Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon review: Better-than-HD ultrabook gets smart function keys

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4 stars

CNET Editors' Rating

2.5 stars 7 user reviews

The Good The better-than-HD touch display on the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon looks great, the new row of adaptive function keys is clever, and the keyboard and touch pad remain best-in-class examples.

The Bad Even dropping the higher-resolution touch display doesn't bring the price down, and the otherwise excellent keyboard has a couple of head-scratching, and typo-inducing, changes to the standard layout.

The Bottom Line The third version of Lenovo's ultralight 14-inch laptop, the X1 Carbon, gets nearly all the basics right while adding a few new twists, including a function key row that changes app by app.

8.2 Overall
  • Design 9.0
  • Features 9.0
  • Performance 8.0
  • Battery life 7.0

Every once in a while, an example of technological design jumps out as substantially better than the competition. That's the feeling I got when I started using the keyboard on the latest version of Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 Carbon. The hefty, well-spaced keys feel great to use and avoid the shallowness of so many ultrabook-style laptop keyboards.

It's not a new keyboard, and I've used similar ones on many other recent ThinkPads, but after using and reviewing so many other laptops, it was a welcome change of pace to put my fingers on the keys and feel an immediate difference. However, there's a flip side. (Not literally.) A couple of jarring changes in the standard keyboard layout might drive you crazy, as described below.

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There are a lot of premium (read: expensive) features packed into the new X1. The 14-inch display is a touch screen with a very high 2,560x1,440-pixel resolution (a less expensive 1,600x900 screen is also available, but for $1,299 and up it seems like a bad deal). Prices and configurations on the Lenovo Web site have changed more than once just while I was writing this review, with starting prices jumping from $1,299 to $1,499, and dropping back down to $1,299. As of right now, the 1,600x900-pixel-display version starts at $1,299, while the 2,560x1,440 version starts at $1,399. Our specific system starts with the higher-res touch screen, combining it with a Core i5 CPU, 128GB solid-state drive (SSD), and 8GB RAM for $1,679 -- according to Lenovo, although this exact configuration does not seem to be available on the Lenovo Web site right now.

There's one extra new feature that makes the X1 Carbon stand out even more from the crowd -- something Lenovo calls an adaptive keyboard. This replaces the function key row at the very top of the keyboard with a small touch-screen strip that changes based on the app you're using. There are four presets with different commands, including ones for Web browsing and VOIP use.

It's a pretty clever concept, and the strip changed automatically when we opened different applications, which was an unexpected bonus. But it's also more of a party trick than a game-changer, and it won't convince you to drop $1,300 to $2,000 on the X1 Carbon if you were planning to spend significantly less on something else.

Instead, if you're considering the X1 Carbon, you're probably looking for a very lightweight laptop, with a larger, higher-res screen than most slim ultrabooks; premium design and construction, including the best keyboard and touch pad in the Windows world; and the IT chops, including vPro and TPM, to play nice with corporate networks.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch (October 2013)
Price $1,679 $1,399 $1,499
Display size/resolution 14.0-inch, 2,560x1,440 touch screen 13.3-inch, 3,200x1,800 touch screen 13.3-inch, 2,560x1,600 screen
PC CPU 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U 2.4GHz Intel Core i7-4850HQ
PC memory 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz
Graphics 1,792MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 4400 1,749MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 4400 1GB Intel Iris Graphics
Storage 128GB SSD 128GB SSD 256GB SSD
Optical drive None None None
Networking 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system Windows 8.1 (64-bit) Windows 8 (64-bit) OS X Mavericks 10.9

Design and features
Lenovo says this is the lightest 14-inch laptop in the world, and at 3.1 pounds, it certainly weighs less than many 13-inch laptops (and if you skip the touch screen, it can get down to 2.9 pounds). The carbon fiber body helps keep it light, and also adds strength and durability. Like previous versions of the X1, the notebook's display folds back 180 degrees, allowing you to lay the system down flat, or at least find the perfect angle when you're in a cramped meeting room or coffee shop.

In overall look and feel it's nearly identical to last year's X1 Carbon, although that system weighed a hair more. Both are cast in matte black, tapering toward the front lip, and with a squared-off rear edge. This year's Carbon is not as flashy as even some of Lenovo's other laptops, such as the excellent Yoga 2 Pro, but there's a timelessness to the design that should hold up in the office or on the road.

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One of the big selling points is Lenovo's meticulously crafted keyboard. This version retains the modified island-style keys used in the previous X1 and most of the current ThinkPad line. 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, which helps with missed keystrokes. Even on this slim chassis, the keys have excellent depth and solid, tactile feedback.

Despite my praise for this keyboard, there is one part of the layout that drives me completely crazy. The Backspace key now sits just to the left of a smaller Delete key. The latter is more typically found on the function key row (or on MacBooks, not found at all). Because Backspace was no longer the key at the top right corner of the keyboard, I inevitably hit Delete when I meant to hit Backspace. It sounds like a small thing, but it was a serious impediment to productivity when working on the X1, and I'm frankly surprised this layout issue passed the usually laser-focused minds at Lenovo. The Caps Lock key has also been replaced by a split Home/End key. That change bothered me less, but touch typists will no doubt stumble over this as well.

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The touch pad also gets an upgrade from last year's X1. It now follows the model of other recent ThinkPads, ditching the last vestiges of physical mouse buttons -- both the under-the-pad buttons and the second set above the pad, for use with the red trackpoint nestled between the G, H, and B buttons. Both sets of mouse buttons are built into the pad itself, clickpad-style.

I found the touch pad's sensitivity to be cranked way up by default, and the settings required some tweaking to feel comfortable. Finding the touch-pad settings was a bit of an adventure, as there are competing settings sections from Microsoft and Lenovo. It's not obvious, but use Windows 8 search and search for "mouse," not "mouse and touch-pad settings," and from there, you'll see a ThinkPad tab that takes you to the custom settings. I also had to reduce the size of the touch pad's swipe-in zone, as I was always accidentally activating the Charms bar in Windows 8 during casual navigation.

The adaptive keyboard is a clever idea I have yet to see on another laptop, although it could certainly trickle down into other Lenovo systems if well-received here. The adaptive strip, which replaces the function key row, looks a bit like an e-ink display, but it's actually a liquid crystal layer, cleverly backlit to work in any lighting conditions.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Different apps cause the row to switch between four presets. For example, launching Chrome, Safari, or IE will give you a row of commands including a page-reload button and a new tab button; launching Skype or Google Talk gives you microphone controls. The Windows 8 menu screen has buttons for accessing cloud storage, voice and gesture recognition software, and the full Windows 8 app list.

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