Introduction, Design, Features
The mobile workstation arena contains several key players, who create uber-laptops specifically to handle resource-hungry applications such as video editing, 3D modeling, animation, visual effects, and high-end scientific analysis. HP and Dell have dedicated brands for their portable workstations, the ZBook and Precision lines respectively. Lenovo’s entries are part of its uniquely recognizable ThinkPad family, but carry their own suffix. If regular ThinkPads are powerful, the ThinkPad P series are in a class all their own.
The example seen here is the ThinkPad P51, the next step in evolution from the 15.6-inch ThinkPad P50 that we tested in April 2016. Note that the series also includes the thinner and lighter P51s; the larger, 17.3-inch ThinkPad P71; and the 14-inch P40 Yoga, which features a 360-degree hinge and Wacom pen technology for drawing and sketching.
Let’s get back to the ThinkPad P51, which starts at $1,117 on Lenovo’s site. Our review unit, however, with its high-end processor and graphics options and high-resolution IPS display, rings up at $2,799 at CDW and other retailers. Let’s see what that investment buys you and how the P51’s performance compares to other leading mobile workstations in its class.
Right out of the box, the P51 touts its ThinkPad heritage, from its keyboard to the diagonal ThinkPad logo emblazoned on the lid…
This comes as no surprise; the style lends the system a certain familiarity. The look has worked for Lenovo so far, so why change it?
At the same time, there is a noticeable difference between the P51 and civilian ThinkPads. While it’s hardly the only one to wear matte black, nor the only one to pass MIL-STD 810G tests against shock, vibration, extreme temperatures, and other travel hazards, one can sense its sturdier build and rugged constitution, which are essential for a workstation that can withstand punishing workloads. For example, a large 3D rendering job can tax a CPU not only for minutes but for hours, even days. You need solid construction inside and out to handle such a heavy load, and the robustly built P51 is up to the challenge.
In fact, with its industrial-strength attitude and style, we nevertheless find the ThinkPad P51 to have handsome good looks and a smart-looking profile…
Its dimensions are 1.02 by 14.9 by 9.9 inches. Its lid has a soft-touch, rubber-like texture, which comes from glass-fiber-reinforced plastic…
That ensures a secure grip without fingerprint smudges. The bottom is made of aluminum and magnesium.
Overall, the Lenovo feels good in your hands. While it isn’t exactly a slimline with its weight of 5.6 pounds, we found it to be quite manageable to carry. A little extra heftiness to handle the elements doesn’t bother us in a mobile workstation. Want an ultrabook? Look elsewhere, but don’t expect the same muscle.
One of the first things we noticed upon powering up the machine was the 15.6-inch display, which in this case is a 4K (3,840 x 2,160) anti-glare in-plane switching (IPS) panel…
It’s around $200 more than the full HD (1,920×1,080) screen option and about $100 more than the 1080p touch display, for those who prefer a hands-on approach.
The P51’s screen looked great when viewing photos, watching 4K video, and surfing the internet. The anti-glare, matte surface of the screen minimized any distracting reflections, and the view from extreme angles was quite good. Although it doesn’t match the 10-bit color depth of HP’s DreamColor panels, it’s nevertheless a very high-quality, pleasing display with good contrast and sharpness.
Speaking of the display, one of the most unique things about the ThinkPad P51 is the integrated X-Rite Pantone color calibrator, whose sensor sits right under the keyboard, left of the touch pad…
To use it, you launch the color calibration software that comes with the machine, choose the white point and gamma response you desire, and close the lid (which basically pushes the screen right against the sensor). At that point, the measurement process will begin automatically. When the process is finished, a beep will sound and the display will be calibrated. That’s pretty neat, especially if you’re involved with the visual arts or filmmaking.
The touch pad is nicely proportioned and has a smooth, yet grippy anti-glare surface (like the rest of the machine). There are left, right, and center buttons above and below the pad, a vital feature for CAD work.
The keyboard of the ThinkPad P51 is a cut above…
The keys themselves are comfortable to type on, and there’s a separate keypad for those who enter a lot of numeric data. The keyboard also features backlighting, which you can toggle through two brightness levels (plus off) by pressing the Fn key and space bar. Naturally, you’ll find Lenovo’s trademark TrackPoint nub embedded in the keyboard for moving the cursor without taking your fingers off the home row.
There are also dedicated volume and mute keys located atop the numeric keypad. On the bottom right of the keyboard is a fingerprint reader for enhanced security.
Speaking of volume, there’s a narrow speaker grille above the keyboard. While the sound level is decent, there is very little bass response. Therefore, music sounds somewhat tinny. Audiophiles or music producers will need to plug in speakers, audio interfaces, or at least headphones.
Most of the ThinkPad P51’s ports can be found on the back of the machine…
Most other mobile workstations have ports on the left and right sides. Lenovo’s break from tradition here is fine with us; why not put them on the back, similar to where a desktop PC’s would be?
Anyway, at the rear, you’ll find two USB 3.0 (Type A) ports…
The one with the battery symbol is always available to power or recharge handheld devices, even if the P51 goes into sleep mode. There’s also an Ethernet jack, a Thunderbolt 3 port, an HDMI video output, and the power connector. Additionally, you’ll find a vent for the cooling fan exhaust.
On the system’s right side, there’s a headphone/microphone audio combo jack, two more USB 3.0 ports, a mini DisplayPort, a Kensington lock slot, and another exhaust vent…
On the left side of the computer, you’ll find a full-size SD card reader (important for photographers) and an ExpressCard/34 slot (important for, um, those who need one)…
On the bottom of the P51 is a connector for a proprietary Lenovo docking station, if you don’t want to attach one via Thunderbolt 3.
As with most mobile workstations, the P51 comes with a 720p HD webcam and a built-in microphone for videoconferencing or basic video recording.
Aside from the Pantone color calibration application we discussed earlier, software on the Lenovo ThinkPad P51 includes the Lenovo App Explorer, where you can browse through and install various programs (some by Lenovo, some not; some useful, some not), and the Lenovo Companion, a comprehensive, well-designed application that allows you to test, configure, upgrade, and get information about your P51.
For networking, the ThinkPad comes with an Intel dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi card plus Bluetooth 4.1. Those who are on the road a lot might want to add a Qualcomm Snapdragon X7 LTE-A WWAN card for an extra $140.
The ThinkPad P51 is available with your choice of a 7th Generation Intel Core i7 processor or an Intel Xeon E3 chip. Our review unit came with the topmost Xeon available, the E3-1535v6, which has an 8MB cache and a clock speed of 3.1GHz (turbo 4.2GHz). It also supports ECC memory for those who need incorruptible data storage. This quad-core Xeon screamer will get you through heavy media, animation, and CAD projects in stride.
For graphics, the Lenovo ThinkPad P51 we reviewed packed a powerful Nvidia Quadro M2200 with 4GB of GDDR5 memory and 1,024 CUDA processing cores. This powerful ISV-certified GPU offers lots of power for 3D professionals and is capable of GPU rendering jobs with Octane and Redshift. Core i7 buyers can opt for a Quadro M1200 instead, which comes with the same 4GB of GDDR5 memory but only has 640 CUDA cores, so performance will not be as great. It can also play games rather well, but that’s not what it’s optimized for. The Quadro cards are built for production work, especially within applications from the likes of Adobe and Autodesk.
Storage options on the ThinkPad P51 are considerable. In order to gain access to the storage, you’ll need to remove a bottom panel of the workstation, which is done easily enough after loosening a few screws. There are two M.2 2280-type slots where you can install NVMe solid-state drives (up to 1TB each), configurable in RAID 0 or 1. There is also a 2.5-inch hard drive bay that can also accommodate up to 1TB. That means the workstation can handle up to 3TB of combined storage. That’s impressive. Our review unit had a single, 512GB PCIe SSD.
As far as memory is concerned, the Lenovo can hold 64GB of either ECC or non-ECC memory (expect to pay a bit more for ECC). That is an ample amount of memory, on par with other mobile workstations out there, and is more than enough to handle most media and post-production challenges these days. Access to the two SoDIMM slots can be easily gained after removing the bottom panel. The machine we reviewed had 16GB of RAM installed.
The ThinkPad P51 also has an easily removable six-cell lithium-polymer 90WHr battery, which slips out without removing the bottom panel. That means you can tote around an extra battery in case you run out of power.