Lenovo's ThinkPad W series of workstation-class notebooks have long been a compelling choice for mobile business users who are willing to sacrifice a little portability for a lot of power. The new 15-inch W530 features an Ivy Bridge processor and a brand-new island-style keyboard while maintaining the power and flexibility of prior generation W series. If you're looking for a heavy-duty performer for serious work, this $1,599 system definitely fits the bill.
The Lenovo ThinkPad W530 sports the classic all-black aesthetic that ThinkPad fans will love and detractors may decry as dated. For our part, we appreciate tried-and-true design elements such as the soft-touch carbon fiber black lid, the matte black deck and sides and glass-fiber reinforced plastic bottom. Befitting a business notebook, the only accents are the green status lights and the bright red TrackPoint pointing stick. Under its skin, the W530 sports a magnesium roll cage that protects against drops.
At 9.65 x 14.67 x 1.4-inches and 5.8 pounds (with its default 6-cell battery), the W530 isn't particularly thin or light, but it is portable enough for those who require this level of performance. The Dell XPS 15 is quite a bit thinner at 0.91 inches, but weighs a slightly heavier 6 pounds. However, the MacBook Pro with Retina display weighs just 4.46 pounds and is only 0.71 inches thick.
Keyboard and Touchpad
Even among ThinkPads, which are known to offer the best keyboards in the business, the W530 provides a superior typing experience. ThinkPad aficionados will notice that, with its 2012 models, Lenovo has made a radical change in its keyboards, moving from a classic to an island-style design with more space between the keys and a couple of legacy keys that almost nobody uses (scroll lock, pause and break) removed. Though some purists may fear the change in design, the keys have the same infrastructure underneath, offering the same amazing level of tactile feedback, if not more.
Because of the great feedback and the wider key surfaces, we scored our highest mark yet on the Ten Thumbs Typing Test, 96 words per minute with just a 1 percent error rate. That's significantly better than our 80 words-per-minute average. The spill-resistant keyboard is available both with and without a backlight (a $40 option); our review unit came without the backlight, but did have an overhead light that illuminated the entire keyboard area.
Like other ThinkPads, the W530 offers two different pointing devices: a standard touchpad and a TrackPoint pointing stick. For our money, the bright red TrackPoint provides the most accurate navigation available on any notebook and, because the eraser head sits between the G and H keys, it also allowed us to move around the desktop without lifting our hands off the home row.
In our tests, the 3 x 1.75-inch textured touchpad offer highly accurate navigation around the desktop without a hint of jumpiness. Even better, the pad provided butter smooth gesture support for pinch-to-zoom, rotate, three-finger swipe to go back/forth between images, two-finger press to launch the SimpleTap environment and three-finger press to launch an app. The two touchpad buttons offered just the right amount of feedback.
Display and Audio
The 15.6-inch, 1600 x 900 matte screen provided reasonably sharp images with extremely wide viewing angles. When we watched a 1080p trailer for "The Avengers," images were crisp and colors did not wash out, even at 90 degrees to the left or right. Colors such as the red in Iron Man's armor or the blue in Captain America's suit were accurate, but not particularly vibrant. We also dedicated some visual noise in dark scenes. At 170 lux on our light meter, the W530 falls short of the 259 lux mainstream notebook average, but was more than adequate for visually demanding tasks like reading or watching videos.
When configuring the W530 online, Lenovo offers a full HD (1920 x 1080) screen for $200 more; though expensive, we recommend it for the added sharpness. Graphics professionals can also pay an additional $70 for a color calibration sensor.
With its Dolby Home Theater v4 software and speakers on either side of the keyboard, the W530 offers audio playback that's actually good enough to be a low-end stereo. When we played both Patrice Rushen's bass-heavy "Forget Me Nots" and Motley Crue's guitar-laden "Too Young to Fall in Love," the sound was accurate, if not totally rich. The Dolby software, which has preset profiles for music, movies and games along with an equalizer, definitely helps as the music sounded completely hollow with it disabled.
The ThinkPad W530 stayed pleasantly cool throughout our tests. After streaming a full-screen video for 15 minutes, we pointed our heat gun at the system and got readings of just 78 degrees for the touchpad, 82 degrees for the keyboard and 88 degrees Fahrenheit for the bottom. We consider temperatures below 95 degrees comfortable and below 90 degrees imperceptible.
Ports and Webcam
As a workstation-class notebook, the W530 packs a number of ports you won't find on every other notebook. On the right side sits an ExpressCard/34 slot, an SD card slot, a headphone/microphone jack, a DVD burner and a Kensington lock slot. The backside houses a single USB 2.0 port that can charge your gadgets even when the system is off. The left side holds a mini DisplayPort connector, VGA, three USB 3.0 ports, a FireWire connector and a Wi-Fi on/off switch. We would have liked a dedicated HDMI port, but many DisplayPort-to-HDMI adapters exist.
The 720p webcam captured pictures that were decent, but a bit washed-out. It also forced us to tweak a lot of settings to get even decent picture quality. As it turns out, the ThinkPad W530 has two competing drivers installed for the camera, a virtual camera driver and one for the actual hardware. With the virtual camera driver installed, we were able to enable face tracking and the ability to substitute our webcam image with a picture of the desktop, but the resolution was capped at just 640 x 480. Once we uninstalled the virtual camera driver, we were able to shoot images at the full 1280 x 720 resolution the lens allows, but no longer had face-tracking ability.
At both resolutions, images shot under the fluorescent lights of our office seemed washed-out and noisy, particularly when compared with pictures we shot in the same location with Lenovo's ThinkPad X230. When we went into advanced settings and turned off the automatic white balance, pictures appeared warmer and brighter. The Lenovo conference software also lets you control the notebook's dual array microphones and configure them to edit out keyboard noise and focus on one voice or many.
With its 2.9-GHz Intel Core i7-3520M CPU, Nvidia Quadro K1000M graphics, 8GB of RAM and 500GB 7,200-rpm hard drive, the ThinkPad W530 offers plenty of pop for demanding tasks such as crunching large spreadsheets, programming or editing video files. On Geekbench, a synthetic test that measures overall system speed, the notebook scored a powerful 9,431, well above the mainstream notebook average of 6,167.
The 500GB, 7,200-rpm hard drive booted into Windows 7 Professional (64-bit) in a mediocre 59 seconds, actually a bit slower than the 55-second category average. The drive took a more reasonable 1 minute and 51 seconds to complete the LAPTOP File Transfer test, which involves copying 4.97GB of mixed media files. That's a rate of 45.8 MBps, well above the 36.1 MBps category average.
Its powerful processor allowed the ThinkPad W530 to complete the Spreadsheet Macro test in just 4 minutes and 16 seconds, significantly quicker than the 6 minute and 17-second category average or the 4 minutes and 54 seconds it took the Dell XPS 15, which has a 2.1-GHz Core i7-3612QM CPU. The W530 was also adept at transcoding video as it converted a short MP4 file into iPod format in just 10 seconds, noticeably faster than the 16 seconds that the Dell XPS 15 took.
The ThinkPad W530's discrete Nvidia Quadro K1000M graphics chip is built for business use, but good enough for some gaming. On 3DMark11, a synthetic benchmark that measures graphics prowess, the notebook scored a strong 1,215, comfortably above the 997 mainstream notebook average, but not as fast as the 2,275 provided by the MacBook Pro with Retina Display and its Nvidia GT650M graphics chip.
When we tried playing "World of Warcraft" at autodetect settings and native resolution (1600 x 900), we got a blazing frame rate of 93 fps, which dropped to a still-strong 53 fps after we turned up the special effects to max. We were even able to play the demanding "Batman: Arkham City" game at the W530's native resolution, achieving a solid 52 fps with the special effects on low. However, that number dropped to an unplayable 19 fps when we upped the settings.
With its default 6-cell battery, the ThinkPad W530 lasted a solid 6 hours and 23 minutes, nearly an hour longer than the mainstream notebook category average, but quite a bit less time than the Apple MacBook Pro with Retina Display (8 hours and 2 minutes). However, Lenovo offers a 9-cell extended battery for just $50 more and, though we haven't tested it, we would expect it to get at least 8 hours of endurance.
The ThinkPad W530 starts at $1,299. For that price, you get a 2.3-GHz Intel Core i7-3610QM CPU, Nvidia Quadro K1000M Graphics, 4GB of RAM, a 320GB 7,200 rpm hard drive, the 1600 x900 screen and a 6-cell battery. Our $1,599 review unit came with the same screen, but had a faster 2.9-GHz Intel Core i7-3520M CPU, 8GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive.
When purchasing your system on Lenovo.com, you can configure the W530 with your choice of Intel 3rd generation Core i7 CPUs, either a 1600x900 or a 1920 x 1080 display, Nvidia Quadre K1000M or faster K2000M graphics, a color calibrator, up to 32GB of RAM, a 6 or 9 cell battery, a backlit or nonbacklit keyboard and a choice of hard drives that includes a 1TB option and 128GB or 180GB SSDs. We highly recommend configuring with the 9-cell battery ($50) and the 1920 x 1080 screen ($200).
Software and Warranty
Lenovo bundles the ThinkPad W530 with a suite of helpful ThinkVantage utilities. The Communications utility allows you to configure the webcam, adjust brightness/contrast, enable keyboard noise suppression so your call partners can't hear you typing over the conversation, and configure the dual array microphone for single or multiple voices.
Power Manager gives you more detailed control over the power settings than you'll find in the Windows control panel. It also allows you to enable/disable instant Resume, a feature that keeps your Wi-Fi radio connected for several minutes even after the system goes to sleep so that it's ready to go when you wake it up. You can control the powered USB port from here as well, setting it to keep charging devices even with the notebook off.
Lenovo also includes its attractive SimpleTap UI. Particularly useful for notebooks with touch screens, which the W530 is not (and isn't even offered as an option), SimpleTap provides three screens of mini-apps that launch popular websites such as Facebook, Paypal and Wikipedia. Though some of the tiles do nothing more than launch their associated sites in a browser window, others such as the Facebook widget have their own small windows. While none of these mini-apps provide features you couldn't find elsewhere, SimpleTap is an attractive-looking environment.
Lenovo backs the ThinkPad W530 with a standard one-year warranty that includes parts and labor. The company also sells a variety of extended warranties, upgrades to on-site service and accidental damage protection.
If you're looking for a productivity powerhouse and don't mind a little bulk, the $1,599 ThinkPad W530 could be your best choice with its powerful processor, speedy discrete graphics and industry-leading keyboard and pointing devices. However, to get the most out of this notebook, you should configure it with the full HD screen, which really should come standard, but right now adds $200 to the price. After all, you wouldn't want to view the output of all those CPU and GPU cycles on a less-than-optimal display.