Among Lenovo’s brutalist and utilitarian ThinkPad lineup, popular with businesses or in any field in which an affordable and durable laptop is necessary, one particular ThinkPad stands out—the black sheep of the family that dropped out of engineering school and eventually graduated from design school by the skin of its teeth: the ThinkPad S431. It’s still not quite as stylish as some of Lenovo’s Mac-ripoff IdeaPads, and it still sports some of that red-on-black flair popular with baddies from dystopian future movies made in the 1980’s; the S431 nevertheless sports a sleek, slim, and attractive magnesium-aluminum-alloy finish that feels like a ThinkPad but looks like… a slightly more stylish ThinkPad.
The S431 is an Ultrabook, but only by Intel’s June of 2012 Ultrabook specifications. It doesn’t sport a touchscreen, and maxes out only with a last-gen Intel i5 processor, 8GB RAM, and a 120GB SDD (or a 500 GB HDD for you unconverted HDD Luddites). If those specs still sound good for your purposes, and you’ve yet to jump on the touchscreen bandwagon, the S431 may be an attractive option for you.
The model of S431 I’m working with for this review sports the maxed-out specs mentioned above. This model opted for the optional “HD+” 1600×900 14” screen, and a slightly beefed-up a/b/g/n wireless card. The S431 comes with two USB 3.0 ports (one of which is always on for tablet- and phone-charging convenience), Ethernet, audio, HDMI, SD card reader, fingerprint reader, and Lenovo’s OneLink port, which is useful for docking into your workstation if you really want to go to the trouble. If you want one for yourself (minus the 8GB of RAM, which is inexplicably no longer an option since placing the order for this model—you’ll be stuck with 4GB) it’ll set you back just north of $800.
As mentioned above, the S431 is the most attractive of all the ThinkPad siblings. It’s sleeker and slimmer than its ThinkPad siblings, with features like tastefully minimized logo placement on the lid and a floating edge on the chassis. The dot on the “i” in the ThinkPad logo both on the right wrist rest and on the lid glow red when in use and fade in and out while sleeping or charging not entirely unlike a Ceylon’s eye. This touch is a little cheesy, and almost seems like a play on Apple’s brash glowing logo on the MacBook, “Look, we can have a glowing logo too!” The 14” screen crammed into this 13.3” frame with a thin bezel around the edges makes even a MacBook’s bezel look fat and unfashionable.
The chassis of the S431 is a light, sturdy, magnesium-aluminum-alloy number with a nice heat transfer coefficient that’s cold to the touch—colder, even, than a Mac’s frosty aluminum facade. Lenovo incorporates their AccuType keyboard onto this model, making the S431 pleasant even to the fingertips. The one-piece glass trackpad is smooth with a tiny bit of a rubbery finish that gives just the right amount of resistence and feedback for multitouch gestures.
Given the S431’s looks and functionality, one might question whether this is truly a ThinkPad. To set your mind at ease, Lenovo made sure to include the iconic but antiquated ThinkPad red mouse button and incorporated the upper region of the trackpad with clicker functionality for usage with the red mouse button. Inclusion of the iconic red dongle seems unnecessary given the smooth functionality of the trackpad, and attempting to use the red mouse button or to switch back and forth between using the mouse button and the trackpad is exceptionally awkward. What place does the red mouse button have on a Windows 8 machine? Perhaps it may be time for Lenovo to take that leap of faith of phasing out the red mouse button, or at least make it optional on some models (starting with this one).
Speakers on the S431 are weak and tinny, but passable. Videos look nice on the 1600×900 screen, but expect to lean forward at times to hear quiet parts. There’s no bass to speak of, but voice on VoIP calls or dialogue in movies or TV shows is listenable. This is not a computer for audiophiles or those who enjoy blasting tunes from their laptop speakers. You’ll have to get external speakers or headphones for that, sorry.
The S431 disappoints a bit in available performance upgrades. The best CPU you can get in it is an Ivy Bridge i5, clocked at 1.8 GHz or 2.7 GHz with Turbo Boost. RAM is maxed out at 8GB, given the machine’s single SODIMM slot, which will make RAM un-upgradeable until someone manufactures a 16 GB SODIMM memory stick. The available 120GB SSD makes boot times a breeze. Ultimately, the performance of the machine is a bit lacking for a supposed Ultrabook, but is perfectly sufficient for everyday productivity.
I managed to play Kerbal Space Program at acceptable framerates with graphics settings turned down to Low and the laptop plugged in and on Performance mode. To accomplish this I had to monkey with the CPU settings to get the processor itself up to Performance mode while plugged in (default: Balanced). With integrated graphics, this is obviously not a machine for gamers, but ultra-casuals will still enjoy the ability to at least play some indie games (which is not saying much).
Lenovo’s AccuType keyboard makes typing luxurious and more accurate. The AccuType makes any other keyboard (even a Mac’s) feel cheap and plasticy, and gives “chiclet” a bad name. Professionals will enjoy the wake time of this computer, making closing and opening the shell seamless and quick. Programmers will enjoy the widescreen format, making it easy to snap two windows open next to each other without losing any resolution. A 500GB HDD is available (presumably with the expense of some lost boot time performance) for anyone needing extra disk space.
(Screenshots removed, future digital archeologists please see WayBack Machine.)
The S431 is a great mid-range Ultrabook for the prosumer or professional who doesn’t care for a touch screen, and can make do with the limited CPU power and RAM. Casual gamers will enjoy playing lower-end games at low settings (rejoice!). With fast boot times and a nice-looking (but not true HD) screen, the S431 is a great every-day productivity and recreation laptop. The S431 is just as comfortable sitting on your coffee table playing Hulu or on your desk at work crunching spreadsheets. The S431 could do with some beefed up specs. I’d like to see a range of Haswell processors up to i7, at least a 256 GB SSD (the biggest improvement Lenovo could make, in my opinion. I will certainly be upgrading my SSD after the warranty runs out), another SODIMM slot for 16GB of RAM, and a touch screen (though I personally don’t care for touch screens, I know others would like to have one).
The Lenovo ThinkPad S431 gets 4 out of 5 stars. ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆