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Lenovo ThinkCentre M90z Review
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Date: Aug 19, 2010
Section:Systems
Author: Ray Willington
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Introduction and Specifications


Lenovo has been making a push in touch-enabled products as of late. A few months back, we actually tested one of the company's first touchscreen-enabled ThinkPad notebooks (and an IdeaPad, for that matter). Regardless, the company isn't exactly a household name when it comes to touch-enabled products but with Windows 7's limited built in touch capabilities, the cost of entry is lower perhaps, save for the cost of a touch-capable panel. The ThinkCentre M90z is Lenovo's newest 23" touch-enabled all-in-one PC, and it's going up against some stiff competition. HP's TouchSmart, Apple's iMac line, as well as a number of MSI units offer similar features at a similar price, and some might say with more modern looking, stylish enclosures.



So, what does the M90z have to set it apart? That's exactly what we aim to find out in our analysis. Built for business, but perfectly fine for at-home use, the ThinkCentre M90z offers a 23" touch screen (glossy) with a Full HD 1080p resolution. Windows 7 is the operating system of choice, and the options from there are fairly varied. Our test unit has a powerful 3.2GHz Core i5-650 under the hood, paired with 4GB of DDR3 memory, a 500GB hard drive and a side-mounted DVD-ROM drive. Graphics are handled by Intel's integrated GMA HD processor, while IO port selection resides on the rear.



We kind of appreciate Lenovo's honesty with the touch panel as well. The M90z has the touch panel as an upgrade option, but unlike HP's TouchSmart 600, it's not the focal point of the machine. And why should it be? Windows 7 still has only a few features that are truly built for touch (particularly on a desktop), and we still feel that touch on desktops has limited usefullness. It's simply too time consuming to manage an entire 23" display with your finger when your mouse and keyboard are anchored down in front.

 
HP TouchSmart 600-1055
System Specifications

  Direct Price (as tested): $1,389 without Bluetooth; $1,418 with Bluetooth

The ThinkCentre M90z can be had for as little as $929 direct from Lenovo, with the Multi-Touch version starting at $1099. But as soon as you bump the RAM to 4GB and add a Core 2010 CPU, the mark soars higher. There's no doubt that this is one of the more expensive all-in-one PCs on the market. It is pricier than HP and MSI's products, both of which offer compelling 23" AIO solutions. Is the added cost for the Lenovo unit justifiable? Join us in the pages ahead as we try to find out.
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Design and Build Quality


It's pretty clear from just glancing at the ThinkCentre M90z that Lenovo intends this machine to be used for business. It has a very buttoned-down, cleaned-cut look about it. Lenovo has taken no design risks whatsoever here, tailoring it as a classic, classy machine that will fit right into an office environment without causing a fuss. If this sounds familiar, we're sure we know why. Lenovo's ThinkPad notebook line follows this same approach. Keep it simple -- as they say, right? But we aren't convinced that the mantra carries over to the desktop as well. The ThinkPad line is able to get away with its utilitarian looks because the design actually contributes to just how rugged and rigid the machines are. There's no need for ruggedness in an all-in-one PC. You won't be traveling with the M90z, so why build it like a tank?


It's quite possible that we're just spoiled by the fresh looks of the TouchSmart 600, MSI's AE2220 and Apple's iMac, but we aren't the biggest fan of the M90z's corporate looks. It's somewhat thick for an all-in-one, and the bezel around the LCD is rather noticeable. Also, the bottom chrome bar is fixed, with the only adjustments coming from a tilting bar around back; but even that only clicks into a few predetermined spots. Finally, the bundled keyboard and mouse are as simple as they come, and while they're decently comfortable, they're not very stylish. We suppose they do match the plain motif of the main unit, though.


The front of the unit is, again, plain. There's a matte black bezel surrounding the glossy 23" LCD, which is definitely the highlight of the design. The LCD is extremely crisp and bright (though we wish there were a toggle on the outside for dimming the screen at times), and the 1080p resolution is a plus. The screen, surprisingly, isn't fingerprint-prone, and the touch response is fantastic. We'll get to more of that in the pages to come. The only button on the front is a power button, and speaking of power, there's no power brick included; just plug the (far too short!) cable into the rear of the panel and you're off and running. There's also a pair of stereo speakers beneath the LCD and a 2.0MP webcam (with a slider cover for extra security) above it.

    

Along the right edge you'll find a tray-loading DVD drive, two USB 2.0 ports, a card reader and audio in/out ports. The left edge is totally devoid of ports or devices. The rear holds four more USB 2.0 ports, a DisplayPort output (full-size), an Ethernet socket and a VGA input. Notice the word "input." This is quite useful for anyone who wishes to use the M90z as a secondary monitor for their notebook on occasion.


Removing the rear casing in order to access the RAM and hard drive is very simple. Two latches must be unclipped simultaneously underneath, and the rear shield simply slides off. The top of the rear casing has a carry handle, which is great given that the machine weighs around 25lbs. It's definitely heavy, so you won't want to carry it around very often.
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Software and Accessories

There aren't many accessories bundled with the ThinkCentre M90z. The rather large box houses nothing more than the PC itself, a power cable, a keyboard and a mouse. Plus plenty of padding for the trip overseas. A microfiber cloth for wiping away fingerprints on a touch-enabled machine would have been nice, and maybe a DisplayPort-to-DVI adapter. We know only a small number of people are likely to connect a second display to the M90z, but for those that might including a DP-to-DVI dongle would have been a nice touch.


Our test machine shipped with a 64-bit edition of Windows 7 Professional; fitting considering that this machine looks about as professional as one would think. Since it's a touch machine, a Windows 7 Touch Pack came installed, but that offers little more than five mini-games that are rather boring for anyone over the age of 12 or so. In other words, we didn't find an awful lot of software within Windows 7 to actually use our fingers.


The basics were also included: Adobe Reader, an Office 2010 trial and an Intel control panel for the integrated GMA HD graphics. The only other unique piece of software was Lenovo's SimpleTap, which we already saw back on the ThinkPad T400S Multi-Touch. Basically, users simply tap this red orb that sits on the edge of the LCD in order to pull down a menu of shortcuts. Users can then use these larger, touch-friendly icons to hop in and out of applications. On the surface, this seems like a great idea, but once you get into the app, you will almost certainly revert to using a mouse/keyboard setup to control things. Thus, just using your finger to launch a program seems somewhat pointless.
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User Experience

Lenovo's ThinkCentre M90z is easy to set up. Simply place it on your desk, adjust the back stand as you please, plug in a mouse and keyboard, and fire it up. Total setup took just a few minutes, and while we wish we could adjust the height and tilt a bit more, it ended up working out fine in our test lab. In an office setting, the M90z would fit in perfectly well. In a more modern home office, it looks somewhat dated and behind the times. Just keep that in mind if style is of great concern to you. Boot-up was quick (well under a minute), though we were greeted by a number of pop-ups the first time. The Norton Security trial is always an issue, so we had to muffle that right away. Afterwards, most everything was smooth sailing.



The bundled mouse and keyboard with our test unit looked a bit more dated than the two pictured in many of the M90z press photos. That said, both functioned fine, and while they offered no extra functionality (no hot keys or macros on the keyboard, and no side buttons on the mouse), they both suffice if you're saddled with traditional office tasks. The LCD, as mentioned before, is one of the major highlights. With the glossy touch panel, colors are sharp and crisp, while the 1080p native resolution enables Full HD content to be displayed as it was meant to be. The system could double as a great little DVD/TV setup for a bedroom, if you've been considering as much.


Overall performance was decent, but for around $1,400, we expected more. Application load times were somewhat disappointing, and in general, we felt that the hard drive was both sluggish and too noisy. Also, for $1400, we really expected a discrete GPU. The Core i5 is great, but for tasks that don't require a dedicated GPU, a Core i3 would've had nearly identical perceived performance in most desktop scenarios. Nothing in particular felt slow, but we just didn't feel that the M90z was as snappy as a $1400 quad-core machine should be.


While we're on the topic of hard drives, the Seagate Barracuda 7200.12 ST3500418AS that was installed was surprisingly loud. We could hear each and every seek even from a few feet away. We got the impression that Lenovo had enough space in the case to dampen some of that but chose not to. Also, a slot-loading optical drive is always preferred in an all-in-one machine; the tray-load one here means that you'll have to arrange to keep the machine a certain distance from your wall in order to insert discs.


The integrated GMA HD graphics were fine for playing back HD media (even 1080p) without any trouble, and it managed to handle a few FPS titles from yesteryear. It's obviously not capable of playing the latest titles at a decent resolution; but again, this is a machine designed to get work done, so play time always comes second. We will point out, however, that there are all-in-one machines on the market today for well under $1400 that have discrete GPUs (the iMac at $1199, as an example), mostly paired with Core i3 processors. If you need 3D performance, you're better off with a Core i3 + discrete GPU versus a Core i5 + integrated graphics.


Finally, we'll get to the touch features. To put it bluntly, they're mostly a waste. Don't get us wrong, the functionality is great. And touch response on the system was excellent, so we can't knock the implementation.

That said, Windows 7 simply isn't built to be used solely, or even mostly, by touch. Particularly not on a desktop. A 23" screen is pretty massive compared to the average finger, and by the time you lean forward enough to get your finger on the screen, your face is too close for comfort in our opinion. It can be awkward, and we don't recommend that anyone attempt to use touch as a mouse replacement on a desktop or all-in-one. Very little touch-enabled software was included, and none of that was compelling. The touch panel is a +$100 option that users can, and probably should, overlook. Trust us, you won't miss out on much.
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Futuremark PCMark Vantage & 3DMark 06



 Performance Comparisons with 3DMark06
 Details: http://www.futuremark.com/products/3dmark06/

The Futuremark 3DMark06 CPU benchmark consists of tests that use the CPU to render 3D scenes, rather than the GPU. It runs several threads simultaneously and is designed to utilize multiple processor cores.



We haven't had too many all-in-one PCs run through the labs here, particularly not with Windows 7. This is our first all-in-one to be tested with 3DMark06, so we're starting a new baseline. You can look at a Lenovo Workstation review for an idea of how stronger machines (in terms of graphics power) stacked up last year as a comparison measure. The results here aren't surprising; the machine did well in CPU intensive tasks, but it lagged behind in GPU intensive tasks. Some would say it's a feat of its own for an integrated graphics solution to even complete this benchmark, but these numbers make it clear that no hardcore gaming will go down on the M90z.


 Performance Comparisons with Futuremark PCMark Vantage
 Details: http://www.futuremark.com/benchmarks/pcmarkvantage/introduction/

We ran the test rig through Futuremark’s latest system performance metric PCMark Vantage as well. This benchmark suite creates a host of different usage scenarios to simulate different types of workloads including High Definition TV and movie playback and manipulation, gaming, image editing and manipulation, music compression, communications, and productivity. We like the fact that most of the tests are multi-threaded as well, in order to exploit the additional resources offered by multi-core processors.


There's no doubt about the benchmarks: the M90z stacks up very well against the competition. The Core i5 is a very strong performer, helping to boost its overall scores well above those established by the same-class TouchSmart 600. Of course this is a more expensive machine, so we'd expect it to fare better. You'll notice below that the multi-media marks are quite low in comparison; that's where the integrated graphics come in to bite.


Click To Enlarge
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Gaming Benchmarks


 Performance with Half-Life 2 Episode 2 and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars
Gaming Performance

 

To touch on gaming performance, we chose two games that draw moderately on system resources, Half-Life 2 Episode 2 and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars. We then ran a pre-recorded demo of each at a resolution of 1280x800. The resulting performance achieved is indicated in frames per second in the graph below.



These benchmarks help illustrate the careful balance between GPU and CPU performance. Our M90z barely beats out the TouchSmart 600 (which is half a year old and a few hundred dollars cheaper by this point) due to the strong CPU overcoming some of the IGP's limitations. But Apple's new $1199 iMac, which has a Core i3 and a low-end discrete GPU, beats out the M90z while still costing less. In general, we were able to play these titles at lowered resolutions just fine, and even at the native resolution of 1920x1080 things were playable if you reduced the details. No one should buy an all-in-one PC with an IGP as a gaming machine, but it is possible to have a little fun on the weekends with this unit, even though there's just an integrated graphics chipset under the hood.
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SiSoftware Sandra & Multimedia Benchmarks
Testing with SiSoft SANDRA 2009
Synthetic Benchmarks

We continued our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA 2009, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant.  We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests (CPU Arithmetic, Multimedia, Memory Bandwidth, Physical Disks).

 
CPU Arithmetic Test; Click To Enlarge


CPU Multimedia Test; Click To Enlarge


Memory Bandwidth Test; Click To Enlarge


Physical Disc Test; Click To Enlarge

The ThinkCentre M90z managed to hold its own, even against some parts that are typically only found in full-sized desktops. Nothing here really stands out one way or the other, which is to be expected for a machine of this caliber. It's an average machine for those needing to accomplish generalized tasks and no one should reasonably expect it to shatter any benchmarks.



To test multimedia capabilities, we attempt to play back a 720p WMVHD clip, a 720p H.264 clip and a 1080p clip. We've also included a screenshot of the 1080p clip from the ASUS U43F (which uses a mobile Core i5 as well as Intel GMA HD Arrandale graphics) to give you a better idea of CPU utilization from a slightly different type of system with a somewhat similar CPU / GPU setup.


Click To Enlarge; 720 H.264


Click To Enlarge; 720p WMVHD


Click To Enlarge; 1080p


Click To Enlarge; 1080p on ASUS U43F with mobile Core i5 + GMA HD graphics

Despite only having integrated graphics and no discrete GPU, the M90z is able to play back high-def multimedia without breaking a sweat. In fact, the 720p clips barely taxed the system at all. We're confident that you could have a few batch processes going on in the background and still watch an HD clip without it stuttering.  That's pretty impressive for a machine with an IGP, then again, there's plenty of CPU power here to back it up.
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Summary and Conclusion

Performance Summary: In our SiSoftware SANDRA tests, the ThinkCentre M90z was competitive, but didn't stand out, which is to be expected for a mid-range AIO machine. The CPU was without a doubt the system's strong point, as the 3.2GHz Core i5-630 managed to power through CPU intensive benchmarks, and in everyday use, it was plenty powerful for churning through typical desktop/Office tasks. The weak spot, as expected, was the GPU. With only an integrated Intel GMA HD IGP, the machine struggled to keep up in multi-media benchmarks, though it did manage to play back 1080p video and handle light gaming without any issue. For the average user, there's plenty of power here. Wireless performance was strong, as was touchscreen input recognition. The hard drive felt a bit sluggish and was constantly noisy. Overall, aside from the HDD, performance was on par with what we'd expect, albeit at a price premium.

The ThinkCentre M90z is a solid business machine, but we were never able to truly appreciate the touch screen, to be honest. On a standard Windows desktop, particularly one as large as 23", there's simply too much space to cover with your fingertips and too few applications built for touch control. You simply revert back to the mouse/keyboard in front of you before you've spent any real time using the panel. It's a $100 upgrade option that can easily be overlooked, and you probably won't miss it much. We do wish the machine had a bit more of a modern styling flair, and we wish the tray-load DVD drive was a slot-load drive.

Click To Enlarge

Using the machine is a pleasant experience, though there's no question it fits better in an office setting than in a modern household. We appreciated the fact that we could game somewhat after hours (despite having to crank the details down a notch), and aside from the noisy hard drive, everything else was nice. The bundled keyboard and mouse weren't anything special, but they did get the job done. A row of hot keys on the keyboard or maybe even along the front edge of the LCD itself would have been nice, though.



At the end of the day, our main gripe with the M90z is the price. At nearly $1400 for the configuration we tested (higher, if you include Bluetooth), we expected more; more style, more graphics performance, more hard drive space. HP's TouchSmart line and even Apple's iMac line achieve this in more ways than one. Truth be told, the all-in-one PC market is so loaded with competitors right now that people have every right to be sensitive to price. The Core i5 CPU is a nice addition, sure, but an AIO PC is all about the total package. We think this one is a few components short (or a few dollars too high) from being ideal, but that's not to say it's not a solid performer if your business can get a good deal on one.
 
     
  • Beautiful 23" 1080p display
  • Nice touch response
  • No extra power brick required
  • Fits great into office settings
  • Solid overall performance

 

  • No reason to use the touch panel
  • Design is a little dated
  • No keyboard hot keys
  • No discrete GPU
  • Tray-load DVD drive
  • Expensive compared to rivals

 



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