Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme Review

Posted on November 22, 2018 by Paul Thurrott in Hardware, Windows 10 with 16 Comments

Lenovo’s vaunted ThinkPad X1 lineup has always a top choice for anyone looking for the ideal business-class portable PC. And then there’s the ThinkPad X1 Extreme, which amps up everything to 11 and provides the perfect middle ground between a portable gaming machine and workstation.

Yeah. This one is nuts. And in all the right ways.

Design

Aesthetically, the ThinkPad X1 Extreme looks and feels exactly like the now-lesser members of the X1 family. It’s just bigger, thanks to its 15-inch display and slightly-thicker form factor. So you’ll find the familiar carbon fiber composite shell, which manages to be durable, professional looking and attractive, and comfortable, thanks to its soft-touch finish. The ideal materials, in other words, for a business-class PC.

OK, there is one downside to the carbon fiber: It does attract palm smudges on the keyboard decking and, to a lesser degree, on the keyboard keys and touchpad, which are both made from different materials. But this is an acceptable trade-off, I think, for the other benefits of this material. This is a workhorse, after all. Not a show pony.

There are smaller familial touches as well. The angled ThinkPad logos on both the display lid and keyboard deck are blacked out and feature red “proof of life” lights for the dot on the “i.” The X1 logo on the keyboard deck is of the more subtle and modern variety. And of course there is the vaunted ThinkPad dual-pointing system with its red-capped Trackpoint nubbin. This is a ThinkPad through-and-through.

Display

The ThinkPad X1 Extreme review unit is outfitted with one of the best portable PC displays I’ve ever used. It’s a 4K (3820 x 2160), HDR multi-touch IPS display that offers rich colors, inky blacks, and epic 400-nit brightness. As such it is ideal for entertainment purposes like watching movies and playing video games. But there’s a matte 1080p option for those with more pedestrian needs and smaller wallets.

Like the X1 Carbon, the X1 Extreme can lay flat

This gorgeous display is wrapped inside very small bezels, in keeping with modern laptop design guidelines. But Lenovo at least kept the webcam (and Windows Hello sensors) at the top of the display. And the bottom bezel is about an inch tall, in keeping with the 16:9 aspect ratio of the display.

Which brings me to an interesting point: I’ve been pushing the need for 3:2 displays in laptops for the past few years, and I generally knock a few points off of a laptop’s grade when such a display is not present. At 15.6-inches, however, a wider aspect ratio starts to make sense, since you can more easily view two applications side-by-side. So I don’t feel that the lack of a 3:2 panel is particularly bad.

Components and ports

The ThinkPad X1 Extreme is stacked. The review unit ships with a hexa-core Intel Core i7-8750H processor, the first 6-core chipset I’d ever experienced, an incredible 32 GB of RAM, NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050 Ti dedicated graphics with 4 GB of RAM, and a speedy 1 TB PCIe-NVME OPAL2.0 M.2 SSD. It’s a beast. And it can be configured with up to 64 GB of RAM if need be.

With those components, one should expect this machine to perform well. And it does. What I did not expect, however, was that the ThinkPad X1 Extreme would absolutely crush virtually every PC I’ve ever tested, portable or otherwise.

Consider my video encoding test, in which I use Handbrake to convert the 4K version of the Tears of Steel video to 1080p. Most modern quad-core laptops need between 1 hour and 1:10 to finish this conversion, but the X1 Extreme needed just 33:48, roughly half the usual time. That’s a record for the portable PCs I’ve tested, but it’s also the second-best score I’ve ever seen overall. Only the HP OMEN Desktop 880-p0xx gaming PC—-with an Intel Core i7-7700K CPU and dual NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1080 graphics cards—was faster, and barely that, at 31:16. That is truly impressive.

PCMark 10 showed a similar domination: The ThinkPad X1 Extreme scored 4551 overall, ahead of the Intel NUC NUC8i7BEH’s 4477 and well ahead of my desktop PC, an HP EliteOne 4K that scored just 3641.

In day-to-day use, the X1 Extreme is obviously capable of handling any task you care to throw at it, from the standard productivity applications that most use to more advanced tasks such as video editing or modern 3D video game playing. From this perspective, the ThinkPad is, perhaps, the most versatile PC I’ve ever used.

That said, you’ll notice some fan noise and heat. As is the case with many laptops these days, the ThinkPad’s fan comes on at times both expected—such as when gaming or rendering video—and unexpected. It will occasionally fire up when the laptop is just sitting there doing nothing, which isn’t particularly unique, but worth mentioning. The X1 also gets a bit hot, especially on the underside, when under load. You’ll want to keep it on a level hard surface, like a table, and not on blankets or a bed.

Expansion is excellent. You’ll find two USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports, a full-sized HDMI port, and a mini-Ethernet port on the left.

On the right, there are two full-sized USB 3.1 ports, a full-sized SD card slot, and a Smart Card reader, plus a Kensington lock.

One curious note that I suspect is related to the PC’s power demands: The X1 Extreme doesn’t utilize USB-C for power, like other recent ThinkPads, but instead uses an old-school proprietary ThinkPad power connector. The large power brick it connects to is 135-watts.

The X1 Extreme also includes Lenovo’s excellent fingerprint reader, which sits in the empty space to the right of the keyboard and below a dedicated round power button. This fingerprint reader supports Windows Hello, of course, but you can also use facial recognition if you prefer that type of sign-in.

Speaking of facial recognition, the X1 Extreme’s webcam isn’t all that extreme: It’s just a 720p unit and there’s no privacy shield like we see on other modern ThinkPads.

Finally, the ThinkPad X1 Extreme features dual speakers that are mounted on the underside of its chassis and utilize a double row of heat vents. The sound they emit is loud and clear.

Keyboard and touchpad

I like that Lenovo used the same well-regarded scalloped keyboard from the X1 Carbon and Yoga here. It floats inside the bigger keyboard deck; some other PC makers screw around with their keyboards in bigger laptops, adding a column of keys, perhaps, or even a numerical keypad, which offsets the keyboard to the left. Lenovo did the right thing.

And the keyboard experience, overall, is very good. Lenovo’s scalloped keys are comfortable to type on, but they have a longer throw than I like these days: The X1 extreme keys offer 1.7 mm of key travel, compared to the 1.4-1.5 industry norm. But I prefer even shorter throws, and this is one area where I think Lenovo could perhaps adjust for the times. There’s also a bit of case flex if you’re a heavy typist like me; this is likely due to the sheer size of the keyboard deck, which expands well over an inch, horizontally, on both sides of the keyboard.

One thing Lenovo couldn’t possibly improve is the X1 Extreme’s pointing system, which includes both the TrackPoint pointing stick wedged between the G, H, and B keys and an excellent, properly-sized, glass touchpad. Both are highly accurate, and the touchpad is devoid of misreads. So anyone should find something to love here.

Portability

At 3.8 pounds, the ThinkPad X1 Extreme is, relatively speaking, a featherweight. The vaunted 15-inch MacBook Pro, for example, weighs over 4 pounds. And the X1 Extreme’s most obvious PC competitor, the 15-inch HP Spectre x360, tips the scales at a whopping 4.6 pounds. And the ThinkPad benefits, I think, by a nice balance that is often lacking in bigger portable PCs. It’s not overly-dense like other 15-inch laptops, and it manages to feel lighter than it is.

That said, the X1 Extreme is, of course, bigger and heavier than its 14-inch stablemates. If you’re coming from a lighter ThinkPad, like the X1 Carbon (under 2.5 pounds) or X1 Yoga (3 pounds), you’ll notice the size and weight difference. And you may have less success fitting it in your usual laptop bag, thanks to its bigger 14.2 x 9.7 x 0.7-inch footprint.

As you might expect of such a beast, battery life won’t match that of those smaller X1s, either: I saw just 5 hours on my standard HD video streaming over Wi-Fi tests, and I’m averaging just under 8 hours in normal productivity app usage. That latter result is actually pretty excellent, given the internal components and battery-suck 4K/HDR display.

Software

As its customers rightfully expect, Lenovo doesn’t overburden the ThinkPad X1 Extreme with superfluous and unnecessary additional software. There’s nothing the firm can do about the crapware that ships with Windows 10 Pro, of course—thanks, Microsoft!—but Lenovo’s additions are light and mostly necessary.

The X1 Extreme includes the decent Lenovo Vantage app for acquiring new drivers and monitoring and maintaining the PC. This is similar to the software found on devices made by other major PC vendors, but it’s simpler to use than, say, HP’s terrible Support Assistant.

It also includes a Lenovo Pen Settings app for configuring the optional Lenovo Pen and its software-based radial menu.

Pricing and configurations

The Lenovo X1 Extreme is about as premium as a PC gets and it has a price tag to match: Pricing starts at $1860 and quickly escalates; the review unit will normally set you back about $3600.

But rest easy: ThinkPads are always on sale. An entry-level X1 Extreme is just $1300 over Black Friday week, and the review unit can be had, at the time of this writing, for just $1950. And that, folks, is a bargain … Relatively speaking. By comparison, a similarly-configured MacBook Pro would set you back $3500. And that laptop is almost never on sale.

Were I shopping for an X1 Extreme myself, I’d have a hard time not choosing the 4K display, which adds $670 (or, during this sale, $403) to the price. With a Core i7 processor, 16 GB of RAM, 256 GB of PCIe-NVMe OPAL2.0 M.2 SSD storage, and Windows 10 Pro, I’d be looking at about $3200. Or $1815 on sale. My, my.

Recommendations and conclusions

Whether you’re a fan of the ThinkPad X1 lineup or not, the X1 Extreme is indeed the ultimate laptop. It features the first-ever 15-inch display in an X1 product, and the optional 4K/HDR panel is perhaps the best I’ve ever used. Combine that with the vaunted ThinkPad typing experience, build quality, and reliability, you have the makings of a winner.

Yes, it’s expensive, but of course it is: Lenovo didn’t really skimp anywhere in this machine, at least not anywhere important. The ThinkPad X1 Extreme is a beast, and one that can be configured to meet any need. It is highly recommended.

At-a-glance

Pros

  • Workstation-class and gaming PC performance
  • Thin and light for a 15.6-inch laptop
  • Ample expansion
  • Gorgeous 4K/HDR display
  • Excellent typing and pointing experiences
  • Clean software image

Cons

  • Expensive (albeit always on sale)
  • Limp webcam
  • Some fan noise and heat
  • Windows 10 comes with crapware

 

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