Keith Combs' Blahg

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Lenovo ThinkPad T410s Optimus - mini review

Lenovo ThinkPad T410s Optimus - mini review

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t410sMonths ago I sold my personal Lenovo ThinkPad T61p and wondered what could possibly replace that beloved machine.  There are many options on the market. Lots of people opted for a netbook over the past year or two.  No thanks. 

I prefer higher resolution laptop screens.  For instance, my T61p had a 1680x1050 15.4” screen which in my opinion is the absolute perfect size and resolution.  There’s just one problem.  There aren’t many thin and light 15” laptops.

Should I compromise?  I looked closely at offerings from Acer, ASUS, Sony, Dell, Apple, and other makers.  So many toys, so little time. On October 20th I listened to the announcement from Apple about the MacBook Air.  Now we’re talking?

Planetary Alignment

The tipping point came.  First, Lenovo created a ThinkPad T410s with the NVIDIA Optimus graphics chipset.  We’ll discuss this in more depth later. Second, Lenovo finally got the message and offered a SSD drive that supported the Windows 7 data management techniques referred to as “TRIM”.  This meant that I didn’t have to replace the Samsung 128GB SSD thus saving me at least $380 dollars right off the bat.  Third, I received a 15% off coupon in email that could be stacked on top of the Microsoft EPP price.  Done.  The planets had aligned.

ThinkPad T410s Specifications

Intel® Core™ i5-560M dual-core processor, 4GB PC3-8500 1066MHz DDR3 RAM (two 204-pin SO-DIMM sockets), NVIDIA® Optimus™ technology, auto-switch between discrete and integrated graphics, Intel HD Graphics in processor, and NVIDIA Quadro® NVS3100M, PCI Express® x16, 512MB memory, 14.1" (358mm) WXGA+ (1440x900) color, anti-glare, LED backlight, 300 nits, 16:10 aspect ratio, 300:1 contrast ratio, Crucial 128GB Solid State Drive (SSD) / SATA 3.0Gb/s, 1.8" wide, 5mm high, Camera on top of screen, 2.0-megapixel, fixed focus, Mobile Intel QS57 Express Chipset, 3-in-1 reader (MMC, SD, SDHC), Two USB 2.0 (one powered), one USB 2.0/eSATA combo, external monitor (VGA DB-15, DisplayPort), ethernet (RJ-45), (WxDxH): 13.3" x 9.5" x 0.83–1.02"; 337 x 241.5mm x 21.1–25.9mm, 6-cell: starting at 3.94 lb (1.79kg), Display cover: Carbon-fiber reinforced plastic (top),glass-fiber reinforced plastic (side walls); Base: Magnesium alloy.

Photo Tour

I take pictures of each machine I manage to get my paws on.  Since some of them are short term eval units, I need something I can refer back to.  In this case, it will be around for awhile but close up shots are great for talking about the machine.

  • Open - the open picture shows the keyboard layout, speakers, trackpad, buttons, etc.  For ThinkPad users, there are no surprises here.  The superior keyboard is still present.  The trackpad is nice and big.  It’s much bigger than the X201s.  The T410s keyboard has this generations look and feel with the large Esc and Delete key.
  • Front (stacked) - some of the shots I take give you some perspective by comparing the machine to other machines.  In this stack you can see the other laptops in the family.  Look closely.  You can see that the T410 and the W510 are nearly the same thickness as each other.  You can see a pretty dramatic difference in the thickness of the T410s compared to it’s brothers.
  • Right - on the right side you can see the Ultrabay CD/DVD drive.  This bay is the same size as the bay on the T410.  Therefore, you can use the Ultrabay III Hard Drive Adaptor in the T410s or T410.  It also works in the ThinkPad W510.
  • Back - in the picture of the back you can see the placement of most of the ports on the T410s.  Clearly visible is the VGA port, Ethernet, powered USB port, combo USB/eSATA port, DisplayPort, and a portion of the thermal system.
  • Left - in this stack we can see the remainder of the ports on the T410s.  For those of you keeping count, the T410s has far fewer ports than the T410 or W510.  Most of the port types are present except one.  You’ll notice it’s missing a IEEE 1394 Firewire port.  You’ll also notice it has the headphone jack on the left side along with the memory card reader.
  • Front - the front edge of the machine doesn’t have much to write about except the lid release switch, and the primary drive bay cover. 
  • Bottom - the bottom of a machine is normally pretty boring but the T410s has an exception or two.  First, look closely at the 6 cell battery.  This battery is very thin and it’s inserted on the front edge of the machine, not the back.  This gives the T410s a nice balance because it isn’t butt heavy like many of the 9 cell ThinkPad models.  Second, you can see the dock connector and it’s symbol for the position in the docking station.  Although the T410s can use the same dock as the T410 or W510, you do need to make an adjustment on the dock for the different size.  You can also see the rest of the primary drive bay cover on the lower right corner.
  • SSD Drive Bay - in this picture you can see the primary drive bay cover removed and the Intel 160GB SSD drive.  This is a 1.8” drive so it is much smaller than the 2.5” drives you normally see.  I also took a macro close up shot of the drive inserted in the bay complete with a few dust particles.

The Screen

If you read through some of the threaded forum discussions on the T400, T410, T410s and other machines like the X200, X201, X201s and famous X301, you’ll find that a considerable number of people fault Lenovo for the quality of the screens on those models.  I would rate the screen on the T410s as fair.  It isn’t great, but it isn’t poor either. 

The main reason most people dislike the screen is because it has poor viewing angles.  That’s a fair comment.  However, with the proper angle and brightness setting, it’s perfectly fine for normal business work.  You can also change the screen calibration if you have the right software and sensors but I would not rush out to buy anything if it’s your sole machine.  Calibration equipment isn’t cheap.

At 300 nits, the screen is really bright indoors on level fifteen. Keeping the screen on a brighter setting improves the viewing angle as well as the readability of email, documents, spreadsheets, etc.  I am usually using brightness level 10-12 at night and 14 during the day at my desk.  My desk is typically brightly lit due to the large windows in my home office and the sunny Texas weather.

Because the screen native resolution is 1440x900, there’s plenty of resolution for email and other landscape oriented tasks.  Because it’s a 14.1” screen, you are compromising on some vertical resolution.  It’s a good trade off.  I much prefer this resolution on the 14.1” screen over the 12” screen of the X201s.  The 13” X301 was pretty nice as well, but it is no longer made.

Size, Weight and Keyboard

As you can tell from the pictures, this ThinkPad is slim and light.  At 3.9 pounds, it isn’t ultralight but it’s significantly less weight than my W510 which clocks in at 6 pounds with the 9 cell battery.  By comparison, the Apple MacBook Air 13” model is 3 pounds.

I have been carrying around 6 pound laptops for years.  For many events we carried two of them. You wouldn’t think a couple of pounds would make much difference, but it does.  This becomes even more apparent when you are carrying a smaller and lighter power supply in your backpack or messenger bag as well.  You’re going to dig the size and weight.  It’s very nicely balanced.

Because the machine is a decent size, you still get a full sized world famous ThinkPad keyboard.  Even the ThinkPad X201 manages that.  This generation keyboard has changed slightly but I like them.  They aren’t noisy when you type and have a very good feel.  The keyboard is also nicely centered on the chassis.  Why is it so many laptop makers fail to engineer good keyboards and design?  Once you go ThinkPad, you are going to have a hard time using anything else.  You were warned.

T410s_WEI

Optimus Graphics and Performance

So what’s all the fuss with Optimus?  Well, you’ve probably been hearing about switchable graphics for years.  The idea has been around for a long time. Switch to a low power GPU when you need battery life over performance.  Switch to a higher power GPU when you want performance.  This usually requires a reboot.

NVIDIA Optimus takes the idea and does the work automatically for you.  It will use both GPUs and manage the workload so the lower power GPU is used until the workload is great enough to require the higher powered discrete GPU.  You have some controls over this.  In the ThinkPad T410s BIOS, you can set the machine to use Optimus and auto switch, use the NVIDIA Quadro NVS 3100m on a full time basis, or use the Intel HD Graphics.  I usually have my machine set to use the discrete Quadro GPU.  I want high power GPU processing most of the time.  However, there is one really cool Optimus trick.

When the machine is set to Optimus, you can drive four displays.  Yes, that’s correct.  See my blog post at http://blogs.technet.com/b/keithcombs/archive/2010/11/14/driving-four-dell-lcd-panels-with-a-single-lenovo-thinkpad-t410s-optimus-laptop-and-dock.aspx for information on how to do that.  That’s a pretty terrific feat for a laptop and people that want two or three monitors connected to a docking station are going to be very happy with Optimus based ThinkPad's.

The machine performs as expected.  The i5 processor is no slouch and runs plenty fast on everything I’ve thrown at it so far including a couple of video encoding jobs.  It’s certainly faster than the new Apple MacBook Air 13” which I had on order then cancelled after I came to my senses. 

As you can see in the Windows Experience Index (WEI) above, it’s a solid machine across the board and the Intel SSD is kick ass.  See http://blogs.technet.com/b/austria/archive/2010/11/28/i-am-a-pc-wie-sie-2-mal-windows-7-in-getrennten-partitionen-auf-ihrem-macbook-air-installieren-triple-boot.aspx for a blog post from my Austria friends on their endeavors installing Windows 7 on the MacBook Air.  Pay particular attention to the WEI there.  Grin.

For those of you that are I/O speed demons, keep in mind you have several performance choices with this machine.  The 1.8” primary drive bay is one and as you can see, it handles 3.0 SATA speeds nicely.  The Ultrabay is also just as fast so you add a high capacity hard drive there, or another fast SSD.  Then of course you have eSATA via the port on the back of the machine.  The T410s lacks 6.0 SATA and USB 3.0 speeds, but this machine isn’t really designed to be a high I/O performance class machine.  But it will certainly hold it’s own depending on your point of reference.

Any Flaws?

I’ve had the machine for a month now.  Usually I find a flaw pretty quickly in any device if I’m doing comprehensive testing.  With my normal requirements, the ThinkPad T410s has one shortcoming.  It doesn’t have a IEEE 1394 “Firewire” port.  If I only had one machine, that would be a show stopper because my HD video camera uses firewire to dump the Mini DV tape data to my computer.  This means if I’m traveling and shooting video, I cannot process any of the video until I get home, or take another machine.  This is no big deal to me, but I thought I would mention it.  It’s not really a flaw, but I wish the port was present.

The T410s I have runs nearly silent.  Oddly enough it runs the fan more on Optimus than it does with the discrete Quadro NVS 3100m BIOS setting.  It’s another reason I use discrete more than Optimus.  Silent is a good thing.

Battery life is not terrific.  It’s about the same as many machines I’ve used. About 3.5 - 4 hours of battery life when using a balanced Windows 7 power management profile.  If I run the machine on Optimus with power conservation settings and a low LCD screen brightness, I can get another hour of life.  It certainly isn’t going to get you from Dallas to London.  If you are looking for 8-10 hours of life, this isn’t your machine.

There are really no other flaws I can think of unless you count the LCD screen quality.  Lenovo really does need to improve their 14” screens.  Enough people complain about them so it should not be taken lightly.  The LCD screen cover also flexes more than my prior ThinkPad's but it’s been pointed out in the forums that the material is carbon fiber reinforced so it should hold up.  I’ll know in about three years.

Coming Tests

There are a couple of items I haven’t tested yet with this machine due to travel and holidays.  I have not tried Windows Server 2008 R2 and Hyper-V.  I’m sure it will work but you really never know until you test it.  I don’t think the Optimus graphics will present a problem with R2 and Hyper-V, but I’ll let you know later when my testing is complete.

I also haven’t tested Linux.  I’ll probably wait a while longer on that simply because I don’t have a spare 1.8” drive laying around and I don’t want to mess with my current setup.  I’ll eventually get to it, but it isn’t a priority.

Summary

I am extremely happy with the ThinkPad T410s and it deserves your consideration as well.  A lot of ThinkPad diehards don’t think the Optimus feature is worth the extra money, but I think now that we know it’s possible to drive 3-4 monitors from this machine and a docking station, they have quieted down. Right now the machine gets a big thumbs up.  Look for a discount coupon and buy with confidence.

[UPDATE for 12/1] R2 and Hyper will install and run.  The Win7/R2 SP1 RC or higher is required otherwise big boom boom.  Like the ThinkPad W510 and T410, you need to install the Ethernet and WIFI drivers manually.

This is a pretty limited test, but I did create a Win7 x64 VM to make sure it is really working.  I have no intention of running my machine as a hyper-v server so don’t make a purchasing decision based on this limited test.  If you do purchase with that intent, make sure you test the hell out of your machine before the return period expires.

I also installed SLED 11 SP1 along with the accelerated NVIDIA driver.  The BIOS was set to discrete only so it was just using the Quadro NVS 3100M.  Looks like the T410s will do just about anything you throw at it.

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  • Nice review and nice Thinkpad! I was thinking that the eSata port would adequately replace firewire for you then understood your video export needs. For my needs, firewire 800 is indispensible for running external bootable clone backups from my MacBook via SuperDuper. This also simply clones my internal install of Win 7 Pro running in the latest version of Parallels 6 (no dual booting for me). As nice as the new MacBook Air may be, I think it's limiting in important ways that matter to many power users...great design goes only so far.

  • Hi Keith, where did you get the 2008R2 drivers for the 3100M? I am setting up a couple of T510s with the 3100m, and for the life of me I cannot find a driver that will work!

  • I just got my T410s after a lot of research...your post helped me in making the decision.  Thanks for the pics as well.  I have some experience with the T410 and the t510 from work..and I was struck at how they seemed bulky coming from a T60 myself.  This is definitely NOT the case with the 410s. Again great review and Thanks!

  • I just got my T410s after a lot of research...your post helped me in making the decision.  Thanks for the pics as well.  I have some experience with the T410 and the t510 from work..and I was struck at how they seemed bulky coming from a T60 myself.  This is definitely NOT the case with the 410s. Again great review and Thanks!

  • I'm really surprised you didn't wait for Sandy Bridge knowing it was just around the corner. I've been trying to figure out what to replace my T61p with for the last 6 months but the performance increase has only been incremental with the previous Core series. When I looked at your Windows Experience Index it doesn't seem like a 3+ year improvement over my existing T61p (6.1,6.1,5.7,6.0,5.9). I do VS development, typically in VM's, so I want as much horsepower as I can get in a package that's still fairly portable (I travel about 40% of the time). VS development is fairly single threaded so I want as much speed as possible during fairly short burst of time (e.g. build/run). How much improvement do you think there is with the SSD over high density 7.2k drive? Do you think they will have SATA 6/SSD combinations in laptops anytime soon? That would seem like the ultimate solution of reducing disk I/O bottleneck.

  • Don't be so surprised. I buy personal machines with my wife and family in mind. She has a T400 today that is starting to get old and show signs of wear and tear.  The T410s I have is really going to be her next machine and I got a good deal on it.

  • Hi Keith,

    thanks for the review. I just ordered a brand new T410S for my wife. Since she never plugs any external monitors and never plays any games, but uses the machine for office tasks related to her small business, I decided not order the version with the Optimus Video Card but the one with the integrated Intel HD Graphics only.

    Did I make the right decision?

    I know that I can still call Lenovo customer support and modify my order before it ships. What do you say?