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Hardware Review: Lenovo ThinkPad W530

By Matt Lombard, November 1, 2012

The ThinkPad from Lenovo is configured as a portable CAD workstation, so I'm writing this review of it primarily with CAD in mind. This computer is not a trendy one; it is not a light, slim ultraportable or tablet contender. (See figure 1.) Because of the extra compute and graphics power required by CAD applications, this ThinkPad is a hefty laptop, with a power brick that you can't miss.

Figure 1: The ThinkPad W530 workstation laptop from Lenovo

"Portable" for a CAD-oriented laptop generally means you can use it anywhere -- anywhere you can find a power outlet. This is due in part to the power-hungry graphics card, the big, high resolution display, and the cooling requirements from fans -- not to mention the designed-for-desktop processor.

This computer does come with a 9-cell battery that provides 50% more capacity than most laptops, but with display at full brightness, the CPU chugging away on SolidWorks models, and WiFi active, I got less than two hours of juice; you might get a better result. For more mundane applications and with a less power hungry video card and lower resolution display, the laptop is supposed to deliver six hours of run time.

Opening the lid of a laptop gave me a measure of its mechanical design and usability. The laptop opens with a single off-center, thumb-operated latch. Once I knew where it was located, it worked well and held the lid securely closed.

There were a couple of things that struck me when I opened the case. The first thing I noticed was the little white LED light above the top of the display: it illuminated the keyboard by shining down on it. The second was a little lens down below, next to the track pad: it is used to calibrate the color of the display.

I've been using backlit keyboards for several years now. Most of them have translucent keys, with lights under the keys. This one instead has a single light shining down from above, a solution I found a little clunky, though effective; it gave sufficient light for the keys as I typed, although I'm not sure that I'd ever really use this particular feature. It might be appreciated by someone who isn't spoiled by the better system. (The specs for this computer state that keyboard backlighting is available, which I think would be more worthwhile, especially if you work a lot in low light situations, like most CAD users.)

Figure 2: The keyboard of the ThinkPad, with its distinctive TrackPoint (red pointing nub)

While researching for this article, I read on several sites that this particular laptop was supposed to have one of the nicer keyboards on the market. (See figure 2.) Now, I'm a guy who spends a fair amount of time at computer keyboards, and I liked this one, but wasn't crazy about it. I still prefer my desktop keyboard (a Logitech Illuminated Keyboard) and the one on my laptop, a Dell M4400 .

They call the keyboard style on the Lenovo an "island design" because the keys are surrounded by a fascia. (It seems a little slappy to invent words that don't really mean anything.) It certainly is louder than my other keyboards.

The lens next to the trackpad is a color calibrator from Pantone, a $70 option. To use it, I started the calibration software, closed the lid of the computer, and then waited maybe a minute for it to calibrate the colors of the screen to make them more accurate. I don't have an eye for color that could distinguish if color were off by +/- 20%, but I imagine there are people out there who can, and for whom this feature would be a fantastic addition.

Display

The W530 has a 15.6" display, measured diagonally. This is considered "FHD" or full high definition screen (1920x1080), and adds $200 over the base choice, 1600 x 900. I've learned the hard way that I should never take the cheap route with displays on laptops. This one looks great, aside from some very fine text fonts that looked a bit insubstantial or feathery. (They improved significantly when I turned on the Smooth Edges of Screen Fonts setting, as found under Control Panel>System>Advanced System Settings>Performance>Settings.). Otherwise, colors and viewing angle are very good. However, I consider a 15.6" display not big enough for 40-hours-a-week CAD work.

The computer was delivered to me with the Adjust for Best Performance setting turned on, which meant that some display options were turned off and made Windows not look very good. This is a bit spartan for my taste, but Lenovo says that most reviewers prefer it set this way. (It turns out that the spartan look lets computers run faster and get a faster Passmark score.) I tweaked settings to enable Aero display, and Show Contents of Window While Dragging. To me, these are basic usability settings that don't detract from overall compute/video performance noticeably.

Video

To display video on external monitors, the W530 has VGA and DisplayPort connectors. There is no DVI, no HDMI. If you find yourself stuck with an older DVI monitor or digital projector, you may experience some inconvenience, unless you are packing a converter cable. The smaller DisplayPort connector is a significant improvement over the big old VGA and DVI connectors, closely resembling a USB port.

Figure 3: Ports found on the side of the W530, including two USB 3.0 ports (in blue)

The video card on this machine is the latest Quadro K2000M from nVidia. According to the nVidia Web site, this is their highest spec'ed video card for the 15.6" platform. The base option is the K1000M model, with the same 2GB of memory, but saving $250 on the price. The price difference is due to the doubled number of nVidia's CUDA Parallel Processor Cores – 384 versus 192. I imagine the speed difference noticeable to the user might not be double, but it should feel substantially faster than using the base hardware. The upgraded video chews another 10 Watts in an already power-hungry portable CAD workstation.

My tests with the video on this computer gave great results. The display rotated smoothly, even with complex, curvy models. It is not susceptible to the common problem of the display freezing, except behind some of the small windows that pop up on the SolidWorks screen.

Even using the Ambient Occlusion option in the SolidWorks display only made the display hesitate a fraction of a second after releasing the view rotation. The video card seems to be a good match for the high end processor on this machine.

Trackpad

Figure 4: The coarsely-textured trackpad on the Lenovo laptop

The trackpad has a coarse texture to it, which at first was to me a little unsettling, because I'm used to trackpads having a light matte finish. (See figure 4.) It has buttons at the top and at the bottom, which worked well.

I missed the scroll zone on the right hand side of the trackpad, something I use on other laptops. It has the TrackPoint navigation nub within the keyboard, which worked well enough when I tested it; most importantly, it didn't get in the way when I was typing.

Connectivity

Figure 5: Ports and DVD drive on the other side of the laptop

I found two USB v3.0 ports for increased peripheral speed (one is always on, for providing power even when the computer is off), and two USB v2.0, plus a FireWire port.

For today's world, it also had a card reader (SD/SDHC/SDXC/MMC), a 3.5 mm combo headphone/mic jack, SmartCard reader, and network cable jack. WiFi is, of course, built in, with a switch to toggle it off, as well as DVD drive. (See figure 5.)

Processor

The processor on board is the Core i7-3920XM running at 2.9 GHz, the top Intel processor available for this laptop, and adding $835 to the base price. If I am doing real work with real CAD models, I don't want to be waiting around for my computer.

When spec'ing any kind of workstation for CAD, the processor is one place you don't want to low-ball it. It's the single most pricy option that can be added to a new order, but it is also the one that help you get your work done more quickly.

Nice Touches

My unit also came with a finger print reader, an HD webcam, and Dolby sound. The sound was very nice for a laptop. Another thing I really like about it is the little battery meter that shows me then time left on the battery, rather than just a percentage. It came preloaded with Norton, MS Office trial, Corel, and Microsoft Visual Studio 2005 -- not so useful to me.

Some of these touches are things that I would be willing to sacrifice to keep the overall cost down. If you use a work laptop for personal tasks, then maybe you'll find the added software useful.

Benchmarking

Quantitative benchmarks are a staple of hardware reviews, but are not always upon which we should base our decisions to purchase hardware. Automated benchmarks don't always reflect real-world usage; they tend to exaggerate specific situations.

For this review, I included results from a range of benchmarks. In performing the benchmarks and trying to interpret results, I was reminded that we really do need to question the their validity; they are not all created equal, as you will see.

Windows Experience Index. The simplest benchmark is the Windows Experience Index, included with Windows Vista, 7, and 8. You find it in Control Panel>System. While this isn't a highly regarded benchmark, it serves as a great quick glance at a new systems; it helps us see where the strengths and weaknesses of a system lie. After I ran it, it produced the scores shown in figure 6:

Figure 6: The Windows Experience Index is a hardware-only benchmark

It shows that the slowest component is the hard drive, by far. A SSD (solid state drive) would benefit this computer quite a bit. The installed drive is a Toshiba 500GB drive turning at 7200 rpm (rotations per minute), which is fast for a hard drive in a laptop. I would have put a 120GB SSD in as a primary drive for programs, caches, and the operating system, and left the 500GB drive as a secondary drive for data storage. This would raise the price for sure, but losing options like the thumb reader, color calibrator, Webcam, and overhead keyboard lamp would compensate.

Figure 7: Results from the Passmark benchmark

Passmark. I ran the Passmark benchmark, and the overall score was 2052. (See figure 7.) Passmark enables you to compare performance data in many different ways, and break it down to individual components.

It shows that the CPU is top-line, especially for a portable. When compared against other machines with the same processor, the W530 beats some of them, such as the Eurocomm Monster, but then loses to others, like the Dell M4700 and M6700 -- all of them laptops.

Anna's Punch Holder. This is a homegrown test that uses SolidWorks. There are a few problems using it as a technical benchmark; on the other hand, the results are pretty well laid out and so it gives us a quick idea of how the computer stands against others like it.

Figure 8: Running the SolidWorks-based Punch Holder benchmark

The test consists of simply rebuilding a part with a lot of holes; when done, it generates an internal SolidWorks report on how long it took. (See figure 8.) There are several things this benchmark does not measure, but at least it is consistent, and we have a wealth of results from a long list of SolidWorks versions and different hardware.

 

 

 

Figure 9: Comparing results from the Punch Mark spreadsheet

This Lenovo laptop completed the Punch Holder in 57.53 seconds. When we look at Anna's spreadsheet (see figure 9), we see only a couple of laptops around that time, but none using the newest versions of SolidWorks. (My test was done on the newly released SW 2013 sp0.) You can see this machine is in the running with a lot of home-built rigs, which usually are hand-optimized to run faster than mass-produced computers. The fastest times (down to about 40 seconds) are all done on desktops, not laptops.

SolidWorks Performance Test. I tried to use the formal SolidWorks Performance Test, but that turned out to be more a benchmark of benchmarks, rather than a benchmark of the hardware.

Figure 10: Results from the SolidWorks benchmark

First, I cannot use it with a 30-day software trial, because the benchmark restarts the software several times and each time asks if I want to activate. Beyond this, the benchmark contains a rendering, so if I have only SolidWorks Standard, I again see an activation screen every time the benchmark gets to the rendering stage. (Rendering requires PhotoView360, which is in SolidWorks Professional.) Many of the results listed in the Share Your Score page don't make any sense, with both wildly high and low scores, and inconsistent names for benchmark tests between what I see on my computer and what I see on the comparison site. (See figure 10.)

Quirks

There are a couple of quirks that I found on this machine. The most problematic issue was Windows Update. One update kept failing and resetting, until I contacted Lenovo support. In a single email with a clear set of instructions, they instructed me apply one update by itself, then the rest worked as they should. This was as positive a support experience as I could ask for.

If this had been my own computer, I would have reformatted the hard drive, installed a SSD drive, and then reinstalled Windows 7 clean -- without any of the junk OEMs tend to throw in there, such as Norton and someone else's idea of cloud storage software.

Summary

I found the Lenovo W530 to be a nice, portable CAD machine, when properly equipped. Don't go cheap on the video or the display, and consider a solid state drive to round out this powerful tool. There are some bells and whistles I could live without if I needed to keep down the cost.

The hardware considered on its own seems solid and well-built, with good connectivity options and all the things you need to do business on the road. It's not small, it's not light, but if you have to do CAD on the go, this is the tool you need to do it.

This computer was sent to me by Lenovo for evaluation purposes. The base price is $1,104.15, and as-tested price was $2,592.99. These prices include a three-year warranty.

Specs
Name: Lenovo ThinkPad W530
OS: Windows 7 Professional 64 bit
Processor: Core i7-3920wx 2.9 Ghz
RAM: 16 GB 1600 Mhz
Storage: Toshiba 500 GB 7200 rpm
DVD: Multiburner
Graphics: nVidia Quadra K2000M
Display: 15.6" 1920x1080
Ports:  2x USB 3.0, 2x USB 2.0, 1x Mini DisplayPort, 4 in 1 card reader, VGA, FireWire
Battery: 9 cell
WiFi: Intel N-6205
Bluetooth: Yes
Camera: HD 720p
Color: Pantone X-Rite Calibrator
Security: Fingerprint reader
Warranty: 3 year

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Additional Information

Lenovo ThinkPad W530 - corporate product page

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About the Author

Matt Lombard is a leading expert on SOLIDWORKS. He has written the SOLIDWORKS Bibles as well as books about SOLIDWORKS surfaces and SOLIDWORKS administration. He has a BSME from RIT. More...

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