February 16, 2009 Before we even begin, we have to disclose that the folks at Lenovo warned us about the size of their new W700ds 17-inch dual screen workstation. "You won't want to travel with it," they said, yet we merrily ignored this warning and rifled through our briefcase collection to find something large enough to carry the goliath (it turns out that we had only one, a 17" briefcase from MobileEdge). But after spending the better part of two weeks lugging it around, we have to say that, overall, the nay-sayers were wrong; this workstation behaved admirably, and despite it's size and quad-core processor, even lasted between three and four hours per battery, which was a good thing since there isn't a airline adapter powerful enough to support this "laptop".
But it isn't all ice cream and sunshine, our experience with the W700ds was a bit of a mixed bag. Some good things, some bad things, and some things that left us scratching our heads wondering what the designers were thinking when they were, err, designing this one.
Everything but the kitchen sink...
The first thing that we noticed about the W700ds was, well, the "DS" part. This device has an ingeniously concealed 2nd screen built into the lid that "pops out" via a spring loaded mechanism. There's also a laundry list of features including a built in webcam, fingerprint scanner, 5 USB ports, a FireWire port, a DisplayLink port, both VGA and DVI graphics, big bright 17" 1920x1200 display, 2 ExpressCard slots, an SD card reader, and couple of features that are rather specific to high end photography and graphics design; a Pantone color calibration unit, and a Wacom pen based graphics tablet. There will be more on the last two later.
So what's the deal with that extra screen?
Lenovo's W700 ThinkPad is a bit of a monster when it comes to size, but doubly so when configured as a W700ds. The "DS" indicates that the device has a second screen integrated into it's lid that slides out behind the primary display. We really had high hopes for this, the idea of having a dual screen workstation that we could carry around with us set our inner geeks afire with bluster and pride, but sadly, it was the feature we founds most disappointing in this device.
The problem is multifaceted, but comes down to something my first girlfriend set me straight on; size really does matter. Now in the uber-geek world of USD$5000+ laptops, this could either be that your gadget has to be:
Achieve any two and you've probably got a winner, if you're the designer that manages to swing three of these in a single device, you'll probably get promoted out of design and into management within a year ;-)
The problems for the second screen begin with the fact that the primary display on the W700ds is really excellent. In fact it's one of the best we've seen. The second screen has to act as an extension of the primary when it's in use, but its got a bunch of strikes against it right out of the gate. First is it's size. it's both too big, and too small. We say this because at 768x1280, it's 80 pixels too tall to match the 1200 pixel "height" of the primary display; and at 768 pixels wide, it just isn't wide enough to comfortably display a document. Add to this the fact that the backlighting and dot pitch don't match the primary, and you find yourself not using it very often. When you consider that using the secondary display disables the external DVI and VGA ports and adds about a half inch of thickness to the lid of the device, the black marks start piling up against it. Additionally, from our noninvasive inspection, it seems to use only about half of it volume needed to house itself. A real no-no when it comes to economy of design; so another black mark, if you're keeping score.
We don't know what could have saved this cool feature for us, but having the second screen be a better match to the primary would definitely have helped. After living and working with the W700ds for a while, we found that we weren't actually popping open the secondary screen for any purpose other than to show off the fact that it had it.
So is it a laptop or a workstation?
The answer is yes and yes. It's both.
After reading our diatribe about the dual screens you might have thought that we didn't like the W700ds. In fact we found it to be one of the most capable laptops that we've ever tested. The combination of it's large 17-inch 1920x1200 display, quad-core processor, 4GB RAM, and hardware RAID array make this it a rival for even the best equipped desktop rigs that we've seen. The unit is so fast that we even forgot that we were running Windows Vista (snap!). With a wealth of external ports, it was easy to attach peripherals and external monitors, and the workstation performed well as both a workhorse and multimedia device.
So can you carry this thing around?
Perhaps the biggest drawback (we'll get to size later) we found in using the W700ds as a travel companion was its lack of support for any airline power adapters. While the device has the same 20V input requirement as all ThinkPads since the 60 series, it requires a LOT more power and comes with a custom 170W power supply which is nearly double the capacity of the 90W units for 15-inch ThinkPads and three times that of the 65W units used for the lower power X series devices. To keep people from damaging the W700 and/or their 90W power adapters, Lenovo opted for a different sized power plug and receptacle. We would have liked some sort of compromise solution for airplane use that would have at least allowed us to use an airline adapter to extend our run time, but none was available, and frankly, considering that Lenovo didn't design or intend for the device to be used as your everyday traveler, we can't really fault them for deciding to pass on the thorny issue of partially powering via battery and partially via external power.
It's no netbook, but the size of the device wasn't really a problem for us. We didn't find the W700ds overly heavy, and once we found a case large enough to carry the device, were able to carry it in much the same fashion as a 14 or 15-inch machine.
For the brave few who decide to use the W700ds or W700 as their traveler, we'd recommend carrying a second battery. While we didn't perform a scientific evaluation, we found that two batteries was enough to get us through and entire international trip to Asia when used for work (i.e. writing Gizmag articles), and was good for about two thirds of a trip when used for watching video.
What we liked
We really liked the power, agility and large bright screen of the W700ds. For the first time in a long time, we felt that we hadn't sacrificed capability for portability. This is one fast machine with a lot of resources.
In addition to testing the W700ds with Windows Vista Business 64, we couldn't resist the urge to try Microsoft's first public beta release of Windows 7. We installed Windows 7 Build 7000 as an update to Vista, and not only did the installation go without a hitch, but the W700ds worked flawlessly with the new software. We expected some compatibility issues, but didn't find any, and we rewarded with both better battery life and subjectively better performance as well. Our take away from this is that Lenovo AND Microsoft have prepared well for Windows 7, and that the W700ds passes our "future proof" test for at least this upcoming version of Windows.
What we didn't like
There are numerous configurable options, so your mileage my vary, but we found some of these features didn't help as much as we'd like, and weren't desirable unless you really needed them. Overall, given a choice, we'd configure a workstation, like this:
Notice that we left out the Wacom tablet, the Pantone reader, and most notably, the dual screen. The tablet and color scanner were things we just didn't use. Funny considering that we actually use Photoshop to clean up photos we take for gizmag.com, but we found that for anything short of real graphic design work, that they just were dead weight. Color correctness wasn't important enough to need to calibrate the main display, which we found to be one of the best we've ever seen on a laptop, ever.
This is a big laptop, with a full sized keyboard AND a numeric keypad. Built quality is typical of what you'd expect from Lenovo; Thinkpad's are know for their solid build quality and black monolithic styling, and the W700ds is no exception it's big and solid. While we loved the 17-inch screen we wished that the device was a bit thinner and had a "tighter" bezel (i.e. was smaller in all dimensions).
The big disappointment for us was the 2nd screen. We really wanted to like this feature, and while we're glad we tested it, our judgment is that the workstation would be better without it included.
We like this machine. It's big, bad, capable and just plain impressive. If you're not concerned about weight and size, then you'll be happy with the W700. We can't in good conscious recommend the dual screen option. Lenovo considers the W700 to be a desktop replacement, and with that in mind, we just don't see enough of a use for the seconds screen to justify the sacrifice of losing the use of an external monitor when used on your desk, or the extra thickness when used on the road. Fortunately the W700 can be configured and ordered without this option.
We think the W700 is a winner, an subtle combination of understated business machine and brute force multimedia monster; a design achievement that would be a hit in both the board room and LAN party.
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