Lenovo ThinkPad L540 Notebook Review (Part No. 20AVCTO1WW)

Discussion in 'Laptops, Tablets and Smartphones' started by spirit, Jun 2, 2014.

  1. spirit

    spirit Moderator Staff Member

    Messages:
    17,364
    Lenovo ThinkPad L540 Review


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    Before I begin…

    I would to like to point out that this is not a professional review, but simply a user’s review and my honest thoughts on the Lenovo ThinkPad L540. It is also not biased in any way. These are honest thoughts.

    This is a long review. Please do not feel that you have to read all of it! I have broken it down into relevant sections, so if you want to, just read the sections that you are most interested in.

    You can see a larger view of photos and screenshots by clicking on them. All photos are hosted on Flickr and are full resolution. You can see more photos on Flickr by clicking here.


    This review

    This review has been broken down into several sections to make reading easier:

    The specification

    Order and shipping experience

    Unboxing and first impressions

    Build quality and connectivity

    Upgradability and disassembly

    Keyboard and UltraNav

    Display and webcam

    Included software

    Performance

    Battery life

    Seagate SSHD

    Final words

    Any further updates after original date of posting this review



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    The specification

    The L540 is available in a variety of configurations. I went for a relatively high-end specification for an L-series model and configured my L540 with the following:

    - Intel Core i5-4200M Processor (3MB Cache, up to 3.10GHz)
    - Windows 8 x64
    - 15.6" FHD (1920x1080) LED Backlit Anti-Glare Display WWAN
    - Intel HD Graphics 4600
    - 8GB PC3-12800 DDR3L SDRAM 1600MHz SODIMM
    - Keyboard with Number Pad - UK English
    - Ultranav with Fingerpint Reader
    - 720p HD Camera
    - 500GB Hard Disk Drive, 7200rpm
    - DVD Recordable 8x Max Dual Layer
    - 6 Cell Li-Ion Cylindrical Battery 56.16Wh
    - 65W AC Adapter - UK
    - Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6235 BT Combo (2x2 AGN)
    - 1 Year Depot or Carry-in

    After the 15% discount, this setup cost me £757 or thereabouts. Without this discount this setup would be in the region of £890.

    With the money I saved, I bought myself a Seagate 1TB SSHD for £80 to replace the standard 7200RPM 500GB HDD and I bought a little USB 3.0 hard drive enclosure for £12 to put the 500GB drive into when I replaced it.

    In total I spent around £850 on my ThinkPad.


    Order and shipping experience

    I ordered my L540 directly from Lenovo’s UK website. Ordering the product was a breeze, simply select what you want and hit the order button. Simple as that, really. I am sure many users here are aware of what Lenovo’s ordering procedures are like, but for those who aren’t it was easy.

    The order was placed on Monday April 28th 2014 at about 17:00 BST and as promised in the first email which was sent, I received another email within 24 hours (29/04/2014 at 7:45 BST) giving me some details about my order, including the specification which I had ordered and some information about possible shipment dates: 1-2 weeks to build and then 3-6 days to ship to the UK.

    The laptop was shipped on May 6th, which was 8 days after my order was placed on April 28th (just over a week). This was also when I was charged for the laptop by Lenovo.

    In my shipping confirmation email I received a tracking code which I could use to track my order on the UPS website and from there I could see that my L540 left Shanghai on May 6th and UPS gave me an estimating delivery date of Friday May 9th. It was great to have a tracking number so I could track my order and see where it was. I signed up to email notifications too, including the delivery notification.

    The laptop arrived on Friday 9th May at about 9:15 AM and the laptop was not damaged during shipping at all.

    Overall, ordering the laptop directly from Lenovo was a painless experience and it was less than 2 weeks from pressing the order button to having the L540 in my hands. I was impressed by the service and would order directly from Lenovo again.

    If you are interested, you can see my UPS shipping statuses here.


    Unboxing and first impressions

    The laptop came securely packaged in the ‘infamous’ red and black Lenovo ThinkPad box. The box was easy to open, simply cut a bit of tape and remove the flap and pull the contents out from the top of the box.

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    The laptop itself was in a plastic sleeve and was held tightly in place by two Styrofoam pieces. Upon opening the laptop up, it was good to see that like most manufacturers, Lenovo had placed a piece of packaging paper underneath the display to prevent it from cracking during transit.

    You don’t really get much. You get the laptop, a battery, an AC adapter and some warranty guides which are all in different languages and provided in a small plastic zip bag. The battery came supplied in packaging paper and was of course separate from the laptop.

    Please note that Lenovo does not provide any recovery media with this laptop unless you buy it with Windows 7 Professional preinstalled, in which case you will likely be provided with recovery media for Windows 8 Pro. Recovery media for Windows 7 can be made using the included software (read the user manual).

    No hard copy of the user manual or the hardware manual was provided either. You need to download the manuals from Lenovo’s website in PDF form.

    Do note that Lenovo ships the laptop only in the box it comes in. Whilst some people may be worried about how secure the laptop is inside only the box it comes in, I can assure that you that in my case, the laptop arrived in perfect condition and is packed very securely in the box.

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    First impressions of the L540 were very good. It looks very professional and whilst it is a lighter shade of black than previous ThinkPads (but it is still closer to black than grey), it still looks very nice indeed and there isn’t too much difference at all. The metal hinges and the fold-flat screen are still present on the current generation models, which is nice to see.

    Inserting the battery was easy and it arrived fully charged.

    The build quality of the laptop is very nice indeed. The body is mostly plastic and has a rough feel to it. It certainly feels very sturdy and there is minimal flex which is great to see in this L-series model.

    Similarly, from a first impression the keyboard also seemed great to type on and the new TrackPoint felt good to use too. I prefer using the TrackPoint to the TrackPad, and I think many ThinkPad users do too, but the TrackPad is quite good as well. More on this later.

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    I was a little disheartened to see that the laptop arrived with Windows 8 and not 8.1, but it did say on Lenovo’s website that it was arriving with 8. I was secretly hoping that they meant 8.1. Never mind, 8.1 is a free upgrade, but it would have been good to have it preinstalled.

    Overall then, first impressions of this laptop were very positive indeed.


    Build quality and connectivity

    If you are after something that looks ‘sleek’ and has a nice brushed metal finish with curved edges and want to fit in with the crowd, then the L540 (or any ThinkPad for that matter) is probably not for you.

    Let’s cut to the chase - the L540 is square – or rectangular rather. And is made out of plastic. However, that being said, it can still turn heads – usually when you open the screen up to beyond 180 degrees or drop it down a flight of stairs and pick up and start using it again like nothing has happened (and worry that the stairs may be damaged by the impact of the ThinkPad landing on them) or spill about 3 glasses of wine on it and continue to use it like nothing has happened. Not that I have any of those. But that would turn heads!

    These machines are not built to look ‘beautiful’ – they are built to be tough and dependable. Though ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ and personally I really like the rectangular style and so do thousands if not millions of other ThinkPad users.

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    As mentioned briefly before, the build quality of this laptop is very good considering this it meant to be a ‘mid-range’ model.

    I don’t have the equivalent T-series machine to compare it to (the T540p), but I would imagine that the L540 does not sacrifice much in the build quality department. The chassis feels quite rigid and there is certainly no flex at all when typing which is excellent.

    There is a tiny bit of flex in the body just above the Express Card slot if you put enough pressure on the case, but this is really the only place where flex is noticeable on the case and you’ll only see the flex if you really push hard on the case.

    There are very few gaps in the case itself which is also good to see.

    Whilst the lid of the L540 (and the other 2013 Haswell ThinkPads) omits the lid latches which older ThinkPads had, it must be said that the lid does still close securely. This being said, when walking around with the laptop I think you feel a bit more ‘secure’ having the lid latches.

    The metal hinges on the L540 appear to be painted in a dark grey but they do a good job at holding the screen secure and there isn’t too much wobble at all. In fact most of the time the screen stays rock solid.

    The laptop isn’t exceptionally thick and nor is it particularly heavy, but nor is it impressively thin or light. It weighs approximately 2.5KG which is about normal for a 15” laptop and is approximately 28mm thick with the lid closed which is not too thick. Carrying the laptop is easy enough and it can be picked up in one hand. I carry it in my laptop backpack (a Swissgear one) and I can barely feel the weight. Portability then is fine, but ultimately if you want maximum portability from a ThinkPad laptop a T440 or an X-series machine is probably the way to go instead. That being said, the L540 won’t break your back and you won’t get mocked for its thickness.

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    Connectivity on the L540 isn’t bad at all, but for me the two annoying things are the lack of a HDMI port and the fact that you only get one USB 3.0 port and three USB 2.0 ports. It would have been better to have more USB 3.0 ports than 2.0 ports in this day and age.

    Instead of a HDMI port you get a Mini DisplayPort. This is fine but very few monitors and televisions use DisplayPort at this point in time, most use HDMI, so you will need an adapter in order to connect the L540 to a TV or another monitor which uses HDMI. You could always use VGA since the L540 does have one of those, but HDMI or even Mini HDMI would have been preferable over both.

    The advantage of having a mini DisplayPort is that over time DisplayPort will become the standard and so it could therefore be argued that the L540 is more future-proof, but for the present day, HDMI or Mini HDMI would have been welcomed.

    On the left side of the L540 there is an Express Card slot which does not have a cover, so it always open (and looks kind of untidy), a USB 3.0 port, the Mini DisplayPort and the VGA port.

    At the back of the laptop there is the AC adapter port for charging, an Ethernet port and a single USB 2.0 port. This is also of course where the battery sits.

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    Moving to the right side of the laptop there is another USB 2.0 port, a DVD-RW drive, another USB 2.0 port, a 3.5mm headphone or speaker (line out) port and finally an SD card reader which is situated just underneath the USB port and the 3.5mm audio jack and is very useful indeed.

    The layout of the laptop doesn’t appear to be particularly crowded, but the omission of a line in port may irritate those who want to use an external microphone but not the one in the webcam (which is a £12 option). You would have to use a USB microphone if you wanted to use another microphone.

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    There are four USB ports in total which is probably enough for most people, however as said earlier it is slightly disappointing that only one of these is USB 3.0. However, this USB 3.0 port can be configured to be ‘always on’ in the BIOS so you can charge a USB device such as a mobile phone from the battery of the L540 or whilst the battery is charging, which is a nice touch.

    There is not a lot to say about the DVD drive other than the fact that it is slightly difficult to eject. It’s great that Lenovo bundles a full version of PowerDVD 10 with this L540 so you can watch DVDs right out of the box, however PowerDVD 10 is now several versions old at the time of writing this review and is likely the oldest version which works on Windows 8. I had a copy of PowerDVD 9 which came bundled with a Blu-Ray drive I bought years ago which would not work on Windows 8. More on this later.

    My L540 has the optional Intel Centrino 2x2 wireless adapter with Bluetooth 4.0. It seems to work well enough and I have not had any driver issues with it on Windows 8.1. It’s nice having the latest Bluetooth standard built right into the laptop, though I am not sure how many people use Bluetooth to connect devices such as phones to their laptops now. I certainly don’t, but for some people it may very handy.

    To conclude, there is not a lot to say about the connectivity options on the L540 other than it is ‘decent’ enough I guess. I would like to have seen more USB 3.0 ports and also a mini HDMI port, too.
     
    Last edited: Jun 2, 2014
  2. spirit

    spirit Moderator Staff Member

    Messages:
    17,364
    Upgradability and disassembly

    Disassembling the L540 to replace internal components is not difficult at all. There is a single (large) cover which is held in by 4 screws that you can remove to reveal easy access to the RAM, hard disk drive, speaker and the main cooling fan. This makes replacing internal components very indeed.

    I replaced the standard 500GB 7200 RPM HDD with a 1TB Seagate SSHD. Opening up the laptop to replace the hard drive (or RAM) does not void the warranty which is great. To replace the hard drive, you simply one screw holding the caddy in place, lift the drive out, put the new drive in the caddy and reinstall.

    Whilst this was a very simple procedure compared to many other laptops where removing the keyboard and even the screen are sometimes necessary to replace the hard drive, I was not the biggest fan of the plastic caddy which the hard drive sits in. In order to take the drive out you must bend one side of the caddy to pop the drive out. I was scared I was going to snap the caddy and break it. However, it’s great that the caddy is screwless and you only need to remove 5 screws in total to replace the HDD – 4 of those are to secure the cover on the bottom of the machine.

    Adding extra RAM DIMMs looks easy enough too. There are two bays, one on top of the other. You can have a maximum of 16GB of RAM in this laptop, populated by 2x8GB DIMMs. I ordered my L540 with one 8GB DIMM and it was installed in the top bay, so to install a second DIMM I may need to remove the present DIMM so I can easily access both bays. The procedure to installing the RAM is the same as other laptops.

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    I can’t speak for replacing the keyboard or the screen or the DVD drive, but I’m sure it is not that difficult. The L540 is an easy machine to disassemble and the user manual should be sufficient enough to explain how to carry out these procedures.


    Keyboard and UltraNav

    This is definitely a ‘hot topic’ and one of the biggest changes Lenovo has made to the Haswell ThinkPads along with changing the colour of the laptop itself (slightly).

    I’ll begin with talking about the keyboard. It’s been about 4 years since I last owned a ThinkPad (an A31) and that of course had the classic 7 row keyboard which most ThinkPad enthusiasts loved.

    I must say that the keyboard on the L540 is indeed very good.

    Many laptops now have Chiclet style keyboards and I will leave you to make your own up about whether you generally like them or not, but the keyboard on the L540 is definitely the best Chiclet keyboard I’ve ever used.

    I’ve used all kinds of laptops with Chiclet keyboards now, ranging from cheap Toshibas to expensive HPs and Dells to mid-priced ‘generic brand’ Novatech laptops and nothing quite touches the keyboard on the L540 in terms of comfort and travel. I’ve spent all day typing on this keyboard now (and I am typing this review on the L540) and my fingers are not aching at all. What’s more, my typing speed on the speed is about the same as my typing speed on my desktop keyboard. Usually I type quite slowly on laptops because I am not used to typing on them or having a smaller keyboard than my desktop keyboard, but on the L540 I am able to quite quickly and accurately.

    I do like how Lenovo have optimised this keyboard for Windows 8 by adding buttons which take you straight to the All Apps screen on Windows 8 (F12) and a button which takes you directly to the Settings menu on Windows 8 (F9). These are really handy. What is slightly annoying though is that every time I want to refresh a webpage, I hit F5 and then the screen gets dimmer because that is the button to decrease the screen brightness. I therefore have to press Fn+F5 to refresh the page which is the downside of these hotkeys.

    The Fn button is also right next to the Ctrl button which is irritating at the moment because I keep hitting Fn instead of Ctrl, but I will get used to this as time goes on. I also find the location of the Print Screen button a little odd, with it being down by Alt Gr and Ctrl and next to the arrow keys, but maybe it’s just me not being used to a laptop keyboard.

    The addition of a number pad with a dedicated calculator button on the new 15” models (including the L540) is a nice touch – makes using the calculator easier. It’s not only Lenovo who is doing this, most manufacturers are adding number pads to their 15” models now.

    One thing I really wish this keyboard did have though are status indicators. A Caps Lock indicator in particular would be really nice. To compensate for this, there is a piece of software you can download and install called ‘On Screen Display’ (which comes preinstalled too) which puts a little icon on the screen when you have pressed a key such as the Caps Lock or the Fn button. This is OK, but not as good as a status indicator (and more annoying).

    It’s also a good job that the world doesn’t rely on biometrics because if it did you’d never be able to log into this laptop. The £3.60 optional fingerprint reader can be a bit temperamental. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. How else can I put it? It doesn’t matter if you enrol your fingers with the Lenovo Fingerprint Manager or with Windows (8), it’s still a bit ‘hit and miss’. So don’t rely on it! Thank goodness the option to sign in with a password is still here!

    In all in, my personal opinion is that the keyboard on the L540 is probably the best I have used on a laptop for a long time despite the lack of status indicators and the temperamental fingerprint reader. I must admit that I am not the biggest fan of Chiclet keyboards, but this one is certainly very good and definitely the best one I have used so far.

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    Now for the UltraNav, again, another hot topic for discussion.

    The classic red TrackPoint is still present on the L540 and because this model has a number pad it is not dead-centred in the middle of the keyboard, but rather positioned dead-centred above the spacebar. Don’t worry though, not having it in the centre of the keyboard is fine – it’s still perfectly easy to use.

    The TrackPad itself is now one giant key with 5 different buttons underneath it – 3 for the TrackPoint and two for the touchpad. Many manufacturers are now using these ‘clickpads’ rather than touchpads on their laptops and for the most part I don’t like them too much.

    However, using the TrackPoint with the new integrated buttons is fine. The TrackPoint is still precise and accurate to use and hitting the left and right mouse buttons is still easy though perhaps not quite as easy as dedicated buttons on older models were. It is still comfortable to use, though I did find because I hadn’t used one in about 4 years, after a day of using it the tip of my right index finger was a bit sore, but now I am fine with using it for long periods of time.

    Scrolling with the TrackPoint is a little more difficult since it is easy for your finger to slip off the middle button whilst scrolling but it is manageable and I have been getting better at it. You can always use the 'two finger' gesture to scroll which is more comfortable anyway.

    I am a TrackPoint user, not a TrackPad user, but for those who like the touchpad the surface of it feels a lot better than other laptops I’ve used but if you don’t like clickpads and you only intend to use the TrackPad and never touch the TrackPoint then the L540 is not for you unless you plan to use it with a mouse (and this is why I bought a ThinkPad with a TrackPoint and not something else).

    The touchpad on the L540 is however nice and large which makes it ideal for Windows 8 mouse gestures - which is why Lenovo did away with the dedicated buttons in the first place.

    If you want to only use a touchpad and still want dedicated buttons, look at something like an HP ProBook instead since they still have dedicated buttons on their touchpads (but most of them don’t have pointing sticks).

    However, if you are intending on using the TrackPoint, I would not let the new button design put you off buying a newer ThinkPad. It may take a while to get used to if you are used to having buttons, but you will get used to it.


    Display and webcam

    My L540 has the 1080p TN LED display.

    By default, the display on the L540 comes set to the 1080p resolution, but scaled up in DPI to 125% or 150%. Scaled up, the display is not very sharp towards the top of the screen so just be aware of that if you plan to buy the L540 with a 1080p display but want to scale it up.

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    I have the scaling set to 100% and yes, the text is small, but the real estate is very nice indeed on this 15.6” display. I can comfortably have two applications open side by side which is very useful indeed.

    I’m only 16, so my eyes are still OK (although I do wear glasses for long distances because I am short-sighted), but my 46 year old father who wears glasses permanently didn’t really like the 1080p resolution on this screen because everything was too small for him and scaling it up defeats the point of having 1080p in the first place and it makes the display look fuzzy.

    I would probably recommend trying out a 1080p 15” laptop out in person before going and buying one, but if you have weak eyesight or like things to look bigger I would probably recommending sticking with the 1366x768 option. It is a shame that no 1600x900 option is available for the L540 because that may be a good ‘sweet spot’ for a lot of people.

    Whilst the real estate is great and it’s good for programming because I can see a lot of lines of code at once and it is also good for photography because it's quite sharp, I do sometimes find reading long PDFs quite challenging because the text is very small when the document is scaled to about 75% so that one page fits on the screen. This is the really the only thing I’ve found difficult to do with the 1080p display, but I don’t think I’d want a resolution higher than 1920x1080 on a 15” display.

    The colours on the display by default aren’t the best. Not very saturated and the gamma is too high for my liking, but I went into the Intel HD Graphics Control Panel and adjusted everything to suit how I like it and now colours look a lot better. I’ve included some screenshots of the changes I’ve made here and here. For photo editing in Lightroom, this display is now good enough for me with the colour tweaks I have made.

    The viewing angles aren’t fantastic, but then again this is not an IPS display. The display is good to look at head on but if you don’t look at it head on the colours begin to get washed out. It’s not a big deal to me but for some it might be. If it is a problem for you, get the T540p with the 3K IPS display or an X240 with an IPS display, or look at another laptop.

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    The webcam on the L540 is a £12 option and for £12 you may as well take it – even though it’s not very good at all.

    It’s 720p and is probably fine for Skype and things like that but it’s certainly not ‘low-light sensitive’ as Lenovo advertise on their site and I doubt it will give you ‘superior web conferencing’. The picture quality is certainly nowhere as clear as the picture they show on their site, but I wasn’t expecting that anyway.

    In low-light, the webcam actually goes to black and white and is extremely grainy – so it’s certainly not low-light sensitive at all.

    It’s also grainy in the daylight and doesn’t react well to bright light either. Sit in front of a window and take a photo with the webcam and you get a white face, like below:

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    However, sit in a room which isn’t too bright or too dark and the picture quality becomes acceptable for a £12 webcam:

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    There is also a massive lack of detail in any of the pictures it takes, but what do you expect? The picture files themselves are 1280x720 and are only about 100KB each. This is not a D-SLR, after all.

    As you would expect, with mediocre picture quality also comes mediocre video quality. The webcam records video in 1280x720 at 30fps and saves in MP4 format when used with the Windows 8.1 Camera App. A typical 30 second video taken with this camera is about 30MB in size.

    You can see a 720p sample video below (and yes, this is me!)

    [ut]atlFmStxA24[/ut]

    However, whilst the video quality isn’t fantastic, the microphone quality isn’t bad at all. As you can hear from the video, there is little background noise and my voice is relatively clear and not too muffled.

    So, whilst the webcam isn’t great by any means, for £12 you may as well get it. It’s not as good as the Logitech C270 I have on my desktop and was about £20 and also records in 720p and nor is it as good as the Microsoft LifeCam HD 3000 which I bought for my brother, but at least by buying the integrated camera you get the added bonus of convenience.


    Included software

    Compared to other laptop manufacturers, Lenovo doesn’t install too much bloatware on their ThinkPads. This may be because the ThinkPad line is intended for business use who do not want all the fancy ‘lifestyle’ software or want to spend time removing all the bloat. And they pay more for their laptops.

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    Be aware that the L540 came installed with Windows 8 and not Windows 8.1, so you will need to upgrade to Windows 8.1 yourself via the Windows Store after having installed a couple of updates onto Windows 8. By a ‘couple of updates’, I actually mean 92. It’s about time Lenovo started shipping these machines with 8.1 (and they’re not the only manufacturers who need to start shipping 8.1 on their business systems – Dell does too!)

    The default desktop is clean with no icons littering the desktop which was great to see. You can see Pokki and the Lenovo Solution Centre have their own little taskbar menus which can be disabled.

    A screenshot of all of the installed software can be viewed above.

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    I kept all the Lenovo software just in case I needed to use it for any reason, but I disabled it all from starting up when Windows boots.

    The inclusion of PowerDVD 10 is nice, however as said earlier this version of PowerDVD is now several versions and is likely the oldest one which works on Windows 8. It does however mean that you can watch DVDs right out of the box which is excellent.

    To conclude, nothing particularly special is included, apart from maybe PowerDVD 10, but most of this stuff you’re going to get rid of anyway.


    Performance

    Obviously I replaced the stock HDD with a Seagate SSHD and so my performance now may be a little bit difference to the performance you’ll get out of the box, but I’ve written all about the Seagate SSHD later on.

    It’s nice to see that Lenovo ships these systems with a 7200 RPM HDD, typically manufacturers ship them with 5400 RPM HDDs (and yes, I know my SSHD is 5400 RPM). The transfer speeds on the 500GB 7200 RPM HDD are very good indeed for a hard drive. You can expect around 122MB/s read speeds and around 117MB/s write speeds which are not mediocre by any standards for a hard drive. Of course, compared to an SSD, they are slow, but that’s a whole different story.

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    The Intel Core i5 4200M in this system is stock clocked to 2.5GHz but will safely overclock itself to 3.1GHz with ‘Turbo Boost’ if it needs to. It has 3MB of L3 cache and is a dual core with Hyper-Threading, so it has 4 threads. It is a Haswell CPU which at the time of writing is the latest generation of Intel CPU and it runs on the 22nm process, first introduced with Ivy Bridge.

    The performance is good. I have tested this CPU with Black Hole from our resident programmer and 'benchmarker', SmileMan!

    With everything at stock, the i5 4200M scores 7,528.

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    How does this compare with other CPUs?

    It is slightly slower than the i3 3220 at stock which is a desktop CPU (also a dual-core with HT). The 3320 scores 8,424, but the i5 4200M is faster than a Core 2 Quad Q8300 at stock (a quad-core with no HT) which scores 7,332.

    It thrashes a Pentium Dual-Core E5300 at stock (a dual-core with no HT) which scored 5,002 but it is of course a lot slower than an i5 2500K overclocked to 4.3GHz which scored 11,828 and of course it is also slower than an i7 3770 at stock which scored 14,244.

    So, what can we conclude? Basically the i5 4200M is (as expected) slower than its desktop counterparts (the i3 3220 being the closest desktop CPU I have to the 4200M), but it is faster than a mid-range quad-core that came out about 5 or 6 years ago.

    The i5 4200M is also noticeably quicker than its power-saving counterpart which you will find in the T440 and T440s (and also likely the X1 Carbon): the i5 4200U. I do not own a machine with a 4200U, but Computer Forum member Denther does and he confirmed that the 4200U scores 6,084. The 4200M is well above 1,000 points ahead of the 4200U.

    The CPU does not feel sluggish at all and it is quick enough to get tasks done. It’s an excellent CPU for business use, definitely. It’s even half decent for photo editing. Adobe Photoshop CS5.1 Extended does not run too slowly on this machine and processing 24 megapixel RAW images from my Nikon D3200 with Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 5.4 is also relatively quick. I don’t know if I’d want to encode a video on this setup, however.

    Idle temperatures are quite low, usually being around 34-39C. The laptop is comfortable to use for long periods of time when the CPU is at these temperatures and the case does not get too hot at all.

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    To stress the CPU, I ran Black Hole and at 100% load the temperature was exceeding 60C. The highest I saw it was 63C. This is still about 40C below the i5 4200M’s maximum operating temperature, but I wouldn’t want to run the CPU at this temperature for too long.

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    It does go to show that the cooling system on the L540 does work quite well since the temperatures are not too bad at all.

    The i5 4200M is an £80 upgrade from the stock i3 4000M and I would probably say that it’s worth it.

    Although Lenovo say that the L-series can be configured with NVIDIA graphics, that’s certainly not true for the UK versions. The only graphics option you have on the L540 is the integrated graphics on the CPU. The i5 4200M brings Intel HD 4600 graphics with it.

    These graphics are fine for business use, but if you are a gamer then sorry, the L540 with integrated HD 4600 graphics is not for you. I don’t think gamers are the sort who buy ThinkPads anyway. Consider a gaming laptop or (better) a gaming desktop instead.

    There isn’t really any point running the HD 4600 through any graphics benchmarks since it's going to fare quite poorly, but for general usage it's fine.

    It's even OK for things like Photoshop but it doesn't perform brilliantly in it - sometimes adding contrast to photos and adjusting exposure can be a little 'choppy', likely down to the low performance GPU.

    The drivers do appear to be stable which is good, Intel has had some problems in the past with COM Surrogate crashing on integrated graphics.

    To conclude, the laptop performs nicely, certainly well enough for my needs.


    Battery life

    The battery life with the standard 6 cell 57++ battery is not bad at all. With some tweaks to the screen adjustment in Windows and sticking the laptop on Power Saver when on battery, I can usually use it for about 5-6 hours on battery with no problem with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth turned on and doing basic things such as browsing the web or looking at Office documents such as PowerPoint presentations.

    Installing software usually eats the battery life a little as does doing CPU heavy tasks, but for the most part a 5-6 hour battery life is quite impressive.

    The 57++ battery is something like a £9 upgrade from the 48++ battery and is worth the extra money. I do notice however that the T540p comes with the option to have the 9 cell 100++ battery as a £15 option. This battery is compatible with the L540 too, but sadly Lenovo do not include it as an option with the L540. It has to be purchased separately for around £112 directly from Lenovo’s website or you can get it for about £90 from other UK retailers.

    However, whilst the 9 cell 100++ battery is big and would stick out of the back of the machine, the nice thing about the 6 cell 57++ battery is that it fits flush with the case and does not stick out of the back (but is slightly bulbous underneath). This does make the laptop look better.

    I have no idea how long it takes to charge the battery because unfortunately Lenovo ‘forgot’ to include a battery charge status indicator. The lack of status indicators on this laptop in general is irritating but the omission of a battery charge indicator is particularly irritating.

    When you plug the laptop into AC power the little red LED in the ‘i’ of ThinkPad on the lid pulses a few times, and so you know it’s charging – but as far as I’m aware, there is no indicator to tell you when the laptop is fully charged. That being said, I tend to charge it most nights. I would guess it takes about 3-4 hours to charge fully, but I don’t know.

    The AC adapter itself is pretty standard stuff really. The power brick is small and light and there is of course a Velcro strap on the power cable. Travelling with the adapter will be fine but what will annoy those who have old chargers laying around will be that you cannot use them with the new ThinkPads because the new ThinkPads use a different plug. They’re now rectangular rather than circular – rather like a USB plug actually. Be careful you don’t accidentally plug it into a USB port! If you just remember that it plugs into the rear of the laptop on the left hand side, you should be fine. I’m not too sure why Lenovo has done this, but there you go.

    [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]
     
    Last edited: Jun 2, 2014
  3. spirit

    spirit Moderator Staff Member

    Messages:
    17,364
    Seagate SSHD

    This SSHD is not available to buy from Lenovo with the L540 (but you can buy a 128GB SSD at an extra £110 or so), so I purchased this SSHD from Novatech for £78.

    An SSHD is a ‘Solid State Hybrid Drive’. Basically, it is a regular hard drive with spinning platters but also with a solid state cache buffer to speed Windows (or whatever OS you’re using) up. The benefit is that you can get SSD-like performance whilst still having a large amount of storage. I have the 1TB model of this SSHD, but a 2TB model is also available. They are also much more affordable. This 1TB SSHD cost £80, whereas a 512GB SSD would set you back around £200 at the time of writing.

    The drawback is that whilst the OS will boot and shut down as quickly as it does on an SSD, the performance of programs installed on the hard drive is not improved and nor are the transfer speeds because obviously they are not running in the cache buffer. SSHDs also consume more power than HDDs and SSDs, so battery life may be slightly affected.

    This particular SSHD is a 5400 RPM 1TB drive with an 8GB cache buffer.

    The 5400 RPM HDD obviously transfers files slower than the stock 7200 RPM hard drive, with reads and writes of around 100MB/s (pretty typical of 5400 RPM disks), but it is far faster to boot Windows.

    [​IMG]

    As you can see from the video and photo below, Windows can boot in about 10 seconds on this SSHD and the shut down time is only a couple of seconds. This is certainly very impressive.

    [UT]ZMe_-SqreHI[/UT]

    [​IMG]

    Program performance is like it is on a 5400 RPM disk. Programs don’t load treacherously slow but they do take longer than they would on a 7200 RPM disk or an SSD. For me though, this isn’t too big an issue since things like Microsoft Office 2013 still start quickly. It’s only really Visual Studio and the Adobe programs that I have to wait a little longer for.

    Some advice about installing Windows on an SSHD:

    Firstly, I would advise you NOT to clone Windows from a HDD to an SSHD (or an SSD). I cloned the original Lenovo Windows 8 which was on my stock HDD to my SSHD and it ran slowly. The problem was that the files weren’t being cached and so I wasn’t seeing any of the performance benefits which an SSHD brings.

    Once I did a fresh install of Windows 8.1 Pro, everything was so much faster. So I would advise you to do a clean install.

    Then once you have got Windows all setup and everything you want installed, do some reboots to make the SSHD firmware ‘learn’ which files to cache to increase Windows boot and shut down speed.

    I have an OCZ Vertex 4 SSD in my desktop (and have used many other SSDs including the Crucial M4 and the SanDisk Extreme drives) and this SSHD is booting and shutting down Windows 8.1 just as fast as those SSDs, if not faster!

    I did about 10 shut downs and start ups and that seemed to do it. When I first installed Windows it was taking maybe 30-40 seconds to boot. After 10 shut downs and start-ups, it was reduced to about 10 seconds, which is very much like SSD performance!

    I was quite disappointed with the SSHD to begin with, but after doing that fresh install of 8.1 Pro, I am now so much happier with it. I was going to sell it and buy a 500GB SSD, but I think I’ll hang onto the SSHD now and save my money.

    I would highly recommend it if like me you want a lot of storage, but want a drive that boots Windows quickly and does not break the bank.


    Final words

    At the time of writing, I have owned my L540 for just over two weeks. In two weeks, I’ve learned a lot and have really enjoyed using it – and I think I will for a long time yet. The build quality certainly leads to me to think that this is a machine that is built to last.

    The fact is, this is, in my mind, a great laptop. Sure, the lack of status indicators and the temperamental fingerprint reader irritate me, but overall I think it’s a joy to use and I can see myself having a great time with this laptop.

    This laptop is by far the best laptop I’ve ever used or owned. The keyboard is second to none (compared to other laptops I have used) and the display is just awesome. 1080p on a 15.6” screen makes everything look tiny but the real estate is just incredible and after some minor tweaks, the colours look great too. It’s pretty quick too. But then again, for ~£1,000 (that is the value of this laptop if you exclude my massive discount), I was kind of expecting it to be something special.

    But the final question remains – is it a ThinkPad?

    Judging by general internet reception, I would not be surprised if many ThinkPad fans reading this review say ‘no’, and that’s fine – but I do hope that after reading this review you have an insight as to exactly what the new ThinkPads are like. And I do also hope you see it’s not all ‘doom and gloom’.

    This review has come from an L540 user who has no bias. This is an honest review. If something about this laptop is bad, I’ve said it.

    [​IMG] [​IMG]

    - JASON BROWN, MAY 24, 2014.
     
    Last edited: Jun 2, 2014
  4. Virssagòn

    Virssagòn VIP Member

    Messages:
    3,316
    Great and detailed review you got there Jason! The only thing I need to mention is that the webcam and mic test video doesn't work.
     
  5. spirit

    spirit Moderator Staff Member

    Messages:
    17,364
    Thanks Rob. Problem sorted, hopefully. :good:
     
    Last edited: Jun 2, 2014
  6. spirit

    spirit Moderator Staff Member

    Messages:
    17,364
    Update - L540 Outside

    Again, click on the photos to see full res versions on Flickr!

    So I used the laptop outside today for a few hours this morning to revise for an exam I had at school this afternoon since the weather was so nice.

    The first thing I'll say is that I'm still impressed by the battery - I was using it outside today for about 3-4 hours with the screen brightness at the max and running an external hard drive and playing music from it whilst looking at PowerPoint presentations and browsing the web and when I had to leave for my exam it still had about 1.5 hours left on it. Not bad at all.

    Using the L540 outside is quite nice but make sure you use it in a shady area because with the chassis being made of dark grey plastic and the keyboard being black, it gets hot really quickly and almost gets hot to the touch in direct sunlight!


    Display and outdoor use

    With the display being matte it holds up pretty well outside and has no real problems with reflections or glare even in direct sunlight which is good. I did however have to turn the screen brightness up to close to 100% in order to actually see anything clearly on the display, but with the brightness turned up I had no problems with using the display outside.

    You can see from the photos below that the screen is bright and clear enough to be read easily, even in bright sun. Clearly it was good enough because I was copying biology notes from it in preparation for my exam and I thought the exam went well, so it must've been easy to read! ;)

    [​IMG] [​IMG]


    Webcam outside

    As said earlier, the webcam in the ThinkPad L540 isn't great at the best of times. Outdoors it tends to overexpose a little but the quality is acceptable for a £12 webcam. There is still a lack of detail in the photos but that's more down to the low resolution of the camera and files more than the conditions.

    To demonstrate outdoor picture quality in bright sunlight, here's a really cheesy picture of me:

    [​IMG]

    I also recorded an outdoor video which you can watch below. Video quality is also slightly overexposed but I was impressed at how the microphone adapted to being outside - you can barely hear the wind noise or general outdoor ambience at all:

    [ut]-giEpQsGMV4[/ut]

    The L540 is not bad at all to use outdoors - but do be aware that the chassis gets hot quickly in bright conditions.


    Fingerprint Reader

    It's still being very temperamental and sometimes it isn't recognised by Windows or the Lenovo Fingerprint Manager now. I'm not sure what's up with it - sometimes it is detected, sometimes it isn't. Doing a reboot usually sorts the problem but it's not a big deal to me since I don't rely on it too much especially considering when it is detected, it usually doesn't work anyway. ;)

    The fingerprint reader is more of a 'novelty' and something cool to show off to friends to me than a security feature. :)
     
    Last edited: Jun 6, 2014
  7. spirit

    spirit Moderator Staff Member

    Messages:
    17,364
    Update - 6 months on!

    I sent this review to a friend of mine who wants to buy a Lenovo laptop and re-reading it I noticed that this is now a little bit out of date, so I thought I'd update it.


    Replacing the SSHD with an SSD

    I 'ummed and arred' about keeping the SSHD for a while. At the end of the day it booted Windows quickly but I quickly began to get annoyed with the fact that whilst Windows was booting in 10 seconds, the rest of the system was running as it would with a 5400 RPM disk. Eventually choppiness in Photoshop and general slowness made me go and buy an SSD.

    I bought a Samsung 840 EVO 250GB for £90 in July (2.5 months after I bought the ThinkPad and SSHD) and haven't looked back since. I've used a fair few SSDs now and the 840 EVO is the fastest one I've used, second only to Samsung's own 850 Pro which I used recently for a custom-built HTPC (you can read all about that here: http://www.computerforum.com/231357-jasons-htpc-build-log.html). Sequential read and write speeds are around 500MB/s, making the SSD around 5 times faster than the SSHD.

    [​IMG]

    Was the SSD worthwhile? When is an SSD ever not worthwhile? So I now have 250GB of storage rather than 1TB, but I turned that SSHD into a 1TB external HDD (replacing the 500GB drive the laptop originally came with as my external disk) and I save all of my work into the cloud anyway, so I'm not fussed.

    Applications such as Photoshop which were choppy on the SSHD now work perfectly, but to be fair I did upgrade from CS5.5 to CC 2014 when I bought the SSD and of course CC 2014 runs much better than CS5.5 and has much support for Intel graphics anyway so that may have also helped.

    The system just feels a lot snappier. I didn't notice an improvement in battery life, reduced temperature or reduced weight though, but when dealing with a laptop that weighs 2.5KG I probably wasn't going to notice this anyway.


    Using the laptop in school

    So the whole reason for buying this laptop for use in school for programming and Adobe suite. When I wrote the review in May I was not using the laptop in school - I have only been using it in school since September.

    Using the L540 in school has its ups and downs.

    The benefits:

    It's just going to be easiest to list, I think:

    - It's fairly unique, so I know which laptop is mine. Seriously, everybody in my classes have MacBooks. My ThinkPad stands out! :)

    - I have impressed a number of people by bending the screen back 180 degrees and logging in with the fingerprint scanner. :p

    - Real reason number 1 is that the laptop is comfortable to work on. Yes, it is big, but the keyboard is extremely comfortable to type on which is good for writing long programs. The screen is also ideal for programming being 1080p and I can also comfortably have two windows side by side thanks again to the 1080p 15.6" LCD, increasing productivity.

    - The machine is powerful. It runs Adobe suite perfectly with its SSD. I've not had any performance issues on it but I have maxed the RAM out at 8GB on several occasions where I've had InDesign, Photoshop, Lightroom and several other applications open at once.

    - I haven't spilled anything on it or dropped it or done anything like that yet, but the laptop feels sturdy and robust so it gives me that reassurance that if anything were to happen to it (general school accidents etc), it would be OK.

    The drawbacks:

    - The weight. 2.5KG may not seem like a lot on its own, but unfortunately I also have to cart heavy textbooks to school which alone probably weigh a couple of kilograms. Add the laptop to that and my school bag is very heavy. But it gives my shoulders a good workout! ;)

    - The thickness. Originally when I took it out of the box I was surprised - it was thinner than expected. But again, taking it to school everyday, the thickness shows! Sometimes it's hard to get stuff to fit in my bag because of the thickness of the laptop. The annoying thing is that most of this thickness is the DVD drive that I never really use.

    - The battery. It's not bad, and considering I'm doing stuff like Photoshop on battery I can't really complain, but I can't make it through a whole day on a single charge. My school days are typically 8am - 4pm and usually I end up charging the battery in my free lessons, which isn't a bad thing, but it just means sometimes I have to take the A/C adapter to school (but I usually leave it there during the week and bring it home at weekends).

    - The size. It's a big laptop. I find it's fine for use in programming and art lessons where I'm in IT suites anyway, but for note taking in geography and economics lessons where I'm in normal classrooms it takes up a lot of desk space. So I use my Surface RT instead in those lessons.

    Overall thoughts about the L540 in school

    Yes, it's big and heavy and a bit bulky but on the whole it's not bad. It's powerful and at the end of the day that's what I need for the work I do. At least I can use the Surface for note taking in lessons where I feel the L540 is a bit bulky.


    Future Plans

    I don't think I'll be upgrading any more hardware in this. I was thinking about upgrading to 16GB RAM but I think I'll hold this upgrade off.

    I think I'll be upgrading to Windows 10 once I can get my hands on Windows 10 when it comes out next year. Since October 1st I've been running the Windows 10 Technical Preview on this (Builds 9841, 9860 and 9879) and the OS has run well on the machine - very much like 8.1 which is the OS the laptop was designed for.

    Today I was told by IT managers at school that (in short) I would be getting paid for work starting in 2015 and if we made enough money they'd buy me a Surface Pro 3. This would probably replace my ThinkPad L540 if I was lucky to be bought a Surface Pro 3 (but I am not banking on it!) I would probably keep the ThinkPad though.


    Final thoughts. What would I do again?

    If I could buy my laptop again I would probably aim for an ultrabook instead such as a T440s or an X1 Carbon. The reason I didn't buy one of those was that I couldn't afford one in May, but I didn't need this laptop until September so I could have waited. But with that being said I don't the L540 was a bad decision and I still like this notebook and use it everyday and it is very reliable and dependable, if heavy and big.

    I would definitely buy another ThinkPad.
     

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