Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme Gen 3 review: a ThinkPad with a twist

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The ThinkPad X1 Extreme Gen 3 is a ThinkPad through and through. It has the keyboard, the discreet mouse buttons, and the all-black chassis with scattered red dots. (If you’ve seen its predecessor, the ThinkPad X1 Extreme Gen 2, you know what you’re getting: the models are identical, with different chips.)

But this ThinkPad has a unique feature that you don’t see every day: an OLED screen. That, coupled with its discrete GPU, puts the X1 Extreme Gen 3 out of the business laptop space that has traditionally dominated ThinkPads and into the crowded market for ultraportable content creation machines. Among those competitors, the X1 Extreme has some significant drawbacks that prevent it from reaching the top of the pack. But it still includes the features that have made ThinkPads so dominant across the board, and that means there’s definitely an audience for it.

Like other ThinkPads, the X1 Extreme is customizable for different price ranges. All configurations have an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 Ti Max-Q. The base model costs $ 2,734 (currently discounted to a much more reasonable $ 1,640) and includes a Core i5-10400H, 8 GB RAM, 256 GB storage, a 1920 x 1080 non-touch display, and a standard 720p HD webcam. Among the prebuilt models, you can go all the way to a system with a Core i9-10885H, 64GB RAM, 1TB storage, a 3840 x 2160 OLED touchscreen, and an IR camera, all for – wait for it – $ 4,959 (currently listed at $ 2,974.40). My test configuration is in the middle; it includes a Core i7-10850H, 1 TB storage, 32 GB RAM and the OLED touchscreen. It has a suggested retail price of $ 4,111, but is currently listed at $ 2,466. You can adjust most specifications to your liking, although some depend on others; For example, all models that don’t have a basic screen come with the IR camera.

This model has two absolutely striking features. The first is the keyboard. ThinkPads usually have great keyboards, and this one is no exception. It’s one of my favorite keyboards that I’ve tried on a workstation laptop this year, with the possible exception of the Dell XPS 15. The keys have a comfortable texture and can travel quite a bit without being too loud. The typing experience is more like a mechanical keyboard than that of flatter laptop keys. I found myself shunning my personal laptop in favor of the ThinkPad during my testing period because I love to type on it so much.

There is a row of useful shortcut keys at the top of the deck. New to the X1 Extreme are three buttons tailored for remote work: F9 invokes the notification center, F10 answers calls, and F11 ends calls. There are also keys to lower the volume and microphone, turn airplane mode on or off, and adjust volume and brightness.

The ports on the left side of the Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Extreme Gen 3.

Ports include two USB 3.2 Gen 1, two Thunderbolt 3, one HDMI 2.0, one SD slot, one combo audio jack, and an optional Nano-SIM card slot.

A quick thing about the keyboard: the Fn and Ctrl keys are swapped from where you find them on most keyboards. This is how ThinkPad keyboards have been laid out ever since, and you can remap the keys through the BIOS or with Lenovo’s utility app if you prefer. But if you’re not a regular ThinkPad user, or you’re switching between this machine and a personal laptop, it’s worth noting that it takes a while to adjust (or you’re using mislabeled keys). I’ve been using the X1 Extreme for almost a week now and I still accidentally hit Fn all the time.

The second standout feature is the 15.6-inch 4K OLED panel. It covers 100 percent of the sRGB spectrum, 100 percent of Adobe RGB, and 100 percent of P3. (In fact, it maximized our colorimeter.) The panel is sharp and vibrant with great contrast. You can watch streaming content that supports HDR and switch between different color profiles with Lenovo’s Display Optimizer.

Build quality is another strength. Like most of its ThinkPad siblings, the X1 Extreme feels quite durable. There is no flex in the keyboard or lid, and Lenovo says it has been tested to “12 military-grade certification methods and over 20 procedures” for resistance to vibration, shock, extreme temperatures, humidity, and more. The laptop achieves this without sacrificing much portability. It’s on the chunky side at 0.74 inches, but at four pounds, it’s lighter than many competitors, including the Dell XPS 15 and the MacBook Pro 16.

Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Extreme Gen 3 bent slightly to the right, open.  The screen shows a night scene outside with the Lenovo logo on the right.

Lenovo says the multi-layer carbon fiber top cover “offers durability and weight benefits.”

The chassis has a black finish with a nice texture. The ThinkPad logo on the right palm rest and the X1 logo on the top cover add splashes of red. The lid features a unique carbon fiber weave pattern that looks and feels like the carbon fiber palm rests on the Dell XPS 15. (This is available on UHD models only). Lenovo says this material is lighter and more durable than aluminum and other common chassis materials. It’s also probably part of the reason for the X1 Extreme’s high price tag.

The Thinkpad X1 Extreme Gen 3 diagonally to the left, open.  A nighttime outdoor scene is displayed on the screen with the Lenovo logo on the right.

There are dual far-field microphones that work alongside Cortana.

A note on the construction: the lid and chassis aren’t the worst fingerprint magnets I’ve ever seen, but they do pick them up. After a few days of use, the keyboard deck was pretty grubby.

Finally, the X1 Extreme comes with some useful remote meeting features. You can optimize the dual microphones for various settings (including speech recognition, solo calls and conference calls) in Lenovo’s Vantage software. They had no trouble picking up my voice. And the stereo speakers are fine, delivering distortion-free sound with percussion and bass that are audible but not exceptional. You can create custom equalizer profiles in the preloaded Dolby Access software, and you can also switch presets for scenarios such as speech, music, movies and games.

The infrared webcam was also a pleasant surprise – although a bit grainy, it was fairly accurate in color and delivered a decent picture in low-light environments. There is a physical privacy shutter that can be easily clicked back and forth. You can log into the X1 Extreme with Windows Hello facial recognition, as well as a fingerprint reader that matches the sensor on the side of the keyboard, which was quick to set up and usually had no problems recognizing me.

All of these things are comparable to the ThinkPad X1 Extreme Gen 2 – there isn’t much noticeable change. The Gen 3 upgrades are on the inside. It has a six-core 10th generation Intel processor and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 Ti Max-Q, where his predecessor had a 9th generation Intel processor and a GeForce GTX 1650 Max-Q.

The Core i7-10850H isn’t the most monstrous processor out there, especially when compared to AMD’s recent H-series chips. But it does provide the business-specific benefits of Intel’s vPro platform, and it did fine with my stacks of spreadsheets, emails, Slacking, and other general office work.

Likewise, the GTX 1650 Ti Max-Q is a mid-range graphics card – it’s not what you’d want to use for serious gaming or high-throughput professional video editing. But for amateur makers and other artists it can certainly lend a hand.

My test model scored a 386 on PugetBench for Premiere Pro, testing its proficiency in real-world Premiere Pro tasks. That’s not an outrageous score among the top competitors, but it’s not great either. The system comes in under scores we’ve seen from the Dell XPS 15 with the same GPU and the six-core MacBook Pro, which has AMD Radeon Pro 5300M. And, of course, it loses out to creator machines with more powerful Nvidia chips, such as the priced lower Gigabyte Aero 15 with an RTX 3060.

If you are going to do intense substantive work, prepare to listen to the fans. Even when I was just bouncing around in Chrome, they were audible quite often. On the plus side, they did their job: the bottom, keyboard, touchpad, palm rests, and laptop hinge all stayed cold.

The keyboard and touchpad of the Thinkpad X1 Extreme Gen 3 from above.

Lenovo says the ThinkPad can charge up to 80 percent in 60 minutes thanks to its “Rapid Charge” feature.

Another compromise you’ll make here is battery life. I averaged just four hours and 59 minutes on our battery test, using the ThinkPad for continuous office multitasking on the Battery Saver profile, with a screen of about 200 nits of brightness. I ran a trial without using Chrome to see if that would make a difference; it didn’t. And this result actually seems a bit on the high side – Tom’s Hardware got an even spicier two hours and 19 minutes on a synthetic streaming benchmark.

It’s not unexpected that a machine with a 4K display and a discrete GPU won’t last all day. But I got more out of the Gigabyte Aero 15, which has both an OLED screen and a heavier graphics card. And if you don’t need the high-resolution display (which a lot of people won’t), the Dell XPS 15 (which still has an exceptional display) lasted an hour longer with my workflow, while my colleague Dieter Bohn got eight . hours out of the MacBook Pro. People interested in the X1 Extreme who would rather not have it plugged in all the time should consider an FHD (1080p) model.

The Thinkpad X1 Extreme Gen 3 opens on a rock slab outside.  The screen shows a night scene outside with the Lenovo logo on the right.

It’s a ThinkPad through and through.

In the end, the decision between the ThinkPad X1 Extreme Gen 3 and other 15-inch thin and light workstations actually boils down to: do you want a ThinkPad?

That is, the X1 Extreme shares many of the strengths and weaknesses of Windows machines such as the XPS 15. Both have beautiful displays, decent chips, sturdy construction, noisy fans and mediocre battery life. Both have best-in-class keyboards and touchpads, with average webcams and speakers.

But a ThinkPad and an XPS are still very different machines – and if you’ve used a member of either series before, you probably know which one you prefer. They have different looks and different feelings. The ThinkPad is slightly lighter and thicker, with more ports and larger bezels. The XPS is a bit more powerful, but the ThinkPad has extra business features.

The XPS is a more accessible model for most consumers because of its lower price. And especially the weaker chips and poor battery life of the X1 Extreme are tricky pills for such a high price. But there’s still a market for the X1 Extreme – and if you’re willing to sacrifice a little power, a little money, and a little battery life for the unique benefits of a ThinkPad, you’re likely to fall for it.

Photography by Monica Chin / The Verge