Pros: well built, good color quality, long battery life, solid performance
One of the longest and most enduring brands in computers is Thinkpad. Originally developed by IBM in the USA, Thinkpad notebook computers are now manufactured by the Chinese company Lenovo. The W series debuted in 2009 as the highest-end Thinkpads offered. They came with the same patented Thinkpad technologies, such as an internal rollcage and shock-mounted hard drives. However, they also offered competitive workstation-class graphics cards with drivers optimized for professional graphics work.
The W530 is the latest in that line, and it looks almost identical to its predecessor, the W520, with three differences. Two of these differences are ports: thefull-size DisplayPort of the W520 was replaced with a mini DisplayPort in the W530 and eSATA was eliminated. The third change is the most noticeable and it has caused some consternation among Thinkpad traditionalists: the traditional Thinkpad keyboard has been replaced by a chiclet-style keyboard with one fewer row. Does the new keyboard live up to its predecessor? And is the notebook as a whole a worthwhile addition to the Thinkpad lineup? Read on to find out.
My W530 came with the following specifications:
Intel Core i7-3720QM processor
Nvidia K2000M graphics
15.6” 1920x1080 screen
500GB 7200RPM hard drive
Intel Ultimate 6300 wireless card
Since Lenovo (like virtually every other configurable computer company) vastly overcharges for memory upgrades, I upgraded the memory and storage myself. Lenovo provides an excellent installation guide for how to do this, which includes instructions for how to replace even the most difficult of items. Upgrading to a system-maximum 32GB RAM and a 256GB Samsung 830 series SSD was a simple operation.
Design and Build Quality
Lenovo advertises that Thinkpads are designed to withstand use by the military. While they are not marketed as rugged notebooks, Thinkpads are expected to be well-built, high quality systems. In general, the W530 does not disappoint in this. The chassis is very rigid and does a very good job of protecting the internal components. I was only able to make the screen image distort when pushing very hard on the back of the lid, and even then, I could only make the image distort when I pressed close to the upper corners. The hinges are solid and easily hold the notebook lid open at any angle. Vigorous shaking will cause the screen angle to shift, but it never appears to be the slightest bit wobbly or unsteady. There is minimal flex anywhere in the chassis. The W530 is a very well built machine. The only potential detraction from perfection is that there does seem to be a small amount of wiggle room around the 9-cell battery (which protrudes approximately an inch out the back of the system), but I had no difficulty at all in holding the system up only by the battery and rocking it back and forth. No disconnections occurred and nothing gave any hint of coming apart or breaking. As a result, I can confidently say that the small amount of wiggle around the battery does nothing to mar the stellar build quality of the W530.
As to design, Thinkpads have looked basically the same for the last 10 years or longer, so you know what to expect. At 1.4 inches think, the system is almost twice as thick as many Ultrabooks, but still thinner than some gaming systems with similar performance. You won’t find aluminum highlights or lighted logos on the W530, but the matte black W530 has an understated look that is appropriate in most environments.
The screen on a notebook is an important aspect, since it’s what you’ll be looking at for the majority of the time you’re using the system (except when you’ve got it attached to an external display). Lenovo offers three screen options for the W530, and I chose the high-resolution 1920x1080 matte display option. The higher-end screen also has increased brightness over Lenovo’s other screen options, up to 270 nits. The screen is model number B156HW01 v4 from AU Optronics, which was also used in the last two generations of W-series Thinkpads: the W510 and W520. So why did they use the same screen? As the saying goes, if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. The screen is bright enough that I only use it on full brightness if I’m using it outside. For the record, it is sunlight-readable at maximum brightness, although it has a tendency to look a little washed out in bright sunlight. In all other circumstances, the screen looks very good. It also has good viewing angles, maintaining color integrity (no color inversion) even at extreme horizontal angles. Vertical angles are not as forgiving, but the screen definitely has a much larger “sweet spot” than most, it is evenly lit (less than 10% difference between brightest spot and dimmest spot, according to Notebook Check), and its 95% Adobe RGB color gamut means colors are rich and vibrant.
Keyboard, Touchpad, and Trackpoint
The keyboard is new for this year’s Thinkpads, and even though it loses a row of function keys, it retains the comfort and ease of typing found on previous Thinkpad keyboards. The keys have adequate travel and typing is an effortless experience. I find myself making significantly less typing mistakes due to accidental keypresses or overlaps while using the W530 than with most other computers that I’ve used. And it comes with an additional bonus: the new keyboard, unlike the previous one, is backlit. The backlighting is customizable in three steps: low backlight, high backlight, and Thinklight, a small light built into the lid that shines down on the keyboard area. Personally, I find the Thinklight somewhat distracting, since it highlights my hands much more effectively than it highlights the keys underneath them. However, the keyboard backlighting is done very well and allows for easy key identification in any lighting conditions.
The touchpad is textured, and easily accommodates multitouch gestures. However, I prefer smooth touchpads and the one on the W530 does not seem as responsive as some of the Asus touchpads I’ve used. For most gaming or other situations where precise control is needed, I would elect for an external mouse. However, in its favor, the W530 has dedicated touchpad buttons – two sets, no less! Another of my personal preferences is that I abhore clickpads. As an example, I find using Macbook Pros to be annoying due to the fact that you need to press down on the whole clickpad in order to register an action. The twin sets of left and right click buttons on the W530 are easy to press and responsive.
Additionally, since this is a Thinkpad, it contains a little round nub between the G and H keys that allows for alternate cursor control. It’s called a trackpoint, and is one of the IBM-patented features that is found in a number of business notebooks today. I very rarely use this while websurfing or working with productivity applications, but I found it to be significantly more useful than the touchpad while playing Portal 2 and I ended up using the trackpoint throughout the game.
The W530 has a full selection of ports. On the right side of the notebook, you can find the DVD tray, Ethernet, the combined headphone/microphone port, a card reader, and an ExpressCard slot. The left side holds 3 USB ports, two of which are the latest USB 3.0 spec. Also on the left side are VGA, mini DisplayPort, IEEE 1394 (Firewire), a hardware wireless switch, and the exhaust vent. The vent makes a very effective hand warmer, if you are doing anything resource-intensive. On the back, in addition to the battery, there is the power plug and a yellow USB 2.0 port that can remain powered even when the system is turned off in order to easily charge cell phones, tablets, or other USB-powered peripherals.
Three years ago, the first time I tested a system with a quad-core processor, I was disappointed because there was no noticeable performance increase. Intel has done some improvements with their quads since then and the i7-3720 performs admirably. Its default clock speed is 2.6 Ghz, however it happily will use Turbo Boost to overclock up to 3.6 Ghz as the cooling allows. Under maximum load with all cores via Prime 95, the CPU still maintains an overclock to 3 Ghz. I must mention, though, that this is all when the system is plugged in. In order to preserve battery life, Lenovo has limited the CPU to slightly under half its default clock speed while on battery power. This means that even with a high CPU load, the processor will not go faster than 1.2 Ghz while on battery. To benchmark the processor, I used Geekbench, an OS-agnostic CPU performance benchmark tool. The i7-3720QM scored 10870 plugged in and only 4100 when unplugged, so the difference in CPU capacity is clear. But even with this difference, I have found that this limitation actually has comparatively little effect on my usage while on battery. Games, for instance, run perfectly well on battery power. For those who need more processing power unplugged, you can remove this limitation with a program called Throttle Stop. Of course, it goes without saying that running heavy CPU-intensive programs will drastically reduce the battery life.
The W530 comes with an Nvidia Quadro K2000M and uses Nvidia’s Optimus graphics switching to go between the dedicated graphics and the integrated Intel 4000 graphics, according to program need. In my experience, Optimus seems to switch graphics adapters in a logical manner according to program need, but in the case that it chooses the wrong graphics adapter for the program you need, you can set up program-specific preferences to use either integrated or dedicated graphics as desired. The K2000M is based on Nvidia’s Kepler architecture and 28nm process technology. As a professional GPU, it is aimed more at content creation than content consumption. Still, the K2000M is a capable midrange graphics card, able to play all the latest games at medium-high settings. The K2000M has comparable performance to the Fermi-based 560M and is a little bit less powerful than the Kepler-based 650M. Portal 2 can be played at fluid framerates at native resolution and maximum settings. Starcraft 2 is playable on native resolution at maximum settings, but some more demanding sections are not fluid (30+ FPS), so I lowered to high settings and everything runs smoothly. Civilization 5 runs smoothly at medium-high settings, and Dragon Age: Origins works well at near maximum settings, all on native resolution. The system scores right around 2000 points in 3DMark 11, varying from 1970 to 2053.
The Samsung 830 SSD contributes a lot toward making the system feel fast. The system boots in approximately 32 seconds from pressing the power button to everything loaded in the Windows desktop and shuts down in 14 seconds. On battery power, these numbers rise slightly with 45 seconds to start and 17 seconds to shut down. The SSD also allows for higher scores in PCMark 7. And speaking of PCMark 7, I experienced a curious thing when running the benchmark multiple times on two different W530 units. The first W530 provided a very respectable top score of 4910 in the benchmark, which is roughly the same as scores by the new Retina Macbook Pro. However, the second W530 on which I ran the benchmark netted a score of 6765, which is, as of the date of this review, the highest score among systems with the Intel Core i7 3720QM processor.
The W530 comes with Dolby Home Theater v4, which allows music and video to sound quite good. There are three presets as well as a graphic equalizer that comes with the software. While bass is lacking compared to any dedicated speakers, this is a common situation in notebooks and bass in the W530 is better than most. Overall, the W530 has very acceptable audio at reasonable volume.
Heat and Noise
The fan on the W530 is always on by default, and its 2700RPM minimum rotation speed is loud enough to be noticeable in a quiet room. Under maximum load, the fan can ramp up to 4200RPM, which makes it louder but never really unpleasant. Still, in order to reduce the fan noise when the system did not need it, I installed Thinkpad Fan Control, which allowed me to set my own temperature points and fan speed levels. As a result, the notebook is completely quiet as long as the processor is under 55 degrees Celsius. Further, the fan is very effective and able to quickly cool the processor and video card without significantly heating up the rest of the chassis. Under maximum load (Prime 95 + Furmark), the keyboard only felt slightly warm, and the only really hot area on the notebook was immediately above the exhaust vent. Under normal use, the notebook remains cool and as comfortable to use on my lap as it is on a table.
My W530 came with a 9-cell battery rated for 94 Watt-hours. While playing games such as Starcraft 2, the battery lasts approximately 2 hours. Playing DVDs at full brightness with the K2000M resulted in approximately 4 hours of battery life. Web surfing at half brightness results in 7-8 hours battery life, depending on surfing habits. And very light web surfing, note taking, and word processing at half brightness results in 9 hours of battery life. That number can be extended all the way up to 11 hours at minimum brightness. Basically, the W530 can last an entire business day unplugged as long as it was not needed for anything very resource-intensive.
Customer Service, Support, Repair and Replacement
Typically, a review would not include a section on support. However, something happened to my initial W530 unit and I can provide a perspective on Lenovo’s support experience. The problem that developed was a failure of the Intel 4000 integrated graphics. All other systems and components, including the quad-core processing cores on the i7-3720QM, worked fine. However, running only on the Nvidia graphics caused the battery life to be affected (6 hours maximum, compared to 11 hours maximum running on Intel graphics), and so I called Lenovo. The service tech to whom I spoke remoted into my computer and looked at the recent Windows updates I had downloaded. He suggested that I restore to an earlier point prior to the Windows updates, and if that did not work, to call back and Lenovo would fix it. Needless to say, it did not work and I called back. The service rep sent a box for the computer to be sent to the EasyServ repair depot.
I sent the box out the following day with my computer, and did not see my system again for over a month. The online status listings for my system changed from “being repaired” to “waiting for customer information” at least 4 times during that period. Since I was frequently checking the status in hope that my computer would be repaired and sent back to me quickly, I called Lenovo whenever I saw that the status was “waiting for customer information.” As a result, I was able to follow along with the story of how my computer’s repair was progressing. It went something like this: First, the techs re-imaged my hard drive (I sent the machine back with all the original parts, keeping my upgrades until I got it back). That did not fix the issue (which I could have told them, since I tried using different drives myself before calling Lenovo) and led to the first “hold for customer information.” At no point during any of these holds did they actually need any information from me, but it seems to be the universal code they chose to use for “waiting for [whatever].” First, they were waiting to escalate it to a higher level tech. Then, I was told I needed a new motherboard and they were waiting on the new board. Then, I was told that the new motherboard did not work and they were referring the system to a design team. Then, the design team discovered that they shipped and installed the wrong new motherboard and it needed a different one. Then, I was told that the different new motherboard was backordered and it would take longer to arrive.
During the first four weeks that they had my system, I called Lenovo maybe six or seven times, and they did not call me once. The situation was rather frustrating. However, after approximately four weeks, one of the service reps gave me the phone number of a specific employee, who informed me that since my repair had taken so long, Lenovo was going to replace my computer. He said a member of Lenovo’s Executive Replacement Team would call me to set up the replacement. A week later, I was able to talk to the Executive Replacement Team member, who confirmed the specifications of my unit and said the replacement computer would arrive in 2-3 weeks. Two days later, I got my original computer back from the depot. Thankfully, I was then able to use the original system until the new one arrived. Now, I am typing this review on the new system and everything works well.
Lenovo’s customer service staff were unexceptionally friendly and helpful. I spoke to a number of them, and each and every one was courteous and willing to help. Lenovo’s replacement staff were also easy to talk to, responsive, and effective. The EZServ repair techs, however, appear to leave something to be desired. I bought a 3 year warranty , including Thinkpad Protection and on-site service. If anything goes wrong again with my Thinkpad, I am going to insist on the on-site service option.
Value & Recommendation
The Lenovo Thinkpad W530 is a well-built notebook with very good performance, thermal design, and battery life. Very few computers manage all of these together, and the down side of the W530 is price: it is more expensive than other systems with similar performance. Still, I believe the extra price is justified by what the computer delivers: a solid system with no compromises.
You should buy one too if:
You want a system that will last a number of years
You need a combination of excellent performance and excellent battery life
Consider something else if:
You’re on a strict budget and want the most performance for the money
You want a computer with a style that will turn heads