When it comes to 14-inch business laptops, Lenovo offers light (the 3.6-pound ThinkPad T480 seen here), lighter (the 3-pound ThinkPad T480s), and lightest (the 2.5-pound ThinkPad X1 Carbon). Why would you choose the heaviest of the trio? Because the ThinkPad T480 has not only the lowest starting price at $ 860 (the model here is $ 1,859 as tested) but the only hot-swappable battery, giving you near-unlimited unplugged life if you’re willing to carry spares. You also get a desktop replacement’s array of ports, including Ethernet and Thunderbolt 3; a keyboard to die for; and configurability options ranging from an extended battery to dedicated graphics. It doesn’t replace the lust-object ThinkPad X1 Carbon as our Editors’ Choice, but it’s simply the state of the art in workhorse business notebooks.
First, Think About the Components
So, I mentioned Lenovo’s $ 860 ThinkPad T480 starter model above, but perhaps I was being a little disingenuous bringing it up at all. Why? Because you really should avoid that model altogether.
Forget the base model, in this case. Its screen has an unsatisfactory 1,366-by-768-pixel native resolution, along with a 500GB hard drive instead of a solid-state drive (SSD). Both are no-nos for productivity-minded users who want to work with multiple windows open side by side on a 14-inch screen, or who want their laptop’s boot process, program launches, and disk-intensive activities to have some snap.
The $ 1,859 review unit I am looking at here is near the opposite extreme, and may be beyond the budgets of many shoppers and IT departments. It’s stacked: It has a Core i7-8650U processor, 16GB of memory, a 512GB PCI Express SSD, and 1080p touch screen. A more moderate, in-between configuration with Core i5-8250U power, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD, and a full HD (1080p) non-touch display will run you around $ 1,200.
Options include Nvidia’s modest, 2GB-equipped GeForce MX150 dedicated graphics chip, instead of our tester’s Intel UHD Graphics 620 CPU-integrated silicon; a 2,560-by-1,440-pixel non-touch screen; and an IR face-recognition webcam if you prefer that authentication method to our unit’s fingerprint and SmartCard readers. The IR camera lacks Lenovo’s ThinkShutter, a plastic slide that covers the lens if you’re concerned about online peeping Toms. So just know that the machine I have here is but a snapshot of a model in the line; many other configurations and configurables are at your disposal.
The Face Is Familiar
While at 3.6 pounds it weighs less than its ThinkPad T470 predecessor (3.74 pounds), the ThinkPad T480 is a bit heftier than competitors such as the HP EliteBook 840 G5 (3.27 pounds). It measures 0.78 by 13.3 by 9.2 inches to the HP’s 0.7 by 12.8 by 9.2 inches, or the Huawei MateBook X Pro‘s 0.57 by 12 by 8.5 inches. Still, it slips easily into almost any briefcase or backpack.
If you know ThinkPads, you already know what this system looks like—a matte-black, soft-touch slab with diagonal ThinkPad logos on the lid and palm rest. Check out its left side, and you’ll see a USB-C port (used with the included AC adapter), a Thunderbolt 3 port, the SmartCard slot, and cooling vents that emit rather warm air…
Along the right edge are two USB 3.1 Gen 1 Type-A ports (technically, the same as USB 3.0 ones), HDMI and Ethernet ports, an audio jack, an SD card slot, and a security lock slot…
Like all ThinkPads, the T480 has passed tough tests against vibration, shock, environmental extremes, and other road hazards. Also, there’s virtually no flex if you grasp the screen corners or press in the middle of the keyboard deck. Medium-thick bezels surround the display, which has a nice, non-reflective finish instead of the mirror-gloss look of many touch panels.
The webcam captures reasonably bright and detailed, not grainy or noisy, images…
The F4 key mutes the microphone for conference calls. Supplied Dolby software lets you switch among music, movie, game, voice, and automatic modes for audio. The bottom-mounted speakers deliver with ample volume and crisp, well-defined vocals and instrumentals, though not a lot of bass.
Good Visuals, Great Input
The IPS screen offers wide viewing angles and good contrast. Colors are vivid, though fine details looked a little soft to me, as they often do on touch screens. I noted plenty of brightness (though it falls off quickly as you dial down the backlight setting). Touch operations on the screen were smooth and sure.
I need better words than “smooth and sure” to describe the T480’s keyboard, which continues ThinkPads’ tradition of goodness. It’s soft without being mushy, and the backlit, island-style board boasts deeper key travel and a better typing feel than virtually any of its competitors. Its sure, responsive touch is marred by only one flaw: The Fn and Ctrl keys occupy each other’s places in the bottom left corner. Fortunately, the Lenovo Vantage utility lets you swap or fix that. Both the TrackPoint embedded pointing stick and the buttonless touchpad are smooth and accurate. The pad is prone, as many are, to finger smudging, as you can see below.
Lenovo backs the T480 with a slightly thin one-year depot or carry-in warranty and keeps its Windows 10 Pro software preload free of junk except for Windows’ own clutter, such as Candy Crush Saga and Disney Magic Kingdoms. The Vantage utility prompts you to download and install Amazon Alexa for PC, an intriguing rival to Cortana but no match for Alexa on an Echo device. It showed a “This PC does not support wake on voice” message, obliging me to click an icon or press Ctrl+Shift+A before asking questions or giving commands.
No Slouch in Speed
Matched against a crop of 14-inch laptops including its Lenovo stablemates, the T480 powered to first place in several of our performance benchmarks including the PCMark 8 office productivity test, Photoshop image editing workload, and Handbrake video editing exercise (though it was basically tied with the Huawei in Photoshop and with the X1 Carbon in Handbrake). Its PCMark score of 3,575 was more than 500 points above the baseline we consider excellent.
Other test results weren’t quite as impressive. The T480 and other systems with integrated graphics were trounced by the MateBook X Pro and its GeForce MX150 in our 3DMark graphics benchmark and Heaven and Valley gaming simulations, proving that they’re not suited for more than casual or browser-based gaming. When all is said and done, these laptops are for productivity, not play.
And, equipped with the small 24-watt-hour battery that fits flush with the case, the ThinkPad T480 trailed the field in our video-playback battery rundown test. Its unplugged time of 9 hours and 35 minutes is more than enough to get you through a workday, and its internal, second 24WHr battery lets you extend runtime by swapping in one or more spares with the system powered up. But I’d urge you to consider spending the extra $ 29 at ordering time for the cylindrical 72WHr battery; it adds some weight but should turn the T480 from a follower into a leader in battery life.
A Solid Office Dynamo
The ThinkPad X1 Carbon retains our Editors’ Choice for its lighter weight, 17-hour runtime, available HDR screen, and arguably even better keyboard. But execs tend to keep that premium-priced status symbol to themselves. For mainstream office deployment, the ThinkPad T480 is as good as it gets. You can choose among numerous excellent HP EliteBooks or Dell Latitudes—or you can choose the machine that they’re all aiming at.