Thursday, December 20, 2012

Lenovo ThinkPad Edge E530 review

Lenovo is the first big name to send us a notebook based on Intel's third generation Intel Core CPU. It's not in one of the company's flagship ThinkPad models, but instead in a ThinkPad Edge E530. This is a 15.6in, 2.5kg notebook that's suited for home and small business use. It's a plain-looking, yet attractive notebook, but with a build quality that is reminiscent of a budget machine that should cost well under £1000. It doesn't have niceties such as a backlit keyboard, but it does feature a useful set of ports and it sports a configuration that should earn the respect of most power users. See also Group test: What's the best high-end laptop?
Specifications and performance
With an Intel Core i7-3612QM CPU at the helm, the ThinkPad Edge E530 has more than enough grunt to tackle office applications and tough tasks such as media transcoding with ease. It has a standard clock speed of 2.1GHz, four cores and Hyper-Threading, which means you can multitask heavily without noticing too much of a slow down in performance. Visit Group test: what's the best laptop?
In our Blender 3D rendering test, a time of 22sec is all it took to complete our workload; to put it in perspective, it's identical to the time recorded by the Toshiba Qosmio F750, which uses a second generation Core i7-2670QM CPU that runs at a slightly faster standard speed of 2.2GHz. While the third gen CPU wasn't faster in this test, it's an indication of better efficiency, being able to perform the same task at an equal time, with a slower speed.
It was a few seconds faster in our iTunes MP3 encoding test, where it recorded 48sec compared to the Qosmio's 55sec, a noticeable gain. Using AutoGordianKnot to convert a test DVD file to an Xvid file, it took 41min, which is a time that's even better than what a traditional powerhouse laptop such as the ThinkPad W520 achieved in this test. Using Arcsoft MediaConverter 7 to convert a test DVD file to an MKV file, a time of 8min 28sec was achieved, which is another very good showing.
The new CPU also includes Intel's integrated HD 4000 graphics, which provide almost double the performance of Intel's previous generation HD 3000 graphics — in common benchmarks such as 3DMark06, at least. The ThinkPad Edge E530 recorded a score of 7139 in this benchmark when using its integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics, a great result. Laptops with HD 3000 graphics get a result between 3000 and 4000.
That's not enough for Lenovo though: the company has also included a discrete NVIDIA GeForce GT 630M graphics adapter. This is a new value/mid-range adapter that provides a little more speed than the HD 4000 can produce, and makes the ThinkPad Edge E530 a little more versatile when it comes to all-round computing. With the NVIDIA adapter, a score of 9445 was recorded. In Battlefield 3, running at the native resolution of the screen and with automatic image detail, the game ran consistently between 26-30 frames per second and was very playable.
You could use the ThinkPad Edge E530 as a gaming machine quite easily, unless you're a hardcore gamer with higher-end 3D performance expectations. Switching technology allows the ThinkPad Edge to use the integrated graphics when the notebook is on battery, and the discrete graphics when it's plugged in. Applications can also be customised to use whichever adapter you choose.
The rest of the Lenovo's configuration consists of 8GB of DDR3 SDRAM, a 1TB, 5400rpm hard drive, a 1366x768-resolution LCD panel, a built-in DVD burner and plenty of useful connectivity. You'll find Gigabit Ethernet (using a Realtek chip), dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi (using a Broadcom 2x2 a/b/g/n Wireless LAN PCI Half Mini Card Adapter), four USB ports (two of which are USB 3.0-capable), a VGA port, an HDMI port, a combination headphone and microphone jack, and an SD card slot. There is also a webcam and Bluetooth.
The hard drive, with its 5400rpm spin speed, produced decent transfer rates in CrystalDiskMark; it read at a rate of 99.86 megabytes per second (MBps) and wrote at 97.79MBps. In our own transfer tests, where we duplicate data from one location on the drive to another, it recorded a more modest 37.85MBps. We would have liked a faster drive in this unit, perhaps even an SSD. In saying that, the 1TB capacity is definitely a drawcard and still reasonably quick thanks to its high data density.
Battery life
Considering it's a large laptop with a 15.6in screen, a high-end processor and lots of RAM, it performed very well in our battery rundown test. It has a comparably strong 62 Watt-hour battery that lasted 3hr 36min in our test, in which we disable power management, enable Wi-Fi, maximise screen brightness and loop an Xvid-encoded video until the laptop dies.
Many mainstream notebooks, such as the aforementioned Qosmio, last just over two hours in this test. Even notebooks such as the Core i3-based, 15.6in Medion Akoya E6228, which has a similar battery rating, last only just over three hours. The last iteration of the Lenovo ThinkPad T420, which is a 14in laptop with a 57 Watt-hour battery, lasted 3hr 30min, so the Edge 530 is better than that notebook, too. Basically, its battery life is impressive for a such a big unit with so much power under the hood.
Design and build quality
Unlike other ThinkPad models, the ThinkPad Edge E530 doesn't have a screen-mounted light that can shine down on the keyboard, nor does it have a backlight for its keyboard. However, it still retains Lenovo's dual-pointing devices, using Synaptics-based drivers for its TrackPoint and TouchPad. Whichever device you use is entirely up to you and we had almost no problems using either of them. The touchpad is 93x67mm and has buttons that are located under the pad itself. Unfortunately, right-click-and-drag operations failed every time and this is something we have experienced with other touchpads that have a similar design, such as the one on the Toshiba Satellite U840 Ultrabook. Apart from that, the touchpad, which also has little bumps on it that sometimes tickle, wasn't a problem for us; it reacted accurately to three-finger flicks and two-finger scrolling gestures.
If there's one thing that Lenovo does consistently well, it's comfortable notebook keyboards. We love the keyboard on the ThinkPad Edge, which has full-sized keys that feel soft and responsive. It's a keyboard that's very comfortable to use for long typing sessions. A full-sized number pad makes it easy to crunch lots of numbers and there are shortcut buttons that allow you to quickly bring up the Calculator application, the My Computer folder, the Windows search box and the Windows lock/log-in screen.
The main functions of the F-keys are to change brightness and act as media controls, but these can be swapped around in the BIOS so that if you're used to hitting F5 to refresh a Web page, you won't all of a sudden bring up the webcam application. Likewise, the position of the Fn and left Control keys can be swapped around so that the Ctrl key is the one right on the corner. There is a dedicated Print Screen key, which we like, and clearly marked Home, End, Page Up and Page Down keys. The arrow keys are a little cramped, but that's a minor quibble.
The overall build quality of the ThinkPad Edge isn't great, and our test model creaked a lot at the front where the bottom and top pieces of the chassis come together. Furthermore, the side that has the optical drive bends a lot and clicks can be heard when the notebook is picked up from this side; these clicks are the chassis colliding with the front bezel of the DVD burner. Basically, it feels like a budget computer system, despite the modern, cutting-edge CPU that it houses.
While using the discrete graphics for gaming, the base can get very warm. Due to the location of the heat sink and the vent area on the left side of the notebook, this heat also travelled up through the WASD keys. It made for a slightly uncomfortable experience. That said, if you're using this notebook for gaming, you'll probably hook up an external keyboard and mouse anyway.
The notebook's hinges are strong and they hold a 15.6in screen that's good for use in rooms with lots of lights. Its matte finish isn't prone to reflecting room lights and glare is minimal. As is the case with most notebook screens on the market though, its vertical viewing angles are shallow and contrast is lost when viewing it from too high or too low. We found its colour reproduction to be adequate for viewing photos and presentations, although we would have liked a little more saturation.
Speakers are located on the front of the laptop and they are merely of passable quality. Don't expect a full range of frequencies out of them, especially on the low end. Furthermore, if you use the notebook on your lap while listening to music through them, they will be muffled. Plug in some headphones or speakers for serious listening and just use the built-ins for YouTube.
All up, this is a fast and very capable notebook. It's perfect for office work, multimedia work, and you could even use it for gaming unless you're hardcore. The build quality of the unit isn't great, and we noticed lots of creaking, but it's a notebook that houses a decent amount of features, including USB 3.0 and dual-band Wi-Fi, and its battery life is great.
Editor's note: at the time of writing, a price for this specific model was not available. However, a model with the same CPU, 6GB of RAM and a 750GB hard drive could be purchased for $899 from Lenovo's Web site, a great price, albeit with a waiting time of two to three weeks.

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