If you've been in photography at the professional or even serious amateur level for any amount of time, you've probably already been "instructed" – either directly or by indoctrination – in what kind of computer you need to buy when the time comes: three syllables, starts with "M." You know, the one played by the hip floppy-haired guy in those TV commercials that used to be funny.
If Apple has been a dominant player for awhile now for graphics-intensive applications, with cross-platform compatibility no longer the concern that it once was, a photographer or graphic designer's choice to use a Mac versus a PC system is largely a personal – rather than a professional or technological – one these days. Many creatives stick to Macs because that's what they know, but for graphics use there are some increasingly compelling options on the PC side as well.
As a photographer (and a longtime dual-platform user), I was intrigued by the announcement of Lenovo's new ThinkPad W700. With Lenovo's reputation for building ultra-reliable business notebooks, the decision to dive head-first into a high-end mobile graphics system like the W700 may seem like a strange one. And if Lenovo's targeting any single market with this device, it's unquestionably photographers: sure, if you work in any kind of design the W700 could be a great workstation companion, but with copious storage space, an excellent screen, a built-in digitizer, and an on-board color calibration system, Lenovo is clearly taking a direct shot at the relatively closed and insular pro photo market. To my knowledge, nothing else on the market offers the W700's concentration of photographer-friendly features.
Lenovo ThinkPad W700 Specifications:
Design and Build
We've jokingly billed the W700 "the laptop designed to make normal people feel small," and the name fits. With a footprint measuring a generous 16 by 12 inches, working with the W700 actually on your lap is not really advised. And forget trying to take it on a plane – we're not sure that the Lenovo would fit in the overhead compartment of a regional jet, much less on the tiny tray table. Likewise, finding a case for the W700 will almost certainly require shopping at the laptop bag equivalent of "big and tall" stores.
As with most graphics-friendly machines, the idea of portability is relative here. Think of it this way: the W700 is easier to haul along than your desktop, while still offering the majority of the tools you need for serious image editing or design work.
Build quality with the W700 is everything Lenovo is known for, with tight fitment all around and an impressively small measure of panel flex for a laptop this large. A bit of time hauling the W700 has confirmed initial impressions: while large notebooks rarely rival their smaller counterparts in terms of ruggedness, this is one heavily built, robust laptop in spite of its size.
Of course, this heavy-duty build quality comes with a price: weight. At just under nine pounds, the ThinkPad is portly, though it's certainly not as heavy as it looks. That said, a power brick that's roughly the size of an actual brick (and weighs almost as much to boot) pushing the ThinkPad's carrying weight to over 12 pounds. Yikes.
All in all, those in the creative sector more familiar with either the glossy finishes and flashy colors of PC based graphics notebooks or Apple's industrial minimalism may find the W700 to be a bit of an odd duck, aesthetically. It looks, as a rule, like any other Lenovo – like an engorged version of your typical matte gray business notebook. We know from experience that these machines tend to hold up well, however, and that their lightly textured finishes stand up to a fair bit of abuse and never show it. Hence, while the W700's looks may not immediately mark you as a photographer or designer, as a machine for getting day-to-day graphics work done, the Lenovo's basic exterior makes a lot of sense.
Our review unit came packing Lenovo's high-end 17 inch display with 1920x1200 (WUXGA) resolution and 400 NIT brightness. Rivaling a good desktop display for brightness, clarity, and even size, the W700's premium LCD panel is one of this model's key selling point for power graphics users.
A built-in color calibrator (see the next section for more info) ensures, with a few minutes of profiling, that what you're seeing on screen is what you'll get through the rest of your workflow. A quick side-by-side with my desktop display suggests that at a basic level, anyway, the W700's colors and contrast are spot on.
More generally, the display is smooth and crisp with more brightness and appreciably better contrast than we're used to in a laptop screen. A light reflective coating protects the screen, but glare is well controlled (the screen's native brightness certainly helps in this regard). Backlighting is relatively even, though a careful inspection reveals some slight brightness fall-off toward the top of the panel; it's a nit-picky consideration for sure, but in a display option costing this much, there's no reason not to be particular.
Viewing angles are excellent side-to-side, though only acceptable on the vertical axis. Like some other laptop screens we've looked at, the W700's display has a marked sweet spot for vertical viewing, with contrast washout coming quickly if you're viewing from too high up, and false excessive contrast introduced from too low. The viewing window for precise color reproduction is certainly less than 10 degrees wide on the vertical axis, but to the positive it's fairly easy to tell when you're "locked in."
The W700's wide-gamut display covers a claimed 72 percent of the Adobe RGB color space, a significant improvement over your typical laptop LCD. Nonetheless, Lenovo's decision to use a twisted nematic (TN) panel in the W700 rather than an in-plane switching variant as is the standard in professional desktop applications has been cause for concern; hence, I spent a fair bit of time pushing the display to determine where its limits were – and to see just how much of this might really impact a photographic workflow.
If you're working with 8-bit JPEGs in the sRGB color space using a color-aware application like Photoshop, the short answer is that there is no impact: throwing some high-saturation images sRGB images at the W700, the machine was unfazed, and from all appearances (including side-by-side image comparisons on the W700 and an X-Rite profiled, IPS-equipped Apple Cinema display used for reference throughout this evaluation) you'll be getting everything that's fit for web display on the W700 with the right settings. Given Lenovo's bold claims, this is as it should be.
Working at higher bit depths in the Adobe RGB space more easily reveals the W700's gamut limitations. Our analysis of several test images side-by-side on the W700 and our calibrated desktop display suggests that the Lenovo hits well in terms of contrast, but gives up some saturation at the extremes of the Adobe gamut – especially in the green channel. The differences we experienced will be negligible to many – too fine to be accurately conveyed in photos, even – and Lenovo's gamut coverage claims seem very reasonable. That said, at saturation extremes, you'll run up against some noticeable color flattening and out-of-gamut issues; photographers and graphic designers who prep for print as well as web use should take note.
So is the W700's upgraded wide-gamut display worth the cost? Yes and no. For what most of us do, even at a fairly demanding level, the panel's gamut is more than sufficient – not to mention excellent contrast and brightness that's superior to just about anything else out there. In fact, the W700's 72 percent gamut strikes a nice balance for general use, providing good color reproduction for sRGB applications and a nicely saturated look that isn't so wide-ranging as to be difficult to deal with outside of color-managed applications.
For power graphics users, though, the problem is that the W700 has some strong competition on the display front coming to market in the high-end graphics workstation space from HP and Dell. While we weren't able to do a side-by-side comparison of the W700 with one of its VA-variant equipped competitors for this review, we'll be keeping an eye (quite literally) on challengers to the ThinkPad's display dominance: some obvious limitations with the W700 make it unlikely that, for all it does well, this display is among the strongest laptop screens currently available. It's good for a notebook display, yes, and may even be very good depending on your frame of reference, but it's certainly not perfect.
Finally, while many will undoubtedly find the W700's several inches of plastic bezel around the panel visually unappealing, we were repeatedly impressed by just how robust this display feels. By the standards of 17 inch displays, there's little side-to-side flex. More than that, the W700's two apparently undersized hinges are surprisingly stout, holding this heavy panel where you put it in spite of repeated shaking and offering up essentially no free play. If the W700's display let us down in a few key areas, build quality definitely isn't one of them.
That's right: you can leave your X-Rite and Datacolor spectros at home with your desktop. The W700 features a built-in X-Rite/Pantone Huey system that includes a simplified software package for quick calibration and profiling as well as a spectrocolorimeter for taking the necessary measurements built right into the surface of the notebook. Via that little electronic eye, the W700 is able to read the necessary color patches for automatic profiling and calibration when the lid is closed.
To get things rolling, simply launch the hueyPro calibration utility (it comes preloaded as a tray icon with Lenovo's factory OS install). From there, it's a simple process of following the on-screen prompts: when it's ready to calibrate, the W700 notifies you to close the lid. (You'll need to to make sure your speakers aren't muted at this point, as the W700 uses a series of tones to tell you that it's finished and it's safe to open the lid again.) A minute or so later, and the W700 has routed the display profile to the appropriate place and is ready for use.
The W700's X-Rite calibration and profiling tool is pretty stripped compared to many of the common utilities used for this purpose. You can specify one of three gamma options (including the common 2.2, of course), and select from a highly limited number of color temperature options. Overall, power users may find the W700's friendly little calibration console a bit too simplistic: at this price, the W700 isn't really a machine for casual users, so why employ a calibration and profiling utility with so much hand holding and so little in-depth adjustment?
As noted above, though, the W700 appears to produce accurate color profiles in need of little tweaking. Respecting the display gamut limits outlined above, I had little trouble coordinating my print workflow using a large-format Epson inkjet with the W700's on-screen proofing.
Getting the display to consistently load up those profiles on start-up, however, is another story. In most cases, the W700 needed prodding (in the form of launching and closing its hueyPRO calibration app) to call up the profile. It's an irritating bug that I've also experienced with third-party calibration systems, but nothing more serious than that: still, with this level of integration, smooth, automatic profile loading isn't too much to ask.
Another concern with the built-in color calibration console has to do with multiple display support. Hook a second display up to the W700's output and the ThinkPad appears to force the same profile loaded for the laptop display onto the external unit as well. Assuming you're working with a pretty neutral, high-quality desktop display the results may well be close enough. Nonetheless, I would have liked to see some kind of advanced options for connecting a third-party spectro and independently calibrating an external display when a second monitor is attached. Again, for a high-end graphics workstation, it's worth asking whether close enough is good enough.
Keyboard, Touchpad, and Digitizer
Input options abound with the W700. For many diehard Lenovo fans, though, the world of input devices begins and ends with Lenovo's legendary keyboards. And the W700's equipment in this area is just as we've come to expect, with smooth key action and a quick, short stroke that makes typing on the W700 a pleasant experience. There's a hint of flex at the top right corner of the our review unit's 'board – up around the Backspace key – but otherwise the full-size keyboard and num pad feel securely anchored to the W700's subframe. Compared to other Lenovo keyboards we've looked at, key presses on the W700 may be just a bit noisy, but as with calibration concerns, the fact that the keyboard itself feels nice in use makes this secondary concern a minor issue for most.
Basic dedicated speaker control buttons (mute, volume up, volume down) adorn the space above the keyboard, next to Lenovo's trademark "ThinkVantage" button – which calls up a sort of clearing house for basic computer maintenance and configuration options.
For a laptop this big, the touchpad area is a bit small: it's not like space is exactly at a premium on the W700's top deck. As with the small tablet area, you certainly get used to it, but it does leave one to wonder why Lenovo didn't go for something slightly larger. The pad features vertical and horizontal axis dedicated scroll areas.
Dedicated left/scroll/right buttons flank the top of the touchpad area, with the standard left and right click only residing beneath. Both button arrays have a soft click feel that's ideal for all-day use (try using a computer with hard, clicky buttons for more than ten minutes and you'll understand what we're talking about).
With lots space south of the keyboard that typically goes unused on larger notebooks to work with, Lenovo's designers opted to integrate a small digitizer into the W700 as well. The 3x5 inch tablet area provides a nicely sized work area: users coming from larger tablet spaces will find it cramped, but resolution is decent and moreover, having a digitizer that you don't have to pack along separate from your workstation will be a welcomed addition for many users.
After a little more time with the tablet, I've adapted to its size quite well. The idea of integrating a digitizer into a graphics-focused machine is an excellent one that I'm betting will find acceptance among photographers, graphic designers, CAD techs, and architects – all key markets for this niche focused machine. The pad's placement works well for day to day use, keeping your pen hand clear of the touchpad and typing areas for easy key-control use (to queue up tools in Photoshop, for instance) while you're working on the tablet. Of course if you're left-handed, all ergonomic bets are off.
The W700's included pen, which stows away into a silo in the right-hand side of the notebook isn't particularly enjoyable in use. It's small, and the buttons feel cheap, but compatibility with most Wacom-ready pens means the range of control options for the W700's tablet are nearly unlimited. In fact, if you don't own another compatible pen, go ahead and order one with your ThinkPad purchase: the included stylus really is an option of last resort even more so than the small tablet itself. Plus, a degree in mechanical engineering and very strong fingers are required to retract the pen from its silo – it takes a stout push on the spring-loaded release, which, interestingly, doesn't seem to get easier with either time or practice.
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