Lenovo’s ThinkPad X390 is an ultralight laptop that combines a strong build quality, excellent performance, and a great keyboard into a winning recipe for a productive travel laptop.
- Healthy battery life.
- Strong build quality and performance.
- Excellent input devices.
- Plenty of ports, including Thunderbolt 3.
- Standard warranty is only one year.
- Battery isn’t swappable.
- Inconvenient microSD card slot.
The End of the Alphabet
One way to learn the letters of the alphabet is to shop the ThinkPad product lines. The A, E, and L series are value-oriented laptops, while the P series is made up of high-performance workstations, and the T series is the flagship business lineup.
Then there’s the X series, of which the ThinkPad X390 I’m reviewing is a new member. Like many products that incorporate the letter “X” in their name, the X390 is special, even within the ThinkPad lineup. Let’s start with the exterior…
The chassis of the X390 is made of magnesium alloy for maximum strength and durability. I’m not knocking the use of plastic on some other ThinkPads (or other notebooks, for that matter); this is just the next level up in terms of quality. You can immediately tell the difference by running your fingers across the palm rest. The X390’s metal emits a high-pitched, almost scratchy, sound, where plastic would be quieter and smoother. The metal on the X390 also feels cool to the touch.
As I noted up top, the ThinkPad X390 replaces last year’s ThinkPad X280. The latter had a 12.5-inch screen, but thanks to a narrow-bezel display, the X390 wedges a 13.3-inch screen into a chassis that’s only about a quarter-inch wider and deeper, at 12.3 by 8.6 inches. Both machines are about the same thickness (0.7 inch) and the same weight; my touch-screen-equipped X390 lands at 3 pounds.
Something else that the ThinkPad X390 won’t win awards for is a chic design, but that’s not the aim here. If you’re looking for a head-turning fashion statement, check out our Editors’ Choice-winning Dell XPS 13 (9380). The all-black slab look of the X390 summons up ThinkPad tradition. Up close, its slightly rounded corners and island-style keys are giveaways that this isn’t a classic IBM-produced model, but the family resemblance is strong. The neutral, no-frills look is one you can confidently take anywhere without facing scrutiny.
The communicative keys and practical layout quickly make me forget that the keyboard on the X390 isn’t full-size, measuring 10.6 inches wide instead of the 11.25 inches of the ThinkPad T490. You’ll spot dedicated Home and End keys at the top right, while the arrow-key cluster has a familiar, preferred inverted-T layout. The lower-left Function (Fn) and Ctrl keys are flipped, in usual ThinkPad style, but you can swap them in the pre-installed Lenovo Vantage software if that bothers you.
The two-level white backlighting on my review unit is, surprisingly, an option and not standard issue. (The upgrade is $25 on configurable models.) My ongoing gripe with some newer ThinkPad keyboards, the X390’s included, is that the various indicator LEDs (for Caps Lock and others) are too bright, much more so than the keyboard backlight. I didn’t have this complaint on older ThinkPads that used orange LED indicators.
The TrackPoint rubber pointing stick is centered between the G, H, and B keys, and joined by three tactile buttons beneath the spacebar.
Lenovo offers a variety of eraser-head styles as accessories. Mean
A Magnesium Mainstay
The screen on my review unit has nicely balanced colors and enough brightness to work in the shade on a sunny day. For outdoor usage, or anywhere ambient light abounds, its anti-glare surface helps nullify reflections. It also has wide viewing angles from its in-plane switching (IPS) technology, a pro or a con depending on your usage. You get a uniform picture no matter how you’re looking at the screen, but so does everyone else. For security-minded users who find that a demerit, Lenovo is planning to make its PrivacyGuard display technology available on the ThinkPad X390 in summer 2019. It allows the display to be viewed only from head-on.
Goodbye, Duct Tape
The X390 has ample physical connectivity for a notebook this size, retaining the excellent selection of the X280. The included power adapter can be connected to either of the USB Type-C ports on its left edge…
The Ports on the Left Edge…
The one on the right is a Thunderbolt 3 port, while the other is straight-up USB 3.1. Both support data transfer and DisplayPort output over USB Type-C. Next to them is a docking-station connector (with support for Lenovo’s ThinkPad Basic, Pro, and Ultra docking stations), as well as a regular USB 3.1 Type-A port, an HDMI 1.4 video-out connector, and an audio combo jack.
The ThinkPad X390 is too thin to have a dedicated Ethernet port, but Lenovo sells an adapter (about $35, Lenovo part number 4X90Q84427) that plugs into the docking-station port. Wireless network connectivity comes from an Intel 9560AC card with 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 5.0. Mobile broadband is optional, but for the option to be accessible, you also must upgrade to the 1080p display and the IR camera.
The right edge holds the optional SmartCard reader (filled in on my review unit, since it’s not so equipped), a cooling vent, another USB 3.1 Type-A port, and a Kensington-style cable-lockdown notch…and the Ports on the Right
A nano-SIM card slot on the rear of the notebook doubles as a microSD card reader. The location is inconvenient since getting to it requires closing the display and pivoting the whole laptop.
Technology Facelift, ‘Whiskey Lake’ Style
The ThinkPad X390 is built around Intel’s “Whiskey Lake” 14nm processors, specifically the 15-watt U-series Core i5 and Core i7 chips. As equipped with the Core i7-8565U, my ThinkPad X390 posted excellent benchmark results for a notebook in this class. This four-core, eight-thread chip has just a 1.8GHz base clock, but an impressive 4.6GHz Turbo Boost. The latter is only good for short bursts, not sustained loads like video encoding, but that bodes just fine for general usage.
Note that the Core i7-8565U in my sample unit is an uptick; the standard-issue chip is the Core i5-8265U. While running at slightly lower clocks (1.6GHz base and 3.9GHz Turbo Boost), it sports the same number of cores and threads as the Core i7-8565U, so it should feel almost as responsive. The X390 is saddled with Intel’s UHD Graphics 620, a standard choice for basic 3D performance and low power usage in an ultraportable notebook.
The main system memory in the ThinkPad X390 is soldered down and not user-upgradable, so you’ll need to get as much as you need from the factory at purchase time. If you’re a multitasker with lots of apps running, opting for 16GB of RAM (8GB is standard) is a good idea. The storage, on the other hand, is tweakable via an M.2 Type-2280 slot (under the bottom panel) for PCI Express solid-state drives (SSDs). I’d suggest getting at least a 256GB drive, as the capacity of the base model is a paltry 128GB. Lenovo offers up to 1TB options; my review unit has a 512GB drive.
The ThinkPad X390 does well on the economics front versus its Dell Latitude 7300 and HP EliteBook 830 G6 competition, both of which demand north of $2,000 for hardware like what’s in my ThinkPad review unit. The pricing gap narrows when you factor in the warranty; the X390 comes standard with only a year of basic coverage and mail-in support, whereas those HP and Dell models have three years, and the latter includes onsite service. Even with the X390’s priciest three-year onsite warranty ($169, at this writing), though, it still comes out ahead in value. You can do better still with one of Lenovo’s frequent sales; when I started typing this review, Lenovo had the X390 starting at just $749, with my review configuration coming in at $1,237. But the prices jumped back up a week later.
The X390’s single cooling fan sends a noticeable stream of warm air out the vent on the right edge while running demanding tasks. I didn’t notice the fan noise over the usual household background noise. There’s not much in the way of whine; most of the sound comes from air running through the vent. For general usage, the fan rarely engaged. The primary air intake is through the bottom of the chassis…
The X390s Underside
Only while running benchmarks did I notice the top and bottom center of the chassis getting warm, but it wasn’t uncomfortable to the touch.
A Portable Powerhouse
I compared the ThinkPad X390 to these machines for our comparison charts…
Lenovo ThinkPad X390 (Configurations Charts)
All feature four-core, eight-thread Intel processors and integrated Intel graphics. The Dell Latitude 7390 and the HP EliteBook 830 G5 have older “Kaby Lake Refresh” (Kaby Lake-R) processors, but they differ little from the “Whiskey Lake” chips in the other units. The storage drive sizes vary greatly in this lot, but our testing focuses on the performance of the drive, not its capacity. The differences in memory capacity shouldn’t have a huge impact on the benchmarks, either. Let’s get down to it.
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, spreadsheet jockeying, 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 boot drive. This score is also a proprietary numeric score; again, higher numbers are better.
Lenovo ThinkPad X390 (PCMark)
The X390 cruised to the top of the PCMark 10 ladder, nosing past the HP EliteBook and leaving the others far behind with an impressive score for an ultraportable. A score of 4,000 points or more in that test is our definition of excellent performance, although even the lowest-scoring Dell (3,394 points) will have an excess of power for basics such as Microsoft Office apps. The even-keel PCMark 8 playing field is normal for units like these that feature fast SSD-boot-drive storage.
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.
Lenovo ThinkPad X390 (Cinebench)
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, total up the execution times. Lower times are better here. 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.
Lenovo ThinkPad X390 (Photoshop)
The Asus ZenBook 13 is the outlier in the Cinebench R15 test, somehow zooming ahead with its Core i5 processor. That sprinting performance didn’t follow it to the Photoshop test, where the X390 trounced it and the other units with a stellar time. The 15-watt processor chips in these units aren’t ideal for editing massive RAW images or working with big video files, but they’re workable for short, bursty jobs like photo edits.
Lenovo ThinkPad X390 (3DMark)
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.
Lenovo ThinkPad X390 (Superposition)
The X390 is all too apt to demonstrate its strong processor performance in the Sky Diver test. The 3D-centric Fire Strike test, on the other hand, looks like a slideshow on the integrated Intel graphics. Even an entry-level gaming PC would produce several thousand points in that benchmark, so you’ll want to stick to browser-based gaming on these machines.
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 open-source short film Tears of Steel—with screen brightness set at 50 percent and volume at 100 percent until the system conks out.
Lenovo ThinkPad X390 (Battery Rundown)
The X390’s 14-plus-hour runtime is an excellent showing for a modern ultraportable, trailing the overachieving ZenBook by less than an hour. It has enough stamina to get you through a workday and some Netflix binging afterward (or during, if no one’s looking).
But I’ll play devil’s advocate: The X390 could have lasted a lot longer had Lenovo kept the dual-battery capability of its two-generations-back predecessor, the ThinkPad X270. We clocked nearly 16 hours from the latter with its extended battery setup, and that was with older, less-power-efficient hardware. I can only guess (actually, salivate) at what a hypothetical dual-battery X390 might achieve.
‘X’ Marks the Hot
On the Whole, an Exemplary X
This ThinkPad isn’t a chic fashion statement like the Dell XPS 13 (9380), our current top pick for a premium ultraportable. It’s tempting to describe the X390 as function over form next to that machine, but we’d argue it has plenty of both. The biggest gripe is its lean one-year warranty in our tester, where the Dell Latitude 7300 and HP EliteBook 830 G6 both have three years. The ThinkPad’s lower starting price makes up for it, though, and one of Lenovo’s inevitable sales can only improve the price dynamic. Factor that in with its many upsides, and the ThinkPad X390 earns our Editors’ Choice laurels for a premium business ultraportable.