ThinkPad 13: Thoughts after 18+ months10 Dec 2017
It’s been over a year since I switched laptops and I want to share my thoughts on my current one - the Lenovo ThinkPad 13 Gen 1. Before getting this laptop, I had been using a Lenovo IdeaPad G580 which I had gotten back in 2013. While that laptop suited my needs at the time, the unwieldy 15.6” display, sub-standard 2 hrs battery life, and weight of 2.8kg just wasn’t cutting it for college. I decided to go for a smaller laptop with good battery life to replace it. I was pretty satisfied with the performance of the IdeaPad so anything as good or better than its i5-3230M was enough for me.
The first laptop which I looked at was the Asus UX305UA which ticked most of my boxes. However, some reviews had stated that its build quality was questionable so I decided to hold out for a better laptop. I later stumbled upon the Lenovo ThinkPad T460(s) which looked perfect for my needs but was just a touch out of my budget. While I was considering this, news began to surface about a 13.3” ThinkPad releasing soon, later to be known as the ThinkPad 13.
It wasn’t an easy decision between the T460s and the 13. The T460s was definitely a more charming laptop but there were just too many drawbacks for it to be a serious contender. I found several negative reviews regarding the battery life and the 1080p display lottery. The ThinkPad 13 wasn’t without issues of its own, but there wasn’t a single review that hadn’t sung praises about its keyboard, battery life, and overall value proposition. Plus it came with a USB Type-C port, dual upgradeable RAM slots, and was at least $200 cheaper than a comparatively specced T460s.
I got the silver version of the ThinkPad 13. Die-hard ThinkPad fans may condemn a non-black ThinkPad, but I think it looks great. Plus, the silver version came with the free 1080p IPS display upgrade. It also has a better choice of materials with an aluminium lid in place of the ABS plastic lid found on the black version of the ThinkPad 13.
I configured my laptop with the following specs for $720 (₹46500):
- Intel Core i5-6300U Processor (3MB Cache, up to 3.00GHz)
- Windows 10 Home 64 English
- 8GB DDR4-2133 SODIMM
- Intel HD Graphics 520
- KYB SR ENG
- 3cell 42Wh
- UltraNav (TrackPoint and ClickPad) without Fingerprint Reader
- Software TPM Enabled
- 720p HD Camera
- 256 GB Solid State Drive, SATA3 OPAL2.0 - Capable
- 45W AC Adapter - US(2pin)
- Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC(2x2) 8260, Bluetooth Version 4.1 vPro
- 13.3” FHD (1920 x 1080) IPS Anti-Glare, 220 nits
I don’t think the Windows 10 version is available in India presently. I believe a watered down Chromebook version is available on Amazon.
Since I was saving a fair bit of money by not buying the T460s, I maxed out the CPU with the i5-6300U though I don’t ever see myself using vPro. The other upgrades were the RAM and SSD to 8GB and 256GB respectively.
The ThinkPad 13 Gen 2 and Gen 1 share the same chassis, so most of the parts of this review regarding build quality, I/O, and keyboard apply for the Gen 2 as well.
Pretty decent. At 1.4kg it’s not the smallest or lightest 13.3” laptop available, but it’s small enough to not matter. Given the number of I/O ports onboard, it’s a very acceptable compromise.
You can immediately tell it isn’t made from the fancy composites of the X1 Carbon or the magnesium alloy of the T/X/P series ThinkPads. Yet the plastic frame of the laptop is good quality and can easily stand out on its own. Compared to other ThinkPads I’ve tried, it feels considerably better built than the E470 and the X1 Yoga and is on par, if not better than the T440p. The P50 is more solid, though it must be kept in mind that the P50 is a much thicker laptop than the 13. The 13’s build quality is on another level compared to the Lenovo IdeaPad G580 I had been using before this. Even after a year of heavy use, creaking on twisting the frame is non-existent and nothing feels like it’s on the verge of falling apart like it did with the IdeaPad.
The hinges are nice and tight and the lid gives a satisfying thump on closing. Speaking of which, the aluminium lid is solid and protects the display nicely. However, it does give the laptop a heterogeneous look and feel with the rest of the frame being made of plastic.
One aside here, the 13 does have unique touches not found on higher end models. For example, the “i’s” in the ThinkPad logo in both the lid and the palm-rest glow and the ThinkPad logo has a really nice brushed finish to it on the lid.
Opening the laptop for servicing and upgrading is not a good experience. The bottom base is held by 10 captive screws and is incredibly fiddly to pry open. I ended up scratching off some of the paint of the bottom cover in the two times I tried opening the base. That said, upgradability is much better than what you can find on comparable ultrabooks. Both DDR4 RAM slots, the M.2 SATA SSD (no NVMe on the Gen 1 unfortunately), the Wi-Fi card, and battery can be easily replaced.
The touchpad has its share of mechanical issues too. It is a clickpad design, similar to that found on MacBooks. Sometimes dust and debris would find its way in the gap between the base of the laptop and the touchpad causing the right button to physically stop clicking. It’s a simple problem to fix and all it needs is a swab with a piece of thick paper under the touchpad. Nevertheless, I expected a more robust design. At least this problem isn’t exclusive to the 13 as it seems to happen to the T450s as well.
Lastly, the plastic construction does have some drawbacks when it comes to scratches. A small section of the lid joining it to the hinges is plastic and is much more scratched up than the aluminium part of it. After a year, the base unit also had some paint rubbing off from the edges. I would suggest buying a carrying sleeve to avoid this from happening. The silver palmrests also have taken a slightly darker shade to the rest of the laptop.
Fortunately, all the damage is only cosmetic and the laptop has held up pretty well after being jostled around campus for more than a year.
Connectivity is a strong point for the ThinkPad 13. It’s impressive to see how many ports there are on a laptop of this size! You get 3 USB-A ports running at USB 3.0 speeds, a full size HDMI port, an SD card reader in which the card goes all the way in, a headphone jack, and a USB-C port supporting charging and 2160p/60fps video out. There’s also Lenovo’s proprietary OneLink+ docking solution though I haven’t tried this out yet.
On the subject of the USB-C port, a minor nitpick is that it’s USB 3.1 Gen1 and doesn’t support Thunderbolt. I still much prefer it to the option of having a full size Ethernet port as on the T460s. The USB-C port is so much more flexible.
I also discovered that all the USB ports support fast (faster?) charging. My phone charges as fast from the laptop’s USB port as it does from a 5V/1.5A charger.
Wireless connectivity is serviced by the Intel 8260 Wi-Fi card, the same one used on all the top-spec 2016 ThinkPads. Speed and connection quality is good and it supports 802.11ac.
You can’t really go wrong with a 1080p IPS display on a 13.3” laptop.
The LG 1080p IPS display on ThinkPad 13 comes with a matte coating. Even for an IPS display, the viewing angles are excellent. 13.3” and 1080p is a sweet spot for sharpness and UIs scale fine in both KDE Neon and Windows 10. Thanks to the matte coating, the screen brightness is perfectly sufficient 90% of the time when I use it. I’ve hardly run into any instances where I felt the need to crank the screen brightness any higher.
Colour space coverage is reportedly below average for an IPS screen and it really shows when put side by side with a MacBook Pro or a Dell Inspiron 7460. That said, for coding and web-browsing, it’s hard to ask for more.
The ThinkPad 13 is powered by a 42 Wh battery. It has degraded slightly from when I got the laptop - initially the battery was able to hold 46 Wh of charge but now it usually holds 40-41.5 Wh when full. I usually run several Firefox tabs open with some IDE’s like VS Code, Atom, or Android Studio on KDE Neon. The laptop is very energy efficient and power draw rarely climbs above 6.5W at 30% brightness after enabling TLP. My old laptop used to idle at 17W and when people claim that Intel has gimped their CPUs since the IvyBridge era, I think they’re disregarding the huge leaps in power efficiency.
In more than a year of owning it, I haven’t once drained the battery. I’ve even gotten through 9-5 days at a summer internship solely off battery power. I typically get around 6-8 hours of battery life depending on the usage. I can’t speak of how good or bad battery life is on Windows 10 as I’ve never used it for anything other than gaming, which brings me to my next section.
Subjectively, it’s quite snappy. A lot of the performance improvements compared to the laptop I owned before this can be chalked up to the SSD. The one used in the ThinkPad 13 I got was the LiteOn L8H-256V2G and it gives about 540MB/sec in sequential reads and 300MB/sec in sequential writes. It’s common knowledge how much faster SSDs are than HDDs, but I hadn’t expected it the difference in swapping performance to be as enormous as it is. I can hardly tell when Linux starts filling up the swap space on the SSD as the degradation in performance is minimal.
The i5-6300U is sufficient for my needs and thermals in the ThinkPad 13 are good enough that the laptop doesn’t need to throttle even under prolonged loads. The processor cools passively most of the time and the fan only kicks in under load. Even so, I’m hard pressed to hear the fan below 4000RPM. The CPU is able to overclock to 2.9 GHz on both cores but I’ve rarely seen it climb over 2.8 GHz. I’m not sure if this is due to the 15W TDP of the SoC or the laptop’s conservative policy when it comes to cooling as core temperatures never climb over 75C on Prime95.
As far as programming goes, it’s not struggled with anything I’ve thrown at it - from building large C++ codebases to running instances of IntelliJ and Android Studio (with the x86 Android emulator) together. The CPU is definitely faster than the i5-3230M in my old laptop.
Plus, for the first time, gaming isn’t a terrible experience on integrated graphics if your expectations are low enough. I can get 30fps in Skyrim Special Edition at 720p and Medium graphics presets with 2X AA. DiRT3 and Mirror’s Edge gave about 60fps at 720p with low settings. Sonic Mania works perfectly at 1080p 60fps. On the other hand, it struggled with returning a framerate greater than 30fps on Sonic Generations. Bear in mind that all this is with single channel 8GB RAM. Performance could be better with dual channel RAM.
Load times in all games are much lesser than they would be on a gaming console such as the PS4 thanks to the SSD.
Overall, as long as you don’t mind running old games at 720p with some sacrifice in visual quality, the integrated Intel HD 520 should be adequate. At least it’s good at smooth 4K video playback.
Really good! For years, I used to think that the AccuType keyboard on my Lenovo G580 was unbeatable, but that changed as soon as I laid my hands on the ThinkPad 13’s keyboard. The keys are perfectly spaced, have amazingly deep travel, and have great texture. I really like the layout too - PgUp/PgDn + Ctrl makes it very easy to switch tabs and Fn and the left Ctrl can be swapped in the BIOS. I don’t miss the lack of keyboard backlighting but I would really appreciate something like a ThinkLight found in older ThinkPad’s.
It turns out that the keyboard on the 13 is exactly the same as the one on the T460s. I learned this by ruining the stock keyboard when doing my weekly round of sterilising all my electronic devices. AliExpress didn’t have the silver 13 keyboard but the 13’s FRU manual showed that the T460s keyboard (albeit black instead of silver) could be directly dropped in. After a month of waiting to get it shipped from China, it was a simple 10 minute job to replace the keyboard. Props to Lenovo for reusing FRUs and keeping the 13 so serviceable.
I’m pretty happy with the touchpad as well. It has a smooth surface and has a very satisfying physical click to it. Gestures work well and it’s supported out of the box on Linux. The TrackPoint and click buttons have become indispensable for programming. However, I’m disappointed about how fast the TrackPoint’s coating wears off as it becomes really difficult to use the shallow TrackPoint once this happens. ThinkPads really should ship with some replacement caps.
I’ve been using an Ubuntu derivative distro on my laptop ever since I got it. In the first few months, I used Kubuntu 16.04 and then later on I switched to KDE Neon (which, incidentally, is based on Ubuntu 16.04). Linux support is remarkable and everything “just works” right out of the box. Older versions of the 4.x Linux kernel had some issues with the touchpad “desyncing” every 15 minutes, but this has by and large been fixed over the last few months. Thanks to the excellent Mesa drivers, 3D performance of the Intel HD 520 is very stable and actually works better than my friend’s NVidia Quadro GPU did with Nouveau drivers (not in terms of frame rate, but stability). The Trackpoint works well and all the function keys work perfectly. Also, as mentioned earlier, battery life under Linux is great. I’m curious to see if the OneLink+ works and if the USB-C can output video on Linux.
In my opinion, there’s nothing you’re missing by running Linux on the 13 instead of Windows when it comes to hardware support.
The ThinkPad 13 is a nice laptop, but it’s not for everyone. It fits my workflow perfectly with the good keyboard, display, and build quality. However, not everyone needs as many I/O ports as the 13 has and they would probably be better served by the numerous ultrabooks with better displays and bigger batteries. On the other hand, some might jump for a higher-end ThinkPad model like the T460s/T470s with better build quality and connectivity options. That said, the ThinkPad 13 does a lot of things right and fills a niche in the market for small laptops with good keyboards and several ports. A lot of compromises made in the ThinkPad 13 are reasonable and if you can live with these compromises, it definitely is worthy of consideration for your next laptop.