Lenovo ThinkBook 13s review

Lenovo ThinkBook 13s

“The Lenovo ThinkPad 13s is business laptop wannabe that doesn’t offer enough to beat out the competition.”

  • Solid productivity performance
  • Attractively priced at the low end
  • Good keyboard and touchpad
  • Solid build quality
  • No touch display
  • No Thunderbolt 3
  • Limited business features

The ThinkPad line — one of the most iconic lines of business laptops ever devised — wasn’t enough for Lenovo. They had to invent yet another, the ThinkBook, that’s aimed at small businesses rather than enterprises that buy laptops in bulk. The ThinkBook 13s is the first in the line, and it’s aimed at more than just businesspeople – Lenovo clearly hopes that the average person might be interested too.

We were sent an entry-level configuration of the ThinkBook 13s, with an 8th-gen quad-core Core i5-8265U CPU, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB PCIe solid-state drive (SSD), and a 13.3-inch Full HD (1,920 x 1,080) display. Lenovo lists the selling price at a very attractive $773. Upgrade to a Core i7-8565U, 16GB of RAM, and a 512GB SSD, and you’ll still only spend $1,070.

Lenovo wants to grab those who want a laptop for a small or medium-sized business but don’t want to spring for a ThinkPad. Does the ThinkBook 13s give it to them?

More IdeaPad than ThinkPad

The ThinkBook 13s takes more of its design and build cues from the IdeaPad line (the IdeaPad 730S, in particular) than it does the ThinkPad. Maybe that’s a good thing — the ThinkPad’s black-with-red-trim aesthetic is quite distinct and may not appeal to everyone. Accordingly, the ThinkBook 13s looks a lot more like other modern, all-metal (aluminum and magnesium, in this case) clamshell laptops. Compare the ThinkBook 13s side-by-side with the Dell Latitude 7400 2-in-1 and the Lenovo IdeaPad S940, for example, and you’ll see similar forward-sweeping angles (albeit the ThinkBook is a darker “Mineral Gray”). It’s a good look, but nothing special.

Similarly, Lenovo gave the ThinkBook 13s some but not all of the ThinkPad’s vaunted build quality. The ThinkBook has anti-spill protection and is tested for exposure to extreme temperatures and vibrations — but there’s no MIL-STD-810G testing as with the ThinkPad line. The hinge is particularly carefully engineered, constructed of a zinc alloy with powdered-metal technology to endure 25,000 open and close cycles, and it’s coated with indium and stannum (an archaic name for tin, apparently) for better corrosion resistance and Wi-Fi reception.

Lenovo ThinkBook 13s review
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Even with all of that attention, our ThinkPad 13s review unit had some minor flexing in the lid and the keyboard deck, which laptops like Lenovo’s Yoga C930 and the Asus ZenBook S13 (with its MIL-STD-810G testing) do not. And the hinge was rather stiff and required both hands to open. Altogether, the ThinkBook 13s is something of a tweener in terms of its perceivable build quality – and it seems to assume that consumers don’t care quite as much as business users about rigidity.

One thing Lenovo brought down from the ThinkPad line is the physical webcam cover. Slide the switch over, and your private life will stay hidden – visually, at least – from prying eyes. HP has its electronic switch on the Spectre x360 13 and the Envy 13 that we prefer because it completely turns off the webcam and removes an attack vector, but Lenovo’s solution is nevertheless effective.

Also notable: Lenovo is right there with HP when it comes to the tiny-bezel movement. That is, neither company has fully embraced the notion of packing as large a display as possible into the smallest possible chassis. The ThinkBook 13s has reasonable side bezels, but its top bezel is rather large, and its chin is downright chunky. We dinged the HP Envy 13 for the same, and frankly, the ThinkBook 13s is worse – and just slightly larger. It comes in at about an 80 percent screen-to-body ratio, which pales compared to the 97 percent enjoyed by the Asus ZenBook S13 – which packs in a larger 13.9-inch display into a smaller chassis.

Hoping for the ThinkPad’s deep, snappy, and precise keyboard? You’ll be disappointed.

To round out our discussion of size, the ThinkBook is 0.63 inches thick, compared to the HP Envy 13 at 0.59 inches and the Asus ZenBook S13 at 0.50 inches. And the ThinkBook is heavier as well, at 2.9 pounds versus 2.82 pounds and 2.42 pounds, respectively. Simply put, Lenovo didn’t work very hard to make the smallest laptop around, and it shows.

Next is connectivity, which matters a great deal to the enterprise and maybe – according to Lenovo – a little less to small business owners. There are two USB-A 3.1 Gen 1 ports, one USB-C 3.1 Gen 2 port (which will not power the laptop and, regrettably, lacks Thunderbolt 3 support), and a full-size HDMI 1.4b port. You’ll need a dongle for an SD card, though. Wireless connectivity is just fine, with gigabit 2X2 MU-MIMO 802.11ac Wi-Fi (but no Wi-Fi 6 yet) and Bluetooth 5.0.

But here’s where we’re going to ding Lenovo the hardest: The ThinkBook uses their very old-school USB-lookalike proprietary power adapter. We already said the laptop won’t charge via USB-C, so you need to carry this funky adapter around with you and try to remember which rectangular port to plug it into. Why, Lenovo, why? We’d love to know.

You’ll miss the ThinkPad keyboard

If you were hoping that Lenovo would carry over it’s deep, snappy, and precise keyboard from the ThinkPad line, you’ll be slightly disappointed. We say “slightly,” because the ThinkBook 13s keyboard is nevertheless perfectly serviceable. In fact, if you’ve used an IdeaPad or Yoga consumer laptop, then you’ll be very familiar with this keyboard (except for the dedicated Skype function keys). It’s not as deep as the ThinkPad’s, but it has large keys that are comfortable and provide their own snappy feel. We prefer the keyboard on the HP Spectre x360 13, but we don’t dislike this one by any means.

The ThinkBook 13s touchpad fills the available space on the keyboard deck (which is a bit larger than some other laptops thanks to the large bezels), and its plastic surface is comfortable for swiping around. It’s a Microsoft Precision touchpad, and so multi-touch gestures work perfectly. We have no complaints, as we don’t with just about every Microsoft Precision touchpad we test. The good touchpad is particularly important here since there’s no touch display to fall back on.

Lenovo ThinkBook 13s review
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

In one more departure from the ThinkPad line, you won’t find the little red nubbin, the TrackPoint, buried within the keyboard on the ThinkBook 13s, nor the extra set of buttons. If you rely on that particular input mechanism, then you’ll need to skip the ThinkBook line.

Finally, the ThinkBook 13s supports Windows 10 hello password-less login via a fingerprint reader that’s embedded in the power button on the upper-right of the keyboard deck. It’s accurate and fast, and it has an attractive green pulse that lets you know it’s waiting for you to give it a touch.

Surprisingly, the display’s contrast and color fall short of average

Lately, we find our descriptions of premium laptop displays to be a bit repetitive. Unless a laptop uses exotic panels like the latest OLED technology or they’re built around superior IPS screens with wide and accurate colors, there’s an average display that we would have rated as excellent just a few years ago. So, where does the ThinkBook 13s’s 13.3-inch display rank?

According to our colorimeter, the ThinkBook 13s’s display ranks slightly less than average. That surprises us, because this laptop is meant to bridge a gap between the budget/consumer IdeaPad line and the high-end ThinkPad. For example, brightness is acceptable at 275 nits (we like to see a minimum of 300 nits), but it’s certainly nothing special. One positive: It’s a matte display, and so that helps with bright overhead lighting, but of course it makes video and photos less dynamic.

Contrast comes in at 710:1, which is on the low end of our comparison group. We see more and more laptops, even including budget laptops like the Asus ZenBook 13 UX333, enjoy contrast ratios of 1,000:1 or greater, which is excellent. Colors are also unimpressive, with AdobeRGB coverage at 70 percent and sRGB at 93 percent. Looking at our chart, this is again on the low end.

Lenovo ThinkBook 13s review
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Color accuracy, though, is a positive at 1.4 (1.0 or less is considered excellent), and so that’s a notch in the ThinkBook’s favor. While photo editors who want to see the most colors won’t be happy with the narrow color gamut, at least those colors will be accurate – something that will appeal to everyone

Don’t misunderstand us. You won’t be terribly disappointed with this display in your everyday productivity work. You’ll find Netflix and other video to be a bit too dark thanks to a gamma of 2.4 (2.2 is perfect), and you won’t enjoy the deepest blacks.

The ThinkBook 13s is a solid performer, and better yet, it stayed fairly quiet.

Like most premium laptops today, the ThinkBook 13s can stream high dynamic range (HDR) video. Unlike most, though, it officially supports the Dolby Vision HDR standard and thus promises a better overall experience. The display looks good and enhances some of Netflix’s darker content (“Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” we’re looking at you), but it’s not quite as good as recent OLED laptops that support HDR’s full 10-bit color space.

Generally, you’ll get your work done on this display, and you won’t hate the experience. You just won’t love it, either, especially if you’re a creative type who craves wide colors.

Audio is provided through dual 2-watt Harman speakers, and they get plenty loud. The only problem is, they’re also a little thin at full volume, maybe even a little distorted. It’s worst at the high end, while mids are acceptable. Bass is non-existent. You’ll want headphones or a good Bluetooth speaker to enjoy your Netflix binging or tunes.

A speedy performer for getting your work done

Lenovo sent us the entry-level ThinkBook 13s, which equips a quad-core Whiskey Lake Intel Core i5-8265U CPU. That’s a 15-watt processor that promises both good productivity performance and decent efficiency. A Core i7-8565U is an option.

We ran our usual benchmarks, and the ThinkBook 13s gave a strong showing. It was average against our comparison group in the Geekbench 4 synthetic benchmark, where it scored a 4,368 in the single-core test and a 13,184 in the multi-core test. The 2019 Acer Swift 5 was a bit faster with the same CPU, while the Asus ZenBook 13 UX333 was mixed. Of course, laptops with the Core i7-8565U were much faster in this benchmark thanks to the higher clock speeds.

In our more real-world Handbrake test where we encode a 420MB video to H.265, the ThinkBook 13s was more impressive. It completed the test in 247 seconds, which is fast for a Core i5 and beat out the HP Spectre x360 13 with its Core i7 (although the HP was running in a mode meant to keep heat and fan noise to a minimum). The Acer Swift 5 took a much longer 313 seconds to complete the process.

The ThinkBook 13s used a Western Digital SN520 512GB PCIs SSD that we see in more laptops lately. It’s a good but not great performer, and it was slower than usual in the Lenovo – it hit 1,093 megabytes per second (MB/s) in the CrystalDiskMark 5 read test and 406 MB/s in the write test. The read score is in line with our comparison group, but the write score is less than half. We can’t account for the difference, but we didn’t notice any slowdowns during our testing.

The ThinkBook 13s is a solid productivity performer, and better yet, it stayed fairly quiet during our testing and it never got so hot as to be uncomfortable. The warmest we saw during our stress testing was 114 degrees F on the bottom of the chassis, which is just a bit toasty, and the keyboard deck hit 102 degrees while we were testing Fortnite. During all of our typical productivity work, the laptop stayed nice and quiet – feel free to take it to the library.

Gaming? Nope

The ThinkBook 13s is limited to Intel’s integrated UHD 620 graphics, and it’s clocked according to the Core i5 settings. This isn’t designed to be a gaming laptop by any means.

And, according to our benchmarks, Lenovo didn’t put much work into making this even a fast example of a non-gaming laptop. In the synthetic 3DMark Fire Strike test, the ThinkBook 13s scored 992, which is at the low end of our comparison group. Look to something like the HP Envy 13 with at least an entry-level discrete GPU like the Nvidia GeForce MX250 if you want to run a lightweight game like Fornite.

And speaking of Fortnite, the ThinkBook 13s was also a slow performer. It only mustered nine frames per second (FPS) in 1080p and high graphics settings and five FPS at epic graphics settings. That’s lower than all but the Dell XPS 13 that was running a Core i3 CPU.

Lenovo continues to put battery life on the back burner

One thing we’ve noticed with Lenovo’s laptops lately is that battery life doesn’t seem to be at much of a premium. The ThinkPad X390, for example, would have garnered a higher score if it weren’t for middling battery life. And in the ThinkBook 13s, Lenovo limited battery capacity to just 45 watt-hours, which isn’t impressive against competitors like the HP Spectre x360 13 with its 61 watt-hours or the Dell XPS 13 with its 52 watt-hours.

According to our battery benchmarks, the ThinkBook 13s suffers for not packing in more juice. Its battery life isn’t bad, mind you, but it’s just not very impressive compared to the competition. Looking first at our most demanding test, running the Basemark web benchmark until the battery ran out, the ThinkBook 13s lasted for just under three and a half hours. Among our comparison group, only the Acer Swift 3 with its Core i7-8550U gave up sooner.

When considering our web browsing test that runs through a series of popular web sites, the ThinkBook 13s did better, coming in second among our comparison group at just over eight hours. But that’s behind the Acer Swift 3 14-inch with a Core i7-8565U and a larger display, that lasted three quarters of an hour longer. And then the HP Spectre x360 13, which isn’t in our chart, lasted for a whopping 12.7 hours thanks to more battery and a low-power display.

In our video looping test that runs a local Avengers 1080p trailer until the battery dies, the ThinkBook 13s fell in the middle of the pack at just over 11 hours. The Asus ZenBook S13 managed 12.75 hours, and the Spectre x360 13 lasted for 17.6 hours. So, that makes the ThinkBook 13s more than a little disappointing.

Lenovo ThinkBook 13s review
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Will the ThinkBook 13s last you a full working day without needing to carry around that archaic proprietary charger? We’re not sure – it entirely depends on what you’re doing. If you push the CPU, then you’ll probably fall short, but if you’re browsing the web and triaging email, then you might make it a full eight hours.

But the bottom line is that there’s likely room in that chassis for greater battery capacity. Lenovo should consider squeezing in a little more, because battery life matters – especially to the small business users that Lenovo is targeting with the new line. And it doesn’t help that you’re tied to that proprietary connector and can’t borrow a friend’s USB-C adapter for a quick pick-me-up.

Our take

The ThinkBook 13s is a weird bird. It performs well, has premium (but not quite top-notch) build quality, and it’s attractively priced. But we don’t exactly understand why it exists. It offers a few business-class features, but not enough to compete with dedicated business laptops, including Lenovo’s best options. Seriously, spend a little more and get a ThinkPad if you want to make a sound business investment.

At the same time, as we’ll see in our alternatives below, there’s not much of a price premium over Lenovo’s pure consumer offering, the IdeaPad – at least at the low end. In the end, the ThinkBook 13s just doesn’t make the cut.

Is there a better alternative?

The Lenovo IdeaPad 730s in Iron Grey costs $730. That price is for a Core i5-8265U, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD, and a 13.3-inch Full HD display. Sound familiar? It should, because it’s almost the same price as the similarly-equipped ThinkBook 13s. The difference comes at the high end, where the IdeaPad 730s costs $900 for a Core i7-8565U, 16GB of RAM, and a 512GB SSD while the ThinkBook 13s costs $1,070. And the IdeaPad 730s offers Thunderbolt 3 support.

Next, you could consider the HP Envy 13, which costs $750 for a faster Core i7-8565U, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD, and a 13.3-inch Full HD. It’s just about as solidly built, and it lacks only the ThinkBook 13s’s spill-proof keyboard and extra testing against bumps and bruises. You can also spend some additional cash – a total of $1,180 — and get an MX250 discrete GPU, 16GB of RAM, 512GB SSD, and a 4K display. That makes the Envy 13 more customizable and ultimately more powerful.

Finally, the Asus ZenBook 13 UX333 is a fine laptop as well, coming in at $850 for the same configuration and offering a more robust build and the same MIL-STD-810g testing that’s afforded Lenovo’s ThinkPad line. You’ll get equal performance, better battery life, and frankly, we think the ZenBook is a better-looking laptop.

How long will it last?

The ThinkBook 13s may not live up to the highest standards of rigidity, but it’ll last you as long as you need. You’ll miss out on Thunderbolt 3 for connecting to the most advanced peripherals, but otherwise, this is an up-to-date laptop. The standard 1-year warranty is no better or worse than other laptops in this class.

Should you buy it?

No, unless you need the few business-oriented features that the laptop provides. Otherwise, stick with a consumer laptop that you can configure with more powerful components – and probably for less money.

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