A true 15-inch ThinkPad mobile workstation, the W520 delivers serious performance for professionals who need it. The Lenovo ThinkPad W520 is Lenovo’s upgrade to the W510 mobile workstation notebook. This 15.6-inch notebook is powered by up to an Intel Core i7-2920XM processor and equipped with up to a discrete NVIDIA Quadro 1000M GPU, switchable to Intel HD integrated graphics. Like last year?s model, the full HD (FHD) displays on the 1920 x 1080 resolution models have a 95% color gamut and a huey PRO color calibration system application. At the time of writing this review Lenovo has not yet announced if there will be an upcoming multi-touch screen option like last year or not.
In this review we will measure the ThinkPad W520 up with other workstations in its class by putting every specific detail of it to the test. Read on to find out if this is the laptop for you.
Our Lenovo ThinkPad W520 Specifications:
- 15.6-inch FHD (1920 x 1080) LED backlit display, 95% color gamut, matte, 16:9 ratio
- Microsoft Windows 7 Professional (64-bit)
- Intel Core i7-2920XM quad-core CPU (2.50GHz, 8MB cache), Intel Turbo Boost 2.0 (3.50GHz)
- NVIDIA Quadro 1000M w/2GB DDR3 VRAM
- 4 GB DDR3 RAM
- 500GB at 7200 RPM SATA hard drive (Seagate Momentus)
- Multiburner combo drive
- Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6205 (802.11 a/b/g/n wireless) and Bluetooth
- 9-cell Li-ion battery (94Whr), 170W and 20V adapter
- Lenovo Fingerprint Reader
- Dimensions: 14.68″ x 9.65″ x 1.29-1.44″
- Starting at 5.75 lbs with 9-cell battery and at 5.40 lbs with 6-cell battery
Build and Design
ThinkPad workstations have always been known to be top-of-the-line, updated systems in terms of performance, FHD display, build quality, battery and power consumption, and carry a host of features such as the Fingerprint Reader, nice upgrade options, and a great port selection. This workstation is expected to live up to those who have high ThinkPad standards and expectations.
From the looks of it, the outer build of the W520 is about the same as the previous generation workstation model, the W510. Lenovo stuck with the same ultra sturdy hinges, still evenly built width-wise due to a build fix to the older models. The hinge and display cover are so well-built that it takes a good amount of force to even tilt the screen back or forward (which is reassuring of course). The palm rest and keyboard are both extremely tough as well?showing no flex when typing regularly and only a minimal amount of flex when trying to press down extremely hard.
Some minor outer design changes include the newly-added Lenovo company label on the front of the screen casing, new carbon fiber mixed with the glass fiber onto the display cover (no more reinforced plastic), and the absence of paint over the glass ﬁber/reinforced plastic on the base. On that note, some consumers may find that the finish on the base and display cover to be disconcerting because it easily collects dust, grease, and fingerprints. In short, the finish may prove to be high maintenance throughout the daily usage of the notebook. Even though most black-colored notebooks will seem to show dust more often just because of the color, this laptop seems to carry grease from the fingers more so than most other business notebooks I?ve had the pleasure of using.
Lenovo made the bottom upgrade panels and keyboard easy to remove, for the most part, and labeled each screw spot appropriately. For example, if you?ve had even just a little bit of experience with upgrading notebooks you will most likely know right away which screws to remove to get to the RAM under the keyboard due to Lenovo?s icons. The bottom of the workstation provides simple access to the first two memory slots and another simple access panel for the hard drive. There is one screw you?ll have to remove to get to the hard drive and two screws to remove to reach the bottom RAM panel (and two to open up the keyboard). The wireless card under the keyboard should not take very long to locate and remove if you?re looking to swap it out. One other thing I?d like to mention is that the W520 has a potential capacity of up to 32GB of RAM, but for now you will only be able to upgrade to 16GB at the time of purchase.
Ports and Features
The W520 offers an impressive, extensive span of ports. Just as the W510, this workstation has two USB SuperSpeed 3.0, one USB 2.0, one USB 2.0/eSATA, VGA, DisplayPort out, FireWire 400, ExpressCard/34, SDHC-card reader, and a headset combo jack. Work professionals will be pleased at the two USB 3.0 ports and 4-in-1 card slot included and will have the option of adding a Smart Card Reader. At this point Lenovo has not yet released an option for Blu-Ray as they did last time. Our system has a multiburner optical drive.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The keyboard lives up to great ThinkPad quality standards, following in the footsteps of its predecessor. It?s very comfortable to type with and does not make a much sound. As mentioned previously, the keyboard shows no flex when typing and very little flex when pressing down hard on the chassis. I still think it?s a little strange that the main function (?fn?) key is in the bottom left corner instead of the control key, but that?s just personal preference and will probably not be a problem for most people. I say ?still? because Lenovo didn?t change the keyboard layout or design at all from last time, which is fine; if it?s not broken don?t fix it. The keyboard also provides great, way above average tactile feedback for real-life support for overall typing performance.
Above the keyboard lies a small quick access panel with mute/unmute, volume up and down, microphone mute/unmute, Lenovo ThinkVantage Toolbox quick access (security/support, etc), and the power button. Features include spill resistance, enlarged escape and delete keys, and a TrackPoint stick which is quite easy to use due to its size and texture. Home row typists and hunt-and-peck typists should both be greatly satisfied with the thought Lenovo put into the keyboard.
The ThinkPad UltraNav and Synaptics multi-touch touchpad is quite responsive and is large enough for regular usage. Additionally, I never once had a problem with the cursor bouncing randomly around the screen, even with the pointer speed set at its quickest. Lenovo changed the texture from smooth to bumpy in the W510 design and kept it with the W520. The change was made to better suit users who dislike both the grime that will sometimes easy collect on smooth touchpads and to make grazing across easier. While the bumpy touchpad indeed carries a ?no-stick? formula, some users will probably find that it can tickle their fingers, making it unpleasant to use even if it is responsive. The sturdy left and right-click buttons do not make much sound when pressed.
Screen and Speakers
As far as details go, the ThinkPad W520 has a FHD 1920 x 1080 resolution, LED backlit, matte screen display with a color gamut of 95% and an aspect ratio of 16:9. Lenovo has tried, largely, to make everything about the display appeal to graphic artists and others need more of the color spectrum. The high color gamut and FHD will attribute, however, to a huge difference in what opinions users have about the display. Because of the added color range and default display settings, some people will think that it?s too saturated and in effect colors look distorted, or as one editor here put it, ?way too saturated.? But others (particularly graphics artists) will revel in the wide range of color and find it to be useful. To see an example, check out the straight forward shot of a current standard multimedia notebook with lower resolution and color setting here and compare it with the straight shot seen below.
The top luminance (brightness) measurement we received upon testing was 219 nits and the average was 207 nits. This means that users should have no problem viewing the notebook while in bright conditions, but may still have a problem working in bright and sunny outdoor areas. The darkest reading measured in at .36 with the average being .33; when compared to the average 207 nits luminance, the contrast ratio is 627:1. This contrast ratio makes for an extremely crisp and clear screen?the darkest dark and brightest bright will appear to be just that by the human eye. Compared to the W510, the prior ThinkPad workstation, the contrast and FHD statistics between to two appear to be just about the same; the W510 had a peak luminance of 215 nits.
Horizontal viewing angles aren?t better than average and start to distort images when the workstation is around 20-25 degrees tilted backward or forward from the straight position. This actually surprised me given the high quality display. Vertical viewing angles, however, are significantly different?they do not visibly distort at all until the notebook is too slanted for proper viewing. All things considered, users shouldn?t have too much of a problem viewing a film with a friend or working with the screen off-center.
Lenovo again included the Pantone huey PRO color calibration system and application just as it was included with the W510. Windows will alert you to re-calibrate whenever a change takes place in the display or may alert you on a set schedule (as monitors will deteriorate over time). Otherwise, if you feel the color display has changed over a time, you just can pull the application up and do it yourself. The program is quite easy to use. Simply choose a white point setting for the display (D50 for graphic arts, D65 for photo, D75, and native), choose a tone response when the system is done calibrating, and then close the laptop lid. The program will then take over?giving users an added usefulness and readily-calibrated display.
The W520?s speakers with Conexant 20672 SmartAudio HD are located directly to the left and right sides of the keyboard. One would imagine that the audio would reach high levels (get decently loud if turned all the way up) considering the size of them. However, when testing the same song against a standard business notebook, the business notebook actually outperformed the W520 in terms of volume decently. After tweaking the audio enhancement settings by turning on bass boost and virtual sound and then testing the same song, it did make a slight difference, but not enough to outclass the business notebook. I would suggest purchasing an external set of speakers. Overall, the sound quality ranks somewhere between average and below par for most consumer notebooks?you won?t be able to notice the subtleties entertainment and media have to offer. It seems like Lenovo did not upgrade the speakers from the W510 much; we said about the same thing about the audio seeming average at best and muffled in our review last time.
Heat and Noise
When running on idle or ready-mode, the fan and noise levels are practically unnoticeable and when being worked at normal capacities, the fan can be heard humbly, but shouldn?t be a problem. If pushed to the limit so to speak, we found that the fan still does not become a nuisance. It seemed as though when running our benchmark tests, though, that the heat levels rose significantly higher as the time went on and while the workstation was on for five or more hours on end the areas to the left and right of the touchpad got quite warm. During this time the bottom did not seem to get as hot; the peak temperature we recorded during the benchmarks for the bottom was 90 degrees Fahrenheit and the peak for the top of the chassis was 87 degrees.
With the new Intel Core second generation processors coupled with the 9-cell Li-ion 94Whr battery, the unplugged W520 was expected to last at least one hour longer than the W510, even though the system has this high performance display and is quite power hungry. The previous review model delivered four hours and 30 minutes of unplugged life. With the display brightness turned to down to 70%, Wi-Fi active and refreshing a webpage every 60 seconds, the ThinkPad W520 lasted six hours and 50 minutes. Since this is both better than expected and is able to deliver over five hours even with the Intel i7 quad-core processor and NVIDIA Quadro 1000M graphics, we are satisfied at that amount. The system?s rather large A/C power brick is 170W/20V.
Battery life test results (higher scores mean better battery life):
The Lenovo ThinkPad W520 workstation most definitely lives up to its ThinkPad name and workstation standards. It provides great all-over performance with its quad-core i7 processor, NVIDIA Quadro 1000M graphics, and 4 GB DDR3 RAM. The 95% color gamut FHD display is easily conducive to professionals in the graphics arts or similar industry. It also has a wide range of ports and features, such as the two HighSpeed 3.0 USB ports and the Pantone huey PRO color calibration system. We did not feel as though the complaints we did have about the workstation were deal breakers in the least bit. For those in need of a powerful workstation, this system should be a definite option.