than occasionally. This is not an issue of the nature you describe, which will get solved via discussing in a forum. The only possible solution is to replace the display, if there is a compatible replacement option that is non-PWM.

        Please do your research because judging from your comment, it doesn’t seem like you even know what PWM is.

      • ImThink

        I know what PWM is. But I am not sure if I would say its a serious issue, my W550s had PWM and I never had problems. Seems like it depends on the person.

        I never said PWM might be solved via the forum. I was referring to the other issues.

  • Srikanth

    From the reviews, it looks like the color gamut of 1080p screens was so bad that I don’t know how you can call this flagship line (thinkpad) anymore. Last year screens were lot better. 65% of sRGB coverage in this day and age is so disappointing… I am talking about their T series line…

    • ImThink

      Which machine are you talking about? T560, T460s?

      The thing is, the 1080p option is not considered high-end anymore. 1080p IPS is used in a lot of lower end machines now as well, so as these screens become more common, Lenovo chose cheaper parts to keep costs down.

      Thats why there is a 2560×1440 option (14″) / 2880×1620 option (15.6″). These screens are much better regarding the color gamut.

      • Srikanth

        But for T460, the 1080p is the only option and I believe its the same panel as the one in T460s and T560 as I returned the one I purchased. The brightness and color gamut are so poor and I was planning to keep my think-pad for years to come. So, its not something I am willing to compromise. The 460s with the higher resolution will definitely have a poor battery life and it doesn’t have the power bridge option. Also, for people who want touch screen 1080p is the only option as the higher resolutions one doesn’t have that option. I have seen reviews of yoga 260 as well, that’s also riddled with the same issues. Now, I can’t get T450s as well from Lenovo as its not available anymore.

      • ImThink

        Yes, ok, thats true for the T460. But T460 isn´t Lenovo´s flagship in the T-Series, that title is reserved for either T460p (performance) or T460s (mobility). T460 is the less expensive standard model that stands between the two.

        So your best option might be T460p, which can be configured with the WQHD display and the bigger 72 Wh battery and Quad-Core i5 CPUs.

      • Srikanth

        For me, right now, if not for keyboard, there is nothing going for Thinkpad and I believe T series itself is the flagship line of Lenovo. But even if we assume only T460s is the flagship, then that should have provided touch screen for their higher end display and also at least power bridge option. It doesn’t have either of those. T460P doesn’t have touch screen option at all and also no power bridge option. Also, with 72whr battery, it creates a portability problem. It seems Lenovo has poor understanding of what customer wants and its creating umpteen number of model lines but none could satisfy the end user. Hope the retro model gives me what I want… Fingers crossed… Sorry, for venting here but I am just hoping some of the concerns reach the right people (Lenovo management)….

      • ImThink

        Its ok, I can handle the venting 😀 Its a open spot in Lenovo´s portfolio. Completely agree, this will turn some people off.

        I do have a question though. What do you mean by “with 72whr battery, it creates a portability problem”, if I may ask?

        The T460p 72 Wh battery is sticking out of the bottom. But the same is true for the T460 if you choose the 72 Wh battery (+ the internal 23 Wh battery). If you get the T460 without the big battery, its battery capacity is just as big as the T460s.

      • Srikanth

        Thanks for understanding… What I meant was, it will be minimum of 4.7lbs with 72whr battery and that’s very heavy for me. My consideration is less than 4lbs and T460 will be 4.1lbs even with 72whr battery option (along with 23.2whr internal battery) and I can eke out more battery life as well out of that considering it uses 15W processors. I thought T450s will be available for a while but they took it off from the site as soon as T460s is available which would have been OK as its only 3.5lbs.

      • ImThink

        T450s not available anymore as CTO in Lenovo´s store, but I think you should be able to find the T450s in Lenovo´s outlet or at 3rd party resellers (like CDW: https://www.cdw.com/shop/search/result.aspx?key=T450s&wclsscat=&b=&p=&ctlgfilter=&searchscope=all&sr=1 ). However, you might not get exactly the configuration you might have wanted.

  • steve

    so how good is the P50S with the 3K screen, in terms of color? the article says better than last year, but that does not say much. would it be good for photo editing?

    also any scaling issues with 3K?

    i was looking at the dell XPS 15 but i don’t want the 4K screen because of scaling/poor battery performance.

    thanks

    • ImThink

      The 3K screen is the same as last year. So check out W550s reviews for more info on the color accuracy.

      Scaling, it depends on the programs you use, as well as the OS. Some people can do 3K on 15″ without scaling, depends hwo good your eyes are.

      WQHD on 14″ will be about the same as the 3K on 15″.

  • Petr Vones

    ThinkPad 13 is added to PSREF. Wondering why all WE configurations comes with 1-year warranty only.

  • Tony

    When will Lenovo US store release dGPUs in their T460s? And when will t460p with more powerful CPUs (core i7 HQ) become available in US? As I can see now all t460s come with HD graphics only

    • ImThink

      Can´t be to long now. T460s with dGPU is already out in countries like Australia, and the T460p is available here in Europe with Core i7 CPUs.

      Its likely Lenovo wants to wait until availability is better, because US is a pretty big market and they need to be sure that they have enough supply before they open the order window in the US.