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Lenovo ThinkPad W540 Mobile Workstation Review: Two steps forward...?

Subject: Mobile
Manufacturer: Lenovo

Introduction and Design

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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.


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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.

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Continue reading our full Lenovo ThinkPad W540 Review!!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

March 9, 2015 | 03:17 PM - Posted by Nightwinggl (not verified)

I'm little surprised this review is coming out today. Lenovo doesn't even sell this Laptop any longer on their Website. The model has been replaced with the W541 and W550.

I'd really love to see a review of current generation (2015) ThinkPads like the: Yoga 12 (2nd Edition); T450/T450s; X1 Carbon (2015; or even the W550.


March 9, 2015 | 04:35 PM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

There might be newer ones, but we still see it for sale a lot.

March 9, 2015 | 05:08 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

The TSX instructions on this SKU, are they part of the errata? And what of any Xeon options, should someone want to do server/other related build testing with this workstation. Certainly the newest SKUs need to be reviewed.

March 9, 2015 | 05:09 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Damn, does that look nice.
Sometimes when I'm not browsing PCPER on my super basic, refurbished Latitude, I daydream about getting a high powered modern Thinkpad and 3D printing a lid for it where the ThinkPad logo is the right side up.

March 9, 2015 | 08:15 PM - Posted by Steve Schardein

Yeah sorry for the lateness of this one guys.  There were some uncontrollable factors in play that delayed it beyond the usual -- but I had already begun working on it so it made sense to finish it up anyway.  After all, the revised model (W541) mostly features revised input devices... primarily touchpad, which I mentioned in the article.  So it is still relevant regardless.  I don't believe we will see a W550 for several months yet to come still.

March 9, 2015 | 09:50 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I'm not sure we'll see a true W550 before the fourth quarter, if not 2016. The last roadmap I saw indicated the W541 available through early next year and no sign of a full W550... The W550s, while a nice machine, isn't really a replacement for the W540/W541... The W550s is really just a T550 with a low end Quadro and with the same unfortunate 16GB RAM limit of the T series. :(

March 9, 2015 | 10:17 PM - Posted by symmetrical (not verified)

We have these at work and it's a solid machine. Packs a LOT of punch for our engineers looking for more processing power that they can take to the office or take home. Looking forward to the W550. However the trackpads on the newer Lenovos SUCKS. Do they even test these things? The X1 Carbon, X240, and W540 all have horrendous track pads. I don't understand. Or maybe I'm just a bit spoiled using a Macbook Pro as my work machine.

March 10, 2015 | 02:29 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

no, you're right, Lenovo did a serious deisgn mistake with the W540 and that era touchpads. They're reinstating the buttons in a new design with W541 and newer machines.

March 10, 2015 | 11:58 AM - Posted by -- (not verified)

I always liked using the little eraser vs the trackpad. Move the mouse, type, hands never leave the keyboard.

March 14, 2015 | 05:13 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

My W540 has an i7 4900 MQ. I've been using it for several months and I like it a lot. Its only down side is the trackpad. Not very user friendly but regardless of this, I prefer to use an external trackball or space mouse, depending on the work.

This computer is spectacular when it comes to rendering, video editing and CAD.

Removing the optical drive and replacing it with a second HDD is an excellent option.

I understand the W541 has minor hardware upgrades, apart from the trackpad, where the two physical buttons have been reintroduced.

The W550 has an ultra low voltage broadwell-gen CPU for better battery life. It has a smaller chassis and cannot be configured with a second HDD.

May 6, 2015 | 02:08 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Never ever spend your money on this crap laptop from Lenovo. I had 4 Lenovo laptop before and I own W530 which I used for daily work involving high end cloud server , virtual multiple on my machine with 4 Dim and 32 GB RAM. I spend around near to 2K to by this new version of laptop since my W530 was already 3 year old and out of depot warranty. The biggest blunder I did in my life was not to open this W540 for 45 Days since I was very busy in my work , But when I opened it initially I said woow that is cool. But when I started operating it mouse pad SUCKS , Yes Big time SUCKS , I am clicking Minimize button of my application and It is closing application , When I Move my mouse it behave quite quirky. On top of this machine is getting overheated to 105 F. When I dialed tech support ,It will take 10 days. Now after spending 2K on this laptop if you get such CRAP Product , You will throw in your garbage , But unfortunately I am not that rich to do it , nor I can return this CRAP. I was getting MAC PRO at same price and I choose this CRAP product. I regret not opening my laptop. I will never buy LENOVO Product from now , this is my last ONE.

August 12, 2015 | 03:14 PM - Posted by Dan (not verified)

Agree with the poster above. This laptop (W540) is a complete piece of shit. Do not waste your money. Buy an HP, Dell, or Apple. This is one of the most poorly made products I have ever owned.

March 13, 2016 | 07:20 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I had several Lenovo laptops (over time), and have always found them to be reliable. Due to the good experience with Lenovo, I opted to purchase the W540 when the time came. A decision which I cannot fully express how bad that was. If nothing else, good comes from this, don't waste your money on the W540 even used. It's not worth it even if you are paid to take it.

September 12, 2016 | 05:15 AM - Posted by DrDrTed

Do I understand that this laptop only has 8 GB of memory?

I find that surprising, given the other specs and this laptop's intended performance.

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