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.
This review has been broken down into several sections to make reading easier:
Previous ThinkPad experience
Why did I choose to buy the L540?
Order and shipping experience
Unboxing and first impressions
Build quality and connectivity
Upgradability and disassembly
Keyboard and UltraNav
Display and webcam
Performance and battery life
Any further updates after original date of posting this review
Previous ThinkPad experience
Yes, I have used and owned several ThinkPads which were manufactured before Lenovo changed the keyboard style in 2012 and also before they changed the TrackPad and TrackPoint design in 2013. In fact, I have never used or owned a Lenovo ThinkPad before or even seen one in person before my L540 arrived since ThinkPads (and Lenovo machines in general!) aren’t really that common in the UK where I live.
I briefly owned an old IBM ThinkPad R40 and an old IBM ThinkPad A31 from December 2009 to March 2010, both of these machines were very old and tired by the time I got them and so they didn’t last long before they both died.
I have memories of using them, especially the A31, but it has been over 4 years since I last set my eyes upon a ThinkPad. The R40 and the A31 are the only two laptops I have owned prior to the L540.
Why did I choose to buy the L540?
I was interested in owning a ThinkPad again, mainly for things such as the build quality and I really wanted to have a laptop with a TrackPoint since I am not a big fan of touchpads in general. This meant buying a business-class laptop, since most consumer laptops do not come with TrackPoints, and therefore the ThinkPad line was a good option. Unlike most people, I didn’t really care about the new keyboard on the 2013 ThinkPads and I also didn’t care too much about having a ‘ClickPad’ as opposed to a ‘TrackPad’ but I think this is because I realised that just about every laptop out there now has a Chiclet keyboard and ClickPads.
As many of you are probably aware, I ‘chopped and changed’ my mind a lot and after looking at a whole variety of ThinkPads, from a brand new L430/440 to a T540p to a used T430 or W510, I eventually settled for the L540 for several reasons:
1 – When I ordered the laptop there was a good 15% discount on it which meant I saved about £100 right away. This meant that an L540 with similar specs to a T540p cost about £200-250 less. The value was there!
2 – I wanted a 1080p display and the only other ThinkPad I was looking at which had a 1080p display was the T540p. The T440p was too expensive for me.
3 – After doing some research, I concluded that whilst the T-series offers features such as hot-swap batteries (though only the T440, T440 Touch and T440s), backlit keyboards and dedicated GPUs, I didn’t really need any of that and I wasn’t going to get any of it with the T540p anyway (since just about everything is an option and a T540p with all of that would cost well over £1,000). Therefore, the L-series, with very similar specs and good build quality made more sense for me. Those who require the ‘ultimate’ ThinkPad will of course remain loyal to the T, W and X-series.
The L540 seems powerful enough for my needs, which is photo editing, web design and programming primarily and of course the odd light task such as emails and web browsing.
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.
The laptop itself was in a plastic sleeve and was held tightly in place by two Styrofoam pieces. Open 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.
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. I plugged the laptop into AC power and in Windows it was reporting that the battery was fully charged, which was nice.
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.
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 especially considering that at the time of writing this review, 8.1 has been out for about 6 months now and other Lenovo machines are shipping with 8.1.
I quickly played some music using the internal speakers and soon realised that the internal speakers are quite tinny – definitely not the best. They are fine for Windows sounds of course, but not the best for music. I tried using headphones with the laptop and the sound quality was much improved, but I felt that it was lacking in low basses a little bit. I wasn’t expecting amazing speakers anyway, so I wasn’t disappointed at all.
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.
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.
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.
Moving to the right side of the laptop there is another USB 2.0 port, a DVD-RW drive, another USB 2.0 port and finally a 3.5mm headphone or speaker (line out) port.
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.
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 open. 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.
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.
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’m not talking from a ‘ThinkPad lover’ point of view, I’m talking from a personal point of view and 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 on a laptop.
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. In my opinion, the keyboard is therefore good.
I am fully aware that those who favour the old 7 row layout and dislike the Chiclet keyboard are going to hate me for praising this keyboard, but compared to other Chiclet keyboards this is the best I’ve used. To me, the number of rows on kind of irrelevant anyway, but I understand that some ThinkPad ‘diehards’ are weeping over the new 6 row keyboards. It’s been such a long time since I’ve used the 7 row layout that missing a row makes no difference to me at all, but if you’ve only been 7 rows for years and years then I understand, this may frustrate you.
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).
However, I see it’s not only Lenovo who have been doing away with status indicators, Toshiba is also doing it too. My father has just bought a 15” Toshiba and it also does not have status indicators.
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.
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. I remember using the A31 which of course had dedicated buttons and there isn’t really too much difference. 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. 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.
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).
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. And no, I have not been paid by Lenovo to say this, these are just my personal opinions.
Display and webcam
My L540 has the 1080p TN LED display. I have a glossy LED display on my desktop and whilst the colours do pop a lot more, I don’t really like the reflections too much.
By default, the display on the L540 comes set to the 1080p resolution, but scaled up in DPI to 125% or 150% (can’t remember which now). 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.
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.
However, the resolution is so large on a screen of this size that everything does look quite small. 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.
I, for one, really like the 1080p resolution on this laptop. The real estate is great and it’s good for programming because I can see a lot of lines of code at once. It’s also good for photography because it’s quite sharp. However, it must be noted that I don’t like 1366x768 because it makes everything look too big for my liking and for me at least, it doesn’t provide enough real estate. I feel that the upgrade to 1080p was definitely worth the £57 extra.
Whilst I find that for most things the high resolution is nice, 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.
I would say that generally laptop displays are not terribly good, but the 1080p display on the L540 is quite nice and I do really like the 1080p resolution. Going back to my 24” 1080p monitor, everything looks so huge on that by comparison.
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:
However, sit in a room which isn’t too bright or too dark and the picture quality becomes acceptable for a £12 webcam:
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 DSLR, 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 video taken in bright light and one taken in darker light here.
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.
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.
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 in the screenshots below, but I uninstalled most of Metro apps which Lenovo preinstall (apart from Skype, Support, Settings and PowerDVD Mobile) and I also removed some of the other stuff such as Norton and Nitro Pro, as well as Pokki and the Microsoft Office trial.
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 and battery life
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.
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 a benchmark a Belgium friend and I made called Black Hole which is now relatively widely recognised and used as a CPU benchmarking platform and is even hosted by people like Guru3D and Softpedia.
With everything at stock, the i5 4200M scores 7,528.
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 not HT) which scores 7,332.
It thrashes a Pentium Dual-Core E5300 at stock (a dual-core with not 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 a friend of mine does and he confirmed that the 4200U scores 6,084. The 4200M is well above 1,000 points ahead of the 4200U.
My father has an i3 3110M in his Toshiba which I will try.
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 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.
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.
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 the 4200M is likely not a whole lot faster than the i3 4000M, £80 isn’t a lot and is probably worth spending for the extra clock speed.
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 than sorry, the L540 with integrated HD 4600 graphics are 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 graphics through any graphics benchmark since they are going to fare quite poorly, but for general usage they are fine.
They’re even fine for things like Photoshop. Not really got any problems with using Photoshop and the Intel graphics, though I tend to do most of my Photoshop work on my desktop which has an ATI HD 5870 in it. Although the HD 5870 doesn’t have CUDA, so CS5.1 can’t make use of it, it probably does help a little.
The drivers do appear to be stable which is good. I used the Intel HD 3000 graphics on my i5 2500K for a little while before I got my 5870 and I used to have a lot of COM Surrogate crashes when browsing through photos. I don’t tend to get this on the L540, though it has come up a few times. Not nearly as much as it did on my 2500K though.
To conclude, the laptop performs nicely, certainly well enough for my needs.
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 read 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 considering this is a relatively powerful laptop and the SSHD does consume a little more power than the stock HDD does.
Whilst the runtime is pretty good, it is about half of what Lenovo advertise on their website. They advertise up to 11 hours but I have no idea what settings they are using. They probably had the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth turned off and ‘up to’ 11 hours would suggest that you cannot expect to get anything more than 11 hours out of the 57++ battery. Which is fair enough.
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 put it on charge when I go to bed about 10.00pm and when I wake up about 7.00am each morning it has charged fully. 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.
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 it from a UK retailer for about £80 or so.
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 transfer 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.
As you can see from this video and from the 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.
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.
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 and notably on this forum, I would not be surprised if many of you 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. I don’t really have much more to say other than answer my own question…
…and whilst some may argue I may not the best person to answer it, since I’ve not owned one prior to this in 4 years, I would argue that ‘yes, this is a ThinkPad.’
- JASON BROWN, MAY 24, 2014.
Moderator edit: changed pictures to links.
Read the Forum Rules:
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It says: a photograph, NOT 50-plus photographs!
For that we have a dedicated Pictures Forum!
Past: Lenovo ThinkPad L540 | IBM ThinkPad A31, R40
Past: Lenovo ThinkPad L540 | IBM ThinkPad A31, R40
I just bought a L540 after seeing your review. Can you kindly tell me what screw driver you used to remove the screw that secures the hard disk drive?
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It's a small Phillips #1 (a.k.a. PH1) screwdriver, overall length 6":
http://www.acehardware.com/product/inde ... d=53089746
I'm sure the UK will sell you a similar screwdriver.
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Thank you very much.
That was great.
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