Rating:
5/10
?

  • 1 – Absolute Hot Garbage
  • 2 – Sorta Lukewarm Garbage
  • 3 – Strongly Flawed Design
  • 4 – Some Pros, Lots Of Cons
  • 5 – Acceptably Imperfect
  • 6 – Good Enough to Buy On Sale
  • 7 – Great, But Not Best-In-Class
  • 8 – Fantastic, with Some Footnotes
  • 9 – Shut Up And Take My Money
  • 10 – Absolute Design Nirvana

Price: $1050

ThinkPad E14 closed on colorful bench

Here’s What We Like

  • Comfy keyboard
  • IR camera and fingerprint sensor
  • Diverse port selection

And What We Don’t

  • Too expensive
  • Too bukly
  • Poor battery life
  • Attracts fingerprints and scratches

I’ve always been a fan of ThinkPad laptop designs. But with more than a dozen different base variations on sale at any given time, some will inevitably be better than others. The ThinkPad E14 falls into the latter category. While its older, more conventional design and some extra expansion options will appeal to some, most buyers will find it less appealing than a comparable T or X series, especially since it costs almost as much as one.

That isn’t to say that the E14 is a bad laptop. It isn’t. It just isn’t good enough to stand up to the competition from other suppliers, or even from the similar machines in Lenovo’s own laptop line. That’s especially true considering its price, at least if you opt for the Intel-powered version. Unless you absolutely must have an extra hard drive bay, look elsewhere.

A Familiar but Dated Design

Some critics of Lenovo’s ThinkPad design language say that these laptops look like something out of the past. That’s sometimes unfair, especially with the exotic materials and features of the X series. But with the E14, you wouldn’t be unreasonable if you guessed that it was a five-year-old design. A bog-standard clamshell—no convertible touchscreen, no interesting hinge, not even a flush screen—make this something of a “stealth” design, ideal for blending into a corporate office or schoolroom setting.

And that’s a shame, because there are a couple of points to the design that are noteworthy, if not necessarily interesting. First and foremost is the keyboard, which is standard Thinkpad through-and-through. That means it’s among the best that you’ll find on any laptop, with plenty of key travel, an intelligent layout (except for the FN button, which you can swap with Ctrl in the BIOS) and of course, the signature TrackPoint mouse-type-thingy. You’re more than welcome to ignore the last part—I do— but fans of the feature will be glad to see it, even if the pointer is a little more shallow than on other ThinkPads.

ThinkPad E14 from the front
Michael Crider

What else is unique about the E14? Well, it has an infrared camera for Windows Hello facial recognition, and the standard 720p webcam beside it can be manually covered with a sliding shutter. That’s fast becoming a standard feature of nearly all Lenovo laptop designs. There’s a fingerprint reader (also compatible with Windows Hello) built into the power button, which is an upgrade option that really should just be built-in by now.

And, um, that’s about it, in terms of external design. The 1920×1080 screen feels dated, both in its 16:9 aspect ratio and its low 250-nit brightness. While writing this review in the city park, I had to strain my eyes, even with the screen at maximum brightness in the shade. The laptop has a MIL-SPEC tested body, but its external panels are all dull grey aluminum. The wide base of the rear rubber feet makes it extra sturdy on a table or a lap. Other than that, and without opening it up, there’s very little to distinguish the E14 from any budget laptop made in the last ten years.

Speedy (and Expensive) Hardware

In terms of actual power, the E14 is reliable, if not cutting-edge. Our Gen 2 review unit came with the latest 11th-gen Core i5 processor running at 2.4GHz, 16GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD. Lenovo’s actual prices are hard to nail down, thanks to hiked-up MSRPs and near-constant, over-dramatic discounts on the online store. But for today’s “sale” price, this configuration is approximately $1000. The base model makes do with a Core i3 processor, a step down from Intel Xe to UHD graphics, just 4GB of RAM, and oddly, doubled 1TB SSD storage. It also cuts out the fingerprint reader, for a base “sale” price of $620.

ThinkPad E14 keyboard
Michael Crider

Here are the full specs on our review unit:

  • Display: 14-inch 1920×1080 IPS, 450 nits (non-touch)
  • CPU: Intel Core i5 11th-gen Processor, 2.4Ghz quad-core
  • RAM: 16GB DDR4
  • Storage: 256 GB SSD
  • Ports: USB-C Thunderbolt 4, USB-A (two), HDMI, Ethernet headphone jack
  • Biometrics: Fingerprint reader, IR camera
  • Connectivity: 802.11ax, Bluetooth 5.1
  • Dimensions: 0.70 x 12.75 x 8.66 inches
  • Weight: 3.51 lbs
  • MSRP: $1249-2199 ($1850 as reviewed)

I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of power on display with Intel’s latest CPU and integrated GPU. Hooking the E14 up to a triple-display dock, it was able to handle my somewhat ridiculous triple-monitor desk setup, albeit chugging a bit when I tried to use the laptop’s screen as well. But for my regular web, chat, and Photoshop-heavy workflow, it handled itself like a champ, with the occasional graphical hiccup from my (admittedly unreasonable) pixel load. It had to activate the cooling fan on a regular basis, but it wasn’t any worse than, say, a Surface Pro.

I was also surprised to see just how much graphical power the Xe integrated GPU had. I was able to play through several Overwatch games at 1080p at 60 frames per second. Not immediately—I had to bump the settings down a bit—but it’s easily the best performance I’ve seen out of integrated graphics so far. Of course, it handled 4K streaming video with no problem, even while doing some fairly intense work on other screens.

Ports and Expansion

The E14’s port selection seems designed to keep you from needing a dongle, which is helpful, since it’s not exactly the most portable 14-inch laptop around. On the left side, you get USB-C (doubling as power input), USB-A, HDMI, and the usual combined headphone/microphone jack. On the right is a second USB-A port and—a rare find—a fold-down RJ45 Ethernet port, plus a slot for a Kensington lock.

ThinkPad E14
Left side ports: USB-C, USB-A, HDMI, headphone jack. Michael Crider

I can’t complain about the flexibility of the ports on offer; it’s certainly more than you’ll find on most 14-inch laptops. But given the size of this machine, I could have hoped for a second USB-C port on the right side, the better to recharge in a tight, limited travel space, and there’s certainly room for a MicroSD ( or even full sized SD) card reader.

ThinkPad E14 right side ports
Right side ports: Ethernet jack and another USB-A. Michael Crider

But beauty is only skin deep, right? (The E14 had better hope so.) Loosen seven Philips screws from the bottom panel and you’ll find surprisingly easy access to its removable components: a single standard SO-DIMM RAM slot covered by a metal protector, one 40mm M.2 storage slot (filled with the 256GB drive in our review unit), and one empty 80mm M.2 slot, ready to be filled with cheap storage.

ThinkPad E14 internal motherboard
The E14 has a user-accessible RAM slot and two M.2 slots: 42mm (filled on our review unit) and 80mm. Michael Crider

Non-soldered RAM and an open storage drive mean the E14 has more expansion options than most laptops in this size range. If you’re prepared to buy the cheapest model and upgrade it on your own, there’s a lot to be saved versus other laptops, especially if you want tons and tons of storage.

Using the Laptop

Using the E14 is extremely comfortable, with the notable exception of the dim screen. (The expensive touchscreen upgrade adds just 50 nits.) The extra-wide base makes it easy to use on a lap, which isn’t always true of today’s thinner and lighter designs.

And yes, there are many both thinner and lighter than the E14. At 3.5 pounds, 12.5 inches wide, and 0.7 inches thick, this model is the size and weight of something you’d expect in a gaming laptop. Once you’re in place it’s not a problem, but unlike some 14-inch T and X ThinkPad laptops, this one couldn’t fit into the (13″ MacBook-sized) sleeve of my Peak Design bag, and I had to resort to the main pocket.

ThinkPad E14 with power cord
Michael Crider

That extra heft might be justifiable if the hardware makes up for it. But the rather uninspired design boasts only that user accessible RAM and double storage. There just isn’t anything here to justify that extra bulk. Lenovo couldn’t even be bothered to find a way to make the tinny speakers sit on the top of the keyboard deck, even though there’s plenty of room—they have to bounce off your desk or table, or sometimes, just be muffled by your jeans.

Battery life, too, is unspectacular. I found the E14 draining in a little over five and a half hours under Chrome-heavy writing and browsing. Some of that might be because I tended to blast the screen at full brightness. But any way you slice it, the 45-watt-hour battery is well below par for a 2021 laptop design, and doubly disappointing for something this large.

ThinkPad E14 power button
Michael Crider

Fans of ThinkPad’s traditionally spare software load won’t be happy here, either. In addition to the usual Microsoft and Lenovo pack-ins, the E14 came with Norton Anti-virus, Office 365, and OneNote pre-installed. If this were my personal machine, I’d wipe it and install a fresh build of Windows 10.

ThinkPad E14 cover with fingers
The aluminum cover is fragile, attracting smudges and scratches. Michael Crider

This is a purely aesthetic note, but the aluminum cover of the laptop is uninspiring. Both because it’s dull (a ThinkPad staple) and it’s fragile: it seems to attract smudges and fingerprints easily, and I managed to scratch it on the laptop’s own USB-C power cord. Buffing with a microfiber cloth wasn’t enough to get it looking decent for these photos.

Just Doesn’t Stack Up

Despite plenty of processor power and memory, the ThinkPad E14 feels like a budget design, even in its Gen 2 revision. If you stick to the cheapest versions of this design and upgrade it with your own hardware (especially taking advantage of those two M.2 storage bays), it makes sense. If you load it up with upgrades, you start to rub up against sleeker and more capable designs in the ThinkPad lineup in terms of price.

That’s ignoring cheaper and similarly powerful 14-inch laptops from Dell, Acer, Asus, and even Lenovo’s IdeaPad lineup. This Inspiron 14, with a faster processor, double storage, and only 4GB less memory is $200 less than our review unit, and it managed to find room for a MicroSD card slot. You could use your savings to swap out the storage with a massive M.2 and upgrade the RAM, negating more or less all the advantages of the E14 while still being smaller, sleeker, and cheaper.

ThinkPad E14 open with keyboard
Michael Crider

At this point, it’s worth pointing out that this is one of two major variants of the ThinkPad E14 gen 2. There’s also a version with AMD guts, starting with a respectable (but not very recent) Ryzen 5 4500U processor. These models start at about the same price as the newer Intel version, with a version equivalent to our review unit costing $825 at the time of writing. I don’t know if it will stay that cheap, since Lenovo’s discounts are quite fluid, and I can’t speak to the AMD version’s performance or battery life. But it’s undeniably a better deal, and much more competitive on the current market.

Note again that Lenovo’s online store prices are ever-shifting. If you see this laptop at hundreds of dollars more than the prices mentioned here, wait a few days and it’ll be discounted again; under no circumstances should you pay the $1630 “retail” price. Secondary sellers of ThinkPad hardware tend to be in line with the sale prices.

With a somewhat high price, dull design, dim screen, poor battery life, and only upgrade options and great typing to set it apart, the ThinkPad E14 just can’t compete with other laptops at—or even below—its price tag. Unless you absolutely must have dual user-accessible storage, give it a pass.

Rating: 5/10

Price: $1050

Here’s What We Like

  • Comfy keyboard
  • IR camera and fingerprint sensor
  • Diverse port selection

And What We Don’t

  • Too expensive
  • Too bukly
  • Poor battery life
  • Attracts fingerprints and scratches

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