July 04, 2011
Hardware Review: ThinkPad W520 Notebook
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Jeff Rowe - Managing Editor

by Jeff Rowe - Contributing Editor
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As my design and engineering careers have evolved, so have my computing needs. Computers for design and engineering applications have also evolved and have kept up with my needs, while relative cost has actually decreased significantly. Although I still depend on a desktop platform while in the office, my additional need to be mobile while doing a wide variety of computer work has also significantly influenced my leaning toward mobile computing platforms, so a machine’s physical characteristics enter into the equation. In other words, truly portable, not just luggable. Remember, it wasn’t all that long ago that the
biggest compromises when choosing portability were performance and additional cost compared with desktop computers. To a large extent, those compromises have faded, and the Lenovo ThinkPad W520 notebook is testimony to this continuing trend.

Lenovo designates the ThinkPad W520 as a notebook computer. That’s OK, but we wanted to test it to find out if it was really a mobile workstation capable mechanical design and engineering work. The ThinkPad W520 for this review came with an Intel Quad Core i7 2920XM CPU, 16 GB RAM, an NVIDIA Quadro 2000M video card, and Windows 7 Pro (64-bit). The unit weighs in at 5.95 pounds and measures 14.7” x 9.7” x 1.3”, so it’s pretty thin and not too heavy – so truly portable. The AC adapter is another story – it’s a fairly big and bulky brick that’s got to weigh over two pounds
– so the AC adapter weighs about a third of the computer itself. A smaller “travel” adapter is available as an option, but why not supply it as standard to promote mobility for the overall system package?

For those not familiar with the ThinkPad family, Lenovo touts the W Series as its mobile Workstation class. This claim is what we’ll be putting to the test.

Quality Build

For many years (during both the IBM and Lenovo eras) I have appreciated the build quality of ThinkPads on many levels.

One of the most popular features of ThinkPads has been the positive tactile feel of the keyboard, and the W520 continues this sentiment. Keyboard feel is great, but layout of some keys (such as Delete) is a challenge at first and may annoy some users because of unconventional placement. Also, there is no dedicated numeric keypad, not a big deal for me personally, but some users may take exception. The real estate area normally devoted to the numeric keypad is occupied by speakers on either side of the main keyboard. Is it a good tradeoff? That’s a personal opinion, but I did not miss the numeric keypad nor appreciate the
quality of the speakers.

The keyboard is spill resistant and the unit actually has a drainage system that funnels liquids into reservoirs on the underside and drainage holes on the bottom. I’m a big coffee drinker when using a computer, so for me this is a welcome “preventative measure.”

Being a mobile system, it will inevitably receive some hard knocks. This is idea behind the ThinkPad’s Active Protection System that uses an accelerometer to park the hard disk if the ThinkPad is dropped. When the shock sensor detects that its environment is stable again, it turns the hard disk back on.

Behind the scenes, the ThinkPad W520 is protected by a magnesium roll cage in the bottom shell that provides internal reinforcement to reduce system board flex, as well as dispersing internal heat. Speaking of cooling . . .

Cooling is not an area that most of think too much about, but for the ThinkPad, I didn’t really have to think about it at all. It has two exhaust vents on the side and back, as well as additional air flow vents on the bottom. The uniquely designed cooling fan blades minimize turbulence and are quiet. The fans also run at five speeds (compared with three found in many competitors), so the transition between speeds is more gradual (and noticeable).

I liked that the W520’s USB ports were 3.0 – providing 50% more power for connected devices and (at least theoretically) 10x data transfer. I don’t know about 10x, but data transfer was noticeably faster than 2.0.

Battery life was also pretty impressive. The W520 was supplied with a 9-cell battery that extended almost an inch beyond the back of the computer, but I was regularly able to get over seven hours of productive work (CAD, word processing, spreadsheets, etc.) with WiFi turned on.

The W520, like all ThinkPads, has a well-integrated Power Manager for controlling energy use. For example, with a simple slider bar you can move from “high performance” to “long battery life” (to conserve and maximize battery life) or to “high energy savings” (when plugged in to AC power). As you adjust the slide bar, the system dynamically adjusts display brightness and other parameters according to the new settings.


The 15.6-inch 1920 x 1800 matte display provides 90-degree left and right viewing angles. It’s also extremely bright with brilliant color – very nice for displaying animations and renderings.

The ThinkPad W520 has a number of software vendors who have certified the W520, including Autodesk (AutoCAD and Inventor), Dassault (SolidWorks and CATIA), PTC (Pro/ENGINEER and CoCreate), and Siemens (Solid Edge and NX). Although we did not test all of these certifications, the fact that the W520 is certified for these applications strongly indicates that it lives up to its claim as a mobile workstation. I did, however, run SolidWorks 2011 and Inventor 2011 on the ThinkPad W520, and was quite impressed by the levels of performance with larger assemblies, simulations, animations, and rendering. Overall, performance was

Portability and Power

The ThinkPad W520 starts at $1299 and the system we received nicely configured was $2539. This is roughly in line with competing systems and should not be a detriment for those of you shopping for a mobile workstation that is truly mobile, as well as having capabilities for MCAD applications. Battery life also makes it suitable for field work untethered to AC for extended periods of time.

Is the Lenovo ThinkPad W520 perfect? Not exactly, but as a mobile workstation for a wide range of MCAD users, it’s very capable, truly portable, and an overall good value.

Lenovo ThinkPad W520 Notebook

Class: Mobile Workstation

Performance, great display brightness and color; build quality; runs relatively cool

Cons: Large, heavy AC adapter; layout and position of some keys

Price (as supplied): $2539. Pricing starts at $1299 for the W520.

Overall Grade: A-


The Week’s Top 5

At MCADCafé we track many things, including the stories that have attracted the most interest from our subscribers. Below are the five news items that were the most viewed during last week.

Granta Design announced details of the Eco Materials Adviser Full Version, which will build upon the sustainable design tool currently available within Autodesk Inventor 2012 software, at no extra cost. Autodesk Inventor Eco Materials Adviser helps designers to estimate a product’s environmental impact and to make more sustainable design decisions. The Full Version, available for purchase from Granta later this year, will enable users to analyze larger assemblies, to study materials options in more depth, and to account for a wider range of contributions to environmental impact. Using the Eco Materials Adviser, currently a designer can quickly generate an eco impact analysis for a product part or assembly within Autodesk Inventor. An easy-to-read dashboard display shows key indicators such as energy usage, restricted substances, CO 2 footprint, water usage, and materials cost. Any Autodesk Inventor user can interactively explore the sustainability impact of changes in materials choice or the design of their digital prototype. The Full Version will enable more in-depth analyses.

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-- Jeff Rowe, MCADCafe.com Contributing Editor.

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