Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Long-Term Report: Lenovo W701ds Portable Graphics Workstation

Lenovo W701ds
Lenovo W701ds – some items shown are optional

After doing a fairly comprehensive test of the Lenovo W700ds in April, Lenovo accepted my offer to do a long-term test on the new W701ds. Now externally the two laptops look the same, so I won’t repeat a lot of what I did in the W700ds report (and I encourage you to read it first). However I will talk about what it has been like living with the W701ds over the last 6 months as well as how it compares to my Apple MacBook Pro as a portable photo editing solution.

Triple Display via Dual Link DVI
This ain’t no wimpy netbook!

Technical Information

You can view the impressive technical specs here, but I also strongly encourage you to view my Lenovo W700ds review as this laptop has everything that one had – only better.

Living with the Lenovo W701ds

You don’t really know how much you like or dislike something until you’ve lived with it for a while, which is why I tried to spend weeks or more (when possible) with products that I review before making a judgment call on them. In the case of the Lenovo W701ds, I got to do one of my longest-term tests to date and in this case it was a joy to do it!

I had to limit myself on the likes, but there are many! I’ve just named a few to balance out the list of disappointments but know that there is much to love about this laptop!

HueyPro Calibration Built-in
Proper Display Calibration – Built-in!

Likes
  • Performance-wise, this is the most powerful system I’ve used in 2010 (and remember my day job is at Microsoft’s Server Division so that’s saying A LOT).
  • The SSD drive performance rocks so if you can swing it, then definitely recommend that option. If you can’t then definitely do the RAID 0 configuration for the best performance of your mechanical drives. I did the later with the W700ds and the performance was excellent. However dual RAID 0 SSD would just scream!
  • 100% Wide Color Gamut display is very good but beware all wide color gamut displays exhibit more rendering of other colors (especially red) than you are used to so it is easy to image a photo perfectly for the display that looks washed out on non-wide color gamut displays (or in some cases sunburned).
  • Built-in 2nd display – I love that I was able to use my Lightroom grid in the right display and see the image large in the main display (see my Lenovo W700ds review for video and photo examples)
  • Built-in CD/SD readers are super fast especially when going to the SSD drive
  • Wacom Digitizer just works better than I’ve seen on my Mac & PC systems, so I’ve really fallen in love with this when doing photo editing on this system. Of all the features, if I had to give them all up and only choose one this one be the one I’d want the most!
  • This thing is super reliable – more so than most computers I’ve seen in my whole career. This thing is like my Honda’s of the 1990’s that just seemed to be near flawless from day 1 until I parted with them.
  • Durable – Sadly this big boy took a tumble off my desk once and it shook it off with no problem. I had to reboot because the DVD drive ejected and Windows wasn’t happy about it, but all has been well in the last two months since it happened.
  • Built-in Huey Pro so I didn’t need to have extra cables or gadgets yet I could calibrate whenever I wanted
  • eSata & USB 3 ports for screaming fast disk i/o performance to larger external drives at the home base
  • Display Port & Dual Link DVI ports for use with big 30” external displays
  • Thumbprint reader – okay, it’s just cool to use this while onlookers drool at this sweet machine
Disappointments
  • It’s tough to find a laptop bag for this beast, but I eventually found a Targus TXL617 XL Notebook Backpack which turned out to be awesome and even held my MacBook Pro and a bunch of other stuff too!
  • The power brick Lenovo sent was smaller than the one for the W700ds, but it also would issue a warning during boot that it wasn’t powerful enough for a boot. Fortunately I could just hit ESC and continue for a normal boot up under battery power.
  • I had the misfortune of getting a defective battery so in only 6 months it can only carry a 30 minute charge, but Lenovo assures me it would be replaced under warranty. Given my loaner status, I can’t confirm that claim.
  • My first SSD drive started acting flaky so replacement was sent out and all has worked brilliantly ever since. It is my understanding that the first drive was discovered early on to have problems and most units never shipped with that version.
  • The secondary display in the W701ds is worse than the W700ds (at least in the systems I’ve tested) so I was very disappointed in the quality of the 10”+ secondary display. I’m convinced it is a cheap netbook display turned in portrait mode, so it has the feel of a 1994 color laptop display. it works and I’d rather have this display than no second display, but I’d also rather see an option for a higher quality secondary display.
  • I’m bummed there’s no easy way to calibrate the 2nd display. I managed to figure out how to do it using a USB Huey Pro I had for my system, but if I didn’t already have that I would have been out of luck.
  • The primary display needs to have an easy way to switch into sRGB mode so you can more easily proof photos of images targeted for the web like I can do with my NEC PA241W-BK wide gamut display. 
  • It has to go back to Lenovo – I LOVE this thing – it’s the best laptop ever!
  • Despite what the web site and specs say, I haven’t seen Blu-ray™ on one of these.

Overall I can live with the disappointments as the problems I faced can be attributed to getting one of the first units off the assembly line, and those issues have been corrected for the rest of the world. Beyond those my disappointments are really just my wish list for the next W70xds series laptop.

A real keyboard, number pad and Wacom digitizer!
A proper keyboard, number pad and Wacom digitizer!

What’s better MacBook Pro 17” or Lenovo W701ds?

If given a choice between the Apple MacBook Pro 17” (i7 version) and the Lenovo W701ds, I’d take the W701ds despite the super sexy and lightweight size of the MacBook. Here’s why:

  • Windows 7 rocks, and despite the fact that I can run Windows 7 in Parallels or Fusion on the Mac, the performance sucks compared to running it natively.
  • Once you have a built-in Wacom digitizer and use it with Photoshop you’ll find that it’s torture not having the digitizer on other systems. I just edit so much faster and having it built-in (and the fact it always just works) helps make it useful even on airplanes or buses where a externally connected version would be impractical).
  • The Apple display looks sexy in the store, but when you get it home and start editing images you realize that it is crap compared to the W701ds primary display. In fact, I’ve become so disgusted with the MacBook Pro display that when I do photo editing I usually try to connect it to my NEC PA241W-BK. Even calibrating both systems with the ColorMunki didn’t help the MacBook Pro very much, but it gave roughly the same results as the Huey Pro on the W701ds.
  • The MacBook Pro has 3 USB 2 ports and a FireWire 800 port, but the Lenovo has more ports and higher performance USB 3 and eSata ports plus built-in super fast CF/SD card readers
  • Networking is just more flexible when going from business to home and back on the PC that it is on a Mac. Your mileage may vary here depending on your configurations, but for me the PC just worked with Windows 7 without any hassle. The Mac required me to change proxy settings every time I changed locations.
  • Performance – My MacBook Pro is very well equipped so it cost just 20% less than my well equipped W701ds, yet it has wimpy performance in comparison to what I get on this Lenovo. It’s processor, graphics, hard drive, DVD drive, RAM and ports are all slower than the W701ds which begs the question, why is the MacBook Pro so expensive?

The MacBook Pro is a great system and offers a brilliant design, very slick video performance at the operating system level plus I love its super fast resume functionality. However, compared to this system it is just a toy and its size advantage disappears when you consider what you’d have to carry to get the extra monitor, Wacom digitizer, 2nd hard drive, CF/SD card readers, etc…

Conclusion

The Lenovo W701ds is the best computer I’ve used in my 20+ year career, and that isn’t limited to laptops – that include desktops too! Excluding the battery and drive issue, both of which were artifacts of this being an early release model, this thing has been rock solid – it just works. I also commend Lenovo for having the balls to make this machine at a time when crappy and underpowered sub $900 laptops seem to dominate the PC industry. Laptops of that nature have never appealed to me because I don’t want something that is inferior right off the bat – I want something that is powerful as my desktop in a portable solution.

I wish it were lighter and had a better 2nd display along with the battery life of my i7-based 17” MacBook Pro, but despite these issues every time I had to choose between the Lenovo and the MacBook to do real work, I always chose the Lenovo. I’d probably give up the 2nd display if I could get a nice thin display like my MacBook Pro, but I never want to see the digitizer and other performance features go as they are really what make this machine what it is – a powerful workstation with desktop tower performance – what a dream!

I can also live with the size and weight penalty to sacrifice nothing when I’m on the road and I want to work on imaging raw files from my Canon 5D Mark II in Photoshop where in no time flat files grow to be 500MB. This machine is up to the job and the only accessory I ever needed to carry was a power cord – that’s a first for me!

In the end this machine is a dream come true for people who need the power of their desktop anywhere and always. It is for this reason I give this laptop my highest recommendation!

If you can’t deal with the size and don’t need the second display then I’d suggest the W510 which offers great value for about $2000 less yet is much lighter and still a solid performer.

Where To Buy

Lenovo Direct

Lenovo has the best deals on this laptop as they are including a free 4GB Total RAM upgrade (until 11/22/10) and some killer discounts. You must click here (or here if that doesn’t work) and use the eCouponCode USPTHINK999 to save an additional 15% off for a limited time.

The advantage to ordering from Lenovo directly is that you can build your own machine and choose a lot of great options many of which aren’t that expensive. If I were building one today, here’s how I’d configure it (items with no options and software options skipped):

  • Intel Core i7-820QM Processor (8M Cache, 1.73 GHz) [adds $200]
  • 17" WUXGA RGB-LED-BL + 10.6" WXGA LED-BL
  • NVIDIA Quadro FX 2800M 96-core CUDA parallel computing processor 1GB (dedicated) [but get the 3800M if you can afford it – it rocks!]
  • 8 GB PC3-8500 DDR3 SDRAM 1067MHz SODIMM Memory (4 DIMM) [adds $255 – get 16GB if you can afford it]
  • Ultranav + Number Pad + Fingerprint Reader + Pantone Color Sensor + WACOM Digitizer w/ Stylus [adds $150 – must get otherwise get the lighter W510 series]
  • Camera, 2.0 MP [adds $30 – had this on the W700ds, but not the W701ds and missed it for video conferencing]
  • Internal RAID Primary SATA RAID 0 - Configured by Lenovo [Optional, but I preferred the performance of RAID 0 on my W701ds, but some may prefer the flexibility of no RAID – it also allows you to get the 1 SSD & 1 Regular HD like I had in my W701ds]
  • If space is your primary concern do the Dual 500GB, 7200rpm RAID Enabled Hard Disk Drives option, but if performance is your primary concern do the Dual 128GB RAID Enabled Solid State Hard Drives, Serial ATA. Given the eSata & USB 3.0 support, I’d do the dual SSD personally which adds a whopping $640 (save $480 by doing the dual 500GB drives)
  • Compact Flash (PCIe) + Express Card(34mm) – [adds $10 – smoking fast CF for photographers so this is must add in my book]
  • Bluetooth w/ antenna [adds $20 – I use a Bluetooth mouse sometimes, but this is optional]
  • Intel Centrino Advanced-N + WiMAX 6250 [adds $55 – why spend all this money and go cheap on the networking?]
  • ThinkPad 17W Business Topload Case [consider this as this is a tough laptop to find a case for]

The total price for this beast as configured above (without the case, and with the dual SSD, 8GB & 2800M) comes out to be $4809 (which includes a $420 savings, but not the eCouponCode) as of November 15th, 2010. I know that is crazy expensive, BUT this isn’t a wimpy laptop – this is a portal desktop with dual monitors, Wacom tablet, RAID and much more. Configure any system to be comparable to these specs and you’ll be up to this price point – and odds are it won’t be portable!

B&H

Lenovo ThinkPad W701ds 17" + 10.6" Dual-Screen Notebook Computer

  • 1.73GHz Intel Core i7-820QM Quad-Core
  • 4GB (2x2GB) RAM
  • 500GB 7200rpm Hard Drive
  • DVD Burner
  • nVIDIA Quadro FX 3800M 1GB Graphics
  • 17" LED Backlit Widescreen Display
  • 10.6" LED Backlit Secondary Display
  • Wacom Digitizer & Huey PRO Colorimeter
  • Bluetooth 2.1+EDR, 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi
  • Windows 7 Professional (64-bit), 11.4 lb
  • Rebates & 6 Months Same as cash available until 12/31/10

Lenovo ThinkPad W701ds 17" + 10.6" Dual-Screen Notebook Computer (my configuration)

  • 1.73GHz Intel Core i7-820QM Quad-Core
  • 8GB (2x4GB) RAM ***
  • 128GB SSD + 320GB 5400rpm Hard Drive ***
  • DVD Burner
  • nVIDIA Quadro FX 3800M 1GB Graphics
  • 17" LED Backlit Widescreen Display
  • 10.6" LED Backlit Secondary Display
  • Wacom Digitizer & Huey PRO Colorimeter
  • Bluetooth 2.1+EDR, 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi
  • Windows 7 Professional (64-bit), 11.4 lb
  • Rebates & 6 Months Same as cash available until 12/31/10

Buy.com also has this laptop in stock sometimes too.

Disclosure

Lenovo has provided me with a loaner W701ds to use during my long-term testing. I also may get a commission if you purchase using links to merchants featured in this article. Thank you for supporting the blog by using these links!

If you enjoyed this article, please support future articles like this by making a donation or saving money by using my discount coupon codes. Either way, your support is greatly appreciated!

This blog is intended for freelance writing and sharing of opinions and is not a representative of any of the companies whose links are provided on this site.

The opinions provided are of Ron Martinsen alone and do not reflect the view of any other entity

7 comments:

Ikrima Elhassan said...

Awesome review. Was on the edge but ended up buying a new w701 because of it. And ofcourse went overboard and ran it up to 5k

Anonymous said...

Ron, I choose the WS701ds when replacing my laptop a few months ago after reading your original review. I am very happy with it and agree with your "Likes", I have not had any problem with the power brick or the battery. I ordered mine with a small HDD and the minimum RAM, then installed a 256GB SSD, a 500GB HDD, and 16GB of RAM. I am very happy with the speed and have an initial backup of my system without any external drives. My disappointments are the weight and the need for a very large inverter for my car.
Sorry you had to return your W701ds.

Mark Mahaffey said...

Thanks for the review, Ron! For those who got the full 16GB in this system - can it actually use all that RAM in Photoshop?

Also, will the machine be able to go to 32GB of RAM when 8GB SoDIMMs come down in price?

Ron Martinsen said...

Hi Mark,

Check out the technical information section in the article - there's a link to a PDF with more great info.

The short story is that it's 16GB max.

If you have 64-bit Windows 7 and a64-bit Photoshop CS4 or greater installed then YES you will be able to take avantage of all of that RAM.

It's been my experience that Photoshop and its add-ins crash a LOT less often (never so far on my W701ds) when you have an all 64-bit configuration. The only downside is that some third parties don't have 64-bit versions of their plug-ins yet (or require a paid upgrade) so do some research before making the leap.

I'm very happy with the 64-bit experience! If you can afford 16GB then definitely go for it.

I also love the 1 mechanical drive (OS drive) and 1 SSD drive (data drive) configuration a lot, but the dual mechanical drive in a RAID 0 (no mirror) configuration is pretty sweet too. I haven't tried RAID 0 dual SSD but I'm sure that would haul and save a ton of battery life.

Mark Mahaffey said...

Cheers, Ron. Been studying this for a couple weeks, think I'm going with this configuration (which allows for 3 hard drives as you can't put an internal blu-ray in anyway):

i7-820QM Processor (8M Cache, 1.73 GHz)
Windows 7 Professional 64
NVIDIA Quadro FX 2800M
16 GB (4 DIMM)

Primary Hard Drive: Dual 128GB RAID Enabled Solid State Hard Drives, Serial ATA (system disk)

Secondary (Ultrabay) Hard Drive: ThinkPad 500GB 7200 rpm Serial ATA 3.0Gb/s Hard Drive (data disk)

(Transcend 400X - 64 GB CompactFlash Memory Card TS64GCF400 (scratch disk))

(LaCie USB 2.0 Portable External Slim 6x Blu-Ray Drive 301978 (Incl. Cyberlink))
Compact Flash (PCIe) + Express Card(34mm)
Bluetooth w/ antenna & Intel Centrino Advanced-N + WiMAX 6250

Thanks again for your helpful article! Do let me know if you see any red flags in that configuration...?

Ron Martinsen said...

Wow, that's a killer configuration Mark!

I liked the camera built-into the W700ds (but my 701ds doesn't have it).

Make sure you get the Wide Gamut display and the wacom digitizer - both are great.

Lastly, I've given up on Transcend cards (I've got em to) and now only go with the cheapest 8GB UDMA 6 based cards I can find from Lexar or Sandisk. With that said, I don't advise you to use that as a drive for your system as I've found it does more to slow things down than it does to help.

CF cards are best used in cameras for writing and PC's for reading.

Good luck and enjoy!

Oh, and be sure to see my comment about the bag - this thing is huge so it's the only bag I found that could hold it.

Ron

Ron Martinsen said...

Hi Mark,

I know it was probably an innocent mistake.

The other comments are helpful so I'll leave them.

I will delete our last exchange on this matter.