Lenovo tends to deliver solid, reliable business notebooks in its ThinkPad range. The ThinkPad W520 is a well-specified machine for users who need high level of mobile productivity. It benefits from a superb high-resolution screen, dedicated graphics and a quad-core processor. This level of sophistication doesn't come cheap: the starting price is £1,157.20 (inc. VAT; £964.33 ex. VAT), while our top-of-the-range review model costs £1,821.40 (inc. VAT; £1,517.83 ex. VAT).
The design of the ThinkPad W520 is very familiar, and the solid black chassis looks tough and robust. In fact, there's a fair amount of flex in the screen lid, and on our review sample it was easy to pull the bezel away from the screen, which could make it susceptible to dust ingress.
We like the lock that ensures the lid is very securely closed for transit, and the three status LEDs on the lid. The first tells you when the computer is hibernating, the second indicates battery status — green for 20 percent or more charge, blinking orange between 5 and 20 percent and fast-blinking orange less than 5 percent. The third LED indicates that automatic colour calibration of the display is underway. This feature is most appropriate to design professionals.
The ThinkPad W520 is a bulky and heavy notebook measuring 37.28cm wide by 24.51cm deep by 3.18-3.56cm thick and weighing 2.7kg. If you're considering carrying this system around for any length of time, you should take note of the hefty AC adapter, which itself weighs around 600g.
The ThinkPad W520's outstanding physical feature is its screen. Measuring 15.6in. across the diagonal, the display is superb, offering rich, deep colours. The viewing angles are excellent and a matte finish means there's no glare or reflectivity from surrounding light sources.
The top-end W520 model has a high-resolution 1,920 by 1,080-pixel screen, driven by an Nvidia Quadro 2000M GPU with 2GB of DDR3 RAM
On our review sample the screen resolution was an impressive 1,920 by 1,080 pixels — on other models it's a more modest 1,600 by 900 or 1,366 by 768. Graphics professionals will appreciate the high resolution, although it can make unzoomed text rather hard to read. A companion model, the W510, is fitted with a touchscreen.
There's enough room on either side of the keyboard for a pair of speaker grilles. The keyboard itself is typically Lenovo. The QWERTY keys are large and depress a fairly long way, delivering a characteristic degree of tactile feedback — we actually prefer a shallower key travel, but preferences vary. The Enter key is, as usual, oversized and blue. The inverted-T cursor keys double up for media control; forward and back web browser keys complete this rectangle of keys.
The W520 has a traditional ThinkPad keyboard, which delivers plenty of tactile feedback
Above the number row sit two rows of keys which include the Fn keys, a volume rocker and mute, a microphone mute and the ThinkVantage key, along with the power switch. This arrangement will be familiar to ThinkPad users. The UltraNav cursor control system is also standard Lenovo fare. The two-button touchpad is augmented by a trackpoint between the G, H and B keys. The pointing stick has its own pair of mouse buttons flanking a central scroll button.
There is a fingerprint reader on the wrist rest, next to the colour calibration sensor. A keyboard light on the bezel above the screen, which can be activated by a keyboard combination, provides enough light to work by. Next to it is a 720p HD webcam.
The ThinkPad W520 is an extremely well specified notebook, aimed at specialists running resource-hungry graphics applications. The processor in the top-end review model is a 2.20GHz Intel Core i7-2720QM quad-core processor, supported by 4GB of RAM. At the entry-level, the CPU is a Core i5-2520M with 2GB of RAM. Graphics are handled by a discrete Nvidia Quadro 2000M GPU with 2GB of DDR3 video memory; this drops to a Quadro 1000M in cheaper models.
Our review sample had a 500GB, 7200rpm hard drive — slightly larger than the 320GB unit advertised at Lenovo's web site for this model. The extra capacity will no doubt be welcome to graphics and media professionals. All models run Windows 7 Professional 64-bit.
Gigabit Ethernet, Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n) and Bluetooth 3.0 provide the wired and wireless connectivity. It's a shame there's no mobile broadband support as standard, but this is available as an upgrade option.
There's an optical drive on the right side, along with an SD-compatible media card reader, a 34mm ExpressCard slot, an audio jack and an Ethernet (RJ-45) port. The left side has a smartcard slot, a hardware switch for wireless connectivity, a mini-FireWire (IEEE 1394) port, a combined eSATA/USB 2.0 connector, two USB 3.0 ports, a VGA port and a DisplayPort connector.
The two USB 3.0 connectors are stacked one above the other and adjacent to the eSATA/USB 2.0 combo port, and we found some of our peripherals — a 3G dongle for example — were large enough to obscure the both the other free connectors when in use. Fortunately, there's a further (always-on) USB 2.0 port on the back edge. The RJ-15 modem port is also on the back of the chassis, along with the power input.
Performance & battery life
The Windows Experience Index (WEI) for the ThinkPad W520 was 4.7 (out of 7.9). This corresponds to the lowest subsystem score, which, rather surprisingly, was for Graphics (desktop performance for Windows Aero). The remaining component scores are all very high, with Processor (calculations per second) getting an impressive 7.1.
The other graphics subsystem, Gaming Graphics (3D business and gaming graphics performance) scored 6.7 while Primary hard disk (Disk data transfer rate) and RAM (Memory operations per second) both scored 5.9.
Apart from a rather low 2D graphics score, the WEI results describe a fast computer able to tackle a range of demanding workloads.
The ThinkPad W520 comes with a 9-cell battery that protrudes slighly from the back of the chassis. Lenovo claims that our review configuration should run for up 8.9 hours with this battery.
We tested the battery by asking the ThinkPad W520 to play a DVD video continuously. Lenovo provides its usual comprehensive power management application, and we chose the Video Playback option for our test. This power plan doesn't do a great deal to minimise fan usage, and we found its noise disrupted the quieter moments of our chosen video. If your presentations are silent you'll certainly notice the fan kicking in at regular and frequent intervals.
Video played for a total of 4 hours and 6 minutes, which is longer than we are used to seeing from a notebook. Video colours were superb, vibrant, sharp and bright. Sound quality was also very good. Multimedia performance is generally a notch or two above what we'd expect from a standard business notebook — as you'd expect from this top-end configuration.
Lenovo's ThinkPad W520 is a fast 15.6in. notebook with a high-quality display whose limited portability isn't helped by a brick-like AC adapter. If you do take the W520 on the road, then its battery performance ought to be adequate.
The superb screen, discrete graphics and high-capacity hard drive lend themselves to multimedia-intensive activities, but the W520 should handle all manner of resource-hungry applications with ease.