AB wants a new laptop for his studies and has narrowed the choice to two Lenovo ThinkPads. Which would suit him best?
I enter grad school this fall, and plan to upgrade my 2015 MacBook Air. After a lot of research, I’ve narrowed it down to the ThinkPad T480 and the sixth-generation ThinkPad X1 Carbon. With modifications and warranties, both fall within my €1,800 (£1,599) budget, with the T480 being marginally cheaper. However, being a student, portability is a major priority. The X1 is certainly lighter at about 1.2kg, but how much of a difference will this make in practical terms?
Keyboard quality is another prerequisite, with reviews proving inconclusive. Which device would be a better bet?
Lastly, is it worth upgrading the Core i5-8250U to a Core i7-8550U? My usage will mostly be light – word processing, note-taking, browsing – but I intend to keep this laptop at least five years. AB
These two 14in laptops should not be comparable, because they are based on completely different design philosophies. It’s a testament to the progress made in reducing the size and weight of traditional laptops that they are now surprisingly close.
The ThinkPad T480 is a workhorse used mainly in large corporations, not a “hero” product like the X1 Carbon. However, this year’s T480 is thinner and lighter to the point where it is within striking distance of the X1 Carbon, even though it will never to catch up. The T480S version is even closer.
There’s still a big market for PCs, so they come in different varieties to meet different needs. The market segments include ultraportables, tablets and convertibles, mainstream laptops, all-in-ones and desktop-replacements, gaming laptops and workstations. Each segment also has different price levels, with “value” ranges for people watching their pennies (eg Dell Inspiron) and high-performance models for upmarket buyers (eg Dell XPS).
In Lenovo’s case, the ThinkPad E series (formerly Edge) is the value range, the L models are mainstream and the T range is for the high-end. The X series laptops are ultraportables while the P models are mobile workstations.
There’s also a split between consumer and business machines. In general, businesses want their laptops to be functional, durable, expandable and repairable. They also prefer stable configurations. They want to buy thousands of laptops that have the same specifications, not consumer laptops that can change every few months.
Both your picks are high-performance laptops built to American Mil-spec standards. The difference is that the T range is designed to be expandable and repairable, like a traditional business laptop, while the X range makes compromises for portability.
Why buy a T480?
The ThinkPad T480 is designed to be upgradeable and its two memory slots and can support up to 32GB. This would appeal to programmers and to business users who need lots of memory to handle large spreadsheets, databases and similar tasks.
The T480 has a full drive bay that will take a hard drive, though it often ships with an SSD. You can upgrade the HDD or SSD up to a 1TB SSD, if required. It also has a good collection of ports including Thunderbolt 3, USB 3.0, HDMI and SD ports, and an RJ-45 Ethernet port.
Like some other ThinkPads, the T480 has a second “bridge” battery, which is removable: you can carry a spare and swap over when you run out of juice. The battery life isn’t exceptional with two 24Whr batteries: Lenovo claims 13.9 hours. However, you can install a monster 72Whr bridge battery and run for a claimed 30.3 hours in all. Of course, this adds weight, as well as a bulge at the bottom.
Around the start of this century, I used to carry a ThinkPad with two fat batteries and can testify that, if you want really long battery life, it works a treat. But recharging them is a bit of a chore.
The T480 is a good choice if you need lots of memory, or have to work away from mains power. But these features may add to the thickness (19.95mm) and the weight (from 1.58kg to 1.87kg).
Why buy an X1 Carbon?
The X1 Carbon is much more like your MacBook Air in being designed to be as thin and light as possible for its screen size and specification. In fact, at its 1.13kg starting weight, an X1 will be lighter than your 1.34kg Air.
If you’re carrying it around, you will definitely notice the difference between an X1 and a T480, even if you are young and fit enough not to mind.
The X1 is not completely locked down and you can easily remove the back. The memory chips are soldered in, so you’re stuck with what you buy, up to a maximum of 16GB. However, you can swap the SSD for a bigger model, up to 1TB. This might be a worthwhile upgrade one day, if SSD prices continue to tumble.
To save space and weight, you lose the T480’s drive bay and Ethernet port, and the SD card slot is reduced to a microSD slot. But at least you get two Thunderbolt 3 ports, HDMI and an Ethernet dongle.
As a MacBook Air user, you will be familiar with the compromises required for an ultraportable laptop. If you found them really frustrating, that would be a reason to go for the T480. If not, the X1 Carbon offers more power and more expandability than the Air, at a higher cost.
Processors and keyboards
Both the T480 and X1 Carbon have the latest Intel processors and should deliver much the same performance. Having bought a desktop with a Core i5-8400, I’m pretty confident that the quad-core i5-8250U will last you five years. You don’t need a Core i7-8550U for word processing, note-taking and browsing. The i7 only costs an extra £91.20 in the UK, which is tempting, but perhaps you could spend the cash on a better screen.
I couldn’t say which machine has a better keyboard without trying them side by side. In theory, the T480 should be better, because thicker laptops allow keys with more travel. However, given the X1 Carbon’s hero status as Lenovo’s brand leader, I’d expect it to be above average and not significantly worse.
Otherwise, as I keep saying, laptop keyboards are not ergonomic. Whenever possible, put your laptop on a riser – or just a pile of books – and plug in an ergonomic USB keyboard and mouse.
MacBook screens are generally excellent while ThinkPad screens range from not so good to outstanding. If you were to buy a T480 with the 1366 x 768 TN (non-IPS) screen, you’d be disappointed. The X1 Carbon screens generally seem better, and if you do a custom build, you get a choice. In the UK, the high-resolution WQHD (2560 x 1440) screen costs an extra £69.60, while the top-of-the-range 2560 x 1440-pixel HDR (High Dynamic Range) screen, which looks amazing, adds £120.
If you set the brightness too high then it will also devour your battery, but that’s another story.
In the end, both machines are good, but they meet different needs. It seems to me that you will benefit from the X1 Carbon’s best features – lightness, fast charging and screen quality – but you will not really benefit from the T480’s features, such as fat batteries and the ability to handle 32GB of RAM. In the end, of course, it’s your money, your choice.
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