Lenovo ThinkPad W520 - mini review

thinkpad-w520-3High end portable workstations are a special class of computer.  The Lenovo ThinkPad W520 belongs to that class and in many ways sets the bar.  As a daily user of a ThinkPad W510, I was certainly interested in seeing and testing the new W520 to see what improvements were made.

Keep in mind I don’t have a lab with instruments to scientifically measure power draw, consumption, clock speed of the cpu or gpu, etc.  But I do like to put notebooks through their paces with an interesting application mix.  This is why I call it a “mini” review.

W510 owners should stop reading here.  It’s that much better. Really. I’m not kidding.

Executive Summary

The Lenovo ThinkPad W520 is twice as fast as my ThinkPad W510 at certain chores and eclipses it on battery life.  The ThinkPad W520 has superior battery life over the W510 and reaches 6-7 hours of battery life at a moderate screen brightness.  Lenovo continues to provide excellent thermal management cooling in the W520 workstation. See the performance and battery life sections below for more detail.  In short, the ThinkPad W520 with the new Intel Sandy Bridge chipset is a strong improvement to the Lenovo W Series of portable workstations.


The unit I received isn’t the top of the line ThinkPad W520 but it has some of the top tier components. It’s a model 4284-A58.  It has the Intel Core i7-2720QM processor (quad-core, 2.20GHz, 6MB Cache), DDR3 memory controller (up to 1600MHz), Intel Turbo Boost 2.0 (3.30GHz), with Hyper Threading (HT) technology. This particular W520 is loaded with 4x4GB 204-pin SO-DIMM PC3-10600 1333MHz DDR3, non-parity, dual-channel memory. The screen is 15.6" (396mm) FHD (1920x1080) color, anti-glare, LED backlight, 270 nits, 16:9 aspect ratio, 500:1 contrast ratio, 95% Gamut.  The video chipset is NVIDIA® Optimus™ technology, which will auto-switch between discrete and integrated graphics.  The integrated graphics is the Intel HD Graphics 3000 in processor, and the discrete chip is the NVIDIA Quadro® 2000M, PCI Express® x16, with 2GB memory.

The primary drive bay is a full height (9.5mm) 2.5” hard drive bay and will accommodate standard laptop hard drives as well as full size SSD drives.  It’s still bottom access and I don’t like that much.  I prefer side load like the previous generation ThinkPad's. The Ultrabay is still the same as the W510 and is 12.7mm in height. The W520 received included the Seagate Momentus 500GB 7200rpm drive in the primary bay. I tested the W520 with it and the Intel 160GB SSD.

The W520 with the 9-cell battery is slightly lighter than the W510, but only slightly.  The port configuration around the machine is the same as the W510 though they changed the USB 3.0 chipset to another supplier. This did have an impact on flattening the machine and using an external USB 3.0 enclosure.  You must install the USB 3.0 driver before you use those ports. The new USB 3.0 chipset provider is Renesas.  I am not sure what happened to NEC but this is a change from the W510.

The chassis dimensions are 14.68" x 9.65" x 1.29-1.44"; 372.8mm x 245.1mm x 32.8-36.6mm. This is exactly the same as the W510.  The W510 and W520 aren’t massive in size but it is a large 15” notebook computer.  It fits perfectly in the Wenger Synergy backpack which I have been using for the past 5-6 years.  Highly recommended.

Although my W520 didn’t come with a mSATA drive, I have confirmed it is capable of using one in the PCI-E WWAN card slot.  In essence, you can put a tiny Intel Series 310 SSD drive in the slot and use it for OS boot.  This would allow for three drives total in the W520.  Lenovo is promoting RapidDrive for the usage of the mSATA drive but I think OS boot is more interesting.  Although the Sandy Bridge chipset in the ThinkPad W520 has SATA III 6Gbps support, I don’t have the new SATA III SSD drives yet to prove it works.  Sorry, but that’s a big budget line item so it will have to wait for later.  I intend to purchase some Intel Series 510 SSD drives when the price is right.

The model I received has the Intel 6300 WIFI and Intel 82579LM Gigabit Ethernet chipset.

Photo Tour

Front - in this picture and the following shots, I have the ThinkPad T410s on top of the stack, the ThinkPad T410 in the middle and the ThinkPad W520 on the bottom.  There isn’t much to comment on for the frontal view.  Sorry I don’t have the T420 and T420s yet for comparison.  I use Windows 7 lid stickers for my machines so you’ll see that already slapped on the W520.

Right - the W520 ports are positioned exactly like the W510. On the right side you’ll see the memory card slot, 34mm ExpressCard slot with a plastic filler, the 12.7mm high fatty DVD burner in the Ultrabay, and the Ethernet port.  I don’t like the placement of the Ethernet port here.  I would rather have it in the back where the silly modem is, and have a USB port instead like the T410 above it.

Back - the one notable change on the back of the W520 is the power connection port.  It has a new design to accommodate the 170W power supply connector and is different from several generations of ThinkPad's.  You can still use the ThinkPad W510 135W power adaptor with this port.  You cannot however plug the 170W power supply into a W510 or W510 dock.  See the connector close up macro shot below.

Left - the left side of the W520 is no different from the W510.  I will however point your attention to the eSATA port which is a combo port also known as a powered eSATA port.

Open - I believe the W510 and W520 key layouts are the same although I haven’t examined them close up.  I did notice in this picture some of the keys are a slightly different color.  I think this is due to inconsistencies in the manufacturing process for those keys unless it’s actually supposed to be that way.  You wouldn’t normally see the color difference unless you were looking really hard for it.  It just shows from the flash photography.

Thin - I usually take a lot of different shots of a machine from different angles and I thought this picture was interesting because it makes the W520 look thin like the T410s.  It’s an optical illusion.

Power brick top - some people are freaking out about the 170W power supply brick.  It’s rather large and for comparison I have it lined up with the 135W power supply for the W510, and a 90W power supply for the T410.  It’s actually lighter than the 135W brick.  770 grams to 830.  It appears in my testing the 135W brick works fine so if you are short on cubic centimeters you might travel with the 135W.  You cannot use the 90W with the W520.

Power brick side -  here’s another view of the bricks from a different angle.

Power connecter - here’s a close up macro shot of the 170W power connector compared to the connector on the 90W and 135W power supplies.

connectPower Management and Battery Life

I mentioned in the executive summary above that the Lenovo ThinkPad W520 has significantly improved power management and battery life.  It appears from my testing that it’s at least twice as good as the W510.  After some initial testing, I quickly posted some information.  W510 owners everywhere are crying.

Why is battery life important on a portable workstation?  In my opinion, it really shouldn’t matter too much.  Almost everyone one I know that uses a machine in this class probably has a smartphone and a slate device or they will soon.

In the meantime, battery might be important in some situations but this isn’t a machine you’d be lugging from class to class, or meeting to meeting and taking notes on battery.  You could, but it isn’t designed for that.  It’s designed to run high performance workloads and you’d better be plugged into the wall for those. Enough of the lecture already.

For the consultants in the crowd that have a single machine, you’ll be happy to know the battery life is dramatically improved.  In the tests at the blog post link above, this machine appears to get six hours of battery life quite nicely on the configuration I was sent.  That’s pretty darn good and welcome relief for the workstation crowd.

Now you can watch a movie or two on that long flight home.  Assuming of course the guy in front of you hasn’t pushed his seat all the way back.  That’s where the T410s or a slate device will come in handy.

Performance, Gaming and Thermals

I do a considerable amount of work with high definition video. This seemed like the perfect test to see how much of an improvement the Sandy Bridge pipelining and chipset had improved over the W510.  I was shocked at the results. So shocked in fact I ran the tests several times with different drives to verify what I was seeing.

w520 perfFor the encoding tests I used Sony Vegas Movie Studio Platinum 10.  I encoded to a 720p Windows Media Video profile at a 6MB data rate.  This is a rich high definition format and it will tax every system I have including the ThinkPad W520.  The source video is from my Sony high def video camera and I have a variety of subjects.  I decided to use last years Fort Worth Mayfest footage.

The W520 completed the encoding job in 1.5 hours.  The machine did of course kick the fan up on high but wasn’t obnoxiously loud.  I was also pleasantly surprised to learn it didn’t fry the machine either.

In fact, although the machine was warm on the bottom, it wasn’t scorching hot.  You wouldn’t want it on your bare legs, but it wasn’t bad at all.  That’s a real good sign.  During the encoding the four cores and four hyper threads hovered around 72% CPU utilization.  Plenty of head room to do other stuff if this is your only machine.

The W510 completed the same exact encoding job in 3 hours.  You read that correctly.  The W520 was twice as fast as the W510 in all of the encoding jobs.  I even used a variety of drives internal and external to rule out I/O bottlenecks.  Yea, my jaw is still on the floor.

I don’t know yet why the W520 is soo much faster.  I ran these tests six different ways on both machines and every time the W520 sliced through the work in half the time the W510 took.  I checked all of the BIOS, Power management and performance settings three different times to make sure everything was nearly identical except the hardware.  Hardware matters.

After the encoding jobs, I decided to do some testing of the graphics for gaming.  I haven’t really done any PC gaming in a while since we use the XBOX 360 for that type of entertainment.  However, I still have Half-Life 2 Orange Box and it’s a pretty well known entity.  It was either use it or buy a modern game. I took the cheap route and used Orange Box.


I installed Steam and all of the games then cranked up HL2.  I made sure to set the video settings in HL2 to 1920x1080 and all of the shading and stuff on high.  The game performed remarkably well.  I was getting some tearing and artifacts on quick turns and such but it wasn’t laggy or gross.  That was with the BIOS set to NVIDIA Optimus mode.  I changed it to NVIDIA discrete only and tried the game again.  Now we’re talking.  Smooth as glass and no tearing.  I haven’t checked frame rates but they are high.

The W520 does an amazing job of cooling.  It spins the fan up under load and after things simmer down, spins back down.  When the machine is being used under light load, you can use the notebook on your bare skin. It runs nice and cool.  At least mine does.  My W510 also runs cool so they are pretty even on that count.  I’ve seen quite a few W510 reports where that wasn’t the case so I’m hoping Lenovo really has this nailed for the ThinkPad W520.

Virtualization and RemoteFX

Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1 installed on the ThinkPad W520 with complete ease.  In fact, some of the nagging little workarounds I’ve been documenting for years have disappeared, finally.  I installed R2 SP1 using the usual boot from VHD techniques documented all over my blog.

For those of you looking at the Lenovo Drivers and Download area, you’ll notice at the time of this review there aren’t many drivers.  Fortunately, everything you need is on the hard drive that came from the Lenovo factory under the SWTOOLS area.  The Ethernet and WIFI adaptors install correctly now with setup.  Everything else is straightforward.

I installed the Hyper-V role and imported several virtual machines and confirmed everything was working as expected.  Boring.  My colleague Robert Larson asked me to look into making sure the W520 would run RemoteFX.  Now there’s something new and interesting to try.

RemoteFX is a fascinating technology that lets you run a thin client machine from your desk, but take advantage of advanced graphics on the Hyper-V server.  There are a number of ways to take advantage of RemoteFX but I decided to try something that would really prove it works.

Hmmm, what 3D application running on the VM would really prove RemoteFX is working?  Aero Glass is already running but you can do that with the right RDP clients so that isn’t good enough proof for me.  I need a game.  Duh.  How about installing Half-Life 2 into the VM and playing it across the wire from another machine on my network?  Muuhaahaa.

hl2 install

Here’s a screen shot of me using the Windows 7 SP1 RDP client and RemoteFX to install the game.  You can clearly see the Aero Glass effects in the RDP session.  All of those graphics are being handled by the GPU in the NVIDIA discrete chipset on the W520, not the machine I am using to run the RDP client.  I was pretty shocked at this point that Steam actually installed and worked.

When I launched HL2, Steam complained about not having the RemoteFX virtual machine emulated 3D card in it’s card database.  I guess I was first.  It let me continue and play the game.  Since I had the RDP client session above set to 720p (1280x720), I ran Half-Life 2 with the same video settings.  HL2 suggested medium shading and such for the settings so I went with that.

Actual gameplay was better than I expected.  I expected this to completely fail but much to my amazement the game actually worked. The mouse control was really erratic and hyper sensitive, but movement forward and back or side to side was pretty decent.  Certainly proof RemoteFX was working properly on the Lenovo ThinkPad W520.  I’ll go back later when I have time and look more closely at framerates native on the W520 and inside the VM.  I am out of time for this week.

The Screen and Multimon

Like the W510, the FHD screen on the W520 is fabulous.  It’s bright and has good contrast. The high Gamut screen has good color support and it’s probably the smart choice for anyone considering a portable workstation.  As with most if not all of the business computers Lenovo makes, it’s a matte screen.  I don’t think I will ever buy a glossy screen laptop.  Well, I haven’t yet.  Anyway, the screen is very nice and I haven’t seen any complaints with it on the W510.

I am unable to run a test I wanted to run.  Although the W520 can be used in the 135W dock designed for the ThinkPad W510, it won’t drive more than two monitors.  You are going to need the 170W powered dock designed specifically for the W520.  So I could not test driving 3-4 external monitors.  I use three on a daily basis and have a fourth I could have used for the test, but until I have the right dock, it isn’t going to happen.


Here’s a picture of what I am talking about.  In the pic above my Lenovo ThinkPad T410s NVIDIA Optimus notebook is driving three Dell LCD panels. That’s a cheap 24” on the left, a new refurb Ultrasharp U2711 27” in the middle, and an aging Ultrasharp 24” on the right.  It’s funny that the middle panel color differences are so pronounced in the pic.  I haven’t calibrated all three together on the T410s and this shows why you should.  Looking at this in person is different.  Your brain calibrates them real time.  More optical tricks.

Because Optimus based machines have two active video chipsets, you can drive up to four external LCD panels with the Lenovo dock.  I think most people won’t need more than three but four is possible.  It’s the very first test I did with the T410s.  Sorry I could not prove it works with the W520.

OS and Software

The ThinkPad W520 I received came with Windows 7 Professional x64.  I was a little surprised to see it show up without SP1 already installed.  Not only that, it isn’t patched to current levels or at least reasonably close levels.  It’s sitting here waiting for me to install 29 important updates. This is pretty inexcusably in my opinion.  Lenovo should really take the time to engineer an image that is more up-to-date than that.  Make sure you update your machine to SP1 as soon as you get it.  Hitting the update button on mine now.

As for the software that is pre-loaded, I give Lenovo a lot of credit for NOT loading the machine will a bunch of software I don’t want. On first boot you will be presented with some promotions for Norton AV, Bing, Office, etc. but you can politely skip those and move right on.

Lenovo has added some interesting programs I haven’t fully tested yet.  Skype is installed and configured to use the dual mic and 720p camera built into the LCD panel bezel.  Lenovo spent a lot of time tuning their new systems to work well with VOIP and other conferencing providers like Microsoft Lync so you road warriors could attend meetings. Lucky you.

In addition you’ll find facial recognition software for security.  I am soo going to test this.  I’m actually thinking of testing that with my Chihuahua Elvis to see if I can use him to unlock the machine.  That should be fun.

Office 2010 Starter is pre-installed and there are options to purchase an upgrade at any time.  Office Start 2010 includes Word and Excel Starter editions.  Pretty clever.  Give you some core features and provide an easy way to upgrade if you so desire.

Biztree Business-in-a-Box is there for installation along with Skype, Norton Internet Security, Windows Live Essentials, Corel WinDVD, Corel Burn.Now, Corel DVD MovieFactory, and a few other miscellaneous programs.

If you intend to use Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1 as your primary OS, make sure you save the SWTOOLS directory on drive C:.  You’ll want WinDVD and other apps that don’t come with R2.  I haven’t yet verified the location of WinDVD in the lower level directories but I will.


I didn’t think the Lenovo ThinkPad W520 would be much of an improvement.  It’s the same keyboard, chassis, screen, etc. as the ThinkPad W510.  But the beauty is below the surface and in this case, the Sandy Bridge chipset offers much better performance while managing energy use much more efficiently.

You’ll certainly want to watch for more scientific testing by the professional review blogs and organizations but it sure looks like a super machine for your consideration.  I look forward to seeing how it fairs against the competition in the shootouts.  This is a sweet machine ready to do some hard work.  Let me know if you have any questions.

[UPDATE for 3/29/2011] Lenovo.com just lit up the configuration wizards for the ThinkPad W520.  Here’s a sample configuration and price from the US public buying site.  Man, they have some nice new options.  I’d really like to test the RAID support.  Enjoy.

W520 Sample Config

[Update for 4/3/2011] Todays project was to flatten the Lenovo factory image and install SLED 11 SP1 x86. The install worked well enough though SLED installations are really slow from DVD. GNOME and KDE are both working with the inbox VESA drivers.  I downloaded and installed the NVIDIA accelerated graphics driver from NVIDIA.com without issue.  To be clear, I have the BIOS set to discrete only.  I don’t believe NVIDIA has Optimus drivers for linux. The accelerated drivers appear to be working pretty well at 1920x1080 with 16 million colors.  Menu fades, app movement, and moving graphics objects around on the screen is fluid.  Transparency effects are working.

You also might have noticed I removed my “buy with confidence” remarks from the body of the blog post.  The main reason is due to the outstanding question on the support for SATA III SSD drives.  I don’t know if the W520 supports the SATA III 6GB standard. Hopefully an answer is clarified by Lenovo in the documentation, an official blog post at the http://lenovoblogs.com site, or something soon. Eventually someone will benchmark the machine and provide some insight.  I won’t be in a position to do that for several weeks.

I rather doubt the mSATA slot will be SATA III and I don’t think there are any SATA III mSATA devices anyway. The Intel Series 310 devices are SATA II 3GB speed. So the questions remain for the primary and optional Ultrabay drive interfaces. I supposed this also includes the Lenovo ThinkPad Serial ATA Hard Drive Bay Adaptor III since that is the currently supported hard drive adaptor.  I will be surprised to hear the 43N3412 adaptor is SATA III 6GB capable.

So until the answers emerge, I would suggest making your decision carefully.  I certainly wouldn’t pay a premium for the new 6GB speed SSD drives until you know for sure the system can fully exploit them.  The machine is still a killer machine and if it fully supports 6GB speeds in all three of the possible SSD bays (mSATA slot, primary bay, Ultrabay), then it would certainly move it into the bad ass category of machines. It’s unlikely that all three bays support the 6GB speeds.

[Update for 4/5/2011] Good news.  A number of people out there in the wild have received T420’s, T520’s and W520’s.  Several of them have run SSD tests with the Crucial and Micron drives and are reporting jumps in throughput that would be indicative of a SATA III 6GB speeds in both the primary bay, and ultrabay.  I’ve read this now at http://www.storagereview.com/lenovo_thinkpad_t520_review_first_thoughts and from three or four different people in the various ThinkPad forums.

I’m cautiously optimistic now.  Some of the test results I’ve seen lack detail but at least there are a handful of reports. I’ll feel better when I’ve run my own tests but I thought some of you might be interested.

Here’s a nice infomercial on the ThinkPad W520.  It also covers a few features not normally mentioned in the reviews.  Notice it says battery life increase of 100% over the previous generation.  See, they put that in writing.

[UPDATE for 4/6/2011] A little over a week ago I sent some questions into Lenovo around the drives and storage for the new Sandy Bridge based notebooks.  Here are the questions and the answers I received.

1. Are the supported SATA interface speeds on the new ThinkPad's SATA III 6GB? Specifically, is this true for the T420, T420s, X220, X220t, T520, and W520?

[Lenovo] Yes, The new Huron River ThinkPads will support 6Gb/s, but our current drives that have been certified are only 3GB/s drives. The current roadmap is showing Late 3Q or early 4Q is when we'll qualify 6GB/s drives. This is true for the T420, T420s, X220, X220t, T520, and W520.

2. What SSD drives have been tested and are recommended for the new Sandy Bridge based machines?

[Lenovo]These are all 3.0 Gb/ps.

  1. ThinkPad 160GB Intel X25-M Solid State Drive II - Released
  2. ThinkPad 128 GB SS Drive II - Released
  3. Intel 320 Series - Not Released. Lenovo engineering has completed testing/certification of the Intel 320 Series.

3. What is the hard/ssd drive bay height and size for the new machines?  I need this for the primary bay, and ultrabay for each machine.  I understand some of the bays will only take 7mm height drives so if you provide a table of information on the machines above I would appreciate it.

[Lenovo] Primary bay height for each system: T420, X220-X220T, W520 approx. 10.5 mm. Ultrabay height for each system: T420, X220-X220T approx. 10.5 mm. W520 Ultrabay is 12.7mm. Machines with 7mm height drives: Yes The X220/ X220T, T420s will only take 7mm drives in their primary drive bay. 

4. Which machines support the mSATA drive in the WWAN mini PCIE slot?  Do all of the machines support this? For the machines that do, is OS boot support supported?

[Lenovo] W520, T420, T420s, X220, X220T. Yes, boot is supported for all of them.

[UPDATE for 4/20/2011] I have confirmed with Lenovo that although the W520 has Optimus, it does not have Hybrid Optimus and thus cannot support four external displays like my T410s (see that test).  Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but there you have it.  On the bright side, I will test the T420s before too long and see if it really works.

See http://www-307.ibm.com/pc/support/site.wss/document.do?lndocid=MIGR-76617 for the official support document on the Hybrid Optimus technology and supported configurations.

[UPDATE for 9/19/2011] It’s pretty rare for me to come back to update a review or comment six months after I wrote something but it seems there is a facet of this machine I didn’t really test fully back in March.  I still haven’t but I wanted to bring some information to your attention. 

First, you notice in my blog post above I’m pretty wild about the new battery life for the ThinkPad W520.  That’s easily understandable because the battery life from the W510 isn’t nearly as good. 

What you may not know is that the Quad Core CPU is limited to a certain performance level when running on battery power.  The term many people use is “throttled”.  I guess that term works.  Throttling is a well known way to govern something.  Cars and motorcycles have governors to prevent them from going over a certain MPH.  ISP’s and wireless carriers throttle connections when you’ve used a certain amount of data.  In that case of the W520, the CPU is throttled while on battery power.

I haven’t seen an official Lenovo statement on why this is.  Some speculate they are doing this to prolong battery life.  That’s a pretty noble cause, unless you really need max performance on battery power.  I have seen other speculation that it was done due to some engineering challenge with supplying a hungry CPU with power when it is coming solely from battery.  Until Lenovo explains what is going on and why it’ll be open for speculation.

Lenovo appears to be working on the problem. They have already published one BIOS that improves the throttling and I assume they are still working on further improvement. They have their senior Social Media folks and moderators involved in the threads. See Lenovo W Series Forum area.  There is quite a bit of activity in the threads there.

I installed the v1.30 BIOS at the end of last month and can’t really tell much different on my machine with my typical usage models.  I haven’t traveled the past few weeks so I haven’t been running on battery power.  I did do a few quick tests three weeks ago and on my machine the CPU clock speed range is 800-1500 MHz on battery.  I did notice some bugs are still present on sleep/resume so I assume Lenovo is well aware of them and the reason I think they aren’t done with further improvement.

There are couple of other rather large threads at the Lenovo site.  Thankfully I am not seeing any issues like those that are being reported.