Review: Lenovo ThinkPad SL300

When it’s time to buy a business notebook, the ThinkPad brand is likely one of the first to come to mind, especially if you’ve spent any time at a large corporation that had standardized on the iconic black boxes. But IBM’s deep discounts for corporate fleet buyers, priced the ThinkPad out of reach for most small business buyers. The pricing has improved greatly under Lenovo in the past few years, but the corporate-focused ThinkPads are still premium notebooks.

Enter the Lenovo ThinkPad SL300, SL400 and SL500, which are designed—and priced—specifically with you in mind. These models contain most of the features that have made ThinkPad a standard (most notably the excellent keyboard and security features) but leave out the enterprise-oriented features that drive up the price. The result: notebooks that let small business owners and sole proprietors switch to a ThinkPad, without the cost penalty.

Familiar Look, with a Twist

We tested the ThinkPad SL300, a thin-and-light machine with a 13.3-inch screen. The squared-off shape and black color will be familiar to ThinkPad purists, though in a nod to current laptop design, the lid features a piano-lacquer finish, not a matte paint job. That simple change gives the SL300 a sleek look, without being too flashy to bring to a client meeting.

We do have one complaint about the design, however: At 4.6 pounds and 12.5 x 9.4 x 1.4 inches, it is a tad heavier and a touch larger than other notebooks with a 13.3-inch screen such as the Dell Vostro 1310.

The SL300 offers all the ports you would expect, including three USB ports, a FireWire port and an Ethernet jack. You also get both a VGA connector and an HDMI port for connecting to an external monitor, projector or HDTV. Lenovo has also included an SD/MMC memory card reader; a PC Card/ExpressCard expansion slot is available as an option.

Near-Perfect Ergonomics

As any long-time ThinkPad fan can attest, one of standout attributes of the family has always been the ThinkPad keyboard, and the one on the SL300 will not disappoint. Its wide spacing makes long typing sessions comfortable, and the keys have the proper amount of up-down travel and feedback.

Lenovo paired the keyboard with both a touchpad and the familiar red-tipped pointing stick (called a TrackPoint in ThinkPad parlance) nestled between the G, H and B keys. Again, this will be a welcome feature for corporate refugees who found navigating with the stick faster than using a touchpad.

Lenovo designers did have to make a tradeoff however: To fit the extra set of mouse buttons for the TrackPoint, they had to use a somewhat smaller touchpad than you might be used to.

Other ergonomic comforts are spot-on, however. The screen delivers a sharp image with colors that pop, and the 1,280-by-800 resolution makes for crisp text. The built-in stereo speakers deliver decent sound quality for a business portable, as well as plenty of volume if you need to use the machine as a presentation device for a group assembled around a conference table.

Lenovo even offers a Blu-ray drive upgrade option for the SL300, which is still not common on business-oriented laptops. That, along with the HDMI port, lets you use the SL300 as a Blu-ray player in your family room when work is done (assuming your HDTV has an HDMI input, as most do).

Plenty of Features

The SL300 includes a fingerprint reader to keep your data safe from unauthorized access. To keep your data safe from accidental drops, the hard drive is equipped with an active protection system that parks the hard drive heads, keeping them from impacting the platter and potentially ruining data.

Lenovo also includes its handy ThinkVantage Productivity Center utilities, accessible via a button adjacent the keyboard, to let you set wireless connections, back up your data, troubleshoot and maintain the system and more.

ThinkPad SL300
The ThinkPad SL300 has the features you would expect from the iconic brand, but not the high price.

As for connectivity, the SL300 supports more ways to connect than most. Intel 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi is standard. You can also order the machine with an integrated AT&T Mobile Broadband radio for connecting at 3G speeds around the country without having to find and pay for access at a Wi-Fi hot spot. The SL platform is also ready for the WiMAX wide-area network, which is being rolled out in select markets.

Lenovo backs the SL300 with a one-year warranty and includes 24/7 phone tech support. The company’s optional ThinkPlus Secure Business protection package provides an upgrade to an on-site, next-business-day warranty to minimize PC downtime; access to Lenovo’s online data backup service; and the ThinkPad Protection plan, which provides repair or replacement in case of accidental damage from liquid spills, drops, electrical surges or LCD damage.

Pricing for the SL300 line starts at $679, and Lenovo offers plenty of ways to configure one that suits your needs. A fairly well-equipped model, featuring a 1.6-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T5670 processor, 2GB of RAM, Windows Vista Business, a 250GB hard drive and a DVD burner, comes in at less than $1,000. If you prefer a larger screen, the SL400 delivers a 14.1-inch screen, while the SL500 comes equipped with a 15.4-inch screen; each of those lines starts at just $499.

Jamie Bsales is an award-winning technology writer and editor with nearly 14 years of experience covering the latest hardware, software and Internet products and services.

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