The top end of Lenovo's iconic ThinkPad range is occupied by the workstation-class W series, whose latest member is the 17in. W701. If you need a transportable system with a super-fast processor, lots of RAM, a discrete GPU, a high-resolution, high-gamut display and professional-level extras like a built-in Wacom tablet and a colour calibrator, then the W701 should be on your shortlist. There's a hefty price to pay for all this, of course — but then, we are talking about a cutting-edge notebook here. And talking of heft, this weighty system is only going to accompany you on your travels if you really need it to.
You'll have gathered by now that the ThinkPad W701 is a big beast. It measures 41cm wide by 31cm deep by 4cm thick, the dimensions being necessary to accommodate the system's large 17in. screen. It weighs 4.07kg, which places it firmly in the 'desktop replacement' category. Add the 230W AC adapter, which is itself almost the size of a small netbook, and the total weight really rules out regular transportation, unless it's in the back of a car. We took the W701 on our (Bedfordshire to London) commute once, and that was enough.
ThinkPad W701: a 17in. Core i7 mobile workstation with a price tag to match its dimensions
The W701 is unmistakeably a 'classic' ThinkPad — there's no truck with Lenovo's recent experiments involving non-black livery or shiny screens and lid covers here. The enormous lid — which has a proper clasp at each end, opened by a sliding latch on the right — lifts up to reveal a full-sized keyboard with a separate number pad. The keyboard is a traditional ThinkPad affair, not the 'chiclet'-style seen on the recent, more consumer-friendly, ThinkPad Edge range. An indicator of this system's size is the fact that there it requires two keyboard-illuminating ThinkLight LEDs, triggered via Fn+PgUp, rather than the usual one.
The W701 has a full-size 'classic' ThinkPad keyboard; note the integrated Wacom digitiser in the wrist-rest area and, just above it, the Pantone hueyPRO screen calibrator
Given that the W701 is primarily aimed at professionals working on graphically demanding tasks, the screen is of paramount importance. It's big, measuring 17in. across the diagonal with a native resolution of 1,920 by 1,200 pixels; it's solidly hinged and, despite its size, does not flex unduly; it's uniformly bright thanks to LED backlighting; and — uniquely among mobile workstations — it can be teamed with an optional integrated Pantone hueyPRO calibrator to ensure accurate colour fidelity.
The calibrator, which includes an ambient light sensor, sits in the large wrist-rest area, just above another unique option: a built-in Wacom digitiser, whose pen lives in a slot on the right-hand side. Next to the graphics tablet, on the right, is a fingerprint reader.
The W701's Pantone hueyPRO calibrator in action
As well as the integrated Wacom tablet, which we found we used as the first choice, the W701 offers the usual ThinkPad navigation options of a (rather small) two-button touchpad with horizontal and vertical scroll zones, and a three-button trackpoint — the middle button activates scrolling mode.
Although W701's appearance and build quality is typical 'classic' ThinkPad, we can't help feeling that the look and feel is slightly dated. Perhaps it's just that the chunky black livery seems particularly chunky and black when scaled up to such a large 17in. system.
If you seek CPU muscle in notebook form, it doesn't come any more powerful than Intel's Core i7-920XM Extreme Edition with 8MB of cache, running at 2.0GHz. The chipset is Intel's QM57 Express and our review system came with 6GB (out of a possible 16GB) of 1,333MHz DDR3 RAM. The operating system is Windows 7 Professional (64-bit edition).
Naturally there's a powerful discrete graphics processor to match the CPU firepower, in the shape of Nvidia's Quadro FX 3800M, which has 1GB of dedicated video RAM. The Quadro FX 3800M is a 128-core CUDA processor, which means that applications suited to parallel processing can use the GPU to get a big performance boost, if written to take advantage of this technology. Lenovo, like other workstation manufacturers, works with independent software vendors (ISVs) to certify video drivers for particular applications for use with its products. You can check these on Lenovo's website.
The fixed storage on our review system was a 500GB Seagate Momentus hard drive spinning at 7,200rpm. There's an optical drive too, a multi-format DVD rewriter, on the right-hand side.
For connectivity, the W701 has a Gigabit Ethernet (RJ-45) port at the back and, unusually these days, a 56Kbps modem (RJ-11) connector on the right. Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n) is handled by Intel's Ultimate-N 6300 AGN module and Bluetooth (2.1+EDR) is also present. There's a physical wireless radio switch on the front, where it's either safely hidden away from accidental knocks or difficult to access, depending on your viewpoint.
Lenovo's ThinkVantage Toolbox utility has had a facelift
With plenty of chassis to play with, it's no surprise to find a good set of ports and slots on the W701. There are three USB 2.0 ports on the right side, towards the front, plus a USB 3.0 ('SuperSpeed') port and a combined USB 2.0/eSATA connector on the left. Also on the left is a 4-pin FireWire (IEEE 1394) port and two ExpressCard slots (34mm and 54mm). As well as the aforementioned wireless switch, the front has a multi-format flash card reader and a pair of audio jacks. At the back, along with the Ethernet port, is a trio of video-out options — DVI, VGA and DisplayPort. The underside carries a docking station connector.
Performance & battery life
We tested the ThinkPad W701's performance using Passmark Software's Performance Test 7, which delivers an overall rating computed from tests of the CPU, 2D graphics, 3D graphics, memory, disk and CD subsystems. Passmark collects benchmarks from users who choose to upload them, and the average overall rating for systems based on the Core i7-920XM CPU and Nvidia Quadro FX 3800M GPU is 1,307 at the time of writing (17 systems). Our review sample scored 1,133.
The subsystem scores (with Passmark averages in parentheses) are as follows: CPU 4,202 (4,171); 2D graphics 191.7 (256.2); 3D graphics 991.5 (920.8); Memory 849.4 (1,177); Disk 555.1 (852.9); CD 160.9 (174.5). Although this is a very fast machine, there are one or two areas — notably disk performance — where it lags behind the class average.
For the record, the W701's Windows Experience Index (WEI) is 5.9 (out of 7.9). The WEI corresponds to the lowest subsystem score, which in this case is for Primary hard disk drive (echoing the Passmark results reported above). The remaining scores are all considerably higher: 6.9 each for Graphics and Gaming Graphics, 7.2 for Processor and 7.5 for Memory.
To evaluate battery life, we used our Voltcraft VC940 Plus multimeter to measure the power consumption of the system in two states (running Performance Test 7 and idle) and under two power management regimes (High performance and High energy savings). Dividing the 84.2Wh of the system's 9-cell battery by the average measured wattages gave the following estimates of battery life: 0.94h (PM7/High performance); 1.6h (Idle/High performance); 1.2h (PM7/High energy savings); 2h (Idle/High energy savings). Clearly this is not a machine you can expect to work on for long should you find yourself away from a mains power source.
The ThinkPad W701 is an extremely well-specified and fast mobile workstation, although disk performance on our review system was slightly disappointing. It's also extremely bulky, heavy and expensive. But if you need a transportable system that can do the heavy computational and graphical lifting that designers, engineers, developers, financial analysts and other specialists require, then presumably you have a budget that can handle around £3,000 (ex. VAT) for a notebook.