Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme review

The ThinkPad X1 Extreme is a love letter to PC geeks

Both quick and practical, the ThinkPad X1 Extreme is a love letter to PC geeks
Both quick and practical, the ThinkPad X1 Extreme is a love letter to PC geeks
Both quick and practical, the ThinkPad X1 Extreme is a love letter to PC geeks

Highs

  • Excellent keyboard
  • Brilliant 4K display with HDR
  • Outstanding CPU performance
  • Can play most games at 1080p

Lows

  • So-so battery life
  • Weak audio quality

ThinkPads weren’t always meant for the average person. Despite their focus on business and enterprise use when introduced 20 years ago, their rugged, no-nonsense design earned them a cult following. They became the laptop of PC nerds, frequent fliers, contractors, and everyone else who valued function over form.

Most stodgy ThinkPads don’t acknowledge that, but occasionally, when the stars align, Lenovo will throw its fans a bone – like the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme. Packing an eight-generation Intel quad-core processor, Nvidia GTX 1050 Ti graphics, and a 4K display, it’s impressive on paper.

It’s not inexpensive. Our review unit’s 16GB of RAM and large 1TB solid state drive pegs the price at an intimidating $2,670. However, base models with more typical specifications start at $1,580. That puts it in line with Dell’s XPS 15, as well as Apple’s MacBook Pro 15. The X1 Extreme gives both a reason to worry.

An old-school look with modern concessions

ThinkPads have always boasted a distinct, boxy, utilitarian design. The X1 Extreme holds true to that, but it does make some compromises. The chassis, which measures just .72 inches thin, is tapered along its edges for a sleeker feel, and the display bezels have also gone on a diet. Taken together, the X1 Extreme looks and feels more like a Dell XPS 15 than a ThinkPad T580.

Brand loyalists might complain about that, just as they’ve complained about the previous X1 models, all of which have made concessions to pursue a more modern look. Still, we think Lenovo made the right call. The X1 Extreme is for people wanting a 15-inch laptop that’s still thin enough to feel portable. If you want something larger and a more rugged, don’t worry. Lenovo still makes the ThinkPad T580 and P52.

There’s one area where the X1 Extreme makes no concessions, though: Connectivity. The X1 Extreme comes with two Thunderbolt 3 ports, two USB 3.1 ports, HDMI 2.0, a smart card reader, a SDcard reader, and a “network extension” port that’s dedicated to Ethernet (but requires a dongle to use with a standard Ethernet port).

You won’t find a better selection in competing laptops. Dell’s XPS 15 has fewer Thunderbolt 3 ports and no dedicated network port. Apple’s MacBook offers four Thunderbolt 3 ports, but no others (aside from an audio jack). And HP’s Spectre x360 15-inch offers one less Thunderbolt 3 or USB 3 port, depending on configuration.

A great keyboard and, of course, the Trackpoint

The ThinkPad X1 Extreme’s keyboard is immediately comfortable. It lacks a numpad, which might turn off some buyers, but that means the keyboard is broad, spacious, and properly centered. We sat down and flew across the keys with very few errors.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme review
Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

It’s a joy to use, too, thanks to long key travel and crisp feel. It’s miles better to use than a MacBook Pro. We think it also beats the Dell XPS 15 and HP Spectre x360 15-inch, though they’re also good.

A keyboard backlight is standard, as you’d expect. There’s not much light leak around the keys, but there’s only two keyboard brightness settings available. That’s a bit disappointing. Most competitors offer more control over the backlight.

When available in a game or movie, HDR is an absolute stunner on the X1 Extreme’s 4K display.

Below the keys you’ll find an adequately sized touchpad, which is joined by Lenovo’s TrackPoint, a small joystick-like nub in the middle of the keyboard. The TrackPoint lets you move the mouse while keeping your hands in an optimal typing position, but it takes getting used to. Luckily, the touchpad is pleasant. Some competitors, most notably the MacBook Pro, offer a larger surface, but the X1 Extreme is large enough and feels responsive when executing multi-touch gestures.

4K is great, but HDR will blow your mind

A 1080p display comes standard on the ThinkPad X1 Extreme, but our review unit was upgraded to a 4K display. The bump in resolution isn’t the only difference to note. Going 4K brings touchscreen support and changes the screen coating from anti-glare (matte) to anti-reflective, which is glossy. Reflections remain easy to see despite the “anti-reflective” coat, but the same is true of all the X1 Extreme’s competitors.

Speaking of competitors – the X1 Extreme is facing a tough lot, but it has the performance it needs to keep up. Its contrast ratio of 1110:1 is towards the upper end of the segment, coming short of the Dell XPS 15 but beating other alternatives. The X1 Extreme also scores well in color accuracy and gamut, going toe-to-toe with the most expensive competitors.

Then there’s the X1 Extreme’s trump card: HDR support. High Dynamic Range (HDR) is still a bit of a novelty for the PC due to limited support from movies and games, but damn – it’s a real stunner when available. We could hardly believe our eyes, seeing the gorgeous detail and depth of Battlefield 1 with HDR enabled. None of the X1 Extreme’s competitors have this feature.

Value shoppers would be wise to remember HDR is available only on the 4K display. The 1080p screen doesn’t offer it.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme review
Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

We can offer less praise for the Double Audio Premium speakers. They have adequate volume, but sound flat in all situations, which saps vibrance and depth from music, movies, and games. You’ll have no complaints if you need to jump on a video call (and the camera, by the way, is at the top of the display as it should be), but you’ll want headphones or external speakers for everything else. Most laptops in this price range provide a better listening experience.

The six-core processor is a winner

Our review unit came with an Intel Core i7-8750H six-core processor, a small step up from the base Core i7-8850H. Lenovo also served up an incredible 32GB of RAM which, frankly, is overkill for this class of laptop. Base configurations come with a perfectly adequate 8GB, and but most have 16GB.

The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme’s performance shined in the Geekbench 4 benchmark. Its score exceeded the Dell XPS 15 in both single-core and multi-core tests, despite the fact they both were tested with a Core i7-8750H processor. In fact, the X1 Extreme came closer to Asus’ ZenBook Pro 15 UX580, which boasted a Core i9-8950HK.

Handbrake, a video encoding program, showed a closer race. The X1 Extreme transcoded a 4K trailer exactly one second quicker than the Dell XPS 15. That’s basically a tie. Still, the X1 Extreme’s overall performance is sure to impress even the most demanding users.

We can say the same about the X1 Extreme’s hard drive performance, which proved solid in both read and write tests. While not the fastest in read speeds, write speed performance was better than usual for this segment. Both figures are high enough to suggest the X1 Extreme can load, save, and transfer files at speedy rates.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme review

1080p gaming? No problem

Now we come to the most interesting part of our benchmarks. Lenovo isn’t marketing the ThinkPad X1 Extreme has a gaming machine, but it comes with a Nvidia GTX 1050 Ti Max-Q graphics chip. That’s a big part of its appeal. The 1050 Ti Max-Q promises solid game performance, as well as acceleration in some productivity apps.

There’s no shortage of competition here, as the GTX 1050 Ti (with or without Max-Q) has become the go-to chip for laptops that want to add more graphics muscle.

Still, the X1 Extreme holds its own. It scored 6,481 in 3DMark’s Fire Strike benchmark, which puts it right in range with the competition. Performance in real-world gaming also proved strong. While it often (but not always) trailed the Dell XPS 15, it generally outperformed the HP Spectre x360 15-inch and Asus Zenbook Pro 15 UX580.

The X1 Extreme manages to squeeze in a respectable 80 watt-hour battery.

That means a target for 60 frames per second is achievable in most games if you stick to medium or high detail and 1080p resolution. In Battlefield 1, for example, the X1 Extreme hit 72 FPS at medium and managed 54 FPS at ultra.

You can do better if you settle for 30 FPS. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, still among the most demanding PC games, averaged 33 FPS at 1080p resolution with detail set to high. Even the toughest games are playable if you settle for a reduced framerate target.

While the GTX 1050 Ti is best suited for 1080p resolution, our X1 Extreme review unit had a 4K screen, so we put it to the test. The results were predictably dismal. You can enjoy a full 4K resolution if you stick to Rocket League, but the other three games in our test suite – Civilization VI, Battlefield 1, and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided – ran well below 60 FPS even at medium detail.

It’s light, but the battery could be better

The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme is a 15-inch laptop. It’s not small, though it is svelte for its size. The 1080p model starts at 3.76 pounds, and the 4K model is four pounds. Both models are about 0.7 inches thick. That’s the same as the Dell XPS 15, but the X1 Extreme is lighter. It’s also lighter than the Apple MacBook Pro 15, Asus ZenBook Pro 15 UX580, and HP Spectre x360 15-inch.

Despite that, the X1 Extreme manages to squeeze in a large 80 watt-hour battery. A few competitors have larger batteries – the Dell XPS 15’s optional 97 watt-hour unit is king of this hill – but X1 Extreme’s battery size is respectable.

Respectable is a good description of the X1 Extreme’ endurance, too. It’s not bad. It’s not great.

Our most demanding test, the Basemark browser benchmark loop, drained a full charge in about two and a half hours – on par with the HP Spectre x360 15-inch and Asus Zenbook Pro 15 UX580. The 1080p video loop extended endurance to about five and a half hours, which is less than other of those competitors. And the web browsing results landed somewhere in the middle of the pack.

Predictably, Dell’s XPS 15 is the standout entry in this field. Its large battery is part of the story, but its lead is great enough to suggest there’s more to it than just battery size. Dell appears to have figured out the secret sauce.

Our Take

Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Extreme takes aim at the prosumer’s heart, and it lands a solid blow. Its strong performance, beautiful display, and excellent keyboard make it a good choice if you need a big, powerful laptop.

Is there a better alternative?

There’s just one problem, really. Dell’s XPS 15.

The XPS 15 is just as attractive, is similar in size and weight, and matches the X1 Extreme in performance. Yet the Dell also boasts better battery life (in most configurations) and same hardware at lower prices.

Still, the X1 Extreme isn’t beat across the board. It has an HDR display option, which Dell doesn’t offer, better connectivity, and a better keyboard. You might prefer the X1 Extreme if they matter most to you.

None of its other competitors are a serious threat. The HP Spectre x360 15-inch isn’t as quick, the Asus Zenbook Pro 15 UX580 suffers a confused design, and Apple’s MacBook Pro 15-inch is far too expensive.

How long will it last?

ThinkPads are known for durability, and while the X1 Extreme isn’t as rugged as a T580, it does feel robust overall. Its performance should be more than adequate for years and its port selection offers a good mix of legacy and forward-looking connections. We think it’ll easy last three years, and more likely last five.

A one-year warranty comes standard. Longer warranties are available at relatively low prices (a three-year warranty starts at $109).

Should you buy it?

Yes. The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme isn’t the best premium 15-inch laptop, but it’s certainly near the top of its class, and it’ll certainly appeal to anyone seeking a quality display or excellent keyboard.

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