Lenovo 17-inch mobile workstation

Posted by Alex Herrera on March 16th 2016 | Discuss
Categories: Hardware Review,
Tags: intel workstation lenovo laptop xeon laptops skylake

Lenovo’s 17-inch ThinkPad mobile workstation is back, and it will have a bigger impact on the number-three workstation suppliers’ business than you might think.WITH THE ThinkPad P70, Lenovo is back in the 17-inch mobile works.

A few years back, Lenovo discontinued marketing a 17-inch model, and on the surface, the reason would seem perfectly sensible. Its 17-inch models were outsold by the popular 15-inch models by a wide margin (similar to other vendors’ sales), so why spend the extra time and money developing a product that very few will buy and add little to the bottom line? However, while its move to focus its mobile workstation line on one model made sense from the perspective of that single product’s P&L, in the end it didn’t make sense in the context of what is expected of a broad-based workstation supplier.

 

Succeeding as a broad-based supplier requires broad-based products

While workstations are not quite the commodities that mainstream PCs have become, the places for a vendor to differentiate its models from its rivals have narrowed tremendously over the years. Today, top-tier vendors like HP, Dell, and Lenovo all know what they’re doing, and they’re all (mostly) limited to choosing from the same core components—CPUs, GPUs, storage, and memory—from the same suppliers, such as Intel, AMD, Nvidia, and Samsung. In this landscape, it’s the seemingly little things that can make the difference between winning and losing a sale. Picture Dell, HP, and Lenovo all pitching a big, broad workstation deal to a Fortune 500 company. The customer might only need a handful of 17-inch models to go along with a boatload of 15-inch machines, but the fact that Lenovo can’t supply them—while its rivals can— could be enough to lose the deal.

We figured Lenovo would eventually correct the situation and re-introduce a 17-inch model to complement its core 15-inch machines. And it’s done just that with the new ThinkPad P70.

Built around Skylake and— for the first time—on Xeon

As is the norm, the P70 comes configurable across a range of build options, supporting both sets of Skylake SKUs— Intel Xeon E3-1500 v5 and Core i7- 6000. With Skylake, Intel made its first explicit push of the Xeon brand into mobile platforms, and our P70 came with the Xeon E3-1505 v5. In a single-socket application like this, Xeon’s advantages are fewer, but there are some benefits, for example, supporting Error Correction Code (ECC) memory on mobiles for the first time.

For graphics, the P70 offers both the Xeon’s new Gen9 HD P530 integrated support—nice for low-demand applications to extend battery life—and Nvidia’s recently introduced high-end Quadro M4000M (the “M” suffix indicating “mobile,” and the “M” prefix reflecting the GPU’s Maxwell-genera-tion technology). It’s worth noting that, while current Skylake Xeon SKUs like this one max out at the HD P530 GPU, Intel expects to be shipping Xeons later this year with the HD 580 that will (for the first time) expose Intel’s highest performing GPU in workstation applications. And that may mean the first real competition for discrete GPUs in mobile workstations, although we won’t know that for a few months yet.

Ports on the P70 are plentiful, with four USB 3.0, one HDMI, two Thunderbolt 3, and one mini-DisplayPort. While not indispensable as it is for Macs, Thunderbolt 3 provides high-bandwidth interface for uses like external drive arrays and video capture.

A Retina-caliber display that’s (nearly) impossible to beat

All the above features and components add cost and add performance, with contributions to productivity that can be measured (and we do ahead, in our own testing). However, not every productivity-enhancing feature can be so easily calculated. Our P70’s 3840 × 2160 (i.e., “4K UHD”) IPS (in-plane switching) display, for example, adds $260 to the build price (over standard 1920 × 1080) and won’t boost a benchmark number. Still, it offers obvious value in image quality, because at this pixel density, when viewed from anything beyond 13 inches (which would be the norm for most users), this P70’s 4K display is Retina-caliber.

By that, we don’t intend to directly compare this display to those carrying Apple’s well-known brand, but rather to the spirit of that brand. Apple named it as such because the resolution was so fine that (at the expected viewing distance) your eyes can no longer distinguish individual pixels and therefore wouldn’t benefit from any further increase in resolution. Well, this display is beyond that point, which means that by choosing this screen for your mobile machine, you’ve invested in the ultimate resolution. In addition, the IPS technology provides excellent viewing angle and 92% coverage of the NTSC RGB color gamut. About the only future enhancement a display like this will benefit from down the road will be improved static contrast and high-dynamic range (HDR) (but let’s be clear, that statement goes for every other liquid-crystal based display on the market as well).

Paired with that display is Lenovo’s integrated X-Rite Pantone color calibrator, a premium add-on especially appreciated in media and entertainment spaces (but not exclusively so). Simply close the lid, and the keyboard-housed sensor recalibrates to the Pantone color space. 

Top-end performance for a mobile workstation 

To test and compare workstation performance, we relied on SPEC’s SPECwpc. Designed to be comprehensive, the benchmark incorporates six test suites, one per each of six popular workstation verticals: Media and Entertainment, Product Development, Energy, Life Sciences, Financial Services, and General Operations. The benchmark reports a composite score for each of the six application suites. We ran both the original SPECwpc version 1 (1.02, specifically) and the new SPECwpc 2.0, but given the extensive history of results we have for the former, we stuck with it for comparison purposes.

We knew from its build specs that our P70 would post some solid scores, but we were surprised how well it did. In fact, the numbers were so good they looked like numbers a deskside machine might post—so we went ahead and compared them to a deskside, the recently reviewed Skylake-based HP Z240.

Can a high-end mobile workstation deliver performance comparable to a low-end deskside?

Now, when it comes to comparing a deskside and a mobile side by side, we’re talking apples and oranges. Using its far tighter design constraints for power consumption, space, and thermal dissipation, a workstation designer can always create a deskside machine that can outperform a mobile. And that’s a major reason the workstation sales remain lopsided in favor of desksides, out-selling mobiles by somewhere between 2:1 and 3:1 (depending on the quarter). Unlike in the mainstream PC market, professional users place an utmost value on performance, so to outfit their office they’re still most likely to choose the deskside.

However, while not an apples-to-apples comparison, this exercise was perfect to test the premise of a deskside’s performance superiority over a mobile, and where the two types of machines might overlap. There’s little point comparing a top-end, multi-socket, 1,000- watt+ workstation with a single-socket 200-ish watt mobile—clearly not a fair fight. But it did provide us the perfect opportunity to ask the question: can a high-end mobile workstation compete with a low-end deskside in performance? Both have quad-core Skylake Xeons with comparable memory and similar PCIe-based SSDs. Even GPUs were in the same ballpark. And the answer to that question? An emphatic “yes.” Normalized to the HP Z240 scores, we see very comparable SPECwpc numbers. However, the high-end mobile comes with a higher-end price as well, so comparing normalized scores per dollar, the HP Z240 deskside fares noticeably better.

What do we think?

In some cases, a vendor needs to judge products not solely based on their individual merits, but how they might contribute strategically to the greater good. Lenovo has, and its 17-inch Thinkpad has returned with a splash. The industry’s number-three workstation vendor has a hole in its product portfolio no longer. The 17-inch mobile platform will never appeal as broadly as 15-inch models, especially to those looking for an Air-like, “thin ’n’ light” package. But for hard-core professionals for whom the visual experience is critical, 17-inch will remain the default. The ThinkPad P70 retains the ThinkPad look and feel—appealing to many since its IBM days—but it does so with as much performance and as high-quality display as you will find in a conventional mobile chassis anywhere (that is, not counting boutique monster mobiles and luggables). Its I/O options will satisfy, and add-on premium features like Pantone auto-calibration will help it stand out. Furthermore, as our testing showed, it can even serve as a desktop replacement in some cases, where (a) the user would have only needed a low-end deskside and (b) they don’t mind the extra heft of the 17-inch model when on the road. - Alex Herrera

Discuss this entry