Review: Lenovo ThinkPad W701 Is the Road Warrior’s Mobile Workstation

By Alex Herrera
Senior Analyst, Jon Peddie Research

Calpella is Intel’s sixth-generation Centrino platform for mobile CPU. Originally scheduled to premiere in Q3 2009 with the second iteration of Nehalem processors, Intel delayed the release of Capella October 2009 to allow OEM partners to clear excess inventory of existing chips. Now that Lenovo has finally released Calpella-based mobile workstations, we got our wish to put their top-end ThinkPad W701 through its paces.

Lenovo introduced its latest ThinkPad W510 (January, 2010) and ThinkPad W701 (February) models around the same time Intel was unveiling its 32 nm Westmere generation, showcasing the Arrandale mobile processor, which combines a CPU and GPU in a single package. But while more conventional corporate and consumer class Lenovo notebooks leverage Arrandale’s integrated GPU, the new models being introduced as mobile workstations demand a discrete professional-brand GPU; it’s one of the few (if not only) hardware differentiators for a mobile workstation.

So like Dell (with its latest Precision M6500), Lenovo stuck with the more conventional discrete GPU, paired exclusively (at least at introduction) to the 45 nm Nehalem-generation Core i7 processors (Clarksfield) unveiled back in September of 2009. The W510 offers the new Nvidia Quadro FX 880M (with 1 GB), while the W701 gives the buyer the option of configuring with either the new higher-end Quadro FX 2800M (1 GB) or Quadro FX 3800M (2 GB).

Both models can be outfitted with up to 16 GB of 1333 MHz DDR3 memory. Storage options include SSDs (up to 256 GB) and SATA drives (up to 500 GB @ 7200 RPM), with RAID 0/1 support as a drive-bay add-on/option.

The 17" max-horsepower Lenovo W701 Mobile Workstation

As Much Muscle as Can Fit
So Clarksfield is definitely the right choice for the W701, because for a high-performance mobile workstation that relies on a professional discrete GPU, there’s no point sacrificing two cores to get integrated graphics that won’t get used. And we didn’t just get any old Clarksfield, we got the top-of-the-line 2.0 GHz Core i7-920XM (Extreme Edition) with 8 MB L3. It’s the fastest mobile Core i7 available (and isn’t cheap).Rounding out the key components were a Quadro FX 3800M GPU module (with 1 GB GDDR5) from Nvidia, 8 GB of 1333 MHz DDR3 and dual 7,200 RPM 320 GB SATA drives configured in RAID 0 mode for a single volume of 640 GB. So our machine was not some introductory model with a price tag near Lenovo’s “starting at” MSRP of $2,599. Configured on-line, we estimate our model to run right around $4,560.

CPU Intel Core i7-920XM @ 2.0 GHz with 8 MB L3
Memory 8 GB of 1333 MHz DDR3
Disk Dual 320GB, 7200 rpm RAID 0, for one aggregate 640 GB volume
Graphics Quadro FX 3800M module with 1 GB
OS Windows 7 Professional
Display 17″ WUXGA (1920 x 1200), 280 nit, RGB-LED backlit
MSRP $2,599 (starting)

Our configuration: ~$4,564

(Source: Jon Peddie Research)
Configuration specifications for our Lenovo W701 review machine

No Doubt About it, the W710 is a Workstation
When the ThinkPad was in the IBM domain, it was nearly always introduced with one or more unique features to separate it from the crowd. The Lenovo team appears motivated to do continue the tradition.

Designed in conjunction with WACOM, the high end W701’s LED back-lit panel delivers superior brightness (400-nit), contrast (claimed 500:1) and a wide gamut to support the demanding color fidelity requirements in professional applications like DCC and CAD styling. Its little brother, the W510, inherited the LED back-lit panels (and only LED options, three of them), including a 270-nit, 95% gamut-covering option.

And Lenovo has been paying attention to the market, recognizing the rising demand for more highly calibrated color, particularly in DCC applications. Designers built in a small sensor in the base of both the W700/701 and W510, just below the space bar. When the lid is closed, the display goes through a series of test colors and patterns. The sensor monitors the sequence and calibrates the screen to be as accurate as possible.

The digitizer is a recent new perk for Lenovo’s mobile workstations, providing a 120 x 80 cm palm-rest panel, which can be configured to map to the entire screen or a user-defined subset. Lenovo expects DCC and CAD/CAM users especially to value the ease of adding written input, for example, quick notes or real-time annotations of drawings or renderings.

Beyond the reliability and performance promised through features such RAID storage and ISV certification, Lenovo’s W series continues support for some of the company’s previous unique mobile workstation features. To minimize the possibility of damage resulting from a fall, the W700/701 supports an Active Protection System to protect the mechanical parts of its disk drives. This system includes integrated accelerometers, which sense sudden changes in the notebook’s motion, in anticipation of a fall. Detection signals the controller to temporarily park the head, reducing the chances of drive damage on impact.

To maximize system security, the W700/701 and W510 support the Integrated Fingerprint Reader and Embedded Security Subsystem, replacing username and password with a finger swipe. Registering a minimum of two fingerprints allows the user to log on without the password. Getting a solid fingerprint registered takes a few iterations, as the system wants to make sure the finger swipe results in capture of a solid image, one to match subsequent swipes. Complementing the security features is Computrace Complete software (implemented in the BIOS), which promises to help monitor, protect and recover lost or stolen machines.

A digitizer for annotation, and the security of the ThinkPad mobile workstation’s fingerprint reader. (Photo: Jon Peddie Research)

The Goal is Performance; There’s No Getting Around the Weight and the Watts
The W701 is big for a notebook; it needs to be to accommodate the high-quality 17″ LED-backlit WUXGA. And svelte it is not, weighing in right around 9 lbs. Even the charger is big and relatively heavy; it has to be to crank out 235 Watts. But again, this model isn’t optimized for portability—Lenovo offers the W501 for more modest demands—the W701 is all about maximum workstation performance that can travel.

In the past several years, the industry as a whole has gotten a lot better at delivering more performance in fewer Watts. But the fact remains that if you want more performance, to some degree you must accept higher power consumption.

And in particular with 2.0 GHz Extreme Edition Core i7, the W701 is going to burn the Watts. To handle the thermal dissipation, the W701 comes with four air vents along the sides and back to keep it cool. That said, despite the cooling demand, I never noticed the W701 getting anywhere what I’d call noisy.

The side and back of the W701: lots of I/O and lots of vents. (Photo: Jon Peddie Research)

Despite all the notebook’s side-facing real estate populated with thermal vents, there’s room left or I/O — quite a bit of I/O, commensurate with a model of this caliber. Three USB ports sit on one side, two on the other. An eSATA port for storage expansion sits in back. And to cover all the possible display expansion bases, the W701 fits not just a dual-link DVI port on the back, but adds a DisplayPort and even a VGA connector.

Benchmarking the W701
To get a feel for the W701’s general system-level capability running typical workstation loads, we ran two SPECapc benchmarks: 3ds max and Lightwave. And to focus in on the graphics, we opted for the tried-and-true SPEC Viewperf, in its latest-and-greatest version 11.

We find SPECapc tests to be some of the better — though far from perfect or conclusive — indicators of how a system will perform in professional applications, and SPEC’s Viewperf tests effectively isolate the rendering load on the cards themselves. Viewperf performs very little in the way of CPU computation (basically just making a bunch of OpenGL calls), thereby ensuring that it’s ultimately the video card that’s the bottleneck, not the CPU, memory or I/O.

Now to issue a worthwhile disclaimer, no benchmarks are perfect. They all need to be taken with a grain of salt (and some a lot more than others). Used improperly, benchmark results can be misleading. And even under the best circumstances, benchmarks only tell one part of the story. We like the way SPEC’s benchmark authors choose their viewsets, representative of general application and end-users’ typical usage, but they’re still samples that don’t necessarily correlate to any one specific individual’s usage. And while SPEC does its best to make sure its tests our up-to-date with respect to the features and functions it exercises, both SPECapc and Viewperf are always going to be some degree behind the times when it comes to testing cutting edge features on the latest graphics card products.

A Quick Rant on Driver Readiness
Reviewing hardware can be a revealing and educational exercise. But it can also be a frustrating chore, for example when I receive a brand new machine, run and compile a day’s worth of benchmarks and only then realize the driver is 6 months old. Now, Windows 7 tells me the driver’s up to date, but when I go to Nvidia’s site, I find drivers far more recent — and delivering much higher performance. So then I get to throw out the work I’ve done and spend another day re-benchmarking.

And it’s a good thing I took the time to go to Nvidia’s site and more thoroughly check for driver updates, as publishing results from the old driver would have put the W701 in a very poor light. I’m sure it’s not easy — suppliers like Nvidia and AMD are known for updating drivers frequently — but OEMs and graphics IHVs need to get together to improve their delivery systems. Even if a model is coming from older stock, drivers (or complete images) need to somehow get updated before it leave the factory.

Close But Not Exactly a Fair Fight
We ran Viewperf 11 on the W701 three times in 1920 x 1080 mode, averaging the results. Now, since we haven’t run the benchmark on any other machine that would come close to offering an apples-to-apples comparison, we took a look on for submitted results that might. We found a recent HP Elitebook 8740w that houses the same Quadro FX 3800M, and compared its Viewperf 11 numbers to our W701’s. As we’d expect, the results were very similar, and very impressive for both.

As one would expect, two Quadro FX 3800M-equipped mobile workstations deliver very similar performance. (Source: Jon Peddie Research)

It is worth noting that in this almost-but-not-exactly-apples-to-apples comparison, the W701 slightly nudged out the Elitebook in most viewsets (though the reverse in Lightwave, for some reason we can’t explain). So should that imply the W701 is slightly superior to the Elitebook 8740w? Not necessarily, because although this comparison comes very close to a fair fight, it illustrates why it’s important to understand the context of the data being delivered. While both models share the exact same 3800M graphics, the W701 does have a performance advantage, while the Elitebook has a price and power advantage.

While Viewperf 11 is supposed to isolate the graphics performance, and do its best to ignore any benefits coming from superior components in the rest of the system, it can’t exactly do that, at least not 100%. While our W701 comes with the maxed-out 2.0 GHz Core i7-920XM, the Elitebook makes a slight price/performance compromise by with the 1.73 GHz Core i7-820QM.

The 920XM will give an edge on performance, even in cases like Viewperf, and we credit it for the slight edge the W701 gets over on the 8740w. But it comes at a tradeoff. The 920XM costs $550 more than the 820QM (as per Lenovo’s web-customization, sampled on September 4, 2010) and, according to Intel’s data, the former’s TDP is 10 Watts greater than the latter’s (55 W vs. 45 W). There’s never a free lunch.

Mobile vs. Deskside: The W701’s Quadro FX 3800M vs. the Quadro 5000
We re-ran Viewperf 11 in 1280 x 1024 resolution. Why? Well, to run a different comparison, not one meant to be a fair comparison in capabilities, but one meant to illustrate the relative performance of a top-notch mobile GPU versus a high end deskside model. From previous runs on Nvidia’s very recent Fermi-based Quadro 5000 add-in card, we had some Viewperf 11 results in 1280 x 1024 handy.

They're great for the road, but a mobile GPU constrained by power and memory can't match a deskside GPU. (Source: Jon Peddie Research)

Put those side by side with the W701’s 3800M, and we see that the 3800M does a commendable job, not falling an order of magnitude (or even close) behind the 5000 in throughput. But the 5000 handily bests the 3800M. Now, is this a fair comparison to say the 5000’s a better buy than the 3800M? Of course not, the exercise compares an apple and orange.

What the exercise is intended to illustrate was that, despite the ever-more-impressive performance top-end mobile workstations like the W701 are delivering, a top-end deskside can top it. No matter how smart the design of a mobile GPU, the deskside GPU simply doesn’t have to deal with the same constraints as the mobile model; it’s got more power, more real estate and a higher thermal envelope allowable. So all else equal, a vendor can always build a more powerful deskside-bound GPU than a mobile one.

Obvious, you say? Well, we think so. However, there’s a growing perception in the market that a mobile workstation can work universally as a deskside workstation replacement. Now for some businesses, or business units, that may be true, and more than a few are currently in the process of making those replacements.

The mobile workstation has come a long way, and in much the same manner that ever-improving integrated graphics solutions are serving more of the market over time, displacing discrete solutions, the mobile workstation can make a suitable replacement for some traditional deskside applications — the operative word being “some.” Because for those users who simply have to have the best performance available, the mobile still is not enough.

System-Level Performance
For more evidence, both of the impressive performance of the W701, as well as the deskside’s edge, we took a look at workstation-caliber system level performance with SPECapc’s tests for 3ds max 9 and Lightwave v9.6. In both cases, the mobile W701 (with the right driver!) delivered numbers surpassing anything we’ve witnessed (at least so far) from another mobile. And especially in the more graphics related metrics, kept the (again, grossly unfair) contest with a top-end Quadro 5000 surprisingly respectable.

The W701's impressive 3ds Max performance, not far behind an ultra-high end deskside workstation (Source: Jon Peddie Research)
The W701 delivered the best numbers we've seen from a mobile, but still substantially shy of a what a high-end add-in card can achieve. (Source: Jon Peddie Research)

Verdict: The W701 has Few Peers
Professionals who choose the W701 are going to have to make a few compromises, most notably in dollars, size and weight. There will be those not willing to make those tradeoffs, simply because their computing demands can be met reasonably well by lesser, lighter, cheaper machines.

But those aren’t the buyers Lenovo built the W701 for; they can opt for something like the W501 instead. No, the buyers for the W701 — in particular those willing to plunk down the cash for one configured as heftily as ours — simply can’t compromise on performance. They need the most performance they can get when they’re away from their desk, and the downsides of weight, size, and cost pales in comparison to what they’ll lose in productivity with a lesser machine.

So they’ll make those tradeoffs, and in return they’ll get a machine with a superior display that can outperform just about any other workstation not tied to a desk.