Monday, May 16, 2011

Lenovo W520 for Sony Vegas Pro 10 and Adobe After Effects CS5 - Part 1

I'm on a plane twice a week taking me away from home most of the year. And home is where the desktop I use for editing resides. I can't lug my desktop with me where I go and I can't stay home otherwise I'd be out of a job. So for years I've been on a look out for a laptop that can handle current generation editing and effects software. It's the only way I can pursue my hobby in the field on my off time.

Enter the Lenovo Thinkpad W520 mobile workstation. With a name like that it builds confidence and doubt at the same time. I've had Thinkpads in my hands for work before but I've never previously considered them for personal use. Why? They're sturdy, reliable, unsexy, expensive for the features and ubiquitous in a business setting like a Ford Taurus in a rental car lot. My preconceptions had the names Sager/Clevo, MSI, Alienware and XPS firmly embedded. In fact I had considered all those brands before pulling the trigger on this laptop. But after reading various reviews I was firmly convinced this was the way to go.

My Situation
My home editing rig is a custom ordered HP Elite 380t with a Core I7-930. I bought it through Costco with 12GB of RAM installed. This configuration was meant to run Sony Vegas Pro 10 and Adobe Production Premium CS5 with a variety of footage coming from Canon DSLRs, GoPro HD and Vixia HDV cameras. Adobe After Effects is the most resource intensive application I use. The tracking and rotoscoping features were simply important for the videos I produce. And boy does this application eat RAM. At 12GB it was painfully slow to run through the rotoscope. After two months I upgraded the unit to its maximum 24GB. And to use more than 16GB of RAM I needed to upgrade Windows 7 x64 from Home Premium to Professional. Wow, now I'm a professional? Anyhow I was happy editing footage with this rig. Unfortunately it's not portable. My software licenses allow use of a second non-concurrent copy but I'm not happy installing/uninstalling it on borrowed hardware. I even tried sending an older Q6600 machine ahead of myself just to use Sony Vegas but it wasn't a complete solution. It's quite rare at the moment, maybe not so in a few years, to find a friend or relative equipped with more than 2GB of RAM and a quad core. So I still had to wait a few weeks until I got home to even begin the VFX. And remember, this is my hobby not my job. I have to snatch time here and there to work on it. More often than not the stars don't align. This makes me sad. But the good news, I received some cash which I would happily apply to this hobby. Hey, this could only have a positive effect on my overall well being thus enhancing the net value I can deliver to the customers.

The Choice
The Dell XPS 15 was my original choice. The Sandy Bridge i7 at 2.0Ghz would have been not to far below the i7 930 on my desktop. Off and on, a matte 1080p display would be available. The size was just right for my backpack and its airport weight was acceptable. The problem was it could only take 8GB of RAM on 4GB sticks. 8GB SODIMM aren't generally available yet. I could wait for that "perfect time" in the future but I've got an event coming in a few months. And there's the preparation time for any new rig.

When I started to look more at specifications I gravitated towards the MSI GT680R and Sager NP8150. Unfortunately, the MSI had a glossy screen and was thicker than would fit in my backpack. It was possible to get a custom matte screen from Xoticpc but it didn't solve the rest of it. I visited Fry's twice just to see if I could warm up to it. The Sager NP8150 looked like a nice balance for what I needed. My only misgiving was I couldn't find a store where I could see and touch a model. The specifications could only tell me so much. And the stated weight! It's a desktop replacement for sure. With my dual laptop traveling scheme I'd have to sacrifice my running shoes to carry it with me. I don't know about you, but a good pair of shoes is important too.

Of course would also be looking at the price. The Dell had the size and price wasn't too bad but not the specs. The MSI had the specs and the price was pushing it but not the size. The Sager was an unknown for size and the price definitely broke the bank. I was about ready to give up. Then I saw a post in DVInfo about a Sony Vegas user with a Lenovo W520. Business-class laptop!? I hadn't made the mental transition towards HP Elitebooks, Dell Precisions and Lenovo Ws. My image of them has always been big, heavy and too expensive for the features. What I hadn't considered were discounts!

There is a wonderful thread in on the W520. There are even tips on how to maximize your discounts. If you own IBM stock you were eligible for SPP. If you worked or had a friend at IBM and/or Lenovo you could get in with EPP. I had the fortune of working for a supplier to IBM so was eligible for the partner discount. It wasn't as extreme as the other discounts I saw on the thread but it was close enough. So one faithful sleepless night in a state far far away I opened the partner link to Lenovo and ordered the 4270-CTO.

0A68541 SBB ICI7-2720QM
0A68625 SBB GW7P64 E
75Y0162 SBB M W7 XP MD- E
0A68535 SBB 15.6FHD (1900 X 1080) LED
0A68894 SBB NVQ2000M GR
45M4572 VBB 4GBPC3-10600DDR3 1333SODMM
0A68553 SBB 500GB HDD7200RPM
0A68529 VBB ECS+4IN1CR
41C9338 3YR ONSITE + 3YR TPP

I didn't know if I wanted RAID but I knew I'd need to read/write Blu-Ray disks later. Blu-Ray was not an available option but could be purchased aftermarket. If I need extra storage capacity I always traveled with external hard drives. The USB 3.0 and e-SATA ports had me covered. For going all internal I could swap out the burner with an 12.7mm ultrabay caddy. The one complaint I have with the W520, which I learned too late, is that RAID isn't available in the BIOS unless ordered from the factory. But it has a 95% Color Gamut which is supposedly NTSC. That sort of makes up for that disappointment. There was a colorimeter option but I skipped it to get an external one I could use across PCs. And there was the little mSATA option. This would let me have an SSD boot drive and HDD for storage. The W520 is about the size of the T520 which one of my coworkers had. I could see it everyday and compare it to the T410 I already use. This would work!

On to Part 2

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