It used to be so simple. But over the years, Lenovo has expanded its ThinkPad family, offering a much bigger—and somewhat more confusing—array of options to customers.
The good news? You should be able to find a ThinkPad that meets both your budget and your needs. And while reviewers, myself included, tend to focus on the X1-class flagships, there is great value to be had if don’t mind forgoing ultra-thin form factors and high-end materials.
Case in point, the ThinkPad L480. This is a midmarket, business-class workhorse that delivers on the look, feel, and functionality that ThinkPad owners expect but at a fraction of the cost. Let’s take a look.
From the look of things, the L480 is classic ThinkPad: The button-down, professional-looking matte black design is instantly recognizable to one and all. And there some modern touches that ThinkPad devotees will appreciate, too.
But there are some obvious signs of cost-cutting here, too.
The L480 is thicker and heavier than the slimmer X1 PCs I usually review. And it’s clad in separate pieces of plastic, and not cut from a single piece of composite carbon fiber and super magnesium alloy, as we see in those more expensive ThinkPads.
No matter, Lenovo says: The ThinkPad L480 still rates highly on the military-grade durability tests to which it subjects all ThinkPads. I have no worries about its durability, and I sense just a little flex when I forcefully push down on the center of the keyboard.
Basically, everything is just bigger, thicker, and a bit cheaper when compared to more expensive ThinkPads. There are bigger bezels. The hinges are silver and not color-matched as we see on the X1 PCs. And there’s no privacy slider on the webcam.
But the L480 absolutely delivers on what we’ve come to expect from ThinkPad, too. I’ll describe these features in more detail below, but this laptop includes a lay-flat display, a next-generation fingerprint reader, excellent typing and pointing experiences, 8th-generation Intel Core processors, and ample expansion, with docking capabilities, too. This is a real ThinkPad.
The review unit ships with a 14-inch Full HD (1920 x 1080) IPS display, and it can optionally be upgraded with multi-touch capabilities. (The review unit did not include touch.) It’s relatively dim at just 250 nits, but acceptable for a business-class device that is focused on productivity work and not splashy HDR graphics and movies. As noted previously, the display lays flat, which I find to be a huge advantage, especially in cramped coach seats while flying.
If you’re looking for a bigger version of this laptop, Lenovo also sells a ThinkPad L380 with a 13-inch display and a ThinkPad L580 with a 15-inch display. Personally, I find that a 14-inch display hits that “Goldilocks” mark for being just right, but at least there are options for those who feel differently.
Lenovo also offers a lower-end 1366 x 768 non-IPS option for the budget-conscious. I do not recommend even considering this option, however, not here in the high-DPI world of 2018.
When it comes to its internal components, the ThinkPad L480 is as modern as anyone can expect: The PC is powered by Intel’s quad-core 8th generation Core i5-8250U processor and integrated Intel graphics, though a low-end configuration can be had with a dual-core 7th generation Intel Core i5-7200U.
The review unit shipped with 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of PCIe-based SSD storage. But you can configure it with up to 32 GB of RAM, which is impressive, and to 512 GB of PCIe- and OPAL2.0-based SSD storage. Base configurations can be had with a lowly 7200 RPM 500 GB HDD. Again, it’s 2018, guys.
As you would expect of this configuration, performance was excellent when used for the productivity tasks for which it was designed. I configured the PC as I always do, with Google Chrome, Adobe Photoshop Elements, MardownPad 2, and a few other applications, and worked normally, experiencing no hiccups or slowdowns.
In my video encoding test, in which I convert the 4K video Tears of Steel to 1080p, the ThinkPad L480 performed surprisingly well: It completed the conversion in just 54 minutes and 11 seconds, placing it right at the top of the results for portable PCs. (Only a single gaming laptop has outperformed this PC on this test.) This means that the L480 was able to convert this video in less time than more powerful PCs like Surface Book 2 (1 hour, almost exactly) and the Huawei MateBook X Pro (1:06). Impressive.
The L480 does exhibit some fan noise when pushed, as in the aforementioned video encoding test. But the PC never got warm to the touch, certainly not uncomfortably.
Expansion is excellent and is in keeping with the device’s business-class focus. There are two full-sized USB-A ports, two USB-C ports, a full-sized HDMI port for video-out, a full-sized Ethernet port (increasingly a rarity), a microSD card reader, and a combo headphone/microphone jack.
The two USB-C ports are next to each other and configured to work with the new ThinkPad side-docking solutions. This is an impressive addition at this price point, and as we’ve seen on other recent (and more expensive) ThinkPads, the rightmost USB-C port is mounted in a flexible way so that it can correctly line up with new and future docks. I really like this design.
The bundled power supply is the normal USB-C-based 65W version we see on other modern ThinkPads. And it supports rapid charging, with one hour of charging good for about 80 percent battery life. I was able to duplicate (if not improve on) that result in my own testing.
Connectivity is likewise modern. In addition to the Ethernet port, the L480 ships with Intel dual-band Wireless-AC and Bluetooth 4.1, and you can optionally add NFC capabilities too.
Sound is delivered via stereo speakers, and there is a dual-array microphone for improved Cortana performance. Both worked as expected, with nothing exceptional to report, positive or negative.
The L480 review unit came with an uninteresting 720p webcam, but you can optionally configure it with an IR-based Windows Hello-compatible camera as well. I’d just as soon not have that, as I prefer signing in with my finger. (See below.)
ThinkPad fans will be delighted to know that the lineup’s signature typing, touchpad, and fingerprint reader experiences are all present and accounted for on the L480.
The backlit keyboard features the same scalloped chiclet keys that we see on other ThinkPads, and it offers a familiar and excellent typing experience. The only niggle? Lenovo continues to reverse the Fn (Function) and CTRL keys here. (Yes, there is a software utility for virtually putting them in the correct locations.)
The pointing experience is likewise first-class, with both touchpad and Trackpoint options. Trackpoint remains my favorite pointing device, as it is super-accurate, even for graphics work.
Finally, the L480 has been updated to include the newest-generation Match-in-Sensor fingerprint reader. This sensor is faster and more accurate than ever before. But more important, it’s also secure, as it does all its AI processing right in its own chip and never needs transmits your private identity information externally.
The ThinkPad L480 isn’t exactly a svelte waif: It weighs in at 3.71 pounds and is about .90 inches thick. I wouldn’t find this objectionable for commuting purposes, and, of course, it worked fine around the house. But I would not want to carry this thing on my shoulder all day during a tradeshow or a similar event.
From a longevity perspective, the ThinkPad L480 landed at 9:27 on my streaming HD video over Wi-Fi tests. That’s what I consider roughly average these days. It’s about an hour behind the ThinkPad X1 Carbon I recently reviewed (10:35) and about 30 minutes under the Huawei MateBook X Pro (9:59). But the L480 outperformed the OLED version of ThinkPad X1 Yoga (8:08) and the ThinkPad 25 Anniversary (9:00).
Lenovo continues to crush it from a crapware perspective, at least with its ThinkPad lineup, and the L480 came with no egregious extra software. Instead, we get the expected Lenovo Vantage app, which is mostly used for installing the latest drivers and troubleshooting problems. And not much else.
The ThinkPad L480 can be had with Windows 10 Home or Pro; the review unit came with the latter. Of course, this also means that it does ship with some crapware, courtesy of Microsoft. At least it’s easy to uninstall.
The ThinkPad L480 can be had for as little as $675, though that version has unacceptably low-end specs and should be upgraded. As reviewed, the ThinkPad L480 will set you back a reasonable $1000 and change. This is the configuration I’d buy and recommend.
Note, too, that ThinkPads are perpetually on sale. The “as-configured” price of the review unit is supposedly more than $1250. But as with automobiles, no one really pays list price on Lenovo’s website. Be sure to shop around.
The ThinkPad L480 is like an entry-level BMW, it’s a great way to buy into a prestigious product line for less. Yes, Lenovo had to cut some corners—most notably with the build materials—but this PC retains most of what is great about ThinkPad and it delivers it at reasonable prices.
Whether you want to spend about $1000 on a slightly thick and heavy laptop will depend on your priorities. There are flashier options at this price level, like Surface Laptop, but they come with their own compromises. Too, you might consider the pricier but more elegant Huawei MateBook X Pro that I recently reviewed: The manufacturer is a bit of an unknown quantity, but the quality is there.
The ThinkPad L480 is highly-recommended. Yes, I may lust after a ThinkPad X1 Carbon or X1 Yoga, as I’m sure many of you do as well. But this is a ThinkPad I could probably afford, and it’s a PC I’d actually buy with my own money.