When is a ThinkPad no longer a ThinkPad? As a fan of the brand, I had to ask that question to write this review of the T490s. It looks and feels the part, but mainstream compromises might put off brand devotees.
With its unmistakable keyboard and TrackPoint mouse—not to mention the button-down looks—no one’s going to mistake the T490s for anything other than a member of the long-standing laptop family. But in shaving down its dimensions and weight, Lenovo has also removed quite a few features from last year’s model—most notably the SD card reader and integrated Ethernet port.
The result is a laptop that has more in common with mainstream thin-and-light models than Lenovo’s legendary line. These changes might appeal to the more conventional consumer. However, business professionals and heavy travelers (formerly the main market for the T-series) might find they miss the flexibility and utility of last year’s design. They’ll surely miss the extended runtime of the older, dual-battery models, as well.
Looking the Part
With an all-black, magnesium alloy and carbon fiber chassis, the T490s is remarkably understated to be so high-tech. Open it up, and you’re greeted with the updated, chicklet-style version of the classic ThinkPad keyboard (backlight optional). And, of course, the iconic TrackPoint mouse is there, with its three-button control cluster above a medium-sized trackpad. A fingerprint reader (standard, not optional) sits to the side.
With the laptop open, take note of the thinner bezels. The webcam on our review unit is equipped with an optional infrared sensor for Windows Hello and similar security tools. The standard 720p webcam has a manual shutter you can slide over for peace of mind. The 14-inch screen is standard 1080p resolution with just 250 nits of brightness—disappointing, but fairly normal for the T series. A brighter, sharper screen is available as an upgrade, or you can opt for the multi-touch. The base screen is nice and matte, which is all the better for traveling. The speakers are surprisingly loud, but less than clear, as bottom-firing types tend to be.
The bezel and body aren’t tiny by any means—certainly not when compared to more svelte, stylish laptops. But the 0.63-inch-thick machine weighs just 2.8 pounds, placing it among the lightest in Lenovo’s lineup. It’s just thin and skinny enough to slip into my Peak Design messenger bag, which is designed for the 13-inch MacBook Pro. That’s a definite improvement over previous members of the T4XXs family.
The Mystery of the Vanishing Ports
On the right, there’s a single rectangular USB-A port, a Kensington lock slot, and a spot for a smart card reader most people won’t even recognize (the reader hardware wasn’t there on our review unit). The left side is where most of the “port action” is, with two USB-C ports arranged in a specific way to enable access for Lenovo’s first-party dock. A standard USB-A (3.1) and HDMI port, and a combined microphone/headphone jack round things out. Power from the 60-watt adapter can go into either USB-C port.
What’s that weird trapezoidal port awkwardly hanging off the second USB-C hole, you ask? It’s a proprietary spot to stick an Ethernet adapter since the chassis is no longer tall enough to handle a standard Ethernet cable. Last year’s T480s had a neat sliding port that collapsed when not in use. But the T490s can’t be bothered with one, and you have to pay extra for the proprietary dongle adapter if you don’t have a USB-to-Ethernet tool already. Presumably, the proprietary port is there for better dock compatibility.
Another notable omission from last year’s revision is the full-size SD card slot. To most, that might seem like a trivial exclusion in the days of insanely powerful phone cameras. However, for me, it makes the T490s more cumbersome on a conference trip, as the SD card slot is the fastest way to get show floor photos off my mirrorless camera.
The T490s does have a consolation prize in the form of a MicroSD card slot (or tray, rather), which is the sole feature on the back of the machine near the hinge. To get to it, though, you need a SIM extractor pin because that’s also where the SIM card lives if you upgrade it with an LTE wireless radio. For either SD or MicroSD, the easiest option is to carry an extra adapter—yet another dongle.
Our review unit has an 8th-gen Core i5 processor, a generous 16 GB of RAM, and 512 GB of storage space. With no other upgrades, the cost on Lenovo’s online store at the time of writing is $1,380 (it’s $1,200 with the same processor, 8 GB of RAM, and 256 GB of storage). Prices on Lenovo’s site are always a bit fluid, though, thanks to constant coupons that can shave off hundreds of dollars from the somewhat unbelievable list prices.
This is all pretty standard for the T series, and fans are willing to pay a premium for the T490s’ tough chassis and compatibility with Lenovo docks. But it’s worth noting that Dell’s highly-regarded XPS 13 (certainly one of the models Lenovo was eyeing when it slimmed down this year’s revision) starts at $150 less. That’s with nearly identical starting specs, a much brighter screen, and a slightly sleeker, lighter build. And if you don’t mind getting something bigger with a plastic or aluminum body, you can find similar specs in laptops that are hundreds of dollars cheaper.
However, the T490s handled my usual work duties with aplomb. Intel’s latest laptop processors can churn through dozens of Chrome tabs and Photoshop projects with ease. The internal fan activates only when more processor-intensive things, like YouTube videos, are active. The fan runs at medium volume, but with so many fanless designs out there, you might notice it more.
The 16 GB RAM upgrade—for a reasonable $136 surcharge—gave all of those programs room to breathe. This is good, since it’s soldered into the motherboard and can’t be upgraded further unless you spring for an i7 processor. Enterprising people can access the M.2 SSD since the bottom of the chassis is surprisingly easy to open, with just five Phillips-head screws.
This laptop isn’t meant for intense media creation, but it could get through massive Photoshop documents with just a little waiting. It’s not meant for gaming either but, on a lark, I installed Overwatch—a fairly tame title by modern graphical standards. At low visual settings and 720p resolution, the integrated UHD 620 GPU managed 30-50 frames per second. That means low-intensity 3D gaming only, although it can handle any 2D game just fine.
No Long Hauls
The battery test was the part of this review I was most interested in, as this is the first ThinkPad I’ve tried since Lenovo got rid of the much-loved dual-battery system. That option had a 3-cell internal battery with either another 3-cell removable battery on top, or an extended 6-cell for truly epic battery life. It’s why my reliable old T450s still travels on occasion.
Like most ultraportables, the T490s only has an internal, 3-cell battery (57 Wh). Also like most ultraportables, it’s not equipped for marathon work sessions. I got between six-and-a-half to eight hours of battery life at 50 percent screen brightness. However, my workflow relies heavily on the battery- and RAM-munching Chrome browser. Still, I find Lenovo’s claim of “up to 20 hours of battery life” laughable.
To make up for this, the included 60-watt charger refills 80 percent of the battery in an hour. That’s nice, but given the option, I’d rather deal with a little extra thickness and weight if it makes this machine more reliable when I’m away from a power outlet.
The Soul Still Burns
This review might sound like a series of nitpicks about a ThinkPad shooting for more sales with a more generic design. (I admit, this disappoints me). However, using it for work has had some definite highlights.
The keyboard is as solid as ever (a worthy point, considering how poor and unreliable Apple’s MacBook keyboards have been of late). As I’m a certified keyboard snob who travels with a dedicated mechanical ‘board, this is no small point of praise.
I’m not a TrackPoint fan, but those who rely on this input system will find it comfortingly familiar.
I was even more impressed with the software. Lenovo has stripped out most of the junk Microsoft unaccountably stuffs into Windows 10. The only obvious “bloatware” I found was a 16-kilobyte shortcut to Microsoft Solitaire.
Even better, the Vantage software Lenovo includes is useful. It allows you to customize the keyboard quickly, and swap the top row of function and hardware controls, or the Fn and Ctrl buttons in the lower-left corner. Formerly, these options required a dive into the UEFI/BIOS control panel. You can also define the F12 key as a quick program launch, website, or key sequence macro. Impressive!
This comfortable, laser-focused work experience is undeniably appealing—exactly the sort of thing ThinkPad buyers crave.
But it’s hard to ignore the sacrifices made in port offerings and battery life versus older models. That, coupled with the T490s’ expense versus similarly-equipped laptops from the IdeaPad line and other vendors, get it only a tepid recommendation for die-hard ThinkPad lovers, who need more portability than flexibility.
Here’s What We Like
- Classic keyboard and TrackPoint
- Great software
- Manual shutter
And What We Don't
- Short battery life
- High price
- No SD card slot or Ethernet