ThinkPad X1 Carbon Review

lenovo-thinkpad-x1-carbon

The Lenovo X1 Carbon is thin, light, and rock-solid, with a (in my opinion) perfectly-sized 14″ screen. It is also a ThinkPad, which means it is powerful, compact, durable, and uber-utilitarian.

While the ultrabook designation basically just takes the MacBook Air’s specs and turns them into a Windows laptop roadmap, the X1 Carbon is nothing like a MacBook Air. In fact, ThinkPads in general are about as un-MacBook as you can get. They aren’t svelte aluminum slabs, but black, soft-touch rectangles.

You’ll want to read this review, of course, but I’ll spoil the ending: if you are in the market for a Windows ultrabook, this is the one you want.

First, let me just get this out of the way: I am an unabashed ThinkPad fanboy.

What’s made me such a ThinkPad fan? I’ve owned just two laptops in the last 8 years, and both have been ThinkPads. Maybe you keep your laptops longer than 4 years, on average. I can’t. Even though I tend to shop close to the top of the spec sheet, I start yearning for something quicker after a few years. The fact that my ThinkPads have kept me happy for as long as they have is a testament to their performance — and their durability, because I am also really hard on my stuff. Scuffs and scratches aside, they hold up to the test of time.

It doesn’t hurt that Lenovo’s customer support has always been outstanding. I once accidentally threw my ThinkPad across the living room (it was 4 a.m. and I was just trying to pick it up quickly) and broke part of the chassis (although it worked fine without the missing plastic). Customer support sent me a box, and it was back from the repair depot in about 36 hours. They didn’t even complain when my laptop was running Linux, an operating system Lenovo does not officially support. The few times I have needed something repaired or replaced, it’s been handled quickly and efficiently, without a fuss.

And, just FYI, Lenovo has never given me anything for free, and it was pretty difficult to get this review unit.

Price and features

The Lenovo X1 Carbon is a premium product, available at a premium price. While most ultrabooks are priced right around $1,000, the X1 Carbon starts at just over $1,200. The unit I tested is $1,399. That makes it about $250 more than a similarly-equipped Dell XPS 13, my next-most-favorite ultrabook.

For that, you get a larger, 14.1″ display with a 1600×900 resolution, which is a bit better than a MacBook Air’s 1440×900 display, and equal to (but a bit bigger than) the gorgeous 13.3″ display on the Asus ZenBook. The webcam is 720p, and it is flanked by dual microphones for better voice quality.

The X1 Carbon I tested came with a 1.7 GHz Core i5 processor, 4 GB of RAM, and a 128 GB solid-state drive (although less than 50 GB was available out of the box (Lenovo gives a generous 13.6 GB to the recovery partition). 1.7 GHz feels like a small number to me, but I can’t complain about the performance. Coupled with a solid-state drive, it’s more than quick enough for most lawyering tasks.

It does have a fingerprint reader, which is nice if you care about that sort of thing. I have no confidence in them, and I never use them.

Port selection is decent. You get two USB ports — one on each side, a 2.0 and a 3.0 — Mini DisplayPort, and an SD card reader. I’m not sure why DisplayPort is still cropping up on Windows PCs. The only reason it existed in the first place was that Apple used it. Now that Apple has moved on to Thunderbolt, DisplayPort doesn’t seem to have much of a future. But there it is, so you will need a VGA or HDMI adapter to give a presentation with this.

Size-wise, the X1 Carbon is just 2.99 lbs and .74″ thick — not quite as thin as the smaller-screened 13″ MacBook Air, but close. That’s remarkable considering the larger display on the X1.

Not counting the display, the specs are fairly standard for an ultrabook. Counting the display, which is bigger than most ultrabook displays to date, the specs are pretty impressive. But it’s not the spec sheet that tells how good a computer is; it’s how the thing is put together with those specs.

Hardware and design

ThinkPads aren’t exactly good-looking, but they aren’t exactly bad-looking, either. What they are is boldly utilitarian, which is a particular aesthetic in and of itself. Whether you like it or not is down to personal preference. I know I prefer the soft-touch black surfaces to all the cheap-looking glossy plastic laptops on the shelves at Best Buy.

That said, Lenovo has certainly learned a few things from Apple. The X1 Carbon has a nice, smooth bottom half, instead of the lumpy bottoms of previous ThinkPads. And it has a similar hinged design, although the X1 can lay almost flat, if you want it to. There aren’t many stickers to mar the finish, so you get a nice, clean-lined machine.

The most significant part of its construction, though, is probably the carbon-fiber chassis. The lid and roll cage of the bottom are built with carbon fiber, which Lenovo says is a third of the weight of aluminum. Whether or not that’s true, the X1 Carbon clocks in at 2.99 lbs, the same (or lighter) than many smaller ultrabooks. Carbon fiber is also plenty stiff, and the X1 doesn’t feel flimsy in any way. There is very little flex in the bottom, and just a bit in the lid. It feels like a shockingly light ThinkPad, in other words.

The functional bits are a mix of excellent and acceptable, averaging out to pretty good.

Display

The X1 Carbon’s 1600×900 resolution is awesome to have, but it looks a bit like a grid when looking at it, as if there are just-visible lines between the pixels. It took me a little while using it before I got used to this. Now, I don’t even see them. The screen has a matte finish, which I prefer for glare-free viewing, even if it takes away some of the brightness. Viewing angles are good in all directions. It only just starts to wash out when you have the display as far back as it can go. The display is the only part of the X1 Carbon that flexes, although not in an alarming way.

Overall, I’ve always been pleased with my ThinkPad displays, and this one is very good, despite also being very thin.

Keyboard and trackpad

I was really unhappy with the Lenovo wireless keyboard I reviewed last year. And since it looks just like the keyboards on the new ThinkPads, I was worried they would be just as bad. Fortunately, they aren’t. The keys look the same, but just like the previous ThinkPads, the feel and action is perfect. The keyboard is rock solid, for am extremely positive feel while typing. ThinkPad keyboards still rock.

The only negative on this keyboard is the home, end, and delete keys, which are shoved up into the top right corner in a configuration that feels unnatural. If you use those keys a lot, like I do, you will probably get used to their new locations. In the meantime, they will be frustrating.

The trackpad is just okay. I didn’t have trouble clicking and dragging, although it really wants to zoom in and out any time you get a second finger anywhere near the surface. I also had a hard time getting it to recognize a right-click. I only succeeded in right-clicking about 10% of the time, using either the lower right corner or a two-finger click. This is frustrating as hell, especially when browsing the web. I’m always right-clicking to open a link in a new tab. With the X1 Carbon’s trackpad, though, this was all but impossible. Even though I used the X1 Carbon for about two weeks, I never got the hang of right-clicking.

Build quality on the trackpad I tested was not great, either. There was a noticeable amount of play between the surface and the engagement point for clicking, which made it feel imprecise. Since the trackpad is something you will use all the time, this gets annoying. On the plus side, it has plenty of room, and doesn’t accidentally trigger unexpectedly when typing, which is nice.

Fortunately, it does have the TrackPoint, if you just need to move the cursor quickly while typing. Given the lackluster performance of the trackpad, you might even prefer it for all your navigation

Sound is fine, somewhat surprisingly. It did get distorted easily at higher volumes, but it is better than I have come to expect from an ultrabook.

Software

The X1 Carbon ships with more crapware than any ThinkPad I have ever used. Here’s a catalog of the stuff I removed so that I could stand to use the thing:

  • Absolute Reminder (a reminder to install specific backup software)
  • Google Toolbar for Internet Explorer
  • Intel AppUp(SM) center (pointless app store)
  • Lenovo Mobile Access (cellular utility that’s only useful if you have a cellular plan for your laptop)
  • Lenovo SimpleTap (badly-implemented mobile OS–style app launcher)
  • Lenovo Solution Center (mostly-redundant system diagnostics and alerts)
  • Lenovo Welcome
  • Message Center Plus (pointless reminders and sales messages)
  • Nitro Pro 7 (PDF software spam)
  • Norton Internet Security (hate hate hate)
  • Power Manager (Lenovo battery utility, redundant unless you have switchable graphics)
  • SugarSync Manager (file sync software spam)
  • ThinkVantage Access Connections (redundant wi-fi utility)
  • VIP Access (pointless VeriSign spamware)

I did keep a lot of software I suspect to be crapware installed. I figure if I’m not sure what it does and it doesn’t get in my face and it doesn’t take up a ton of space, it’s probably not hurting anything to leave it installed. Until I removed all that crap, I kept getting interrupted by a message of some kind or other, slowing down not just the machine, but my productivity. After removing it, the entire machine breathed a sigh of relief, stretched its legs, and went faster. Everything I write about the X1 Carbon assumes you also clear out the crappy pre-installed crapware. If you don’t, expect a crappy user experience.

On the other hand, the X1 Carbon helpfully ships with Google Chrome and Evernote installed. Some might consider these crapware, but since I was going to install them anyway, it makes things a little easier.

Performance

Waking up, the X1 Carbon is lightning fast. It takes about as long as it takes to open the lid. One of my annoyances with past Windows laptops has been how slow they are to reconnect to wi-fi when I wake them up. No more. By the time I get my browser opened, the X1 Carbon is connected to my wi-fi and ready to go. It’s a pleasant change from my T400, which makes me wait a minute while it reconnects.

Battery life is just okay, a little under 5 hours in ordinary use. That confirms my experience with ThinkPads: big on battery life claims, short on delivering on them. Lenovo claims the X1 Carbon gets up to 8.2 hours. The Verge got about 4.75 in its testing, which feels about right based on my use during this review. Let’s be honest, anything approaching 5 hours is still pretty good, but it’s not enough to get you through the day. Fortunately, the X1 Carbon charges really fast. It takes less than an hour to fully charge, even if you are using the computer while you are charging. That’s perfect for quick charging in the middle of a conference or during a layover. It’s not optimal, but I think it’s better than stuffing another pound of batteries inside.

Once you remove all that crapware, though the X1 Carbon is plenty quick. It’s an ultrabook, so it isn’t built for speed, but nothing about the performance will disappoint you, as long as you aren’t trying to play video games. Launching Microsoft Office was just as snappy as on my older, non-ultrabook ThinkPad that still generally outperforms ultrabooks.

Who should buy this?

Everyone. This ultrabook has it all: great battery life, a near-perfect keyboard and a good-for-Windows trackpad. The Verge struggle to say anything bad about it, except for the crapware problem I noted. Which sucks, but it’s an easy fix. Just spend a half hour removing all the junk, and you will be good to go. The trackpad isn’t great, but I learned to deal with it. Other than those two things, I don’t have any complaints. I loved using this ultrabook, and I’m sorry I have to send it back.

The price is the only real obstacle. At $1,399, it’s about $250 more than a similarly-equipped Dell XPS 13, my next-most-favorite ultrabook. But you know what? It’s worth it for the extra screen real estate. And even though I liked the keyboard on the Dell just fine, I prefer the ThinkPad’s.

Summary

ThinkPad X1 Carbon

Reviewed by Sam Glover on .

Summary: The X1 Carbon is the best ultrabook I have used. It’s perfect for business, with a screen big enough to actually get things done and a great keyboard.

Breakdown:

  • Price and features: 4
  • Hardware and design: 5
  • Included software: 2
  • Performance: 5

Overall score: 4.5 (out of 5)

Although I gave this a 2 for included software — which is well-deserved — I’m exercising my discretion to bump the overall score to 4.5. Once you’ve you aren’t left with any meaningful problems.

P.S., My wife just told me she’s really glad I’m liking this laptop, and that she hopes I’ll buy one because she knows they will stand up to my abuse and keep me happy for longer than anything else.

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  • http://www.brucebnews.com Bruce Berls

    Nice review! I love my X1 Carbon. I had dearly missed the pointing stick in the last few non-Lenovo laptops and I couldn’t be happier to have it back.

    After removing the crapware, I was able to upgrade without any issues to Windows 8, which runs beautifully with no issues at all other than a delay by HP before a driver became available for the Officejet Pro 8600 Plus.

    The fingerprint reader is worth a look. It makes the process of starting up almost as fast as using a tablet with Windows 7 or 8 coming out of sleep. My experience with fingerprint readers hasn’t been a lack of security (there are some that are apparently insecure but not the one used by Lenovo as far as I know) but rather that they work unreliably. So I’m not going to feel bad if this one starts to get flaky – but as long as it’s working, it’s just great, faster and easier than typing a password.

    Thanks!

  • James S. Fitzgerald

    Thank you for the review. Could you tell me if the screen works as a touch screen with Windows 8 and if so, how well? If it does not, can you suggest any other similarly well-built, light, durable laptops with decent battery life which do have touch screens that work well? E.g., any comment on the Lenova Twist or Yoga?

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      This does not have a touchscreen.

      So far, I fall into the “touchscreens on laptops (and desktops, for that matter) are stupid” category. Perhaps I’ll be convinced differently when I try the Twist or Yoga, but I doubt it. I don’t even like touching my iPad’s screen when it’s sitting up like a screen and I’m using a keyboard.

    • Anthony Martini

      You won’t miss the touch screen. The track pad is multi-touch and Windows 8 gesture aware. You can swipe to switch between open apps–both Desktop-based and “Windows 8 style” (formerly known as “Metro”), as well as open the Charms bar, etc. I am pleasantly surprised about how much more productive I’ve been with Windows 8–and I was very skeptical when testing it over the summer. The track pad gestures trump getting finger prints all over the screen any day. I also found that the X1 Carbon boots about 30-50% faster with Windows 8 over Windows 7, while the overall speed and responsiveness of the machine is improved as well in the new OS.

      • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

        Do you notice any change in battery life?

        • Anthony Martini

          Battery life is about the same as with Windows 7, which is to say about 5 hours or so, depending on what you’re doing. As mentioned in the review, the rapid charge really does work–75-80% charge from nearly 0% in only 30 minutes.

  • http://www.ashevilletechnologyservices.com Dan

    I just bought the Lenovo Yoga, and let me tell you… it is amazing.

    I wavered between the Yoga and the Twist (played with both in person before purchase, BestBuy and Staples) and ultimately chose the Yoga because of the larger, higher resolution screen. The Twist is decent, but the 1600×900 IPS super bright display on the Yoga is unbeatable. Not to mention the touch is amazing! The Twist is cheaper and offers a platter hdd for more storage, but is heavier and thicker also.

    I never thought I would get in to the touch, but after a week I really love it. The Carbon looks really amazing…. the Yoga has the same excellent keyboard and build quality with the touchscreen and optional conversion to tablet mode! Which, at 13.3″ is pretty huge.

    Anyway, thanks for the review Sam. Always enjoy reading your posts and reviews.

  • Frank

    >>The track pad is multi-touch and Windows 8 gesture aware. <<
    Wow. I've been looking at the X1 Carbon, but w Win8, I wondered how things would work. Is the multi-touch trackpad basically the "same" as using the screen???
    That would be neat. I'm not a fan of fooling w my screens. And I've heard that mouse/keyboard usage doesn't translate well to Win8.
    Thx for any information.
    Frank

  • http://www.ashevilletechnologyservices.com Dan

    Sam, don’t buy the Carbon just yet:

    Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch confirmed on company’s site, scheduled for December launch
    http://www.engadget.com/2012/11/20/lenovo-thinkpad-x1-carbon-touch/

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      I saw that, but I remain unconvinced that a touchscreen on a laptop or desktop is a good idea. I guess I will have to try one and see.

      • http://www.ashevilletechnologyservices.com Dan

        I was skeptical too, but using one for about three weeks and I’ll never go back to non-touch. I was using a friends Macbook this morning and I subconsciously touched the screen thinking it would work!

        I’d be interested to hear what you think after using touch for a week or two.

        • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

          Well, I will remain open-minded, but I use my iPad with a keyboard and a sturdy stand all the time, and I just get annoyed by the fact that I have to touch the screen. Ergonomic screen positions make terrible touch interface positions, and vice-versa. (And laptops are bad at both.)

  • http://www.jasonpaulhowie.com jason p howie

    Sam, do you happen to know if this laptop can efficiently operate Dragon Naturally Speaking? My keyboard skills reflect my 1970s education! Thanks!

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      I didn’t try it, but I don’t see why not, as long as you remove the crapware the X1 comes with. It’s much faster than many computers I know to be running Dragon now. If you get one and try it, though, please report back.

  • Bobby Salvin

    I have to say that touch screens on laptops with Windows 8 are really great. In my opinion it is not worth spending even a moderate sum of money on a laptop if it does not have a touchscreen. You can use Windows 8 with a touchpad and mouse, but Windows 8 introduces a new level of functionality that works really well with a touchscreen.