- Epic battery life
- Outstanding build quality
- High quality 3K touch display
- Good keyboard and clickpad
- Middling value proposition
- Fan noise is noticeable
Overall we found that the W550s to be a recommendable notebook provided you aren't running CPU or GPU dependent applications where a quad-core processor and more powerful graphics would make more sense.
This workstation Ultrabook sports a 15.5-inch 3K touch display, Nvidia Quadro graphics and one of the longest battery runtimes we’ve measured, but are these travel benefits worth the performance trade-off of its Intel dual-core processor?
Mobile workstations are a subclass of business notebooks designed for professional applications such as CAD and photo editing. The ThinkPad W550s is Lenovo’s second stab at this market alongside its ThinkPad W541 mobile workstation. What makes the W550s interesting is that it’s based around a low-wattage Intel Core i7 dual-core processor as opposed to the quad-core processors like in the aforementioned W541. The W550s in addition has a relatively anemic Nvidia Quadro K620M graphics card. These performance trade-offs result in a thinner body and the same screen size as the W541.
It’s relatively easy to describe the W550s: It looks like a ThinkPad. Lenovo has to their credit maintained the brand image well on the top-class business models like T and W series, retaining the square corners, all-black color scheme and no-frills appearance. There are indeed few frills to be found on the W550’s exterior save for the webcam and dual microphone array at the top of the display, the fingerprint reader in the palm rest and the new touchpad design which we’ll discuss shortly. The touchscreen W550s we’re reviewing is 0.92 inches thick, 0.04 inches higher than the non-touch model. There’s no denying it’s rather thick for an Ultrabook, but it’s 20% thinner than Lenovo’s 1.1 inch tall W541 mobile workstation.
What the touchscreen really adds is weight; our W550s is 5.47 pounds whereas the non-touch model is more than a half-pound lighter at 4.92 pounds. The touch model is just as heavy as the thicker W541 – so, being thin doesn’t necessarily mean lightweight. This extra weight however also includes the high-capacity 6-cell battery which slightly protrudes out the bottom rear of the chassis, slightly elevating the notebook to improve airflow and the typing experience.
The palm rest and surrounding areas are hard plastic that’s solid to the touch. The lid has a slightly rubberized coating which helps prevent the notebook from slipping when carrying it without a case. The two gunmetal display hinges are the only exception to the all-black exterior.
The W550s easily impresses from a build quality standpoint. The chassis is rock solid and practically flex free; something we can’t say about a lot of notebooks. There’s quite literally not one place we found on the top of the chassis that budged under pressure. The chassis is structurally rigid and refuted all of our attempts to induce flex. This rigidity is in large part thanks to the metal roll cage inside the chassis.
The lid is one of the strongest we’ve seen on a 15.5/15.6-inch notebook with barely any side-to-side flex. We weren’t able to get distortions to appear in the display by pressing in on the back which indicates there’s more than ample protection for the display panel. It appreciably tilts back a full 180 degrees. The lid hinges are stiff and only allow minimal display wobble as a result, almost a necessity when considering the touchscreen. Lenovo says the W550s passes 11 military spec tests – we have no trouble believing it.
The upgradeability of this model is limited to the storage drive and memory. Accessing these is somewhat tricky however; the entire bottom of the chassis much be removed which means undoing eight screws. The screws simply need to be loosened and will actually not come completely out. We used a credit card to gently pry apart the chassis halves after loosening the screws. There is a single 2.5-inch drive bay which accepts 9.5mm height drives, an M.2 storage bay, and two RAM slots. Our review unit was maxed out with two 8 GB modules already installed in the RAM slots and a 2.5-inch SSD installed. The M.2 slot was empty.
Input and Output Ports
The W550s is thicker than a typical consumer-class Ultrabook and is thus able to accommodate some ports typically not seen on this class of notebook including VGA and Ethernet. This chassis also has three USB 3.0 ports, mini-DisplayPort, a media card reader, and a smart card reader. No ports are located on the front or back of the chassis. A dedicated docking station connector is located on the underside. All picture descriptions are left to right.
Screen and Speakers
The W550s is offered with three display choices. Our review unit has the top-end 3K (2880×1620 pixels) display with 10-point touch support. This display commands a hefty $420 premium over the base FHD (1920×1080) display and an additional $200 on top of the non-touch 3K display which is the same as the touch 3K display in all other respects. It’s a truly great-looking display with excellent contrast and brightness. Color saturation is more than sufficient without being overbearing. This is an IPS panel which allows for nearly unlimited viewing angles, a big plus for photo editors – the picture looks the same whether you’re looking at it head-on or at an angle. Another positive attribute is the smooth anti-glare surface finish. It adds some minor sparkle to the picture when looking at a bright background but doesn’t affect the image quality. Unlike a glossy or glass display typically found on a touch-enabled display, this anti-glare finish doesn’t produce annoying reflections or show fingerprints as easily.
The 2880×1620 (3K) resolution is odd, to say the least. This display is actually 15.5″ and not 15.6″ though it’s still a 16:9 aspect ratio. It has 2.25 times the amount of pixels of a standard FHD display which is considerable. This means however that the text at normal size is 2.25 times smaller if the display size stays the same. Windows scaling technology makes text readable on this screen. We found it was necessary to set scaling to maximum or one notch under – the text became unreadable using anything less than that. Ensure the software you’re using supports Windows scaling otherwise you’re likely better off with the standard FHD display.
The 10-point touch technology works as expected, no better or worse than other touch-enabled notebooks we’ve tested. We found ourselves using it rather infrequently considering the keyboard, clickpad and TrackPoint setup are so well (more on that in the next section).
Two speakers are located under the palm rest and project out the bottom of the chassis. The narrow speaker grilles are visible if the notebook is turned upside down. This setup sounds better than expected with very good overall audio quality for a notebook. There’s plenty of volume to entertain a few people at 70 percent volume give or take and distortion generally isn’t audible until 85 plus percent. There’s even a measure of bass. Overall the W550s has a respectable audio setup which notable given its business audience.
The ThinkPad keyboard isn’t as visually iconic as it once was but still offers a high quality typing experience. The keys are now island-style with extra spacing between them. All of the keys are fully sized except for the top row and the arrow key cluster. Per ThinkPad tradition, the [Fn] and [Ctrl] keys at the lower left are interposed. There are two levels of white LED backlighting which provides great visibility in low light conditions; toggle it by pressing the [Fn] and [Space] keys. The backlighting is uniform and consistent.
The tactile feedback is good and helps provide a precise feel. The keys on the W550s have a softer cushion at the bottom of the key travel than we’ve experienced on past ThinkPad keyboards which doesn’t detract from the typing experience in our opinion. The keyboard deck is as solid as they come with zero flex. The keys are quiet to press and unlikely to annoy anyone – certainly no more so than a standard notebook keyboard. The key surfaces are slightly concave, an attribute that helps typing accuracy because the center of each key is easier to find. The small notch on the down arrow key is also helpful.
Our relatively minor complaint with this keyboard is that the F-row key functionality (F1-F12) is not primary but rather must be made primary by enabling “FnLk” by pressing the [Fn] and [Esc] keys. On a productivity oriented notebook, the F-row keys should always occupy their primary functions. Fortunately the system remembers FnLk is enabled even after a restart. Another minor annoyance is the absence of dedicated NumLock and CapsLock indicator lights. The Fn key has an LED indicator for FnLk, so why not also put one on the CapsLock and NumLock keys?
The touchpad is centered below the keyboard and not simply centered in the palm rest – this arrangement prevents palms from touching its surface while typing. After a less than stellar reception of Lenovo’s last touchpad design on ThinkPads, this one has been re-thought. The touchpad itself is press-able aka a clickpad – just push down on the surface to produce a click.
This time around we’d say Lenovo just about perfected the clickpad. Click pressure is generally consistent though slightly more is required along the top edge. Deliberate pressure is required to produce a click. Our sole complaint is that the clicks are audible; we’d prefer the clicks to be as close silent as possible. These clicks aren’t loud enough to raise alarms however. The clickpad is appropriately sized for a 15.5-inch display and has an excellent smooth surface.
One of our complaints with the most recent generation of ThinkPads was the lack of dedicated buttons for the TrackPoint in the center of the keyboard. This revised setup includes three: left, right and center. These buttons have just the right amount of travel, great feedback and produce hardly any noise. The TrackPoint is once again a pleasure to use.