Lenovo ThinkPad P1 review: Workstation power in a portable package

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  • Editors' rating
    8.0 Excellent

Pros

  • Powerful processor options
  • Great screen
  • Good connectivity

Cons

  • Average battery life
  • Relatively bulky and heavy
  • Average speakers
  • Expensive with top-end options

Laptops generally lack the raw power for seriously high-level computing, which is where portable workstations come into play. With powerful processors, plentiful storage and top-notch screens these devices don't come cheap, and are relatively rare. Lenovo's 15.6-inch ThinkPad P1 is certified for use with ArcGIS, AutoCAD, CATIA, Creo, Inventor, Microstation, NX, PDMS, Revit, Solid Edge, SolidWorks and Vectorworks.

Laptop makers are always trying to hit a sweet spot between power, usability, build toughness, portability and price. Although the ThinkPad P1 is Lenovo's thinnest, lightest and sleekest workstation to date, that doesn't mean it's particularly compact or lightweight, or that it has a low price -- it starts at £1,549 (inc. VAT, £1,290.83 ex. VAT). All of these things are traded off to meet the requirements of truly powerful computing.

Lenovo has built the ThinkPad P1 to the same exacting design and build standards it employs for its ThinkPad X1 Carbon range. So the black chassis is solid and tough, with carbon fibre used to help keep the weight down and the strength up. Even so, there's 1.7kg of weight to tote here.

This is a big beast, too. The 15.6-inch screen is really a requirement for a workstation -- anything smaller would not be suitable for those CAD, animation, video design and other creative tools. Even a 15.6-inch screen is a compromise when you consider the desktop monitor size used by most creatives.

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ThinkPad P1's 15.6-inch screen folds back 180 degrees to lie flat, but doesn't rotate.

Image: Lenovo

But packing in an even larger screen would have boosted both the price and the size of this laptop, and the latter is plenty for a bag or backpack to cope with: 361.8mm by 245.7mm by 18.4mm. Anyone wanting to carry this beast around will also need to factor in the power brick, which is twice the usual size and also adds weight.

Given that this is a laptop aimed at those doing design tasks, Lenovo could have taken a slightly more adventurous approach with the screen arrangement. The screen will lay flat on a desk, but won't rotate any further than that. A mobile workstation like this might benefit from a 360-degree rotating screen, to allow working with a pen in tablet mode, and to accommodate easier sharing of content. HP certainly didn't shy away from a more modern format with its detachable ZBook X2 G4, which puts all its computing power in a tablet-style screen, to which the keyboard attaches as a separate unit.

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The speakers might also have benefited from a bit more attention. There's no problem with volume, which at 100 percent is loud enough to reach across a conference table, and there's no distortion at top volume either. But audio quality, although quite good, could be better: this laptop needs to show off the fruits of creative labour, so sound quality should be top-notch.

I have no quibbles with the screen though. My review sample was equipped with a Full HD (1,920 x 1,080) IPS panel, which was not touch responsive. The non-reflective finish is ideal for working on details at close range. I found the 300-nits screen a bit startling at maximum brightness -- the 80 percent default setting for working on battery power is as bright as I'm ever likely to need. A 3,840-by-2,160-pixel IPS touch-screen display is also available, although this doesn't appear on any of the three preconfigured models on Lenovo's UK website.

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Despite having plenty of room in its 15.6-inch chassis, there's no separate numeric keypad on the ThinkPad P1's otherwise excellent keyboard.

Image: Lenovo

The keyboard is built to Lenovo's usual high standards. Those familiar, fat-bellied keys are springy and comfortable to use, while beneath them there's a large trackpad with two physical buttons and a scroller designed for use with the TrackPoint that sits between the G, H and B keys. It's a standard Lenovo arrangement, and one that works very well. The two-level backlight is toggled with the Fn key and space bar, and there's a shortcut to the Windows Snipping tool via the Fn-PrtSc key combo.

SEE: 20 pro tips to make Windows 10 work the way you want (free PDF)

A laptop like this needs to be powerful. The entry-level preconfigured model has an Intel Core i5 8400H processor with a discrete Nvidia Quadro P1000 GPU and 8GB of RAM, but move up to the most expensive preconfigured model and you get an Intel Xeon E-2176M processor, Quadro P2000 graphics and 32GB of RAM. Memory options top out at 64GB of RAM and SSD storage at 4TB.

It's worth noting that only the most expensive preconfigured model runs Windows 10 Pro for Workstations, while all three models have the lower-resolution FHD screen. Boosting this to the 3,840-by-2,160 touch option will add further to the price.

The three off-the-shelf models can all be customised, and their basic specifications are:

  • Intel Core i5-8400H, Windows 10 Pro, 15.6-inch 1,920 x 1,080 non-touch IPS screen, Nvidia Quadro P1000 graphics, 8GB RAM, 256GB NVMe M.2 SSD
    £1,549 (inc. VAT; £1,290.83 ex. VAT)
  • Intel Core i7-8850H, Windows 10 Pro, 15.6-inch 1,920 x 1,080 non-touch IPS screen, Nvidia Quadro P2000 graphics, 16GB RAM, 512GB NVMe M.2 SSD
    £2,379 (inc. VAT; £1,982.50 ex. VAT)
  • Intel Xeon E-2176M, Windows 10 Pro for Workstations, 15.6-inch 1,920 x 1,080 non-touch IPS screen, Nvidia Quadro P2000 graphics, 32GB RAM, 1TB NVMe M.2 SSD
    £3,079 (inc. VAT; £2,565.83 ex. VAT)
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The right side of the ThinkPad P1 has a smartcard reader, an SD card reader, two USB 3.1 ports and a Kensington lock slot. The other side has the power input, two Thunderbolt 3 ports, HDMI and mini-Gigabit Ethernet connectors and a 3.5mm audio jack.

Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

The ThinkPad P1 has two Thunderbolt 3 ports, a pair of USB 3.1 ports, a full-size HDMI 2.0 port, an SD card slot and a 3.5mm headphone jack. There is a fingerprint reader and an IR camera for Windows Hello, and the option for a smartcard reader. The camera that sits above the screen has the Lenovo ThinkShutter privacy cover -- just slide it over the camera to avoid any accidental snooping.

It's a little irritating that anyone wanting to use wired Ethernet will need to use an adapter for the P1's mini-Gigabit Ethernet port, but at least a dongle is provided.

Good battery life is a must for a device like this, which needs to process demanding workloads on the move. Lenovo rates the battery as good for up to 13 hours, but I'm not convinced this can be achieved when pushing the processor and graphics. Working with a mainstream workload of writing, browsing and streaming for four hours, I depleted the battery by 40 percent with the screen at its default 80 percent brightness for working on battery power. If you're on the road and pushing this laptop to its full potential, expect to be seeking a mains power source before the working day is out.

Conclusions

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Image: Lenovo

Considering the punch it packs, the Lenovo ThinkPad P1 is a pretty compact laptop. It's still quite large and heavy compared to true ultraportables, but anything less than a 15.6-inch screen would compromise the ability to fulfil its workstation purpose. The display itself is superb, even in its FHD incarnation without touch support.

Lenovo's 13-hour battery life claim is ambitious, but in the real world this device is likely to spend much of its life in the office, moving around for client sessions every now and again. The real issue is that if you want to specify top-end CPU, GPU, RAM, storage and display options, things are going to get expensive.

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