Take the ThinkPad R series, remove the internal roll cage and the TPM chip, add dedicated GeForce graphics, an HDMI port, and a glossy lid, and you get the ThinkPad SL400. This 14-inch laptop is Lenovo's play for small business buyers, trading in enterprise features such as the aforementioned security chip, stable images, and hot-swappable bays for an improved multimedia experience. It makes sense, given that small business users don't have a need to manage a large deployment of ThinkPads and might expect their laptop to pull double duty as a productivity machine by day, entertainment unit by night.
The ThinkPad SL400 is built on Intel's Centrino 2 platform and a midrange Nvidia GeForce graphics card and delivers decent overall performance and--with a 9-cell battery--lengthy battery life. Despite the design departure that is its shiny piano black lid, the SL400 serves up familiar ThinkPad touches, including an excellent keyboard, the trackpoint and touch pad tandem, and a boxy chassis. Road warriors who heap abuse on their laptop may want to go with the R61 or another ThinkPad with the magnesium alloy roll cage that protects the internal components and display, but for more sedentary small business owners and operators, the SL400 offers a lot of ThinkPad goodness at very approachable prices.
|Price as reviewed / Starting price||$1,218 / $619|
|Processor||2.26GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8400|
|Memory||2GB DDR2 SDRAM 667MHz|
|Hard drive||160GB, 5,400rpm|
|Chipset||Intel GL40 (Centrino 2)|
|Graphics||256MB Nvidia GeForce 9300M GS|
|Operating System||Windows Vista Business|
|Dimensions (width by depth)||13.2x9.7|
|Thickness||1.3 to 1.5 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||14.1 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||6.0 / 6.9 pounds|
Slide the ThinkPad SL400 out of the box, and you might think you mistakenly purchased a particularly boxy Sony Vaio. Open the laptop up, however, and you'll soon discover it's a standard-issue ThinkPad that Lenovo outfitted with a glossy, black lid. Without the magnesium alloy shell protecting the back of the screen, the plastic lid feels soft--flexing when pressed. The plastic wrist rests, however, feel much sturdier. Overall, the SL400 feels like a substantial machine; it's bulky and rather thick for a 14-inch laptop, running from 1.3 inches thick along its front edge to 1.5 inches thick at the back edge.
Like all ThinkPads, the SL400 boasts an incredibly comfortable keyboard, a red trackpoint, and blue Enter key. Below the keyboard sits a touch pad and second set of mouse buttons. The touch pad's matte finish and vertical and horizontal scroll regions make it highly functional, and the mouse buttons are soft, quiet, and responsive. To the left of the keyboard sit a blue Lenovo Care button that calls up a small window with helpful links to system management and security tools. Below the Lenovo Care button are volume up, down, and mute buttons.
Five small, green-glowing icons adorn the front edge below the touch pad, informing you of your wireless, wired, and Bluetooth connections as well as whether you're running on full battery power or in sleep mode. On the angled bottom half of the front edge reside three small air vents and a Wi-Fi power switch. A large vent sits on the left side for the GeForce 9300M GS graphics card. While the laptop is by no means noisy, it does emit a fairly steady yet low hum and stream of warm air out its left side. The side edges are sloped and narrow toward the bottom of the laptop. It helps lessen the ThinkPad boxy appearance somewhat, and while some reviewers have complained that the ports are difficult to reach, I did not find this to be the case. I have an old, bulky USB key and was able to connect it to all four of the system's USB ports without a problem; the overhanging top edge did not interfere.
The ThinkPad SL series is available in three sizes, the 13.3-inch SL300, the 14.1-inch SL400 we reviewed, and the 15.4-inch SL500. The standard SL400 wide-screen display offers a 1,280x800-pixel resolution; our review unit included a $50 upgrade that bumps you up to a still very readable 1,440x900-pixel resolution and includes Lenovo's AntiGlare option. In general, we think a matte finish is the better option for the screen of a business laptop, and Lenovo's AntiGlare screen lives up to its name. (Lenovo also sells an SL400 configuration with integrated Intel graphics, but choose that and you lose the higher resolution option.) Even when sitting with two bright, sun-filled windows at our back, the screen was very readable with glare and reflections kept to a minimum. We still found colors to be vibrant when viewing photos or movies, though we did find a stuck pixel in the upper right hand corner of our review unit.
Audio from the integrated speakers was acceptable; the speakers won't fill a room but they produce a fuller sound than what we just heard from the Toshiba Satellite Pro U400-S1001X, for example.
|Lenovo ThinkPad SL400||Average for mainstream category|
|Video||VGA, HDMI||VGA, S-Video|
|Audio||headphone/microphone jacks||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||4 USB 2.0, mini FireWire, multi-format card reader||4 USB 2.0, multiformat card reader|
|Networking||Gigabit Ethernet, modem, 802.11 b/g Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, WWAN||10/100 Ethernet, modem, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional WWAN|
|Optical drive||DVD burner||DVD burner|
The ThinkPad SL400 serves up a standard collection of ports but also includes an HDMI port, which isn't currently offered on any other ThinkPad. Our review unit included the optional Webcam and fingerprint reader, and you can also upgrade to a Blu-ray drive.
While the SL400 provides 802.11b/g Wi-Fi but not a Draft N option, integrated WWAN is standard. An Ericcson F3507g Mobile Broadband module is onboard for use with AT&T service.
Our ThinkPad SL400 review unit included a 2.26GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8400, 2GB of RAM, and a 256MB Nvidia GeForce 9300M GS graphics card. While it turned in decent performance on CNET Labs' application benchmarks, we had higher expectations for it overall. It put up acceptable yet average scores on our multimedia and Photoshop CS3 tests, while trailing the pack on our iTunes benchmark. The GeForce card didn't do much to move the needle on our tests, though we were able to get playable frame rates (roughly 20 frames per second) with F.E.A.R. at 1,020x768 in anecdotal testing; older games should offer better frame rates while those eyeing this ThinkPad's discreet graphics and a Crysis purchase may be disappointed.
As we've seen from Centrino 2 systems, performance gains have been incremental, with more substantial improvements seen in battery life, thanks in large part to the power-optimized Core 2 Duo P series chips that draw less power than older chips. On CNET Lab's battery drain test, the ThinkPad SL400 made good use of its added firepower of a 9-cell battery (a 6-cell is standard), running for more than 4 hours. While impressive, we should point out that the Dell Latitude E6400 featured a similar configuration and 9-cell battery, and it ran 24 minutes longer. And the more expensive ThinkPad X200 used its 9-cell battery to run for more than 6 hours on the same test.
Then again, the value proposition of the SL400 clearly shows itself when viewed against the Latitude E6400. Both systems are similarly outfitted--same CPU, memory allotment, and hard drive capacity--and the enterprise-focused Latitude costs nearly $800 more.