Computer upgrade: ThinkPad T431s

December 5, 2013

It’s that time of the year again. A new laptop.

Let’s start off talking about my old machine, the HP Spectre Xt. The build quality on the machine was outright phenomenal, I don’t think I’ve ever owned a laptop as sturdy as this, not once did it give of a squeak. The things that I really disliked with it was that the important connectors were all to the left, both the power plug as well as the headphone jack was stupidly placed on the side where your mouse resides (for right hand people).

I also disliked that the RAM was not upgradeable, but instead soldered to the motherboard (edit: After writing this post, and reviewing the documentation it seems like the Spectre actually has user replaceable ram), and the fact that the hard drive is of the msata type, which means it would be a bit more expensive to upgrade it compared to a normal 2.5″ laptop disk. And maybe the most important thing is the screen, while the glossy screen gave somewhat good colors (as far as a TN panel can reproduce colors), the screen resolution was painstakingly low at 1366×768.

All in all, not that much to complain about. But Paulina needed a new machine, and I’ve got my upgrade cycle to follow.

At first I was eyeing a Macbook pro, but Dennis Klein advised against it because Apple has it’s way to ensnarl one into their eco-system (which would be an expensive ordeal). So after writing off Apple I went back to my Achilles’ heel of computers, the business class.

At first I contemplated to continue with HP’s offerings, but their new design looks really awful, they remind me of the old HP laptops, round corners and a lot of plastic. If they would’ve continue with the looks of the Elitebook 9470m, I probably would’ve gotten a new machine from them.

In the business market it feels like there’s really only three major contendants, HP (previously mentioned), Dell and Lenovo. I have a Dell Latitude E6230 at work, and while the performance of the machine is pretty good, the build quality can be summoned up with “plastic” and “squeaky”, and the track pad is probably the worst thing I’ve ever used.

This left me with Lenovo, a manufacturer that I don’t fully trust. I’ve previously owned a couple of ThinkPads, but that was back when the big blue still owned the brand. Since Lenovo took over I’ve stayed clear from ThinkPads. But since all other manufacturers were out of the picture I started looking through the line-up.

At first I considered their new ThinkPad S440, but the “floating” design looked cheap, and the design wasn’t up to pair of the usual ThinkPads. I didn’t want a full fat ThinkPad with the optical bay, I’ve liked the ultrabook form factor and I wanted to stay with something thin. There were two laptops that fit the criteria, the T440s and the T431s. The T440s, which is a bit newer and has the new Intel Haswell processor was a bit expensive, but otherwise fit the bill perfectly. The T431s, just as the T440s, fit the bill but had the older Intel generation Ivy Bridge.

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The choice basically fell down on price, the T431s was on sale, and I snagged it for 8700 sek (it was normally going for about 11500 sek).

This was the configuration that I got;

  • Intel i5 3337u (1.8GHz/2.7GHz)
  • 4GB of soldered RAM
  • One empty RAM expansion slot
  • 500GB mechanical hard drive
  • 24GB SSD m.2 sata cache drive
  • Backlit keyboard
  • A 1600×900 14″ TN display

When I got the machine, I was almost shocked how slow the hard drive was, so I had to get a new SSD disk for the machine. I had initially planned on getting it later, but these spinning disks are excruciatingly slow (all my other machines both at work and home have SSD’s). I picked up a 256GB Samsung 840 Evo, which is a surprisingly fast disk for it’s price. And once installed, the machine felt really fast.

It seems like a lot of people hate the screen resolution on this machine. They would rather have a full HD display than this, eh, medium resolution? I actually wanted  a machine that didn’t have an FHD screen, everything gets so small at that resolution that I have to squint to be able to read, which is undesirable.

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Another thing that a lot of people were complaining about was the redesign of the T-serie’s ThinkPad. The T431s is the first T-serie’s laptop that sports a complete redesign of the classic ThinkPad. It’s mostly noticeable around the track pad and track point, earlier ThinkPads have sported 5 physical buttons, one row with three buttons, a small track pad and two buttons beneath. In the newdesign they’ve thrown out all the buttons and made the track pad a huge glass-covered button. This means that while the track pad is great, the trackpoint almost becomes unusable, and the trackpoint is what most ThinkPad user’s use.

Back in the days when I still owned ThinkPads I was myself an avid track point user. It took a while to get used to it, but to this day I feel that once you figure it out, it’s far superior to the track pad. But that’s years ago, and I’ve come accustomed to use the track pad. And I gotta say, the track pad on this machine is excellent, it registers every touch and it’s really large.

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Probably the most important aspect of this machine is the build quality. It doesn’t really stand up to the older generation T-series laptops that had the rubber finish as well as built in roll-cages. Apart from that, the machine is pretty sturdy, the screen is built with carbon fiber, while the under-carriage is a one piece magnesium alloy plate. It’s not as serviceable as older ThinkPads, it doesn’t have  one-screw disk holder nor an access latch for the RAM, if you need to change any of these parts you need to unscrew the complete bottom plate and then pry it off the base, once the plate is removed you have easy access to all the parts. Even though there has been a few compromises to the machine it still passes the MIL-SPEC standards, which is a good thing.

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It’s also the slimmest ThinkPad to date, and it’s just a bit thicker than my old Spectre, the nice thing with this machine is that it supports a built-in ethernet jack, this is something that most ultrabooks lack.

One other thing that sets business latpops apart form regular consumer laptops is the security improvements. The ThinkPad, as most business machines, include a finger-print reader, a TPM chip and an Intel processor that supports AES accelerated encryption. As on my older laptops, the first thing I do is to encrypt the drive, not that I in any way think that BitLocker (I used to use Truecrypt) is uncrackable (it’s probably filled with NSA backdoors), but I’m hoping that if ever, god forbid, that the laptop is stolen, the thieves aren’t going to go through the hassle to break the encryption, but instead just format and reuse the drive, which ultimately means that my data should be safe.

The last thing, that I myself was pretty surprised about was the speakers on this laptop. The sound is actually kind of good, it’s far better than the cheesy beats by dre found in my spectre.

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