Thinkpad Buying Guide Part 2/2: 2017 Models

Update: fully obsoleted by 2018 models

At the time this post was originally written, Ryzen processors were not out, and Intel had not responded to their threat with the Kaby Lake-R quad-core 15W (ULV) mobile processors.  Most people could not have anticipated how strong the overall offering is.

Fortunately (unless you bought a 2017 laptop), those processors came out, and the 2018 Lenovo implementations are excellent, with strong cooling systems and customization allowing the CPUs to use more power if needed and run at high temperatures.  The result is CPUs in the 2018 laptops can in some cases run literally twice as fast with appropriately multi-core workloads.   The models with less robust cooling or CPU tuning will still manage 50% higher performance, and there’s potential for further improvement by undervolting the processor, replacing thermal paste, and doing other aftermarket tuning.

NVIDIA’s MX150 discrete graphics is also available, and is roughly twice as fast as the (already obsolete at the time) 940MX graphics available on select 2017 models.  Further, this graphics option is more widely available, included on the T480 and T480s, where the equivalent T470 and T470s did not offer discrete graphics in most markets.

Finally, the T480 finally has a screen suitable for working with photos (the WQHD option) featuring full sRGB gamut.

For all of these reasons, even if they’re substantially cheaper the 2017 Thinkpads are not worth buying except in niche cases.  Buy a 2018 Thinkpad and call it a day.

Current Thinkpad Models Likely To Be Excellent Bargains in the Future

Today we’ll look at current Thinkpad models, highlighting specific models offering excellent combinations of features and engineering.   Given that they are either new or nearly-new, they are more expensive and do not offer the same level of value as older models, but in the future they will likely be stellar value buys.

All-Around All-Star: T470

Specs to look for: FHD (1920×1080) IPS screen, i5-7300U CPU as the sweet spot for price/performance (but all CPU options are solid), ignore Nvidia 940MX graphics option because that’s not powerful enough to bother with.

The Thinkpad T470 represents many aspects of engineering (new and old) coming together at once to make an excellent ultrabook.  These features make it a laptop likely to age extremely gracefully:

  • New 7th-Generation Intel Kaby Lake processor, which offers a flat ~15% boost to both performance and battery life and hardware decoding of the VP9 video used for YouTube and Google video chat offerings (battery savings).
  • Performance!  Due to excellent cooling and expanding the thermal design power (TDP) from 15W to 25W, the T470 can sustain its the maximum turbo-boost speeds on the i5-7200U processor indefinitely.  In the long haul it will outperform the 2017 slim models in benchmarks, even when equipped with a nominally more powerful i7 processor.
  • New Thunderbolt 3/USB type C port:  the all-in-one port wonder that will likely be the future standard.  Supports universal USB-C chargers and laptop power banks, plus potentially external graphics enclosures.
  • New chassis, starting at 3.5 lbs (1.6 kg) which makes this full-sized Thinkpad as light as previous slim models (the T450s is nearly identical).  Slightly heavier with the more common PPS top cover, but still quite light.
  • Deep-travel keyboard, for the best typing experience.  More key travel than most of the other models (T470s, X1, etc).
  • Keeps the PowerBridge battery system from previous generations, allowing rear batteries to be freely swapped without losing power, and trading the light 3-cell for the capacious expanded 6-cell
  • With multiple energy-efficiency boosts, amazing battery life – great for travelers. Tested and achieves 7+ hours of web browsing or 10 hours of HD video playback – with the smallest batteries!  Double that with the largest (72 Wh) rear battery.
  • Completely serviceable – the CPU and/or GPU are the only soldered parts, so it’s easy to upgrade RAM (up to 32 GB), storage, and network/WAN cards.  Likely the display can also be replaced (with more effort).

Cons: Just the display – it is unsuitable for photo editing due to inaccurate color representation and being limited to 61% of the sRGB color gamut.  It’s quite likely that more ambitious users can solve this with an aftermarket screen upgrade.  Otherwise, the earlier T450s offers a full-HD IPS screen with slightly less than full sRGB coverage.   The current T470s or X1 Carbon (5th Gen) offer WQHD screens with full (or nearly full) sRGB coverage.

Links: Specifications (PSREF) and NotebookCheck review

Gorgeous, Light and Adaptable: The X1 Yoga (1st and 2nd gen) Convertibles

Specs to look for: WQHD (2560×1440) OLED screen, maximum memory you will need because the memory is soldered and cannot be upgraded, don’t bother with faster i7 CPUs (cooling issues).

This is a machine for artists, offering a convertible with Wacom stylus support and absolutely gorgeous OLED display.  The display shows a pure blacks affording the maximum contrast and a huge color gamut covering almost the entirety of the AdobeRGB colorspace, plus an ultrafast response time.

Cons: 1st Gen lacks the Thunderbolt 3/USB-C support that was added in the 2017’s 2nd gen version, and neither can achieve the full performance from the faster CPUs due to cooling limitations.  Also has less than amazing battery life at ~5 hours of web browsing (2nd Gen not tested yet).

Links: Specifications (PSREF) and NotebookCheck review

 

A Cheaper Alternative to the X1 Yoga: the Yoga 370

Specs to look for: i5 CPU (no benefit to the i7), and MAKE SURE it has the socketed memory slot and no WWAN card – you only get one or the other

The Yoga 370 promises a Wacom digitizer with active pen, enabling use for diagrams and artwork, and has a FHD display with full sRGB color spectrum.  This makes it suitable for art and photo editing.  The light weight (3 pounds) and small form factor make it highly portable and versatile.  Support for Thunderbolt 3 connections offers external GPU connectivity for graphics-intensive needs.  This is especially useful because the models with socketed memory only have a single slot (like the X270 does).  This prevents use of the faster dual-channel memory configurations to get improved integrated graphics performance.  Also boasts excellent battery life, of 8+ hours with the integrated battery.

Cons: CPU performance somewhat limited by temperature throttling, models with WWAN cards have just 8 GB of soldered memory and can’t have this upgraded

What about the others???

These are of course just a few of the many Thinkpad models offered this year.  While others are perhaps solid machines, they just aren’t as compelling as some of the other offerings.  Let me run through some reasons:

Most 2016 Models (T460, T460s, X260, X1 Carbon 4th Gen, etc):  lack USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 ports, which is likely to become the standard for connecting devices.  This also limits future expansion capabilities.   The 6th Generation Intel Skylake processors are significantly (~15%) less performant and power efficient than 7th Generation versions, giving shorter battery life.  You may as well get the cheaper previous-gen or superior next-gen models.

L-series and E-series lines (ex L470, E460):  inferior build quality and durability.  Given how cheap and reliable refurbished Thinkpads are, you may as well get a previously-owned T or X-series model for the same price.

X1 Carbon 5th Gen: This is by all accounts an excellent machine, with many of the perks the T470 has, including Thunderbolt 3.  Super-slim, super light, and getting rave reviews. The 2017 model has issues with heat buildup that limit the ability to take full advantage of processor performance (especially with i7 processors), but you wouldn’t expect a laptop this thin to replace a workstation anyway.

So why isn’t it a future value?  Simple!  If you’re paying the premium for this model, you want the latest!  The X1 series improves incrementally with each generation, and because there is limited upgrade potential due to soldered components, you’re best off with the latest.

T470s: Not a bad machine but it is stuck in-between the T470 and the X1 in size and capabilities.  There’s not much to suggest it over one of them (aside from being slightly cheaper than the X1 and having half-upgradeable RAM).

X270: A dud with some engineering flaws, including a tendency to run dangerously hot and use fans heavily.  Stick to the X1 if you want something portable, unless you absolutely need a specific feature.

Other Various Yoga variants:  just don’t hit the right combinations, in my opinion.  They’re *generally* not light and cheap enough to replace a tablet or smartphone for reading, web browsing and web surface.  They often don’t offer a gorgeous high-gamut screen and digitizer for digital art or diagrams/note taking (like the X1 Yoga and Yoga 370).  Finally, for basic use, the X230t is an unbeatable value at <$250.  Exceptions may exist, but none compelling at the moment.

T470p: Not a bad machine, but it fills a very narrow niche of people needing a powerful quad core processor without support for similarly powerful graphics capabilities or futureproof connectivity.  Unlike many models of this generation, it lacks the modern USB-C port, which limits future usefulness.  The result of this is no Thunderbolt 3 connectivity and since the old ExpressCard standard has been dropped, there is no way to connect an external GPU.  Finally, it is heavy enough that you may simply want to bump to the P50/P51 line.  If there’s a model next year with Thunderbolt 3, that will be far more desirable — but it’s not impossible that this line will be dropped entirely.

T570:  Similarly niche.  The biggest selling point of this model is pairing an optional 15.6″ 4K display with a mobile form factor offering portability and solid battery life.  It also has Thunderbolt 3 for future-proofing (or external graphics) and optional 940MX discrete graphics to offer a little more graphics horsepower for all those pixels.  Unfortunately it lacks a quad-core processor to put those capabilities to full use.  If you don’t absolutely need such a capable display when on the go, you’re far better off with a T470 and external 4K display.  If you do need the display and don’t mind sacrificing size/weight, the P50/P51 are more capable options.

P50/P51:  If you need one of these, you know it.  Solid mobile workstations for people who can afford them, with Thunderbolt 3 for expansion options.  Otherwise the T430/T530 offer better values for most everyday people.  Especially when paired with an eGPU rig to offer high-performance graphics capabilities.  I hate to say it, but the Dell XPS 15 is also a solid competitor.

4 thoughts on “Thinkpad Buying Guide Part 2/2: 2017 Models

  1. In several YouTube videos it is mentioned that starting with the T480 the power-connector is welded onto the motherboard [,] which means that if it stops working, you essentially have no way of recharging the computer [and it becomes a expensive paperweight].

    Also: When you are going to upgrade_and/or_replace components (such as the hard-drive/SSD/internal-storage or RAM), it is recommended that you TURN *OFF* the computer AND unplug it from its power-cord AND remove the battery [so it’s not being fed electrical-power anymore] (all of this, so electrical-current is-not flowing through the computer anymore (all of which, can short-circuit the hard-drive or SSD or RAM when you plug them (ie. connect them) to the motherboard)).

    Apple-“Macbook-Air”-style–design laptops have forced Lenovo and other companies to have their laptops’ components WELDED_and/or_GLUED into the-internal-parts (motherboard, in this case) of the computer. (Unfortunately the battery has also become one of these glued-and/or-welded components, that is-not externally-accessible and therefore, not easily-replaceable).

    The Thinkpad laptops, starting with the T440 (AND T440p) and going all the way up to the T480, have this stupid design of “welded/non-removable/glued/I-don’t-know-WHAT internal-battery mixed-in–with external battery” (a design which Lenovo calls “PowerBridge”; their theory and their marketing said, the Internal battery would be charged first, and then the externally-accessible battery would be charged second. And likewise, the external-battery would be discharged first, and THEN the internal-battery would be discharged SECOND. Unfortunately, in practice, it was never that way 😦 . Both the internal battery and the external battery would discharge at the same time, or, the INTERNAL battery would be the FIRST to discharge instead-of the LAST-one to discharge.

    Lenovo’s other theory with PowerBridge was “you could keep the laptop turned-on while replacing the external battery, even when when NOT plugged-in to the AC-adapter” (but unfortunately their Marketing team only alluded to the fact [that] “you could keep the laptop turned-on while replacing the external battery”, whereas[/while] NOT conveniently-mentioning that you could already do this before on ANY laptop [WITHOUT PowerBridge / that DIDN’T have PowerBridge], just by keeping the laptop connected to AC-power while you replaced the battery (ie. the externally-accessible battery))).

    There was also the added fact that — supposedly at-least and/or in-theory and/or according to Lenovo — to disconnect the internal-battery you had to go to the Bios and click on a setting to deactivate it. Unfortunately, this is a SOFTWARE solution. It’s not reliable. The only way to RELIABLY *DISCONNECT* the battery is by PHYSICALLY *DISCONNECTING* it from the motherboard.

    Obviously, this “having internal-batteries”-thing *is NOT* a *good* idea.

    Like

  2. Darn typos that don’t get noticed until AFTER you post the comment 😦 .

    “Lenovo’s other theory with PowerBridge was “you could keep the laptop turned-on while replacing the external battery, even when when NOT plugged-in to the AC-adapter” “.

    It should have been:

    Lenovo’s other theory with PowerBridge was “you could keep the laptop turned-on while replacing the external battery, even when NOT plugged-in to the AC-adapter”

    Like

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