What’s this? Rounded corners on a ThinkPad X200 series laptop? Yes, indeed. While last year’s ThinkPad X270 was chunky for an ultraportable, Lenovo’s new ThinkPad X280 (starts at $1,179; $1,565 as tested) is a thinner, sleeker variation on this classic 12.5-inch business box. It combines ThinkPads’ exemplary build quality and one of Lenovo’s signature keyboards with a handsome 1080p touch screen and ample ports, including Thunderbolt 3. The trimmer Dell XPS 13 (9370), packing an easier-on-the-eyes 13.3-inch panel, remains our high-end ultraportable Editors’ Choice, but the ThinkPad X280 is a worthy competitor.

Don’t Settle for Stripped-Down

Ignore its trademark matte-black finish, and the ThinkPad X280 could pass for one of its HP EliteBook or Dell Latitude rivals—but that’s because it drops one of its predecessors’ niftiest features: the dual-battery setup, a highlight of the ThinkPad X270 and earlier models. On those machines, you had an internal power pack paired with a hot-swappable main battery. You could opt for a battery that fit flush with the case, or a larger one that tilted the notebook to a convenient typing angle. Either way, you got one of the longest-running machines in its class.

By contrast, the ThinkPad X280 has a single battery sealed inside, like most laptops these days. It offers impressive stamina—13 hours in our video-playback test—but it can’t match the battery life of past members of the X200 family, especially if you carried one or more spares.

The $1,179 base model of the ThinkPad X280 has a skimpy 128GB solid-state drive and an unsatisfactory 1,366-by-768-pixel display, but our $1,565 test model was well-equipped, packing a 512GB PCI Express/NVMe SSD, 8GB of memory, an Intel Core i5-8250U CPU, and a 1,920-by-1,080 IPS touch screen. Stepping up to the $2,399 model nets you a lusty config: a Core i7-8650U processor, 16GB of RAM, and a 1TB solid-state drive. All rely on their processors’ Intel UHD 620 integrated graphics, so none is suitable for more than casual or browser-based gaming.

At 0.7 by 12.1 by 8.3 inches, the X280 is a bit bigger than the Dell XPS 13 (0.46 by 11.9 by 7.8 inches) and a bit smaller than the Razer Blade Stealth (0.54 by 12.6 by 8.1 inches). Several 13.3-inch systems weigh less—the HP Spectre 13 is 2.45 pounds, and the LG Gram 13 is just 2.01 pounds—but no one would call the Lenovo hefty. It’s a breeze to toss into a briefcase.

Lenovo X280 view 2

The ThinkPad X280’s mix of magnesium alloy and glass-fiber-reinforced plastic is as familiar ThinkPad fare as the diagonal logos on the lid and palm rest. Fairly thick bezels surround the screen, leaving room for a top-centered webcam with what Lenovo calls a ThinkShutter—a plastic slide that blocks the lens from online snoops. The camera captures somewhat soft-focus but pleasingly grain-free images. An IR camera that supports Windows Hello face recognition (and loses the ThinkShutter) is an option; our test unit offered Windows Hello logins via a fingerprint reader next to the touchpad.

On the left edge, you’ll find a USB Type-C port (which accommodates the compact AC adapter), a Thunderbolt 3 port, a proprietary Ethernet port (dongle not included), an HDMI video output, a USB 3.1 Gen 1 Type-A port, and an audio jack. On the right are another USB Type-A port, a lock slot, and a SmartCard slot. An inconvenient SIM-style cover on the rear edge conceals a microSD card slot.

Sights and Sounds: Thumbs Up

The ThinkPad’s bottom-mounted speakers pump out robust audio for a compact laptop. You won’t hear booming bass, but you’ll enjoy clear highs and lows that make MP3s and videos sound just fine, with more than enough volume to fill a room without distortion.

The 1080p touch screen is a highlight—impressively bright (at least at its top two or three settings), with sharp detail and vivid color. It’s not mirror-glossy like most touch displays, so you’re not bothered by reflections of lights and objects in the room. Contrast is keen, and viewing angles are broad; touch operations are smooth and sure.

Lenovo X280 keyboard

The backlit keyboard is comfortable—the span of keys from “A” through apostrophe is just an eighth of an inch shy of a typical desktop keyboard’s 8 inches—and has two things we always like to see: inverted-T cursor arrows, and dedicated Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down keys. (We might quibble, though, that the Fn and Ctrl keys in the lower left corner should be swapped.) The keyboard evinces a firm, slightly hollow typing feel with good tactile feedback. Both the embedded TrackPoint and the touchpad steer the cursor with precision.

Lenovo preinstalls Windows 10 Pro and trials of Dolby Atmos and Microsoft Office, plus the Lenovo Vantage system utility. The X280 is backed by a thin one year of depot or carry-in service, though warranty upgrades are available.

Four Cores, No Waiting

For our benchmark tables, we compared the 12.5-inch ThinkPad X280 to a 12.5-inch convertible, the HP EliteBook x360 1020 G2; a 12.3-inch detachable, the Microsoft Surface Pro; and two 13.3-inch clamshells, the Dell XPS 13 mentioned earlier and the Asus ZenBook UX331UN. The last is the only one with a discrete GPU—Nvidia’s GeForce MX150—rather than integrated graphics, so it dominated our 3DMark, Heaven, and Valley graphics and gaming tests. The X280 narrowly trailed the XPS 13 in our graphics benchmarks, with the exception of our gaming simulations at native screen resolution, where the Dell was handicapped by the higher pixel count of its 4K display.

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Lenovo X280 performance tests 2

All the systems posted solid scores in our PCMark 8 office productivity benchmark. The quad-core “Kaby Lake R” ThinkPad X280, the Dell XPS 13, and the Asus ZenBook led the way in our Cinebench CPU measurement and Handbrake video-conversion exercise. The Surface Pro edged out the ThinkPad X280 in our battery rundown test, though last year’s ThinkPad X270 (when tested with its extended-life battery) topped them both with a time of nearly 16 hours.

Lenovo X280 performance tests 1

A Black-or-White Decision

As we noted at the start, the matte-black X280 is a first-rate alternative to the white-and-gold XPS 13. We lean toward the latter because it offers a larger screen in a smaller package, as well as the option for a 4K-resolution panel, but we wouldn’t kick the ThinkPad X280 out of our briefcase, especially if we wanted the convenience of all those ports: HDMI, USB Type-A, Thunderbolt 3, and USB Type-C. We admit we’re a little sad to see the demise of previous X200 models’ hot-swappable battery, but we guess that’s progress.



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