The research and development behind Lenovo’s T440s Ultrabook

The research and development behind Lenovo’s T440s Ultrabook

We talked to Lenovo’s Kevin Beck about some of the improvements that have been made to Lenovo’s business-oriented laptop range

The Lenovo ThinkPad T440s is a 14in business Ultrabook that won’t be available to buy until around October. It represents a “ground-up” redesign for the T-series (even its black colour is different), one which Lenovo said it undertakes every four years. In each redesign, the goal is to make the ThinkPad more comfortable to use, more robust, and to provide more features that business users have been asking for.

We were lucky enough to sit down with Kevin Beck, who is Lenovo’s Worldwide Competitive Analyst, and he described some of the things that have gone into the making of this new model and, indeed, many of the aspects of development that apply to all Lenovo ThinkPad products in general. Lots of the obvious components of the notebook have been redesigned, such as the touchpad and the battery system, but even some things that most of us never think about, such as the rubber feet on the bottom, have been re-done.

The screen, carbon fibre, and drop hinges

One of the first things about the T440s that’s noticeable is the new hinge that holds the touchscreen. It’s now what Lenovo calls a “drop hinge”, which allows the screen to sit completely flat on a desk. In the previous design (the Thinkpad T430s), the screen tilted all the way back, but because the hinges were mounted higher, it gave the impression that the screen was pointing away from the user. The new design makes it friendlier to the user in this respect. As far as resolutions are concerned, the screen will be available in HD+ (1600x900), FHD (1920x1080), and FHD Touch (1920x1080) models.

We saw the FHD Touch model, which has Gorilla Glass protecting it on the front. When we asked Kevin if an accelerometer is built in to turn the screen automatically when the laptop is used in different orientations, he told us it doesn’t have one. An accelerometer would not be able to easily detect the orientation of the laptop when positioned flat on the desk, so Lenovo will come up with a utility, rather than having the user go into the Display settings in Windows 8, which will allow for the screen to be turned manually as needed.

The lid of the T440s is made of carbon fibre, rather than aluminium, which gives it a lot of rigidity while at the same time keeping the weight down. Kevin Beck walks around with a snooker ball in his bag, along with two pieces of material, one of carbon fibre and one of aluminium, which resemble laptop lids. He told us he puts the materials on the floor in the boardrooms he presents in and throws the snooker ball at them to demonstrate the toughness of the carbon fibre and the softness of the aluminium.

He couldn’t demonstrate it in our coffee shop setting, unfortunately, but he assured us that the biggest danger of the ball hitting the carbon fibre is the ball bouncing off and flying off somewhere. The aluminium piece he showed us was full of dents, which he said would have impacted the LCD panel and damaged it. On the inside, Kevin said the antennas for Wi-Fi have been “laser tuned” and are now smaller.

Chassis changes

As for the chassis, it’s made from magnesium alloy. Because Lenovo had to make it thinner so that it could be classed as an Ultrabook, some elements had to be redesigned. The docking connector was made slimmer so that it could fit in the chassis easier, which means that the T440s has a new-range dock available for it. We’re told that it has three video outputs, VGA, DVI, and HDMI, and it supports triple display output straight off the laptop’s integrated Intel HD graphics.

A new battery system, and a tamper switch

A new battery system has also been introduced in the ThinkPad T440s, which will also make its way to other models in the ThinkPad family. The laptop actually has two batteries: one flat, 3-cell (23 Watt-hour) battery is located inside the sealed chassis, and another 3-cell (23 Watt-hour) battery is located in the spine of the notebook. The battery in the spine is removable, which means you can install a bigger 6-cell (72 Watt-hour) battery in the spine (which turns the Ultrabook into a regular notebook as it makes it thicker), or carry around replacement 3-cell batteries. The battery in the spine is used before the battery in the chassis, which allows for hot-swapping.

The battery is sealed in the chassis, but Kevin told us that it can be easily replaced by removing the bottom panel, which is held together by seven screws. In order to remove an internal battery, it must be logically disconnected, which in the past meant changing a setting in the BIOS. Lenovo engineers wanted to come up with a better way for the logical disconnection to happen, since many users might forget to visit the BIOS beforehand. The engineers came up with a solution that is essentially similar to a tamper switch on a business desktop. When the bottom panel is removed, the switch sends a signal to logically disconnect the battery.

Kevin Beck says it took a while before the proposed tamper switch solution was implemented, mainly because of the couple of cents it added to the overall cost, which is a big deal when you are building so many units. But he said that another advantage to having the tamper switch was found: by having an undisturbed tamper switch, the BIOS is able to forgo many of the checks for the RAM and other installed modules that would otherwise slightly slow down the boot process. The end result is said to be a faster boot process, all due to a solution that was implemented for a different problem.

Re-vamped touchpad

The new chassis also houses a new touchpad and TrackPoint device. Incidentally, when we asked Kevin if the TrackPoint’s days a numbered, he told us the TrackPoint “is here to stay”. The difference between the TrackPoint on the ThinkPad T440s than on previous models is the lack of physical left- and right-click buttons. These buttons are now logically mapped onto the touchpad, which is a large, single button. Lenovo designed the touchpad to have tap zones that perform different functions, but it’s also physically different to the old touchpad.

One of the things Lenovo wanted to do was make the touchpad’s click smooth and even. It wanted the click to be uniform across the whole pad, and it was tricky to do this in such a small space. When Kevin showed us the touchpad component separately of the notebook, it looked like it was only about 3mm thick. To make it so thin, Lenovo came up with a click solution that makes use of the same scissor lift mechanisms that are found in its keyboard keys. There are four of these scissor lift mechanisms installed to hold the pad and make it easy to click from any spot that you choose.

A new hard drive bumper

To gain space in the chassis, the protection mechanism for T440s models that have a hard drive has been reduced to a thin frame. On first appearance, it looks like it can’t protect anything. In the previous model, the hard drive sat on rubber rails that “worked extremely well” to protect the drive from shocks, but they took up an extra 1.6mm in the chassis. In the new computer, the rubber rails have been replaced by a substantially thinner bumper that’s made of hard plastic and which has a rubber lining. The hard drive essentially floats in it via its mounting points and Kevin told us the drive is subjected to 43 per cent less G-force impact when dropped, compared to the rubber rails system if it were to be used in the new chassis.

No more cat’s paws

In one of the more unlikely changes to the ThinkPad, the little rubber feet that keep the unit from sliding on a desk have also been redesigned. The little “cat’s paws” of the previous model have been replaced by long, thin pieces of rubber that are hollow on the inside. Lenovo found that in places with lots of temperature variation, such as in the Middle East, the rubber in the “cat’s paws” design did not perform optimally. Kevin told us that the rubber feet on the new model are not as reliant on the characteristics of the rubber itself, but on the compression provided by the air inside the rubber structure.

The keyboard

Kevin also talked to us a little about the keyboard in ThinkPad laptops in general, and the testing that goes in to ensure the component manufacturers make it to Lenovo’s specifications. Lenovo’s force curve for the keys on its keyboards is meant to resemble an “S-hook shape”, which means there needs to be some resistance as the key is going down, and little resistance as it comes back up. We were told that a machine takes its time going through every key on the board multiple times to ensure that this curve is correct.

The keyboard is backlit, which means there is no ThinkLight built in to the screen, and it’s also spill resistant, with drain holes that channel any spilled liquids down through the bottom of the chassis.

Other specs

We’ve had our hands on the ThinkPad T440s very briefly, and it does feel like a wonderful machine. Its use of fourth-generation Intel Core processors (Core i5-4300U and Core i7-4600U) should make it a good performer with close to all-day battery performance, though the flexibility of the battery system means this can be extended as needed.

As per the spec sheet, it will be available with hybrid storage up to 1TB (5400rpm), or with an SSD with a capacity up to 256GB. The unit has 4GB of RAM soldered onto the motherboard, and a further 8GB can be added for a total of 12GB. Graphics are of the Intel HD 4400 variety, and there are mini DisplayPort and VGA ports built-in (the optional dock will supply HDMI). Up to 2x2 802.11ac Wi-Fi will be offered, and the chassis has a Gigabit Ethernet port. The overall weight starts from 1.6kg.

It should be available to buy in October.

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