Lenovo ThinkPad W700ds Review

by David Rasnake Reads (50,027)

If one huge, high-resolution display on a notebook is good, two must be better, right? That’s exactly what Lenovo’s design team is banking on with the new Lenovo ThinkPad W700ds.

The W700ds isn’t a replacement or a refresh of the original, but rather, an optional upgrade to the same basic platform that makes good on Lenovo’s long-rumored promise to launch a notebook with dual displays. As NBR editor Jerry Jackson noted when he took a look at pre-production W700ds last month, one crucial area where desktop replacements have proved to be no replacement for a good desktop workstation is in the ability to pack up multiple displays and take them with you.

With a sliding 10.6 inch display that pops out from the space behind the original W700’s 17 inch panel, the W700ds still doesn’t have the screen real estate of two full-size desktop displays. But it also gives the W700 platform yet another leg up on its rivals, and, especially, another enticement for graphics pros on the go.

Lenovo ThinkPad W700ds Specifications:

  • Processor: Intel Core 2 Extreme Q9300 (2.53 GHz, 1066 MHz FSB, 12 MB L2 cache)
  • Memory: 4 GB DDR3 SDRAM
  • Screen: 17” 1920×1200 WUXGA TFT LCD and 10.6” 1280×760 TFT LCD
  • Storage: 259 GB HDD (7200 RPM) x 2, RAID 0 configuration
  • Optical Drive: DVD recordable
  • Wireless: Intel Wi-Fi Link 5300 (802.11a/g/n), Bluetooth 2.0
  • Graphics: NVIDIA Quadro FX 3700M with 1 GB
  • Battery: 9-cell lithium-ion (84 Wh)
  • Dimensions: 16.1” x 12.3” x 2.1”
  • Weight: 10 lbs, 15 oz (with battery
  • Price As Tested: $5,309.00
  • Starting Price: $3,663.00

The W700ds sports a base price of $3,663, which is already more than a grand higher than the single-screen version. And as configured – with top of the line processing and graphics options – our test model will set you back considerably more. Dressed as seen in this review, you’ll need a spare $5,309 to cover the cost.

Because our W700ds features the same fundamental technologies under the hood as the recently reviewed original ThinkPad W700, we’ve reused sections of that review where appropriate. All performance testing and benchmarking, however, is specific to this particular review unit.

Build and Design

In our original review of the original W700, I jokingly called the single-screen variant “the laptop designed to make normal people feel small.” But as Jerry noted in checking out the W700ds for the first time, clearly big wasn’t big enough for the folks at Lenovo. While the basic chassis appears unchanged (with a basic footprint of 16 by 12 inches), the addition of that second slide-out screen behind the primary panel is felt in a line that’s thicker than some slender notebooks all by itself.

All closed up, the entire notebook measures some over two inches thick, with the computer’s rubber feet adding another quarter of an inch or so to this measurement when the machine is sitting on a desk.

Open the W700ds up, press gently on the right-hand side of the lid, and the second display emerges from its spring-loaded compartment. When extended, the portrait-orientation secondary screen juts out an addition seven inches or so on the right side – well into the personal space of those seated next to you at coffee shops or on airplanes. Even more amusing is the W700ds’s total width measurement with the screen extended: about half an inch shy of two feet across.

As with all desktop machines, portability is relative here, though the W700ds’s weight and bulk makes it less fun to move around than even the majority of 17 inch notebooks. For starters, the dual screens further up this model’s already considerable heft – to nearly 11 pounds on its own, or a whopping 13 pounds and change when you pack along the very bricklike power brick as well. Unfortunately, a year’s supply of chiropractic work wasn’t included among the accessories and options on Lenovo’s customization page. Conversely, even tipping the scales at an inauspicious 13 pounds, the W700ds is still a fair bit easier to manage on the road than the original W700 plus a second monitor, even a small one.

As before, build quality with the W700ds is everything Lenovo is known for, with tight fitment all around and an impressively small measure of panel flex for a laptop this large. I was initially concerned about whether the second screen’s attachment mechanism would seem flimsy, given its sliding design. But true to form, Lenovo has engineered a solution to this problem as well, with second panel exhibiting little flex at its attachment point and really not feeling at all precarious.

As we noted with the original W700, the W700ds certainly doesn’t look like a notebook aimed, at least in part, at creatives and graphics pros. Next to the shiny, ultra-modern aesthetic of the MacBook Pros that are ubiquitous in the photo/graphics world, the W700’s business-like shape and matte gray finish have about as much sex appeal as Soviet agricultural equipment. That said, Lenovo build quality is nothing short of legendary, and while I’ve long used Macs almost exclusively for graphics work, I grew to love the sturdy, down-to-business appeal of the original W700 in a long-term test with that machine. Those who love ThinkPads do so with good reason, and even with the addition of a potential weak spot in the sliding secondary screen, I was unable to find a serious charge to level against the W700ds’s build quality.

Primary Display

As with the original W700, our W700ds review unit came packing Lenovo’s high-end 17 inch primary display with 1920×1200 (WUXGA) resolution and 400 NIT brightness. Rivaling a good desktop display for brightness, clarity, and even size, the W700ds’s premium LCD panel continues to be one of this model’s key selling point for power graphics users.

Like we saw the first time around, 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 W700ds’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 W700ds’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 across the W700 platform rather than an in-plane switching variant as is the standard in professional desktop applications was a cause for concern on our first go-round with these ThinkPads. Interested users can check out my original W700 write-up for more detail, but basically the TN display used here performs admirably when calibrated/profiled, and gamers will love its fast refresh. You can certainly find areas in which color reproduction doesn’t keep pace with a high-end desktop display, but you have to be pushing the W700ds pretty hard to do so. As before, at saturation extremes, you will 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.

As to the question of whether the W700ds’s upgraded display is worth the cost it adds, I still feel after a lot more time with both the original W700 and the new model that the answer is at once 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 W700ds’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 these machines have some strong competition on the display front coming to market in the high-end graphics workstation space from HP and Dell.

Secondary Display

The one feature that distinguishes the W700ds from the original W700 is its secondary screen. As described previously, a second 10.6 inch, 1280×768 display is mounted in portrait orientation into a recess behind the primary panel, and can be popped out as desired to further expand the W700ds’s desktop area. As we noted in our first look at the W700ds, the screen can also be tilted forward about 30 degrees if desired, providing a more ideal viewing angle for the second display.

Screen power-on and recognition were seamless, with our test unit’s 64-bit Vista install automatically picking up the additional space almost immediately when the screen was extending, and exhibiting no problems when we retracted it again during use. With nearly identical vertical resolutions (1200 on the main display, versus 1280 on the secondary screen), dragging windows across the two displays wasn’t as difficult or awkward as might be assumed for this slight mismatch.

The bigger differences between the two displays, in fact, have to do with color reproduction, brightness, and clarity. The second display lacks the more highly reflective coating of its high-end companion, and with 280 NIT brightness (versus 400 on the primary display) and a narrower reproducible gamut, colors definitely don’t pop as much. Never mind annoying backlight bleed coming from both sides of the screen, poor side-to-side viewing angles, and a serious mismatch on black depth (true black is reproduced much lighter and bluer on the secondary display by default). Combined with color discrepancies courtesy of different calibration and profiling (more on that in the next section), power graphics users may well ask, “What’s the point?”

Given these faults, where the second display excels for graphics use, in fact, is less as an extension of the desktop and more as a docking station for tools, workflow windows, and so on. I found the additional space especially useful in both Photoshop and Illustrator for keeping tools/palettes out of the way and off of the main workspace.

Color Calibrator/Profiler

Like our original W700 review unit, the W700ds ships with an optional built-in X-Rite/Pantone Huey color calibration and profiling system that includes a simplified software package for quick color matching as well as a spectrocolorimeter for taking the necessary measurements that’s built right into the surface of the notebook. Via that little electronic eye, the W700ds is able to read the necessary color patches for automatic profiling and calibration when the lid is closed.

We detailed the (extremely simple) process afforded by this built-in system in our original W700 review, and I won’t rehash those details here. What should be noted, though, is that the W700ds’s secondary screen throws a bit of a wrench in the works: obviously, the onboard spectro can’t “see” the second screen, and thus can’t be used for profiling – leading to some appreciable color mismatches between primary and secondary displays that further encouraged me to use the second screen as a file management area only. The built-in system’s extremely simplified software interface also doesn’t seem to recognize external spectros, meaning if you really want to profile both displays, you’ll need to remove the supplied Huey system and start over with a third-party solution.

Keyboard, Touchpad, and Digitizer

Input options abound with the W700ds. For many diehard Lenovo fans, though, the world of input devices begins and ends with Lenovo’s legendary keyboards. And the W700ds’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 every W700 we’ve spent time with a pleasant experience. There’s a hint of flex at the top right corner of our review unit’s ‘board – up around the Backspace key – and we noticed some flex in the num pad too this time around. But otherwise the full-size keyboard feel securely anchored to the W700ds’s subframe.

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 W700ds’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, optional Wacom digitizer into the W700ds as well. The 3×5 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 lot of time on both the W700 and W700ds, I’ve adapted to the tablet’s 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 W700ds’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 this 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.

Performance and Benchmarks

With our W700ds bearing basically the same “under the hood” components – a 2.53GHz Intel Q9300 quad-core processor, 4GB of memory, and NVIDIA FX3700M discrete graphics – as the W700 we looked at a few months back, we were expecting a similar performance. Indeed, with the only noteworthy hardware difference being the substitution of a pair of 250GB RAIDed hard drives for the 160GB units in our first review unit, synthetic benchmark numbers on Windows Vista Ultimate 64-bit equipped machine were neck and neck with those from the original W700.

PCMark05 measures overall notebook performance (higher scores are better):

 

Notebook

PCMark05

Score

Lenovo W700ds (2.53GHz Intel Q9300, NVIDIA Quadro FX 3700M 1GB) 8,319 PCMarks

Lenovo W700 (2.53GHz Intel Q9300, NVIDIA Quadro FX 3700M 1GB)

8,207 PCMarks

Lenovo T500 (2.80GHz Intel T9600, ATI Radeon 3650 256MB GDDR3)  

7,050 PCMarks

HP Pavilion HDX18 (2.8GHz Intel T9600, Nvidia 9600M GT 512MB)

6,587 PCMarks

Gateway P-7811 FX (2.26GHz Intel P8400, NVIDIA 9800M GTS 512MB)

6,815 PCMarks

Apple MacBook Pro (2.2GHz Intel T7500, Nvidia 8600M GT 128MB)

5,864 PCMarks

Dell XPS M1330 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, NVIDIA GeForce Go 8400M GS)

4,591 PCMarks

Lenovo ThinkPad X61 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, Intel X3100)

4,153 PCMarks

Lenovo T60 Widescreen (2.0GHz Intel T7200, ATI X1400 128MB)

4,189 PCMarks

HP dv6000t (2.16GHz Intel T7400, NVIDA GeForce Go 7400)

4,234 PCMarks

Sony VAIO SZ-110B in Speed Mode (Using Nvidia GeForce Go 7400)

3,637 PCMarks


3DMark06 represents the overall graphics performance of a notebook (higher numbers indicate better performance):

 

Notebook

3DMark06

Score

Lenovo W700ds (2.53GHz Intel Q9300, NVIDIA Quadro FX 3700M 1GB) 11,530 3DMarks

Lenovo W700 (2.53GHz Intel Q9300, NVIDIA Quadro FX 3700M 1GB)

11,214 3DMarks

Lenovo T500 (2.80GHz Intel T9600, ATI Radeon 3650 256MB GDDR3)  

4,371 3DMarks

Gateway P-7811 FX (2.26GHz Intel P8400, NVIDIA 9800M GTS 512MB)

9,355 3DMarks

HP Pavilion HDX18 (2.8GHz Intel T9600, Nvidia 9600M GT 512MB)

4,127 3DMarks

Apple MacBook Pro (2.2GHz Intel T7500, Nvidia 8600M GT 128MB)

3,321 3DMarks

Dell XPS M1330 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, NVIDIA GeForce Go 8400M GS 128MB)

1,408 3DMarks

Samsung Q70 (2.0GHz Core 2 Duo T7300 and nVidia 8400M G GPU)

1,069 3DMarks

Asus F3sv-A1 (Core 2 Duo T7300 2.0GHz, Nvidia 8600M GS 256MB)

2,344 3DMarks

Alienware Area 51 m5550 (2.33GHz Core 2 Duo, nVidia GeForce Go 7600 256MB

2,183 3DMarks

 

wPrime is a program that forces the processor to do recursive mathematical calculations; the advantage of this program is that it is multi-threaded and can use all four processor cores at once, thereby giving more accurate benchmarking measurements than Super Pi.

 

Notebook

wPrime 32M

time

Lenovo W700ds (Intel Core 2 Extreme Q9300 @ 2.53GHz) 15.398s

Lenovo W700 (Intel Core 2 Extreme Q9300 @ 2.53 GHz)

15.771s

Lenovo T500 (Intel Core 2 Duo T9600 @ 2.80GHz)

27.471s

Gateway P-7811 FX (Core 2 Duo P8400 @ 2.26GHz)

33.366s

HP Pavilion HDX18 (Core 2 Duo T9600 @ 2.8GHz)

27.416s

HP Pavilion dv6500z (AMD Turion 64 X2 TL-60 @ 2.0GHz)

40.759s

Toshiba Tecra M9 (Core 2 Duo T7500 @2.2GHz)

37.299s

HP Compaq 6910p (Core 2 Duo T7300 @ 2GHz)

40.965s

Zepto 6024W (Core 2 Duo T7300 @ 2GHz)

42.385s

Lenovo T61 (Core 2 Duo T7500 @ 2.2GHz)

37.705s

Alienware M5750 (Core 2 Duo T7600 @ 2.33GHz)

38.327s

Hewlett Packard DV6000z (Turion X2 TL-60 @ 2.0GHz)

38.720s


HDTune storage drive performance test:

 

As before, users interested in the graphics performance torture tests we subjected our original W700 to can check that review for full details. Basically, we ran a similar set of graphics performance-evaluating tasks in Photoshop CS3 this time around with nearly identical results: rendering 10,000-pixel gradients in under two seconds is well within the W700ds’s reach, and in test after test that even some high-end desktops would balk at, the W700ds posted performance numbers that no stationary workstation would be ashamed of.

In reviewing the W700, I described its performance as “sickeningly fast.” Having put the W700ds through the same battery of evaluations, I’m confident that – short of anything packing desktop processing hardware, that is – the W700ds’s top configuration offers as much performance as you can conceivably pack into a mobile platform at the moment.

Multimedia

In spite of being possessed of the raw power to chew up and spit out any graphics task put in its path, the W700 platform remains a generally poor choice for conventional multimedia tasks. Plenty of video output options and a pleasing screen might lead you to believe otherwise, but at the end of that day the user experience for watching movies or listening to music really isn’t so nice. First, as noted previously, the W700ds has a dearth of dedicated multimedia buttons by the standards of its class: you can adjust the volume, and function-plus-key commands provide access to start/stop commands, but it’s clear that music and movies weren’t on the minds of Lenovo’s design team when they put this machine together. Like their smaller enterprise notebooks, this one’s all business.

While full-screen DVD playback in Windows Media Player was perfectly smooth, the W700ds also suffers from a pair of tiny, top-mounted speakers that could be described as minimally effective at best. Even with a good EQ for tweaking, the W700ds’s audio playback lacks everything but midrange; the resulting sound quality is somewhere between what you’ll get out of a pair of overdriven headphones from ten feet away and a weak AM radio broadcast. To their credit, the ThinkPad’s speakers were surprisingly clean all the way up to their top power setting, and put out plenty of volume besides. There’s just no life – no bass response or treble sparkle – to the sound at all.

A front-mounted headphone jack delivers clean, rich, static-free audio with plenty of power, partially atoning for the ThinkPad’s speaker-side deficiencies. Overall, multimedia performance was acceptable, but at this price (and size) it certainly seems that Lenovo could have added some better speakers at the very least.

Ports and Features

Numerous connections are another reason users buy large desktop-replacement notebooks, and in this regard the W700ds delivers. The ThinkPad’s five USB ports and Firewire are certainly not too much to ask for, and out back the W700ds gives a nice range of options for making output connections as well.

Although our test unit didn’t come so configured, users can also opt for a built-in Compact Flash reader in place of dual Express Cards or a Smart Card/Express Card combo. Having the ability to pull images directly from either SD (via the front-side SD slot) or CF is a feature that I wish more graphics machines offered; I’m betting the majority of photographers will opt for this configuration.


Front: Wi-Fi hard switch, SD reader, headphone out, microphone in


Right: USB 2.0 ports (3), modem, pen silo, DVD/CD-RW


Left: IEEE 1394 (Firewire), USB 2.0 ports (2), Express Card 34, Smart Card


Back: Display Port, VGA out, DVI out, Gigabit Ethernet, power

Battery Life

The W700ds uses the same nine-cell lithium-ion battery that powers the rest of the W700 models. When we tested the original W700, we found battery life to be somewhere in the neighborhood of two hours off the plug for normal computing if you were careful, but just some over an hour for DVD playback. The difference, of course, is that the W700ds has – if you so choose, at least – a pair of screens to drive.

The W700ds has Lenovo’s very good power management system, but even so, expect about a 20 percent drop in life with the second display powered up and both screens at mid-level brightness. On a full battery using both screens for light computing, I was able to get 1 hour 46 minutes of juice out of the cell before the battery status was critical. Power off the second screen, though, and the W700ds’s numbers shoot back up to right around what we saw with the original W700.

All in all, this would be a truly disappointing performance were this machine designed for lots of true on-the-road work. As a desktop replacement, though, two-plus hours of battery life (depending on how heavy-handed you are with power management, and assuming you’re willing to give up the second display while working off the plug) is par for the course at the very least.

Heat and Noise

We were impressed the first time around with the W700’s heat control, and in this case the W700ds is a nearly identical story, with no measured temp on this machine topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit even after heavy loading. Not bad at all for a machine with this kind of hardware.

Likewise, the W700ds’s fan, while clearly audible when the machine is being pushed, never put out the kind of “high-speed hair dryer” noises we’ve come to expect from the cooling systems of larger, high-performance notebooks. That said, the fan does seem to be running at some speed almost constantly when the W700ds is powered up. In a quiet apartment, this constant addition to the background noise might be unwelcome, but in a noisy office, it was barely noticed.

Conclusion

Since my first look at the original W700, I’ve never tried to hide my feeling that Lenovo has done a lot right with this platform when it comes to designing a mobile workstation for graphics pros. Putting the question of its astronomical cost aside for the moment – after all, this will be a legitimate business expense with long-term return for most potential W700 buyers – Lenovo has put together a machine that, for commercial graphics or design work, really is almost impossible to beat.

In the time since our first W700 review, though, I’ve also had the chance to spend a lot more time with the original W700, and to get to know the W700ds seen here as well. And out of this experience, the general consensus around the NBR office seems to be that the W700 is a very good purpose-designed machine that only comes up short insofar as it only goes 90 percent of the way. For large-level systems – processor, primary display, graphics, memory – the W700ds checks all the right boxes. Rather, it’s the little things – like a second screen that’s a poor match, in terms of color and contrast, to the main display, or the thoughtful but not fully thought-out onboard tablet surface – that come to the fore.

Maybe I’m picking nits: after all, short of a desktop in notebook’s clothing or a one-off system, when it comes to raw performance the ThinkPad W700ds is tops. Likewise, the second display adds a lot of workflow value for graphics pros and others that will, quite literally, make the addition worth its weight. While I still believe, then, that for its core market, the W700ds is unquestionably a success, it’s certainly not perfect. And at this price, perfection may not be too much to expect.

Pros:

  • Desktop-like performance in a notebook – now with two screens!
  • Build quality still as good as always
  • Very good primary display with built-in color calibrator
  • Keyboard is as good as the one on my desk

Cons:

  • Built-in calibrator doesn’t support second display
  • Small onboard digitizer features a terrible pen
  • Multimedia performance doesn’t quite cut it
  • Performance upgrades will elevate the price significantly




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