Design and Layout
Yes, you can fit this laptop in a messenger bag. You're probably not going to want to put that much else into said satchel unless it's shoulder week at the gym. The Thinkpad 540 belongs on a desk; it'll also look great there, too. The textured, plastic exterior is relatively free of adornments, save for a black Lenovo logo in one corner, a Thinkpad logo in the other, and a removable Energy Star sticker in the third. The "i" in the word Thinkpad doubles as the laptop's single indicator that your device is successfully charging, plugged in, or on (if you can't tell by its dull hum).
On the laptop's right side is its optical drive, an 8X read/write drive for DVDs only—and no, you can't upgrade to a Blu-ray drive if you try to customize your own Thinkpad 540. While you might not need one on a workstation-class laptop, we're surprised that Lenovo doesn't offer it given the laptop's other beefy specs. Joining the optical drive are a single USB 3.0 port and USB 2.0 port. You'll find the same USB setup duplicated on the laptop's left side, in addition to its Thunderbolt port (also a mini-DisplayPort), VGA port, Smart Card slot, and 4-in-1 card reader. The laptop's rear consists of its (proprietary) power charging port and a gigabit Ethernet port.
The laptop's keyboard area is fairly nondescript. You get the usual bevy of keys that are easy to type on and feature a good white backlight. The laptop's simple power button sits in its upper-right corner. The Thinkpad 540 starts to get interesting around the lower-right portion of its keyboard, which is where you'll find a built-in colorimeter from X-Rite (if you elect to build one into your customized laptop package) and a fingerprint sensor. The colorimeter works its magic when you close the laptop's lid during the calibration process. The Thinkpad 540 runs through its tests and beeps to let you know when it's finished—a novel little way to calibrate one's laptop dsiplay without having to attach anything external to the screen.
On the bottom and (somewhat) center of the laptop's keyboard is its touchpad. It comes with multi-touch capabilities, which is about the only good thing it has going for it. Instead of building a separate button or two for mouse clicks below said pad, if tapping isn't your thing, Lenovo elected to turn the entire pad into a clicking apparatus. It's super-loud when you press it down and we're just not a fan of the heavy-handed tactile sensation; if a MacBook was the kind of tiny hammer you might see archaeologists use to chip dirt away from artifacts, then Lenovo's Thinkpad 540 is a sledgehammer. Sometimes, we even had trouble getting our "right-clicks" to register—having two fingers touching the trackpad while you press down.
As mentioned, our review unit runs a 2800x1620 resolution on its 15.5-inch screen. Lenovo claims the screen can reach a brightness of 300 nits. When we ran through the display tests over at Lagom.nl, we found that the screen did a great job of reproducing very dark detail on an otherwise black page—all the way down to the first value on a 255-gradient scale. The same was true on an all-white page; the laptop's display was pretty good, delivering noticeable detail all the way up until the 253rd step. We only noticed the slightest bit of banding in a full black-to-white gradient, but nothing out of the ordinary. Viewing angles felt great on this laptop's IPS screen. Above it sits the laptop's "HD webcam," as Lenovo describes it, which took a video at a maximum resolution of 1280x720 using Lenovo's communications utility app.
The laptop's speakers are located on its underside, which does muddy up its sound a little bit. You can use the laptop's built-in Dolby Home Theater v4 profile editor to tweak various settings in an attempt to encourage more sound—via prebuilt equalizer profiles, your own equalizer settings, or by flipping on and off the app's various other settings (volume leveler, virtual surround sound, dialogue enhancement, etc.). While this did help a bit, we never quite got the laptop to a point where we felt it could be described as "rocking out." The laptop's bass quit around the 150Hz mark, leaving our music a bit lacking in oomph. On the plus side, said speakers do get pretty loud at a relatively low volume within Windows.
Finally, our review unit came with integrated two-stream wireless-ac. That's not as good as the three-stream wireless-ac support you'd find on a MacBook Pro, but it's going to be pretty fast—assuming you have a two- or three-stream wireless-ac router to pair with it.