The third in our line of Lenovo mobile workstation reviews serves up the Lenovo ThinkPad P50. It’s been a long time coming, and overdue to be honest. The upside of the delay is I’ve managed to use this device day in, day out for nearly 3 months during my day job as an CAD / CAM application engineer. So I’ve been running Autodesk Inventor, Inventor HSM, Solidworks, HSMWorks, Autodesk AutoCAD and Fusion 360 extensively. On top of that I’ve made use of it during my personal life and while travelling for work, so I’ve developed a pretty decent feel for how this unit performs in the real world.
My first impressions pulling the ThinkPad P50 out of its box upon arrival were great. I was immediately struck by the simple design, clean lines, how slimline & relatively weightless it was. But above all else it felt solid. The build quality and finish is great. Then when I discovered the specification of the unit Lenovo sent me, PCIe SSD’s & a Intel Xeon CPU instead of an i7!! I went weak at the knees, what a beast!
Lenovo ThinkPad P50 Design
The keyboard layout is spot on, with the exception of the odd decision to reverse the Fn & Ctrl keys in the bottom left hand corner of the keyboard, everything else matches convention. It has a dedicated Print Screen button, which I use ALL THE TIME for creating documentation and support cases. The Escape key doubles as a Fn key lock, allowing you to toggle the function of the F keys along the top of the keyboard to behave either as numbered F keys, or hardware keys. Using F1 as an example, with FnLk toggled on (achieved by holding down the Fn key and pressing the Escape key), it becomes the mute button rather than the key people universally press to access your applications help file. Ideal!! With perfectly weighted keys, this keyboard is a joy to use.
The touchpad has a great feel, and the finish is lovely since it does have a bit of texture instead of being super smooth like a lot of its rivals are. I have to wonder though, how long will it last? The appearance of the touchpad exhibits a slight sparkle, which is the premium coating Lenovo refer to as ‘crystal silk’, so I would expect it to stand the test of time.
Lenovo have developed a new approach to mobile workstation heat management, branded FLEX performance cooling. It’s essentially a dynamic cooling system built around two fans, that allows the system to direct air flow to the system components in most need of it at any given time. From a reliability standpoint, this introduces a level of redundancy that I’ve not come across in another mobile workstations so far. What struck me the most about this cooling system is the noise it makes on start up, it sounds like a server booting up! There is a serious amount of power behind these fans, and as such when they are running under normal load its a walk in the park for them. As a result you barely ever hear the beauties.
Aside from the silence, what this practically translates to is a consistently cool surface on which to place your hands while typing and using the touchpad. Which in all but the coldest of climates is likely to be a bonus. Down here during the New Zealand summers I would certainly appreciate it, because my hands can get quite hot typing away on my usual mobile workstation.
So what about air flow? Where does all that hot air exit the unit? Well the bottom of the machine is like a sieve, there are intake slots everywhere, which is great. The two fans are positioned in the back corners, so all of the air gets ejected out the periphery of those corners. This frees up space along the back edge, between the rear exhausts, for connectivity.
I have a pet hate with laptops, cables. They end up sprawling out from the device in all directions, and often OEM’s don’t do a good job of positioning the connectors during the design of the system board. So how does the Lenovo ThinkPad P50 stack up?
Well, they’ve done a better job than most. All the most common connections are at the back, which immediately gets the bulk of the cables out of the way. On the right hand side of this device, there are two USB connectors, the Mini-Display port and a headphone / microphone jack. I definitely agree with having a couple of USB slots on the side, so you can quickly pop a USB drive in and out of the machine easily or plug in your slimline wireless peripheral dongles. However, I would much rather see the audio jack on the front edge of the laptop and the Mini-Display port around the back of the device next to the HDMI connector. I ended up having to use the Mini-Display port to connect to my 23″ external monitor, and so it often got in the way of my CadMouse.
Overall, I honestly feel like this is the best designed Windows based laptop I have ever used.
Day to day use
4k Ultra High Definition Screens
One of the elements I was excited to try out with this Thinkpad was the 4K panel it came with. I had no prior experience with Ultra HD, and was keen to see how my most used applications behaved at that resolution, as well as finally being able to watch some native 4K content. I was already aware that they would be issues, and that Windows 10 is still developing to support connecting monitors of varying resolutions. So I was pretty open minded about how the experience would turn out.
Using the Lenovo ThinkPad P50 by itself, with no other lower resolution monitors connected and modern applications that support 4k is a joy. It’s simply stunning. But at this point in time, that just isn’t practical. Microsoft Office 2013 & 2016 is fine, Autodesk Inventor 2017 is fine, Solidworks 2016 is beautiful in 4K, the Adobe Creative Cloud products are also fine. BUT, Snagit & Camtasia are hideous to the point of being barely useable. Prior versions of Inventor & Solidworks aren’t good. Autodesk Fusion 360 can just about manage it (but it depends which way the wind is blowing). HSMWorks & Inventor HSM are usable but don’t deliver 4k support like their respective CAD applications do. Not even Nvidia have updated their control panel software to support 4K properly yet either!!
These limitations aren’t unique to Lenovo, and I certainly can’t blame them for any of it. It’s early days for 4K. If you only run software that already supports Ultra High Def, then go for it, get this screen. Otherwise just stick to 1080p.
For the last 3 months I’ve been taking this everywhere with me, along side my normal mobile workstation. To put it simply, I’d much rather be carrying around this ThinkPad P50 any day. It’s thinner, quieter, has a superior build and finish, and is way faster with MUCH better battery life.
Talking about battery life, what have I been doing with it and how does it perform? During the first couple of weeks, I barely used it while it was plugged in. I’d fire up Inventor & Solidworks several times a day. Outlook, Skype, Teamviewer, Edge, Firefox & Chrome were open all day. Excel definitely made an appearance several times, as well as running some virtual PC’s and Servers. The battery nearly always made it through a 9 hour day with a little to spare. Which is in stark contrast to my current machine. I’m never far from a plug socket though, nevertheless, it’s always nice to know you have that much juice available to you when you are away from the desk but still working. The battery life is made all the more impressive when you remember there are 8,294,400 pixels being lit up and manipulated that whole time.
Power management really did impress me, and it seems that Nvidia and Intel have nailed the balance of power consumption vs output with the Maxwell and Xeon based processors. Previous generations did a terrible job of switching between discrete and CPU based graphics processors. So you would invariably have to force the use of the discrete GPU 100% of the time, thereby saying goodbye to any reasonable battery life.
For a start it’s a ThinkPad… so it should be built well based on it’s long standing reputation. Lenovo have been wise to continue that trend from ThinkPad’s IBM origins. This P50, along with the the Lenovo ThinkPad P40 Yoga and the ThinkPad P70, have all passed MIL-STD 810G military certification tests. In the case of the P50, it passed 11 external certifications, demonstrating system durability and adherence to stringent government and military customer requirements. Jump over to the Beyond MIL-SPEC page to read more about tough this units are.
There is nothing fancy in appearance about this laptop, it’s clean lines, and the GFRP display cover and magnesium/aluminum chassis accentuate it’s solid build. It’s light enough to feel modern but heavy enough that reminds you it packs a punch.
X-Rite Pantone Color Calibrator
What a great idea!! I love the way this is integrated. The tool prompts you to calibrate the screen every fortnight. To get the calibration started, you click on the notification, then from the resulting dialog you choose the calibration standard. All you do then is start the test, and close the lid until the P50 has stopped beeping. I’ve always wanted an easy way to calibrate my monitors so I could get my colours as close to printing quality as I could. Does it work? YES! Using the Autodesk CAM website as an example, I’ve never seen the colour of that orange displayed correctly, it’s never come close to how the printed media looks, but after calibrating the screen for the first time it was absolutely bang on. I was really impressed.
However, the tool isn’t that reliable, it kept telling me the monitor had physically changed some how since the last test. To fix this error, you have to reinstall the utility each time. Which is of course a pain in the arse. With that in mind, I would still opt in on that sensor if you ever create any printed media from your workstation.
AJA System Test (PCIe SSD)
Using a 4GB test file size
- File per frame: 960 MB/s (40 fps) Write & 1898 MB/s (84 fps) Read
- Single file: 1450 MB/s (64 fps) Write & 2041 MB/s (90 fps) Read
In summary… from now on, every single new PC I spec, will have a PCIe SSD hard drive in them. Those numbers are unbelievable and the technology is only just getting started.
Cinebench is a GPU & CPU focused test, it’s very simple with very few choices for configuration. It provides a handy series of reference specifications, giving you a good idea of where your hardware sits in the current workstation hardware scene.
- OpenGL: 34.97 fps
- OpenGL Reference Match: 99.6%
- CPU: 719 cb
- CPU Single Core: 144 cb
- MP Ratio: 5.00
This ThinkPad P50 sat in the upper half of all the test results. Reinforcing it’s intended position within the workstation market. It would be nice if Maxon filtered the results between mobile & desktop based workstation hardware. Either way, the P50 performs excellently for its class.
All the tests were performed with a window size of 1900 x 1060. I chose to only run the Media & Entertainment, Product Development and General Operations tests, with a focus on SSD/NVMe hard drive testing. The following Composite scores for their relative Viewsets are listed below.
- Catia-04 = 4.34
- Creo-01 = 3.92
- Maya-04 = 7.73
- Showcase-01 = 3.51
- SNX-02 = 4.74
- SWx-03 = 2.62
- General Operations = 1.03
The way SPECwpc compiles results is different to how SPECviewperf 12 does. In my opinion it represents a better test for CAD workstation benchmarking, than the more heavily focused GPU testing in SPECviewperf. So any comparison to previous tests would be meaningless. However, this should provide a good base moving forward, assuming it won’t be changed again any time soon. SPECwpc’s tests are far more exhaustive, with multiple tests for each product, meaning the overall score for each product is a composite of all the test scores.
When you compare these results to reports on the SPECwpc results page, it’s clear to see that the mobile Xeon CPU & PCIe SSD are lifting the mobile workstation game significantly when compared to the Dell Precision M4800 & the HP Book 17 G2. It’s really quite impressive.
To find out more about SPECwpc check out their SPECwpc V2.0 Benchmark page.
HSMWorks Performance Test
This is a pretty handy real world test of pure CPU compute power, combined with hard drive and memory performance. The utility just through a bunch of standard surface extraction and toolpath generation routines, then reports on CPU & memory usage, and the time taken. The P50 ranked as 676.2 overall (higher is better) against their database.
|Task Description||CPU||Memory||Time Elapsed|
That’s a lot of toolpath data, processed in a pretty short space of time!
Petrikas P2 – Autodesk Inventor 2017
In the same way I did with the HP ZBook 15 review a couple of years ago, here I’m going to perform the same basic test using Gus Petrikas’ Petrikas P2 Inventor model:
- Load a ‘normal’ sized model from Windows Explorer, cold starting Inventor while we do so.
- Run a ‘Good’ quality Ray Tracing job within Inventor. Best often takes too long
While not a massive model, the Petrikas P2 does have a reasonably high level of detail using 644 file references of which 312 are unique. And it looks really cool.
Right now for the Ray Trace test. I used the following settings & Environment:
Ray Tracing has changed somewhat between Inventor 2014 & 2017, previously I’ve let it run to complete the ‘Better’ ray trace quality. However, Inventor 2017 will keep ray tracing infinitely based on a lighting and shadow quality setting. So I just let it run on draft quality for 307 seconds, so we can compare the quality to my last ray trace test with this model. It’s a bit of a cheat, because Ray Tracing is so much better in Inventor these days. However, on balance, the ThinkPad P50 is ray tracing a near 4K image here instead of 1080p.
Test Unit Hardware
- Intel Xeon E3-1505M v55 (2.8GHz)
- NVIDIA Quadro M2000M (4GB), with the Intel HD 530 chip integrated on the Xeon CPU
- 16GB 2133MHz DDRR4, non-ECC
- 15.6″ 4k IPS (3840 x 2160), 300 nit, 100% NTSC Gamut
- 512GB Samsung NVMe PCEe M.2 Solid State Drive
- Intel Dual Band Wireless AC 8260 + Bluetooth 4.1
- 6 Cell (60WHr) Lithium Polymer battery
- X-Rite Pantone Color Calibrator
- 720p low light sensitive, fixed focus camera (I did a few international Skype calls with it, and it worked flawlessly)
- 14.86″ x 9.93″ x 0.96-1.16″ weighing in at 5.9lbs
- 377.5 x 252.2 x 24.4-29.5 mm weighing in at 2.8kg
- 4 USB 3.0 (one Always On), two at the back and two on the side
- 1 USB Type-C / Thunderbolt 3 (very useful for my new Nexus 6P mobile phone)
- 1 Mini DisplayPort
- 1 HDMI (There are some issues with some HDMI > DisplayPort cables/monitor combinations)
- 1 Ethernet (RJ-45)
- 4-in-1 reader (MMC, SD, SDHC, SDXC) supports UHS-II SD card
- 1 ExpressCard/34
- Dock connector
Lenovo allow you to significantly customize your ThinkPad P50 within a fairly broad range of specifications. Nip over to their eStore and have a play with their product configurator. I would go with the spec of this machine as a base, but got with the 1080p panel, 32GB of RAM and then buy a 3rd party 512GB SSD to drop in for extra storage & installation of less critical applications. All in all, bang for buck, Lenovo offer great value with excellent quality.
Lenovo ThinkPad P50 Review Conclusion – Would I buy it?
Yes…. I don’t want to give it back. The quality and performance of the ThinkPad P50 is right up there, and it’s priced competitively. If Lenovo has a good distribution network in your country, then you should definitely be considering Lenovo alongside the Dell’s & HP’s.
Some additional random comments I thought I should share are:
The BIOS has some really neat features that I will miss. It’s not like you go into the BIOS all that often, but when I’ve wanted to see if something was there on previous systems I’ve used, I’ve often been disappointed. The Lenovo BIOS had me impressed.
From a personal usage point of view. It was nice watching pure 4K content on the P50 and the built in speakers have a decent amount of grunt with good sound quality. It’s not really something you would think is needed in a workstation, but they actually suck quite badly in the HP ZBook. Having good speakers means you can play content for people to watch during presentations, without having to hook into an external audio source. Finally I quite enjoyed being able to Cast any video and audio content to the new TV in our bedroom, without the nightmare of having to deal with iTunes, that is a win for Windows 10 though rather than the P50.
Studio Image credits – Lenovo
Disclaimer: Lenovo provided this ThinkPad P50 to Design and Motion free of charge and had no influence over the content of this review.