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Lenovo ThinkPad W510 – final thoughts

Lenovo ThinkPad W510 – final thoughts

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I’ve had the Lenovo ThinkPad W510 for nearly a month and it’s time to send my evaluation units back next week. I completed nearly every test I could think of so I thought I would run down some impressions on the machine.  I really couldn’t decide on my approach to this, so I am going to start with a run down on the chassis then get into the nitty gritty details of some test results.  The ThinkPad W510 faired very nicely but there were a couple of areas that need work.  More on those later.

Photos and Comments on ThinkPad W510

w510 front I took a number of pictures of the ThinkPad W510.  Nearly all of them turned out really well. I wanted to capture some shots of key areas of the machine.  I also stacked one of my ThinkPad T61p’s on top of it so you could compare the dimensions, port layouts, thickness, etc.

When looking at the top down view, you can clearly see the new little bumps on the trackpad at the bottom of the pic. I prefer the smooth trackpad on my T61p.  You can also see the color calibration eye sensor next to the fingerprint reader.  I believe this will be present on all of the FDH screen models.  Moving up the unit you can see the speaker grills left and right of the keyboard.  I believe this is also an air intake because the grill is larger than the speakers.  Further up the pic on the bottom of the LCD bezel you can see two microphones.  They work really well though not well enough for podcasting in my opinion.  The webcam is present in the top of the bezel.

The back shot is interesting because you can see the W510 is wider than the T61p (or W500). Sorry the pic is a little blurry. You can see the yellow powered USB 2.0 port on the left side with the analog modem RJ-11 port.  Who uses a modem in this day and age?  They should have dropped it and moved the RJ-45 Ethernet port there. Notice the 9 cell battery on both units is roughly the same size and extends the same amount.  The right side of the back shot shows the differences in the cooling grill and it’s pretty obvious the W510 is slightly thinker than the T61p above it.

Following around to the left side you can clearly see the difference in the cooling exhaust. The W510 does a phenomenal job of cooling. Items of interest on this side include the DisplayPort port, two blue Superspeed USB 3.0 ports, a combination USB/eSATA port, IEEE 1394a port, and if you look real close, the location for a smartcard reader if the option was ordered.  My units didn’t have that, but it would certainly be an option I’d want.  Therefore, the Lenovo smartcard reader wasn’t tested.  The little switch is the wireless kill switch.  Notice on the T61p stacked on top that it has both the mic and audio out jacks.

There is nothing along the front of the unit other than the lid release switch.  The right side of the W510 is however very interesting in good and bad ways. Again, the T61p is stacked on top for reference to the W510 underneath.  Notice on the right side that the two USB ports the T61p has were replaced by the Ethernet RJ-45 port. I am not very happy with that particular change.  As I mentioned, I would have moved the RJ-45 port to the back and dropped the RJ-11 all together. Another peeve is on the right side.  The audio out and mic jacks were replaced with a single combo jack.  That particular change rendered all of my headsets useless.  More on digital audio later.  Also present on the right side is the 34mm ExpressCard slot just above the memory card reader.  And last but definitely not least is the 12.7mm Ultrabay.  More on it with some close-up shots in a minute.

The bottom of a laptop is always interesting to me.  In years past you would see makers use the bottom for intake or exhaust cooling.  That’s a real bummer when you are using a machine on your lap, the couch or other surfaces that aren’t conducive to airflow.  The W510 has lots of little slits in the chassis for airflow but it all appears to be intake only.  I could not discern any exhaust. We’ll talk more about cooling later. Notice on the bottom is the access to the primary hard drive bay.  I prefer the side access for the prime hard drive that is the standard in the T61p, W500 and T400 but it isn’t a show stopper.  Now that hard drive capacity is at 500GB, I don’t need to swap the primary drive as often for a demo drive, or when using Windows Server 2008 R2.  Also present on the bottom is access to two of the four SoDIMM memory slots. The other two slots are underneath the keyboard. You can also see in the pic of the bottom that I took pictures of the 4389-2UU model which is the 15.6” FHD Multi-touch screen model.

Ultrabay III

It seems every generation of a 15.x” ThinkPad requires a new set of peripherals for the Ultrabay and the ThinkPad W510 is no exception. It’s probably for the better in some cases because there are differences in the SATA speeds and this generation has new goodies up it’s sleeve.

Take a look at the picture of the Ultrabay.  In this pic I pulled the DVD burner and placed it on top of the W510. On top of the DVD drive is the Serial ATA Hard Drive Bay Adapter III Part number 43N3412. This hard drive adaptor gives you the ability to add a second hard drive to the machine. Notice the thickness of the 43N3412 adaptor.  It is not 12.7mm.  Instead it is designed to be used in both the W510 and a host of other machines that have 9.5mm slots. See the pic of it inserted in the W510.  It works but I would have preferred Lenovo created a hard drive adaptor specifically for the W510 that fills the gap and fits more snuggly.

The Screen

Now that we’ve seen the outside and did a little tour of it, let me give you a few impressions of the rest of the machine, performance, etc. My impressions of the screen since the first day hasn’t changed much.  It’s a really nice screen. Bright and clear. It’s actually slightly brighter than the HD+ 1600x900 resolution screen present in the other 4389-23U evaluation model I have.  Not drastically so, but it’s ever so slightly noticeable during the day time.

You’ll probably be disappointed I did not test the multi-touch screen extensively. I don’t have a need for it on a laptop at this time so I had to make some cuts in the stuff I wanted to try.  Therefore, you’ll need to find another review that can give you a better idea of the accuracy of the screen. If I was still a developer, this would be a no brainer.  Get the multi-touch screen.

With that in mind, I wish the machine they sent me to look at was the FHD 1920x1080 screen without the multi-touch.  The HD+ screen appears to cut glare slightly better than the FHD multi-touch screen.  I’m sure this is due to coatings and screen construction. If all things are equal, I’m sure the non multi-touch FHD is killer.

I have had several 15.4” 1920x1200 resolution Dell and Lenovo laptops. Not a big fan of that high a resolution on a 15.4” LCD screen. This creates a preference predicament. Should you or I buy the 15.6” screen with a 1920x1080 or 1600x900 resolution? 1680x1050 on a 15.4” screen is my preferred res. I guess I’m thinking I would end up going with the 1920x1080 FHD screen and just set the DPI to 110-125% to deal with font sizes and such.  Not perfect for my eyes, but it’s better than locking myself to 1600x900 and losing vertical resolution. This is a REALLY subjective decision and I would highly recommend looking closely at machines on the market before you choose.

One other thing on the screen and the video supported by the W510.  The ThinkPad W510 lets you create a dual monitor extended desktop very easily without having to buy an expensive docking station.  I purchased a DisplayPort to DVI cable that allowed me to connect the W510 to 27” and 24” LCD panels and drive them both at 1920x1200. The cable at $22 seems like a no brainer until you save enough pennies for a dock.  If you have a desk at home and your company office, this will definitely be something you’ll want to consider.

The Keyboard

I have read a few reports of displeasure with the keyboard on the W510. ThinkPad fans are not forgiving when it comes to the legendary keyboard on ThinkPad models and why should they be?  We use them all the time. I was watching an unboxing video from one owner on the internet and the very first thing he tested was the keyboard. In that particular video the person doing the testing seemed a little dismayed at some slight flex under the new oversize ESC key.  This appears to be by design.  That location draws air in for the CPU and GPU cooling.  The flex is barely there.  Nothing to worry about in my opnion.

The 4389-2UU unit I received had a defective keyboard and I am apparently not alone. The keyboard on my unit was dropping characters I typed. Since that was the model of the two I was using most, I just swapped the keyboard with the 4389-23U.  Problem solved.  If your W510 exhibits this behavior, don’t worry.  A quick call to Lenovo for replacement should gets things resolved asap.  Other than that, the keyboard is great.

One other thing for you developers, you can now swap the functions in the BIOS for the CTRL and FN keys. A lot of developers I know use the CTRL key for macros and such in Visual Studio and get annoyed that on the ThinkPads this key isn’t bottom left. The FN key is bottom left so it’s a source of frustration for them.  No more. Easily solved now.

Performance

w510_winsatThe new Calpella laptops really have it all. I would always recommend in the past that if you do a lot of HD video encoding work, you need to purchase a Quad Core desktop machine.  That decision is no longer cut and dry. As you can see in the Windows 7 WEI I captured at the beginning of the eval period, this machine really flies with the right equipment inside.

When I did that screenshot I had my Intel SSD drive in the 4389-2UU along with 16GB of DDR3 RAM. The GPU isn’t going to get you top honors on the laptop scene but it’s still a very respectable GPU.  I have not tested any games or Blu-ray playback because my eval unit didn’t come with the Blu-ray drive option.

One thing I did pay particular attention to is the speed of the drives and their interfaces. I did a lot of testing moving data back and forth with the latest rotational drives from Hitachi and Seagate as well as my Intel Gen 2 SSD.  I tested from the primary hard drive bay to the Ultrabay hard drive adaptor and back.  I tested the eSATA connection.  I tested the USB 3.0 ports. I was very happy with the results.  The I/O I observed was 2-5 times faster than my ThinkPad T61p depending on the hardware combination used.  The fastest combination was the SSD drive in the primary bay working with the USB 3.0 enclosure and drive. But the Ultrabay hard drive adaptor and drive was right there in the game as well.  So if you want two drives to use with your W510, it’s probably a logical choice for most people.

The Quad Core i7 really shines for CPU intensive chores like video encoding. It actually beat my Dell XPS 630i in some tests I ran and the Dell has the Intel Core 2 Quad Q9400 in it.  It only beat the Dell by a couple of minutes in each test. However, the Dell final results were superior.  The ThinkPad W510 video captured from my camera was faulty.  I’m suspicious of an issue with the IEEE 1394 connector at this point.  There are a couple of other strange unresolved issues I observed as well.  More later on those.

Battery Life

It’s only appropriate to discuss battery life right after talking about the performance because they are certainly intertwined. I don’t use battery power much but I did several full cycle tests with the W510.  This was after setting the CPU performance settings in the BIOS to AUTO instead of max performance.  I also used the Lenovo Power Manager to set the performance profile to Maximum Battery Life.  This of course sets the screen brightness so low it’s nearly unusable so I did crank it back up to about 12 so I could still use the screen and machine comfortably.

In all of my tests I was getting about 3 hours of battery life. This is doing normal stuff like using email, web browser, Word, Excel, etc.  The battery in the W510 has a FRU P/N of 42T4799 with a ASM P/N of 42T4798.  It also has 55+ inside a red dot. I assume this is a 9 cell battery but I could not find any information to confirm this.

So there’s a trade-off.  You want a powerful machine?  Be prepared to pay for it in a couple of ways.  Battery life seems to be one of those areas.  This isn’t a 10” netbook but the specs in the tabook.pdf do say the 9-cell battery gives you 4.9 hours of battery life.  It would be good to know if the battery I have is a 6-cell or 9-cell.  If it is a 9-cell, I would sure like to know how to get 1.9 more hours of life, or how 4.9 was arrived at.

What Else?

There were very few surprises with the ThinkPad W510.  Most of what I learned and wrote about in the first twenty four hours remains true today. At that time I reported some strange issues with the USB 3.0 ports.  So far I have discovered three different devices that prevent the W510 from booting if they are plugged into the USB 3.0 ports at power up.  This was reproduced on both of my W510’s as well as another in Seattle.  The case is open with Lenovo engineering. The current workaround is to not have anything plugged into the USB 3.0 ports at power on.

firewire Let’s talk about my headset adventure next. Because Lenovo combined the mic and audio out jack, I could no longer use the headsets I’ve been using the past four years.  I figured this was not a big deal and it was time to move to the digital age of USB headsets.

I tried a couple of different headsets from Plantronics and Creative but they didn’t work well.  I kept getting this buzzing feedback in the recordings.  So I tried a different approach.  I picked up a SIIG Soundwave Pro 7.1 USB card that allowed me to connect the headsets I’ve been using for years. Same problem.  Buzzing in the podcast recordings. I tried everything I could think of for a couple of days. I tried all four of the USB ports and a variety of settings in software. I ran out of time before the MVP Summit trying to resolve that so I returned the headphones and hardware to Fry’s.

The third oddity seems to be the 4 pin IEEE 1394 port. I cannot capture from my Sony HD video camera across firewire to the W510 without the video getting garbled with artifacts.  I confirmed the source tape is good.  I tried two different i.Link 4 pin to 4pin firewire cables to rule that out. I tried the video capturing product that came with the W510 and Sony Vegas Movie Studio Platinum Edition 9. The same camera and tape worked fine with my Dell XPS 630i. The Dell has a 6 pin connector for it’s IEEE 1394 interface so the only difference was the cable.  Considering most of the video cameras today use an internal hard drive and don’t need to be captured from a raw tape, this probably isn’t a huge issue.  If you use firewire devices, be sure to test them.

I haven’t reported the sound and firewire issues to Lenovo but will soon. Hopefully they can reproduce the problems and provide a fix or workaround.

Oh, and I did install SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 11 so see how that went.  As expected, it installed but the NVIDIA video chipset wasn’t recognized, nor were the Intel network cards.  With no time left to track those down, I reset the machine back to the factory image for return.

Things Not tested

Since I don’t yet have a 30” LCD flat panel monitor, I could not verify the claim in the specs the machine supports a resolution of 2560x1600 using DisplayPort @60Hz.  I have seen at least one report from a twitter follower that indicates he was unable to achieve that resolution across Dual Link.

I didn’t test the ExpressCard slot.  I don’t have any 34mm ExpressCard devices and probably won’t have a need for one.  With the improvements in Superspeed USB 3.0 throughput, and a built-in eSATA port, I don’t have a big need for anything else in that slot.

I no longer use Bluetooth so that was not tested with mice or anything else.  The W510’s I received didn’t have built-in WWAN cards so that was not tested.

The model W510’s I received didn’t come with RAID support although according to the specs and the hardware maintenance manual, the feature does exist.  This was really disappointing to me when I noticed it because I would love to test RAID 0 or 1 in this bad boy. Looks like you need to order the W510 4389-24U model or some derivative to get the RAID support.

Since the models I received didn’t have the smartcard reader or blu-ray drive, I obviously couldn’t test them. The smartcard reader compatibility with my Microsoft card is a necessity since they dropped the PCMCIA slot. I would probably need to move to a USB key FOB if the reader doesn’t work.  We aren’t yet allowed to use fingerprint scanners as a sole source of multi factor authentication so I didn’t test that either.

Summary

The Lenovo ThinkPad W510 is a solid machine. The case and construction are awesome as usual and the engineering around the cooling is unbelievable.  Performance is killer with the exception being the video chipset.  The NVIDIA® Quadro® FX880M GPU certainly turns in a respectable score but it isn’t going to be the top of the food chain in the laptop market.

This machine runs Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2 with Hyper-V very well. Windows Server will install and run from the Ultrabay drive so the W510 certainly meets most of my technical needs.  There are a few improvements I’d like to see, but all in all it looks like the new Calpella based platform is off to a good start.

I’m due to replace my ThinkPad T61p in the July timeframe but I certainly won’t make a decision until I get my hands on the ThinkPad T410s.  I’m considering a thinner and lighter machine for my next full time production machine and on paper the T410s looks attractive.  But the W510 has USB 3.0 and other goodies.  Decisions decisions.

I hope you found this and the previous two blog posts on the ThinkPad W510 informative.  Happy hunting.  Let me know if you have any questions.

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  • Does the W510 deliver the full speed of SSDs (SATA-II 3 Gbps, ex: 220MB/Sec seq transfer of the X25-M) when the SSD is used

    - in ultrabay

    - on eSATA port

    - on eSATA port of the Mini Dock (Plus Series 3)

  • Peter,

    Good question. I don't have the new dock so answering that question is out. Regarding the other questions, it sure appears to be working at much higher speeds than the other ThinkPads I've had. Those observations were based on notes I took for the length of time it takes to copy/move data, and the speed reported by the OS.

    I don't have testing hardware and software to properly setup a test harness and really measure/benchmark in a scientific way. I'll have to leave that sort of testing to the testing sites like Tom's Hardware.

  • Did you have any SATA speed/bandwidth issues like you had with the W500?  I found some posts stating that on the W500, Lenovo had purposefully 'capped' the SATA speed to 1.5GB for backwards capability or battery life.  They supposedly put the cap in the drive BIOS.  I am hoping that is not the case with the W510.

  • I see Peter asked the same question at http://forums.lenovo.com/t5/W-Series-ThinkPad-Laptops/W510-full-e-SATA-speed/m-p/209069#M7488 so lets wait and see if a Lenovo employee comments in an official capacity.

  • Can you please also post some pictures of FHD screen from different angles (if possible), especially from below and above. How does it compares to t60p/t4Xp FlexView S-IPS panels?

    Thanks!

  • I have ordered an HD+ version of the W510 to replace my T60p.  Do you know off-hand how much brighter the screen will be (if at all) on the newer machine?  

  • Hi:

    I am looking to get a Lenevo w510. At present it is only available with FHD touch screen. From the reviews from other people I am reading that there is a ghosting problem and the screen shows red and purple color. Is this true?

    Please advice.

  • Since the w510 is very new, your review as very helpful. The base model 43192NU does not specify the 20pin video output or usb 3.0 or webcam on the Lenovo website. But some of the distributors do. Which is correct? Thank you for your help.

  • Great Review, thanks, but a big disappointment for me: I was very very close to ordering the W510, but as I would use it primarily for AUDIO work (recording, arranging, live shows), all the problems you mention are HUGE for me: Robust Firewire performance is all important for my Audio Interfaces, additionally there seem to be problems even with USB Audio Interfaces. What a huge disappointment...

  • Karl, glad you found the review useful. could you get in touch with me via the contact form on my blog at http://blogs.technet.com/keithcombs/contact.aspx ???

    I have a couple of questions about how to test audio equipment and I would rather take that discussion to email.

    thanks

    Keith

  • Hi, Keith, good review.

    I noticed you did lot of testing on the ultray bay drive. I want to apply 500GB 7200r hard drive into the Hard Drive Bay Adapter III. I also want to install win7 on this drive for 2nd operation system. Do you think the read/write speed of ultra bay drive equals the speed of the main drive bay? It is very critcal for me. My main drive is 5400r hard disk. Due to some limit, I cannot replace this drive. I can only add a 2nd drive on ultrabay III. If the speed is same as main drive bay, I will be happy to buy a ultrabay drive III.

    In any case, I do appreciate any of your advice.

  • Doug,

    You should have no issues running another OS from the Ultrabay III.

  • Keith- As always thanks for your efforts in putting together such a concise review. Maybe it's fate and I should put the brakes on a purchase replacement of my T61p, but Lenovo's website no longer lists an option for either an FHD w/ or w/out a touch screen option. Guess I'll give myself more decision making time while the models are resupplied. Thanks again.

  • You are welcome Geep. Regarding the FDH screens, there is speculation on the internet that global LCD shortages are causing the Lenovo ThinkPad W510 FDH screen disappearance from the build to order website.

    Considering you have a T61p, you should still be in fine shape until the production pipeline really gets rolling.  I can’t buy anything until July so I am content to wait and watch.  

  • Hi, Keith.

    Thanks for you reply for my previous question.

    However, I may not express myself very well.

    I do understand it is easy to install 2nd OS in ultrabay III. My question is:

    The speed of a 7200rpm drive in ultrabay III should be faster than a 5400rpm drive in main drive bay. If I install only one OS with 2 drives, does it make sense to install OS on 7200rpm ultrabay III to gain faster performance? For some reason, I cannot put 7200rpm drive in main drive bay.

    Again, I appreciate.