Quality is always going to cost you, and while Lenovo’s 17in ThinkPad W701 is not cheap, it does have some features that are well worth the extra money, including an RGB-LED backlit, 1,920 x 1,200 main display and secondary slide-out screen, integrated HueyPro colorimeter and built-in Wacom graphics tablet.
Inevitably this makes it a huge, hulking beast but Lenovo continues to make up for this with a raft of connectivity and hardware that would make most other laptops weep. You’ve got Nvidia Quadro graphics for professional 3D modelling and GPU acceleration, a built-in HueyPro hardware colour calibrator, USB 3.0, eSATA, DisplayPort, and optional dual ExpressCard slots. Are you hooked yet?
Naturally, Lenovo backs all this goodness with some pretty impressive potential specifications. An Intel Core i7 820QM quad-core processor that will turbo-clock up to 3.06GHz leads the charge and this can be partnered with Nvidia’s Quadro FX2800M, which includes 1GB of video memory. All this makes for a killer combo for anything from rendering and encoding to gaming. Memory quotas start at a miserly 2GB but you can get all the way up to 16GB, with our review model including 4GB.
Also, at the W701 price point of $7,949, you might expect an SSD as the boot drive, rather than the – admittedly speedy – 7,200rpm, 500GB hard drive, though at least it’s protected against shocks and vibration with a rubber mounting system. For some extra cash you can upgrade to a 128GB SSD and there’s a second slot for adding another hard drive or SSD, with RAID options available.
As you would expect from a ThinkPad, you’ll find the Professional version of Windows 7 running the show, rather than the Premium edition found on most consumer and some business laptops. OS aside, the installation is relatively free of extraneous software, which is how we like it, with only Microsoft Office, McAfee antivirus, Intervideo WinDVD, Corel DVD MovieFactory and heuyPRO’s image calibration software preinstalled.
There’s also some incredibly slick ThinkVantage software which provides easy and attractive management for things like battery life and networks.
As mentioned, the W701ds offers an astonishingly impressive array of connections. Along the left you’ll find a mini FireWire port, one combined eSATA/USB 2.0 port and one USB 3.0 port, though it’s not marked in the usual distinctive blue. There’s a 34mm Express Card slot, though we honestly don’t see a need for it on this laptop, and a secondary bay that you can choose to fill with either a second 54mm ExpressCard slot, a Smart Card reader or a CF card reader. At the front we have a physical Wi-Fi switch, memory card reader, and 3.5mm headphone plus microphone jacks.
On the left side you’ll find a further three USB 2.0 ports, one of which is marked in yellow to denote that it is ‘always on’, and can be used to charge devices even when the laptop is turned off. Next to these is that rarest of creatures these days: a modem port. Some might call it completely redundant, but there are still situations where you may need it, and it’s good to see Lenovo covering every contingency.
On the right there’s a small hole for the Wacom-enabled stylus, while optical duties are handled by a DVD-Rewriter (after all, Blu-ray is hardly required for a business machine – right?). The laptop’s back houses extensive video connectivity, including VGA, dual-link DVI and DisplayPort, together with a Gigabit Ethernet jack. Wireless is well catered for with both Bluetooth 2.1 and Wi-Fi N, and there’s a fingerprint scanner for those who hate memorising passwords.
When it comes to usability, Thinkpads are usually second to none, and the W701ds is no exception – though with a few caveats. Unlike most other laptops these days, which feature ‘slim’, isolation-style keyboards, Lenovo still provides ‘proper’, keys. Their action is superb with each key feeling very solidly planted and providing a large amount of travel that is well-defined yet soft, so it’s one of the quietest and best typing experiences around. Layout on the full-size keyboard is also excellent, aside from the Lenovo quirk of still putting the Fn key to the outside of Ctrl.
The Enter keys on both the keyboard and numpad are clothed in the traditional ThinkPad blue. There’s a full set of function keys and dedicated volume controls, as well as a dedicated ThinkPad button which can be used to access ThinkVantage features.
Anyone who has used a ThinkPad before will be familiar with Lenovo’s TrackPoint, a tiny, rubber-topped joystick in the centre of the keyboard operated with the tip of a finger. It has its own set of three buttons above the touchpad, and while it does take a little getting used to, it’s quite easy to operate and even beats the touchpad in some situations. However, unlike with the ThinkPad X100e, on the W701ds these buttons are loud! Their distinctive click can easily be heard across the office, and is very distracting.
Thankfully the touchpad’s buttons are similarly responsive but don’t suffer from the same issue. However, the pad itself is rather on the small side, as it’s cramped by the TrackPoint buttons. This is rather unfortunate on a laptop as large as this beast, though of course, with the integrated Wacom tablet providing a highly accurate third navigation option (and the likelihood that you’ll be using this monster on a proper desk where you can attach a mouse), it’s not much of a problem.
Let’s talk about some of the W701ds’ special features. The integrated Wacom tablet isn’t quite as good as the company’s latest Intuos 4 products, but a sight more advanced than the Wacom digitizers commonly built into convertible tablet laptops like the HP TouchSmart tm2. It works beautifully and the provided stylus is comfortable in the hand, sporting the same soft-touch coating as the ThinkPad’s lid. It offers 1,024 pressure levels and tilt sensitivity, and is as close to the experience of drawing on paper as any laptop will give you. The only potential issue is that its fixed position means it’s biased towards right-handed users – trying to perform keyboard shortcuts if you’re using the pad left-handed is difficult at best.
As you would expect considering this ThinkPad’s price and target market, the main, 17in screen isn’t exactly your average affair either. Not only does it provide a 1,920 x 1,200 resolution, matching most professional monitors in providing those extra few vertical pixels, but it’s RGB-LED backlit too, providing far greater colour accuracy, gamut and saturation, higher contrast and better viewing angles than your average laptop display. We first came across this type of technology with the Dell Studio XPS 16, and it hasn’t lost any of its appeal – the only thing that beats it is having an IPS panel, and HP’s maxed-out EliteBook 8740w is the only available laptop we know of that has one of those.
To get the best out of its screen, the W701ds features a built-in hardware colorimeter courtesy of HueyPro. Calibrating the screen couldn’t be simpler: start up the software and close the lid, and after about a minute you have a fully hardware-calibrated screen!
After calibration, the RGB-LED backlit display breezed through our greyscale and colour tests. This not only means that you’ll get great colour accuracy while doing graphically-intensive work, but also that viewing pictures, videos and games will be a more detailed and enjoyable experience, especially since the screen has such a small dot pitch and everything is razor-sharp.
Unfortunately, even the best backlighting in the world can’t completely disguise the fact that you’re dealing with a TN panel here, and while viewing angles are vastly superior to most laptops, they’re by no means perfect (and not even close to IPS). There was also some minor but noticeable banding on the screen and, more damningly, backlight bleed from both sides. However, these really are minor complaints compared to the benefits.
Getting to the slide-out secondary screen, it’s a 10.6in affair with a high 768 x 1,280 resolution. It’s also frankly rather rubbish, with TN’s inherent vertical viewing angle weakness (don’t forget, it’s essentially a standard screen turned on its side) ensuring everything looks washed out and colours are completely off.
But that’s not really a negative. After all, it’s only meant as a repository for all the tool bars, settings boxes, palettes and message windows that you don’t want cluttering up the main screen. For its purpose it does an adequate job, and the extra real estate it offers is invaluable in a multitude of situations.
Watching films on the ThinkPad W701ds is an absolute pleasure thanks to its great screen, and Lenovo has paired it with some pretty decent stereo speakers. They don’t quite match up to the 4.1 setup on the MSI GT680 or 2.1 Dell XPS 17, but they’re certainly up to providing enjoyable entertainment, providing some bass and plenty of oomph while maintaining clarity at the high end.
As with all customizable laptops, performance will be what you can afford to make it, but our test sample is certainly no slouch. The Intel Core i7 820QM quad-core processor supports HyperThreading for up to eight virtual cores, with clock speed ranging from 1.73GHz when all four cores are under load to 3.06GHz when fewer than three are in use.
Naturally it’s significantly outperformed by Intel’s new Sandy Bridge CPUs as found in the MSI GT680, but it should still do the job rather nicely until Lenovo updates its high-end ThinkPads.
On the graphics front, the Nvidia Quadro FX2800M card gives you 96 CUDA cores to play with, which will accelerate compatible applications (like Adobe Photoshop CS5) and even allow for light gaming, though DirectX11 is not on the menu. Indeed, at 1,366 x 768 the W701ds managed a very respectable 33.4 frames per second (fps) average in a DirectX10, medium-detail run-through of Stalker: Call of Pripyat, though upping this to the screen’s native resolution and maximum detail resulted in an utterly unplayable 16fps.
As you would expect from a ‘mobile workstation’ with powerful, energy-hungry components, battery life isn’t fantastic. But considering the power and features on offer, we were still impressed by the two hours and 40 minutes the W701ds managed to wring from its 7800mAh/85Wh battery in MobileMark’s low-intensity Productivity test. Considering it’s hardly the most portable machine around, this is really as much as you would need, though in the intensive DVD test it only lasted an hour and 37 minutes.
Finally we get to value. With an RRP of $7,949, it’s not exactly for everyone, and its internal specifications could be considered somewhat stingy for the outlay. But then, if you’re a photographer, digital artist, designer, architect, engineer or scientist, you (or your company) can afford it and you can get hold of one, no other laptop in the world offers you all these features in a single, mobile package. Throw in its superb build quality, class-leading connectivity and one of the best screens around, and we would say that for its niche market it holds up quite well.
It may only appeal to those with big, specific demands and bigger wallets, but the Lenovo ThinkPad W701ds’ complement of unique features (like its RGB-LED backlit screen with built-in hardware colorimeter, secondary display and integrated Wacom tablet) means it has no competition. Considering it’s also powerful, very well-built and offers every connection you could want along with surprisingly decent battery life, it truly deserves its title of ‘mobile workstation’.