Lenovo ThinkPad X390 review: A sharp business laptop with caveats Credit: Jared Newman IDGIDG
Business Management

Lenovo ThinkPad X390 review: A sharp business laptop with caveats

The Lenovo ThinkPad X390 gets some things right. It’s thin and light—especially for a business laptop—and plenty powerful, while maintaining the hefty keyboard for which ThinkPads are known.

Before long, though, the ThinkPad X390’s trade-offs become clear. The matte display’s washed-out tones are tiresome on the eyes, and the keyboard and touchpad—both signature features on most ThinkPads—feel too stiff. While the ThinkPad X390 performs well in benchmarks, fiddling with the power settings causes speed to suffer. Given the price, we expected fewer drawbacks. 

ThinkPad X390: Specs and features

The ThinkPad X390’s price can vary greatly by configuration. It’s possible to spend as little as $899 on this laptop, for which you’ll get a good dollop of RAM (8GB) and a competent Intel Core i5-8265U processor; however, the low-resolution 1366x768 display and meager 128GB SSD are compromises. 

Our review unit was closer to the opposite end of the spectrum, with an Intel Core i7-8565U processor and 16GB of DDR4 RAM; a 13.3-inch, 1920x1080p touchscreen, and a roomy 512GB SSD. It also includes a fingerprint reader and an IR camera for Windows Hello. All that brings the price up to $1,689.

Regardless of the model, you get plenty of ports, including two USB-A, two USB-C (one Thunderbolt 3), an ethernet extension, HDMI 1.4, and a Kensington Lock slot. There’s even a removable tray around back for both MicroSD card and nano-SIM cards.

lenovo thinkpad x390 black right screen open Lenovo presskit

The Lenovo ThinkPad X390 gives you plenty of ports.

Design and display

Unlike its ThinkPad L390 Yoga cousin, the ThinkPad X390 doesn’t have a 360-degree hinge. Instead it folds 180 degrees, so the screen can lay flat on a table.

In exchange for less flexibility, the X390 is a much slicker machine, with bezels measuring just 0.38 inches. It weighs in at a respectable 2.9 pounds, a little heavier than Dell’s XPS 13 (2.7 pounds), about the same as HP’s Spectre x360, and much lighter than the aforementioned L390 Yoga (3.36 pounds). That’s all without sacrificing durability, as Lenovo puts the X390 through a battery of military-grade shock, sand, humidity, altitude, and temperature tests.

Whether you like the display will come down to personal preference. The X390 uses an IPS panel, which is supposed to provide great viewing angles. Tilting this unit’s display changes brightness dramatically, however. No matter which angle you choose, colors look washed-out and overly cool, and the display starts to feel a bit harsh on the eyes in moderate lighting. Such are the inherent downsides of a matte display, compared to the glossy screens becoming more common on modern laptops.

lenovo thinkpad x390 black front facing right Lenovo

The Lenovo ThinkPad X390’s matte display is definitely not for everyone.

As for the upsides, matte displays are better at cutting down glare. You can also dial down the X390’s brightness to reduce eyestrain in environments such as a fluorescent-lit office. Lenovo notes that matte displays are lighter, because they don’t have a sheet of glass running across them.

To me, the benefits of glossy displays—vibrant colors, smoother touch input—outweigh the drawbacks. Either way, it’s something to be aware of before spending upwards of $1,000 on this laptop, especially because Lenovo is planning to release a glossy-display version of the X390 later this year.

Keyboard and touchpad

Typing is supposed to be best part of owning a ThinkPad. Even as other laptop makers slim down to unbearable levels of travel, Lenovo has been steadfast in supplying its business notebooks with luxuriously thick keyboards. Typing on the ThinkPad L390 Yoga spoiled me for most other laptop keyboards.

The ThinkPad X390's keyboard, however, is a surprising letdown. While it still offers lots of travel, it’s also about a quarter-inch narrower than the L390 between the A and apostrophe keys. Something about that shrunken layout makes it feel stiffer. While my typing speed remained steady—I averaged 101 words per minute, versus 105 on my desktop keyboard—typing felt less comfortable. The keyboard also seemed to produce more mistakes in non-ideal environments (such as on my lap instead of on a table).

lenovo thinkpad x390 black birdseye Lenovo

The X390 keyboard looks like that of every other ThinkPad, but it feels stiffer.

Perhaps in pursuit of thinness, Lenovo also compromised on the X390’s touchpad. About halfway up, the click mechanism starts putting up a lot of resistance. Clicking down becomes almost impossible with about a quarter of the pad to spare. As with other ThinkPads, the X390 still provides dedicated left- and right-click buttons below the keyboard, and you can always just tap on the touchpad to select things, but this is not an ideal touchpad for folks who prefer to click down.

Security, cameras, and sound

The Lenovo ThinkPad X390’s webcam is your typical 720p model, but it does have a physical privacy shutter. Slide it into place, and a subtle red dot covers the lens to confirm that no snooping will occur. Lenovo plans to offer a “PrivacyGuard” display this summer to thwart inquisitive glances, but this wasn’t available on our review unit.

For authentication, the ThinkPad X390 offers both a fingerprint reader and an IR sensor for Windows Hello face recognition. It’s great having both options on one laptop, but keep in mind face recognition won’t work when the privacy shutter is over the webcam.

Sound quality is seldom a priority on business laptops—case in point for the ThinkPad X390, whose speakers are lacking in bass and not particularly loud. Lenovo says it uses a new audio signal processor for noise cancellation on its microphones, though, and here the results were excellent. A voice recording sounded crisp even with heavy-rain sounds playing on a nearby speaker. I tried this with a couple of other laptops (including the ThinkPad L390 Yoga), and the recordings were more muddled.

Performance

It’s no surprise that the fully loaded ThinkPad X390 we received made short work of its benchmarks. The laptop doesn’t get too hot on its underside either, thanks to a vent that blows air out the right side. The system fan mostly stays quiet under basic productivity workloads.

One caveat, though: On Lenovo’s default unplugged power setting (“Better Battery”), performance throttling becomes quite noticeable for certain tasks. While using the Windows app Tweeten, for instance, scrolling seemed choppy, and web links took a while to load. Setting up the X390 side-by-side with Lenovo’s ThinkPad L390 Yoga (with a lesser i5-8265U CPU and half the RAM), the latter routinely loaded webpages faster under the “Better Battery” setting. The X390 reestablished a clear lead only with both laptops on their “Best Performance” setting. Unless you’re plugged into AC or willing to burn more battery life, you may miss some of the extra power you’re paying for.

Now, onto the benchmarks.

PCMark 8’s Work 2.0 benchmark cycles through simulated productivity tasks such as spreadsheet editing and video chat. It’s obviously an important use case for business laptops, and any score over 2,000 is good. The ThinkPad X390’s score of 3,784 topped that of every other thin-and-light laptop we’ve tested. Only HP’s Spectre x360 and Samsung’s Notebook 9 Pro came close.

lenovo thinkpad x390 pcmark work 8 conv Melissa Riofrio/IDG

According to PCMark, the ThinkPad X390 is good at business.

HandBrake was another highlight for the ThinkPad X390, which took about 65 minutes to encode our test .MKV video file to a smaller .MP4 file. Dell’s XPS 13 fared better, but overall it shows that the laptop makes good use of its quad-core CPU over a prolonged period of heavy use.

lenovo thinkpad x390 handbrake Melissa Riofrio/IDG

For a 13-inch Core-i7 laptop, the ThinkPad X390 holds up well over a long period of intensive work.

As for Cinebench, which tests the CPU in short bursts, the X390 fell in the middle of the pack among Core i7-8565U laptops for multi-threaded performance. That said, it did well in the single-threaded test, which better reflects the applications most people use.

lenovo thinkpad x390 cinebench Melissa Riofrio/IDG

While the multi-threaded results are nothing special, the ThinkPad X390 does well in Cinebench’s single-threaded benchmark.

The X390 turned in solid scores on 3DMark Sky Diver 1.0, at least for a laptop with integrated graphics. In practice, this doesn’t mean much, as you’ll still want a dedicated GPU to play modern 3D games, but 2D indie-ish games should be doable.

lenovo thinkpad x390 3dmark sky diver Melissa Riofrio/IDG

You’re not buying a ThinkPad for games, but the X390 does nicely against similar laptops in 3DMark’s graphics test.

Battery life is the only significant sore spot. Many other factors can affect battery life, including screen brightness and resolution, and intensity of workload. The ThinkPad X390 has one obvious challenge: Its capacity of 49,410 mAh is smaller than that of competitors like the HP Spectre x360 (61,000 mAh) and Samsung Notebook 9 Pro (54,050 mAh). Batteries add weight and cost, so they represent one of many trade-offs in thinner, lighter laptops. 

lenovo thinkpad x390 battery life Melissa Riofrio/IDG

When a small laptop packs in a hefty keyboard, plenty of ports, and a powerful CPU, something’s got to give. In this case, it’s battery life.

Who should buy the Lenovo ThinkPad X390?

The Lenovo ThinkPad X390 is a frustrating laptop to review because it could—and perhaps should—be so much more than it is. It’s an attractive package with impressive performance and lots of helpful business features. For the price, however, we expected better experiences with the display, keyboard, and touchpad. 

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