Lenovo ThinkPad W540 Mobile Workstation Review: Two steps forward...?
Introduction and Design
Although the target market and design emphasis may be different, there is one thing consumer and business-grade laptops have in common: a drift away from processing power and toward portability and efficiency. At the risk of repeating our introduction for the massive MSI GT72 gaming notebook we reviewed last month, it seems that battery life, temperature, and power consumption get all the attention these days. And arguably, it makes sense for most people: it’s true that CPU performance gains have in years past greatly outstripped the improvements in battery life, and that likewise performance gains could be realized far more easily by upgrading storage device speed (such as by replacing conventional hard drives with solid-state drives) than by continuing to focus on raw CPU power and clock rates. As a result, we’ve seen many mobile CPU speeds plateauing or even dropping in exchange for a reduction in power consumption, while simultaneously cases have slimmed and battery life has jumped appreciably across the board.
But what if you’re one of the minority who actually appreciates and needs raw computing power? Fortunately, Lenovo’s ThinkPad W series still has you covered. This $1,500 workstation is the business equivalent of the consumer-grade gaming notebook. It’s one of the few designs where portability takes a backseat to raw power and ridiculous spec. Users shopping for a ThinkPad workstation aren’t looking to go unplugged all day long on an airplane tray table. They’re looking for power, reliability, and premium design, with function over form as a rule. And that’s precisely what they’ll get.
Beyond the fairly-typical (and very powerful) Intel Core i7-4800MQ CPU—often found in gaming PCs and workstations—and just 8 GB of DDR3-1600 MHz RAM (single-channel) is a 256 GB SSD and a unique feature to go along with the WQHD+ display panel: built-in X-Rite Pantone color sensor which can be used to calibrate the panel simply by closing the lid when prompted. How well this functions is another topic entirely, but at the very least, it’s a novel idea.
Design and Portability
The ThinkPad W540’s 5.77 pound case is on the heavier end of today’s standards, but it’s light for a 15.6-inch workstation. That’s partially thanks to Lenovo’s choice of construction materials, which align with that of its other recent ThinkPad machines—that is to say, primarily a duo of glass-ﬁber reinforced plastic and magnesium alloy (for the internal frame). The materials don’t feel as sleek as the aluminum and carbon fiber found on competitors’ machines (such as the Dell Latitude and Precision series notebooks), but they are certainly sturdy enough, and the weight savings speak for themselves.
The palm rest and keyboard surround is one area where you’ll find plastic materials. These have a notably cheaper feel to them than the higher-grade silicone/carbon fiber hybrids used on the modern Dell Latitude and XPS machines, but in spite of this, there is little doubt that they provide ample protection. A moderate degree of flex is detectable in the middle of the base unit, mostly near the top between the hinges (which is commonly a problem area), as well as above the optical drive bay—but in general use, especially while the display lid is closed, this is unlikely to present itself as a practical problem.
The display lid provides good protection from pressure from behind, especially when closed. However its torsion resistance (resistance to twisting and side-by-side stress) is not great. This is one area where it might have been good to see additional reinforcement or possibly just a thicker grade of metal used to the support the lid. On a brighter note, the hinges do a good job of keeping the large display lid relatively stationary during typing.
The selection of ports is fairly standard for the size: four total USB ports (two 3.0 and two 2.0, one sleep and charge), VGA and mini-DisplayPort for video output (sadly, no native HDMI), Gigabit Ethernet, a card reader, and a 34 mm ExpressCard port (alongside the combo audio jack). One plus is that the DisplayPort does double as a Thunderbolt port, which is a nice bonus for expandability. There’s also the trusty docking station port on the bottom which you can find on all similar ThinkPads, so those with existing compatible docks can upgrade without concern. Truly, though, there’s plenty of room on the right side where at least an HDMI port could have resided, or possibly a fifth USB port. Finally, you’ll find the Ultrabay accessible via screwdriver for swapping out the DVD drive with something else should you see fit.
Sprinkled throughout the machine’s underbelly is a series of diagonal vent cutouts which help promote airflow throughout the machine. The left side of the bottom near the back of the unit is where the cooling fan and heatsink assembly are located, so the vent there being blocked by, say, a leg, is a potentially uncomfortable situation… but we’ll evaluate that concern more closely in a bit. Two different maintenance panels (each secured by two screws) give access to the WLAN card, CMOS battery, 2.5-inch storage drive, and RAM (four slots total). The case design is straightforward and minimalist in its nature, which is par for the course in the world of ThinkPads. It’s arguably less durable and perhaps gives an impression of relative fragility as compared to its hulkier ancestors, but whether that proves to be a concern depends on your intended use and how rough you are with your notebooks. Haptically speaking, once you get over the fact that you’re not touching a high-end metal surface, the notebook truly is pretty comfortable in its own right.
The W540 ships with a 1-year depot warranty standard. We’d love to see 3 years on this machine as we do on the Dell Precisions, but then again, we suppose cost is a concern and it’s nice to have the option.