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    ThinkPad X1 Extreme review: Big on power and price

    Not to mention, it has the best laptop keyboard we've tested recently.
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    Full disclosure: I have something of a complicated relationship with ThinkPads. Once upon a time, I was what you might call a "fanboy." Over the course of my life, I've had five of them. In fact, I've never actually purchased any other brand of laptop. But about four years ago I bought an X1 Carbon, and the experience left a bad taste in my mouth. I had to send it back to Lenovo for repairs four times in the first two years. That included having both the motherboard and keyboard replaced. Now, the screen is literally falling off. So I'm coming into this review pretty skeptical of Lenovo's quality control. Obviously, I can't predict how it will hold up over time, but I will say this: The X1 Extreme makes one hell of a first impression.

    That impression is important, though. This is Lenovo trying to move into a new niche and trying to fill a glaring gap in the ThinkPad lineup. If you wanted desktop replacement-level power in a sleek, ultra-portable package, you'd have to look elsewhere. This is a market served primarily by the larger MacBook Pro and Dell XPS models. But if you haven't been swayed by Apple or Dell's offerings, Lenovo just might have the answer.

    Engadget Score
    Poor
    Uninspiring
    Good
    Excellent
    Key

    Pros
    • Amazing keyboard
    • Plenty of horsepower for most tasks
    • Stunning screen
    • Solid construction
    Cons
    • Mediocre battery life
    • Expensive

    Summary

    The four-pound Thinkpad X1 Extreme is surprisingly thin and light considering it has a 15-inch 4K HDR screen and powerful desktop-caliber internals. Add in the trademark ThinkPad keyboard, some incredibly sturdy construction and ports galore, and you’ve got the sort of machine that will satisfy even the most demanding of users. Just don’t plan on wandering too far from a power outlet.

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    Gallery: Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme review | 13 Photos

    In use

    Obviously, I'm partial to the ThinkPad design. If you're also a fan, you'll love the look of the X1 Extreme. It's a serious machine made of matte black carbon fiber. The only adornments are a tiny gray-and-red X1 logo and the glossy black ThinkPad logo. And, of course, the dot of the "i" lights up red when the laptop is powered on. It's either classically minimal or boring, depending on your point of view. But one thing is undeniable: The build quality here is world-class. This thing is an absolute tank of a laptop, and I mean that in the best way possible.

    Arguably the most important part of any ThinkPad, though, is the keyboard, and the X1 Extreme's is amazing. It is possibly the best I've ever used on a laptop. The keys have a good amount of travel, they feel wonderful under your fingers and make a very slight clicking sound. It's so spacious that it actually took me a few days to get used to it. But once I did, typing on it became an absolute pleasure. Can it stand up to your $150 mechanical keyboard or vintage IBM Model M? No, but it blows every other laptop on the market out of the water. I wrote this entire review on the X1 and, frankly, I'm dreading going back to my MacBook Pro.

    The trackpad is a slightly different story. The textured glass feels great and there's a satisfying "clunk" when you press it. But it's also somewhat finicky. Every once in a while, I'd graze it just wrong and the cursor would jump an inch. Or I'd be ever so slightly sloppy in executing a gesture and I'd wind up launching Cortana or minimizing all my windows instead of opening task view. In general, I like the feel of this trackpad better than my MacBook, but the Windows implementation of gestures just isn't as elegant as OS X's. So we'll call this one a draw.

    The iconic TrackPoint. Engadget / Brian Oh

    But don't worry: Even if you hate the trackpad, there's always the reliable (if somewhat anachronistic) TrackPoint. Over the years, pointing sticks have fallen out of favor as touchpads have steadily improved. Even I shun it most of the time. But I have to say that using it is still a pleasure. And it has the added bonus of causing waves of nostalgia to wash over me every time I touch it. I'm not going to give up the trackpad life to return to a pointing stick, but I'm glad it's here.

    You've also got options when it comes to ports. There's a veritable glut here that simply outclasses the competition. On the left side, you'll find Lenovo's proprietary charging and networking connections, two USB-C ports with Thunderbolt 3 support, full-sized HDMI and a headphone jack. On the right are two USB 3.1 sockets plus an SD card slot. (There's also room for a smart card reader, but I'm pretty sure nobody actually uses those.)

    Now, you can power the X1 Extreme over USB-C in a pinch. But, I highly recommend you use the 135-watt AC adapter that comes in the box instead. With that, you can get the battery to 80 percent in about an hour. Over USB-C it took several minutes just to add a single percentage point -- so I'd expect it to take well over two hours to charge completely.

    I also had some issues charging one of the two review units I tested. It just refused to recharge unless it was completely powered off. I left it plugged in overnight, with the lid closed, but in sleep mode. When I woke up, the battery still only had 46 percent. Factory-resetting the device seemed to fix the problem and the second unit charges just fine. But I'd be lying if I said it didn't immediately bring back bad memories of my X1 Carbon.

    Performance and battery life

    Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme

    Frankly, you shouldn't wander very far from your AC adapter anyway. Lenovo's track record on battery life has been hit and miss these past few years and the X1 Extreme is definitely a miss. Lenovo claims you can get up to 15 hours out of it, but I find that impossible to believe. That is, unless you opted for the lowest-spec model, turned the screen brightness all the way down and left it sitting in a corner untouched. In our standard battery test -- looping an HD video at 65 percent brightness until the laptop shuts down -- it lasted just six hours and 16 minutes.

    We haven't been able to run our battery test on either the XPS 15 or 15-inch MacBook Pro yet, so we don't know just how far short the Extreme really falls. But, the Dell comes with a 97WHr battery, compared to the ThinkPad's 80. And while Apple is more conservative, promising only "up to 10 hours", the company also tends to be pretty accurate with its battery life estimates. That being is said, the X1 Extreme did last longer than the ZenBook Pro 15.

    Thinkpad X1 Extreme 6:16
    ASUS ZenBook Pro 15 (2018) 4:20
    Razer Blade (2018) 8:50
    MSI GS65 Stealth Thin 7:01
    Gigabyte Aero 15X (2018) 7:45
    Dell XPS 15 (2016) 5:25

    Of course, part of the reason the battery here dies so quickly is that under the hood are some seriously powerful components. Our review unit has a Core i7-8850H CPU, 32GB of RAM and a GeForce GTX 1050 Ti GPU with 4GB of video RAM. And all of that horsepower is pushing pixels to a gorgeous 15.6-inch 4K HDR touchscreen that supports 100 percent of the Adobe RGB color gamut. In short, this is probably more laptop than most people need.

    Still, I appreciated all that power. And so too will anyone who does a lot of photo or video editing, or music production. Until recently I'd been relying on a five-year-old MacBook Air and that 2014 X1 Carbon I mentioned earlier. So it's refreshing that changing rooms in Slack doesn't bring my computer to a crawl. Now, my normal workload isn't nearly enough to tax the X1 Extreme. Dozens of Chrome tabs, Slack, Evernote, Spotify, Todoist and Photoshop all running simultaneously didn't cause the system to blink. Even leaving Ableton Live open in the background didn't slow things down.

    PCMark 7 PCMark 8 (Creative Accelerated) 3DMark 11 ATTO (top reads/writes)
    ThinkPad X1 Extreme (2.6-4.3GHz Intel i7-8850H, NVIDIA GTX 1050Ti) 6,538 4,846 E12,992 / P8,747 / X3,224 2.67 GB/s/ 2.24 GB/s
    ASUS ZenBook Pro 15 (2018) (2.2-4.1GHz Intel i7-8750H, NVIDIA GTX 1050Ti Max-Q) 6,308 5,362 E10,652 / P7,601 / X3,195 2GB/s / 1.4GB/s
    Razer Blade (2018) (2.2-4.1GHz Intel i7-8750H, NVIDIA GTX 1070 Max-Q) 6,699 5,434 E17,833 / P15,371 / X 6,760 2.1GB/s / 1.3GB/s
    MSI GS65 Stealth Thin (2.2-4.1GHz Intel i7-8750H, NVIDIA GTX 1070 Max-Q) 6,438 5,696 E20,969 / P15,794 / X6,394 542MB/s / 482MB/s
    Gigabyte Aero 15X 2018 (2.2-4.1GHz Intel i7-8750H, NVIDIA GTX 1070 Max-Q) 6,420 6,558 E18,920 / P15,130 / X6,503 2.4GB/s / 1.5GB/s

    I don't do a ton of 3D rendering or video editing, but I did my best to push the computer to its limits. I fired up HitFilm Express and piled a ton of 3D effects and filters onto a two-minute video of my son, and it chewed through it with ease. It took me longer to figure out how to place the cheesy 3D animations in the frame than it did to export the video.

    I also installed Ableton Live 10 and did my best to bring the digital audio workstation (DAW) to its knees. I fired up a drum rack, two audio channels and five separate instances of the notoriously CPU-intensive Wavetable virtual synthesizer. Then I added a minimum of three effects to each track, including some rather demanding reverb and delay plugins -- the PC barely batted an eye. When all eight tracks were going simultaneously I'd get some occasional audio hiccups, but they were few and far between. By comparison, my four-year-old X1 Carbon can't even handle a single instance of Wavetable without collapsing into a sputtering mess.

    Even some light gaming is perfectly doable here. The 1050 Ti isn't going to let you do any 4K gaming, and you might have to turn the detail down on some particularly demanding titles. But, Assassin's Creed: Odyssey ran at a perfectly playable 35 frames per second with the graphics set to high at 1080p. And it performed admirably enough on benchmarks PCMark and 3DMark.

    That being said, I wouldn't recommend buying this if you're looking for a laptop primarily for gaming. There are dedicated machines for that purpose like the Razer Blade that are much better suited. I also wouldn't recommend it if you're looking for a machine to watch TV and movies on. While the screen is gorgeous and almost painfully bright, the speakers are abysmal. There's support for Dolby Atmos, but that's only through a headset. The built-in speakers are kinda tinny and barely loud enough to hear over a demanding toddler.

    The competition

    Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme

    The primary competition here is the MacBook Pro 15 and Dell's XPS 15. And honestly, picking between the three is pretty easy, depending on your needs.

    If you've already bought into the Apple ecosystem, the MacBook is the obvious choice. It has better battery life and true workstation-grade graphics. But it also costs quite a bit more. The X1 Extreme configured as we tested it has a list price of $3,150 -- though frequent sales mean the actual price is closer to $2,800. A MacBook Pro 15 with a matching 32GB of RAM and 1TB of storage would cost an eye-watering $3,600. And it has an embarrassing lack of ports.

    The XPS 15, on the other hand, costs only $2,500 with nearly identical specs as the X1 Extreme. It has a slightly slower Core i7-8750H CPU and isn't nearly as rugged, but it also offers better battery life and is slightly smaller -- making it easier to slip into a backpack or shoulder bag. So if you're looking for something with similar power, but want to save a few bucks and don't need something built to survive dust storms and arctic cold fronts, the XPS is a solid choice.

    Wrap-up

    With a starting price of over $1,800, the X1 Extreme is an indulgence, but it's one that might be worth giving in to. If you're constantly pushing your PC to its limits -- both figuratively and literally -- then the combination of portability, power and ruggedness here is tough to beat. And if you spend nine-plus hours a day typing away on your computer, the keyboard will seem like a godsend. I'm not gonna lie: I'm still suspicious of Lenovo's quality control, but the X1 Extreme is the sort of machine that could win me back.

    Product specs

    CPU and GRAPHICS

    • Intel quad-core i5-8400H; hexa-core i7-8750H; hexa-core i7-8850H
    • NVIDIA GTX 1050Ti (4GB VRAM)

    DISPLAY

    • 15.6-inch 4K HDR touchscreen or 1080p non-touch
    • 100 percent Adobe RGB

    MEMORY AND STORAGE

    • Up to 64GB 2666MHZ DDR4
    • 256GB SATA SSD or up to 1TB PCIe SSD

    INPUT DEVICES

    • Backlit keyboard
    • Multitouch glass Touchpad
    • Match-on-Chip touch fingerprint reader

    PORTS

    • 2 x USB Type-A 3.1
    • 2 x USB Type-C Thunderbolt 3
    • 1 x HDMI 2.0
    • 1 x 3.5mm headphone/microphone jack
    • 1 x 4-in-1 SD card reader

    AUDIO AND CAMERA

    • Dolby Audio Premium
    • Dolby Atmos for headset
    • Noise-cancelling dual-array far field microphones
    • Windows Hello with facial recognition software (requires IR camera)
    • ThinkShutter on 720p HD Camera

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