Have ThinkPads gotten worse over the last decade? – A ThinkPad retrospective
Update (12/19/2019): Added additional context clarification to the introduction.
It’s been a decade since Lenovo introduced the ThinkPad T400. We're right on the heels of a new naming scheme for the coming decade, so it seems to be an appropriate time to look back. How much has changed over the last decade? Are we headed toward a grim future for the iconic product line, or are soldered memory and internal batteries a temporary misstep?
For the sake of being simple and concise, this article will only be talking about the "main" 14" T-series ThinkPads of every generation. This means that many great ThinkPads (such as the ThinkPad T440p) will not be explicitly mentioned in this article. Please note that this is intentional, as mentioning every single variant of every ThinkPad released since 2009 would make this article quite long. There was the added concern of cherry-picking, so for the sake of an unbiased article variants of these laptops were not mentioned. If there's a definitive ThinkPad you wish was included, feel free to talk about it in the comments!
The T400 Chassis (2009 – 2012)
In 2009, Lenovo introduced a new naming convention with the T400. However, Lenovo chose to retain much of the body styling from the previous model despite the change in naming convention. This naming convention introduced size-dependent naming, with the first number indicating 14, 15, and 17 inch screens respectively. This model came with exclusively 16:10 displays with no option for a 4:3 display, unlike it's predecessor (the ThinkPad T61). The “definitive” model for this body style would have to be the ThinkPad T420. The sheer variety of ports is astonishing. With 10 different ports, this ThinkPad can pretty much do it all. This laptop is from 2011, but it has one DisplayPort next to a VGA port, making it easy to plug into pretty much any device. It has four USB Type-A ports (one of them is eSATA) and even a 4-in-1 card reader. The T400, ThinkPad T410, and T420 all had the option of Firewire.
Another interesting difference is that in the T400, both DIMMs were underneath the touchpad. However, the other models with this body style split the DIMMs into two locations. One DIMM was located under a maintenance panel on the bottom of the laptop, while the other was moved under the keyboard.
A notable change in the T420 and onward was a switch from 16:10 to 16:9. Previous models featured 1440x900, 16:10 displays measuring about 14.1 inches across. Newer models (including the T420) featured higher-resolution 16:9 displays up to 1600x900. The new displays were also potentially brighter, with our tests measuring the display averaging at 230 nits.
The ThinkPad T430 introduced USB 3.0 to the thicker, "no-compromises" 14" T-series laptops. This came with the sacrifice of the full-size DisplayPort, downgrading it to a Mini-DP connector. Firewire was no longer an option on this laptop, and the integrated modem was now removed. However, this laptop was released in 2012, so removing this feature is understandable, if not overdue.
Lenovo also completely redesigned the keyboard into the more modern style found now. The switches changed to a chiclet keyboard, but retained the key travel in early versions. This change was controversial at the time, and it has remained as such. Many ThinkPad enthusiasts still prefer the feeling of the old keyboard, and some have remained on older models purely because of this change. Later models would reduce this already disliked keyboard's key travel, much to the dismay of many ThinkPad owners.
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The T440 Chassis (2014 - 2018)
After a year without updates to the T-series from Lenovo, the ThinkPad T440 was released in 2014. Lenovo had completely redesigned the laptop again, slimming the laptop down significantly. The footprint of the T440’s body style was largely the same as the T430 despite this refinement. The T440 featured a larger trackpad, which was regarded as the best trackpad available for Windows laptops at the time.
This upgrade didn’t come without sacrifice. The lack of dedicated click buttons for the TrackPoint was a massive oversight in many people's eyes. It made the TrackPoint much more difficult to use than it had been in the past, and left people rather frustrated after using it. Lenovo also removed a number of ports and features from this new laptop. The amount of USB ports was cut in half to only two Type-A USB 3.0 ports. The disc drive was completely removed, and the express card slot was removed, replaced with the functionally-different smartcard slot. The low number of USB ports would certainly leave a sour taste in many people’s mouths, as only having two on a laptop as large as the T440 in 2014 was almost unheard of. The VGA port had survived, for now.
The T440 introduced Lenovo’s proprietary "slim tip" charging port to this particular category of 14" laptops. Unlike other barrels, this rectangular plug could not rotate freely within the device. Like previous barrel connectors, this port was still not soldered to the board, leaving it replaceable. It remained connected by an easy-to-remove cable, making repairs on this port easy. This would later change, but repairs were easy for the time being.
The T440 also featured one memory slot with an additional module of memory soldered to the board. This, however, was a very unpopular change. Lenovo remedied this problem in the ThinkPad T450 by adding an additional slot on the board. Another USB 3.0 port was added, as well as the physical buttons for the TrackPoint. Lenovo switched out the 4-in-1 card reader for an SD card reader in this model, which went largely unnoticed by reviewers.
The ThinkPad T460 introduced 300 nit, 1080p displays to the line, while sacrificing the VGA port for an HDMI 1.4 port. The ThinkPad T470 brought along similar changes, removing the Mini-DP port for a Thunderbolt 3 port. Lenovo also included a Precision touchpad with this model. This model was also slightly aesthetically redesigned from the T460, including a rubberized coating on the lid (but not the palm rest).
The last model with this body style is the ThinkPad T480. This model was pretty much the same as the T470, with a few major changes to the IO. Remember, Lenovo made some small compromises on the T430. The T440 afterwards had a large number of compromises that the company quickly backed down from, and that might be what’s happening with the T480 again.
Lenovo removed a Type-A port and the square charging port for two USB-C ports. Both ports can be used to charge, but only one is Thunderbolt 3 capable. This effectively makes the charging port unrepairable without a soldering iron, unlike previous models. The bottom docking port was removed. This was replaced with a proprietary Ethernet port next to one of the USB-C ports. This port could be seen on slimmer models at the time, like the ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 6, except without the additional RJ45 port.
The T490 Chassis (2019)
This year, Lenovo redesigned the 14-inch T-series again with the ThinkPad T490. This new model was slimmer, lighter, and overall smaller than the T480. The chassis is very similar to the ThinkPad T480s, sharing a few internal characteristics as well, such as slimmer display bezels. Notable changes on the outside are the lack of an expandable battery, limiting the T490 to 50Whr. Compared to upgradability upwards of 90Whr on older models, this is quite the sacrifice.
Other notable changes happened on the internal side of things. Akin to the mistakes made on the T440, the T490 only has one memory slot, which limits upgradability of the system overall. On Intel models, the WLAN card is soldered, preventing any sort of upgradability on that side of things. This isn’t even a necessary compromise, either. The ThinkPad T495, which is the AMD variant of the T490, features a replaceable WLAN card, so it’s clearly not a space issue.
The 2.5-inch bay was also removed with this new generation, likely due to both the change in size and the removal of the upgradable battery. The SSD is left in an M.2 slot on top of the main board. While this isn’t quite a disastrous change, it prevents the use of 2.5-inch SATA SSDs inside of the new ThinkPad. Also, the full-size SD card slot was removed in favor of a microSD slot. Since the T480s has a full-size SD card slot, I can’t say I understand this change.
Overall, it seems like these latest ThinkPads might be following Lenovo’s cycle of toe-dipping. The T400’s body style lasted for four years, and the T440's has stuck around for five. It’s possible that next year may bring yet another redesign of the 14-inch T-series ThinkPads, or we may see another laptop with the same body styling as the T490. At this point, it’s too early to call. However, with CES 2020 right around the corner, we may not have to wait long.
Various Notebookcheck ThinkPad reviews (linked in article)