Lenovo, keeper of the venerated ThinkPad brand, was one of the first Windows laptop makers to directly take on Apple's MacBook Air, with its 13-inch ThinkPad X1. This was before Intel had begun publicly branding thin laptops with its trademarked ultrabook tag, and the rules for this new class of thin laptops were still in flux. We called that original X1 "an appealing middle ground for business road warriors," but also said, "It's not as sleek or as light as a MacBook Air -- not by a long shot."
Lenovo's ultrathin ThinkPad is reborn as a 14-inch ultrabook, the X1 Carbon. When we first spotted the X1 Carbon at a Lenovo press event earlier in 2012, I thought it might not depart enough from the original. The name was nearly the same (not even called the "X2"), and it looked a bit thinner, but not all that much evolved from last year's X1.
Getting an opportunity to test and review the final version of the ThinkPad X1 Carbon makes a big difference. Lenovo previously stated that it would be the world's lightest 14-inch laptop at 3 pounds, and in the hand, you can definitely feel it. This is clearly a premium product, thanks to the light weight and the carbon fiber lid.
The components are standard, with a third-gen Intel Core i5 CPU, integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics, and a 128GB solid-state drive (SSD). That's a fairly standard loadout, and available in some very affordable laptops. But no one would describe the X1 Carbon as affordable. It starts at $1,399, and our review configuration is $1,499 (with a mobile broadband modem). More expensive builds, with faster processors and a 256GB SSD, cost up to $1,849.
Of course, you get a lot of extra features that may help justify the higher price: Lenovo's industry-leading keyboard, a revamped glass touch pad that works better than any Windows touch pad I've tried, a suite of Lenovo-branded security and support apps, and IT-department-friendly features like Intel's vPro technology. On the down side, battery life, an area Lenovo normally does very well in, was merely adequate, at a just over 5 hours.
Even though this is still a business-targeted ThinkPad, it's also one of the most satisfying ultrabook laptops I've used this year. It's expensive, especially compared to much of the ultrabook competition, and has a handful of quirks, but if you're willing to make a sizable investment, it's the ultrathin 14-inch ultrabook to beat.
|Price as reviewed / Starting Price||$1,499 / $1,399|
|Processor||Intel Core i5-3427U|
|Memory||4GB, 1333MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||128GB SSD|
|Operating System||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||13.0 x 8.9 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||14.0 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||3.0/TK pounds|
Design and features
While the design is familiar, the X1 Carbon is much thinner than the original X1, and the front tapers to a sharper edge. The top cover is made of carbon fiber, typically found in only the most expensive laptops, as is the system's internal roll cage, a stiff latticework that protects the laptop but adds minimal extra weight.
The matte-black look is universal enough that I doubt it'll ever look truly dated, but there's also not much forward-thinking about the aesthetics, either, considering PC makers (plus Apple) have been churning out ultrathin systems for some time. It's the weight that really sells the design. On the table, it looks like a standard, very thin 14-inch laptop, but pick it up, and it feels surprisingly light. Despite having a bigger screen and bigger footprint, it weighs just about the same as a 13-inch MacBook Air.
The keyboard retains the modified island-style keys used in the first X1, a look that comes from Lenovo's consumer line and that is slowly making its way into ThinkPad models as well. It's also backlit, which is a feature every travel-oriented laptop should have. As with other island-style Lenovo keyboards, the individual keys have a slightly convex curve at the bottom. I've found that bit of extra surface area makes typing easier, and mistakes less frequent. Lenovo refers to the shape created by the keys and the space between them as the "forgiveness zone."
Many thin laptops have shallow, clacky keys that are better than typing on something like the iPad's virtual keyboard, but often not by much. Even on this slim chassis, the keys have excellent depth and solid, tactile feedback. It's definitely the best ultrathin laptop keyboard I've used.
The touch pad is a bit of a departure from the usual Lenovo style. Instead of a touch pad with separate left and right mouse buttons below, it's a one-piece click pad with a glass surface, similar to what you'd get on a MacBook or Dell XPS. Lest you think we're going too far off the beaten track, there is still a second set of mouse buttons above it, and a traditional Lenovo ThinkPad trackpoint nestled between the G, H, and B keys.
The slick glass surface is a welcome change from the normal sluggish feel of so many Windows touch pads, and the overall feel of navigation and multitouch gestures is much more responsive than the norm. Many touch pads have a matte finish, with varying degrees of finger drag, but the glass surface here is surprisingly slick and friction-free.
A separate touch-pad settings menu, called UltraNav, allows you to tweak the behavior slightly, including adding a trackball-like momentum feature (which just made mousing very imprecise), and designating one corner as a tap-to-right-click zone (as opposed to having to push down on the lower right corner). I didn't see the touch-pad option I wanted most, which was to use a two-finger tap anywhere on the pad as a right click (as found in OS X), but you can set a two-finger click to do that.
The display is excellent, with a matte finish on the 14-inch, 1,600x900-pixel-resolution screen. I've seen more high-end laptops lately add a full HD 1,920x1,080 screen. On a 15-inch system, it works, but on a 13-inch it's too much, making text and icons too small. On a 14-inch, you could go either way, but I'd lean toward 1,600x900, as seen here, as the sweet spot. The screen is bright and colorful, despite the lack of a glossy coating. My colleagues and I almost universally prefer matte screens, and are generally disappointed to only find them in business-targeted laptops.
You may never use this feature, but it's interesting to note that the screen folds nearly 180 degrees back, lying almost flat. There have not been many times I've wished my laptop would open wider, but I suppose there have been a handful.
The Lenovo X1 Carbon's speakers get surprisingly loud, and a Dolby Home Theater v4 software package lets you tweak the EQ and other sound settings a bit. But it's still not going to turn this into the sound system for your next house party. Besides, people don't buy ThinkPads for their great speakers -- but they do buy them for the microphone and Webcam, as used in videoconferencing. Using the handy built-in videoconferencing app, you can set the mic's pickup pattern, turn on face tracking on the camera, and even send an image of your desktop as your outgoing video feed.
|Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon||Average for category [midsize]|
|Video||DisplayPort||VGA, plus HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone jack||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||1 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, SD card reader||2 USB 3.0, 2 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet (via USB dongle), 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, mobile broadband||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband|
|Optical drive||None||DVD burner|
Connections and configurations
This is a business laptop, at least on paper, so some consumer-friendly features, such as the HDMI port, get jettisoned. Somewhat surprisingly, Ethernet gets downgraded to a USB dongle as well. While nearly every other current laptop offers two or more USB 3.0 ports, the X1 has one USB 3.0 and one USB 2.0. A handy "airplane mode" switch on the left edge turns off all the system's radios if needed.