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PRODUCT REVIEW: Lenovo ThinkPad W520 mobile workstation

PRODUCT REVIEW: Lenovo ThinkPad W520 mobile workstation

A semi-rugged laptop that's designed for professionals

The Lenovo ThinkPad W520 (428426M) is a 15.6-inch workstation laptop that's designed for users who want fast performance for graphics, video, design or programming work. It has a typically squarish design and a lot of high-end features — including a 15.6-inch, Full HD screen and inbuilt colour calibration. It is an expensive investment, but if you need a powerful and well-built laptop with which to make your money then this might not be a hurdle for you.

Specifications and performance

While the ThinkPad W520 is available in different configurations, we looked at the 428426M, which is kitted with a Second Generation Intel Core i7-2620M CPU, a Full HD (1920x1080) LED-backlit screen, NVIDIA Quadro 1000M graphics (with 2GB RAM and Optimus switching technology), 4GB of 1333MHz DDR3 SDRAM (it supports up to 16GB) and a 500GB, 3Gbps, 7200rpm hard drive. Initially, this configuration didn't perform well at all in our tests and the machine delivered speeds that were under half what we expected. Changing power profiles didn't make things run quicker, but disabling and re-enabling Optimus graphics seemed to do the trick.

The ThinkPad W520's Core i7-2620M runs at 2.7GHz, and it has two cores and Hyper-Threading. It helped the laptop to a time of 38sec in our Blender 3D test (using four threads) and 46sec in our iTunes MP3 encoding test. Both of these times are slower than the Dell Vostro 3550, which we're comparing here because it uses the same CPU, but this doesn't mean that the W520 is sluggish. It was only 1sec slower than the Dell in Blender and 2sec slower in iTunes. However, the ThinkPad posted a much better time in our video transcoding test. Using AutoGordianKnot, our test DVD file was turned into a 1.45GB Xvid file in only 46min. This is 5min better than what the Dell achieved in the same test.

In our hard drive transfer test, in which we copy 2.12GB worth of 2-50MB files from one location on the hard drive to another, the 7200rpm hard drive recorded a rate of 31.64 megabytes per second. This isn't the fastest rate we've seen from a single 7200rpm, 500GB drive, but anything over 30MBps is generally a good result in this test. The hard drive is mounted in rubber dampers and it's monitored by a motion sensor, which parks the heads when it detects excessive movement. You can order the ThinkPad with a 160GB Intel SSD instead, which will boost the performance of the laptop, eliminate drive noise, as well as slightly reduce its heat and weight — but you'll have to fork over an extra $480.

The ThinkPad W250's NVIDIA Quadro 1000M graphics adapter has 2GB of GDDR5 RAM and it recorded a score of 8299 in 3DMark06. This shows that it has plenty of guts when it comes to processing real-time 3D graphics, but it's not designed for gaming. It's designed to accelerate design and graphics applications such as AutoCAD, Photoshop and 3dsMAX. A full list of certified applications can be found on NVIDIA's Web site.

We appeared to have some problems with graphics card's Optimus feature though. When we initially ran our benchmarks with Optimus enabled in the BIOS, all of our benchmarks ran a lot slower than we expected (despite choosing the maximum power profile). As soon as we disabled Optimus and then re-enabled it, the benchmark results were more along the lines of what we expected. You can customise Optimus through the installed NVIDIA driver, and tell it which programs should use the Quadro graphics card and which ones should use integrated graphics.

Design and features

The ThinkPad W520 is semi-rugged and it feels very solid. It's designed to be immune to vibration, dust and major temperature changes, and its chassis can take a lot of force without bending, even when the side that contains the optical drive is pressed. There is a large vent on the left side and a fan is present to cool the system. It doesn't get overly loud, even under a full load. Metal hinges are used to hold the screen perfectly at the angle you desire, but the screen is the only flimsy part of the notebook. That's not to say that we think it will easily break — it's just that there is plenty of flexibility in its lid and puddles show on the screen when it's stressed.

The keyboard is spill resistant, feels rock-solid and its full-sized keys have almost perfect softness and responsiveness. The keyboard is not of the chiclet variety and all the keys are tightly packed next to each other. They are not backlit, but the customary Lenovo screen-mounted light is present and does a decent job of shining on the keyboard and your hands while you type in darkness. Unlike many other 15.6in laptops on the market, the W520 doesn't have a number pad, which may put off users who are used to crunching numbers with one. The extra space on the chassis is given to two speakers, which provide decent sound quality for video and music work.

There are two navigation devices that can be used on the ThinkPad: a touchpad and a TrackPoint. The touchpad has little bumps on it that feel a little funny at first, but you get used to them after using it for a while. It supports gestures such as two-finger scrolling, pinch zooming, two-finger rotating and three-finger flicking. However, we had some problems with its responsiveness while using it. It often didn't register taps and sometimes two-finger scrolling required a couple of tries before it would work. There is a comprehensive mouse driver where the sensitivity of the pad can be adjusted, but this didn't fix our problem. The TrackPoint is very convenient to use if you're resting the ThinkPad on your lap, and it was very accurate and easy to use in our tests. However, it did sometimes get in the way while typing.

A fingerprint reader is present on the right side of the palm rest and can be used to quickly log in to the system even when it's powered off. This means that a single swipe can boot the system and log you in automatically. The W520 actually boots relatively quickly — we clocked it at 32sec from full off to the time it took to get to the Windows 7 Professional screen.

Around the edges, you get Gigabit Ethernet, a 56Kbps modem, an SD card reader, an ExpressCard/34 slot, a DVD burner, a VGA port, DisplayPort, FireWire and a physical Wi-Fi switch. There are four USB ports, two of which are USB 2.0, and one which also doubles as an eSATA port. You also get Bluetooth and dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi.

Display

We love the ThinkPad's matte screen, which isn't susceptible to reflections. It has a high brightness level and its contrast and colour reproduction are brilliant compared to the majority of notebook screens we've seen to date. It has a native resolution of 1920x1080, which is a little disappointing considering the W510 was available with a 1920x1200 screen — you can never have too much vertical resolution. The viewing angles of the screen are wide; you can sit to the side of this notebook and still see photos and designs clearly and without too much colour shift. Vertical angles are decent. For professional imaging and design applications, the screen can be calibrated by the built-in X-Rite PANTONE sensor in the palm-rest. To calibrate it, you simply start the Color Calibrator application, select the colour profile you desire and close the lid.

Battery life

With a 9-cell, 94 Watt-hour battery sticking out of its spine, the W520 (428426M) weighs over 2.8kg; that's without its huge power brick, which adds to the weight considerably and makes it a chore to lug around. Luckily a slim, 170W power adapter is offered.

The large battery lasted 6hr 07min in our battery rundown test, in which we disable power management, enable Wi-Fi, maximise screen brightness and loop an Xvid-encoded video. That was using Optimus technology to control the graphics. When we ran the test with the NVIDIA Quadro 1000M as the primary adapter, the same battery test lasted 3hr 20min.

Lenovo ships the ThinkPad W520 with a comprehensive battery utility for customising power profiles. In times when the battery is about to run out and you want to prolong the inevitable as much as possible, you can use the Battery Stretch feature, which disables many features and lowers brightness in order to make the battery last as long as possible.

Conclusion

Overall, the ThinkPad W520 is a beast. Whether it's worth the high asking price is questionable, but if you require a semi-rugged notebook with plenty of speed, then it certainly needs to be considered. It feels solid and comfortable to type on and its screen quality is excellent. That said, we think its lid could stand to be a little more rigid, we wish its screen resolution was a little higher, and we wish its touchpad was better.

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Tags mobilityproductsnotebooksbluetoothlaptopsDell Vostromobile solutionsNVIDIA Quadroworkstation laptopLenovo ThinkPad W520TrackPoint

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