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Lenovo ThinkPad T490S review: The best value ThinkPad laptop

Tim Danton
4 Nov 2019
Expert Reviews Recommended Logo
Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
1,433
inc VAT

A brilliant lightweight computer with a superb screen and excellent battery life. The only thing it lacks is a discrete graphics chip

Pros 
Spacious keyboard
Superb colour accuracy
Broad choice of spec configurations
Cons 
Sub-par webcam quality
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Lenovo has so many ThinkPad models on sale that it can be difficult to work out which one is right for you. Perhaps you should choose the X range, with its ultra-slim design, light weight and hefty prices? On the other hand, if value for money is your top consideration, the L and E series are a much better choice. Need a workstation? Then the powerful P series is your friend.

Lenovo ThinkPad T490S review: What you need to know

But even as Lenovo has expanded its range of ThinkPads over the years, it’s the T series that we keep returning to at Expert Reviews. Why? Because it strikes such an excellent balance between build quality, performance and value.

The T490s is Lenovo’s latest addition to the T range, with the “s” indicating that it has a slimmer design than the plain old T490. And it really is slim. While it’s easy to let your eyes glaze over when you hear stats such as 16.1mm thick, this means you’re buying a fast 14in laptop with the same girth as two flagship phones placed on top of one another.

Couple that with a 1.35kg weight, a timeless matte black finish that means the T490s doesn’t need to be protected when in a bag, plus a battery life of over 11 hours in our video rundown test, and you have one of the most portable professional laptops around.

It’s become a cliché, but it remains true: Lenovo makes the best laptop keyboards of anyone. Typing on the T490s is a joy compared to its rivals, and that’s despite the improvements we’ve seen to other laptops over the past five years. Part of this is due to the sheer amount of travel on each key, as Lenovo raises them that little bit higher above the backplate than other manufacturers. As a result, when you hit a key there’s a reassuring feeling that it’s worked, with solid feedback. And while other keyboards are noisy when you get up to speed, you can tap away at the T490s and know that you won’t be annoying nearby companions.

Lenovo ThinkPad T490S review: Keyboard

It helps that this is a wide chassis, giving each key plenty of space to breathe. Even the Delete key is a fraction larger than normal, while the Enter, Backspace and right Shift key are enormous. Icons on the function keys make them easy to use, and while Lenovo does place the PgUp and PgDn next to the cursor keys, there’s enough space between them to avoid the accidental presses that I describe in my review of the Lenovo 300e. Some people will be put off by the Fn key being at the bottom left of the keyboard, rather than Ctrl, but it’s easy to flip these around by heading into Lenovo’s Vantage software.

Fans of the trackpoint will be delighted to see it nestled between the G, H and B keys as normal, along with left and right-mouse buttons just below the spacebar. I used to be a trackpoint devotee but have long since moved to the trackpad, and as you’d expect Lenovo has ensured this one is first rate.

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Lenovo ThinkPad T490S review: Display

Lenovo matches the excellent keyboard with a similarly special screen. In fact, it’s so good that even though you can configure the T490s with a touchscreen for the same price we’d strongly advise against it, as you’d sacrifice brightness. Lenovo rates it at 400cd/m2, but it reached a peak brightness of 418cd/m2 in our tests, one of the highest figures I’ve seen. Yet another cliché we always like to trot out in laptop reviews is about being usable in direct sunlight, but I’ll flag it once again here: I know because I wrote this particular paragraph outside in glaring sunshine.

Our technical tests further prove this panel’s strengths. Designed to be colour accurate in the sRGB space, it reproduced 94% of that gamut with an average Delta E of o.54 and a maximum of 1.19. In short, it can reproduce any colour you’re likely to see when browsing the internet, and do so with unerring accuracy.

You shouldn’t expect cinematic quality visuals (it only covers 68% of the DCI-P3 space and has a good but not stunning contrast ratio of 1,114:1), but once I started watching programmes on Netflix I was sucked into the action rather than worrying about whether I could see every element in a dark scene. And, in all truth, I couldn’t see any flaws here anyway. Audio is absolutely fine for films and TV, but best described as adequate for music: it’s heavy on the trebles and mids, light on the bass. As you’d expect.

Lenovo hasn’t embraced the trend for ultra-slim bezels, with the T490s featuring a chunky chin and forehead in particular. This leaves plenty of space for the IR webcam, and Mark Zuckerberg will appreciate the mechanical shutter you can slide over to block its view. An obvious white light appears when the camera is active, too, so there’s little chance of you not knowing that someone is watching you.

Not that they’ll be terribly impressed by the colours if they do. They’re washed out even in the best possible lighting conditions, while it handles the contrast between dark and light backgrounds appallingly: if video conferences are a big part of your life then invest in a separate webcam. One thing in its favour is an excellent microphone, which means voice calls over Skype will only need you to slip on a pair of earphones.

Lenovo ThinkPad T490S review: Features

A combo mic/ headphone jack is in place on the left if you need it, along with a full-size HDMI port, USB 3.1, Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C for charging. The Thunderbolt 3 port is tucked into a cutaway section designed for the ThinkPad Pro Docking Station, which itself is designed to securely lock the ThinkPad in place (it features a key and Kensington lock slot). If security is less of a concern, I’d choose the Thunderbolt 3 Dock Gen 2 for £270. With one cable – the dock delivers power to the ThinkPad, too – you can create a workstation setup of three 4K displays, along with all the ports you would expect.

The right of the chassis continues this security theme, with a Kensington lock slot and optional smart card reader (£10.80), along with a second USB 3 port. While it would have been nice to see an RJ-45 port, you’re in safe hands with Intel’s 802.11ac 9560 adapter, which also integrates Bluetooth 5.

If you look very carefully at the rear of the chassis, between the hinges, you’ll see a slot for a combo nano-SIM and microSD card holder. Note this requires a pin or similar to open, so isn’t designed for photographers to easily swap cards in and out. More importantly, you’ll need to specify that you want a WWAN card at the time of ordering: Lenovo offers options of a Category 6 4G card for £89 or a Category 9 card, with its theoretical promise of 450Mbits/sec downloads over compatible networks, for £114.

One final note on security. Along with an optional fingerprint reader (£11) to the right of the touchpad, the T490s includes a self-healing BIOS a choice of 8GB or 16GB of RAM, a range of Core i5 and Core i7 processors, and 128GB to 1TB of SSD storage. (Please, whatever you do, don’t choose 128GB: it isn’t enough to keep Windows 10 happy.)

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Lenovo ThinkPad T490S review: Specs

It’s worth thinking carefully about the configuration you need so you don’t pay for needless extras. For example, you can upgrade from a Core i7-8565U to an i7-8665U for £200. As both of the chips are quad-core units based on Whiskey Lake, I can’t see much point in this: the 8665U’s main benefit is that it can boost up to 4.8GHz versus the 4.6GHz maximum of the 8565U, but even when the T490s’ fans kicked in during heavy workloads, the cores could only hit their highest frequencies for brief interludes.

If I was buying the T490s for myself, and had to find ways to save money, I would drop down to a Core i5-8265U but keep the RAM at 16GB. As it happens, an upgrade from 8GB to 16GB costs £96, which is exactly the same difference in price between a Core i5-8265U and i7-8565U.

As supplied, this is a speedy machine: a score of 112 in our benchmarks is well above the average we see for a Core i7-8565U processor, and shows that Lenovo has invested in some serious cooling. This is reflected in the air vent on the right of the chassis, with its only drawback being that it gets warm under heavy loads. Still, this is a small price to pay for such performance. It helps that the PCIe SSD is a quick unit, too, proving capable of sequential write speeds of 2,647MB/sec and sequential reads of 1,512MB/sec.

Don’t expect much 3D acceleration in games, with Intel’s UHD 620 Graphics able to reach 56fps in Dirt: Showdown at 720p and 32.4fps at 1080p, while returning 34.9fps in the GFXBench Car Chase benchmark. If you’re upgrading from a three-year-old laptop with integrated graphics, you’ll be surprised by how much this laptop is capable of, but it’s still no gaming system. If you want discrete graphics, you’ll need to buy the slightly thicker and heavier T490.

Lenovo ThinkPad T490S review: Verdict

So should you rush out and buy the T490s? If svelteness is your biggest consideration, take a little time to consider the X1 Carbon, which is 2mm thinner, offers even better battery life and weighs 1.1kg. But it’s substantially more expensive; if you want the specification we tested, you’d pay £1,810 inc VAT.

One final thing to consider before you buy the T490s is whether you want it in silver or black. Personally, I’d stick with the classic black: the silver finish looks too industrial chic for me, almost as if Lenovo primed the metal but forgot to spray paint.

Whichever you choose, though, you will be buying a superbly engineered computer. Considered as a three-year purchase, the T490s is arguably the best value laptop in the comprehensive ThinkPad lineup.