Lenovo ThinkPad P53 Review: A True Mobile Workstation
In the Era Dominated by Ultraportables, a True Mobile Workstation Remains
In a laptop industry that seems exclusively focused on weight and style at the expense of performance and flexibility, it’s refreshing to know that some choices still exist for power users who value performance and capabilities above all else. Enter the Lenovo ThinkPad P53, a beefy 15-inch mobile workstation that offers high-end processors, workstation-class graphics cards, huge storage and memory options, and more ports than you ever thought you’d see on a laptop in 2019.
Starting price: $1,169
As reviewed: $4,300
With a starting weight of 5.5 pounds and measuring in at 24.5mm thick, the ThinkPad P53 dwarfs most of the laptops you’ll find on the market today, save for perhaps the higher end gaming laptops and previous generation mobile workstations. But that hefty size allows for some pretty impressive specs.
The ThinkPad P53 can accommodate up to an 8-core i9-9880H processor, NVIDIA Quadro RTX 5000 graphics with 16GB of video memory, up to 128GB of system memory via four SO-DIMM slots, and up to three M.2 NVMe SSDs. There’s also a Xeon option (Xeon E-2276M) with support for ECC memory for those who need extra protection for data integrity. Other key features include Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5 support via the Intel AX200, a fingerprint reader, a 720p IR camera with manual ThinkShutter control, and an optional 4K OLED display.
ThinkPad P53 Review Configuration
For our review, Lenovo sent us a model configured with the 6-core i7-9850H, 64GB of DDR4 2666MHz (2x32GB) memory, a Quadro RTX 5000 GPU, a 1TB Samsung PM981 NVMe SSD, and the 1920×1080 anti-glare HDR display. See below for the complete specifications.
Lenovo pricing is often quite variable due to frequent sales and changing component costs, but as of the date of this review’s publication our test system configuration would run you about $4,300 before tax. However, due to the large number of configurable options, the P53 lineup starts at around $1,200 (i5-9400H / 8GB RAM / 256GB SSD / Quadro T1000).
For our evaluation period, we tested the system with the latest build of Windows 10 Pro 1903 and all available supplemental Windows updates and security patches applied.
The P53 is unmistakably a ThinkPad, with a black metal and plastic chassis, durable-feeling hinges, and a substantial but well-balanced weight. Its overall footprint is large for a modern 15-inch laptop, with relatively thick bezels around the display. This however allows for the inclusion of a full keyboard with numeric keypad, positioned in an offset layout with the trackpad shifted left. A full row of combo function keys allows for quick access to common system functions, while small LEDs along the base of the display indicate wireless connectivity and drive activity (these lights can be disabled in the laptop’s BIOS if desired).
The laptop’s large chassis also allows for ample airflow, with vents on the bottom and air exhausts on the left, right, and rear. However, it seems that Lenovo prioritized noise over cooling, as despite the relatively large intakes and exhausts, the system’s fans don’t ramp up in time to prevent thermal throttling. As we’ll see a bit later, the P53 can maintain a reasonable all-core processor boost, but more significant throttling can occur when both the CPU and GPU are taxed. Oddly, the fans remain almost whisper quiet for several minutes of excessively high temperatures before finally ramping up. For a system brimming with high-performance components, it seems an odd choice to have the thermal profile be so conservative.
Returning to the design of the P53, above its display is the 720p webcam with IR capability and support for Windows Hello. A small plastic ThinkShutter slider allows for physical obstruction of the camera for privacy. As a ThinkPad, the P53 of course offers a pointing stick (“nub”) option for cursor control with left, right, and middle buttons just below the space bar. A multi-point touchpad is also available as an alternative input with an additional set of buttons beneath it. The P53’s fingerprint sensor is located to the right of the touchpad below the arrow keys.
There are no shortage of ports on the ThinkPad P53. The left side of the laptop includes a full-size HDMI 2.0 port, two USB 3.1 Gen 1 Type-A ports (with one offering always-on capability), and a “4-in-1” media card reader (SD, SDHC, SDXC, and MMC).
The right side offers a 3.5mm headphone/microphone combo jack, one USB 3.1 Gen 1 Type-C port, a SIM tray for optional WWAN connectivity, and a Kensington Lock slot.
On the rear of the laptop you’ll find a full-size RJ45 Gigabit Ethernet port (Intel I219-LM), two Thunderbolt 3 ports, and the connector for the laptop’s 230W AC power adapter, which Lenovo says is 35 percent smaller than the P53’s predecessor. We found that having the Ethernet and Thunderbolt ports on the rear of the laptop was handy for keeping docking station-related cables out of the way.
For those who appreciate upgradeability, the bottom of the ThinkPad P53 may just be the most exciting part. Seven screws affix a large metal plate to the bottom of the laptop. Remove that plate and you’ll find upgradeability and repairability galore. Three 2280 M.2 NVMe slots, the removable 90 watt-hour battery and networking card, and two RAM slots.
There’s actually a total of four memory slots, with two on the other side of the board which require a bit more complicated disassembly to reach. Conveniently, however, Lenovo places the factory-installed memory in those other slots if possible (up to 64GB as 2x32GB SO-DIMMs) leaving two easy-to-access empty slots for future DIY upgrades.
There are four display options for the ThinkPad P53:
- 1920×1080 IPS anti-glare 300 nits
- 1920×1080 IPS anti-glare 500 nits with Dolby Vision HDR 400
- 3840×2160 IPS anti-glare 500 nits with Dolby Vision HDR 400
- 3840×2160 OLED multi-touch 350 nits with Dolby Vision HDR 500
As stated, our review unit shipped with the second configuration. We measured the display using a Datacolor Spyder5Elite and found that it offers relatively good color accuracy and contrast out of the box , although it loses a few marks for luminance uniformity.
In terms of color gamut, we measured the 1080p 500 nits display as able to cover 77 percent of AdobeRGB and 100 percent of sRGB.
Lenovo targets its P-series ThinkPads at professionals with demanding workloads, such as architects, designers, and engineers. The i7-9850H processor in our review unit is a 45W TDP part that can operate at a PL2 of about 52W in this case. As mentioned above, the P53’s conservative fan profile may lead to a bit of throttling initially if both the CPU and GPU are under heavy load, but once the fans finally kick in, the system runs relatively well.
We used Cinebench to measure all-core CPU frequency under load, and found that it settled at about 3.3GHz at 100 percent utilization.
We ran a series of tests looking at both standard benchmark suites as well as professional-focused benchmarks. Since we do not have any other laptops of this class in our benchmark database, we’re providing the results of each test below so that readers can compare results to other workstation-class laptops they may be considering.
All tests were performed with our standard methodology, which involves running each test three times and averaging the results. With the exception of battery life tests, all tests were run with the laptop fully charged and connected to the AC adapter, and with the Windows power settings configured for maximum performance.
|Lenovo ThinkPad P53 / Intel Core i7-9850H|
|V-Ray Benchmark||CPU (ksamples)||8,369|
|Unigine Superposition||1080p Extreme||2,092|
|Blender Benchmark||BMW (seconds)||405|
|Seq QD32T1||3,554 / 3,026|
|4K QD8T8||1,475 / 1,341|
|4K QD32T1||584 / 498|
|4K QD1T1||51 / 149|
|Wi-Fi (iPerf 3)||Mbps||929|
|Battery Life||Office (minutes)||322|
For the Wi-Fi test in the benchmark table above, we used iPerf 3.1.3 to test 10 simultaneous connections over 30 seconds with a Netgear Nighthawk RAX120 Wi-Fi 6 router and a 10Gbps wired connection to the local server. The P53 was positioned in the same room as the router, approximately 10 feet apart.
For battery life testing, we use PCMark 10‘s Office and Gaming suites. The Office test runs a series of standard productivity applications — word processing, spreadsheets, web browsing, video conferencing — with idle periods in an effort to replicate a realistic workload. The Gaming test runs demos similar to UL’s 3DMark test. We view the Office test as a realistic “light” workload, and the Gaming test as a “heavy” workload. For all tests, the laptop’s display is calibrated to 200 nits brightness. For the Office test, Windows power management is set to best battery life, while for Gaming it is set to best performance.
There are a few quirks and issues we noticed during our evaluation that are worth pointing out:
Integrated Graphics: The ThinkPad P53 is powered by an i7-9850H which of course includes Intel’s integrated UHD Graphics 630. As with most PCs that pair a CPU’s integrated graphics with a discrete GPU, you’ll want to use the integrated graphics whenever the more powerful discrete GPU is not needed in order to save battery life. With the P53, however, there’s no on-the-fly way to enable the iGPU. The system ships in its “maximum performance” configuration, which uses only the Quadro RTX 5000. You’ll need to reboot and enter the laptop’s BIOS configuration to enable the iGPU. Note, however, that the keyboard’s screen brightness keys do not work in this mode.
Coil Whine: This isn’t necessarily an issue for the entire P53 product line since variations can occur on an individual component level, but we encountered noticeable coil whine from the Quadro RTX 5000. Any task that put the GPU under heavy load produced a consistent coil whine that was clearly noticeable above the laptop’s fan and room noise. Again, this doesn’t mean that your P53 will have this issue, but we’ve seen similar reports from two other P53 users so make sure to check for it and return if necessary if you purchase a P53 for yourself.
The Lenovo ThinkPad P53 is overall an impressive mobile workstation. It doesn’t have the sleek looks of today’s ultraportable laptops, but it still touts that classic ThinkPad aesthetic and offers incredible power and flexibility. You get all of the latest technology — Thunderbolt 3, RTX graphics, Wi-Fi 6, etc. — in a form factor that still allows you to upgrade your memory and storage.
In particular, we’re looking at the P53 as a candidate for a mobile video podcast production system. Its RTX graphics options enable higher quality Turing-based NVENC encoding, its Gigabit Ethernet port and Wi-Fi 6 support ensure a quality network connection to remote video calls or live streaming services, and its three M.2 slots give you the option for terabytes of fast storage.
The inability to quickly switch between integrated and highest performance discrete graphics modes is a slight negative, as is the possible coil whine, but there’s so much potential here that it’s certainly worth a test drive if you need this level of performance and flexibility.
This disclosure identifies the nature of the relationship between PC Perspective and the manufacturer or distributor of this product for the purpose of this review.
How Product Was Obtained
The laptop was loaned to PC Perspective by Lenovo for the purpose of this review.
What Happens To Product After Review
The laptop is returned to Lenovo.
Lenovo had no control over the content of the review and was not consulted prior to publication.
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