Lenovo ThinkPad P15 Gen 2 – Review 2021
After winning our Editors’ Choice award for mobile workstations with the ThinkPad P15, what does Lenovo do for an encore? The ThinkPad P15 Gen 2 (starts at $ 1,709) serves refreshments in the form of Intel’s 11th Generation CPUs, Nvidia’s “Ampere” -class professional graphics, and faster PCI Express Gen 4 storage. It’s heavy and very pricey — our test unit rang up at $ 5,382, and that’s without one of the available 4K displays — but it’s a first-class choice for crunching giant datasets or tackling tough 3D rendering and design jobs.
From (Not So) Mild to Wild
While the base model makes do with a six-core Core i5 processor and Nvidia T1200 GPU, our P15 Gen 2 packed in an eight-core, 2.6GHz (5.0GHz turbo) Core i9-11950H and 16GB Nvidia RTX A5000 Max-Q graphics , along with 32GB of memory and a 1TB NVMe solid-state drive. (RTX A-series graphics are the successor to the familiar Nvidia Quadro line.)
The RAM limit is 128GB, with error-correcting-code (ECC) memory available for Intel Xeon configurations, and there’s room for three 2TB SSDs. Except for the 300-nit, 1,920-by-1,080-pixel base display, all the screen choices support Dolby Vision: our machine’s 500-nit, 1080p IPS panel; a 600-nit, 3,840-by-2,160 IPS; and a 500-nit, 3,840-by-2,160 OLED, the only touch screen of the bunch. Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth are standard, with 4G connectivity optional.
The ThinkPad P15 Gen 2 is a bruiser among 15.6-inch laptops, measuring 1.24 by 14.7 by 9.9 inches and weighing 6.32 pounds. That tops the Dell Precision 7550 (1.1 by 14.2 by 9.5 inches and 6 pounds) and makes the HP ZBook Power G8, an entry-level mobile workstation, look like an ultraportable at 0.9 by 14.2 by 9.2 inches and 4.16 pounds.
Made of tough plastic and glass fiber with a magnesium internal frame, the Lenovo has passed MIL-STD 810G torture tests for shock, vibration, and environmental extremes; there’s almost no flex if you grasp the screen corners or press the keyboard deck. The bezels around the screen are unfashionably thick, though the top bezel makes room for a face recognition webcam with sliding privacy shutter. There’s also a fingerprint reader on the palm rest, giving you two ways to skip typing passwords with Windows Hello.
An HDMI video output and always-on USB 3.2 Type-A port share the left edge with an audio jack and optional nano SIM slot. On the right side, you’ll find another USB-A 3.2 port, SD and optional SmartCard slots, and a Kensington lock slot.
Three USB-C ports — two with Thunderbolt 4 capability — and an Ethernet port join the power connector at the rear.
A Case of OLED Envy
Between HP’s flagship DreamColor displays and the growing number of OLED options, our standards for judging mobile workstation screens are going up. Our ThinkPad’s IPS display was pretty impressive, with ample brightness, good contrast, and well-saturated colors, but it lacked the poster-paint pop of color, black-hole blacks, and general brilliance of the best laptop panels we’ve seen this year. Fine details were as sharp as 1080p resolution could make them, though nowadays we’d recommend a 4K display for serious design work.
(While our test unit wasn’t equipped with it, the P15 Gen 2 supports Lenovo’s most dazzling display: the $ 1,499 ThinkReality A3 enterprise smart glasses, which can put a virtual wraparound screen trio above your desk or a walk-through schematic on a factory floor.)
Laptop keyboards with a comfortable 1.5mm of vertical travel are becoming scarcer, but Lenovo boasts that the P15 Gen 2 offers a generous 1.8mm. Not surprisingly for a ThinkPad keyboard, it provides a supremely snappy typing feel with a responsive touch and just the right amount of feedback (even an ideal, one-step-above-silent noise level). The TrackPoint mini joystick, with three buttons south of the space bar, joins a smooth-gliding touchpad for cursor control.
There’s two-level backlighting, a numeric keypad at right, and top-row function keys including shortcuts for starting and ending video calls. Purists may quibble that the Fn and Control keys are in each other’s places at bottom left, but you can swap them with the provided Lenovo Vantage software, which handles system updates and Wi-Fi security as well as a variety of device settings. Another utility, Lenovo Quick Clean, briefly locks the keyboard and touchpad while you apply a cleaning wipe in these germ-minded times.
The 720p webcam captures well-lit and colorful images, though focus is soft and there’s a bit of noise or static. Sound from the speaker grille above the keyboard is loud and clear, never distorted or tinny even at max volume; there’s not much bass, but it’s possible to make out overlapping tracks. Dolby Access software includes dynamic, game, movie, and music presets and an equalizer.
Performance Testing: A Workstation Leads the Way
The only other mobile workstation that’s completed our new benchmark regimen is the HP ZBook Power G8, so I filled out our benchmark charts with three other high-end 15- to 16-inch laptops. I chose one gaming rig — the Alienware m15 Ryzen Edition R5 — and two not-quite-workstations for content creators, the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme Gen 4 and the Dell XPS 15 OLED. You can see their basic specs in the table below.
The main benchmark of UL’s PCMark 10 simulates a variety of real-world productivity and content-creation workflows to measure overall performance for office-centric tasks such as word processing, spreadsheeting, web browsing, and videoconferencing. We also run PCMark 10’s Full System Drive test to assess the load time and throughput of a laptop’s storage. (See more about how we test laptops.)
Three benchmarks focus on the CPU, using all available cores and threads, to rate a PC’s suitability for processor-intensive workloads. Maxon’s Cinebench R23 uses that company’s Cinema 4D engine to render a complex scene, while Primate Labs’ Geekbench 5.4 Pro simulates popular apps ranging from PDF rendering and speech recognition to machine learning. Finally, we use the open-source video transcoder HandBrake 1.4 to convert a 12-minute video clip from 4K to 1080p resolution (lower times are better).
Our final productivity test is workstation maker Puget Systems’ PugetBench for Photoshop, which uses the Creative Cloud version 22 of Adobe’s famous image editor to rate a PC’s performance for content creation and multimedia applications. It’s an automated extension that executes a variety of general and GPU-accelerated Photoshop tasks ranging from opening, rotating, resizing, and saving an image to applying masks, gradient fills, and filters.
The P15 Gen 2 posted the highest PCMark 10 productivity score, but all these notebooks are spectacular overkill for everyday Microsoft Office or Google Docs work. The Lenovo workstation also flaunted super-swift storage and colossal CPU power, and led the pack in our Photoshop benchmark. To put it simply, it’s a monster.
We test Windows PCs’ graphics with two DirectX 12 gaming simulations from UL’s 3DMark: Night Raid (more modest, suitable for laptops with integrated graphics), and Time Spy (more demanding, suitable for gaming rigs with discrete GPUs).
We also run two tests from the cross-platform GPU benchmark GFXBench 5, which stresses both low-level routines like texturing and high-level, game-like image rendering. The 1440p Aztec Ruins and 1080p Car Chase tests, rendered offscreen to accommodate different display resolutions, exercise graphics and compute shaders using the OpenGL programming interface and hardware tessellation respectively. The more frames per second (fps), the better.
Four graphics speed tests, four wins for the P15 Gen 2. Its Nvidia RTX A5000 is designed for professional CAD or CGI rendering, not game-playing, but it can keep pace with the fastest gaming GPUs if you’re looking for some entertainment after hours.
We run two additional programs to simulate workstation applications. The first, Blender, is an open-source 3D suite for modeling, animation, simulation, and compositing. We record the time it takes for its built-in Cycles path tracer to render two photo-realistic scenes of BMW cars, one using the system’s CPU and one the GPU (lower times are better). BMW artist Mike Pan has said he considers the scenes too fast for rigorous testing, but they’re a popular benchmark.
Our most important workstation test, SPECviewperf 2020, renders, rotates, and zooms in and out of solid and wireframe models using viewsets from popular independent software vendor (ISV) apps. We run the 1080p resolution tests based on PTC’s Creo CAD platform; Autodesk’s Maya modeling and simulation software for film, TV, and games; and Dassault Systemes’ SolidWorks 3D rendering package. The more frames per second, the better.
For these tests, we were able to include results from last year’s first-generation ThinkPad P15, whose Quadro RTX 5000 was Nvidia’s ISV flagship before the RTX A5000 generation came along.
The ThinkPad X1 Extreme surprised us by screaming through both Blender subtests, with the P15 Gen 2 hot on its heels. In the all-important SPECviewperf benchmark, the Lenovo workstations led the way, with the original P15 somewhat surprisingly edging out the Gen 2 model. The HP has only Nvidia’s fourth-fastest professional GPU, so it was a step behind.
Battery and Display Tests
We test laptops’ battery life by playing a locally stored 720p video file (the open-source Blender movie Tears of SteelTears of Steel) with display brightness at 50% and audio volume at 100%. We make sure the battery is fully charged before the test, with Wi-Fi and keyboard backlighting turned off.
We also use a Datacolor SpyderX Elite monitor calibration sensor and its Windows software to measure a laptop screen’s color saturation — what percentage of the sRGB, Adobe RGB, and DCI-P3 color gamuts or palettes the display can show — and its 50% and peak brightness in nits (candelas per square meter).
The battery-life results were closely packed, with all five systems showing good stamina for powerful desktop replacements. Getting through a full workday should be no problem. All the screens delivered fine color fidelity, though the Dell’s OLED panel outdid the others, and all were wonderfully bright, with the P15 Gen 2’s narrowly the brightest.
Maybe Not a Slam Dunk, But a High Scorer
The Lenovo ThinkPad P15 Gen 2 ably fills its predecessor’s role as the heavyweight champ of the company’s mobile workstation lineup; with the Core i9 and RTX A5000, it’s powerful enough to race through jobs that would make most laptops whimper and cringe. You won’t find a better keyboard or port selection anywhere, and if you need more than 128GB of RAM and 6TB of storage, you need a desktop workstation, not a notebook.
We’re not giving the Gen 2 the Editors’ Choice award that the first P15 received, mainly because we get a nosebleed at prices over $ 5,000 — our Gen 1 test unit was $ 500 cheaper and rocked a 4K display — and we haven’t yet tested its top-of-the-line rivals, the Dell Precision 7560 and HP ZBook Fury 15 G8. But make no mistake: If you need the Mechagodzilla of professional laptops, the P15 Gen 2 succeeds with a vengeance.