The ThinkPad T520 is a business targeted laptop, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t make a good laptop choice for students. After all, when you’re on campus it’s important to have a laptop that’s sturdy and can take the rigors of being toted around campus and the typical rough treatment a laptop ends up getting in a college setting. ThinkPads are often popular with business and engineering students because it fits their persona and is the laptop of choice for professionals in the field those students are training to enter, might as well use the tools of the business you’ll be going into right? While many may think a ThinkPad is expensive and generally unaffordable for a student, consider the fact the ThinkPad T520 costs quite a bit less than the $1,799 Apple MacBook Pro 15” that a lot of students carry and you’ll see that cost is definitely within reach for many students. The Core i5 ThinkPad T520 featured in this review was purchased for only $728 on sale and right now starts at $702 on Lenovo.com, this is avery reasonable price.
The Lenovo ThinkPad T520 featured in this review was purchased in October 2011 for $728 before taxes from Lenovo.com. It was custom configured with the following specs
- Processor: Intel Core i5-2430M dual-core 2.4GHz (3.0GHz Turbo Boost)
- Screen: 15.6″ 1600×900 resolution, anti-glare surface
- OS: Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
- Dimensions: 14.7″ x 9.7″ x 1.3~1.4″(Width x Depth x Thickness)
- Weight: 5.74 lbs
- Memory: 4GB RAM (expandable to 8GB)
- Storage: 320GB 7200RPM hard drive (Western Digital WD3200BEKT)
- Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 3000
- Ports: 2x USB 2.0, 1x eSATA/USB 2.0 combo port, 1x USB 3.0, DisplayPort, VGA-out, 4-in-1 card reader, ExpressCard/34 slot
- Wireless: 802.11a/b/g/n
- Battery: 6-cell, 7 hours 42 minutes battery life
- Extra features: built-in 720p HD webcam
- Optical drive: DVD burner
It’s hard to believe all those great specs inside a high quality laptop only cost $728, but it’s true. The Intel Core i5 processor is more than fast enough for the average student usage and with 4GB RAM has plenty of memory for running multiple tasks at once. It also comes with a high-performance 7200RPM hard drive, which decreases start-up and application loading time, great for the frequent boot up and shut down a laptop gets as you bounce between classes.
Those looking to save money could bump the processor down to a Core i3 processor, which isn’t quite as fast as the i5, but most won’t notice the difference. A 9-cell battery is available if you need even more battery life (Lenovo rates it for 12.8 hours). If you need to use video chat there’s a built-in 720p web camera and a dual array microphone.
Lenovo ThinkPad T520 Design and Build
The T520 has a get down to business look and feel with industrial matte black plastic covering the whole exterior, there’s nothing particularly fancy with the T520 but the idea is function over form. Unlike many consumer targeted laptops there is a lack of any glossy plastics. The ABS plastics used on the T520 is nice and thick, making a solid sound when tapped with a fingernail.
The T520′s chassis is very rigid. ThinkPad T-series notebooks have a strong internal magnesium alloy frame to prevent any flexing. A strong internal frame is important in a laptop, especially if they are to be carried around a lot; it prevents the motherboard from flexing and cracking, which can lead to premature failure. The last thing you need as a student who relies on their laptop to do work is one that easily breaks, the T520 will provide no such problems.
Lenovo T520 Weight
The T520 is not the most portable of machines; if you’re looking for a thin and light laptop to carry around campus this is not the greatest fit. The T520 is just less than 6lbs in weight, so it is certainly light enough to carry around short distances, but it’s not a great idea to carry it for miles and miles if that’s what your daily walking total adds up to. Lenovo sells the smaller 14″ ThinkPad T420 for those that need something more portable, the T420 is very much like the T520 just smaller. The T420 weighs 4.9 pounds with the 6-cell battery (same as in our test unit) for comparison and has a much smaller footprint.
Lenovo T520 Dimensions
ThinkPads have always been kind of chunky and the T520 isn’t an exception. It is appropriately-sized for a 15.6″ notebook at 14.7″ wide and 9.7″ deep. It’s rather thick at 1.3-1.4″; some more style-oriented notebooks are just 1″ thin. That said, the T520′s chunky looks can be attributed to its design principals; its boxy shape is built around the internal metal roll cage that protects the innards. Most stylish plastic consumer notebooks don’t offer this kind of durability!
The smaller 14″ ThinkPad T420 for comparison is 13.4″ wide and 9″ deep, so it is most certainly the better choice for travelers. It’s also a bit thinner at 1.2″.
Lenovo T520 Performance
Our T520 has great performance for everyday use and certainly enough power for what the typical college or high school student will need. The dual-core Intel i5 processor is one of the better processor offerings currently on the market. The Intel Core i5-2410m processor in this configuration with its 2.30GHz standard clock speed and ability to overclock to 2.90GHz when running demanding tasks will chug through just about anything you throw at it. It can definitely handle 1080p Flash video flawlessly, something that often chokes lesser processors.
Lastly, the included 320GB 7200RPM hard drive is as fast as notebook hard drives get unless you’re willing to shell out a few hundred extra for a newer Solid State Drive (SSD) that’s a several hundred dollar upgrade on Lenovo.com during configuration. Worth mentioning, the T520 along with most other Lenovo notebooks offer the option of installing an mSATA SSD drive via the miniPCI slot. You can install a mini 80GB SSD such as the Intel 310 series and put the operating system on that drive for fast bootup while leaving large media files that are not performance critical on the traditional larger (but slower) platter style drive. You have to know what you’re doing and it’s not for the feint of heart to open up a laptop and install something in the miniPCI slot, but certainly engineering students who thrive on tweaking gadget hardware might find this a fun project!
For those that prefer a benchmark number to get an idea of overall system performance, we ran PCMark 7 and got an overall score of 2007, this is an excellent score and indicates the T520 is very well rounded with performance.
Lenovo T520 Screen
Lenovo offers three different screens for the T520; ours has the middle-of-the-road model with a 1600×900 resolution. The lowest-end offering has a meager 1366×768 resolution and the top-end one is “full HD” at 1920×1080. The 1600×900 resolution of our screen is a great compromise and offers plenty of working space. It can comfortably fit two applications (such as two Microsoft Word documents or web browser windows) side-by-side, which can’t be said about the 1366×768 model. Obviously the 1920×1080 model would be even better in this regard, but it’s also far more expensive; the 1600×900 upgrade was just $50 where the 1920×1080 is a $250 upgrade!
The T520′s screen has a nice anti-glare coating, which means no annoying reflections like the glossy screens on most consumer notebooks produce. While the glossy screen can make for a better experience with things such as movie watching, as it makes colors more bold and rich, the reflections a glossy screen causes can lead to eye strain after many hours of staring at the screen. Overall, the matte screen is a good thing if you’re going to be writing several papers and or doing lots of online research that requires staring at the screen for long periods of time.
The 1600×900 screen is plenty bright, I actually found myself using it at 70-80% brightness most of the time. It has nice color reproduction as well – it is definitely a step up from the typical washed-out 1366×768 resolution screens that adorn most notebooks. The viewing angles are pretty good for a TN-type panel, though from extreme vertical angles it still washes out. One person looking head-on at this display will have no problems at all though.
Lenovo T520 Battery Life
While surfing the Internet I measured an excellent six and a half (6.5) hours of battery life. I had the screen brightness at half and the wireless on. The 6+ hours of battery life is certainly going to be good enough for most students, especially since this laptop will likely be used on a desk most often. If you need more battery life the extended 9-cell battery offers over 10 hours of life according to Lenovo, however it sticks out the rear of the notebook and adds a bit of weight. The 6-cell battery in our T520 sits flush with the chassis so it doesn’t raise the computer up or add any extra unexpected thickness.
Lenovo T520 Keyboard and Touchpad
ThinkPads have always been known for their excellent keyboards. The T520 features the latest layout with oversized Delete and Esc keys. The keys feel great and typing on this notebook is not a tiring experience. I imagine having a nice-feeling keyboard can help productivity – it certainly helps mine (which is partially why this review is so extensive – it was typed all on the T520). The keyboard isn’t loud either; it has just the right amount of noise. This is almost a necessity in a quiet environment like a classroom.
The T520 has a two-part UltraNav solution; the eraser head in the center of the keyboard and the traditional touchpad below. I like the eraser head a lot because you don’t need to take your hands away from the keyboard to use it. The touchpad has a nice smooth surface that is easy to track on. There is a separate set of buttons for both the eraser head and the regular touchpad. They are quiet and offer good feedback.
Lenovo T520 Ports
Port selection is always an important consideration when buying a laptop. The T520 comes with a good number of ports but the fact it’s missing an HDMI port and uses the more business oriented DisplayPort for video out instead which will disappoint some. Most flat screen TVs these days use HDMI as a video input source so if you were planning on using the T520 to connect to a TV for display you might be disappointed.
On the plus side, the T520 has a proper docking station port on the bottom so you can quickly expand the number of ports available and connect to a larger monitor by dropping the T520 into a docking station such as the ThinkPad Mini Dock Series 3.
Let’s take a tour of each side of the T520 to go over all the ports and see where they are located:
Left side: heat exhaust vent, DisplayPort, VGA-out, 2x USB 2.0, eSATA/USB 2.0 combo port, mini-Firewire, wireless on/off switch
Right side: ExpressCard/34 slot (top), 4-in-1 card reader (bottom), headphone/microphone combo jack, UltraBay (currently occupied by a DVD burner), Ethernet, Kensington lock slot
Back side: USB 3.0 port, 56k modem port (blocked out because we didn’t opt for it), battery pack, heat exhaust vent
Front side: nothing here, just the display open switch
Overall the T520 isn’t missing anything major. It does not have HDMI, but that shouldn’t be on a business notebook anyway as the DisplayPort can be used to drive any monitor.
Lenovo T520 Webcam
Our T520 has the optional 720p webcam located above the display. It does up to 1280×720 resolution, which is “HD”. The picture quality is pretty clear with minimal grain and noise. A green light illuminates next to the webcam to let you know it’s on. Additionally you can disable the microphone by pressing the button above the keyboard.
Lenovo T520 Speakers
The T520’s speakers are rather typical for a notebook. They sound tinny and have little bass. Your best bet is to use the headphone jack to get sound.
I like how the T520 has a dedicated set of volume control buttons including mute above the keyboard. These are rare even on consumer notebooks.
Lenovo T520 Heat & Noise
The T520 is cooled by a single fan. Most of the warm air gets pushed out the left side of the chassis and some trickles out the back.
The T520′s chassis stays about room temperature under just about all operating conditions. It even stayed cool while we were running demanding benchmark tests which exerted the full force of the processor. The noise level is low; at idle the fan actually turns off. When it turns on it’s quiet and sounds like a whisper of air. In other words, the fan is no hair dryer and won’t disturb anyone even in a quiet board meeting.
Lenovo T520 Review Conclusion
The Lenovo ThinkPad T520 is a strong all around laptop. Its strong chassis and durable design will ensure it survives the rigors of campus. The things to like about this notebook are almost too numerous to list; the legendary ThinkPad keyboard lives on and continues to be the gold standard. The touchpad and pointing stick are excellent as well and offer great feedback. The 1600×900 screen has good image quality and plenty of space (resolution) for multitasking. Overall performance is fantastic for everyday use. The standard 6-cell battery yielded about 7 hours of battery life, on par with Lenovo’s estimates. Lastly, the T520 has plenty of input/output ports including a docking station port.
The list of things I don’t like is pretty short; the speakers are terrible and it’s rather heavy/large. To address the last issue, Lenovo offers the smaller 14” T420. Overall I highly recommend the T520, it’s hard to beat – especially if you get it on sale like we did!