Test Center review: The mightiest ThinkPad

Lenovo's beastly ThinkPad W700ds mobile workstation is a laptop in name only, for better and worse

"The Beast" is the nickname I've picked for the Lenovo ThinkPad W700ds, which has dominated my test bench for the past two weeks. A massive machine -- my test unit measures a healthy 16.1 by 12.2 by 2.1 inches -- the W700ds is what you might call a LINO: laptop in name only. No sane businessperson would haul one of these 11-pound monstrosities around (13 pounds with the power brick), which is just fine with Lenovo. The W700ds isn't aimed at the run-of-the-mill ThinkPad crowd, but at the extreme mobile customer: hard-core graphics artists and power users who need to run high-end 3-D workstation applications. For these rarefied souls, the W700ds provides an attractive slate of unique features.

First, the basics: The W700 series is Lenovo's answer to the mobile workstation segment, a category of high-end "luggable" systems characterized by support for various Extreme Edition Intel CPUs -- including the quad-core QX9300 in my test rig -- and 8GB or more of RAM.

[ The perfect laptop for a number of InfoWorld readers includes a dual screen. See "The perfect laptop, take two," the companion slideshow of perfect laptop features, and the interactive Flash illustrations of the InfoWorld WorldBooks. ]

In the case of the W700ds, Lenovo has added a new wrinkle to the mobile workstation fabric: the inclusion of a secondary 10.6-inch LCD screen to complement the primary 17-inch unit (see photo or video demo). The result is a 39 percent increase in available screen real estate, along with additional weight and bulk.

Looks good on paper
Alas, in practice the secondary screen is more a gimmick than a useful feature. For starters, the screen is mounted in a portrait orientation (it slides out of a slot in the right edge of the primary screen), with the vertical measurement the greater of the little display's dimensions. This allows it to approximate a seamless extension of the primary screen. I say "approximate" because the unit's vertical resolution (1,280 pixels) doesn't exactly match that of the primary screen (1,200 pixels), though it's hard to notice the slight misalignment during normal use.

Easier to notice is the difference in image quality. The primary screen is Lenovo's latest-generation LCD with a full 72 percent color gamut reproduction and exceptional brightness (400 nits). The screen is further buttressed by an integrated color calibration system that can automatically adjust the video card's color tuning parameters based on an analysis of the displayed image.

Unfortunately, the secondary screen is not nearly as impressive, with a much narrower color range and lower brightness (280 nits). It also doesn't benefit from the hueyPRO color calibration system, which is only applicable to the primary screen. The net result is an uneven experience that, combined with a limited horizontal display area (768 pixels), makes the secondary screen appropriate for hosting floating or dockable application control panels and dialogs, but not much else.

Another interesting wrinkle is the inclusion of a Wacom digitizer as part of the W700ds' palm rest area. Though tiny in comparison to a full-size digitizer tablet, the built-in Wacom unit is surprisingly usable and should find a solid fan base with the more serious designers and artists. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for the W700ds' track pad. The input surface area seems undersized when compared to most competing systems, and both the track pad and the ubiquitous TrackPoint "eraser head" lack the all-important third mouse button favored by workstation application users and developers.

Under the hood
On a positive note, the W700ds supports simple two-disk RAID 0/1 configurations (my test unit came with a pair of 250GB, 5,400-rpm disks) via a set of easily accessible, dedicated drive slots on the left side of the chassis. Add to this the integrated DVD/CD-RW drive and you have one of the only shipping three-spindle configurations on the market -- the other being the Dell Precision M6400.

In fact, it's hard not to think of the M6400 as you evaluate the W700ds. Like the Dell, the Lenovo unit uses fast DDR-3 memory running against a 1,066MHz front side bus (its other competitor, the HP EliteBook 8730w, uses slower DDR-2 memory). However, unlike the Dell, the Lenovo is limited to the standard 8GB of RAM as defined by the current Intel Centrino 2 specification. The Dell M6400 supports up to 16GB, thanks to its hybrid Q45/Q43 chip set design. The Lenovo W700ds uses the less scalable PM45 chip set.

[ Read the Test Center's previous comparison of the competing Dell Precision M6400 and HP EliteBook 8730w mobile workstations. ]

The new ThinkPad also falls short of the competition in display quality. Although the W700ds sports Lenovo's latest and greatest backlit LCD, its 72 percent color gamut reproduction pales in comparison to the 100 percent match of the LED-backlit displays available on both the Dell and HP units. Combined with the Dell's edge-to-edge glass display option or the sleek, non-LINO-sized chassis of the HP 8730w, these next-generation display options give the competition a coolness factor that the W700ds simply can't match (though that secondary screen is sure to turn a few heads in the airport lounge).

In terms of performance, the W700ds falls somewhere in between the speedy HP 8730w and the speedier Dell M6400. Disk-intensive tasks, like the DMS Clarity Studio SQL database tests used in the earlier head-to-head comparison, showed a benefit from the two-disk RAID 0 configuration, but still fell short of the Dell, thanks to the latter's faster 7,200-rpm drives. Likewise, testing under VMware Workstation showed the W700ds trailing the Dell in the VM cloning task by roughly 13 percent.

One bright spot: SPEC ViewPerf 10 showed an edge for the W700ds in a couple of categories. However, given the fact that both the Lenovo and its competitors share an identical video card engine -- the Nvidia Quadro FX3700M with 1GB of discrete memory -- the W700ds' performance advantage is most likely the result of its newer driver stack (176.95 vs. 176.53 for the Dell). See Lab Notes for the comparative test results.

Other features include the prerequisite USB ports (five of them); mini-FireWire port; DisplayPort, DVI and D-SUB video outputs; dual ExpressCard slots (34mm and 54mm); and a 7-in-1 multimedia card reader. Notably absent is an e-SATA port; you'll need to spring for the optional port replicator to get one of those (both the Dell and HP units sport at least one dual-mode USB/e-SATA connector).

Overall, the Lenovo ThinkPad W700ds is the perfect mobile workstation for users who value power and expandability over portability. Heavy and quite bulky, this LINO is the epitome of kitchen-sink engineering. Its only technical drawback is the lack of an LED-backlit display option. Otherwise, you'll be hard pressed to find a more capable unit. Just remember to bend your knees before hoisting this battleship of a machine into the overhead compartment.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Performance (30.0%)
Expandability (20.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Usability (25.0%)
Manageability (15.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Lenovo ThinkPad W700ds 9.0 9.0 7.0 7.0 8.0 8.1

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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