When we reviewed the 14-inch Lenovo ThinkPad SL400, we were impressed with that small business notebook’s combination of style and work/play-friendly features. The 13-inch SL300 puts the series’ sleek looks and solid performance into a travel-friendly form factor at a value price, complete with enough battery life to last an entire work day.
Sleek Design, Blocked Ports
Like the other members of the SL series, the SL300 is designed for small business but features a sleeker, more consumer-friendly design than other ThinkPads. The goal is to appeal to workers who use the same computer for editing sales proposals as well as watching movies and playing casual games.
All of the design elements we liked in the SL400—the glossy black lid, the futuristic red light that illuminates the “i” in the ThinkPad logo, the black hinges, the tapered edges, and the bright green status indicators on the front lip of the chassis—appear even more attractive on the SL300. However, the chunky chassis is not as thin as two other 13-inch notebooks we recently reviewed, the $1,099 HP Pavilion dv3510nr and the $1,199 Lenovo IdeaPad U330.
The optional 9-cell battery, which gave our review system a weight of 5.2 pounds, also makes the SL300 a bit heavier than its similarly-sized counterparts. However, when compared to the SL400 (and to other 14-inch notebooks in its price range), we found the SL300 much easier to carry and place on our lap or small tables. We particularly appreciated the latch-free lid, which allowed us to quickly pop the system open and start working.
Unfortunately, like its big brother, the SL300 has a small issue with the placement of the two USB ports on its right side. Because these ports are recessed underneath a thick plastic lip, fatter USB devices just won’t fit into them. Fortunately, the USB port on the left side offers more clearance.
Responsive Keyboard, Best of Both Pointing Options
Like the other members of the SL series, the SL300 features Lenovo’s standard ThinkPad keyboard, which provides a fantastic touch-typing experience; all of the keys are placed in standard positions and offer superior tactile feedback. For navigating around the desktop, the SL300 comes with both a TrackPoint and a touchpad. Though many users will opt for the familiar and ubiquitous touchpad (almost every notebook has one), we like that the pointing stick allowed us to make more precise movements, without ever lifting our fingers off the home row.
Superior Cooling, Quiet Fan
Throughout our evaluation of the SL300, the system remained at room temperature. We felt almost no heat emanating from the keyboard, the touchpad, and the bottom of the system. The system’s fan vented a steady stream of cool air, while remaining imperceptibly quiet.
Colorful Glossy Screen, Sharp Webcam
The SL300 can only be configured with a glossy display. Compared to the 14-inch 1440 x 900 matte screen on the SL400, the SL300’s 1280 x 800 display had brighter, more vibrant colors. When placed next to the Pavilion dv3510nr and IdeaPad U330 on full brightness, the SL300’s screen offered the sharpest text and graphics of the three, though the U330 was just a tad brighter. However, because the glossy screen is more reflective, the viewing angles and quality of picture depend heavily on the ambient light. If you’re in a bright environment, the SL300’s viewing angles will be poor and you’ll need to boost the screen’s brightness to get a good head-on view. In dimmer situations, the SL300 offers lively, exciting colors even from 45- and 60-degree angles.
The 1.3-megapixel webcam provided sharp, fluid images even in low-light situations. During a Skype video call the other caller was able to see the pores on our skin and the follicles of our hair, even though we were in sitting in a dim room. Sound from the speakers was clean and reached levels loud enough to be heard across a room. Still, the quality is about as high fidelity as a $20 shower radio.
Performance: Solid Multitasking, Speedy Hard Drive
Though the SL300 can be configured with up to a 2.53-GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 4GB of RAM, and a discrete Nvidia GeForce 9300M graphics chip, our review unit came with more modest specs: a 1.8-GHz Core 2 Duo T5670, 2GB of RAM, and integrated Intel 4500MHD graphics processing. Therefore, it wasn’t surprising when it returned a score of 2,167 in PC Mark Vantage, about 700 points below the thin-and-light notebook average. Likewise, its scores of 1,730 on 3DMark03 and 832 on 3DMark06 were about 900 and 500 points below average, respectively.
However, we were impressed with the SL300’s ability to multitask. We were able to conduct a video call with Skype in one window, watch an iTunes video in another, and edit a Word 2007 document in another, with none of these applications slowing down.
One reason for the SL300’s strong multi-tasking is the surprisingly-speedy performance of the notebook’s hard drive. The 250GB, 5,400 rpm drive booted the Vista Business OS in a reasonable 57 seconds. It took a mere 5 minutes and 6 seconds (or 16.6 MBps) for the notebook to complete our file transfer test (copying 5GB of mixed media files from one folder to another).
These results surprised us, because the SL400 we reviewed also had a 5,400 rpm Hitachi hard drive—a 160GB capacity model—and its subpar performance was a major impediment to that notebook’s performance. The SL400 booted in a glacial 1:34 and took a full 6:36 to complete the same file transfer test.
Multimedia and Gaming
Because of the integrated Intel graphics chip in our SL300 review unit, we didn’t expect the notebook to provide a good gaming experience, at least in demanding 3D titles. So we weren’t too disappointed when we ran our F.E.A.R. autodetect test and got a paltry 24 fps at 800 x 600. At the system’s maximum resolution of 1280 x 800, F.E.A.R. the SL300 was able to achieve a mere 13 fps. These numbers were still far better than the measly 17 fps/4 fps returned by the IdeaPad U330 using its integrated chip.
If you plan to play games on your SL300 often or do heavy image or video editing, we recommend that you configure your machine with the Nvidia GeForce 9300M discrete graphics chip ($99). On the other hand, we had absolutely no problems playing action-packed iTunes videos such as a trailer for the Clone Wars TV show and an episode of Cities of the Underworld at full screen.
The SL300 came equipped with an Intel WiFi Link 5100 802.11a/g/n wireless card that provided an average transfer rate of 20.2 Mbps from 15 feet and 15.7 Mbps from 50 feet. Both of these scores easily exceed our category average for thin and light notebooks, but the 50-foot score is somewhat lower than we got the SL400, which uses the same card. The SL300 can also be configured with integrated mobile broadband through AT&T.
Day-Long Endurance with Extended Battery
The SL300 is available with a 4, 6, or 9-cell battery. Our review unit came with the largest of these, and we were blown away by the endurance it offered. Using the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi), we saw an epic runtime 8 hours and 52 minutes, more than a business day’s worth of online activity. Sure, configuring the SL300 with the 9-cell battery adds $99 over the 4-cell option, but considering that our average thin-and-light notebook gets a mere 4:07 of endurance, this is one upgrade that’s worth every penny.
Like its 14-inch big brother, the SL300 is crapware-free. As with all ThinkPads, the system comes with a suite of business-friendly Lenovo Care utilities that are designed to protect the system and its data: such as battery management, system restore, password management, fingerprint reader software (for the bundled fingerprint reader), and hard drive shock-prevention tools. Our unit also came with InterVideo WinDVD for playing discs, and Roxio Easy Media Creator Small Business Edition for burning DVDs and managing media files.
Warranty and Small Business-Friendly Features
The SL300 comes standard with a one-year warranty on parts and labor, but Lenovo also offers a host of service upgrades that small businesses with limited IT resources will appreciate. Starting at $39, you can add ThinkPlus Maintenance Services for on-site, next business day repair. For a starting price of $89, you can get ThinkPad Protection Services, which expand the warranty to cover accidental damage. Online data backup for 50GB starts at $69 per year. The ThinkPlus Secure Business plan combines the next-day service, accidental damage, and online backup services at $149 for one year or $379 for 3 years.
The $949 Lenovo Thinkpad SL300 offers a combination of stylish looks, strong performance, and unbeatable battery life for a small business notebook in this price range. With its hard drive returning speedy scores and its glossy screen providing truly vibrant colors, the SL300 is even more impressive than its 14.1-inch big brother. Just be sure to get the 9-cell battery.