Review for Lenovo ThinkPad W530

15.6″ is big for a laptop these days, but is it big enough for CAD?

This article also ran on CADdigest.

This computer was sent to me by Lenovo for evaluation purposes. The base price is $1104.15, and as-tested price is $2592.99. Detailed specs listed at the bottom of the review.

This ThinkPad is configured as a portable CAD workstation, so I’ll do the review with CAD in mind. This is not a trendy, light, slim, ultraportable or tablet contender. Because of the extra compute and video power required by CAD applications, this is a heftier computer, with a power brick that you can’t miss. “Portable”, for a CAD laptop, generally means you can use it anywhere you can find a plug. This is due in part to the video card, a big high resolution display, and cooling requirements, not to mention the desktop-capable processor.

This computer also comes with a 9 cell battery. With the display at full brightness, the CPU chugging away on SolidWorks models, and using the WiFi connection, this meant less than 2 hours of juice in my test. For more mundane applications and with a less power hungry video card and the lower resolution display, the laptop is supposed to deliver 6 hours of run time. If you want to delete emails in an airport for hours on end, get a tablet.

Opening the lid of a laptop can give one a measure of its mechanical design and durability. Although the case is pure plastic, it has a magnesium frame, and feels solid and well built. The lid opens with a single off-center thumb-operated latch. Once you know where it is, it works well, and securely holds the lid closed. There were a couple of things that struck me when I first opened this one. The first was a light at the top of the display that illuminates the keyboard by shining down on it. The second was a lens next to the track pad used to calibrate the color of the display.

The “island” design keyboard is good, but has a slight plasticky feel, and is definitely louder than some other options.

I’ve been using backlit keyboards for several years now. Most illuminated keyboards have translucent keys, with the light under the key tray. This one shines down from above the display which seems a little clunky, although it is effective. The light from the display itself lights the keys enough for typing. I’m not sure that I’d ever really use this particular feature, but it certainly might be appreciated by someone who isn’t spoiled by a better lighting method. The specs for this system state that there is an optional backlight, which I think would be worthwhile, especially if you work a lot in low light situations, like most CAD users.

Speaking of the keyboard, while researching for this article I read on several sites that this particular model was supposed to have one of the nicer keyboards on the market. I’m a guy who spends a fair amount of time on computer keyboards. I liked this one, but wasn’t crazy about it.  They call this the “island” design, because the keys are surrounded by a fascia. It seemed a little slappy, or plasticky, to invent a couple of words that don’t really mean anything.

The lens next to the trackpad is a Pantone calibrator, a $70 option. Start the calibration, close the lid of the computer, and it takes maybe a minute to calibrate the colors. I don’t have an eye for color that could distinguish if the color is off, but for those who can, this feature would be a nice addition.

Display

The W530 has a 15.6” diagonal display. This is considered an “FHD” or full high definition screen (1920 x 1080), and adds $200 over the base option (which is 1600 x 900). I’ve learned the hard way that you should never take the cheap route with a laptop display. This display looks great, aside from some very fine text fonts, which initially looked a bit insubstantial or feathery (this improved significantly when the setting “Smooth Edges of Screen Fonts” was turned ON). Colors and viewing angle are very good. The display is “bright enough” in a dim office setting.

This computer was delivered to me with the “Adjust for Best Performance” settings turned on, which means that some display options were not set to look very good. This is a bit Spartan for my taste. I tweaked a few settings to enable Aero display, and Show Contents of Window While Dragging. To me these are basic usability settings that don’t detract from overall compute/video performance noticeably.

Connectivity options are good, but DVI is missing, and that little one next to the VGA? Mini DisplayPort.

Video

The W530 has VGA and mini DisplayPort connectors. There was no DVI, no HDMI. If you find yourself stuck with older DVI monitors or digital projector, you may experience some inconvenience. The DisplayPort connector is a significant improvement over the old VGA and DVI connectors, although a mini DisplayPort cable is something you might want to carry with you, I’m not sure how many of those you’re going to find in the wild.

The video card on this machine is the Quadro K2000M. The base option is the K1000M, with the same 2 Gb of memory, but $250 less than the card that came with this machine. The performance difference between the two on paper is double the number of nVidia Cuda Parallel Processor Cores – 384 vs 192. I imagine the speed to the user isn’t quite double, but the K2000M should be substantially faster than the base K1000M. The upgraded video also chews another 10 Watts in an already power hungry portable CAD workstation. According to the nVidia site, this is their highest spec’ed video card for the 15.6” platform.

My brief tests with the video on this computer gave great results. The display rotates smoothly, even with complex curvy models. It is also not susceptible to the common problem of the display freezing except behind some of the small windows common to SolidWorks display. Even using the Ambient Occlusion option in the SolidWorks display only hesitates a fraction of a second after releasing the view rotation. The video card seems to be a good match for the high end processor on this machine.

Textured trackpad takes a little getting used to

Trackpad

The trackpad has a coarse texture to it, which is a little unsettling at first, since I’m used to track pads having a light matte finish. It has buttons on the top and bottom, which worked well. I missed the scroll zone on the right hand side of the trackpad found on other laptops. It also has a navigation nub within the keyboard which worked well enough, but most importantly didn’t get in the way when typing.

DVD writer, card reader, headphone jack, and network connection

Connectivity

You’ll also find 2 USB 3.0 ports for increased peripheral speed, and 1 USB 2.0, plus an “always on” USB 2.0, which is powered even when the computer isn’t running. For today’s world, we also need a card reader (SD/SDHC/SDXC/MMC), 3.5 mm headphone/mic jack, Smart Card reader, and network cable jack. WiFi is of course built in, with a physical switch to disable it.

Processor

The processor on board is the Core i7-3920XM 2.9 GHz, the top processor available for this laptop at this time, adding $835 to the base price. If you are doing real work with real CAD models, you don’t want to be waiting around for your computer. When spec’ing any kind of workstation for CAD, the processor is one place you don’t want to low-ball it. It’s the single most pricy option you can add to a new computer order, but it is also the one that will help you get your work done more quickly.

Nice Touches

My review unit also came with a finger print reader, an HD webcam, and Dolby sound. The sound was very nice for a laptop. We have already mentioned the color calibration, overhead keyboard light, and DVD writer. Another thing I really like about it is that it has a little battery meter that shows you how much time you have left on the battery rather than just a percentage. It also came preloaded with Norton, MS Office, Corel, and Microsoft Visual Studio 2005.

Some of these touches are things that I would be willing to sacrifice if I needed to keep the overall cost down. However, if you have to use a work laptop for personal tasks as well, you might need some of these nice little upgrades.

Benchmarks

Quantitative benchmarks are a staple of reviews, but not always what you should base your decision to purchase hardware upon. Automated benchmarks don’t always reflect real-world usage. They tend to exaggerate specific situations. Keeping that in mind, I have included results from a range of benchmarks. In performing the benchmarks and trying to interpret results, I was reminded that you really do need to question the validity of the benchmark. They are not all created equal.

Windows Experience Index

The simplest benchmark you can do is the Windows Experience Index. All machines with Windows Vista and 7 have this available. You can find it in the Control Panel>System. While this isn’t necessarily a very highly regarded benchmark, it serves as a great quick glance at your system, to help you see where the strengths and weaknesses of a system lie.

 

Apparently, a SSD would benefit this computer quite a bit. The installed drive is a 500 gb Toshiba 7200 rpm. I would have put a 120 gb SSD in as the primary, and left the 500gb as a secondary drive for storage. This would raise the price to be sure, but losing the thumb reader, color calibrator, webcam, and overhead keyboard lamp would compensate.

Passmark

I ran the Passmark benchmark, and the overall score was 2052.4. The processor is top-line, especially for a portable. When compared via Passmark against other machines with the same processor, the W530 beats some like the Eurocomm Monster, but loses to others like the Dell M4700 and M6700 (all laptops).

Passmark enables you to compare performance data in many different ways, and break it down to individual components.

Anna’s Punch Holder

This is a homegrown SolidWorks test. There are a few problems with using it as a technical benchmark, but on the other hand, the results are pretty well laid out and it gives you a quick idea of how the computer you are testing stands against others like it. The test consists of simply rebuilding a part with a lot of holes, and reading the internal SolidWorks report on how long it takes. There are several things this doesn’t measure, but at least it is consistent, and we have a wealth of results from a long list of SolidWorks versions and different hardware.

So this machine completed the Punch Holder in 57.53 seconds. If we look at Anna’s spreadsheet, you only see a couple of laptops in the area around that time and nothing on new versions of SolidWorks (this test done on the newly released SW 2013 sp0). You can see this machine is in the running with a lot of home built rigs. The fastest times (down to about 40 seconds) are all done on desktops.

             SolidWorks Performance Test

The Official SolidWorks benchmark is unusable. There are several problems with benchmarking from a trial license, and even from a fully activated SolidWorks Standard license due to the activation popup when the benchmark runs rendering, which requires SolidWorks Professional or higher.

Even the results on the Share Your Score site are questionable to the point of being unusable. This benchmark was created in SolidWorks 2011, and needs to be fixed to have any real value. The results of testing are shown below, using SolidWorks 2013 sp0. It is not possible to enter 2013 scores in the Share Your Score page, so there is not any valid comparison you can make with this tool.

Support

I had some problems with installations and crashes. The Passmark benchmark bluescreened at one point. The Windows Update also kept failing, and I didn’t have a clean reboot until I contacted Lenovo support. In an email with a single, clear set of instructions, they instructed me apply one Windows Update by itself, then the rest worked as they should. This was as positive a support experience as you could ask for. Support should always be part of your purchase decision.

Summary

The Lenovo W530 is a nice portable CAD machine, if properly equipped. Don’t go cheap on the processor, video or the display, and consider a solid state drive to round out a powerful tool. There are some bells and whistles you could live without if you need to keep the cost down. It’s not small, it’s not light, and she haint purdy, but if you have to do CAD on the go, this is a great tool for the job.

The hardware considered on its own is well built, and solid, with good connectivity options and all the things you need to do business on the road.

Specs

Name:              Lenovo ThinkPad W530
OS:                  Windows 7 Professional 64 bit
Processor:        Core i7-3920wx 2.9 Ghz
RAM:              16 GB 1600 Mhz
Storage:           Toshiba 500 GB 7200 rpm
DVD:              Multiburner
Graphics:         nVidia K2000M
Display:           15.6” 1920×1080
Ports:               2x USB 3.0
2x USB 2.0
1x Mini DisplayPort
4 in 1 card reader
VGA
Battery:           9 cell
WiFi:               Intel N-6205
Bluetooth:       Yes
Camera:           HD 720p
Color:              Pantone X-Rite Calibrator
Security:          Finger print reader
Warranty:        3 year

2 Replies to “Review for Lenovo ThinkPad W530”

  1. I have been using a laptop as my main CAD machine for several years. It is nice to always have my full workset of models available. When I am at the office I dock to a 24inch display with mouse, space navigator and separate keyboard. I was satisfied with a Dell M70. The 15 inch screen is too small for serious work, the scrollpad is not as precise as a mouse. I recently upgraded to a Dell M6500 i7 920 2GHz. It is a monster, FEA goes very quickly, the nvidia 3800 renders beautifully. The screen is just big enough that I do not always dock with the big monitor. Despite the magnesium frame it is heavy and large, and has a big 200watt power brick. REI has a beautiful carry case for the 17 inch laptop. I think that 17 inch 1920 x 1200 is just big enough for serious Solidworks modeling.

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