Review: Lenovo ThinkPad W550s Ultrabook mobile workstation

By Brady Betzel

Over the last few years, I’ve done a lot of workstation reviews, including ones for HP’s z800 and z840, Dell’s mobile workstations and now the Lenovo ThinkPad W550s mobile workstation.

After each workstation review goes live, I’m always asked the same question: Why would anyone pay the extra money for a professional workstation when you can buy something that performs almost as good if not better for half the price? That’s a great question.

What separates workstations from consumer or DIY systems is primarily ISV (Independent Software Vendor) certifications. Many companies, including Lenovo, work directly with software manufacturers like Autodesk and Adobe to ensure that the product you are receiving will work with the software you use, including drivers, displays, keypads, ports (like the mini display port) and so on. So while you are paying a premium to ensure compatibility, you are really paying for the peace of mind that your system will work with the software you use most. The Lenovo W550s has ISV-certified drivers with Autodesk, Dassault, Nemetscheck Vectorworks, PTC and Siemens, all relating to drivers for the Nvidia Quadro K620M graphics card.

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Beyond ISV driver certifications, the Lenovo ThinkPad W550s is a lightweight powerhouse with the longest battery life I have ever seen in a mobile workstation — all for around $2,500.

Out of the box I noticed two batteries charging when I powered on Windows 8.1 — you can choose Windows 7 (64-bit) or 8.1 (64-bit). One of the best features I have seen in a mobile workstation is the ability to swap batteries without powering down (I guess that’s the old man in me coming out), and Lenovo has found a way to do it without charging an arm and a leg and physically only showing one battery. For $50 (included in the $2,500 price), you can have a three-cell (44Whr) battery in the front and a six-cell (72Whr) battery in the back. I was able to work about three days in a row without charging.

This was intermittent work ranging from sending out tweets with 10 tabs up in Chrome to encoding a 4K H.264 for YouTube in Adobe Media Encoder. It was a very welcome surprise, and if I had a second battery I could swap them out without losing power because of the battery in the front (built-in).

Under the Hood
The battery life is the biggest feature in my opinion, but let’s layout the rest of the specs… Processor: Intel Core i7-5600U (4MB Cache, up to 3.20GHz – I got 2.6); OS: Windows 8.1 Pro 64; Display: 15.5-inches 3K (2880×1620), IPS, Multi-touch, with WWAN; Graphics: Nvidia Quadro K620M 2GB; Memory: 16 PC3-12800 DDR3L; Keyboard: backlit with number keypad; Pointing Device: trackpoint (little red joystick looking mouse), Touchpad and Fingerprint Reader; Camera: 720p; Hard Drive: 512GB Serial ATA3, SSD; Battery: three-cell Li-Polymer 44Whr (Front), six-cell Li-ion 72Whr Cyl HC (Rear); Power Cord: 65W AC Adapter; Wireless: Intel 7265 AC/B/G/N dual band wireless plus Bluetooth; Warranty: one-year carry-in (diagnosed by phone first).

The W550s has a bunch of great inputs, like the mini display port, which I got to work instantly with an external monitor; three USB 3.0 ports with one of them always on for charging of devices; a smart card reader, which I used a lot; and even a VGA port.

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In terms of power I received a nice Intel i7-5600U Quad Core CPU running at 2.6GHz or higher. Combined with the Nvidia Quadro K620M and 16GB of DDR3L, the Intel i7-5600U delivered enough power to encode my GoPro Hero 3+ Black Edition 4K timelapses quickly using the GoPro software and Adobe Media Encoder.

Encoding and layering effects is what really bogs a video editing system down, so what better way to see what the W550s is made of than by removing the fisheye on my clip with an effect on the image sequence containing about 2,400 stills in Adobe Premiere, speeding up the timelapse by 1,000 percent and sending the sequence to Adobe Media Encoder? In the end, the W550s chewed through the render and spit out a 4K YouTube-compatible H.264 in around 15 minutes. The CUDA cores in the Nvidia Quadro K620M really helped, although this did kick the fans on. I did about six of these timelapses to verify that my tests were conclusive. If you want to see them you can check them out on YouTube.

The Quadro K620M is on the lower end of the mobile Quadro family but boasts 384 CUDA cores that help with the encoding and transcoding of media using the Adobe Creative Suite. In fact, I needed a laptop to use in a presentation I did for the Editors’ Lounge. I wanted to run After Effects CC 2014 along with Video Copilot’s Element 3D V1.6 plug-in, Maxon Cinema 4D Studio R16 and Avid Media Composer 6.5, all while running Camtasia (screen capture software) the entire time. That’s a lot to run at once, and I decided to give the W550s the task.

In terms of processing power the W550s worked great — I even left After Effects running while I was inside of Cinema 4D doing some simple demos of House Builder and MoText work. I have to say I was expecting some lag when switching between the two powerhouse software programs, but I was running Element 3D without a hiccup, even replicating the text particle and adding materials and lighting to them – both a testament to a great plug-in as well as a great machine.

While the power was not a problem for the W550s, I did encounter some interesting problems with the screen resolution. I have to preface this by saying that it is definitely NOT Lenovo’s problem that I am describing, it has to do with Avid Media Composer not being optimized for this high resolution of a screen. Avid Media Composer was almost unusable on the 15.5-inch 3K (2880×1620), IPS, multi-touch screen. The user interface has not been updated for today’s high-resolution screens, including the W550s. It is something to definitely be aware of when purchasing a workstation like this.

I did a few benchmarks for this system using Maxon Cinebench R15 software, which tests the OpenGL and CPU performances as compared to other systems with similar specs. The OpenGL test revealed a score of 35.32fps while the CPU test revealed a score of 265cb. You can download Cinebench R15 here and test your current set-up against my tests of the W550s.

There are a couple of things cosmetically that I am not as fond of on the W550s. When you purchase the larger rear battery, keep in mind that it adds about ¼- to ½-inch lift — it will no longer sit flat. In addition the keyboard is very nice and I found myself really liking the addition of the numeric keypad, especially when typing in exact frames in Premiere, the touchpad has the three buttons on top instead of underneath like I have typically encountered. On one hand I can see how if you retrain yourself to use the three buttons with the left hand while using your right hand on the touch pad it may be more efficient. On the other hand it will get annoying. I like the idea of a touchscreen, in theory — It’s nice to move windows around. But practically speaking, from a video and motion graphics standpoint, it probably isn’t worth the extra money and I would stick to a non-touch screen for a mobile workstation.

The last item to cover is the warranty. Typically, workstations have a pretty good warranty. Lenovo gives you a one-year carry-in warranty with the purchase of the W550s, which to me is short. This really hurts the price of the workstation because to get more than a three-year warranty — one that will actually help you within a business day if a crisis arises – will cost you at least a few hundred dollars more.

Summing Up
In the end, the price and awesome battery life make the Lenovo ThinkPad W550s a lightweight mobile workstation that can crunch through renders quickly. If I was ordering one for myself I would probably max out the memory at 32GB, get rid of the touchscreen (maybe even keep the 1920×1080 resolution version) and keep everything else… oh, I would also upgrade to a better warranty.

Before you leave, take these highlights with you: extreme battery life, lightweight and durable, and powerful enough for multimedia use.

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