DNP  Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon review dark and angular meets thin and light

The storied ThinkPad line has just turned 20 and, over all those years, the brand has established itself as something that (mostly) successfully straddles the line between boring corporate accessory and classy consumer choice. Stoic is an apt term for the machines and, through those two decades, they've only gotten better and better -- well, most of the time, anyway.

Welcome, then, to what is the latest and, therefore, what should be the best: the $1,499 ThinkPad X1 Carbon. It's an evolution of last year's X1, thinner and lighter than that pre-Ultrabook despite having a larger display. The Carbon moniker here not only describes this machine's matte black exterior but also applies to the woven and resin-impregnated composite structure within, delivering a rare mix of light weight, svelte dimensions and durable construction. It's a wonder to behold but can it improve on the previous ThinkPad X1's shortcomings? There's only one way to find out.

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Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon review

Lenovo

ThinkPad X1 Carbon

Pros

  • Durable, lightweight chassis
  • Solid performance
  • Great keyboard and trackpad
  • HSPA+ connectivity

Cons

  • Middling display and battery life
  • High cost
Summary

Lenovo's X1 Carbon is the thinnest and lightest ThinkPad yet and, while it isn't the cheapest Ultrabook on the market, it's among the best.

Look and feel

DNP  Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon review dark and angular meets thin and light

The X1 Carbon has few vents and gills and other visually distracting features, all kept to a minimum to deliver a monotone, minimalist appearance -- and, presumably, a minimal radar signature, too.

Lenovo has deployed many a wedge-shaped stealth fighter in the past, but the new X1 Carbon takes the cake as the cleanest design we've yet seen in a ThinkPad. It has few vents and gills and other visually distracting features, all kept to a minimum to deliver a monotone, minimalist appearance -- and, presumably, a minimal radar signature, too. Closed, the laptop is just 0.71 inches (18mm) thick at the rear, slinking down to 0.31 inches (8mm) at the front, a taper that's accentuated when typing thanks to rubber pads that are slightly thicker at the rear than the front, making the keyboard just a few degrees more willing.

It's light, too, at three pounds (1.36kg), making this the thinnest and lightest ThinkPad ever. Not content with that, Lenovo goes so far as to call it the "thinnest and lightest business Ultrabook on the market" and, while we don't feel like drawing arbitrary classifications to determine which of the many, many Ultrabooks are intended for professionals, we're happy to report that the X1 Carbon doesn't overwhelm with either its heft or its breadth.

Despite the lightness and the thinness this machine feels incredibly stout. Though there is some flex if you twist hard enough, the laptop's carbon fiber chassis never feels flimsy. The keyboard tray is remarkably rigid, not bending even for typists with particularly heavy fingers, and, like last year's X1, it's able to survive eight MIL-SPEC tests. That means humidity, drops, temperature, vibration and even sand won't be an issue. It comes with a three-year warranty, but it's always good to know you won't be expecting to use it.

The matte black design is unmistakable ThinkPad, angular shapes and monotone lines everywhere.

The matte black design is unmistakable ThinkPad, angular shapes and monotone lines everywhere, but it's interesting to note that those angles have been softened somewhat. Where sharp edges are traditionally the norm they are subtly more rounded here. You don't really notice it until you get the X1 in your hands and carry it around for a bit, but the slightly rounded edges, plus the soft-touch coating, makes this a very comfortable laptop to actually use in your lap -- much more so than many metal Ultrabooks, including the MacBook Air, whose sharp front lip can do a number on sensitive wrists.

DNP  Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon review dark and angular meets thin and light

Other than the optional SIM slot, located around back on 3G-equipped models, all the ports on the X1 are on the left and the right sides of the machine. On the right, starting at the back, you'll find a Kensington Security Slot, a USB 3.0 port, Mini DisplayPort, a 3.5mm headphone jack and an SD card reader. Move to the left and, at the rear, you'll find a new-style rectangular power plug, the vent for the (nearly silent) CPU fan, a USB 2.0 port and the ThinkPad's patented wireless switch, which instantly kills all transmitters and receivers in the machine to extend your battery life. Think of it as a physical airplane mode toggle, your best friend when desperately trying to put the finishing touches on your proposal while the battery life indicator down in the taskbar is showing single digits.

Somewhat annoyingly, only that USB port on the right is of the SuperSpeed variety, and there's no visual differentiation between this one and the lowly 2.0 port on the other side, other than a tiny, gray "SS" silkscreened nearby. You'll just have to remember. And, we couldn't help but think the big, rectangular power plug is a bit of a step backward from the traditional round ones. It's slightly harder to line up and insert but, more troubling, it's the same height as a USB port, meaning if you're blindly trying to find a home for your thumb drive you might find yourself trying to jam it in the wrong place. Both issues, we might add, that go away with a bit of familiarity.

The fingerprint scanner, which as ever lets you power on the laptop and log straight into Windows with just a single swipe of your digit of choice.

The latch-free lid closes securely but opens easily. It has a slight lip on it, so you won't struggle to separate it from the lower half, and the hinge allows the display to open fully flat if you're so inclined, which gives you maximum opportunity to ogle the keyboard and trackpad, which we'll describe in just a moment. Beneath that and situated to the right, in its traditional location, is the fingerprint scanner, which as ever lets you power on the laptop and log straight into Windows with just a single swipe of your digit of choice. Why more laptops don't offer this we'll never know.

DNP  Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon review dark and angular meets thin and light

In the lid is a 14-inch, 1,600 x 900 display with a bezel thin enough to let this laptop's dimensions (13.03 x 8.9 x 0.74-inches) match those of what before would be considered a 13-inch size. But, there's still enough space above to insert the 720p webcam, which does a fair but unremarkable job of capturing your countenance for the world to see. Even in bright lighting there's plenty of grain on display, but it's good enough you won't feel the need to pack along an external camera.

You will need to pack the external Ethernet adapter, as there's no room for one within the chassis, but at least Lenovo was thoughtful enough to include one in the box.

Keyboard and trackpad

DNP  Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon review dark and angular meets thin and light

The traditional wide, spacious keys found on ThinkPads have been retired, replaced by the island-style arrangement found in the new X1. It's basically the same layout that we found in the ThinkPad X230 so we won't detail all the minutiae here, but suffice to say this is a great layout that is both comfortable and responsive.

You'll never have a doubt about whether or not you properly hit each and every letter in that ridiculously complicated password corporate policy dictates.

The keys are widely spaced, which will take a little adjusting to for those coming from older ThinkPads, but their curvature and texture make them very finger-friendly, and they still have that distinctive tension and "thock" feeling when depressed, resulting in some stellar feedback. You'll never have a doubt about whether or not you properly hit each and every letter in that ridiculously complicated password corporate policy dictates.

There are two stages of backlighting, manually cycled by holding the Fn key and rapping on the space bar. The audio control buttons, one each for muting the speakers and the microphone, plus the volume rocker, have been moved back up to the top of the keyboard after a brief dalliance on the right side in the older X1. There, too, lies the configurable ThinkVantage button, which is black rather than its traditional blue.

Speed typists who hate to leave their home keys will definitely appreciate the presence of this pointing device just to the left of their right index finger.

With that, the bright crimson pointing stick is the main dash of color to be found in the keyboard, and it provides a visual and tactile highlight for the machine. Despite nearly everyone else on the planet embracing trackpads, Lenovo won't give up on you, TrackPoint, and we're glad for it. The shape here is the common Soft Dome variety, a cushy and comfortable surface that doesn't get in the way while typing. Quite to the contrary, speed typists who hate to leave their home keys will definitely appreciate the presence of this pointing device just to the left of their right index finger, three buttons just slightly above their thumb.

But, for those times when a trackpad is required, the X1 Carbon has a very good one. It's 37 percent larger than that found in the earlier X1, a glass unit that's happy to let fingers slide without much resistance. The button-free Synaptics unit is very responsive for the simple stuff, like two-finger scrolling and telling the difference between left- and right-clicks, and even more complicated gestures are well-handled, like four-finger application switching and pinch-zooming. It's among the most responsive we've yet used on an Ultrabook.

Display and sound

DNP  Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon review dark and angular meets thin and light

If there's a fault to be found in the X1 Carbon it lies here.

If there's a fault to be found in the X1 Carbon it lies here: the LCD panel that you'll be staring at just about whenever you use this thing. On paper the 14-inch unit has it where it counts, clocking in with a 1,600 x 900 resolution. But, dig a little deeper and you'll find a few reasons to be disappointed.

The first time you look at the panel you'll notice what seems to be an excessively high dot pitch -- that is to say, there's a lot of space between pixels. If you have reasonably fresh eyes you'll easily be able to pick out the subtle dark lines that define the edges of pixels. Even if your eyes are perhaps a bit more tired, you'll be able to see that the whites have a bit of a gray hue to them. This is more noticeable even than on machines with lower-resolution displays, like that on the MacBook Air.

Maximum brightness here is 300 nits, a figure that's a bit underwhelming. It's a fair bit dimmer than the Samsung Series 9, for example, which clocks in at 400, and outdoor visibility in bright sunlight is virtually impossible here. But, Lenovo kindly opted for a matte display, ditching the glossy Gorilla Glass found in the prior X1. Sure, we've given up some aspect of durability, but we'll take that in exchange for the drastic reduction in eye strain when working in glare-riddled offices.

Viewing angles are adequate, but far from stellar. You can sway side-to-side for quite a ways before you start to notice any visual effects, but wander too far up or down and the contrast quickly drops off. You'll need to keep the display perfectly aligned to get the most out of this screen, something that fold-flat hinge makes easy enough, even if you're hanging from the ceiling.

The speakers are positioned on the bottom of the unit, shooting out of tiny slits angled to either side, echoing off of whatever surface you've set the laptop on to create a wider sound field than you might think possible out of such a svelte machine. When placed on a hard surface the effect is indeed quite compelling, with surprisingly loud playback and clear channel separation. Set the machine on a pillow or your lap, anything soft that blocks those channels, and the sound gets a bit more muted -- but even then it's plenty loud. Bass and tonal quality are on the poor side, but that's par for the Ultrabook course.

Performance

DNP  Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon review dark and angular meets thin and light

PCMark Vantage 3DMark06
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon (1.8GHz Intel Core i5-3427U, Intel HD Graphics 4000) 11,738 Would not run
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 (2.5GHz Core i5-2410M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 7,787 3,726
Vizio Thin + Light (14-inch, 1.9GHz Core i7-3517U, Intel HD Graphics 4000) 13,525 5,443
Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M5 (481TG-6814, 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U, Intel HD Graphics 4000 / NVIDIA GeForce GT640M LE 1GB) 7,395 9,821
Acer Aspire S5 (1.9GHz Core i7-3517U, Intel HD Graphics 4000) 12,895 5,071
Samsung Series 9 (13-inch, 2012, 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U, Intel HD Graphics 4000) 8,624 5,155
MacBook Air (2012, 1.8GHz Core i5, Intel HD Graphics 4000) 13,469 5,827
ASUS Zenbook Prime UX21A (Ivy Bridge Core i7 processor, Intel HD Graphics 4000) 10,333 4,550
Samsung Series 9 (15-inch, 2012, 1.6GHz Core i5-2467M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 10,580 4,171
Lenovo IdeaPad U310 (1.7GHz Core i5-3317U, Intel HD Graphics 4000) 8,345 4,549
Lenovo ThinkPad X230 (2.6GHz Core i5-3320M, Intel HD Graphics 4000) 8,234 4,891
Sony VAIO T13 (1.7GHz Core i5-3317U, Intel HD Graphics 4000) 8,189 3,847
Note: higher scores are better

There are three possible CPUs for you to select, all sprung from Intel's verdant Ivy Bridge. Ours has the middle specification, a 1.8GHz Core i5-3427U with 3MB of L3 cache and a 1,333MHz FSB, all matched with 4GB of RAM and the HD Graphics 4000 integrated GPU. As such it's hardly a gaming machine, but it's playable in a pinch -- we saw about 25fps in Call of Duty IV at 1,024 x 768 on default settings. When cranking through the benchmarks we noted a substantial amount of heat pumping out of the left side of the laptop, which became uncomfortably warm. It did, however, stay almost perfectly silent.

Gaming and graphics benchmarks are definitely outside of the intended applications of this machine, though, a laptop that's rather more likely to be found running a PPT than an FPS. In that kind of application the laptop performs quite well. Intel's latest chips offer a huge boost over their 2011 predecessors, and indeed this X1 is far faster than that X1, its PCMark Vantage scores about 50 percent higher. Indeed, looking at the gamut of Ultrabooks, the X1 Carbon slots in about where you'd expect it to given its CPU configuration, and you can pretty well guess where the higher-spec, 2.0GHz Core i7 version would place, too.

Disk I/O is of course another thing, and we were not left wanting. Though of a rather limited size, just 128GB, our X1 Carbon's SSD averaged 510 MB/s (reads) and 339 MB/s (writes), which on the read side at least is right up there with the latest MacBook Air's chart-topping 551 MB/s. That'll have your latest quarterly presentation loaded in no time -- or all your favorite Quake mods. It also helps deliver a very respectable 21-second bootup from cold.

Battery life

DNP  Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon review dark and angular meets thin and light

Battery Life
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon 5:07
Samsung Series 9 (15-inch, 2012) 7:29
Lenovo ThinkPad X230 7:19
Samsung Series 9 (13-inch, 2012) 7:02
MacBook Air (13-inch, 2012) 6:34 (OS X) / 4:28 (Windows)
Dell XPS 14 6:18
HP Folio 13 6:08
HP Envy Sleekbook 6z 5:51
Toshiba Portege Z835 5:49
Sony VAIO T13 5:39
MacBook Air (13-inch, 2011) 5:32 (OS X) / 4:12 (Windows)
HP Envy 14 Spectre 5:30
Toshiba Satellite U845W 5:13
Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3 5:11
Lenovo IdeaPad U300s 5:08
Samsung Series 5 Ultrabook (14-inch, 2012) 5:06
Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M5 5:05
Dell XPS 13 4:58
Lenovo IdeaPad U310 4:57
Acer Aspire S5 4:35
Samsung Series 9 (13-inch, 2011) 4:20
ASUS Zenbook Prime UX21A 4:19
Acer Aspire S3 4:11
Vizio Thin + Light (14-inch) 3:57
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 3:31 / 6:57 (extended battery)

On our standard battery rundown test, which entails looping a video with WiFi enabled, the X1 managed just over five hours before depleting its last mAh. That's on the underwhelming side of average, with many Ivy Bridge Ultrabooks pushing one or two hours longer. Lenovo promises up to six and a half hours of battery life for the X1 Carbon, and we think it could manage that with the wireless switch set in silent mode. Unfortunately, Lenovo isn't offering an external battery slice for the X1 Carbon, and we don't see any connectors on the bottom that would enable them to add one in the future.

It's not all about longevity, though, and Lenovo is proud of the X1 Carbon's RapidCharge technology. We've seen that before and it, as ever, it works well here. Lenovo promises five hours of battery life can be added in just 30 minutes of charging, though a full charge will take another hour. Still, for a quick airport top-off before they call your boarding zone, that's quite handy.

Software and warranty

DNP  Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon review dark and angular meets thin and light

Lenovo kindly kept the X1 Carbon's SSD free of most bloatware -- a good thing since there's only 128GB to work with.

Lenovo kindly kept the X1 Carbon's SSD free of most bloatware -- a good thing since there's only 128GB to work with. The only real annoying bit we found was Norton Internet Security, which seemed to pop up a frightening message about our computer being unprotected every few minutes. There's a 30-day free trial but we're guessing it won't take you nearly that long to uninstall this bit of nagware. There's a link to a free trial of Microsoft Office, but you'll need to download that yourself.

Other than that, there's the usual ThinkVantage suite of apps and Lenovo's SimpleTap application, which gives a finger-friendly grid of launching apps, not wholly unlike Launchpad on OS X. This is of limited use on a touchscreen-free machine like the X1, but could be more of a help in the upcoming IdeaPad Yoga.

Again, there's a three-year warranty here, which is a nice bit of reassurance.

Configuration options

DNP  Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon review dark and angular meets thin and light

Though the unit we tested will run you $1,499, the X1 Carbon starts at a hundred dollars less, with a more modest Core i5-3317U processor, clocked at 1.7GHz instead of 1.8GHz. If you wanted to upgrade from the model we reviewed, you could pay $1,649 for a unit with the same processor, but 256GB in solid-state storage. Want 256 gigs and a Core i7 CPU? You're looking at $1,849. Regardless, these all come with 4GB of RAM and Intel's HD 4000 graphics. The resolution and warranty, too, remain the same.

All pre-configured models other than the base $1,399 unit include an Ericsson H5321gw HSPA+ WWAN and GPS module. It supports 21Mbps HSPA+ connectivity -- once you've brought your own SIM. As of now there's no way to configure the higher-end X1 Carbon models without this module, which is partly why those prices you see above are a bit higher than many others. But, expect to save about a hundred bucks by omitting this if and when Lenovo starts offering build-to-order units.

The competition

DNP  Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon review dark and angular meets thin and light

Until HP ships the EliteBook Folio sometime this fall, the X1 Carbon won't have much competition from other high-end Ultrabooks aimed at the business set. For now, then, we may as well compare the X1 to other premium ultraportables. Among them, our reigning favorite might be the Samsung Series 9 ($1,300 and up), which is thinner than even the average Ultrabook, has a bright, matte, 1,600 x 900 screen and lasts an impressive seven hours on a charge. (It's also gorgeous, but then again, there ThinkPad diehards will be more inclined to love the X1's understated lines.)

It's a similar story for the 13-inch MacBook Air ($1,200 and up), which offers about six and a half hours of runtime and happens to have one of the most comfortable keyboard-and-trackpad combos around. On a practical note, it's configurable with up to 8GB of RAM and 512GB of solid-state storage -- a rarity for machines in this class. The biggest trade-off, perhaps, is that screen: with a 1,440 x 900 pixel count it's crisper than average, but still doesn't offer the pixel count that Lenovo (or Samsung, or ASUS or HP...) has to offer.

Speaking of ASUS, we just got our hands on the new $1,099 Zenbook Prime UX31A and while there's lots to love (fast performance, a pretty design, much-improved keyboard and 1080p IPS display) its trackpad was awfully jumpy, even after multiple driver updates.

If you don't mind spending $1,400 on a laptop and can suffer a little extra weight, you might want to check out the HP Envy 14 Spectre -- it's a bit heavy for a 14-inch Ultrabook, but we love its glass-and-metal design, tactile keyboard and rich 1,600 x 900 display. Bonus: it includes a generous two-year warranty and comes pre-loaded with full copies of Adobe Photoshop Elements and Adobe Premiere Elements.

Dell's XPS 14 falls into a similar vein, with its 1,600 x 900 display, and it costs less, at $1,100. It's also one of the few bigger-screen Ultrabooks that actually justifies its heft with long battery life (nearly six and a half hours, in this case). Oh, and if you read our review of the smaller XPS 13, you'll be glad to know Dell fine-tuned the trackpad too.

Lastly, given how expensive the X1 Carbon is, it's worth mentioning the Sony VAIO Z, even if it isn't technically an Ultrabook (these are standard-voltage processors, don'tcha know -- quad-core ones, even). At $1,600, it has a thin, 0.66-inch-thick chassis (also made from carbon fiber) and it comes standard with 8GB of RAM and a 1080p display. Interestingly, the drives are arranged in a fast (but risk-prone) RAID 0 configuration, and you can get up to 512B of storage, as with the MacBook Air. The real hook, though, is the external Power Media Dock, which houses a discrete GPU and optical drive. That'll set you back an extra $400, so start counting your pennies if that's of interest.

But, before we sign off, we'll again point out that the X1 Carbon's pricing includes an HSPA+ WWAN module in all but the base configuration, something you can't often find in an Ultrabook.

Wrap-up

DNP  Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon review dark and angular meets thin and light

So, is the Lenovo X1 Carbon the ultimate Ultrabook? Not quite. Its display is merely fair, as is its battery life, and it's far from the cheapest choice out there. Those things are definite marks against, but if you can get past them this is a fundamentally impressive machine. It is properly thin and light and yet has none of the flimsy feeling that some of its competition offers. It also manages to be legitimately comfortable in the hand or on your lap, a description that similarly can't be applied to every other razor-thin machine.

This makes it a very consumer-friendly machine with a decidedly professional price-point and, with HSPA+ available across almost the entire range, it offers pro-level connectivity too. If you're looking for a durable, fast Ultrabook that won't weigh down your bag -- and that won't scream "look at me!" while you're checking in from the coffee shop -- this is absolutely it.

Dana Wollman contributed to this review.