The ThinkPad W series has typically been positioned as something closer to a desktop replacement — it can be moved easily, but is not necessarily built with daily portability in mind. The new ThinkPad W550s is the first W series laptop targeted toward desktop-level performance and easy portability and battery life.
In the interest of portable use, the W550s uses the new 14nm Broadwell series of processors — in this configuration, the i7 5500U, which has a TDP of 15W. Additionally, the W550s features Lenovo's Power Bridge technology with one internal battery and one external battery, allowing for hot-swapping of the external battery while on the move. It is also possible to add a WWAN module for use with LTE, UMTS, and GSM networks, as well as provide GPS and GLONASS capabilities.
Specifications (as ordered)
Who is it for?
The ThinkPad W550s is a notebook for users who need desktop-level performance for programming or graphics-intensive operations like CAD, but also need a system light and portable enough that carrying it doesn't constitute weightlifting. The W550s readily supports Linux installations with minimal configuration necessary, has extensive options for aftermarket upgrades, and optional 4G LTE connectivity for users on the move.
While it is a solid choice for IT professionals, it is not suited to running modern games at the highest graphics setting, and is unlikely to win over MacBook users.
Hardware and design impressions
Visually, the ThinkPad system design is the same as it ever was. It's a very static design, and iconic enough to have been featured in the Museum of Modern Art.
The red dot atop the I in the ThinkPad logo on the laptop lid pulses with light when the system is in sleep mode. It is free of any visually loud features typically found on desktop replacements marketed toward gamers. The keyboard is backlit, with status LEDs — muting the microphone, speakers, or for function lock — placed on the keys. The TrackPoint is as responsive as ever and a pleasant addition to the keyboard. Notably, the keyboard includes a number pad, which shifts everything left of center — some users complain about this, though it is perfectly comfortable to type on. The W550s is a very quiet machine; the sound of the fans was rarely perceptible except when starting from a cold boot.
The port selection is adequate, though the placement is somewhat peculiar — the right side features two USB 3.0 ports and one mini DisplayPort, whereas the left side has Power, one USB 3.0, VGA, 3.5 headphone/microphone combo jack, 4-in-1 SD Card reader, RJ-45, and a smart card reader. There is something to be said about the inclusion of a VGA port in 2015 on a laptop that has a 3K display —though, as with the Smart Card reader, it is something that likely still is utilized in certain corporate environments. As is standard for ThinkPad, a dock connector is on the bottom.
As the W550s is a built-to-order machine, there is a small amount of consternation in deciding what components to opt for. Initially, I intended to buy the 1080p display, but only the 3K display is an IPS panel. For a professional-class device at this price point, offering TN displays is an indescribably poor choice. Other components are not user-upgradable — the CPU is soldered directly to the system board, and the fingerprint reader attaches to and requires cutouts in the bezel. Additionally, the 6-cell rear batteries are cylindrical, and lift the bottom of the laptop somewhat when installed. Notably, the battery is not aligned to the center, which could potentially cause issues — I opted for the slim, 3-cell battery, which fits flush with the case.
Expanding and upgrading the W550s
Being a professional-class device, the ThinkPad series typically has excellent documentation for repair and replacement of components. The W550s is no exception, with an extensively detailed maintenance manual.
It differs from previous ThinkPad models, as it lacks individual access panels for components. Instead, the entire back cover must be unscrewed, and clips detached, to gain access, presumably as a measure to make the system thinner. Compared to other modern laptops like the 2015 MacBook, it is designed and intended for the user to upgrade and replace components, and doing so is a relatively straightforward operation.
The ease in doing so is also a consideration for the budget conscious. For example, upgrading from the baseline 4 GB RAM to 16 GB is $250 from the factory, though a package of two 8 GB DDR3L 1600 SO-DIMM modules with better timings was (on sale for) $100. For other components, the options Lenovo provides are somewhat limited. A Toshiba 1 TB 7mm 5400 RPM HDD was available for about $75, though the only mechanical drive from Lenovo is the 500 GB 7200 RPM baseline option. Similarly, for $40, the option of a 16 GB M.2 SSD for drive caching is available. Yet, drives with larger capacities — such as this ADATA 256 GB M.2 2242 drive — are available elsewhere for $115. With these upgrades in place — these exact parts I've installed successfully in my system — it is possible to fully utilize the potential of the W550s.
Of particular interest on the W550s is the inclusion of the new M.2 standard in place of the PCIe Mini Card standard. Notably, the W550s contains three M.2 slots. An M.2 2230 card is preinstalled for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, with — on my unit — an empty 2242 slot intended for WWAN access, ready for user upgrade with the antenna leads already wired into the system, with the SIM card slot accessible when the rear battery is removed. A second 2242 slot is positioned below, perpendicular to the others, in which the ADATA M.2 drive is placed.
The configuration of the M.2 slots seems to be a missed opportunity for a substantive performance advantage. Three slots is very generous, though with a slight rearrangement of components, it could easily support longer 2260 or 2280 cards. The new M.2 standard allows for PCI Express, SATA, and USB signaling on the same connector. The ADATA SSD uses SATA 3 signaling, which limits the performance to 550MB/s read and 530MB/s write speeds. For comparison, the recently released Kingston HyperX M.2 2280 SSDs use PCI Express 2.0 signaling (but not NVMe) and claims 1400MB/s read and 1000MB/s write speeds. According to specifications, Broadwell processors support this SSD without issue. Similarly, the spacing for the 2.5" HDD supports only low-profile 7mm height drives, limiting the capacity to 1TB. Without the smart card reader on top, standard 9mm drives would have ample clearance.
Using the ThinkPad W550s with Linux
The W550s is Linux certified, with Ubuntu pre-installation certification as well — this was a key factor in my decision to purchase the system. The abjectly poor reception and frustrating experience of using Windows 8, and the prevalence of difficult or impossible to remove items thus far in the Windows 10 preview has prompted me to abandon Windows. I've been test-driving various Linux distributions for the last six months in anticipation of buying a new notebook PC.
The primary stumbling block to using Linux — or, for that matter, Windows — on the W550s is the 3K screen. Though the panel is absolutely stunning, support for HiDPI displays in anything other than OS X is still somewhat tenuous. Ubuntu 15.04, which was released on April 23, 2015, as well as Debian 8 (Jessie) released on April 25, 2015, utilize GNOME 3.14 as the desktop environment — with Ubuntu adding the Unity graphical shell on top. However, support for HiDPI displays in 3.14 is subpar in comparison to GNOME 3.16 in Fedora 22 Beta.
From just the default installation, Fedora perfectly configured the hardware in the W550s. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capabilities were immediately active, both the TrackPoint and touchpad worked perfectly, and — quite fortunately — even the shortcut keys on the keyboard mapped correctly to their intended function. Firefox 37 required no additional configuration, though suggested search results are drawn at the right size, but in the wrong position. By default, Fedora 22 only sees the Intel integrated graphics adapter, making the only thing that requires user intervention the NVIDIA Quadro K620m. For this, it is likely best to install Bumblebee in order to maximize performance while on battery.
The bottom line
It is much easier to recommend the W550s to someone comfortable with opening a computer. The average TechRepublic reader should have no issue adding components as needed — and the ability to add components greatly increases the value proposition of the system. The introduction of future components is open to speculation — the physical size of current drive controllers may make a PCIe-linked M.2 2242 SSD impractical.
As the i7 5500U is a dual-core CPU, this limits the user to two SO-DIMM slots — effectively a limitation to 16 GB RAM. Only one vendor produces 16 GB SO-DIMM modules presently, though other vendors could introduce those modules in the future. (They work only on Broadwell and recent AMD CPUs.) If you absolutely require 32 GB of RAM in a notebook PC, a dual-core CPU is likely already too stifling.
Ultimately, the ThinkPad is a great option for those looking to use Linux on a laptop, though on a 3K display, it might be a slightly bumpy experience getting started until GNOME 3.16 is bundled in the stable version of Fedora 22 in May 2015 or in Ubuntu 15.10 in October 2015. The system price is quite high — especially without sale or employee pricing — but sales at Lenovo are moderately frequent, and graduation and Father's Day sales are just around the corner.
- A Fedora 22 beta walk-through (ZDNet)
- Ubuntu 15.04: Minor improvements, major controversy
- Alleviating the BYOD hangover in the enterprise
- BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) Policy (Tech Pro Research)
Note: TechRepublic, ZDNet, and Tech Pro Research are CBS Interactive properties.
James Sanders is a Tokyo-based programmer and technology journalist. Since 2013, he has been a regular contributor to TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research.