Lenovo Thinkpad W550s Review

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Editors' rating:
The Pros

Military-grade 810G durability; Strong overall performance; Bright and accurate glare-free screen; Phenomenal battery life; Comfortable, spill-proof keyboard

The Cons

Heavy; Weak audio

Verdict

Designed with the mobile graphics pro in mind, the ThinkPad W550s delivers mil-spec durability, powerful Nvidia K620M graphics and a whopping 15-plus hours of battery life.

For graphics professionals who want a workstation that can endure long days, Lenovo's ThinkPad W550s is a dream come true. With a 3-cell battery in front and giant 6-cell battery in back, the W550s lasts a practically obscene 16 hours on a charge. The 15.5-inch W550s ($2,640 as tested, starting at $1,133) also features Lenovo's traditional no-nonsense design combined with MIL-SPEC 810G durability on the outside and an Intel Core i7 CPU, 16GB of RAM, 512GB SSD and Nvidia K620M GPU on the inside. While its performance lags just a bit behind workstations from MSI and HP, the W550s's comprehensive feature set and superior ergonomics make it the most well-rounded.

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Design

The design of the W550s doesn't differ much from that of previous ThinkPads, but that's not a bad thing. The W550s maintains its professional look with Lenovo's classic matte-black plastic body (reinforced by carbon fiber), with a chunky steel hinge and a silver ThinkPad logo embedded with a blinking red LED.

Inside, the matte-black finish continues to the deck, broken up by a fingerprint reader below the arrow keys and an offset touchpad beneath the spacebar. Ports are placed along the sides, while the bottom features a plethora of vents for cooling the Nvidia K620M GPU.

At 15 x 10.2 x 0.92 inches and weighing 5.47 pounds, the ThinkPad W550s is thicker and heavier than such competing workstations as HP ZBook 15u G2 (14.8 x 10 x 0.84-inches and 4.23 pounds), and the MSI WS60 (15.4 x 10.5 x 0.78-inches and 4.36 pounds), although only the HP has a similar level of durability.

Durability and Security

The W550s features military-standard 810G durability, which means it has been tested to withstand temperatures ranging from -4 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, humidity up to 98 percent, UV radiation and more. The carbon-fiber-reinforced body is also designed to resist high acceleration and repeated mechanical shock. However, without the super-chunky bumpers seen on systems such as Dell's Rugged Extreme notebooks, the W550s is not meant to handle a full-out rough and tumble lifestyle.

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The W550s also has multiple security features, such as a Trusted Platform Module (TPM) chip, optional fingerprint and Smart card readers, and the ability to set passwords for power on and storage.

Keyboard and Touchpad

I loved typing on the ThinkPad W550s. The backlit keys have a long, 2.3-millimeter travel distance with a 62-gram actuation weight that feels soft without being mushy. These factors combined to let me hit 82 words per minute on 10fastfingers.com's typing test, which is higher than my typical average of 75-80 words per minute.

Lenovo also customized the keyboard layout, moving Print Screen to the lower right, while adding shortcuts above the number pad for commonly used tools and functions like Calculator and Internet. The W550s has drains strategically placed around the keyboard, so the system can resist spills and splashes.

The touchpad measures a spacious 4 x 2.2-inches, which works in tandem with the three additional mouse buttons and a responsive and accurate pointing stick to provide a wealth of control options. The pad features a smooth, matte surface, although I wish the stiff upper section had the same satisfying click I felt on the bottom. As expected, two-finger scrolling and pinch-to-zoom gestures worked smoothly.

Display

The ThinkPad W550's 15.5-inch 2,880 x 1,620 touch screen delivers accurate colors and an anti-glare coating that minimizes distractions. One issue is that the coating adds a faint rainbow iridescence to the display, making colors appear a little less vibrant, especially on lighter backgrounds. This meant that when I watched the trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the wrecked Star Destroyer in the background didn't look as sharp as it did on other displays.

When measured with a light meter, the W550s's screen produced 312 nits of brightness, about the same as HP's ZBook 15u G2 (307 nits), but almost 100 more than the MSI WS60 (215 nits).

The ThinkPad W550s also has a nearly perfect color range, covering 100.2 percent of the sRGB spectrum. The HP ZBook 15u G2 features a nearly identical range of 100.4 percent, while the MSI WS60 placed far behind, at just 78.1 percent.

In terms of color accuracy, the W550s notched a Delta-E rating (closer to zero is better) of 2.72, slightly behind the HP ZBook 15u G2 (1.68), but much better than the MSI WS60 (11.6)

Audio

The ThinkPad W550s features stereo speakers hidden behind grilles on the bottom of the laptop. Unfortunately, the sound quality is mediocre at best. When I listened to The Fashion's "Like Knives" at max volume, the speakers crackled and popped with distorted audio. When I turned the volume down a bit, I was disappointed by hollow mids, tinny highs and weak bass.

Heat

On the Laptop Mag Heat Test (15 minutes of streaming HD video from Hulu), the bottom of the W550s reached 101 degrees Fahrenheit. While this is above our typical 95-degree comfort threshold, it's still 10 degrees cooler than the scalding 115-degree temps we saw on the MSI WS60. Thankfully, the touchpad and the space between the G and H keys were more pleasant to the touch, at 80 and 86 degrees, respectively.

Ports and Webcam

This ThinkPad's ports are split between the left and right sides with connections for power, VGA, headset, Ethernet, SD Card and one USB 3.0 slot on the left, and two USB 3.0 ports and a mini DisplayPort on the right. On the bottom lies a connector for Lenovo's ThinkPad Ultradock ($300), which adds multiple video connections (VGA, DVI, HDMI and DisplayPort), headset jack, 6 USB ports and pass-through charging when you're set up at a desk. 

Above the display, there's a webcam that captures images at 1,280 x 720, with support for video up to 30 fps. In a self-portrait in our well-lit office, the W550s' camera did a good job of capturing individual strands of my hair, but the low-resolution photos looked grainier than I'd like.

Performance

Featuring a 2.6-GHz Intel Core i7-5600U CPU, 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD, the ThinkPad W550s shrugs off typical multitasking situations, even with upward of 20 tabs open in Chrome while simultaneously streaming two 1080p videos from YouTube.

When we ran GeekBench 3 to evaluate overall system performance, the W550s scored 6,860. That's slightly behind the HP ZBook 15u G2 (6,892 with an Intel Core i7-5600 CPU, 16GB of RAM and 256GB PCIe SSD), but just half that of the MSI WS60 (13,003 with an Intel Core i7-4710HQ CPU, 16GB of RAM, dual 128GB SSDs and 1TB HDD).

The big disparity in performance scores is due to the MSI WS60's RAID 0 SSDs. The W550s has a single 512GB SDD, which took 32 seconds to duplicate 4.97GB of mixed-media files. That makes for a transfer rate of 159 MBps, which falls within the expected speed for an SSD, but is slightly behind the 175.6 MBps of the HP Zbook 15u G2's 256 PCIe SSD, and half as fast as the WS60's RAID 0 SSDs (365.5 MBps).

When we used OpenOffice to match 20,000 names and addresses, the W550s finished in 4 minutes and 42 seconds. That's a little more than 20 seconds slower than the Zbook 15u G2 (4:15), and almost a minute longer than the WS60 (3:53).

Graphics

While the K620M and its 2GB of video RAM are part of Nvidia's line of entry-level professional graphics, the W550s didn't fall too far behind its competition in terms of visual horsepower. When I played Dota 2 at 2,880 x 1,620 and max settings, the W550s easily stayed above our 30 fps playability threshold.

On 3DMark's Fire Strike graphics benchmark, The W550s scored 1,457, almost identical to the AMD FirePro M4170-powered HP ZBook 15u G2 (1,461), but about 13 percent behind MSI's WS60 and its more powerful Nvidia Quadro K2100M GPU.

In World of Warcraft at 1,920 x 1,080 and Ultra settings, the W550s averaged 36 frames per second, behind the WS60 (44 fps), but ahead of the HP ZBook 15u G2 (22.1 fps).

Battery Life

With its combination of a 3-cell internal and 6-cell 72 watt-hour external batteries, the W550s lasted a chart-topping 15 hours and 52 minutes on the Laptop Mag Battery Test (continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi at 100 nits of brightness). That's five times longer than MSI's short-lived WS60 workstation (3:05), and twice as long as HP's ZBook 15u G2 (6:44). Thanks to Lenovo's Power Bridge technology, you can swap in new batteries for even longer life without ever needing to turn the system off. 

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But that longevity doesn't come without a cost. The bulky 6-cell battery pack juts out from the bottom of the case, raising the back of the laptop up by about half an inch when it's resting on a flat surface. And both the 3-cell front battery ($45) and the 72-Wh battery ($10 upgrade) are optional extras; only the 6-cell 47 Wh rear battery comes standard.

Configurations

Lenovo offers a ready-to-ship W550s configuration featuring an Intel Core i7-5500U CPU, 8GB of RAM, 256GB SSD, Nvidia Quadro K620M graphics card with 2GB of VRAM and a nontouch 15.5-inch 2,880 x 1,620 screen, all for $1,669.

If you're looking to choose your own components, the W550s starts at $1,130 for an Intel Core i7 CPU, 1,920 x 1,080 screen, 4GB of RAM, 500GB HDD and an Nvidia Quadro K620M CPU, and goes up in price from there. Our $2,460 review unit packs an Intel Core i7-5600U CPU, 16GB of RAM, 512GB SSD, Nvidia Quadro K620M GPU and a sharper 2,880 x 1,620 touch screen. 

Software and Warranty

The W550s comes preinstalled with Windows 8.1 Pro, a suite of Lenovo utilities, some Microsoft software (Skype, Bing Translator, Office) and such third-party apps as Norton Internet Security, Evernote and Adobe Reader. The Norton trial pop-ups are a little annoying to deal with, but once you get rid of those, you're left with a relatively clean install.

Unfortunately, the W550s comes with just a one-year standard warranty instead of the three-year warranty seen on some of Lenovo's other business PCs such as its M83 Tiny mini PC.

Bottom Line 

While the W550s isn't quite as fast or as light as HP's Zbook 15u G2 or MSI's WS60, its monstrous 16-hour battery life makes up for that. And at $2,460, it costs $200 less than the MSI, while also featuring an excellent keyboard and military-grade 810G durability. Other highlights include a bright display with accurate colors and fairly speedy graphics performance.

If you're willing to deal with a little increased heft in return for endurance that will outlast your workday, then the Lenovo W550s is the workstation you're looking for.

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CPU 2.6-GHz Intel Core i7-5600U processor
Operating System Windows 8.1 Pro
RAM 16GB
RAM Upgradable to
Hard Drive Size 512GB
Hard Drive Speed n/a
Hard Drive Type SSD Drive
Secondary Hard Drive Size
Secondary Hard Drive Speed
Secondary Hard Drive Type
Display Size 15.5
Native Resolution 2880 x 1620
Optical Drive None
Optical Drive Speed
Graphics Card Nvidia Quadro K620M (2GB)
Video Memory 2GB
Wi-Fi 802.11ac
Wi-Fi Model Intel Dual Band Wireless- AC 7265, 2x2, Wi-Fi + Bluetooth, M.2 card
Bluetooth Bluetooth 4.0
Mobile Broadband
Touchpad Size 4 x 2.2-inches
Ports (excluding USB) mini DisplayPort/Thunderbolt
Ports (excluding USB) VGA
Ports (excluding USB) USB 3.0
Ports (excluding USB) Smart Card Reader
Ports (excluding USB) RJ-45
USB Ports 3
Warranty/Support
Size
Weight 5.47
Company Website http://www.lenovo.com/us/en/
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