Lenovo’s ThinkPad T490 (starts at $846; $1,641 as tested) is a premium 14-inch notebook aimed at business buyers. A member of the company’s flagship T-series lineup, the T490 offers impressive build quality, security features, and input devices to maximize productivity. It’s reasonably priced next to its HP and Dell competition, although it’s largely overshadowed by Lenovo’s own ThinkPad T490s, a slightly thinner and lighter model with a larger battery for not much more money.
A Businessperson’s Special
The straight-edged aesthetic of the ThinkPad T490 make it a natural choice if you don’t want to stand out (or if you’re a longtime ThinkPad lover). It maintains the classic matte-black-slab styling that has become so familiar over the years…
That said, it’s a family resemblance only; next to the preceding ThinkPad T480, the new model is trimmer in every dimension. Its 13 by 8.9-inch chassis is about a quarter-inch smaller in both directions, and its 0.7-inch height is nearly a tenth of an inch thinner. Lenovo’s engineers also managed to shave off about a half-pound in weight; I weighed my WQHD-display-equipped review unit at just 3.2 pounds. The T490 can weigh up to 3.7 pounds depending on your screen choice, however, so it won’t always be lighter than the ThinkPad T480.
The ThinkPad T490 makes some compromises to achieve its smaller footprint. It no longer supports dual batteries like the T480, relying on a single 50 watt-hour internal pack. You’ll see in the benchmarks that the T490 delivers longer battery life than the T480 did when equipped with the latter’s standard dual 24 watt-hour battery setup, but that wouldn’t be the case if the T480 were equipped with one of its extended battery options. In addition, the ThinkPad T490 is left with just one accessible DIMM slot for memory expansion (the T480 had two), and it’s too thin to support a 2.5-inch storage bay, so one internal M.2 Type 2280 slot for solid-state storage is all you get. None of these compromises are surprising or inherently bad; after all, the ThinkPad T490 is more portable than the T480, and its internal components are just as powerful.
Back to looks, the ThinkPad T490 can look drab next to its aluminum-clad competition, like HP’s EliteBook lineup and the Dell Latitude 7400. When push comes to shove, however, the Lenovo gives no ground. Its chassis and lid are stiff thanks to a strong internal frame.
Reassuringly, there’s little to no flex while pressing down on its surfaces. I like how the display can be opened 180 degrees. The hinges are too stiff to allow it to be opened one-handed.
There are two USB Type-C ports along the left edge. The leftmost one is version 3.1 Gen 1, supporting power delivery, data transfer, and DisplayPort over USB-C, while the other port supports the faster Thunderbolt 3 standard…
The included USB Type-C power adapter can be connected to either port. Next to them is a docking connector that supports the ThinkPad Basic, Pro, and Ultra docking stations. There’s also a USB Type-A 3.1 Gen 1 port, an HDMI video-out connector, an audio combo jack, and a microSD card reader. I wish the new laptop had kept the full-sized SD card reader that was on the T480.
Moving to the right edge, there’s a filled-in slot where the SmartCard reader would go (absent on my review unit), a USB Type-A 3.1 Gen 1 port, an Ethernet jack, and a Kensington-style cable-lockdown notch…
The cooling exhaust vent over here can warm up your hand if you use a right-handed external mouse. The dedicated Ethernet jack is notable; it’s absent on the thinner ThinkPad T490s, which relies on an optional adapter.
There’s a nano-SIM card slot on the T490’s back edge in case you spring for the optional mobile broadband. The system comes standard with an Intel 9560AC card with 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 5.0 wireless support.
If Looks Could Kill…
The WQHD display on my ThinkPad T490 review unit is a visual stunner. This 2,560-by-1,440-pixel panel shows finer detail than a 1,920-by-1,080-pixel display (a common resolution on 14-inch screens), but it doesn’t draw as much power as a UHD or 4K (3,840-by-2,160-pixel) screen. The advertised 500-nit brightness is almost overwhelming in standard room lighting, and downright dazzling in the dark. Combined with an advertised 100 percent coverage of the Adobe color gamut, this display is perfect for photo editing. It looks oversaturated out of the box, so calibrating it for professional use is a must. The glossy screen surface provides additional clarity at the expense of showing reflections in well-lit areas. Notice the reflection of the keyboard in the screen…
Following the latest trend, the ThinkPad T490 is available with a privacy display. It also has available touch screen options, although touch isn’t available on the WQHD panel. Just avoid the entry-level screen choice, which has miserably low 1,366-by-768-pixel resolution.
As with the base display, I find it odd that the T490 is even offered without a backlit keyboard; the latter is a $25 option on configurable models. The backlit version on my review unit looks good in the dark.
My complaint about this keyboard is the same one I had with the ThinkPad L390 Yoga; the various tiny indicator LEDs, like the ones for Caps Lock and volume mute, are much brighter than the keyboard backlighting. They’re overly bright, especially in the dark. The ThinkPad T490’s keyboard delivers an otherwise excellent tactile experience. Typists are rewarded with a soft yet precise feel thanks to plenty of up-and-down travel. The keyboard also does well layout-wise, making space for an inverted-T arrow key arrangement and dedicated Home and End keys.
The keyboard’s function-lock feature (activated by pressing the Fn and Esc keys) allows you to swap the functionality of the top row between F1 through F12 or system functions such as screen brightness and volume control. The F12 key can be user-programmed via the preinstalled Lenovo Vantage app, which can also be used to switch the functions of the Fn and Ctrl keys at lower left, inverted in traditional ThinkPad style. (Pro tip: Don’t swap their functions if you plan to let someone else use the laptop, as users can get confused when the printed key functions don’t match what they do.) Consider headphones a mandatory accessory; the twin speakers above the keyboard have anemic sound and volume.
The ThinkPad tradition continues with the TrackPoint, a rubber pointing stick located at the intersection of the G, H, and B keys…
One cap is included, but you’re welcome to swap in your go-to from an older ThinkPad. The TrackPoint’s three dedicated mouse buttons under the space bar have quiet, tactile presses. The buttonless clickpad stretches from under the buttons to the bottom of the palm rest. Its matte surface provides a sure feel for your fingers, though the oils from your fingers can make it look greasy after extended use. Pressing its surface makes subdued clicking sounds.
The optional fingerprint reader is to the right of the clickpad. More biometric capability comes from the optional IR camera on my review unit, which works with Windows Hello. Lenovo’s ThinkShutter sliding webcam cover is available with the IR camera on the ThinkPad T490, which wasn’t the case with the T480. The ThinkShutter looks way more professional than a piece of tape. The webcam has no better or worse image quality than I’d expect from a notebook in this price range.
Office Productivity and More
The ThinkPad T490 offers a choice between two Intel “Whiskey Lake” processors, the Core i5-8265U and the Core i7-8565U. Both are four-core, eight-thread chips capped at 15 watts. The base frequencies are low (1.6GHz for the Core i5 and 1.8GHz for the Core i7), but they have impressive short-term boost frequencies of 3.9GHz and 4.6GHz respectively. I noticed the frequency of the Core i7-8565U in my system throttled to about 2GHz while I was encoding a video, so long-haul tasks like that will take significantly longer than they would on an equivalent desktop chip running at a higher wattage (which could maintain a higher clock for longer.) Nonetheless, both Intel chips available in the ThinkPad T490 provide plenty of pep for most usage.
Unlike the thinner ThinkPad T490s, the T490 is available with discrete graphics in the form of Nvidia’s 2GB GeForce MX250. The base Intel UHD 620 integrated graphics found in my test model are fine for most things, though playing the latest games is generally out of the question. The Nvidia MX250 isn’t much better in that regard, but it could be a worthwhile upgrade if you run apps that can use the GPU to speed up processing. (Some video editing software comes to mind.)
The ThinkPad T490 is also slightly better off than the T490s when it comes to memory upgrades. The RAM in the T490s is onboard (soldered or non-upgradeable); the T490 has either 8GB or 16GB onboard plus one DIMM slot for expansion. My test unit had 8GB onboard and an 8GB DIMM for 16GB of total memory. Storage, as I noted earlier, is limited to one M.2 slot for a PCI Express SSD, which is hardly unusual for this class of notebook. The 1TB Toshiba drive in my review model was a great performer. A skimpy 128GB drive comes in the base model.
Lenovo’s pricing can vary greatly; while writing this review, I observed the price for my ThinkPad T490 dip from $1,970 (which was already discounted) to $1,641. Even at the higher price, it was considerably less than its Dell Latitude 7400/Latitude 7490 competition. A comparably equipped HP EliteBook 840 G5 was also priced much higher. Some of the price difference comes from the fact the ThinkPad T490 has just a one-year warranty across the board (the Dell and HP systems have three years), though upgrades are cheap; three years of coverage is just $99. The ThinkPad T490 can be had for around $1,000 with a practical loadout for most usage (a Core i5-8265U processor, 8GB of memory, 256GB of storage, and a 1080p display), making it a respectable value.
Thermally, the ThinkPad T490 warmed up on its bottom and right side while I was running benchmarks. It didn’t become uncomfortable in my lap, but I was careful not to block the fan intakes on the bottom…
The fan engaged frequently while I was browsing lots of websites at once. Background noise, especially an office environment, should make the small amount of fan whine inaudible, though it’s easy to pick out in a quiet room.
As they say in boardrooms, let’s get down to the numbers. I ran comprehensive performance tests on my ThinkPad T490 and compared it with these units…
The Microsoft Surface Laptop 2 is the sole entrant with a lesser-clocked Core i5 processor, as the others have Core i7 CPUs. I included the outgoing ThinkPad T480 mainly to show the differences in battery life. The Huawei MateBook 13 is more of a mainstream machine, but that won’t stop it from working in a business environment.
Productivity, Storage, and Media Tests
PCMark 10 and 8 are holistic performance suites developed by the PC benchmark specialists at UL (formerly Futuremark). The PCMark 10 test we run simulates different real-world productivity and content-creation workflows. We use it to assess overall system performance for office-centric tasks such as word processing, spreadsheeting, Web browsing, and videoconferencing. The test generates a proprietary numeric score; higher numbers are better.
PCMark 8, meanwhile has a Storage subtest that we use to assess the speed of the system’s storage subsystem. This score is also a proprietary numeric score; again, higher numbers are better.
The Huawei is the only unit here with dedicated graphics, which helped it inch to the top spot in PCMark 10. The ThinkPad T490 I’m testing has integrated graphics, so it did remarkably well to place next to that unit considering it shares the same processor. We view a score around 4,000 points as excellent in that benchmark. Meanwhile, the slower Core i5 chip in the Microsoft Surface Laptop 2 held back its overall performance. In the PCMark 8 storage test, the boot drive SSDs in these units are all quick enough.
Next is Maxon’s CPU-crunching Cinebench R15 test, which is fully threaded to make use of all available processor cores and threads. Cinebench stresses the CPU rather than the GPU to render a complex image. The result is a proprietary score indicating a PC’s suitability for processor-intensive workloads.
We also run a custom Adobe Photoshop image-editing benchmark. Using an early 2018 release of the Creative Cloud version of Photoshop, we apply a series of 10 complex filters and effects to a standard JPEG test image. We time each operation and, at the end, add up the total execution time (lower times are better). The Photoshop test stresses CPU, storage subsystem, and RAM, but it can also take advantage of most GPUs to speed up the process of applying filters, so systems with powerful graphics chips or cards may see a boost.
The ThinkPad T490 ended up behind the other Core i7 laptops in Cinebench, though it came reasonably close in our Photoshop test. The clock frequencies of the low-wattage processors in these units can jump around depending on the situation, so variation in the scores like this isn’t out of the ordinary.
3DMark measures relative graphics muscle by rendering sequences of highly detailed, gaming-style 3D graphics that emphasize particles and lighting. We run two different 3DMark subtests, Sky Diver and Fire Strike, which are suited to different types of systems. Both are DirectX 11 benchmarks, but Sky Diver is more suited to laptops and midrange PCs, while Fire Strike is more demanding and made for high-end PCs to strut their stuff. The results are proprietary scores.
Next up is another synthetic graphics test, this time from Unigine Corp. Like 3DMark, the Superposition test renders and pans through a detailed 3D scene and measures how the system copes. In this case, it’s rendered in the company’s eponymous Unigine engine, offering a different 3D workload scenario than 3DMark, for a second opinion on the machine’s graphical prowess. We present two Superposition results, run at the 720p Low and 1080p High presets.
These scores are reported in frames per second (fps), the frequency at which the graphics hardware renders frames in a sequence, which translates to how smooth the scene looks in motion. For lower-end systems, maintaining at least 30fps is the realistic target, while more powerful computers should ideally attain at least 60fps at the test resolution.
The Huawei MateBook 13 was the only unit to produce scores worthy of light gaming in either set of benchmarks. As I said, the ThinkPad T490 is available with a similar dedicated graphics card, so it could be comparable if so equipped, but its integrated graphics target productivity apps.
Video Playback Battery Rundown Test
After fully recharging the laptop, we set up the machine in power-save mode (as opposed to balanced or high-performance mode) and make a few other battery-conserving tweaks in preparation for our unplugged video rundown test. (We also turn Wi-Fi off, putting the laptop in airplane mode.) In this test, we loop a video—a locally stored 720p file of the Blender Foundation short film Tears of Steel—with screen brightness set at 50 percent and volume at 100 percent until the system conks out.
The engineering feats of recent years mean that 10 hours of battery life isn’t particularly impressive in today’s market. The ThinkPad T490 had no trouble surpassing the older T480, though the latter could have achieved much better life had it been equipped with one of its extended battery options, possibly matching up to the astounding runtime of the Microsoft Surface Laptop 2. The T490 isn’t even close to that.
The ThinkPad T490 or the T490s?
The ThinkPad T490 continues the ThinkPad T-series’ reputation for excellence among business notebooks. Don’t let its all-business aesthetic throw you off, as this is a perfectly capable home or student laptop as well. Its combination of build quality, security features, and input devices make it an ideal tool to get things done. It also has an impressive number of display choices, like the super-bright WQHD screen on our review unit. Its reasonable pricing further sweetens the deal, putting it several hundred dollars below competing HP EliteBook and Dell Latitude models. Its 10-plus-hour battery life isn’t exceptional these days, but it’s hardly an inadequate amount of time off the plug.
The ThinkPad T490’s toughest competition comes from inside Lenovo’s own product line: The ThinkPad T490s offers a thinner and lighter design and a larger battery pack for marginally more money. Unless you need the dedicated Ethernet port, expandable memory, or the available Nvidia graphics of the ThinkPad T490, the T490s is the more attractive buy.
Bottom Line: The ThinkPad T490 is a top-shelf business laptop with impressive quality and security, although its battery life doesn’t excel by today’s standards.