This piece is… well, I don’t remember quite the same sentence again. I have already written the introduction to this review, didn’t save, put the laptop to sleep, went to wash some dishes, then came back, woke it up from sleep, and boom, there you have it: BSOD, with DPC_WATCHDOG_VIOLATION. Cool, isn’t it? Okay, restarted and rapidly grabbed the WhoCrashed application I can really recommend. It analyzed the dump and told me who’s to blame for the fault: the Synaptics touchpad driver – as soon as I touched the touchpad after waking the machine, it froze and then crashed. So, at least I know who’s to blame, but now I don’t have a solution – downgrade to Windows 7, where I’m sure most problems are just not happening, stay with Windows 10 and look for another Synaptics driver – the one I had installed was version 19.0.12. 61. Now I’m on 19.0.16 which came through Windows Update when I manually checked for an update. Looking for your suggestions in the comments box, as I cannot unfortunately work with the machine in such a state… – This was actually before I wrote entirety of this review, so my thoughts on this matter are way more detailed below.
And now the true introduction: this piece is about the whole experience I have went through when searching for a new notebook to serve me for the next 4 years, at least – the time I’ll spent on my engineering program in college, starting this autumn. First, I’ll tell what my expectations are from a laptop, then I’ll show you all candidates I considered buying. And then, I’ll tell you the story behind my brand new W540 and actually review it. So without further introduction, let’s see…
I am a tough guy to satisfy when looking for a notebook, as I demand a lot from this machines. I don’t own a desktop, so a notebook has to perform various tasks for me:
· It has to be good for programming, as this is the field I have developed myself into recently – so it’s got to have at least 8 GB of RAM, with the option to upgrade to at least 16 GB in the future
· I write a lot on it, both code, but also articles for the blog and some other work, so I need it to be top-notch from a typing perspective. I need the keyboard to be illuminated as I write a lot with no lights turned on at all around me. Now the illumination, again, I prefer it to be naturally white, as it is, I don’t know… natural – I think keyboards with red illumination like the ASUS ROG series are just distracting
· After keyboard, there comes the touchpad – it has to be multi touch, but then again, what’s not multi touch these days – I don’t even need physical buttons as I am easily accustomed to left clicking with one finger, right clicking with two fingers, and scrolling again using two fingers
· I also need it to have a powerful CPU, in order to handle my tasks quick – I considered just options powered at least by an Intel® Core™ i7 – and here comes the first stupidity of buying a laptop these days: half the models contain solid i7 CPUs, while half of them feature a joke which Intel put the label “i7” on it – let me explain: the current generation (5th generation – which BTW isn’t the real current generation, as the 6th was just released these days, yet there aren’t mobile machines powered by such silicone yet) of Intel Core i7 processors feature only low power dual core CPUs mostly (there are some recently announced quad-core mobile Core i7 5th gen CPUs, which again were just announced and are available in a very limited number of models, I believe – IDK, I haven’t seen one yet, but anyway…), so the OEMs had to keep on the market options featuring the previous generation non-throttled Core i7 quad-core chips. So despite the market being quite low here in Romania, I then had again to narrow it more by looking at just half the options available
· I demand also a crystal clear screen, so 1080p resolution at least, to start with; touch screen nah, I’m not a fan of those on laptops, to be honest, I think it just retains fingerprints and obscures your view; size: 15.6 inches or 17.3 inches, it didn’t really matter, plus most options I have looked into sported both screens in different configurations
· I may also play some games on it from time to time, so I haven’t considered options lacking discrete graphics – I don’t think GTA 5, for example, runs so well on integrated graphics (haha); and naturally, I considered mainly NVIDIA configurations, as AMD is… let’s say, well behind in the game regarding laptops, as I have discovered when researching
· I needed it to somehow support having 2 storage devices into it – I am already used to having an SSD drive for storing my operating system and programs on it, with the second HDD drive for storing my files, downloads, music, you get the idea – personal data; so I couldn’t considered options which did not allow me have two storage devices, in any configuration possible, but just to support two: either two SATA3 bays; either one SATA3 slot, and another one which is filled with a DVD drive I would swap for a second HDD; either one SATA3 slot, and an M.2 SATA3 or PCI express slot – so I think my demands were flexible enough, as I was keen on stuffing a 256 GB SSD inside, alongside an HDD at least 500 GB in size, 7200 rpm
· I needed it to sport a removable battery, as I used my previous laptops connected to external displays, mouse and keyboard very often, so as to not kill the battery, I simply swapped it out from the PC when using it “docked”
· I prefer it to have a combined 3.5mm jack, as all my devices today have the microphone attached to the headphones, so separate jacks mean having a separate adapter
· I needed it to have at least one option of outputting to external displays, either digital (preferably), or analogical – HDMI, mini DisplayPort, D-sub (VGA), DVI, anything…
· Several USB ports, with several of them being USB 3.0 (so, at least 3 ports, and 2 of them being USB 3.0)
· DVD drive, optional, mainly linked to the demands regarding storage options
· Battery, I expected it to last at least 3 hours, if not possible more – I know many consumer notebooks compromise on battery in their pursuit of offering beefier options at lower price points
· I also wanted it to have some pretty large arrow keys, because I often game (the few times I actually play something) using those instead of WASD. At least, not cramped, like on many Dell laptops, or the MacBook.
That’s it, I guess. Am I too picky? I don’t think so, as I know I’ll be spending quite some money on it, so I want it to satisfy my needs, also considering that I won’t be replacing it anytime soon (as I said, again, I expect to use it for at least 4 years).
I have previously used an ASUS K53 for almost 3 and half years, until its PSU died. Then, my brother borrowed me his Toshiba L850 to use it until I finish with my exams and buy a new laptop for myself. So I tried to avoid ASUS when considering options this time. Also, both those laptops are consumer grade, entry-level to mid-range options, so they had a not-so-sturdy build quality. At least the ASUS had some metal; the Toshiba was all plastic and boring white… Plus the battery, which was lackluster on both devices, I mean they couldn’t get me through not even half a day of work…
Oh, and I had a budget: a thousand euros, or $ 1,160.00. Plus, the price for a 256 GB SSD M.2 SSD if needed, which cost me $ 145.00. So, all in all, a maximum of roughly $ 1,300.00.
Now, let’s look at all the options I considered and didn’t buy.
I considered a whole lot of options, so I will try to list them here in a random order, the order in which I remember about them, and also comment a bit on each of them.
ACER ASPIRE V NITRO VN7 ($ 1,406.00)
· Intel Core i7 4710HQ 2.5 Ghz
· 17.3’’, 1080p screen
· 16 GB DDR3 LV RAM
· 1 TB HDD + 256 GB SSD
· nVIDIA GeForce GTX 860M 2 GB
· Windows 8.1 pre-installed
There’s also a newer configuration featuring the 4720HQ CPU, and the GeForce 960M 4 GB. Both 15-inch and 17-inch models exist. The main issue which made me not consider this laptop was the sealed battery. Plus the build construction, which was not that great (I checked it physically in a shop). On the plus side, it has an M.2 slot, plus a SATA3 slot, and an optical drive which can be swapped out for another drive. The price on the other hand was pretty high, for the configuration it offered, a bit over budget…
LENOVO Y70-70 ($ 1,120.00)
· Intel Core i7 4710HQ 2.5 Ghz
· 17.3’’, 1080p screen, touch screen
· 8 GB DDR3 LV RAM
· 1 TB HDD
· nVIDIA GeForce GTX 860M 4 GB
· Windows 8.1 pre-installed
Unfortunately, the Y70-70 had a big flaw I couldn’t get past: just a single SATA3 slot. That’s it. It doesn’t feature neither an optical drive, nor an M.2 slot. So the only option would have been to purchase a high capacity SSD and partition it accordingly. But even a 512 GB SSD can cost as much as $ 300.00, which rose the price too much, plus that I would be wasting high speed storage for files I access once a year or so. Other than that, the design was top notch, of really good quality, yet the battery was again irremovable. With this second inconvenience, I had to say good bye for real to Lenovo solutions, as unfortunately, all their current high-end line-up is flawed IMO.
TOSHIBA QOSIMO X70 ($ 1,275.00)
· Intel Core i7 4710HQ 2.5 Ghz
· 17.3’’, 1080p screen
· 8 GB DDR3 LV RAM
· 2 TB HDD
· AMD Radeon R9 M265X 4 GB
· Windows 8.1 pre-installed
My main issue with Toshiba was the fact that they use AMD graphic cards instead of NVIDIA solutions. According to a few web sites I checked around, I found out that the graphics solution is comparable to GeForce 840M, but the price is high as if it was using the more performant 860M. Plus, the build quality was not appropriate to my liking, plus the keyboard which has red illumination, instead of white. Also, the keyboard is pretty much crippled, as Toshiba uses a pretty bad layout for its keys I’m accustomed to and I don’t enjoy. On the plus side, the Toshibas fortunately feature removable batteries which I really appreciate.
ASUS ZENBOOK PRO UX-501 ($ 1,700.00)
· Intel Core i7 4720HQ
· 15.6’’, 4K screen, touch screen
· 8 GB DDR3 LV RAM
· 256 GB SSD
· nVIDIA GeForce GTX 960M
· Windows 8.1 pre-installed
Although the price of this Zenbook is more on the premium side, I considered it because it is a light, good looking machine. I don’t like the fact that it has soldered RAM on the motherboard, so models shipping with 8 GB RAM, for example, support a maximum of 12 GB, as 4 GB are soldered, and a single slot can host a bigger module. Also, the keyboard layout is pretty stellar on ASUS models, as I have grown accustomed to their layout by using their solutions for so long. But the thing I dislike about their keyboard is the fact that it is white illuminated on a light gray background, which can make keys harder to distinguish in some conditions. As a plus I mention, this ultrabook succeeds in packing a traditional SATA3 bay, alongside a powerful M.2 PCI express slot which can host an SSD. The battery is irremovable, and the power brick is pretty heavy. As for the construction, I can’t really tell, as the physical retailers I have personally checked didn’t stock this model. I appreciate though the metal construction, which I am sure, is noticeable. Also, what I consider a disadvantage is the 4K screen, as Windows already has some scaling issue with lower resolutions, like 1080p on 15.6” screens, and I have read some opinions on how some applications are unusuable on this model due to this fact.
To be honest, most notebooks satisfying my demands were ASUS offerings, as generally Romanian retailers tend to stock half ASUS, half other brand products. I have also checked some ASUS ROGs, but I haven’t settled on one due to the bulk associated with some of them, the poor battery life, as it has to support a powerful discrete video solution, or simply the red illuminated keyboard.
I also checked a few offers by these OEMs, although nothing impressed me. It may be just my purely subjective opinion, but these vendors really have weak offerings this time around.
My dad’s got an HP EliteBook 840 which is okay I guess, yet it’s got just a 14” screen. It’s more of an ultrabook than a notebook, so it also lacks many other things. It doesn’t lack in price on the other hand, though. What I appreciate about this model is the easy maintance you can perform on it, as the back cover slides very easily and reveals all the internals. So I considered its battery as removable, taking into account this fact. But the keyboard is not illuminated, so I have to move on. That’s also a business oriented offering, which I’ll talk more about in a future article.
MSI has some great laptops launched recently, but unfortunately they don’t have such a good presence on the Romanian market. Plus that I can’t wait a few months for the price to drop, eventually Christmas, as I needed the laptop this autumn. Also, their keyboard layout is not my favorite, but I would have at least gave them a shot if I saw anything interesting.
When talking about other brands, I’m mainly talking about Clevo laptops here. Clevo is an ODM which brands its own computers, but also sells chassis to other OEMs, who offer them as their personal products. One of these manufacturers is the Romanian business Maguay. They have a strong presence on the market, at least on Facebook, as they invited me to check out their models in the showroom. Instead, I checked them on their web site, and the prices didn’t impress me. They were on par or even higher when compared to other brands, plus that they lacked my confidence in their brand. To be honest, I never saw someone use such a machine, and until I can properly test one, I cannot have a good opinion about it.
For some time, I ran out of options. I looked at so many machines, yet was comfortable with none of them. The machines I’ve talked about are just the most impressive I could remember of. I checked many other options like some cheaper ASUSes, who seemed to offer incredible performance, yet were crippled by smartphone-like batteries. In fact, calling the battery smartphone-like is an insult, as many had smaller capacity than my Xperia Z3 for example. I passed on so many offers and laptops, that I decided it wasn’t worth the time to actually look anymore, and decided I’ll start looking again after I get to England this fall.
The moment I actually started Thinking
Now, let’s rewind back to winter 2014, when I was again briefly browsing the Internet for interesting machines. I stumbled upon one that really caught my attention: the ThinkPad W540, a real powerhouse it seemed to me. It had great specs, yet a steep price, and the ThinkPad quality still wasn’t convincing me that much back then. Although I appreciated them, as my dad had one when I was a little child, and actually that was the first PC I have used. If I recall correctly, it was an IBM ThinkPad 390E. It booted Windows 98, and it still boots that today, which really seems to me like 88 versions ahead of Windows 10. Unfortunately, its lid is kind of broken, as the metal hinges broke the plastic enclosure. Yet, that thing is a beast, having lasted so much without any other problem. It’s been used by my dad a lot, plus me as a child who didn’t know that much about taking care of computers as I do now.
Stepping back to present days, I also used to check second hand web sites for interesting offers, although I mainly considered just looking rather than buying, as I wanted something I knew isn’t faulty, and with warranty. Romanian web sites like OLX or Okazii often sell interesting new offers from various resellers, with warranty also. Luckily me, I stumbled around an interesting offer, a guy who sold the ThinkPad W540 for exactly € 1,000.00, which is roughly $ 1,160.00, brand-new, bought in January 2015, with a 3 year international warranty which really made me consider checking it out.
I called him, and he was so nice and explained me everything about the machine. He sold it so cheap because he already had a unit for his own use. This second unit, he bought it for a friend, with a contact of him delivering them here in Romania, from the United States. His friend decided not to buy the unit, and as he didn’t want to argue with the occasional importer friend of him, and lose his support on future purchases, he bought both of them and decided to sell the second unit online. Or at least, that’s the story he told me. When I met with him the next day, in order for me to check and eventually purchase the laptop, the unit really impressed me. It looked new, had no marks of usage, and moreover the design was awesome, plain simple, yet a mobile powerhouse. It truly is like a black Japanese Bento lunchbox which reveals a ‘surprise’ when opened, as its original designer Richard Sapper said. Well, enough with this entire sentimentalist introduction, let’s proceed to the actual review.
ThinkPad W540 review
The ThinkPad W540 is a mobile workstation introduced by Lenovo at the end of 2013. It features a traditional black box design (which can also be called gray, no mistake here), but also some innovations which for many users may be an understandable no-go due to usability issues. The notebook is lighter than previous versions, and includes some impressive silicone power under the hood, capable to carry everyday tasks with ease.
A sequel model was introduced by Lenovo a couple of months later, the ThinkPad W541, which is similar to the W540 except it contains a more traditional touchpad, this time with actual physical buttons. The W540 may not be on sale anymore at usual retailers, as it may have been replaced by the W541. The starting price for the model is $ 1,322.10, with the top configuration reaching an incredible $ 3,152.70.
My configuration is somewhat similar to the entry level model, although it features a couple of upgrades which raised its new price on Lenovo’s configurator to $ 1,412.10. The actual build feature the following components:
· Intel® Core™ i7 4700MQ @ 2.4 Ghz (TurboBoost 2.0 up to 3.4 Ghz) – the CPU is socketed so it can be easily replaced from the motherboard
· 15.6” FHD (1920×1080) screen
· Intel HD Graphics 4600 (integrated) with 256/512 MB VRAM (configurable from BIOS, actual memory is taken from RAM), plus NVIDIA Quadro K1100 (dedicated) with 2 GB VRAM
· 8 GB DDR3 LV 1,600 Mhz RAM (2 DIMM) *
· Fingerprint reader
· 720p HD webcam
· 500 GB HDD, 7200 rpm, 2.5” (SATA3), plus 256 GB SSD, M.2 (added by me, I’ll talk about this in a moment)
· DVD Recordable
· SmartCard Reader *
· 9 Cell Li-Ion Cylindrical Battery 99.9Wh *
· Intel Dual Band Wireless 7260AC with Bluetooth 4.0
· 3 Years International Warranty Service
The items marked with an asterisk (*) are things which have been upgraded versus the base configuration available on the Lenovo web site.
Now, I won’t create a detailed review of the notebook, covering each and every option, as those are already available on various web sites. What I’ll talk about actually in this piece, is my own subjective opinion, regarding various aspects of this machine.
My unit’s got a 1080p TN panel which is… okay. Fine. But not great though. Not great because the viewing angles are pretty lacking, and for the list price people pay for this machine, you’d expect a better panel to be included. You see, the lid has to be opened just the right angle so you can properly see the contents, if you then stand up and look at it, distortion will happen. The 3K option is better, as it is IPS, but again that one cannot shine enough on Windows due to its famous scaling issues I am going to talk about in the SW section of this review. The higher you scale content, the bigger and fuzzier the contents will appear, unfortunately. And as it seems to me, a proper fix isn’t coming any time soon from Microsoft.
That said, it is not the best display I have ever used (smartphones I used, in particular, have better displays these days), but it gets the job done. Plus, outdoors, it has a decent level of maximum brightness, and doesn’t reflect light that much, which is a definite pro.
A word on the aspect ratio too. I’ve only used 16:9 displays in laptops, so I cannot say if 16:10 is preferable, as many reviewers tend to agree today, but considering the pretty large bezel at the bottom of it, I think that cramping a 16:10 unit in the same body would have been a viable solution. Although, I prefer this than a crappier solution, as the display build quality is top notch today though: it is firmly held into place by metallic hinges, and a neat gimmick I enjoy about it is the fact that it can slide all the way up to 180 degrees, i.e. in line with the rest of the body, which for me personally is pretty useful and I think rocks.
What doesn’t rock so much is the lack of a locking mechanism. There used to be a mechanical switch that would release the lid on previous iterations, but on this model, the display sits closed only by the force of the hinges, which I believe will eventually wear out. I hope though that it won’t be any time soon. I mean, the current mechanism is okay, it gets the job done, yet I hope it won’t broke in at least the next 4 years.
This machine is fully packed with possibilities for every user. To begin with, one thing I find annoying, is the lack of an HDMI port, which means I need to carry an adapter with me all the times. This is compensated however, by the fact that its replacement, mini DisplayPort, is a more capable interface, plus that it is open-source, so Lenovo cut a bit from the price of the machine by going this route (or enlarged their profit, whichever way you would like to look at it).
Other than that, I have no big complaints. It’s also got a D-Sub (VGA) port, 2 USB 2.0 ports, 2 USB 3.0 ports (which, unfortunately, are not color coded, plus, I don’t understand why aren’t all the ports USB 3.0, but anyway; 2 of them are properly spaced, the other 2 are a little bit cramped together), 1 Express Card slot, a combined audio/microphone jack, a Kensington lock, plus an Ethernet (RJ-45) port on the back of the machine, opposite the power connector, which BTW is a new connector which isn’t compatible with previous ThinkPad connectors. Oh, and there’s a DVD drive in-there too, for those who don’t opt to replace it with a second (or third) HDD, more on that below. All in all, a satisfying package for me.
And I almost forgot: there’s also a docking connector on the base of the machine, so it’s got docking station support, of course. Yay!!!
The storage is the most important factor when it comes to how quick the system responds, as opening a file for example, isn’t that much thinking for the computer (CPU), than it is actually spinning the disk and finding the file, where it sits; so good storage can significantly improve the quickness of the OS.
For this purpose, I upgraded the machine with a second disk drive, a 256 GB ADATA SSD. But, as I did not want to swap out the optical drive, I chose to buy an M.2 unit and put it in the free slot the laptop has. Actually, the machine has 2 M.2 slots: one is occupied by the WiFi card, while the second one can be equipped from the factory with a mobile broadband. My unit though, comes without the mobile broadband chip, so I had that slot free and decided to take advantage of it. So now, I keep my OS on the 256 GB SSD, and my data on the 7,200rpm factory provided 500 GB HDD, which is a Seagate model BTW.
To recap, the machine has a solid offering in this department: 2 SATA3 slots, and 2 M.2 slots (which if you want to use both for storage, you’ll have to do without WiFi and Bluetooth).
CPU, RAM, AND GRAPHICS
The CPU is fast, although I cannot say it is an upgrade over previous machines I had, even if it is two generations newer (in the past, I used 2 laptops equipped with an i7 2630QM, and an i7 3630QM) – I think the power consumption is lower, but the actual horsepower difference is negligible, as confirmed also by the now defunct Windows Experience Index.
The computer’s got 8 GB double data rate 3 low voltage synchronous dynamic random access memory modules (what a mouthy, i.e. 8 GB DDR3 LV SDRAM), clocked at 1,600 Mhz.
On the graphics side, the machine is powered by Intel HD Graphics 4600 (integrated), with 256 MB VRAM (taken from actual RAM, configurable in BIOS), and an nVIDIA Quadro K1100M (discrete), with 2 GB VRAM. I hit 40fps in Grand Theft Auto V, with all the settings on High, at 1080p, plus easily 60fps in Minecraft with draw distance taken up to maximum, although it sits constantly again around 40fps, at 1080p, which is more than enough for me.
Now, speaking about the touchpad, I have to talk about it a moment or two, as I know many people have complained and still complain about it. The idea is that this particular model has a button-less touchpad, that is, a touchpad with no actual physical buttons, a bit similar to the one found in the MacBooks, for example. This particular model clicks in in its entirety. You can press anywhere on it, and it will perform a click. I configured mine as one giant button, so I can left click by pressing with one finger, and right clicking by pressing with two fingers, and scrolling by flicking two fingers on its surface.
In the default configuration though, you can perform a right click by pressing in the upper right or bottom right zone. For the upper right zone, there’s even a red line indicating that there is a button, although it is not. And here comes the pain for traditional users: by not being an actual button, you cannot know where the zone actually ends, so many times, without looking at the thing, you end up clicking instead of right clicking, or the other way around. Because this gigantic zone is just a single zone, which can be divided in areas by means of software, traditional use of the touchpad can be at least problematic.
And then, it comes the TrackPoint, the traditional red dot many people use instead of the trackpad or a mouse and comes standard on ThinkPad models. Use of the TrackPoint, coupled with this touchpad (as the TrackPoint is used to move the cursor, while to click you need to tap the touchpad) takes a lot of getting used to. When I first tried it, I thought it was impossible, especially considering I never used a TrackPoint alone. After some practice, I got partly used to it, although my primary means of getting around is still the touchpad. But I have to acknowledge, it would have been way easier to use it this way if the buttons were physical, as you could do it just by feeling the surface. So I can accept that this is a potential deal breaker for many traditional ThinkPad customers who are accustomed to a specific way of working with the machine. That’s why Lenovo acknowledged this and introduced the W541, which replaces the button-less touchpad with a more traditional unit.
As a side note, some people managed to fit the W541 touchpad, or at least a similar part, into the W540, so if it absolutely necessary, you can ‘fix’ this laptop with the proper touchpad you’re seeking without buying the newer model, if you will.
So, to say the touchpad is bad is too much I believe. Actually, the way I was used to using touchpads, I really love it, as the most important factor for me is that it has multi touch, and it is big, and it accomplishes both things. Actually, it is very big, which I really appreciate. Also, being this big, many people may accidentally hit it when typing, which again can be a problem, but personally I didn’t experience such an issue.
A thing which I don’t enjoy that much is the click sound, which is very loud. It really click in, and you can hear and also feel this. Although, it cannot click in on all the areas, for example the extreme bottom corners. At the beginning, I used to click all the way down on it, but now as I got annoyed by the sound, I just tap on its surface.
The keyboard is again an important part of the productive experience I expect from this laptop and I have to say, to me, it’s the best keyboard I have ever typed on. The keys have good travel, are spacious, and I appreciate that the up-down arrow keys haven’t been cramped beside other keys. It is chiclet style, and compared to the old ThinkPad layout found on previous models, in my opinion, it is okay, it gets the job done, and I can’t say it is worse than that. Now, the things I dislike about it are light bleeding, which is pretty noticeable, especially on the highest illuminating setting in a very dark environment, when the keyboard actually distracts you from the screen. Plus, I believe the notebook would appeal to more people if it also sported the old ThinkLight, as an alternative for people who don’t like an illuminated keyboard. Anyway, it offers a very good typing experience, so that’s why I wrote this entire piece on it. Plus, it doesn’t bend like keyboards usually do on consumer laptops.
Another debated feature is the inclusion of a NumPad to the right of the keyboard, which, as mentioned by many people, means that the touchpad if off-centered to the left, and your whole posture when working will be off-centered to the left, with the left hand sitting right beside the left edge, while the right hand sits just right to the center of the laptop. Again, I don’t find it disturbing, but the utility of the NumPad is… debatable. I seldom use it, although I’m used to it being there. All my previous machines I have worked with had one. Plus, it might be useful for data-entering, for people who spend most of their day in applications like Microsoft Excel. Anyway, I find it better that it was included, as I may start using it more often.
At last, it is best that they did not decide to somehow innovate the keyboard, as we all know what happens when they do that (hint: check the last-gen ThinkPad X1 Carbon).
And one more thing: it is spill resistant, which is cool! (It has some drilling holes at the bottom of the machine, so water can flow through those)
Deeply connected with the last paragraph is the reason for the placement of the speakers. So, because the keyboard flushes from one edge to the other of the laptop, there was no room left for speakers besides it. So they’ve been hid on the front edge of the notebook. At least they’re not at the bottom, which would suck, for sure. BTW, there’s two of them.
I don’t care for the quality of them, as I don’t use them to listen to music. What I care more is the loudness. I want built-in speakers to be loud, to scream, because I use them whenever I’m in an environment when I don’t have the chance to use something else, like some decent earbuds, or proper external speakers, but I need to – like, when presenting something to someone, often in a noisy place, so you need the other party to be able to hear what you’re showing. This is the part I really appreciate about them: they’re loud. Loud enough for me. Louder than any other built-in speakers I have ever used, which is very good. For the sound quality, I don’t care, I have an audio jack plus Bluetooth for that, so I don’t have any experience to share. I use them mainly for speech playback, which is loud and clear.
One thing I don’t like is the fact that it includes some Dolby Audio software which overwrites the Enhancements tab of the speakers in Sound properties. So I can’t use the bass boost option which Windows offers, and have to resort to a crappy (read: really crappy) application provided by Dolby. Yes, it features some options, but heck, I couldn’t find a way to make them work the way I wanted. For example, in order to tune the graphic equalizer, you need to have a song playing. Than, you drag the slider for a specific frequency, and then… bang, it fells down to where the rest are… Insane, you just can’t make it work. Honestly, this is by far the shittiest piece of software I have ever used. Period. Please do yourself a favor and uninstall it, preferably altogether with the Realtek audio drivers which don’t seem to come with actual added value, at least for me. The default drivers provided by Microsoft are enough, for me at least.
Here I include things I don’t care that much about, but are a welcome addition if done right, plus some other considerations regarding the HW.
So, the webcam quality is decent, again, I don’t know of a laptop with a proper webcam, but anyway, at least it is 720p in resolution. It’s accompanied by some decent microphones too, at the top of the lid.
The fingerprint sensor, I didn’t care that much before trying one, but it actually improves the experience of using the unit, as I can now log on (or sign in) to Windows more easily, without typing the password. Other than that, I haven’t found another use for it, yet. Although it is pretty responsive, and reads my finger correctly and from the first try, most of the times, I would have preferred it to be made in the style of the one found in the Galaxy S6 or the iPhone 6, i.e. to just tap on it for the fingerprint to be read, instead of swiping on it. Anyway, for a feature I didn’t need, it is okay.
I appreciate the illuminated red dot above the “i” letter in “ThinkPad”. It’s on when using the machine, and it breaths when the machine sleeps. I wish it would also pulse, or, I don’t know, do something when the machine is turned off, yet charging, just as a confirmation, and a compensation for the lack of a dedicated LED.
I particularly enjoyed the fact that it didn’t have that many stickers on it, so peeling them off is easy. Actually, my unit’s got only two tickers on the visible parts: an ENERGY STAR logo on the lid, which can be easily taken off, and an Intel sticker below the keyboard, which is black, and for now, I thought it integrates decently with the rest of the laptop. Maybe I’ll take it off the laptop too, who knows. On the bottom of the machine, there’s a sticker holding a bar code and a serial number, which got hot, and the paint melted so now the writing on mine is indistinguishable, and a “Windows 8 Pro” sticker which luckily is hidden away. Back in the day, the Windows 7 stickers used to stay above the keyboard, but anyway, Windows 7 was an OS which you as an owner could be proud of, which was not the case with Windows 8.
The Fn and Ctrl keys can be swapped using a setting in BIOS, which I did, as many people, like me, are accustomed to having the Ctrl key to the far left, while on Lenovo keyboards, Fn is on the far left, with Ctrl right to it. Thankfully, this can all be fixed.
Fn lock unfortunately keeps a green light on, on the Fn key, at all times. By default, the function keys perform the printed symbol action when pressed, and to perform the actual function, you have to press it, while holding the Fn key. So, for example, pressing F1 turns the volume off, while pressing Fn+F1 shows you help in the current application. The Fn lock, which I prefer, swaps the behavour for the traditional way. So, when pressing F1, help is shown, while Fn+F1 mutes the speakers, for example. I wish there was an option in BIOS to have the green light indicating Fn lock is on turn off.
The notebook lacks some other usual LEDs, like one for HDD activity, which for many can be a bummer. You never know if the system hang when some Windows update never finishes installing before shutting down. But I can live with it, I guess, although I wish next time Lenovo included one. Plus, a charging light, on the laptop or on the power brick, please.
My unit came preinstalled with Windows 8.1 Pro. I am well familiar with the OS, and what it can and cannot do, so as it was the time when all the hype around Windows 10 launch was on, I decided to do the upgrade for myself. I spent an entire week or so with Windows 10 installed on this machine, and I have to tell you that my impressions aren’t that good. I will make a separate review of this new OS soon, but for now, the experience was crippled. I give you just 2 examples, particularly related to the W540 workstation:
· As it is a mobile computer, you often have to switch power plans, especially when working plugged to the AC outlet, or unplugged. In Windows 10, the process has become utterly complicated for no obvious reason: you click the battery icon in the System Tray, then there’s a link you click to jump to the PC Settings section for battery, then scroll down the window, and there’s another link which jumps you the good old power management interface in the Control Panel. Then you can choose the right power plan for you. Compare this to Windows 7, where you click the battery icon, and if the power plan you wish to use is not already in the list (it remembers the last power plan you used, alongside the current one), you click a ink and ump right in the power management window. No utterly useless crap in-between.
· As this mobile workstation has a high resolution display (i.e. a 1080p unit, but it could have been also 3K), you have to set scaling in Windows to more than 100% if you want to be able to distinguish elements on the screen, and work comfortably. At least that’s the case for me, and it’s also the default setting on the laptop, which is configured to scale content to 125%. The bad thing is that Windows 10 uses some “new and improved” scaling method than Windows 7, which IMHO is completely broken, as it takes many windows and up-scales those from the normal 100% resolution to 125%, but somehow making them look blurry and fuzzy. Don’t believe me? Check Device Manager with display scaling set to 125% in both Windows 7 and Windows 10 and you’ll see the difference.
These are just two examples to give you an idea of how much I dislike Windows 10. Furthermore, I don’t like its concept too. But again, more on that in the detailed review. Another thing I experienced in Windows 10 were a few BSODs. As I have investigated, I found out that these were caused by the Synaptics touchpad driver, which I updated via Windows Update, as Lenovo provides a slightly old version, and apparently the issue was gone. What happened, was that the computer BSODed with the message “DPC_WATCHDOG_VIOLATION” after touching the touchpad, immediately after waking it up from sleep.
So, for now, I switched the machine to Windows 7 Professional, with a license I got from my college via the DreamSpark program.
It worked for a month or so, but then the machine became lazy when operating. Plus, the mobile hotspot feature would make the OS give BSOD after like 10 minutes of use, and I couldn’t find a fix. Coupled with the fact that the latest Android emulator for Visual Studio 2015 works only on Windows 8.1+, and I needed it to work on something, I decided to stay on Windows 8.1 as a compromise between the two. And I have to tell, it really pays off well: with Aero Glass, Classic Shell, OldNewExplorer, plus the Lenovo Settings Universal App, Windows 8.1 is quite enjoyable to use. I’ll report on this again soon, after I have a proper conclusion.
I haven’t figured out yet how these are split into which category. The system comes preloaded with a bunch of some cool, some not that cool apps provided by Lenovo, which unfortunately have various brandings I cannot figure out. Why is some utility ThinkVantage-branded, while some other comes from ThinkPad, and the other one for Lenovo, is a mystery to me. Yet, some of them are again useful, so I’ll introduce a couple of them bellow.
LENOVO SYSTEM UPDATE
By far, the most useful. Instead of hunting down for drivers on the manufacturer’s website, or even the wider Web, after reinstalling Windows, this utility downloads and installs all the necessary bits from Lenovo, and that’s it. Enough with the hunting, a really useful utility compared to my previous experiences regarding driver installation.
Plus, a word on the drivers which are surprisingly for me, pretty much up to date. An excellent thing I really appreciate. Enough with the 2 year old graphic driver Toshiba is serving to its users, which provides sub-par performance. A neat thing I like is that the Quadro line of GPUs are offered different graphic drivers for specific workloads, plus that they’re certified to perform well.
LENOVO SOLUTION CENTER
Basically, this is the central hub where you can see information about your ThinkPad. You can see things like warranty, and essentially provides links to many system features and other Lenovo utilities.
It also lets you test the hardware of your machine, to see if any issues plague your configuration. All in all, a welcome addition, quite useful.
LENOVO COMMUNICATIONS UTILITY
This allows you to configure the webcam, and the microphone. Extensive options are available, like the wheteher to mute just a specific microphone, or all recording devices attached to the system when the dedicated hardware switch is pressed. Again, quite handy utility.
LENOVO SERVICE BRIDGE
This is a companion utility which bridges communication between some applications, like the web browser, and the HW of the computer. This to the purpose, for example, of determining the serial number automatically, and then checking on the remaining warranty. Again, pretty handy that you don’t have to turn the laptop upside down, grab a separate piece of paper, just to check that number. (In the same category enters the inclusion of the Windows 8 product key directly into UEFI, so again, no need to turn the computer upside down to note it and then enter it into SW).
LENOVO FINGERPRINT MANAGER PRO
Why is “Pro” needed in the application name, other than a mouthful? Anyway, it is used to setup and store the fingerprints in the secure storage. It serves its purpose well, and it lets you visualize your hands and the already stored fingerprints. You can add a maximum of 10 fingerprints, one for each finger.
Allows you to wirelessly connect to other displays. It is dependent on the Intel Wireless Display driver. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the opportunity to play with it yet.
THINKVANTAGE POWER MANAGER
This application is more complex than the others, and I guess that’s why it is worth of a different moniker. It lets you switch between ThinkPad specific power plans, and also shows predicted power usage for each of the plans. It also lets you toggle the fan up to maximum, via a feature called Lenovo Turbo Boost+ (not to be confused with Intel Turbo Boost), so you can benefit of maximum performance out of the machine. (Note that this is only available in Basic mode, while the rest is only available in Advanced mode) Although it gets quite noisy, and personally I don’t know why it is necessary at all, as the system can kick the fans on its own if needed, and otherwise keeps a quite profile.
Many more settings can be configured, like the always-on USB port, and the way the system sleeps. One particular feature I found useful is the ability to limit the battery to charge up to a certain level, instead of full, and also limit the percentage at which it begins to charge. For example, in order to protect mine, I set it to charge only to 80%, and also not charge if not below 50%. Plus, you can set the levels at which Windows alerts for low level, and critical level.
THINKVANTAGE ACCESS CONNECTIONS
Again, a utility which allows you to efficiently operate the wireless radios from a single place. Particularly useful for me is a feature which shows the signal strength of the available wireless networks in range.
You can also use it to turn on the mobile hotspot, so you can share your Ethernet connection with other devices. The same can be accomplished via an interface in Windows, but it is much handier this way. No more fiddling with the command line. Plus, an additional huge bonus for me is the fact that the notebook allows me to set up the hotspot even if I’m connected to the Internet via WiFi, so you can practically extend the range of the available wireless connection. Really cool, indeed, thanks to a solid network adapter.
THINKVANTAGE MESSAGE PLUS
This I believe by now is a piece of crap which hogs the system and duplicates functionality of Lenovo Solution center. I’ll inspect it further, but it is on my uninstall list.
Basically, it notifies you about upgrades, updates, and other news about Lenovo products, but also HW on your computer, which Lenovo Solution center already claims is able to do. We’ll see…
I appreciate the key switches for microphone, and wireless, which can quickly disable the associated HW. There’s also a switch for mute, in the form of a dedicated function key.
I find useless the project button (F7), as the same thing can be accomplished by pressing Windows+P. And also, the F12 key simply openes Windows Explorer, which again has another dedicated key at the far right top of the keyboard, which again can be easily accomplished by pressing Windows+E. Luckily, the last one can be remaped using Windows Registry. Thank God!
When having CapsLock on, or NumLock on, indicators pop up on the screen, as the keys have no light on them, and stay on the screen the whole time of the lock, by default. There is, however, a fix, hidden in the most unusual place I could think of: right click on the desktop, choose Screen resolution, then click Advanced settings, and then choose the On-Screen Display tab. There you’ll find the option to just briefly show the indicators.
I have not yet took the time to properly benchmark this one, as I am interested in this too. But right now, I don’t have the expertise to do such a thing. So I decided not to do scientific tests.
As I can tell you just my purely subjective opinion about it, this section is going to be short. The battery life is pretty good, especially considering the fact that I’m rocking the 9-cell battery. It can easily last 3-4 hours on full brightness, outdoors, on a 75% charge, for example. Which I believe is pretty good, considering the fact that if I lower the brightness, and even charge the battery completely, it may last even 6-7 hours which is okay to me.
For me, a former mid-range notebook buyer, the ThinkPad W540 is an exceptional machine. Starting from the rock-solid, exceptional build quality, to the sheer powerhouse the machine is, to little additions like a roll cage chassis, 180 degrees lid, spill resistant keyboard, and dual wireless capabilities, this ThinkPad is mostly the computer I have ever dreamt of. It’s true, it lacks some little things, but compensates with many others.
For the die-hard ThinkPad user, I can also understand why this may be a no-go. The older the model you compare this to, the bigger the differences actually appear. Some of the changes are welcome, while some of them I can clearly see why they’re certain deal breakers for some people. Even Lenovo seems to acknowledge this, as in a recent blog post they introduced the possibility of creating a new line of ThinkPad computers, resembling old-school ThinkPad models people have grown accustomed to and love.
For consumers, hmm… I believe this is a no-go. I mean, it’s hard for the average consumer to see, and actually understand why you have to pay a premium for this machine, compared to other laptop. Speaking strictly from a silicone and price point of view, this laptop is expensive as hell and has a whole lot of better alternatives in the likes of ASUS ROGs, for example. But if you consider the whole package, the more you read about and use the machine, the less unjustifiable the price difference becomes.
I really recommend this laptop to everyone who takes that step from being amateur, to becoming a professional. It’s like going with a sedan on a race track – sure, it’s got a Sport mode which depending on the competitors kicks ass, but it can’t stand a chance against a proper sports car. Plus, this machine is especially compelling to businesses looking for business-grade workstations, and I’m sure it’s an option for many enterprises out there.
Now, let’s talk about alternatives. Specifically, it’s the ThinkPad T540p I would like to address first, which looks a lot like the W540. In fact, from what I have witnessed when comparing the two models, they’ve got pretty much the same chassis, with components being the premier differentiator here.
The T540p is a more consumer-oriented variant of the W540. The W540 is marketed as a “mobile workstation”, while the T540p is a high-end ThinkPad notebook. The consumer/enterprise level difference between the two is best witnessed by the graphics choices available on the models: the T540p optionally comes with GeForce graphics, while the W540 comes standard with Quadro graphics. Also, the starting price difference is huge, and so are the base configurations, which on the T540p go as low as using Core i3 CPUs, and 720p panels.
An interesting exercise I decided to take was configuring a T540p similar to my model, so I can see if there’s any price difference, and how is that justifiable. I did that on Lenovo’s web site. A similarly specced T540p (except the video card, which is a GeForce GT 730M with 1 GB VRAM, instead of the Quadro K1100 with 2 GB VRAM in the W540) would cost me $ 1398.60, compared to $ 1412.10, so there’s a $ 13.5 difference which I believe is worth just the video card VRAM difference alone, let aside the fact that the W540 supports a maximum of 32 GB RAM (4 slots), while the T540p supports only a maximum of 16 GB (2 slots). Considering this, I wouldn’t recommend spending a high amount of money on the t540p, and instead choosing the equivalent W540 model. The T540p is a good choice only when choosing the entry-level configurations.
And again, the T540p is a good candidate for a consumer who wants to try an authentic ThinkPad, but doesn’t have the budget or the need to spend a couple thousand bucks on a machine.
And a little word on the new ThinkPad P50 and ThinkPad P70. The first is a 15 incher, while the latter is a 17 incher. Both replace the current W line of ThinkPad computers, and feature some amazing tech, of which I really like and have to mention: the first mobile computer to ship with Intel Xeon workstation-level mobile CPUs, plus the ability to host up to 64 GB of DDR4 RAM. There are minor, yet really functional and satisfying additions, like an improved (read: reverted) touchpad, with buttons above for use with the TrackPoint, and three buttons bellow, including a middle click button. And then, there are the quirks I really enjoy seeing, particularly the fact that the computers are “ back-in-black” again, unlike the ThinkPad W540 which may seem black, but it’s actually gray. A dark shade of gray, but nevertheless, gray. Plus the HDD LED (which I don’t need that much, yet I heard many urge for one, so it’s better to have and satisfy as many people as possible). Personally, I think the computers look pretty solid, and they’ll made a good replacement for an old ThinkPad W. Kudos Lenovo for bringing back requested features. Now, get working on the Retro ThinkPad, that may make you serious money if done right.
Regarding consumer laptops, I already spoke about some of the beefiest options available on the market today at the beginning of this piece. There’re just some other enterprise oriented models, like the Dell Precision, or HP EliteBook. While, IMO, HP and Dell are not quite delivering on the consumer side, they’re providing some serious options for the business oriented market. I haven’t taken an in-depth look at their options yet, but I’ll surely do, and update this article with relevant information. Why not altogether with this from the first place? Because this has been in the works for quite some time now, and feel like it is worth publishing like this for now, with some interesting updates I’m planning in the future. Powered by my new ThinkPad.
Thanks for reading. Also, please don’t forget to rate the article and state your opinion in the comments section below. This is the first full-length article I have ever written, so your opinion on my style/layout/flow/anything is highly appreciated, and taken into consideration, I assure you. Also, tell me which format would you prefer for reviews: full length written pieces, or video blogs? See you in the next one, ;D