Mobile workstations are the upper echelon of notebooks, combining the very latest in mobile technology with the necessary tools for professional work such as AutoCAD, advanced photo and video editing, and more. The ThinkPad W540 is Lenovo’s sole offering in this arena, going up against the HP ZBook 15, Toshiba Tecra W50, and Dell Precision M4800.
Based off the standard ThinkPad T540, the W540 has notable features that set it apart which we’ll point out in the review. We enjoyed the excellent 2880 x 1620 resolution display, great overall performance for nearly all tasks, good feeling keyboard, and satisfactory build quality, but had issues with some of the keyboard’s properties and awkward clickpad implementation. The W540 overall got enough right to get our general recommendation with some reservations.
Build and Design
The ThinkPad W540 maintains the longstanding no-frills ThinkPad look; the familiar all-black exterior has a somewhat blocky appearance with squared off corners. We’re glad Lenovo has kept this formula generally the same since purchasing IBM’s computer business in 2005.
The W540 does quite well when it comes to weight and dimensions for a mobile workstation; as a matter of fact, Lenovo says it’s the thinnest and lightest in its class. It weighs 5.57 pounds including the extended 9-cell battery and is just 1.1 inches tall. Its physical size (14.8 inches wide by 9.8 inches deep) is more detrimental to portability than either of the aforementioned measurements.
The chassis exhibits good strength; it didn’t flex or complain even we picked up the W540 by one corner (which we don’t recommend doing with any notebook, by the way). The strength primarily comes from an internal support structure; this helps extend the notebook’s life by keeping the circuit boards from flexing, a leading cause of notebook failure. The plastic used on the exterior has satisfactory quality and generally didn’t flex except over the right side of the palm rest. The optical drive resides beneath it, creating a good amount of empty space and a slight amount of give. The use of plastic no doubt helps keep the weight down at the expense of, well, being made from plastic (or lack of expense, from the manufacturer’s standpoint).
The hinges holding the display lid are strong and unmovable. The display lid itself is impressively rigid considering its relative thinness. We wish the W540 had a traditional display latch closing mechanism as the current mechanism doesn’t keep the display fully closed when the notebook is carried around vertically, opening a couple of millimeters like a clamshell. The display can be opened with one hand provided it’s done slowly. We like the fact the display tilts back 180 degrees.
Overall the build quality is satisfactory and in line with what we expect from a business notebook.
The W540 has good upgradeability for end users. Two access panels on the bottom of the chassis are held in with one and two screws, respectively; the latter contains the wireless card and the former has two RAM slots, one of which was populated in our review unit, and the 2.5 bay which holds up to 9.5 mm drives. The W540 actually has a total of four RAM slots. However, accessing the other two requires removing the keyboard which is slightly more involved than removing access panels.
Input and Output Ports
The W540 has a respectable measure of ports including four USB, two of which are SuperSpeed (3.0) and one which is a sleep-and-charge, VGA, Ethernet, mini-DisplayPort (which doubles as a Thunderbolt port, for the few devices that support it), a media card reader, and an ExpressCard/34 slot. The W540 additionally has a docking station connector on its bottom as expected on a business notebook.
Gone were the customary status lights. It’s odd for these to be excluded on any notebook especially one used in a business environment. All picture descriptions shown below are listed from left to right.
Left: cooling exhaust vent, Thunderbolt/mini-DisplayPort, VGA, USB 2.0 (sleep-and-charge), USB 3.0, ExpressCard\34 (top), 4-in-1 card reader (bottom), headphone/microphone combo jack
Right: optical drive, USB 3.0, USB 2.0, lock slot
Rear: Ethernet, AC power jack, cooling exhaust vent
Screen and Speakers
One of the W540’s highlights is its available 3K IPS display; it’s a configurable upgrade over the standard 1920 x 1080 resolution. The 3K display’s high resolution of 2880 x1 620 is ideal for productivity; two or more windows can comfortably be displayed side by side. It’s also great for editing large photos and CAD.
The display’s anti-glare surface coating eliminates unwanted reflections from ambient light sources. Additionally, this is an IPS (In-Plane Switching) panel that creates unlimited viewing angles. This display has excellent picture quality: Colors are vibrant and well-saturated with excellent contrast.
The W540 has a truly unique feature: an X-Rite PANTONE color sensor built into the right palm rest. Open the included software, close the display lid when prompted, and open a couple of minutes later when the audible tone sounds and just like that, the display is calibrated for color accuracy. Color calibrators are typically external devices; the W540 therefore gives mobile users the advantage of not needing to carry around a peripheral gadget. The built-in calibrator is only a $70 option, making it less expensive than most external models.
The W540’s has no visible speaker grilles because the speakers are located inside the chassis. This gives a somewhat muffled effect but overall the sound is fuller than expected from a notebook, and even has a hint of bass. The volume level is sufficient for a small group of people to gather around and listen. These speakers are overall better than what can be found in similar computers.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The W540 sports the latest version of Lenovo’s ThinkPad keyboard with chiclet style keys and some layout changes. Say goodbye to the ThinkLight; this new keyboard has white LED backlighting with two brightness levels and can be turned completely off. The keyboard has a top notch feel with nicely detailed tactile feedback, a rock solid tray for flex-free typing, and relatively quiet key presses.
Caps Lock and Num Lock indicator lights are suspiciously absent; we aren’t sure why these were left out. Instead there’s an on-screen indicator which perpetually shows up in the lower right of the display and overlays most applications; it’s quite annoying. Another non-business touch is the reversed Function row keys; the [Fn] key must be pressed to activate [F1] – [F12]. There’s a feature called FnLk which makes the Function keys primary (press [Fn] and [Space] to activate), but this should have been the default given that this is a business device.
The W540’s has a clickpad; press down anywhere on the surface to produce a click and press down in the lower right to produce a right click. This clickpad is a significant step backwards in both usability and practicality compared to UltraNav setups of past ThinkPads. To its credit, the W540’s clickpad is the right size for a 15.5″ display and has a smooth surface that’s easy to track across.
It’s downhill from there. First is the fact there are no dedicated buttons for the pointing stick. Using the clickpad as buttons is plain awkward especially because performing a right click requires reaching all the way down to the clickpad’s bottom right. This defeats the purpose of the pointing stick; the idea is that you don’t have to move your fingers from the typing position but this setup requires you to do so. Secondly, the clickpad has an almost trampoline-like feel because it has an excessive amount of travel. Clicks make more noise than they should as a result (they should be silent). This extra travel also results in a somewhat imprecise feel. We experienced additional issues getting clicks to register toward the very edges of the clickpad.
Overall we’re mostly satisfied with the keyboard, but feel the opposite with the clickpad. The design changes we’ve seen in recent ThinkPads like this W540 are disappointing compared to the nearly flawless UltraNav setups of classic ThinkPads. It almost feels like Lenovo is losing touch with its professional audience.
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