Thin design and pro-level graphics: That’s a rare combination, but the Lenovo ThinkPad P52s lets you have both. This 15.6-incher (starts at $1,070; $2,113 as tested) hides an Nvidia Quadro P500 graphics chip in its 0.8-inch thick, 4.4-pound chassis. Aimed at the business crowd, it’s essentially a mobile workstation version of the company’s ThinkPad T580. Our pumped-up configuration packs enough performance and component jazz to get content creators grooving, but the price approaches that of a desktop-replacement ThinkPad P51, Lenovo’s top-performing 15.6-inch mobile workstation. It’s hard to argue for the ThinkPad P52s if performance per dollar is a first priority, but it does give you the ability to run professional applications such as AutoCAD on a roomy screen without requiring you to carry a cinder block. We just wish the battery life of our test unit were better, and it ran a little cooler.
ThinkPad loyalists know what the brand has in common with Henry Ford: The P52s, like most ThinkPads, comes only in black. Its 14.4×9.5-inch exterior looks like that of every other ThinkPad I’ve reviewed over the past decade, but don’t take that as a knock. This is one brand where the rinse-and-repeat formula works well. It’s the iconic business-machine look.
Durable plastic covers most of the exterior. The thin chassis could use a little reinforcement from the inside, as I can flex it by its corners without a lot of effort. Fortunately, the flex goes only so far, and the body feels strong overall when I’m not resorting to such unnatural torque.
Connectivity is good for a thin laptop like this one. The left edge has USB 3.1 Type-C and USB Type-C Thunderbolt 3 ports, either of which can be used with the power adapter for charging or running off wall power. A rubber insert next to the Thunderbolt 3 port covers the Lenovo CS18 docking connector. Lenovo also offers a security-minded SmartCard reader as an option, for businesses that rely on such things; it’s absent on my unit.
The right edge has the audio (headphone/mic) combo jack, a full-size SD card reader, a pair of USB Type-A 3.1 ports, an HDMI 1.4 video-out, an Ethernet jack, and a Kensington-style security-cable lockdown notch. The rightmost USB Type-A port is the always-on kind, from which you can recharge your mobile doodads with the laptop powered down. If you need a DisplayPort output, you’ll need to invest in a USB Type-C adapter or a docking station.
In terms of wireless connectivity, the ThinkPad P52s has a standard business-laptop loadout, with an Intel 8265AC 802.11ac radio and support for Bluetooth 4.2. WWAN connectivity is optional, but you’ll want to get the latter from the factory, at the time you buy and configure this ThinkPad. It’s not something you can add after the fact.
Excellent Inputs (and No More Webcam Tape)
The ThinkPad P52s includes a top-notch keyboard and touchpad. A four-column number pad and red-nubbin pointing stick are also included.
The island-style keys have a precise action and a solid feel. Note, though, that the backlit keyboard on my unit isn’t actually standard-issue, so be sure to check that box on the configurator if you want that feature. (I wouldn’t go without it; it helps a heap if you’re working in the dark.)
The touchpad, meanwhile, has an anti-glare finish and integrated buttons that click quietly. Centered in the keyboard is the so-called “UltraNav” pointing stick, which has its own three dedicated buttons below the spacebar. I think it’s still the best pointing-stick implementation in the business.
Then there’s the display panel. The test sample I was loaned has Lenovo’s optional 4K screen, an uptick from the full HD/1080p panel that comes standard with the base-model P52s. The 4K display delivers excellent image quality. Bright whites, dark blacks, and well-saturated colors come together to produce a lively-looking image. The In-Plane Switching (IPS) panel technology affords it wide viewing angles from above, below, and off to the sides, and an anti-glare coating keeps reflections at bay under oppressive outdoor lighting conditions or less-than-ideal indoor ones.
My one screen quibble: I’d like to see support for multi-touch input in the 4K panel. Touch input is only available if you step down to the 1080p display option.
Just above the display is a 720p webcam. It has acceptable video quality for business communications. What’s more interesting about it is the ThinkShutter, a sliding lens cover that physically blocks the camera…
This security/peace-of-mind solution is a whole lot more elegant than a strip of electrical tape. Note that you’ll lose the ThinkShutter feature if you opt for Lenovo’s infrared (IR) camera with facial recognition. For an alternate kind of biometric capability, my ThinkPad P52s has Lenovo’s optional fingerprint reader, which is located to the right of the touchpad.
The eighth-generation Core i5 and i7 processors available in the ThinkPad P52s are the first 15-watt quad-core chips Intel has produced. They offer significant performance advantages over Intel’s previous-generation 15-watt chips, which had dual-core designs only.
The Core i7-8650U quad-core in my review unit is the fastest CPU you can get in this notebook. With a 1.9GHz base clock and a blazing 4.2GHz Turbo Boost clock, it’s anything but a slouch. This processor is ideally suited to bursty tasks, where CPU power is required for brief stints, as opposed to sustained rendering and encoding tasks, where maximum CPU performance is required over time. That might seem a contradiction for a pro workstation, which is often tasked with exactly that kind of longer, hard-grind task, when used in fields such as video production. But the assumption likely is that you’d leave your really serious lifting to a desktop workstation back in the office.
The Nvidia Quadro P500 2GB graphics card is standard across ThinkPad P52s configurations. Its performance is lightweight for a dedicated graphics chip by consumer benchmarking standards, putting up, for example, about twice the score that we’re used to seeing from Intel integrated graphics in our 3DMark Fire Strike Extreme benchmark. The point of including this graphics chip, however, is to allow the ThinkPad P52s to carry Independent Software Vendor (ISV) certifications from Adobe, Autodesk, and others. (Check out the ISV-certification specifics by software maker, application, and ThinkPad model here.)
My review ThinkPad P52s has 16GB of memory, which is expandable to 32GB via two memory slots. The storage-expansion capability is underwhelming, as there’s but a single 2.5-inch bay, but it’s hard to expect much more from a thin machine like this. The 1TB M.2-style SSD in my review unit is installed by means of a caddy, which I find awkward in theory, though I (and most users, I would imagine) would be unlikely to have occasion to mess with it more than once, if ever. At least one M.2 SSD slot on the motherboard would have been appreciated, but I recognize that there’s only so much space in a machine like this.
Windows 10 Pro is installed on the SSD in my unit. A one-year warranty is standard; I’d like to see a three-year at this price point.
The single cooling fan on the left side of the ThinkPad P52s becomes noisy at times. It stayed off while I checked email, but spooled up quickly when I started browsing animation-heavy websites. The fan whine is audible. Under extended load, the middle portion of the chassis also becomes hot to the touch, especially on the underside. I wouldn’t recommend putting this notebook in your lap while running demanding tasks.
Time to Hit the Bench…
The ThinkPad P52s is in something of a zone of its own because of its ultrabook-class components. The ThinkPad P51, HP ZBook 15 G4, and the MSI WE62 notebooks in the comparison charts are larger desktop-replacement-style workstations, using Intel Xeon or H-class Core i7 mobile chips.
In the CPU-focused Cinebench and Handbrake benchmarks, their 45-watt processors delivered better performance than the 15-watt Core i7 quad-core chip in my ThinkPad P52s, which I expected. But everything is relative. The ThinkPad P52s scored 55 percent higher in Cinebench than the HP ZBook 14u G4 and its last-generation 15-watt Core i7 dual-core chip, an impressive jump from generation to generation. You may have a low-power U-series Core chip in the P52s, but the extra cores help a lot under the right circumstances.
In PCMark 8’s Work Conventional benchmark, an undemanding test by today’s standards, these machines all fared similarly. The ThinkPad P51 and ThinkPad P52s lag slightly behind because of their 4K screen resolutions. (When running at 1080p, I scored the ThinkPad P52s at 3,613 points, which would have been the best score of the bunch.)
In an era in which 10-hour-plus battery runtimes are commonplace, the 5-hour-and-33-minute showing from the ThinkPad P52s is a disappointment. This laptop actually has two batteries: one nonremovable four-cell/32-watt-hour internal battery, and a swappable rear battery. The latter, in my unit, is the standard three-cell/24-watt-hour pack. An optional six-cell/72-watt-hour battery adds weight and bulk, but doing some basic math, should nearly double the battery life for a mere $29 upgrade. The battery life might then be comparable to the double-digit numbers from the ThinkPad P51, which has a large 90-watt-hour battery.
Next up, the graphics tests…
Although more powerful than the modest AMD FirePro W4190 graphics in the HP ZBook 14u G4, the Quadro P500 GPU in the ThinkPad P52s doesn’t stack up against the mid-level Quadro M2200 cards in the MSI, ThinkPad P51, and HP ZBook 15 G4 units. As I noted earlier, the purpose of this GPU in the ThinkPad P52s is to help it garner ISV certifications, not gamer cred; it’s not an all-powerful 3D renderer, and it doesn’t try to be.
…Plus, Some Workstation-Specific Tests
I also ran a series of workstation-specific benchmark tests on the ThinkPad P52s.
The first, quick one is Cinebench’s OpenGL test. Here, the P52s produced 86fps, which is much higher than the 49fps produced by the HP ZBook 14u G4.
I also ran the ray-tracing simulation in POV-Ray 3.7, and the ThinkPad P52s completed this test trial in 210 seconds, averaging 1,242 pixels per second (pps), almost exactly half the time it took the HP ZBook 14 G2 to complete the run. The ThinkPad P51, by comparison, did the same test in just 143 seconds, with an average of 1,835pps. While not ideal for long sessions of rendering, the ThinkPad P52s is anything but incapable.
The last test I ran was SPECviewperf 12.0.2, using the viewsets for the demanding pro apps Creo, Maya, and SolidWorks. (See much more on this benchmark and what it represents here.) The ThinkPad P52s averaged about 37 frames per second on the first two test viewsets, and 54fps on the last, well outrunning the FirePro graphics in the HP ZBook 14 G2. The ThinkPad P51 and its Quadro M2200, by comparison, outpaced it with results of 70fps, 49fps, and 100fps, respectively, on the three viewsets.
A Little Light Rendering
The ThinkPad P52s is a solid mobile workstation that’s more portable than most but marred by its short runtime with its base battery. The model I reviewed, with the 4K display and the smallest battery choice, is the least flattering combination for battery life. With the 1080p screen and the extended-battery option, it should get a lot closer to the 10-hour mark that I was expecting. (Get the $29 battery upgrade, before all else, assuming you’re willing to bear a little extra weight.)
The battery gyrations, of course, don’t detract from this ThinkPad’s excellent keyboard and touchpad, appreciably thin-and-light design, and smart-looking display. Smaller features like the ThinkShutter are easy to appreciate, too.
Performance-wise, you can get more for your dollar by going with a standard-thickness workstation like the ThinkPad P51 or our Editors’ Choice-winning HP ZBook 15 G4, but that’s the trade-off: a nontrivially heavier bag. If you want as portable of a 15.6-incher you can get for content creation, the ThinkPad P52s is worth a second look. It’s not up to rendering the next Pixar blockbuster, but you can run professional applications such as AutoCAD without lugging around a hefty chassis.