Lenovo ThinkPad P51 Review

by Reads (14,237)
  • Editor's Rating

    Ratings Breakdown (1-10)

      • Software & Support
      • 8
      • Upgrade Capabilities
      • 9
      • Usability
      • 9
      • Design
      • 8
      • Performance
      • 9
      • Features
      • 9
      • Price/Value Rating
      • 7
      • Total Score:
      • 8.43
      • Rating 1 to 10, top score 10
  • Pros

    • Beautiful 4K display
    • Excellent keyboard, touch pad, and pointing stick
    • Available server-class components
    • Impressive battery life
  • Cons

    • Options quickly add to the price
    • Only a 1-year warranty is standard

The Lenovo ThinkPad P-series notebooks are mobile workstations, separate from the rest of the ThinkPad line. The ThinkPad P51 we’re reviewing in this article is one of the fastest 15.6-inch notebooks sold today. It can be equipped with server-grade hardware, including an Intel Xeon processor and up to 64GB of ECC memory.  This workstation features Nvidia Quadro professional-grade graphics, and even has a built-in display calibration sensor as an option.

The ThinkPad P51 gave us little to complain about. It’s rather big and heavy, but that’s expected in a notebook like this. The $2,471 review unit we were sent was definitely a good chunk of change, but we were able to configure a well-equipped model for under $2,000.

Lenovo ThinkPad P51

Lenovo ThinkPad P51 Build and Design

Whenever we review a ThinkPad, we’re tempted to copy-and-paste the Build and Design section from one of our other ThinkPad reviews. We would never do that, of course, but it’s still tempting, as some things don’t seem to change. Lenovo ThinkPads have maintained their overall design scheme since IBM came out with the original model in 1992, or a little over 25 years in case you’re counting. The ThinkPad P51 keeps the design trend going, and we don’t see why it shouldn’t.

The straight-edged exterior has a no-nonsense look. It’s available in exactly one color, and you already guessed what that is. (The only reason we point that out is that Lenovo is starting to offer some of its other ThinkPads, such as the X1 Yoga, in silver.) For design accents, all you get is the ThinkPad logo embossed on the right palm rest and top right corner of the lid. The dot at the top of the “i” in the logo on the back of the lid illuminates in red when the system is powered on.

The plastic exterior of the ThinkPad P51 doesn’t feel as luxurious as the mainly metal exteriors you’ll find on competing HP Zbooks and Dell Precision mobile workstations, but it’s quite durable and strong. Inside the chassis, the ThinkPad P51 has a metal support structure that Lenovo calls a rollcage. The chassis on this notebook is virtually as stiff as a board. The lid is also strong, as when we applied pressure to the backing, no ripples appeared in the picture. There aren’t many notebooks built better than the ThinkPad P51.

Given the ThinkPad P51 is a mobile workstation with desktop-like performance, it’s hard to expect it to fit the ultralight profile – and it doesn’t. The 14.9×9.9-inch chassis is normally-sized for a notebook with a 15.6-inch display, but the one-inch thickness is a few tenths more than we’d see in a mainstream 15.6-incher like Lenovo’s own Ideapad Flex 5 15. The 5.6-pound weight of the ThinkPad P51 is also hefty, but isn’t all that bad when you consider the amount of power inside the chassis.

The ThinkPad P51 has an impressive level of expandability for a 15.6-inch notebook. The dedicated access panel on its underside is held on by 6 Phillips-head screws. These screws have retainers on them, so they don’t come fully out of the panel. That means you don’t have to worry about losing them. The panel is then held in by plastic clips, which were very resistant to coming undone on our review unit. We had to use a plastic pry tool to get the edges free, working our way from the back of the notebook to the front.

Through the bottom access panel, you can get to both M.2 Type-2280 (80mm) slots for storage, the 2.5-inch bay, and two of the DIMM slots for memory. The other two DIMM slots are located on the underside of the keyboard. You can see in our review unit that both of the DIMM slots under the notebook were occupied, as was one of the M.2 slots.

Lenovo ThinkPad P51 Input and Output Ports

Given the nature of its thicker chassis, most of the ThinkPad P51’s port selection is located along the back and right sides.

The cooling fan exhausts flank the back side of the chassis. The ports back here include two USB Type-A 3.0 ports (the first is capable of providing power to devices while the notebook is in sleep mode), the Ethernet jack, a Thunderbolt 3 (USB Type-C) port, an HDMI video-out, and the AC power jack.

There’s nothing along the front of the notebook. If you’re looking for status indicator lights, you’ll find a lonely storage drive activity light in the display hinge. (We’re still glad to see that.)

Along the right edge, you’ll see the audio combo jack (headphone/microphone), another pair of USB Type-A 3.0 ports, a mini-DisplayPort video out, a cooling fan exhaust, and a Kensington lock slot.

The right edge of the chassis has a cooling fan exhaust towards the rear. Interestingly enough, there’s an ExpressCard/34 slot next to it, which we rarely see anymore. A full-size SD card reader sits underneath that slot; cards do insert fully instead of sticking out halfway. Towards the front you can see the slot for the optional SmartCard reader; our review unit wasn’t so equipped, with just a filler in place.

Looking at the bottom of the notebook, you can see the square docking station connector in the center. Note you can also use Lenovo’s Thunderbolt 3 docking stations via the Thunderbolt 3 port on the right side of the chassis.

Lenovo ThinkPad P51 Screen and Speakers

Lenovo offers the ThinkPad P51 with a choice of three displays. The base display is already of good quality, a 1,920×1,080-pixel panel with wide viewing angles. For another $170, you can upgrade to a touch-enabled version of the same panel. The panel upgrade actually costs $100, but going to anything more than the base display also adds a Pantone color sensor in the palm rest. The competition doesn’t offer anything like that sensor; it allows you to calibrate the notebook’s display for color accuracy without needing to carry around a separate device. It’s nifty, though we expect a lot of professionals will have their own calibration devices.

The 4K (3,840×2,160) display on our review unit is the top pick, a $270 upgrade over the base 1080p non-touch panel. The picture quality looked especially bright and vibrant. The amount of power inside this notebook means you can edit 4K content with ease. Note that the 4K display doesn’t support touch.


The 4K display is an IPS panel as are all the panels offered on the ThinkPad P51. You can see the wide viewing angles at work in our photos; notice how there’s minimal picture distortion when looking at the display from above, below, or the side.

The speakers in the ThinkPad P51 are located in a narrow strip just above the keyboard. Their upward-facing nature gives them good clarity, but the volume isn’t sufficient for more than one or two people to hear the dialog in a streaming video. The bass is also lacking, but that’s not surprising in a notebook. These speakers will certainly work in a pinch.

Lenovo ThinkPad P51 Keyboard and Touchpad

As you would expect on a workstation-class computer, the ThinkPad P51 has a full-size keyboard and separate number pad. The majority of the keys are full-size, with the exception of the top row and the arrow key cluster. The full-size number pad keys are especially nice to see, as often they are squashed on a 15.6-inch notebook like this.

The keys have excellent tactile feedback. They make a quiet clicking sound when you press them. Backlighting, which is optional, was on our review unit. There are two brightness levels; press the Function (Fn) and space bar keys to toggle between them, or turn the backlighting off complete. Something else we really like about this keyboard is the dedicated volume and muting controls above the number pad. These are more convenient than using a keyboard shortcut.

Note the fingerprint reader to the right of the keyboard.

Unlike most of the ThinkPads we’ve tested recently, the ThinkPad P51 has a traditional-style touch pad with dedicated left-, right-, and center-click buttons. The buttons are nice and quiet. The smooth, anti-glare surface on the pad worked just fine in our testing.

You’ll see three additional mouse buttons above the touch pad; these are for the UltraNav solution, otherwise known as the eraser head pointing stick located in the center of the keyboard. The UltraNav has been a hallmark ThinkPad feature since the beginning. It’s intuitive to use, and the buttons have good feedback. The eraser head is swappable; Lenovo offers several different ones as accessories.

Lenovo ThinkPad P51 Components

Although our $2,471 review unit was loaded to the gills with options, you can get this notebook with a very potent loadout for under $2,000. The starting price as we wrote this was $1,279. The base model gets you a powerful Intel Core i7-7700HQ quad-core processor, a 1080p IPS display, and Nvidia Quadro M1200 professional graphics. It has just 8GB of RAM and a 1TB hard drive, though; we’d recommend 16GB of RAM and a solid-state drive (SSD) for the best performance, as our review unit was so equipped.

Our review unit’s approximately twofold price hike over the base model can be explained by a few key components. Our model has the 4K display, as we detailed earlier in this review, which includes a color calibration sensor and an upgrade to the Quadro M2200 GPU. In addition, it has Windows 10 Pro as opposed to Home, 16GB of RAM, and a large 512GB storage drive.

The Xeon E3-1535M v6 processor in our review unit is one of the very fastest quad-core processors you can get in a notebook. It runs at 3.1GHz base and can jump up to 4.2GHz, as opposed to the standard Core i7-7700HQ, which runs at 2.8GHz base, goes up to 3.8GHz in Turbo Boost. The Core i7 and the Xeon chip are based on almost identical technology; the primary difference is that the Xeon supports error-correcting code (ECC) memory. You can get up to 64 gigabytes’ worth in the ThinkPad P51. ECC memory is mostly used in applications where every digit counts, such as financial and scientific calculations. In essence, if you don’t need ECC memory for what you’re doing, the upgrade to the Xeon processor probably isn’t worth the extra money.

Graphics-wise, the ThinkPad P51’s choices are both Nvidia Quadro professional cards. These cards are based on the consumer-level GeForce silicon, but have special drivers and support for things like 10-bit color. The Quadro M2200 in our review unit is the most powerful GPU offered in the ThinkPad P51; it’s about equivalent to a midrange GeForce card in gaming performance. It’s capable of playing today’s AAA games, but not at upper detail settings in most cases. The Quadro cards are optimized for applications such as AutoCAD and 3ds Max, not gaming.

Wireless connectivity in the ThinkPad P51 comes from an Intel 8265AC wireless card, which has support for the latest 802.11ac band. Bluetooth 4.2 personal wireless is also standard. Lenovo offers wireless mobile broadband as an upgrade.

We mock-built a ThinkPad P51, starting with the base model. With the 1080p IPS display, Core i7-7700HQ processor, 16GB of memory, a 512GB SSD, and the backlit keyboard, it came out to $1,703. Lenovo’s prices are known to fluctuate, so look for sales. Either way, we think that’s a reasonable price for a workstation of this caliber. An HP ZBook 15 G4 with a nearly identical loadout came out to $1,990. A Dell Precision 7520 was a bit more still, at $2,090.

Our Lenovo ThinkPad P51 review unit has the following technical specifications:

  • 15.6-inch 4K display (3,840×2,160 resolution, IPS panel, anti-glare surface) w/ built-in Pantone color sensor
  • Windows 10 Pro 64-bit
  • Intel Xeon E3-1535M v6 quad-core processor (3.1GHz, up to 4.2GHz Turbo Boost, 8MB cache, 45-watt TDP)
  • Nvidia Quadro M2200 w/ 4GB GDDR5 dedicated memory
  • Intel HD Graphics P630 integrated graphics
  • 16GB DDR4-2400 dual-channel RAM (2x 8GB; 64GB max. supported – 4x 16GB)
  • 512GB M.2 PCI Express SSD (SAMSUNG MZVLW512HMJP-000L7)
  • Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 8265 w/ Bluetooth 4.2
  • Backlit keyboard
  • Integrated fingerprint reader
  • 6-cell 90 watt-hour li-polymer battery
  • 1-year limited warranty
  • Dimensions: 14.9 x 9.9 x 1 inches
  • Weight: 5.6 pounds
  • Starting price: $1,279
  • Price as configured: $2,471

Lenovo ThinkPad P51 Benchmarks

PCMark8 Home (Accelerated) measures overall system performance in Windows 8 for general activities from web browsing and video streaming to typing documents and playing games (higher scores mean better performance):

PCMark8 Work (Accelerated) measures overall system performance in Windows 8 for work-related productivity tasks (higher scores mean better performance):

3DMark Fire Strike is a newer DirectX 11 benchmark that measures overall graphics card performance for gaming (higher scores mean better performance):

CrystalDiskMark storage drive performance test:

wPrime processor comparison results (listed in seconds – lower scores mean better performance):

Lenovo ThinkPad P51 Heat and Noise

Two fans handle the cooling needs for the ThinkPad P51. They are located on either rear corner of the chassis. The primary air intake is from under the chassis, while the air is sent out the sides and rear of the chassis. We noticed the fans spinning only while we were running our stress tests, but even then they were hard to pick out over background noise. The fans didn’t produce much in the way of sound volume.

To test the cooling system, we ran the Futuremark 3DMark FireStrike Stress Test, which runs for about 10 minutes looping through a demanding 3D scene. The outside of the ThinkPad P51 remained lukewarm; the peak temperature we recorded on the top of the chassis was 97 degrees F, while on the underside, a slightly warmer 102 degrees F near the cooling fans. Our testing room was about 68 degrees F, for reference.

We used HWMonitor to collect the internal component temperatures during the stress test. The Nvidia Quadro M2200 GPU topped out at just 67 degrees C, but the Intel Xeon E3-1535M CPU hit 90 degrees C. The CPU is rated for higher than that, but it really should be running a bit cooler. The high temperatures didn’t seem to affect performance, though.

Lenovo ThinkPad P51 Battery Life

We use Futuremarks’ Powermark benchmark to test battery life. Set in Balanced mode, this test is more strenuous than a traditional battery rundown test. It simulates a variety of activity, including automated web browsing, office productivity, video playback, videoconferencing, and gaming workloads. We run the test with the notebook in the Windows Balanced power plan, the screen set to approximately 50 percent brightness, and the wireless and Bluetooth radios disabled.

Powermark battery life comparison results (listed in minutes – higher scores mean better performance):

Thanks to its large 6-cell 90 watt-hour battery, the ThinkPad P51 lasted an excellent 4 hours and 37 minutes. This time is about an hour shy of what we recorded from the ThinkPad T470, a much less powerful 14-inch business notebook. Keep in mind this test is quite demanding; you should be able to squeeze out another 30 percent on top of this number with less demanding activity and further reduced screen brightness.

Lenovo ThinkPad P51 Power Adapter

The power adapter that came with our ThinkPad P51 review unit is considerably larger than the ones you’ll see included with mainstream business notebooks. That’s because this adapter must supply more power for the ThinkPad P51’s workstation-grade components. This brick supplies 170 watts (20V, 8.5A) of power, whereas an everyday notebook might have a 45-watt adapter. The brick itself is 6×2.75×1 inches; with the cables, the whole setup weighs just over one pound. That makes for a considerable amount of extra bulk while traveling.

The power plug to the wall is of the two-prong variety; that section of the cord measures 36 inches. The cord from the adapter to the notebook is 60 inches. Counting the 6-inch length of the brick itself, that leaves you with 8.5 feet of total reach from the wall plug, which is about average for a notebook. The power adapter doesn’t have any special features, such as indicator LEDs or built-in ports.

Conclusion

We were more than impressed by the Lenovo ThinkPad P51. This mobile workstation has as much power as you can expect to find in 15.6-inch chassis. Be forewarned that at 5.6 pounds, it’s not the lightest machine out there, and that’s not counting its one-pound power adapter. Nonetheless, we thought the weight was justified by its outstanding build quality and long battery life.

We were especially impressed with the ThinkPad P51’s level of expandability. It fits up to three storage drives (two M.2 SSDs, and a 2.5-inch drive) and 64GB of memory (four 16GB modules). You can even get ECC memory if you want, as the ThinkPad P51 can be equipped with an Intel Xeon server-class processor.

The Nvidia Quadro M2200 graphics card in our review unit wasn’t on the level of a desktop Quadro GPU, but it was fast enough to hold its own. The competing Dell Precision 7520 and the HP ZBook 15 mobile workstations also top out with that GPU, so Lenovo isn’t at a disadvantage there.

The ThinkPad P51 started at $1,279 as we wrote this review, although our very well-equipped review unit went for about twice that. We were able to configure a more balanced configuration for just over $1,700, though. When mock-configuring the competing HP and Dell machines, the ThinkPad P51 was usually several hundred less, though the price gap can be closer depending on sales. At least Lenovo is usually on the lower side the price comparisons. 

Overall, the ThinkPad P51 combines excellent workstation-grade performance into a solid 15.6-inch chassis that can take a beating. We’d like to see it come with a longer standard warranty period than one-year, but otherwise have little to complain about.

Pros:

  • Beautiful 4K display
  • Excellent keyboard, touch pad, and pointing stick
  • Available server-class components
  • Impressive battery life

Cons:

  • Options quickly add to the price
  • Only a 1-year warranty is standard



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