The ThinkPad X1 Extreme Makes Me Believe in Laptops Again

Rating: 9/10 ?
  • 1 - Absolute Hot Garbage
  • 2 - Sorta Lukewarm Garbage
  • 3 - Strongly Flawed Design
  • 4 - Some Pros, Lots Of Cons
  • 5 - Acceptably Imperfect
  • 6 - Good Enough to Buy On Sale
  • 7 - Great, But Not Best-In-Class
  • 8 - Fantastic, with Some Footnotes
  • 9 - Shut Up And Take My Money
  • 10 - Absolute Design Nirvana
Price: $1550+
ThinkPad X1 Extreme second gen.
Michael Crider

For over a decade I’ve worked almost exclusively from my self-assembled desktop. It’s admittedly indulgent, with periodic processor and GPU upgrades and three ridiculous, meticulously-arrayed monitors. Since building it I’ve relied on low-power, travel-friendly laptops and tablets to do mobile work, believing even the most bombastic “desktop replacement” laptop would simply never do.

Here's What We Like

  • Crazy-beautiful screen
  • Incredible performance
  • Great size and weight
  • ThinkPad aesthetics

And What We Don't

  • Battery life is so short it's sad
  • Loud and hot under load
  • Poor webcam

I was wrong. The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme is, in fact, all that and a bag of chips. It can’t quite replace the flexibility of my desktop setup (and to be fair, it doesn’t claim to). But it makes so few compromises in such a wonderfully appealing package that I don’t care.

For the first time since college, I believe in laptops as the single full-power machine I might use exclusively again.

Super-Size the X1

ThinkPad fans will already be familiar with the design sensibilities of the X1 line: it’s basically Lenovo’s button-down take on the standard ultraportable, with 13- or 14-inch screens and super-thin, super-light bodies made of magnesium alloy and carbon fiber. The X1 Extreme takes the same approach but super-sizes the body with a 15.6-inch screen.

ThinkPad X1 Extreme
Michael Crider

Because that’s a lot of screen to lug around, there’s no option for a convertible or “Yoga” version, though the laptop does have a touchscreen. It’s quite thin (18mm, .7 inches) for something this size, but it’s heavier than the smaller X1 series at 3.7 pounds. That said, it’s still crazy-light for something with this much power.

How much power, you ask? The X1 Extreme series comes with a Core i9 processor and a discrete GeForce GTX 1650, standard. That’s enough oomph to put it above most desktops sold at retail, and even hold its own against budget gaming desktops. It’s a fantastic amount of power to be crammed in a relatively small, thin laptop.

Bottom vents on the X1 Extreme.
It has to have big vents. Because of the powah. Michael Crider

At the time of writing, X1 Extreme (generation 2) builds start at a bit over $1500 with 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD, and the standard 1080p screen. Our review unit bumps up the specs with a 4K OLED screen (more on that later), 32GB of RAM, 1TB of storage, and a processor upgrade to the i9-9880H. The exact price is hard to guess based on Lenovo’s constantly-shifting online store and discounts, but it’s safe to say you’ll be spending the lion’s share of $3000 on that configuration.

A Body That Doesn’t Quit…

ThinkPad aesthetics are divisive. I’m a fan of the muted blacks and greys, enhanced on the X1 series by carbon fiber patterns on the lids. But if you’re looking for a laptop that will turn heads, this isn’t it…until they get a look at the OLED screen.

ThinkPad X1 Extreme keyboard.
Michael Crider

In terms of usability, the X1 Extreme is pure ThinkPad. That means the best laptop keyboard in the business, complete with a pretty-good trackpad and the TrackPoint (the infamous “nipple mouse”) for those who want it. Naturally, the keyboard is backlit. The only thing I’d change is Lenovo’s stubborn insistence on putting the Fn modifier key where the left Ctrl key should be, a setting I instantly changed in the laptop’s BIOS.

The built-in webcam is pretty dreadful in terms of image quality, but it includes the physical shutter mechanism that all late-model ThinkPads do. There’s an optional upgrade to an infrared camera for Windows Hello biometrics, but the fingerprint reader to the right of the keyboard is included on the base model.

Webcam with shutter closed.
Michael Crider

The X1 Extreme is generous in terms of ports, but like the X1 Yoga, I wish it were more balanced. On the right side you get the Kensington lock slot, two standard USB-A ports, and—I can hear photographers whooping for joy—a full-sized SD card slot.

On the left is where most of the action sits, with the proprietary power port, two USB-C/Thunderbolt ports (which can also take power input), full-sized HDMI, and a combined headphone/microphone jack. The little rectangular port between them is a proprietary slot for an Ethernet dongle, which is sadly not included in the box. The left side has only USB-C ports, while the right side has only USB-A ports—swap one, please Lenovo?

Left and right side ports.
Left side: power, two USB-C, HFMI, ethernet adapter, headset. Right side: Full-sized SD card, two USB-A, lock port. Michael Crider

In terms of use, the 15.6-inch X1 Extreme travels very lightly, folding up into the bigger main pocket of my smaller Peak Design bag with ease. The only downers are a massive, old-fashioned power brick (a necessary pick over a USB-C charger if you want rapid battery refill ), and a tendency to pick up fingerprints on the keyboard deck and touchpad. A quick wipe-down will fix the latter.

…and a Battery that Does

If the X1 Extreme has a weakness, and it does, it’s the battery life. In regular use I got between four and six hours out of its 4-cell, 80Wh battery. On my standard pass-out test, with a bunch of Chrome tabs including a looping YouTube video, middle brightness and volume, it dipped just below the three hour mark.

X1 in a Peak Design bag.
Michael Crider

This laptop will not last you on a cross-country flight. That’s hardly surprising, considering the high-powered components, but it’s sad to see one of the biggest shortcomings of the old “desktop replacement” laptop designs can’t be conquered. It’s hard to say whether I’d be willing to trade a thicker, heavier laptop for more battery life—it’s a really nice size and weight as it is.

X1 Extreme power adapter.
The battery charger is powerful, but huge. Michael Crider

Lenovo tries to overcome the short battery life with a massive, 135-watt charger. It will fill up the battery from nothing in between 60 and 90 minutes as you’re using it. That’s impressive, and a feat that can’t be duplicated with a smaller and more convenient USB-C charger.

But it’s cold comfort if you’re looking at a dead laptop with no power outlets in sight. I can’t help but wonder if the same laptop, paired with an i5 or i7 processor, might be a better travel companion.

Plenty of Power

Good God, this laptop is powerful. When completely replacing my main desktop, with three external monitors and the 4K screen going at once, it barely stuttered. The Core i9 paired with 32GB of memory is something to behold: it breezed through dozens of Chrome tabs, YouTube streams, and Photoshop documents without breaking a sweat.

X1 Extreme specification.

While the X1 Extreme isn’t labeled as a gaming or media creation machine, the discrete GTX 1650 GPU is punching above its weight anyway. I was able to play Overwatch at medium settings at 80-100 frames per second, even on this thing’s incredible 4K screen. I’d say that it’s well-equipped for almost any modern PC game, so long as you settle for some lowered settings and maybe bump things down to 1080p for more intense titles.

Also note: if you flex the X1 Extreme’s muscles, it’s going to grunt. Running my standard Chrome-heavy work environment was enough to activate the very noisy fans. Use any 3D application, and this thing sounds like a jet engine sitting on your desk.

Overwatch screenshot
The X1 sounds, and feels, like a jet engine while it’s rendering this game.

The GPU and CPU also make this thing extremely hot when running at full power—the center-top area of the keyboard deck, above the GPU, gets over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, easily. somehow the heat is pushed upward, not downward, dissipating more easily and not setting your jeans on fire.

The Colors, Duke, the Colors!

The 4K OLED screen on our X1 Extreme review unit is an optional and pricey upgrade. But it’s absolutely brilliant. The saturation of the colors, the incredible contrast, the pure, no-light-at-all blacks. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it’s the best screen I’ve ever seen on a laptop, period.

X1 Extreme OLED screen.
Taking a photo of an OLED screen so you can see how nice it looks on your LCD screen is kinda dumb. But here we are! Michael Crider

Watching television and movies on this screen is a delight. Even when using the laptop with giant, high-quality monitors, I would move the video window to the laptop screen. It’s not ideal for gaming, since the 4K native resolution will tax the GPU and the refresh rate maxes out at just 60Hz. But it’s still jaw-droppingly gorgeous, especially in games with bright colors or subtle variations.

Surprisingly, the audio on the X1 Extreme is also excellent. While no laptop is going to rattle your walls, the bottom-firing speakers on this laptop are loud and clear, giving a much better experience than most. You’ll still want external speakers or headphones for the best audio, but in a pinch, it’s more than adequate.

Upgrades Ahoy

Even in the ThinkPad series, user-accessible upgrades are becoming a thing of the past for laptops. The X1 Yoga I used at CES will void its warranty if you even think about swapping out for more RAM.

X1 with bottom cover removed.
Pictured: porn for engineers. Michael Crider

Not so on the bigger, beefier X1 Extreme. By removing seven Philips-head screws, the bottom panel lifts out easily. The screws even have stoppers, so you can’t lose them! With the bottom removed, the user has access to the M.2 SSD drives (two bays, one empty on our review unit), RAM DIMM slots (again, two full bays!), and wireless card. All these parts are standard and modular and can be replaced with off-the-shelf components. Fan-freakin-tastic!

With a little more work, the user can also remove more well-entrenched components, like the battery, cooling fans, and heatsinks. These components are custom-made, of course, but it means that if they wear out (as the battery certainly will eventually) you can repair them yourself without replacing the entire laptop.

SSD and RAM removed on the X1 Extreme.
SSD and RAM removed. Note that there are two user-accessible slots for each. Michael Crider

Let’s do a bit of a value experiment. At the time of writing, the base model ThinkPad X1 Extreme is $1550, with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. To max out these options on Lenovo’s site you’ll spend an extra $1061 for 64GB of RAM and $591 for a 1TB M.2 SSD drive. With some discounts applied on Lenovo’s site, the total comes to a substantial $2590. (Your mileage may vary.)

Grab comparable parts on Amazon, and you can spend just $250 on 64GB of RAM and $120 on a 1TB SSD, for a total price of $1920, almost $600 of savings (plus whatever you can sell the base RAM and SSD for). That’s enough budget left over for 4TB of flash storage on two SSDs, if you want. It pays to upgrade on your own!

Please Don’t Make Me Say Goodbye

The highest praise a tech reviewer can give is, “I don’t want to send this thing back.” That’s absolutely the case for the ThinkPad X1 Extreme. I’m completely in love with its jaw-dropping performance, easy upgrades, compact form factor, and straight-up gorgeous OLED screen. The classic ThinkPad elements like its keyboard and minimal software are bonuses.

X1 Extreme fully flattened.
Michael Crider

Getting that screen is pricey, and the X1 Extreme’s loud fans and teeny-tiny battery life will put off a lot of users. But if you’re looking for a laptop that can replace your desktop and hide in a travel bag with minimal effort, this is it. I’ll be heartbroken to see it go back to Lenovo.

Rating: 9/10
Price: $1550+

Here’s What We Like

  • Crazy-beautiful screen
  • Incredible performance
  • Great size and weight
  • ThinkPad aesthetics

And What We Don't

  • Battery life is so short it's sad
  • Loud and hot under load
  • Poor webcam

Michael Crider Michael Crider
Michael Crider has been writing about computers, phones, video games, and general nerdy things on the internet for ten years. He’s never happier than when he’s tinkering with his home-built desktop or soldering a new keyboard. Read Full Bio »

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