Lenovo Thinkpad S431: A Web Developer’s Review

I’ve been a Thinkpad user for many years now. I love my mid-2000s T60 with an irrational passion. So much so that, when I cracked the case a couple of years ago, I hit up eBay for an identical replacement rather than try something new. (I’m pretty confident that at least some Thinkpad owners will be nodding in understanding right now.)

Despite being a very serviceable laptop, my return to freelance work confronted me with the fact that the old T60 really doesn’t have enough horsepower to serve as a modern web development machine. My work requires being able to run a full web server and database stack for local testing, an IDE (although I prefer the very light-weight Geany), and a variety of virtual machines for cross-browser and cross-OS testing. I also wanted to able to fire up GIMP or Dia without worrying about how many browser tabs I had open.

During my sojourn in 9-5 work, I had been issued a T430, and it demonstated that Lenovo was still making solid, well-built machines. So I headed directly to the Lenovo Canada site to do some shopping.

The T series is still the king of the Thinkpad lineup for most business and development purposes. The T440s should really have been my obvious choice. It has a 4th gen Haswell processor, can be customized to within an inch of its life, and can be ordered with specs far superior to many other models.

But when it came down to it, I quailed at the thought of buying yet another plastic-y brick. I appreciate that Thinkpads are reliably what they are, but I suddenly discovered that I wanted a machine that was a pleasure to use aesthetically as well as technically.

And so I was delighted to come across the S431, an ultrabook that takes the features of the T-series Thinkpads and wraps them in a sleeker, more stylish chassis. Admittedly it’s not the most powerful machine out there (it was only available with i3 and i5 processors when I ordered, though I have seen i7 machines listed [for a lot more $$] out in the wild). Nor, compared to some of its flashy competitors, is it really all that eye-catching. But it has a very nice aluminum body, pleasantly rounded case edges, and a cutaway floating look that I very much like. It was also about 30% less expensive than a similarly spec-ed out T440s, which was also a consideration.

The specs on the machine I ordered:

Processor: Intel i5-3337U CPU @ 1.80GHz (with hyperthreading: simulating 4 cores)
Memory: 4GB PC3-12800 DDR3L
HDD: 128GB Solid State Drive SATA3
Screen: 14” WHD+ (1600x900)
Battery: 4 cell Li
OS: Windows 7 Home Premium 64

It cost about $900 CAD. And the first thing I did when it arrived was to replace that 4GB DIMM with 8GB of RAM. So, finally I spent a thousand bucks Canadian.

What did I get?

Overall Look and feel

In terms of ergonomics and build quality, I find the S431 thoroughly pleasurable to use. It feels like a more refined machine than the T430. The lid opens effortlessly wth one hand, whereas I always struggled with the T430. And it fits into the 13” macbook / ultrabook form factor but types and performs like a proper laptop.

The case and keyboard are very pleasing. It is a much smaller machine than the T430 or the T60, and I find it much more portable. Obviously it’s not an ultra-portable or ultra-thin machine by cutting-edge standards, but it’s a lot more svelte than traditional Thinkpads, and it has a quite frankly reassuring heft that reminds me this is a very robust machine for how casually I can carry it around.

The S431 runs all but silently, and has yet to be noticeably warm to the touch. The SSD no doubt has something to do with that, but it also clearly has more than enough horsepower to do everything I need to do in a normal day without kicking into overdrive.

So let’s talk about ...

Performance

I am a Linux user, so I used the installed Windows 7 just long enough to make backup and install disks before I wiped the drive to install Xubuntu. (Sidebar for my fellow Linux geeks: it’s been years since I needed KDE or Gnome, and I love how lightweight yet amazingly useful Xfce is. I got hooked when I started installing it on old hardware, and quickly realized it did everything I needed as well. I suspect using a lightweight windowing system has helped with my A+ experience using this less than A+ [for specs] machine.)

For web development, I am always running a web server (apache) and a database server(MySQL). Apache is configured with very low server limits, but I turn on a lot of caching in MySQL for performance, so it can take up a fair bit of RAM. Frankly, I didn’t really notice them when I intially used the S431 with 4GB of RAM. With 8GB, it makes a perfectly good LAMP development environment for Drupal.

I have yet to notice any lag at all opening desktop apps, which are instantly responsive. LibreOffice launches in a second or two, as does jEdit (a heavier-duty IDE than Geany). The first time I edited an image with GIMP, it opened in about seven seconds. Maybe it’s because I'm used to more sluggish machines, but this is one of the snappiest computing experiences I can remember having.

Keyboard

The keyboard is much more responsive and clicky than recent T-series chicklet keys, comparing favourably with the classic IBM keyboard on my T60. (Which, OK, OK, I still totally use sometimes. So I have used them basically one after another.)

Although the keyboard looks the same as the T4XX series, somehow in this chassis it is much more physically responsive and tactile. When I’m not coding, I'm writing, so the keyboard experience is very important to me. The S431 passes my standards with five gold stars.

Trackpad

From the looks of Internet reviews and forums, the new unified trackpad has polarized the Thinkpad community. Here goes.

It has a lot going for it, and I mostly quite like using it. The one catch -- and I suspect this is a matter of Linux support -- is that right-clicking is very finicky. My brief use of Windows 7 was smooth and uneventful in that respect.

Some people complain about the trackpad being loud when clicked, but it can be used like a traditional touchpad (with only fingertip pressure registering on the surface). Problems aside, it seems to be a control with a variety of uses that should be configurable to please most.

It’s a massive pain in the ass when doing anything complex, like image editing (and even selecting large blocks of text). So I use an external mouse or trackpad a lot of time, but am pretty satisfied with how the trackpad works most of the time.

Linux issues

Installing Xubuntu 13.10 was very straightforward, and the machine ran without incident for the first few days. There was then a kernel upgrade that may have caused a few odd problems: I suddenly had trouble remaining connected to wifi while on battery power. And Skype had a range of sound issues that proved to be mostly the fault of Skype + Ubuntu 13.x.

Wifi WTF!?

A couple of reviews suggested that the S431 suffers from poor Wifi reception. “How can that be?” I thought. Well, as it turns out, this laptop is absolutely excellent in all respects except for wireless internet. My good old T60 connects readily and easily to networks that the S431 doesn’t even notice.

Apparently this is a problem with Intel Centrino Wifi cards + drivers generally. But I went out and grabbed an ASUS N13 wifi USB adapter (very well-reviewed to work with Linux) and it had just as much trouble connecting. Crap Wifi performance is a very significant knock against an otherwise excellent machine. I’m hoping that this is a software problem that will get better in time.

My wifi reception at the office I rent downtown was already poor, so this obliged me to install a wireless repeater to boost the signal, which seems to work well enough. At home the S431 works well on the same floor as our router, but as soon as I go downstairs I see lower speeds than almost any other device in the house.

Battery life

I note that the online reviews of the S431 have been hard on its battery life. I will confess to not having done any serious testing, but can report that I consistently work full days using this computer (with the brightness turned down pretty far).

A typical day consists of several hours doing a combination of web browsing, email-checking, maintaining ssh and sshfs sessions, running Apache and MySQL, editing images in GIMP, and using Geany, Meld, git and whatnot. I probably get an easy five hours on battery, maybe more. If battery life were a huge concern of mine (it's not), then I would have for sure grabbed the T440s, which has both a permanent and a swappable battery: very cool.

OneLink Dock

Oh, and I did buy a OneLink dock for use at my office. When I am there and plugged in, it does exactly what it advertises: allows me to charge, share some USB ports, and use an external monitor with ease. I’ve paid a lot more for docking stations in the past, and the OneLink seems like excellent value for the money.

One glitch

About two weeks into my S431 ownership, one morning it simply failed to turn on. Waking up to your computer having become a very expensive and flat brick usually means either: a) that something trivial has gone wrong, or b) that the computer is totally fucked.

Fortunately there’s a Lenovo warranty service location a few bocks from my office. And even more fortunately, the culprit was a loose battery connection. Apparently the S431 routes its power through the battery circuit even when on AC, explaining its total failure to power up. I was back in business by the end of the day. (Thanks, Clear Concepts!)

Conclusion

Having used this machine for a few weeks now, I can say with some confidence that I am enjoying using it more than almost any computer I have owned, and that includes the annoying Wifi problems.

It’s a real delight to have a machine with serious development power that doesn’t look like a humourless slab of plastic. And though that might sound like a cheap shot at the Thinkpad aesthetic, it comes from an ally who’s just happy that the brand finally offers more choices than it has in the past.

Comments

steve

Follow up: after a few months of use and some routine software updates, the WIfi is now performing just fine. It's not awesome, and is still noticeably worse than the T60, but it doesn't feel fundamentally broken.

I have also been running more services, like Jetty and Solr, and continue to find the S431 responsive and pleasurable to use.

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