Introduction, Design, User Interface

Can an old-school laptop make it in a modern world?

As you may already know from my ultrabook editorial, I’m not entirely sold on them. There are disadvantages to being thin.

And as if to remind me of it, a Lenovo ThinkPad T420 suddenly appeared at my doorstep. Okay, that’s exaggerating a bit – I did know it was coming – but the timing of receiving an old-school laptop couldn’t have been better. Not only because I wanted to take a closer look at a laptop purposely designed to not be thin, but also because we haven’t had a ThinkPad T series for review in, well, forever. 

This is a return to form for me. I owned several ThinkPads during my late teens, my college days, and the years just after college. My favorite was a T42 with a 14-inch display. 

Of course, laptops have come a long way since then. The ThinkPad T420 we received for review is a good example of a mid-range model. Let’s look at the hardware specifications. 

According to Lenovo’s website, this configuration is the second pre-configured option available. It can be had for about $1000 after an eCoupon provided by Lenovo. All of the features above are standard, even the 1600×900 display and Nvidia graphics. They are standard only for this model, however – some less powerful versions are available at lower prices. 

The only option that came with our review unit was a 9-cell battery, which will set you back $50. We received both the 6-cell and the 9-cell batteries, so we will be testing the laptop’s battery life with both.


At first glance, the T420 doesn’t seem much different from the T42 I used about six years ago. The classic ThinkPad black matte construction remains present, of course, and it does a good job of obscuring the more subtle details of the chassis.

Not that there’s much to obscure. Besides the laptop’s ports and a display lid’s latch at the front of the laptop, there’s nothing notable here. That’s the point. A business laptop is supposed to be like a business suit – handsome, but unobtrusive. 

I don’t think everyone agrees with this philosophy, but this isn’t meant to be a debate about it. This T420 remains true to the core ThinkPad ideal of obsessive functionality. You either get it, or you don’t. If you do, then you’ll love how this laptop is built. 

Durability is evident throughout the chassis. Picking up the laptop from any edge results in no groans of protest, nor is any flex evident when pressing upon various surfaces of the laptop (the middle of the display lid is an exception – but almost all laptops show some minor flex there). The display is attached by two large metal hinges that make it possible to open 180 degrees. More importantly, these hinges do not allow for any display wobble when typing.

Connectivity includes VGA and DisplayPort, four USB 2.0 ports (one of which is an eSATA combo port), a card reader, a 34mm Express Card Slot and a combo headphone/microphone jack. This impressive array is improved if you don’t have the discrete graphics option found on our laptop – the space freed by the missing GPU allows for the addition of two more USB 2.0 ports. USB 3.0 is notably lacking. 

Most of the ports are located near the middle or rear of the chassis, and none are located on the front, which means that connecting devices will interfere less with your working space. The power cable connects at the only proper spot – the rear of the laptop – keeping the cord and adapter out of your way.

User Interface

Like the design of the chassis itself, the keyboard on the T420 is a bit of a dinosaur. It has refused to change over the years, ignoring the trends towards an island style keyboard layout. Even HP’s enterprise laptops have switched over to the more modern design.

But modern doesn’t always mean best. As I pointed out in our retrospective of the Acer Extensa 5420, an old-fashioned laptop keyboard like the one found here has strengths. The most noticeable is key feel. When you press a key, it responds with significant travel, and it doesn’t bottom out harshly. You can easily tell when you’ve fully depressed a key without looking at your display or the keyboard, resulting in more confidence when typing at high speeds. 

The layout is a bit fussy, as is often the case with ThinkPad laptops. The FN (or function) key is where the Ctrl key is supposed to be, and this will cause new users to stumble. Lenovo also uses double-height Esc and Delete keys which feel awkward at first, but are probably more effective once you’ve learned them. 

Below the keyboard is a small touchpad. It’s adequate. If you buy the T420 you’ll need to love – or learn to love – the trackpointer in the middle of the keyboard. The ThinkPad implementation remains the best, and once you become accustomed to it, you may never want to go back to a touchpad.


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