Small laptops are great, but for a blend of productivity and portability, 15-inch models are perfect. Two of the best manufacturers for laptops of that size are Dell and Lenovo, so picking between two of their flagship devices in that range isn’t easy.
Shouldering that task though, we pitted the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme versus the Dell XPS 15 in a head to head on design, performance, and portability.
Neither the Dell XPS 15 or the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme is a style icon compared to more form-focused laptops like the XPS 13 or MacBook Pro, but they’re hardly bad looking either. The ThinkPad X1 Extreme sports thinner bezels than its last-generation counterparts, but retains the boxy-look so classic of the range. It mounts its camera in the top bezel, which is a much more favorable position for flattering video calls than the XPS 15’s base mounted camera, but that does come hand in hand with a thicker top bezel in turn.
The Dell alternative does have thinner bezels and an altogether more modern looking design than its Lenovo counterpart. It’s a little thinner than the ThinkPad but does weigh in heavier with the larger battery option. It has a silver exterior paint job compared to the ThinkPad X1’s overall black coloring, which impacts personal preference more than anything tangible.
Both laptops feature great keyboards with crisp, responsive keys and comfortable layouts. The Lenovo keyboard is slightly more enjoyable to use long-term, although either would be good for day to day use. The main difference here is the ThinkPad’s TrackPoint, which some people still swear by.
The XPS 15 sports a number of port options on its flanks and rear, offering up a pair of USB-A 3.1 Gen 1 ports (fast, but not that fast), an HDMI 2.0 output, a single Thunderbolt 3 compatible USB-C connector, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. The ThinkPad sports a slightly more expansive port selection, with two Thunderbolt 3 compatible USB-C ports, a pair of USB-A 3.1 ports, an HDMI 2.0 output, a smart card reader, SD card reader, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and a network extension port that when combined with an adapter dongle can be used for ethernet connections.
The ThinkPad X1 Extreme has a starting price of $1,860 and offers an 8th-gen Intel Core i5-8400H CPU, 8GB of DDR4 memory, an Nvidia GTX 1050 Ti graphics chip, and 256GB of M.2 SSD storage. All of that powers a 15.6-inch 1080p, IPS display that can hit a brightness of 300 nits. Due to some surprisingly favorable online sale prices at the time of writing, you can spend less than $100 more to get 16GB of RAM, 512GB of SSD space, and a Core i7-8750H CPU. Other update options include a more powerful CPU — Core i7-8850H — up to a terabyte of PCIexpress SSD storage, and a 4K display. The most expensive model costs $2,834.
The XPS 15 has a much more modest starting price of $1,000 for its entry-level model, though the hardware configuration is less impressive also. It has an 8th-gen Intel Core i5-8300H CPU, 8GB of DDR4 memory, on board Intel UHD 630 graphics, and a terabyte of hybrid HDD/SSD storage. For $1,400 you can upgrade to a much more capable Core i7-8750H CPU, with 256GB of SSD space, and a GTX 1050 Ti graphics chip. All models apart from the very top ones come with a 1080P display, with options for more storage space and memory throughout the range.
The best configuration is $2,900 and comes with an Intel Core i9-8950HK CPU, 32GB of DDR4 memory, a terabyte of PCIexpress solid-state storage, and a 4K display.
The XPS 15 certainly offers more value at the lower end, with comparable hardware to the entry-level ThinkPad for a few hundred dollars less. However, once you get up to around the $2,000 mark the specifications and costs even out and they are far more comparable in terms of bang for buck. Our review configurations both had the 8750H CPU, and the results favored the Lenovo laptop slightly. In addition, its storage write speeds were much more preferable.
The Dell laptop’s display has better contrast ratio — opting for the 4K panel nets better color accuracy too — but the ThinkPad has HDR support, which certainly gives it the edge in supporting media. Games like Battlefield 1 look stunning on the Lenovo notebook. That said, though neither of these laptops is really designed with gaming in mind, their combination of a powerful CPU with an entry-level dedicated gaming chip make them more than capable. Don’t expect to max out AAA games at 4K, but indies, and lower-detail settings are more than possible at decent frame rates.
No 15-inch laptop is as portable as some of the smaller form-factor alternatives out there, but the two laptops in this head to head aren’t blocky workstations by any means. Indeed, Lenovo has gone out of its way to make the ThinkPad X1 Extreme much sleeker and streamlined than the other laptops in its professionally-targeted range. It measures 14.24 x 9.67 x 0.74-inches and weighs just 4.06 pounds with the 4K panel. If you opt for the 1080P version you can shave off another third of a pound and 0.02 of an inch in height.
The XPS 15 is definitely the trimmer device, at 14.06 x 9.27 x 0.66-inches (0.45-inches at its thinnest point) but not by a huge margin. It is a little heavier, though, weighing 4.5 pounds with the larger battery option.
That battery comes in at 97 watt-hours, with the option of a much smaller 56 watt-hours in some configurations. The version we tested came with the larger of the two and lasted just over 14.5 hours in our video loop test. The Surface Book 2 might beat such a figure, but the ThinkPad falls far behind with its 80 watt-hour charge delivering just five and half hours of video looping. That’s a respectable result, but the XPS 15 is just vastly more efficient.
Efficiency and style trump grunt
In our head to head testing of comparable hardware configurations, the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme certainly comes out on top, by a little. It also has a better selection of ports, but there’s no denying that it is the more costly of devices — especially at the lower end. It also has much weaker battery life — although few can compare with the XPS 15’s stellar efficiency.
The ThinkPad is certainly worth considering if you like its more professional look, feel, and gorgeous HDR display, but the XPS 15 remains our darling of the 15-inch form factor. It’s the complete package, offering great performance in general usage and gaming, long life on a single charge, and it looks good too.
Overall winner: Dell XPS 15