Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon review $1199
18th Apr 2014 | 21:28
This business laptop (almost) has it all
Introduction and design
Business laptops are boring. There, I said it, and I doubt many would disagree. And judging by the looks of the new Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, the company's designers would likely nod in agreement. Lenovo has developed a knack for sexing up the business Ultrabook, for better or worse – just look at the ThinkPad Yoga.
I'm glad to report that this X1 Carbon makeover resulted in more for the better, but it's not without a few flaws. (More on those later.) Plenty has changed in laptop design since 2012, the year of the most recent X1 before this refresh, and Lenovo has clearly kept up.
In addition to shaving off a tenth of a pound and nearly the same figure in inches, the company introduced a nifty new adaptive row of keys in lieu of your standard function keys. Lenovo also slapped two USB 3.0 ports on this year's X1, stretched the clickpad by over three tenths of an inch and introduced a new mini RJ-45 Ethernet port.
But since 2012, Lenovo's competitors haven't sat idle either. Ultrabook-class workhorses like the HP ZBook 14 offering discrete graphics have hit the scene, and Apple's MacBook Pro 13-inch with Retina display sports a premium look and spec sheet to boot. The new X1 is no slouch in either regard, I found after putting it through the ringer for some time.
Upon opening the box, the iconic ThinkPad and Lenovo logos appear embossed onto the device's soft touch, carbon fiber lid. That material coats the entire frame from keyboard deck to base, though the laptop's underside is comprised of an equally smooth magnesium aluminum alloy.
The carbon fiber makes for fantastic palm rests, but is highly susceptible to fingerprints and smudges. Opening the lid reveals two wobbly hinges, although they only shake within a strict range of motion – it's impossible to push the lid open further with one hand. To instill further faith in the X1's stability, Lenovo made it so it passed eight MilSpecs tests.
Lenovo's brand new clickpad sits slightly left of center, and above the frameless, nearly flex-free keyboard is the all-new row of adaptive keys. Above that is a 2560 x 1440 IPS touch panel beset by a seamless bezel.
Both the lid and base meet to quite a thin edge when closed, making the device feel even slimmer. All in all, the X1 Carbon might topple the ThinkPad Yoga as the best-designed ThinkPad yet.
Electro-illuminating the way
Perhaps the most noticeable and important change to the ThinkPad X1 Carbon is what Lenovo calls the Adaptive Function Row. Designed to add more utility than what the standard row of function keys can provide in such a limited space, this row of keys uses two key technologies: liquid crystal and electroluminescence.
The first is a patented technology that easily reflects light, meaning that whatever is underneath becomes more legible. In this case, that's a series of laser-etched icons on a screen-printed backlight layer. Finally, an emissive electroluminescent layer allows the backlight to shine through the icons for different colors and visibility in direct light.
These all work in tandem underneath Corning Gorilla Glass to serve up a range of unique utilities that physical function keys could never cover. Switch to Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome or Safari, and the row automatically changes to display functions like refresh, page navigation and opening new windows. Switch to Skype, and a host of video chat-centric functions appear instantly.
Shiny new features are nice and all, but business users care more for what's on the inside. Let's see what Lenovo managed to pack inside this super slim chassis, and for how much.
With just one look at the ThinkPad X1 Carbon inside and out, it's clear what Lenovo is out to accomplish. This Ultrabook is designed on all fronts to be an everyman's business laptop. From its thin, light and sleek frame to its potent fourth generation Intel chip, this ThinkPad is aimed to please the power-hungry and style-savvy all at once.
Measuring 13.03 x 8.94 x 0.73 inches (W x D x H) and weighing just 3.15 pounds even with its QHD touchscreen, it was tough to notice the X1 Carbon in my backpack. The MacBook Pro 13-inch with Retina display is a bit more dense at 3.46 pounds, but a hair thinner at a mere 0.71 inches. Meanwhile, the HP ZBook 14 tests the limits of Intel's Ultrabook classification at 3.57 pounds and 0.83 inches.
But these days, "thin and light" is only as good as the components you can cram inside. And given what rivals like Apple and HP have accomplished over the past year, Lenovo has its work cut out for it. So, how do this ThinkPad's guts stack up?
This is the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon configuration sent to TechRadar:
- CPU: 1.9GHz Intel Core i5-4300U (dual-core, 3MB cache, up to 2.9GHz with Turbo Boost)
- Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 4400
- RAM: 4GB DDR3
- Screen: 14-inch, 2560 x 1440 IPS, IPS display with 10 point multi-touch control
- Storage: 180GB SSD
- Ports: 2 USB 3.0, mini DisplayPort, HDMI, Ethernet (via included dongle), headphone/mic combo jack, Lenovo OneLink connector
- Connectivity: Intel Centrino Advanced-N7260, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0
- Camera: 720p HD webcam
- Weight: 3.15 pounds
- Size: 13.03 x 8.94 x 0.73 inches (W x D x H)
For all of this hardware, most of which does not come standard, you'll have to pony up $1,609 (about £970, AU$1,745). If all you care about is getting smudges all over those adaptive keys, $1,259 (around £759, AU$1,365) is the price of admission. However, that knocks the processor down a peg to a Core i5-4200U, the screen to a non-touch, 1600 x 900 panel, the solid-state drive down to a still-respectable 128GB and drops Windows 8.1 Pro for the standard edition.
Decking the ThinkPad X1 Carbon to the nines, on the other hand, hikes the asking price up to a whopping $2,309 (about £1,392, AU$2,504). Of course, that nets you a speedy Intel Core i7-4600U CPU, 8GB of RAM and a hefty 512GB SSD. I'd say that the configuration sent to TechRadar hits the sweet spot for what Lenovo is trying to get at here.
But here's the clincher: The Retina MacBook Pro can largely outclass the X1 configuration at hand for $60 less. For $1,599 (around £963, AU$1,734), this Mac offers a slightly sharper 2560 x 1600 display, double the RAM, and a 256GB SSD. Not to mention that its optional dual-core Intel Core i5 chip is clocked at a much higher 2.6GHz and comes packing Intel HD Graphics 5000 as well. All that on top of an SD card reader makes Apple's notorious upfront fees look nominal.
On the other hand, HP's workstation Ultrabook isn't as finely configurable, offering a similar setup for a steeper $1,799 (about £1,084, AU$1,951). For that price, this laptop meets or surpasses the X1 in many ways, namely with the exact same processor, 8GB of RAM and an AMD FirePro M4100 GPU with 1GB of GDDR5 video RAM. And while I'm torn on whether the ZBook's 750GB, 7,200 rpm mechanical hard drive is a one-up on Lenovo's laptop, there's no doubt that its 1600 x 900 panel can't hold a candle to either rival laptop.
All said, the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon is in a unique position when it comes to value. The vendor has clearly strived to marry substance, style and savings. While it surprisingly falls short of Apple's MacBook, it looks generally unmatched in the wider enterprise notebook scene. Do this laptop's showings of power and design seal the deal?
Most of the systems I've tested at TechRadar have come packing the immensely popular Core i5-4200U chip with integrated graphics and no less than 4GB of RAM. So, I was surprised to see little difference between that CPU and the ThinkPad X1 Carbon's slightly beefier Core i5-4300U processor, at least in benchmarks:
- 3DMark: Ice Storm: 36,988; Cloud Gate: 4,201; Fire Strike 568
- Cinebench Graphics: 23.12 FPS; CPU: 239 points
- PCMark 8 Battery Life: 2 hours, 55 minutes
What's more surprising is that the X1 managed almost exactly the same battery life as most Core i5-4200U systems on the synthetic test. So, perhaps it's slightly faster, if not any longer lasting. My anecdotal testing echoed this result.
With the power setting kept to "Balanced", the screen at maximum brightness (it's rather dim, but more on that later), the volume set to 30% and keyboard backlighting off, the X1 held out for 4 hours and 54 minutes before shutting off. That was while running over 10 tabs in Google Chrome, HipChat, a PDF reader, Spotify streaming high bitrate audio and the occasional HD video on YouTube. Lenovo promises up to 9 hours of endurance.
Of course, halving the screen brightness would earn you some extra lasting power, but at the cost of legibility. And if you're churning complex functions through Excel, you shouldn't set the power any lower. That said, even at max brightness, the X1 managed to outlast the HP ZBook 14's 4 hours and 18 minutes.
Remixing the classic ThinkPad inputs
Lenovo rarely disappoints when it comes to typing and tracking, but this ThinkPad throws a few curveballs. The iconic ThinkPad keyboard remains untouched in terms of travel and spacing, offering the quality typing and tracking you've come to expect. (And yes, the TrackPoint is still here.)
However, the vendor changed quite a bit about the key layout. Namely, the Home and End keys now sit where otherwise a Caps Lock key would, snugly occupying the same space. The same goes for the Backspace and Delete keys, which are crammed into a single space normally home to a single Backspace key.
To activate Caps Lock, you must now double-tap the left Shift key. Adjustments like this were necessary to make room for the adaptive keys. This replaces the Function keys on the uppermost row with a new interface, but also cuts the Function key on the lowest row – hence many of these changes. Frankly, it might take you a few full days of use to adapt, like it did for me.
Adapting to the new Function Row
In testing the ThinkPad X1 Carbon, I found a dual meaning in the name for its new Adaptive Function Row. For one, this row of touch-sensitive keys adapts its functions to the tasks at hand. But at the same time, it takes quite a bit of learning and use to adapt to this ever-changing row of keys.
Switching between certain apps activates different functions on the row of keys. For instance, activating a web browser causes the row to instantly change from its current state to a series of web-focused functions, like refresh, page navigation and more. Switching to, say, Skype unveils a whole new host of focused functions, like mic gain, webcam controls, conference calling and more.
Opening any Microsoft Office application will activate the standard Function row along with keyboard backlight control and a few other specific functions. Essentially, this row of keys can be relevant to the three major laptop use cases: web browsing, video chat and document editing and creation.
Because the keys have no physical feedback, I often found myself accidentally pressing the Function key (which manually cycles between the function rows) when trying to press "Esc". At least the keys are easily visible under all sorts of light. Regardless, the utility here is clear: merging the media-first keys of competitors like the MacBook Pro 13-inch with Retina display with the Function keys that business users need.
A sharp, but dim, screen
With a super sharp resolution at 2560 x 1440 pixels, images and videos pop on this touch panel. But what good are all those pixels if their blown out by glare? Unfortunately, the X1's screen is terribly dim, producing far too much glare in daylight even on overcast days.
Plus, I've still yet to find much use for touchscreens on laptops in a business environment. Sure, you can lay the X1 flat and flip the screen's content 180 degrees with a special adaptive key. But couldn't you just turn the device around to show off that content?
Besides, the utility of a QHD screen will be lost on the general business user that doesn't use programs like Photoshop. Touch controls are snappy on this screen, but how often will you make use of that feature in your everyday work?
Lenovo might have been better off focusing on a brighter, cheaper FHD panel without touch control. Your only other option is a 1600 x 900 panel with neither touch input nor IPS technology.
In a surprising move, Lenovo included quite a bit of proprietary software in each X1. Some are more innocuous, like Lenovo Web Start (a self-contained browser with Lenovo's custom web page), Lenovo Settings and Lenovo Support. Others are more notable, like those below:
- Adaptive Keyboard Settings: This app controls all of the particulars regarding the X1 Adaptive Function Row, camera gestures, voice recognition.
- Lenovo Companion: This Modern UI app acts as a hub for most of Lenovo's custom apps and a guide for users that are new to Windows 8.1.
- Lenovo QuickCast: The X1 can share files with other mobile devices on the same Wi-Fi network with this tool. Yet, it requires said device to have the app, which is not yet available on iOS.
- Nitro Pro 8: Lenovo includes this PDF reader app on all of its professional-grade systems. It's essentially a free, pro-level alternative to Adobe Acrobat Reader.
On the whole, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon does a fantastic job of straddling the line between function and form. An improvement on the previous X1 Carbon in every way, it's the details that might turn veterans away and lure in new fans.
For example, the super sharp touchscreen might please the more vain viewers, but only if they were able to see what's displayed. And the adaptive row of keys might make refugees from the Apple camp feel more at home, but put off curmudgeonly ThinkPad veterans.
Lenovo has been testing the limits of the ThinkPad old guard for some time, introducing new features and removing more antiquated ones at a slow, steady clip. The new X1 Carbon is a much more drastic move toward the new era of computing.
The ThinkPad X1 Carbon has one of the most attractive design IDs I've ever seen on a business laptop. Save for omitting an SD card reader, Lenovo has made very few compromises in crafting a sleek, light laptop. From its soft touch carbon fiber frame to its fingerprint sensor squeezed onto the right of the keyboard deck and its power-packed internals, you won't be wanting for much more out of this machine.
The adaptive row of keys takes some getting used to. But this high-tech keyboard expertly merges the popular media and function-first keys found on MacBooks with the necessary function keys of the business world. Was it entirely necessary? Probably not, given how much it dictated rejiggering the rest of the key layout. Is it interesting in a way that most other business laptops aren't? Absolutely.
What else about the new X1 that is easy to admire: the selection of ports for its slim profile, including HDMI, DisplayPort and Ethernet (via an included dongle). Also, despite the layout change, the typing and tracking experience is nearly bar none on this laptop, much like most Lenovo systems.
Getting right to it, I wasn't particularly blown away by the screen. It produces some gorgeous visuals through video, images and web pages thanks to its 2560 x 1440 resolution and IPS technology. However, it's also rather dim, picking up tons of glare regardless of what kind of content is on display.
Besides, the business benefits of such a sharp screen don't extend far beyond better image fidelity in Photoshop and other media editing software. Plus, I've yet to find any seriously compelling use cases for touch in the office. Lenovo would have been better served putting out an FHD panel that was a bit brighter and forgetting about touch control altogether.
And likely thanks in part to this QHD touchscreen, the X1 didn't come close to Lenovo's claim of up to 9 hours of battery life in my testing. But also consider that I was forced to max out the screen brightness in my anecdotal testing for the sake of seeing my work, and it lasted about as long as most Haswell machines I've tested.
The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon is a business laptop that straddles the line between form and function more than ever after this update. For those with a penchant for aesthetics, here's a brand new design with some fantastic new features. And to keep the no-nonsense business user happy, this is a plenty powerful piece of hardware.
If it weren't for that glaring display and missing SD card reader, I would heartily recommend the X1 Carbon without question. What this laptop offers through its super slim design profile alone is impressive. And the adaptive keys, while divisive, add a ton of function in a limited amount of space and an attractive presentation.
More intense business users would be better served by the HP ZBook 14's dedicated GPU and easy IT access. But look out, MacBook Pro, you're no longer the only thin and light business option on the block.