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Lenovo ThinkPad Edge E420 Review

When my brand-new MacBook pro was stolen in the process of selling it, I found myself in a pinch. On the one hand, I still had the iPad and bluetooth keyboard that I'd acquired by getting rid of my prior computer (a Pavilion dv6 which drove me crazy sometimes), but on the other, I was now lacking any useful manner with which I might meaningfully interact with my multimedia. I had been hoping to sell the MBP and acquire a cheaper computer while pocketing the difference in price, but after having been robbed, I was essentially penniless and computer-less. Not a great position to be in.

Thanks to the perks of working IT, I managed to get my school papers completed without much of a hiccup. I even configured one of the computers at work to act as a sort-of syncing station for my iPad's music collection. Things were not terribly rough and after a month or so of this, I'd managed to scrap up a couple hundred dollars. The thing was, I decided that I'd do this computer right. More specifically, I was going to look for a computer that had some graphics grunt, an appealing design, wasn't too bulky and perhaps most importantly, represented great value. My selection wound up being a Lenovo IdeaPad B575 from Best Buy, purchased for $300 brand new. I didn't opt for their silly optimization package that would have added significantly to the cost, and I'm glad for that.

The computer worked great, but it had a few things which bothered me. The numpad was a great addition now and then, but being shrunk in size, always required a warm-up period before I could use it at high speeds. The display was nice and roomy but also too glossy and had rather poor viewing angles. The overall design of the computer was pleasant, but the build itself was a bit bizarre. All of the ports tended to grab whatever peripherals one intended to use and then not want to let them go. The trackpad had a good texture, but did not lend itself well to extended use. And the plethora of white lights, initially very visually stunning during the dark winter days, soon became bothersome and too bright even when the computer was turned off and sitting in the corner of a room at night. Everything else was fine. However, I decided to upgrade. I sold off my Atrix 4G and Laptop Dock at around the same time as the Lenovo and started to look around.

Because I tend to feel that Lenovo has taken a lot of the things that IBM had going for them and continued them, my first search was Lenovo's own websites. Nothing immediately struck me as representing good value in my price range, so I checked out prices for the computer I almost bought, the Thinkpad X120e. Not much going on there. I then stumbled upon the ThinkPad Edge E420 at OfficeMax, locally, for $499. The specs inside of the machine warranted a double-take, as there was no other machine at this price with comparable specs, let alone a lesser machine with a design and build quality to match the ubiquitous ThinkPad name. I called the local store, had them hold one for me, and picked it up later the same day.

What follows is a review of my computer. I might be biased, because I am the owner of this computer after all, but considering that this is the fifth laptop I've owned within a year, I am obviously not one to easily "settle down" with a computer. The price of this computer at OfficeMax now sits at $699, a whopping $200 jump within a few days. Obviously someone at OfficeMax realized that they could easily sell this computer for more than it is worth. Let's see if it is.

The ThinkPad line has a general formula that it follows. A sleek black chassis with squared corners and a form-follows-function appearance seems to be the first line of attack that any ThinkPad designer attempts. As a result, the ThinkPad series of computers has become strongly associated with the professional workforce who couldn't be bothered less with flashy design and frivolous features which impede productivity. Features such as the UltraNav pointing system, employing both a trackpad and the ThinkPad signature red-eraser-pointer-stick style of navigation make a computer from this family extremely easy to identify. These design cues have been around since the very first IBM ThinkPad and continue to remain.

All ThinkPads are the same then, right? That would be an easy conclusion to jump to. One simply picks their desired specs and features, and the machine that one gets will be visually identical to any other ThinkPad. Well... not really. Once upon a time, this was the norm, but these days there are a number of ThinkPads to choose from. From the thin and ultralight to the desktop replacements, it's all there. There's even the new ThinkPad X1, the latest cutting edge carbon-fiber ultrabook of recent online buzz.

Not all ThinkPads are created equal, and the ThinkPad Edge sub-series is an example of that. The whole idea is that this subset of the famous ThinkPad line bridges the gap between a consumer and business laptop. Lenovo now makes many a consumer-grade laptop so I'm not sure if this market category is still what the Edge line is aimed at. If I were to hedge a bet, I would guess that Lenovo is aiming the Edge at the small-business owner, student of parents who might have a real-deal ThinkPad and thus can attest to its reliability, or someone who simply cannot afford a ThinkPad themselves but for whom there is no other proper market. (I would consider myself to be in the latter-two categories.)

In order to be priced how it is, Lenovo has ditched the magnesium-alloy chassis that all ThinkPads feature. Plastic is the name of the game here, yet build quality is still superb. It beats the pants off of the IdeaPad B575 I owned earlier. It even manages to make me feel more inclined to use it as I need to use it in comparison to the MacBook Pro, for the simple reason of its cheaper price yet ThinkPad legacy behind it. Beginning at the top of the computer, the lid has been updated since the first Edge laptops rolled into stores. Gone is the glossy plastic lid and in its place a sort of soft-touch rubber that feels identical or at least similar to that found on the pricier ThinkPads. There is no texture to be found here, and that gives the laptop a premium outward appearance. A small, angled, ThinkPad logo with the new glowing red dot in the I adorns the lid in combination with a Lenovo logo. I personally sit on the fence about the glowing red dot, though I've learned that it can be a useful feature, as I'll get into shortly.

Around the edges of the lid is a silver piece of plastic, colored to look somewhat like brushed aluminum. I can't say that I necessarily like this, but it's not enough to really be worth complaining about. On the underside of the lid (aka where the screen actually is) Lenovo has thankfully opted for a matte black plastic bezel. While I can understand complementing a glossy display with a glossy bezel for the sake of consistent design, it is extremely bothersome to notice how unevenly formed a glossy bezel actually is. Stick to matte, and these little nuances do not show their faces. Since this computer features a matte display, the matte bezel works nicely. I presume that even if this computer had a glossy display, it would still be equipped with a matte bezel and this is, in my opinion, the better way to do things. A small Lenovo logo, painted on from the looks of it, rests underneath the display to the left while a small, nondescript badge is at the bottom right. (Obviously easily interchangeable so that the entire lid can be used on multiple models.) Missing from the very bottom of the display are the green activity lights that usually make an appearance on a ThinkPad. Let me reiterate that: this computer has no hard-drive activity indicator. It's an uneasy transition to make, especially on a Windows-based computer, but this computer's performance (see farther below) generally makes this omission an acceptable fact.

Moving towards what I'll simply call the keyboard tray, the panel on which the keyboard resides and including the trackpad, power button, and so on, it's worth mentioning the ThinkPad logo. If one were to stare at it, and close the lid, the logo on the top ends up being in the exact same spot. This is how the glowing red dot suddenly begins to make sense: keeping things consistent. The dot on the tray glows as well, and lets you know at a glance if the computer is on, sleeping, or off. It does matter if the lid is open or shut: look in the exact same spot to get the exact same information. Moving on, next to this logo on the tray is a small, understated fingerprint reader. I appreciate how manufacturers are including these on new laptops of this general category, although some of them don't seem to understand that it is not necessary for the thing to be highly accentuated. Lenovo's implementation here is among the least flashy, although it appears a lot more technical in design than many of Lenovo's competitors. The end result is a feeling of good security and understatedness.

Worth its own paragraph is the pointer navigation options on the E420. Lenovo calls it the UltraNav and it's essentially just a pointer-stick mouse combined with a trackpad mouse located directly below it. Signature to ThinkPads is the red pointer stick itself, of the softer rubber variety than the much-harder eraser types of old. My quick rummage through the computer box showed no spare head included, which might be a problem if you are a fan of this navigation option. If you've never used one of these, there is a strong learning curve, but there are definitely some usability perks to using it, chief among them being the small amount of movement one needs to move their hand and arm, which might be extra useful and more comfortable on an airplane. At home, though, one might ask why bother with the trackpoint at all, since the trackpad below it is absolutely superb. While other manufacturers have been implementing seamless trackpads that have extremely little to no deviation from the plane of the keyboard tray, Lenovo has been slow to adopt this design trend. More to the point, they didn't even follow Apple's lead and attempt to put the trackpad at the same level as the tray until a lot more recently, which was a bit bizarre. Thankfully we got an updated touchpad on the E420 that shares a near-as-makes-no-difference same plan with the tray. The surface of the pad is also much improved from cheaper offerings such as the B575... I am not certain, but I have a feeling that it might be glass or teflon coated. The friction is extremely light and does not feel as grabby as many cheaper laptops. (I am especially looking at you, HP, who for quite a while had glossy plastic on the trackpad.) This is the first Windows-based laptop I have ever owned on which two-finger scrolling actually worked and worked well, at that. Hat-tip to Lenovo for getting that to work. If it matters: the buttons for both navigation methods are quite nice as well, with a quiet and soft actuation that doesn't bother your neighbors.

Moving along, we finally get to the buttons on the tray! Of course there is that power button off to the top right but then there's also the star of the show, the keyboard. First let me address it: the red trackpoint button does not get in my way at all when typing. I highly doubt it will get in your way unless you reach for the G key with your right hand, for example. A minor annoyance but apparently reoccurring trend among ThinkPads is the swapped Fn and Ctrl keys. Small bother that I can live with, I believe. It's no stranger than switching to an Apple keyboard, really. Slightly stranger, however, is the location of the Delete key, which has somehow moved above the Backspace button and then over to the left by two spaces. Thankfully I don't need that key too often. The PgUp and PgDn buttons, located amidst the arrow keys, are surprisingly useful though they have a definite click to them, which is inconsistent with every other button on the laptop. Oh well, let's move on and describe the typing experience. In a word: extremely good. I would say sublime but I feel as though I've used slightly better, "true" ThinkPads recently that had keyboards just slightly better. I might be imagining things, though, because I'd still consider this keyboard to be a step ahead of the B575, which itself I thought was one of the best keyboards. This has a lot less sponginess to it: pressing hard on a key results in an extremely small amount of flex. Overall, I like it, and they shortcuts placed at the top of the keyboard are extremely useful and understandable.

The sides of the computer, the lower-half that is, are just that: sides. The back side has nothing apart from essentially being composed of the battery for the most part, a small vent and the ethernet port. Interesting that it was placed there: I keep running scenarios through my mind in which the placement of that will enable me to somehow keep a neater desk, and while that might just be me being weird, I like to think that Lenovo had me in mind. The left side has a healthily sized vent, a VGA, two USB, an eSATA, HDMI port and headset jack. They've adopted the multi-jack style, which can work either as a stereo-out, microphone-in or both simultaneously for a headset. Nice way to clean things up, especially since one rarely sees separate microphones being used on a laptop computer anyway. (Bluetooth is built-in, so one could always use that and leave this free all the time.) Almost slipping away from my attention is a little SD-card reader. I believe it's SDXC or whatever... I'll leave that to you to look up specs if that really matters to you. The right side features a Kensington-style lock hole, the power jack (which has a little green indicator light), the optical-disk drive (also with a little green LED), a powered USB port (meaning the computer can be off and this port will still charge your phone, tablet or whatever), and an ExpressCard slot. A bit baffled by that last one myself- but I suppose it offers a certain amount of anybody-can-do-it expandability. Up front, on that side of the computer, one finds nought besides a giant speaker grill spanning almost the entire panel. I'll speak about that later on.

What's on the bottom? It's very barren. A couple informational stickers with serial number and the like, vents, and a panel that comes out for upgrades. That's about it, so let's move on.

The first startup is, like most every computer, not the fastest boot in the world. The E420 manages to squeeze ahead of many other Windows computers in terms of speed, but everything boils down ultimately to Windows 7's setup screens. It would be nice if they could optimize this a bit, but I guess that's wishful thinking for now. Initially one is asked by Norton Antivirus if they wish to activate their subscription. Oh jeez, thanks Lenovo for including a whopping 30 days of protection. I would have uninstalled that pointless thing right then and there if Windows hadn't asked to reboot in order to install updates. Grumble, click okay, and decide that this is normal. Allow the computer to install updates and reboot a few more times before I finally remove that bothersome Norton. I tried to see what else needed removing and came up short after Google Toolbar for Internet Explorer. Chrome is pre-installed, which is either a bother for some or a convenience for others like myself. I was a Firefox guy on my last machine, but I've used Chrome and it really doesn't matter so much anyway.

Time to install my usual applications and report back. Microsoft Office 2010... is the same as every other version of Office plus the new aesthetics to match the times. Photoshop CS6, Illustrator CS6 and Indesign CS6 were next. All except the latter installed in 64-bit and ran great. Good thus far. Time for the small guys: Skype, VLC, iTunes, Zune. No problems. I figured I'd give the graphics a test at this point and play some music in iTunes with the very flashy visualizer on full-screen and see if the fan would kick up like it did on my old dv6. Nope, nothing out of the norm, much better than it was. The visuals even ran better than they had on the B575, which had (arguably) much better graphics. Windows Experience Index comes out to a 5.3 total. Not bad at all. I open up a big 1080p video clip off of my camera that the B575 refused to play: success! Not a single dropped frame and the video and audio remained in sync. Sold on the performance thus far, and no surprise, because the specs are definitely impressive:
Hard Drive Size500 GB
ProcessorCore i5-2450M
Installed Memory6 GB
Operating SystemWindows 7 Home Premium
Hard Drive Detail500 GB, 5400 RPM
Processor Speed (GHz)2.50 GHz
External Ports3 USB 2.0 (one powered), 1 USB 2.0 /eSATA combo port, VGA, HDMI, RJ-45, 4 in 1 card reader (MMC, SD, SDHC, SDXC), mono digital microphone, combo audio / mic jack
Battery6-cell Lithium, Up to 4.5 hours
Processor Cache Size3 MB L3 cache
Installed Memory DIMMs6 GB, DDR3
Dimensions13.52" x 9.20" x 1.13"
Screen Type and ResolutionMatte 14.0" (1366 x 768) LED backlight, 220 nits, 16:9 aspect ratio
Webcam720p Low-Light
Optical Drive DetailDVD +/- RW
Graphics Brand/ ModelIntegrated Intel HD 3000 Graphics
Wireless Compatibility802.11 B/G/N, 10/100/1000 Gigabit, Bluetooth 3.0
Audio1W x 2 speakers

That information was taken from OfficeMax listing of this laptop, with the official Lenovo part-number of 1141AC5. I was sold on it because of the combination of the recent i5 processor, 6GB of RAM, 500GB drive and of course the ThinkPad design, but everything else about it has started to grow on me as well. Take, for instance, the speakers. They sound just a little bit better than many laptops I've gotten to use, although I'd be lying if I said I'm prepared to give up my powered stereo speakers in favor of them. The low-light webcam took me by surprise when I was skyping my parents yesterday morning, as normally I have to struggle to get my face illuminated in this room. It wasn't a perfectly noiseless picture, but I didn't have to go turning on all of the lights in my room to make myself visible. My mother even commented on a map on the wall behind me, which has been there for many Skype sessions but was only just now able to catch her attention.

The attention to detail that comes with the ThinkPad has one-upped what I've owned thus far. Where the B575's optical drive was more than happy to spontaneously pop open when simply readjusting the laptop on a desk, the E420 doesn't get quite as easily excited. That said, the edge of the tray does sort of unnervingly brush the desk as it opens which can produce a rather unattractive scratch-like noise.

Although it could probably be an inch bigger diagonally and still fit within the bezel, the matte display has also been extremely pleasing to use. I no longer see the ghostlike reflection of my face working in the dark. The viewing angles of this matte display are also much better improved than what I've used... might something to do with the rather more rare 14-inch screen size or the lack of gloss. It's still not perfect, with colors noticeably changing when viewed off-center. Not enough that things become inverted, but worth mention. Also worth speaking of are the shortcut keys below the display on the keyboard. I like the ability to toggle volume and brightness levels at much smaller increments than my B575 or the MacBook Pros as work, and the one-touch access to wireless toggles, although it initially eluded me, is easily my favorite button up there. (It took me far too long to realize that the button was there when I was seeking to turn on bluetooth.) Speaking of wireless, this computer has the strongest WiFi reception I've ever seen in my life. I've never been able to connect to the campus wireless network, let alone get two full bars (out of five) of reception and actually usable network rates. Extremely impressive!

Lastly, just using the computer like I have the entire time I've written this, with Skype, iTunes, multiple internet tabs open and occasionally Microsoft Office doing something, has been pleasurable. I've written this entire review on the computer I'm reviewing and I feel as though I wouldn't mind if it took another hour. I like using it.

I don't believe anyone can nab this computer at the bargain price I nabbed it for anymore. At the price it has returned to, about seven hundred dollars, there are other laptops which might be worth consideration if all one cares about are raw specs of flashiness. But even a quick peruse of local retailers shows me that there's nothing that can hold a candle to this mix of ThinkPad quality and features and the performance guts that live within. Am I proud with my purchase? You bet, and it has only been a few days. I can tell that I'll be sad to see this thing go. I've always wanted a ThinkPad, and now I know what I've been missing, even if it is only an "Edge."

Notes in comparison to the newer E430:
While the newer E430 might, at first glance, appear to at least offer more modern upgrade options, there are a few considerations to keep in mind. First, the display hinge on the E430 has been set-back similar to many newer laptops. This might be dandy for those who use their laptop on an airplane and need to save vertical space in the likely case that the person in front reclines their seat, but it comes at a tradeoff. Some people need to be able to open their display a full 180 degrees, and the E420 can do that (plus a tiny bit more). The E430 will be incapable of this.
Also, the touchpad has been updated on the E430 to mimic the MacBook Pro. Additionally, the location of the fingerprint scanner has been slightly modified, as has the location of the power button. Perhaps most noteworthy is the physical location of the keyboard on the deck: it sits a lot farther forward than it does on the E420.
The E430 also appears to have a revised port layout, ditching the ExpressCard slot as well.