Lenovo ThinkCentre M90z Review

The simple design of Lenovo ThinkCentre M90z is a clear benefit to businesses, as it takes up no more space than is necessary and can be handled all day long without smudging or breaking.
The simple design of Lenovo ThinkCentre M90z is a clear benefit to businesses, as it takes up no more space than is necessary and can be handled all day long without smudging or breaking.
The simple design of Lenovo ThinkCentre M90z is a clear benefit to businesses, as it takes up no more space than is necessary and can be handled all day long without smudging or breaking.

Highs

  • Simple, rugged design
  • Easy access VESA mount
  • Almost no bloatware
  • 3-year standard warranty with on-site support

Lows

  • Bland aesthetics
  • Average display
  • Poor audio quality
  • Outdated hardware

DT Editors' Rating

You could be forgiven for thinking that all-in-one PCs are as consumer-oriented as Nordstrom’s. After all, their greatest benefits — style, size, and ease of use — are those that appeal to the mainstream buyer.

Lenovo, however, sees a place for all-in-ones at the office, too, and has a corresponding line of ThinkCentre models, including the 23-inch M90z. The company promotes a touchscreen all-in-one as a perfect solution for a business or home office, to “tame office clutter.”

The spectre of “workplace clutter” has been brought up before, usually by people arguing in favor of increased virtualization or the use of nettops as office computers. In some situations, they’re right — a busy desk can feel more spacious if less room must be devoted to electronics, and computers with cutting-edge hardware are sometimes a necessary expense.

lenovo-thinkcentre-m90z-front-display-keyboard-mouse

This, however, has less impact on a consumer looking for an all-in-one for his or her office. In this setting, the M90z has to rely more on its design and performance — which could be a problem, because our review unit came with a first-generation Core i5 rather than a newer second-gen model. Does it have the chops to hang with competition from HP, Sony and even Lenovo’s own IdeaCentre line?

Definitely a Thinker

The ThinkCentre M90z appears to be a ThinkPad suffering from a case of gigantism. Everything about it is immediately recognizable as part of the Think brand, from the matte black finish that coats nearly every surface to the squared-off edges that ensure this computer, like many ThinkPads, could be used to take out a few zombies in a pinch.

Dig deeper, and the story doesn’t change. The minimalism of this computer, when compared to the HP TouchSmart we recently reviewed, is a bit shocking. No fancy adjustable mechanism is attached to the back. Instead, you’ll only find a simple metal bar that keeps the computer from tipping over. Height and tilt adjustments? Forget’em, chum.

lenovo-thinkcentre-m90z-both-sideOr don’t. The entire point of the simple stand arrangement is customization. You can use it as-is, mount it to a surface, or buy an accessory stand. Lenovo offers a height-adjustment model (which will set you back an additional $79.99) but most VESA compatible stands will work. Those who need flexibility will appreciate this.

No matter how you plan to use this ThinkCentre, you’ll need to make use of its connectivity. On the right side of the computer, along with an optical drive, you’ll find a number of ports located for convenient use. This includes two USB ports, separate microphone and headphone jacks, and a SD card reader. Around the back you’ll find four more USB ports, Ethernet, HDMI and VGA. A 802.11b/g/n wireless radio is built-in, but Bluetooth is a $20 option. You won’t find USB 3.0 or FireWire, which is unfortunate.

lenovo-thinkcentre-m90z-back

The design of the M90z is so simple that it’s easy to mistake for an old HDTV. For many, this will be a bit of a turn-off, as this all-in-one will seem a bit out of place in any reasonably decorated room. Consumers looking for a true home office PC, however, will likely appreciate the compact and simple exterior as well as the easy to access VESA mount.

Touch for Business

The M90z includes a bundled mouse rated at just 400 DPI (we weren’t aware you could buy a mouse with DPI that low anymore) and a simple keyboard that has a detachable wrist rest, but not much else. While these default accessories are unlikely to be featured at the next StarCraft II tournament, they should be fine basic productivity tasks — and it’s not as if the competition is shipping their units with high-DPI laser mice and mechanical keyboards.

lenovo-thinkcentre-m90z-mouse-keyboard

The 23-inch display is a touchscreen, and it works much as you’d expect. All products in this category use Windows 7’s built-in touch features, so some elements (like the virtual keyboard) are the same as those found on competitors. One difference is Lenovo’s ThinkVantage suite, which includes a few minor touch optimizations, but we’ll explore that more in the software section of this review.

Far from a theater

1080p resolution is standard, and no other display resolutions are offered, which is fine and right in line with the competition. Image quality is simply average, and yet another indication that the computer is designed for work rather than play. Test images revealed that black levels were adequate, but contrast was nothing special, and some banding was visible in the gradient test image.

YouTube videos and game benchmarks told a similar story. There’s not much punch to colors on this display, and media tends to appear washed-out and dull as a result, ending any comparison to an HDTV that might have been made based on the exterior. These problems would be easier to swallow of this all-in-one followed the Think brand’s tendency to use anti-glare panels, but it instead has a gloss finish.

Cranking up the volume on an audio track holds no surprises. All-in-ones tend to have only so-so audio because they have no sound stage (the speakers are always directly in front of the user) but the M90z’s sound is weak and grainy as well. Anyone looking to listen to audio more complex than a podcast will want to purchase a pair of external speakers.

Thin on bloat

Once booted, a red button called “SimpleTap” begs for attention. Touching it (or clicking on it) opens a touch button menu which controls some of the computer’s settings including display brightness and audio volume. Though some of these settings (like display brightness) can be controlled from some unusual touch buttons located near the power button on the computer’s bezel, this touchscreen control seems to be the only way to control audio volume.

In practice, this doesn’t work as well as physical buttons, because the SimpleTap button disappears during certain scenarios. Games, for example, caused the SimpleTap button to go MIA, leaving no method of controlling the volume unless the game was minimized, which obviously is not ideal.

lenovo-thinkcentre-m90z-front-display

Lenovo’s ThinkVantage Toolbox is also included. This software suite effectively acts as a command center that keeps tabs on security status, Windows updates, hardware issues, and more. It’s snappy and does seem capable of detecting numerous problems, but the interface can be a bit confusing and sometimes misleading. Our test unit’s Toolbox software seemed convinced that the wireless radio was disabled, even when it was turned on.

While the software suite could use some improvement, there is thankfully little bloatware. The third-party software that is installed, like Corel DVD MovieFactory, actually does have its uses — though nothing that can’t be replicated with free alternatives.

Yesterday’s hardware

One look at the spec sheets gives a whiff of potential performance trouble. Our review unit’s Core i5-650 dual-core processor is the quickest available on the m90z, and upgrading to it will set you back an intimidating $139. The base model also comes with a measly 2GB of RAM (ours had 4GB, an $80 upgrade) and a tiny 320GB hard drive (ours had a 500GB model, a mere $10 upgrade).

Even with the upgrades, benchmark results were not impressive. SiSoft Sandra’s Processor Arithmetic test returned a combined score of 37.4, which is actually just a hair behind a few recently reviewed Core i5 laptops such as the HP ProBook 5330m. 7-Zip returned a similar result, providing a combined score of 7667 which, once again, is inferior to that of the HP ProBook 5330m.

lenovo-thinkcentre-m90z-top

More general benchmarks did nothing to redeem the so-so processor performance. PCMark 7 returned a score of 1991, which below almost every laptop we’ve tested within the last few months.

Because of the lack of discrete graphics, attempts to game resulted in disappointment. Just Cause 2 would not run because the older Intel HD Graphics shipped with the Core i5-650 don’t support DirectX 10, and Dawn of War 2: Retribution ran at an average of 9 FPS with medium detail settings. In order to make the game playable, it was necessary to reduce the resolution far below the native 1080p to 1366×768, and the reduce the detail settings to low. Even then, 17 FPS was the average.

There’s really no salvaging these results. Such performance would be average from a $800 laptop, and the fact that it comes from a $1000 all-in-one only darkens the story.

Conclusion

Reviewing this PC feels somewhat like reviewing a bulldozer based on how quickly it whips around a race track. The result is poor, but then again, that’s not really the point.

Consumers who’ve bought ThinkPads in the past may think that this ThinkCentre will be equally sensitive to their needs. It’s not. From the poor hardware performance to the lackluster display to the underwhelming speakers, there’s very little about this computer that makes it suited for use in a home.

Competitors offer better hardware, better design, and better displays for roughly the same price, but it’s not necessary to shop Sony or HP to find a superior product. Instead, check out the Lenovo B520. It has the same display size as the M90z and comes standard with a Core i3-2120, 6GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive. We don’t have to test that system to tell you its performance will beat the snot out of its cousin, and that goes double if you upgrade it with the optional Core i5-2500.

Which raises the question: Why would anyone, even a business, purchase the M90z instead? There are a few good reasons. The VESA mount is easy to access, and the computer’s back is flat, which means this computer could is easy to attach to a stand or wall mount. Warranty work is covered for up to three years and includes limited on-site support, an option that’s not even available on most consumer products including the IdeaCentre. And finally, the simple design of this PC is a clear benefit to businesses, as it takes up no more space than is necessary and can be handled all day long without smudging or breaking.

For the proper buyer (a business), this computer may be the perfect solution. Consumers, however, should instead look at Lenovo’s B520, the HP TouchSmart 610, or the Sony Vaio L, all of which offer better performance at similar prices.

Highs

  • Simple, rugged design
  • Easy access VESA mount
  • Almost no bloatware
  • 3-year standard warranty with on-site support

Lows

  • Bland aesthetics
  • Average display
  • Poor audio quality
  • Outdated hardware
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