Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon review

Pros

  • Sleek, minimalist design
  • Carbon fibre construction
  • Great keyboard that's spill-proof
  • High resolution screen
  • Integrated 3G modem

Cons

  • No Ethernet port

The ThinkPad recently celebrated its 20th birthday – that’s quite an impressive achievement for any product line, but it’s close to miraculous in the world of tech. The ThinkPad has been through some major changes over the past two decades, but one thing that has remained relatively consistent is the design. The ThinkPad has retained its trademark black finish throughout the past 20 years, and although there have been some models that have bucked the trend, the majority of ThinkPads have retained the same design DNA.

Of course design is completely subjective, and I’m sure there are many of you out there who find the ThinkPad design old, dated and downright boring, but that’s not how I see it. You see, black is timeless, whether it’s that little black dress from Valentino, the Kenzo dinner suit that only comes out of the wardrobe once a year, or the ceramic bezel surrounding the face of a Rolex Submariner – black looks good today, it will look good tomorrow and it will look good 20 years from now. That’s why I’m glad that Lenovo has stuck with IBM’s original ThinkPad design, colour scheme and finish – it looks as sleek, modern and stylish today as it did in 1992.

The ThinkPad X1 Carbon continues that design tradition. The whole chassis is finished in that familiar, rubberised coating, making it feel as good as it looks. With the lid closed, the X1 Carbon has a slightly wedge-like appearance, not too dissimilar to a MacBook Air, but its matte black finish somehow shrinks its dimensions, making it seem smaller than it actually is. There’s very little breaking up that minimalist design, with the ThinkPad logo placed in its usual corner on the lid, and a relatively small Lenovo logo mirroring it. Open the lid and the traditional ThinkPad theme continues – it’s all matte black and red accents. Put simply, this is a great looking piece of technology.

The X1 Carbon is a 14in Ultrabook measuring 331 x 226 x 19mm (WxDxH) making it slightly larger than the equivalent MacBook Air, but the carbon fibre chassis keeps it pretty light at 1.4kg. You’d have no problem carrying the X1 Carbon around with you every day, and it certainly makes a very convincing daily companion.

That 14in screen has a native resolution of 1,600 x 900, providing an impressive amount of desktop real estate. The screen is bright too – Lenovo quotes brightness at 300 NITS, and I certainly wouldn’t argue with that. Suffice to say that the X1 Carbon is usable in pretty much any lighting environment, and Lenovo’s decision to avoid a high-contrast, glossy screen will be welcomed by anyone who works with a window behind them. The downside is that colours aren’t as vibrant and black levels aren’t as deep as they would be with a glossy screen, but this is first and foremost a business laptop, so that shouldn’t really be a problem to the target user.

ThinkPad keyboards have long been held in the highest regard, and for good reason. There was a time when ThinkPad keyboards weren’t just better than the competition, they were in a completely different league. Thankfully, at least from an end user standpoint, other laptop manufacturers realised that a good typing experience is essential, and now it’s fair to say that most laptops have very good keyboards.

The X1 Carbon keyboard has an isolated key design, as is the norm these days, but Lenovo has clearly weaved its magic once more. Typing on the X1 Carbon is an absolute joy. Every key has what feels like acres of travel, and the key action itself is as close to perfect as you’re likely to find. The break and spring weights are sublime, cuing up your fingers for the next key strike. I felt genuine disappointment when typing on my MacBook Air earlier today, which itself has a very fine keyboard. If you’re in the business of knocking out lengthy documents, you’ll be very, very happy. And let’s not forget that if you spill your drink on your ThinkPad keyboard, it will simply drain out of the bottom without affecting the electrical components inside – the motherboard is completely sealed, so any spills will just require draining (perhaps some rinsing) and a few hours drying.

As is usually the case with a ThinkPad, you have a choise of pointing devices. Nestling between the G, H and B keys is the traditional ThinkPad TrackPoint. The TrackPoint often polarises opinion, but I’m a big fan. Not only is the TrackPoint easy to use and very accurate, its location also ensures that you never have to take your hands away from their position over the keys. I will, however, admit that a TrackPoint isn’t quite as well suited to tasks like Photoshop work.

It’s therefore a good thing that Lenovo has also equipped the X1 Carbon with a large, glass touch-pad. The touchpad is located beneath the three TrackPoint selector buttons (the central one is for scroll lock). Like most modern touch-pads, this one doesn’t need separate buttons, since the touch-pad itself can be clicked on the left or right sides.

The touch-pad is very responsive and multi-touch gestures are easy to execute. Unfortunately, whereas Mac OS is designed for use with a multi-touch pad, Windows 7 isn’t, thus making the quality of the X1 Carbon’s pad a little redundant. The responsive nature of the touch-pad is something of a double-edged sword too. When typing at speed I often found myself brushing the touch-pad, which would sometimes result in random blocks of text being selected and deleted – not ideal.

Thankfully Lenovo is well aware of the potential problems that a large, sensitive touch-pad can present and has a solution built into the UltraNav settings. Edge Tap Filtering allows you to choose the exact portion of the touch-pad that can be used for tapping, which means you can tailor it to your own needs and typing style. It’s this kind of attention to detail that has always separated ThinkPads from the crowd – the ThinkPad ethos has never been all about hardware, user experience is a key metric for Lenovo.

Nestling in the top edge, above the keyboard you’ll find the power button, dedicated volume controls and mutes for both the speaker/headphones and microphone. There’s also a button that launches the SimpleTap Toolbar. This is essentially a customisable, tile-based navigation menu with multiple screens - think tablet interface or LaunchPad on Mac OS. It’s a nice touch, but I can’t help feeling it will be slightly redundant when you upgrade to Windows 8 in a few weeks.

The ThinkPad T42 was the first laptop to include an integrated fingerprint reader, and the X1 Carbon is also equipped with biometric security. Lenovo has also maintained the tradition of placing a round indent above the scanner, indicating exactly where you should place your finger in order to get a good read. Of course a fingerprint scanner isn’t really that secure, but it offers a good compromise between convenience and security for users that might otherwise never bother to lock their laptop.

Above the screen is a 720p webcam, so video conferencing won’t be a problem. What you won’t find above the screen is the keyboard light that used to be a defining feature on ThinkPads. This light would shine down on the keyboard so you could see what you were doing in a dark environment, such as a keynote presentation. Lenovo has instead equipped the X1 Carbon with a two-stage keyboard backlight, allowing you to illuminate the keys subtly or brightly, depending on your needs and environment.

The X1 Carbon comes in many configurations, with the base model starting from £1,039.99. The version I have in front of me today will set you back £1,229.99 from Lenovo’s online shop, which makes it something of a bargain.

There’s a 1.8GHz Intel i5-3427U CPU, which can boost to 2.8GHz in the driving seat, and this is backed up by a healthy 8GB of RAM. Bear in mind that there’s no upgrading the memory on the X1 Carbon, so this is definitely the model to go for as the other three configurations only come with 4GB. That Intel Ivy Bridge CPU also brings the HD 4000 graphics chip to the table. There’s a 128GB SSD taking care of storage, but that can be upgraded a 256GB model for a very reasonable £96 – by contrast Apple will charge you £240 for the same upgrade on a MacBook Air!

Despite the svelte chassis, there’s a reasonable amount of connectivity around the X1 Carbon. The left edge is home to the power socket, a sleep and charge enabled USB 2.0 port and a hardware switch for the wireless radios. On the right you’ll find a USB 3.0 port, a headset port, a mini-DisplayPort connector and an SD card reader. There’s no Ethernet port, which is something of an issue on a business laptop. If you want Ethernet, you’ll need a USB to Ethernet adapter, but just as with the MacBook Air, this adaptor doesn’t come in the box.

At the rear of the chassis is a SIM card slot, which gives an indication of the extensive wireless connectivity options at your disposal with the X1 Carbon. There’s a built-in 3G wireless WAN adaptor, which will keep you connected pretty much anywhere (above ground at least). Lenovo even ships the X1 Carbon with a SIM in situ, offering a pay-as-you-go plan so you’re only paying for data when you need it.

Of course you also get 802.11n Wi-Fi, so you can connect to home and work wireless networks, and any public hotspots you may find. And there’s Bluetooth 4.0 for connecting up peripherals and direct file transfers.

The X1 Carbon comes loaded with Lenovo’s IT Manager friendly background utilities, like Rapid Restore and Recover, ensuring that data is regularly backed up without the need of user intervention. And since the ThinkPad is primarily a business laptop, it also comes with all of Intel’s vPro goodies for remote management – more good news for IT Managers.

Lenovo quotes a battery life of 6.5 hours, which seems about right looking at the results from MobileMark 2007. The X1 Carbon managed six hours 42 minutes with the screen kept usefully bright, which indicates that you’ll have no problem getting a full day’s use out of single charge. Lenovo’s RapidCharge technology also means that you’ll be able get five hours’ battery life from only 35-minutes charge time.

CPU performance using Cinebench 11.5 isn’t bad at 2.58, but that’s a way behind the Toshiba Portege R930-116 with its 2.6GHz processor. The OpenGL score of 14.2 is pretty average for an Ultrabook, considering that Intel’s integrated graphics is the common denominator. Numbers aside though, the X1 Carbon is going to take pretty much anything you’re likely to throw at an Ultrabook in its stride.

Verdict

The X1 Carbon is the best Ultrabook I’ve seen, and is the one laptop that’s tempting me to switch back to Windows from OS X – not because I prefer Windows, but because X1 Carbon itself is such a wonderful piece of hardware. If you’re a laptop power user, that needs something light enough to carry with you every day, the X1 Carbon ticks all the right boxes.

There’s no denying that this is a beautifully designed laptop, that oozes style and quality, but it’s also built to withstand a hard life on the road. As with all ThinkPads, the hinges securing the lid are metal, so even if you are silly enough to hold it by the screen, it won’t be a problem. And if you find yourself working regularly in coffee shops, you don’t need to worry about spilling drinks on the keyboard, since it will completely bypass the electrics and drain out the bottom of the chassis.

At 1.4kg the X1 Carbon is incredibly light for a 14in laptop, especially one that’s so robust. The keyboard is up to Lenovo’s usual high standards, and both the TrackPoint and touch-pad make pointer manipulation and navigation a breeze

Battery life is impressive considering the how slim the X1 Carbon is, and the RapidCharge feature means that you’ll only need to hook it up to the mains for a short period before hitting the road again. And you’ll have no problem staying connected while you’re mobile, with both integrated 3G and Wi-Fi.

Although it comes very close, the X1 Carbon isn’t quite perfect. It’s slightly disappointing not to find an Ethernet port on a business laptop, especially since Toshiba has managed to squeeze one onto its super-slim Ultrabooks. Also, long-term ThinkPad users may find the lack of an additional battery option limiting. But on the whole, those are very minor gripes when looking at the quality of the package as a whole.

Somehow Lenovo has even managed to keep the price keen, and even if you opt for the 256GB SSD, you’re not likely to break the bank to buy an X1 Carbon.

The market is awash with Ultrabooks from every conceivable manufacturer, but the X1 Carbon is arguably the best example out there. You might find a more powerful Ultrabook, or one with longer battery life, but Lenovo has managed to get the balance just about perfect with the X1 Carbon, while keeping it affordable. Oh, and did I mention it looks great too?

Manufacturer and Product

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon

Processor

1.8GHz Intel Core i5-3427U (Up to 2.8Ghz)

RAM

8 GB PC3-10600 DDR3L SDRAM 1333MHz

Graphics

Intel HD 4000

Hard disk

128GB SSD

Display

14in Premium HD+ (1,600 x 900) LED Backlit

Networking

802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, 3G

Interfaces

1 x USB 3.0, 1 x USB 2.0, mini-DisplayPort headphone / microphone combo, SD card reader

Width x Depth x Height

331 x 226 x 19mm

Weight

1.4kg

Warranty

3 Year Depot Warranty