Last year, Lenovo attempted to shake up the business notebook market by introducing its SMB-oriented ThinkPad SL Series notebooks. These budget systems had the famous build quality, keyboard, and trackpoint of a typical ThinkPad, but bargain prices and stylish design touches meant they weren't exactly your father's ThinkPad. The ThinkPad SL510, as the new 15-inch member of the line (starting at $529; $1,024 as reviewed), offers key changes, such as a lighter chassis and a 16:9 screen. This laptop is a bit on the bulky side, and we would opt for a slower processor to save money, but it remains a compelling choice for small-to-medium companies.
At 15.0 x 9.8 x 1.5 inches and 5.6 pounds, the ThinkPad SL510 is a bit bulky to carry, though it's lighter than many other 15-inch notebooks. In terms of style, the system has the familiar black plastic ThinkPad design theme. Its black keyboard has a light blue Enter key, as well as the familiar red trackpoint nub in the middle. Status lights and the power button appear to the right of the keyboard, while the volume buttons sit on the left.
Those who liked the more radical look of the original SL Series will be disappointed with this highly-conservative, no-frills design. While the original ThinkPad SL400 and SL500 had shiny, high-gloss lids, the SL510 is made entirely from matte plastic. Where the original SLs had highly-tapered edges, the sides of the SL510 taper so slightly that you might not notice. Even the status lights are more plain; on the original many were adorned on the outside of the chassis, while here only the battery and sleep lights are visible with the lid closed.
Unfortunately, the change in tapering has done nothing to address the problem present in earlier SL models: two of the USB ports are located in a compartment with very little vertical clearance. If you have a thick USB device, such as a USB broadband modem, it may not fit into either of the ports on the right side.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The SL510's keyboard provides the kind of strong tactile feedback we've come to expect from ThinkPads. While the keys aren't as springy as those found on the ThinkPad T400s (which has the best we've ever used), they have the same comfortable feel as those on the previous SL models and the ThinkPad T400. Using the Ten Thumbs typing test (www.tenthumbstypingtutor.com), we were able to achieve a strong score of 80 words per minute, with a low 1 percent error rate.
Another nice feature for business customers is that the keyboard is spill-resistant. The layout protects the SL510's internal components by funneling liquid to a drain hole in the bottom of the machine.
Like other ThinkPads, the SL510 includes both a trackpoint and a touchpad. While not everyone likes to navigate with a trackpoint, we love the increased accuracy it provides, along with the ability to move around the desktop without lifting our fingers off of the home row.
For those who don't like the trackpoint, there's also a very responsive touchpad. Like the T400s, the SL510's touchpad has a pleasant matte surface that makes it easy to move around the desktop without overshooting targets. The pad also supports several multitouch gestures; we were able to zoom in/out of photos and Web pages by pinching, reorient pictures by rotating two fingers, and scroll up and down Web pages by swiping.
Display and Audio
The system's 15.6-inch, LED-backlit screen is available in either glossy VibrantView or Antiglare matte varieties. Our review unit came with the matte screen that produced sharp images, but colors were muted, and viewing angles were poor. Even from 45 degrees, colors washed out significantly. When the screen is tilted down slightly--as you might have to do if you're looking across a conference table at someone--the color change is even more dramatic. To be fair, the system is probably too large to fit on a tray table in the first place.
A lesser issue than the color quality/viewing angles is the relatively low screen resolution. Though the previous generation of SLs was available with native resolutions of 1280 x 800 and 1680 x 1050 (for the SL500), at present the SL510 is only available in 1366 x 768, which provides less vertical real estate than its predecessor. Though the wider screen should eliminate black bars on some movies, it means less visible content and more scrolling when performing everyday tasks like viewing Web pages, reading e-mail, or editing documents.
You can comfortably watch a movie on the SL510. Video was smooth, visual noise was minimal, and colors were true, both when we watched a DVD of Dark City and when streaming a 720p episode of Fringe from Fox.com. The SL510 is available with a Blu-ray drive, though our review system did not come with one installed.
While its audio quality is definitely good enough and more than loud enough to watch movies, we don't recommend using the SL510 as a personal stereo. When streaming music from our Napster account, drums sounded tinny and unpleasant.
Ports and Webcam
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The SL510 comes with a standard array of ports, including VGA, HDMI, audio in/out, Ethernet, ExpressCard/34, and four USB ports, one of which that doubles as an eSATA connection. A 7-in-1 memory card reader also allows you to get data from cameras and other devices.
The 2.0-megapixel webcam provides workable, but unremarkable image quality. When we used it to make a Skype call from our office, the smooth video was accented with somewhat muted colors.
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The SL510's 2.53-GHz Core 2 Duo CPU and 3GB of DDR3 RAM allowed the system to achieve 3,493 on PCMark Vantage, a benchmark that measures overall system performance. This score is slightly higher than the mainstream notebook category average of 3,225, and well ahead of the HP ProBook 4510s. However, the original ThinkPad SL400 scored a very similar 3,411, and the ThinkPad T400 notched a higher 3,576. In casual use, the system was smooth and responsive as we navigated the desktop and composed documents in Microsoft Word.
When it came to video transcoding, the SL510 was also a bit ahead of the pack, converting a 114MB MPEG-4 file to AVI in 6 minutes and 17 seconds, which is almost a minute faster than the category average of 7:14. The ProBook 4510s finished the same test in 7:27.
The SL510's 7,200-rpm, 320GB Hitachi hard drive booted Windows 7 Professional in 1 minute and 1 second, which is bearable, and only 2 seconds slower than the category average. The ProBook 4510s booted in 1:05, while the original SL400 took a whopping 1:16 to start. The ThinkPad T400 was also slower, booting in 1:05.
The 7,200-rpm speed of the drive was more apparent when we conducted our LAPTOP Transfer Test; it took only 2 minutes and 54 seconds to copy 4.97GB of mixed media files from one folder to another, for a rate of 29.2 MBps. This was well above the category average of 19.3 MBps, the 15.8 MBps offered by the ProBook 4510s, and the 16.5 MBps provided by the ThinkPad T400. Plus, Lenovo's Active Protection System detects movement and stops the hard drive to prevent damage to your data.
The SL510 is available with both discrete and integrated graphics options. Our review unit came with an integrated Intel GMA X4500 graphics chip that returned a weak score of 1,011 in the benchmark 3DMark06, which was about a third of the category average (3,413). However, the HP ProBook 4510s did even worse (831), though the SL400 (2,251) did better--likely due to its discrete graphics chip.
Forget about playing games on the SL510 if you get integrated graphics. Our system provided a slideshow-like 6 frames per second when playing Far Cry 2 at 1024 x 768. When playing the game at the system's native resolution of 1366 x 768, the rate dropped to an even worse 3 fps. However, rendering was smooth during lower-intensity graphics tasks, such as navigating around the planet and zooming in on houses in Google Earth.
Battery Life and Wi-Fi
On the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi, the ThinkPad SL510's 6-cell battery lasted 3 hours and 56 minutes, which is 20 minutes longer than the category average for mainstream notebooks. However, the HP ProBook 4510s lasted 4 hours and 31 minutes, and the original ThinkPad SL400 lasted 5 hours and 20 minutes.
The SL510's Intel WiFi Link 5100 802.11a/b/g/n wireless card was able to connect to our test router and transfer data at rates of 19.4 and 15.9 Mbps from 15 and 50 feet, respectively. These rates are on a par with the category averages of 19.5 and 16.1 Mbps. The ProBook 4510s returned slightly higher scores of 21.1 and 17 Mbps, while the ThinkPad SL400 also did a little better, managing 19.8 and 19.1 Mbps.
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Though the list price for our review system is $1,024, the starting price for the SL510 is only $529. Configuration options include choosing between 5,400- and 7,200-rpm drives with sizes up to 500GB, an optional ATI Radeon 4570 graphics chip, up to 8GB of DDR3 RAM, a four- or nine-cell battery, and a variety of Intel Core 2 Duo CPUs.
Software and Support
The ThinkPad SL510 comes with the standard suite of Lenovo ThinkVantage utilities, which include such staples as a power manager, a Wi-Fi manager, and PC health monitor. You also get Rescue and Recovery for one-button revivals from system crashes. In addition, Lenovo has included InterVideo WinDVD for playing discs, and Roxio Creator Small Business Edition for burning discs and editing simple videos.
The system comes standard with a one-year warranty and 24/7 toll-free tech support. However, you can purchase extra services that are specially targeted at businesses that don't have large IT departments--or any IT department--backing them up. These services include extended warranties, on-site service, next-day repairs, accidental damage protection, and theft protection. Lenovo also offers hard disk retention, which lets you keep a failed hard drive even after Lenovo has replaced it, so you're not forced to accidentally hand over any sensitive data.
The Lenovo ThinkPad SL510 is a solid notebook for business users. While it may be too bulky for road warriors (the 14-inch SL410 is a better choice for that crowd), this system is a good solution for workers looking for a sturdy laptop to use in and around the office. Its combination of above-average performance, a comfortable, spill-resistant keyboard, and business-friendly services make it a strong value.