It’s back-to-school season and you’re looking for a 15.6” ThinkPad to purchase, probably because you’ve heard a lot of good things about their reliability or some other quality that interests you. However, Lenovo offers two ThinkPads in this 15-inch size range, and you’re not sure which one is right for you. “Should I go with the T530, or spend more on the W530?” you may ask. Externally, the laptops look exactly the same, and the processor options are similar. So why is the W530 more expensive, and which one should you buy?
Here are links to the two laptops we are comparing:
In the past, Lenovo separated their workstation-class laptop lines from their regular laptop lines by adding a “p” to the end of a model name. For instance, the 15” ThinkPad T61 became the ThinkPad T61p to indicate it was the workstation derivative. However, by 2008 this naming system changed, and Lenovo created a new series name to fit their workstation offerings: the W series. Instead of having the possible T61/T61p confusion, that year’s models were named the T500 and W500 (and W700 and W700ds, their 17.3” workstation offerings). The W series is a naming convention that continues to this day.
ThinkPad T530 and W530 Similarities
Starting with the least expensive starting configurations, $779 for the T530 and $1,299 for the W530, there isn’t much difference to speak of. If you opt for the 1080p display option on either laptop, both use the same 95% NTSC color gamut display, resulting in vibrant, accurate color reproduction. The T530’s base processor is the Intel Core i3-2370M, whereas the W530 starts off with the Core i7-3610QM (though oddly enough, you can “upgrade” to the less powerful dual-core i7-3520M for $50 more). Both laptops offer a max of 16GB of RAM from the factory configuration, though we should note with a quad-core CPU and use of aftermarket 8GB RAM modules, the max is actually 32GB you could upgrade to. Both the T530 and W530 have fingerprint readers and backlit keyboard options. Both offer an option to add an integrated web camera and have the same storage options (320GB to 1TB hard drives or up to 180GB solid-state storage). Either can be configured with the default ThinkPad wireless, Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6205, or Intel Centrino Ultimate-N 6300. Unsurprisingly, Lenovo offers the same warranty options on both systems. Construction-wise, both offer an internal magnesium rollcage to protect the motherboard and other internal electronics from accidental damage.
ThinkPad T530 and W530 Graphics and Display Option Differences
So far these laptops sound very similar, so besides minor CPU differences, what separates these two then? The answer to this rests in the markets for these two laptops. Regular business laptops, such as the T530, are meant to be used by businesses that give them to their office workers to write up reports, participate in video conferences, all the usual 9-to-5 cubical work stuff. Workstation-class laptops, such as the W530, are meant for a different task altogether. Typical buyers of this type of laptop include graphic designers, CAD users, engineers, GIS, anybody that needs a computer with the computational power to handle ISV-certified applications without issue. Typically, this means that a professional-grade GPU is required, such as the nVidia Quadro series or AMD FirePro series.
Starting with the integrated Intel HD 4000 GPU, it’s possible to upgrade the T530 to the nVidia Quadro NVS 5400M. Even though the upgraded GPU in the T530 is a Quadro, it’s one of the weakest on the market and isn’t much better than the Intel GPU in terms of raw performance; the only reason I see for buying a laptop with the 5400M is if a user needs CUDA support in an inexpensive laptop (while in the past a person could get away with using a GeForce card for CUDA, nVidia gimped the current Kelper GeForces to try to get customers to buy the more expensive Quadros). The W530 also comes with two GPU options: the Quadro K1000M and Quadro K2000M, the latter being a $250 option. nVidia’s Quadro K1000M is about twice as powerful as the NVS 5400M and comes with 96 CUDA cores, while the K2000M is even more powerful and comes with 192 CUDA cores. While the ThinkPad T530 by default comes with a 768p display and can be upgraded to a 900p display for an extra $50, the W530 has the 900p display as standard (and both can be upgraded to 1080p for $200).
On another topic related to the display, an option only available to the ThinkPad W530 is the integrated color calibrator (built into the palm rest). The Pantone color calibrator (+$10 plus a $70 upgrade to a compatible display) allows a user to calibrate certain color settings of the laptop’s display, such as color consistency, set the display to several pre-made color profiles, or manually control using Pantone’s alteration options.
Storage Option Differences
Another option unique to the W530 includes the option for a RAID setup, the RAID option is a $120 upgrade over the base option. Lenovo will remove the optical drive to install a second hard drive to the system, shipping the laptop with either RAID 0 or RAID 1, and with dual 320GB 7200RPM mechanical drives, dual 500GB 5400PRM drives (+$20), or dual 1TB 5400RPM drives (+$340). While an end user could just buy an aftermarket color calibrator, RAID cannot be configured after shipping the W530; it must be enabled at the factory.
So what does this mean for college students looking for a ThinkPad to bring to school? Well, the T530 has similar specs to most other laptops on the market that come with an Intel Core processor, Intel graphics, and a 768p or 900p display. Of course, the ThinkPad lineup is more durable than the consumer-class laptops found at Big Box stores found in your town or city’s shopping district, so it’ll better withstand the bumps and drops that happen in the dorm and classroom. Upgrading to the 1080p display on either laptop will deliver a beautiful, high-definition display that’ll surely be noticed. Students that want to go into engineering programs would benefit from the W530’s ability to seamlessly handle programs such as AutoCAD, Solidworks, Pro Engineer, etc. The W530 also has the advantage in raw GPU power, making it an attractive option for those who want to have a business laptop with a decent GPU for gaming (especially for those who don’t like the styling of some gaming laptops on the market). For the typical student, however, the ThinkPad T530 should be more than enough power for four years of education. Other than GPU options and weight differences, both laptops are practically the same (albeit the W530 is more expensive, due to the better GPU options).
Sometimes, however, it can be cheaper to buy a W530 over a T530 with similar specs. For example, if you wanted to buy a ThinkPad with a quad-core processor and 900p display, the T530 (with i7-3720QM and 900p upgrades) comes to $1,289 with just the Intel GPU (compared to the W530’s $1299 base price for the i7-3610QM and 900p); the Core i7-3610QM, one of the least-expensive quad-cores on the market today, isn’t offered on the T530. Add the Quadro NVS 5400M, and you’d be better off just buying the base W530.
To make it easier to read, here’s a table with all the options and configurations for each ThinkPad model, with differences highlighted in red: