You won't want to move this mammoth workstation around very often, but Lenovo's ThinkPad W550s is still the best overall notebook in its category. It has everything professionals could want in a 15.5-inch laptop, including a top-notch keyboard, durable design and epic battery life. It's heavier than competing machines, and not quite as quick as some, but those are fair trade-offs for a work machine this well-rounded.
The W550s doesn't stray from Lenovo's tried-and-true ThinkPad design scheme. The new device sports the same no-nonsense, matte-black plastic body as other laptops in the line. Most importantly, it looks right at home in a conference room.
This is a notebook you'll want to leave at your desktop most of the time, though. Weighing in at 5.47 lbs., the ThinkPad W550s feels distinctly heavier than competing machines like HP's ZBook 15u G2 (4.23 lbs.) and the MSI WS60 (4.36 lbs.) On the bright side, Lenovo managed to shave about 0.33 lbs. off from the weight of last year's ThinkPad W540, which tipped the scales at a whopping 5.8 lbs.
The new machine's frame is reinforced with carbon fiber, which makes the whole unit feel extremely rigid and durable. Lenovo also says that the W550s is rated to withstand shock, extreme temperatures and high accelerations. Finally, the keyboard has a protective layer beneath the keys that directs spilled liquid to drain out the bottom of the machine, which is a crucial bit of extra protection for workers who depend on their laptops for work every day.
The big, 5.5-inch display on the ThinkPad W550s gives you tons of room to work, with a supersharp resolution of 2,880 x 1,620 pixels. Text is crisp, and colors are generally accurate, but the matte finish on the display makes everything look a bit washed out. On the bright side, the matte screen does a pretty good job of deflecting annoying reflections from overhead office lights.
My review unit came with a touch screen, but I'd recommend opting for the nontouch version. That's because the touch panel is heavy and expensive, without adding much useful functionality.
Typing on the ThinkPad W550s feels almost like typing on a desktop keyboard, thanks to its deep key travel and good feedback. The keys offer about 2.3mm of travel, which is well above the laptop average of 1.5mm, resulting in a supremely comfortable typing experience.
Business users will benefit from the inclusion of a full 10-key number pad, to the right of the standard QWERTY layout. That's a really nice perk if number crunching is part of your daily workload. Lenovo stuck a few handy shortcut keys above the number pad, giving you quick access to the calculator, Web browser and other tools.
I like that the function keys at the top of the keyboard default are automatically set to perform actions like adjusting the brightness and volume, as well as toggling the keyboard backlight on and off. That last feature is nice for typing in low-light environments.
If I have a complaint, it concerns Lenovo's annoying habit of repositioning the left Control key to make room for the Fn function key in the keyboard's bottom left spot. It really messes up my muscle memory for keyboard shortcuts like cutting and pasting text.
Touchpad and TrackPoint
The W550s offers two different ways to move the mouse. First is the 4 x 2.2-inch touchpad, which is nice and roomy, with a smooth, matte-plastic finish that my finger glides across easily. Instead of having dedicated mouse buttons below the pad, the pad itself can be depressed for right and left clicks. Built-in buttons aren't quite as precise as discrete buttons, but I personally prefer them because they leave more room for pointer navigation.
There are also three buttons above the pad, which are meant to be used in conjunction with the TrackPoint pointing stick, positioned amid the G, H and B keys. The pointing stick is handy because it gives you extremely precise cursor control with no need to move your hands from the keyboard. Other PC makers offer pointing sticks, but Lenovo's TrackPoint still feels the best.
The W550s comes with a handful of excellent security features, including a fingerprint reader positioned just to the left of the keyboard. It's useful for providing a simple way to unlock your work PC without fussing with a password screen every time. I registered all five fingers on my right hand using Lenovo's pre-loaded software, then tested out the scanner. It proved reliable, accurately recognizing my fingers each time.
Also included is a smartcard slot, located on the notebook's right edge. It lets you unlock the machine by using a physical card to verify your identify.
Finally, you get built-in hardware encryption thanks to the included Trusted Platform Module (TPM) chip. This will help ensure that private work data stays secure, even if it's intercepted.
A good front-facing camera is nice for meeting remotely with clients and colleagues. The W550s' camera captures a good amount of detail and offers decent color accuracy, but ultimately fails to impress since images come out a bit grainy. It's no worse than the average notebook webcam, though, and is perfectly adequate for basic videoconferencing. The W550s also comes with Skype pre-loaded, so you can get started right away.
Sound quality is a mixed bag, but audio is loud enough that you should have no issues hearing the person on the other end of the line.
Ports and connectivity
You'll find all the connectivity options you could want in a business notebook. The left and right edges of the machine house three USB 3.0 slots, an Ethernet jack, an SD card reader, and a VGA and mini DisplayPort for linking the notebook to a larger monitor or projector.
On the bottom of the machine is Lenovo's ThinkPad Ultra Dock connector. The dock, which is sold separately for $300, adds a slew of extra connections, including 6 USB ports and HDMI and DVI video connectors. More importantly, it lets you link the W550s to desktop accessories like a mouse, monitor and keyboard just by setting the notebook down on the dock.
The W550 isn't the most powerful notebook in its category, but it still offers excellent performance for daily work tasks. Our review unit came with a 2.6-GHz Intel Core i7-5600U processor, 16GB of RAM and a 512GB solid-state drive (SSD). Multitasking felt smooth and seamless while editing a large spreadsheet with more than a dozen tabs open in Firefox.
Graphics professionals and other users who demand the fastest performance won't find it in the W550s, though. On the GeekBench 3 test, which measures overall performance, the notebook racked up a respectable score of 6,860. That's only slightly behind the similarly equipped HP ZBook 15u G2 (6,892), but the MSI WS60 left both machines in the dust, scoring a whopping 13,003. That machine costs $200 more than the W550s, however, and it's also not as durable.
If you're wondering why the W550s is heftier than competing machines, check out its dual batteries. The notebook comes with one internal 3-cell battery and one removable 6-cell battery. With that combination, the notebook ran for an amazing 15 hours and 52 minutes on our battery-life test, which simulates continuous Web browsing with the screen set to 100 nits of brightness. The W550s lasted a lot, lot longer than both the HP ZBook 15u G2 (6:44) and the MSI WS60 (3:05).
That bulky 6-cell battery comes at a price, though. In addition to its heft, it adds about a half inch of extra thickness to the back end of the machine.
The W550s can actually continue to run on its internal 3-cell battery even when you detach the external battery, which means you can swap out the 6-cell battery for a fresh one without powering the machine down. The functionality, which Lenovo calls Power Bridge, could come in handy if you want to shell out for an extra backup battery.
The W550s runs on Windows 8.1 Pro, which includes some perks over the basic version, such as hard-drive encryption via Microsoft BitLocker. In addition, a variety of productivity-boosting software comes pre-loaded, including Microsoft aps like Skype for video conferencing and OneNote for taking notes and backing them up to the cloud.
If you're in the market for a 15-inch workstation, Lenovo makes your decision easy with the W550s. This device combines the best keyboard around with a durable design, solid security features and unbeatable battery life. Those features make the W550s easily my favorite work laptop in its category, even if it doesn't quite match the performance of some competing machines.
I can't ignore that the W550s is really heavy, though. If you want a machine to travel with, then HP's Zbook 15u G2 might be a better bet.