If your boss or office manager shoots down your request for a Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, here’s a boomerang solution: Make an immediate case for the powerful, rugged, and still thin-and-light ThinkPad T480s. This more affordable ThinkPad (starts at $1,007; $1,659 as tested) is about a half-pound heavier than the Editors‘ Choice-winning X1 Carbon, the slimmest and sleekest ThinkPad in Lenovo‘s stable. The chassis is the same durable carbon fiber, albeit a bit bulkier, but as a reward for the added heft you get a few things that go missing on the X1 Carbon, among them an Ethernet jack and the option for a graphics upgrade. The question thus becomes: Does the ThinkPad T480s offer enough of a price break from the X1 Carbon to make it worth the weight? It depends on just how tight your budget is. Spoiler: In most cases, we’d say hold out for the X1 Carbon.
A ThinkPad, in Most of the Right Ways
If you squint, you might mistake the ThinkPad T480s for the X1 Carbon. It’s much more of a thin-slice modern ThinkPad than the thick, boxy ones of yore. It measures 0.72 by 13.03 by 8.92 inches (HWD) and weighs 3.07 pounds, which makes it nearly identical in size and weight to its predecessor, the ThinkPad T470s. By comparison, the X1 Carbon measures 0.63 by 12.74 by 8.55 inches (HWD) and weighs 2.49 pounds. Given the added half-pound or so on the ThinkPad T480s, you lose out on the “Wow, this thing is so light!“ rush that you feel when you pick up the X1 Carbon. That‘s not to say the ThinkPad T480s is heavy. It just doesn‘t feel lighter than it should.
Like other ThinkPads, the ThinkPad T480s goes through a battery of MIL-SPEC tests for reliability and durability. The rugged carbon-fiber chassis and spill-resistant keyboard will help road warriors sleep at night and continue to work during the day across a variety of challenging conditions in the field. The tests cover weathering humidity and temperature extremes; keeping out dust, dirt, and sand; and surviving sudden shocks and harsh vibrations.
Lenovo did not shorten the key travel or otherwise change the typing experience on the ThinkPad T480s, despite a thin chassis design that otherwise might have forced such a design compromise. The keys are roomy and offer that specific springy feel with the perfect amount of travel that makes a ThinkPad keyboard so distinctive. And fear not, pointing-stick fans: The ThinkPad T480s features both a touchpad and the venerable red nubbin, with dedicated mouse buttons for each. With its touch-sensitive screen giving you yet another input option, you could make a compelling case that the day of the pointing stick has come and gone, but the post-pointing-stick era has yet to begin.
The 14-inch touch display is adequate. The model I have for testing has an in-plane switching (IPS) panel with a Full HD (1,920-by-1,080-pixel) native resolution. Despite its IPS technology allowing for wider viewing angles, the screen image quickly degrades when you view it from much off the center axis. Part of the reason for its limited viewing angles, to my eyes, is its mediocre brightness. It‘s far from the brightest display I‘ve encountered, which should give pause to anyone who spends most of the workday in the field, as opposed to in the office.
Lenovo does offer a higher-resolution display option, though I did not get the opportunity to set eyes on it. You can upgrade to a WQHD (2,560-by-1,440-pixel) display, which should deliver a crisper image but one that‘s, perhaps, not any brighter. (The WQHD option, it should be noted, does not include touch-input support.) To my eyes, the FHD resolution suffices for its 14-inch size, and is the right match for that panel measure; images and text look sharp, without any obvious pixelation.
Like the display, the system‘s stereo speakers are adequate, but nothing more. They reach a fairly impressive level at maximum volume without too much loss of clarity, but the bass response is predictably lacking. The audio output will suffice for YouTube videos and video calls, but music playback will require headphones or an external speaker.
Here’s Looking at You (or Not)
A 720p webcam sits above the display. No need here for a piece of electrical tape to ensure your privacy when it‘s not in use, as the ThinkPad T480s features the option for Lenovo‘s new ThinkShutter privacy filter. Just slide the cover over the lens when you aren‘t video chatting for peace of mind.
Note, though, that you are given an either/or proposition with the webcam at the time of purchase: The options are the cam with the ThinkShutter cover, or a shutter-less IR webcam that works with Windows Hello facial recognition. The test configuration I have in hand offers a compromise: the ThinkShutter camera, plus a fingerprint reader for logging in without a password. The fingerprint reader is the same kind as on last year‘s ThinkPad T470s. It‘s a “Match-in-Sensor” reader, which is more secure because it uses a dedicated system-on-a-chip to store your biometric data, rather than stashing it on the ThinkPad’s hard drive itself.
Another change to this year‘s ThinkPad T480s is actually an addition by subtraction. Lenovo replaced the proprietary charging port of the ThinkPad T470s with a USB Type-C port for charging. Also, this port supports not just charging, but rapid charging. Lenovo claims that a 60-minute charging session will get you back to 80 percent battery life. I put that claim to the test and got close to that figure, going from a 5 percent battery-charge level to 76 percent in an hour. Also, should you opt to use a third-party charger, you can rest easy while the laptop charges because it features anti-fry protection to prevent an off-brand charger from, well, frying your system.
The rest of the port selection is strong. On the left side, the laptop offers another USB Type-C port, this one supporting Thunderbolt 3 for speedy data transfers or connecting to an external display…
Also on the left edge is a USB 3.0 port, an HDMI output, a headphone/mic combo jack, a full-size flash-memory-card reader (supporting four formats), and an Ethernet jack. The Thunderbolt port also doubles as the docking connector, which allows Lenovo to erase the docking connector that marred the bottom panel of past models.
On the right side, you‘ll find another USB 3.0 port, a SmartCard reader, and a Kensington-style cable-lock slot.
For storage, our test system features a 256GB PCI Express/NVMe SSD, and you can find 512GB or 1TB upgrade options if you configure a system on Lenovo‘s site. If you took this ThinkPad T480s model and added the 512GB drive, it would price out roughly the same as the last ThinkPad X1 Carbon configuration reviewed on PCMag, with the main trade-off for lightness being the ThinkPad X1 Carbon‘s Core i5 CPU versus the Core i7 in the ThinkPad T480s. These processors, however, are similar; both are quad-core parts that allow for eight processing threads. The Core i7-8550U has slightly faster core and turbo frequencies and offers a larger cache. As you‘ll soon see in the benchmark-testing breakdown, little separates the two.
Lenovo includes a one-year warranty with mail-in hardware support for the ThinkPad T480s.
A Capable i7 Performer
The $1,659 ThinkPad T480s tester I have in hand came configured with the eighth-generation Intel Core i7-8550U I just mentioned, as well as 8GB of RAM and integrated Intel graphics. It provides ample power for the usual office workloads and for light to moderate multitasking. The system felt speedy and responsive in anecdotal tests, even with multiple apps running and more than a dozen browser tabs open at once. And it‘s not all about raw performance: The eighth-gen Core i7 part is efficient, too, with a TDP of only 15 watts. The system‘s cooling fan rarely engaged and was whisper-quiet when it did.
In benchmark testing, the ThinkPad T480s performed well, but its Core i7 didn‘t put too much distance between it and the ThinkPad X1 Carbon, with its eighth-gen Core i5…
Its score of 3,455 on PCMark 8 was less than a hundred points (and only a few percentage points) better than the X1 Carbon‘s showing. The two ThinkPads were also close on multimedia tests, with the X1 Carbon actually ekeing out a win on the Photoshop image-editing trial. The ThinkPad T480s was faster than Apple’s 2017 MacBook Pro on the Handbrake video-encoding test, the Cinebench R15 3D-rendering benchmark, and a series of Photoshop editing tasks.
See How We Test Laptops
The ThinkPad T480s uses a three-cell, 57-watt-hour battery and lasted for 13 hours and 22 minutes on PCMag Labs’ battery rundown test. That‘ll get you through the longest of workdays, and it looks like an impressive figure until you look at the runtime of its competitors, among them the ThinkPad X1 Carbon, the Dell XPS 13, and the MacBook Pro.
As with any system that relies on Intel integrated graphics, gaming and overall 3D acceleration performance is limited…
The ThinkPad T480s failed to nail frame rates higher than 30 frames per second, the minimum threshold for enjoyable gaming, even on medium-quality tests at 1,366 by 768. With its slightly superior Intel Iris Plus integrated graphics, the MacBook Pro delivered better frame rates, but that added graphics oomph didn‘t translate into better times on photo- and video-editing trials.
A graphics detail worth noting, though: You are stuck with integrated Intel graphics in the ThinkPad X1 Carbon, but if you configure a ThinkPad T480s on Lenovo‘s site, you can opt for the Nvidia GeForce MX150 graphics processor. Now, the MX150 is a mild-mannered, entry-level GPU; it won‘t magically turn the ThinkPad T480s into a gaming monster. But it does provide 2GB of dedicated VRAM for a bump in graphics power, and it’s a definite step up from Intel HD Graphics, if other iterations of the MX150 tested in the lab are any guide.
Solid, but Not Quite the Carbon Copy
The ThinkPad T480s is a capable, modern, and slim laptop with a host of attractions: a rugged chassis, an inimitable and stellar ThinkPad keyboard, and an efficient, powerful CPU from Intel‘s latest generation. The port selection and its long-running, quick-charging battery are also strong points.
The only feature-level drawback we can’t quite forgive the ThinkPad T480s? The somewhat dim FHD display in this test unit. A larger quibble has nothing to do with the system proper, but with Lenovo‘s pricing scheme. Specifically: There just isn‘t enough pricing daylight between it and the ThinkPad X1 Carbon to justify lugging the extra half-pound of the ThinkPad T480s, unless you rely on wired Ethernet and absolutely refuse to pack a dongle. As a result, we see a ThinkPad T480s as an ideal buy only after that killjoy in accounting has quashed your request for a ThinkPad X1 Carbon.
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