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Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch review: An upgraded slim business powerhouse

One of last year's top laptops get a post-Windows 8 update.

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Dan Ackerman
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Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
7 min read

In August 2012, we reviewed the first version of Lenovo's X1 Carbon, itself a 14-inch update to the previous 13-inch ThinkPad X1. It was a premium product, very lightweight for a 14-inch laptop, with a carbon fiber body and Lenovo's typically excellent keyboard design.

Lenovo_ThinkPad_X1_Carbon_Touch_Ultrabook_35558178_02.jpg
8.0

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch

The Good

Lenovo takes its solid 14-inch <b>ThinkPad X1 Carbon</b> and upgrades it with Windows 8 and a touch screen, while keeping the excellent keyboard.

The Bad

The touch screen makes the lid thicker, and the touch pad can be finicky at times.

The Bottom Line

The business-oriented Lenovo ThinkPad X1 adds must-have features for 2013, and remains a very impressive business-oriented ultrabook with strong crossover appeal.

But, coming just a couple of months before Windows 8, it quickly felt dated thanks to a flood of thin, powerful, Windows 8 systems with touch screens -- a setup that has already become the default for nearly every new laptop.

Fortunately, Lenovo has now updated the X1 Carbon to Microsoft's new OS, and also added a touch screen -- something that Windows 8 practically requires for efficient navigation. The new screen adds a bit of thickness to the lid, but the system is otherwise very similar to the version reviewed last year, and much of this review is likewise similar to that first X1 Carbon.

The internal 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 common enough loadout, and available in some very affordable laptops. But no one would describe the X1 Carbon as affordable. The new touch version starts at $1,499, which is $100 more than the nontouch version.

Of course, you get a lot of extra features that may help justify the higher price, including a suite of Lenovo-branded security and support apps, IT-department-friendly features like Intel's vPro technology, and one of the best laptop keyboards ever designed.

It's still expensive, especially compared with much of the ultrabook competition, and has a handful of quirks, but if you need those business-friendly features, or just superior construction and a great typing experience, it's worth the investment.

Price as reviewed $1,499
Processor Intel Core i5-3427U
Memory 4GB, 1333MHz DDR3
Hard drive 128GB SSD
Chipset Intel HM77
Graphics Intel HD4000
Operating System Windows 8 (64-bit)
Dimensions (WD) 13.0 x 8.9 inches
Height 0.74 inches
Screen size (diagonal) 14.0 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter 3.3/4.2 pounds
Category Midsize

Design and features
The new touch-screen X1 Carbon is nearly identical to the original version, but the addition of the touch screen means a slightly thicker lid. It's not a big difference, but we've seen some very thin touch-screen lids on systems such as the Acer Aspire S7, and the X1 Carbon frankly feels chunky compared with some of the higher-end new Windows 8 touch-screen laptops.

But, this is still a premium-feeling system. 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 backlit keyboard retains the modified island-style keys used in several recent ThinkPads, a look that comes from Lenovo's consumer line and that is slowly making its way into other ThinkPad models as well.

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. There is still a second set of mouse buttons above it, and a traditional Lenovo ThinkPad track point 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. For multitouch gestures it was great, but I had less luck with basic tap-to-click navigation, and the pad was finicky and unresponsive at times, or called up Windows 8 navigation features inadvertently. Tweaking the touch-pad settings helped a bit, but there were plenty of times I tapped with no response, and I was not happy with the out-of-the-box performance of the touch pad.

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-pixel 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 pixels, as seen here, as the sweet spot. The screen is bright and colorful, despite the lack of a glossy coating.

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. Lenovo's Yoga line takes this to the next level, with screens that fold back nearly 360 degrees to become tablets.

People usually 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, performance, and battery life
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. The X1 has one powered USB 3.0 port and one USB 2.0, which is pretty sparse for a 14-inch Windows laptop. A handy "airplane mode" switch on the left edge turns off all the system's radios if needed.

Matched up against other 13- and 14-inch ultrabooks with the same low-voltage Intel Core i5 processors, the X1 Carbon performed better than expected, beating out systems such as the Sony Vaio T13 and Acer Aspire M5 in our benchmark tests. That's more impressive, because ThinkPads sometimes take a small performance hit from having Lenovo's custom setup and security apps running the background.

In anecdotal use, the system felt quick and responsive when surfing the Web, playing HD video streams, and working on office documents. A current-gen Intel Core i5, even the low-voltage version, is more than enough computing power for all but the most demanding of users.

If you're thinking of kicking back and playing some PC games during your next meeting, the integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics aren't going to be much help. There are no discrete GPU options in the X1 Carbon. Still, HD 4000 will work in a pinch for older games, or some current games (Portal 2, for example), if you turn the resolution and quality settings down.

Travel-oriented business laptops, and ThinkPads in particular, typically emphasize long battery life, as do ultrabook laptops. The performance here fell short of the hype, and the X1 Carbon ran for 5 hours and 24 minutes on our video playback battery drain test. That's a bit better by almost half an hour than the nontouch version, but not among the longest-life laptops available. This laptop includes Lenovo's Rapid Charge feature, which can charge a battery up to 80 percent in about half an hour.

Service and support is especially important for mission-critical business laptops. Lenovo goes beyond the standard one-year mail-in warranty you get with most consumer laptops, offering diagnostic and recovery tools in its built-in ThinkVantage software, and priority phone support. The X1 Carbon is not available to order or customize on Lenovo's Web site yet, but prerelease spec sheets provided by the company indicate that a three-year warranty is standard. We'll update the details when the exact warranty and extension details are available.

Conclusion
Adding Windows 8 and a touch screen keeps the X1 Carbon in the running as one of the only really high-end crossover thin laptops you can find right now. Lenovo itself does some more inventive stuff with the Yoga, Helix, and other models, but this is a sharp-looking business machine for serious PC users.

Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon
430 

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon
174 

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon
116 

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon
324 

Avg watts (load test)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Asus S400CA
26.49 
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon
28.1 

Find out more about how we test Windows laptops.

System configurations:
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon
Windows 8 (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.8GHz Intel Core i5-3427U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 180GB Intel SSD

Asus S400CA
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 500GB Seagate 5,400rpm

Toshiba Satellite P845t-S4310
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U; 6GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 750GB Toshiba 5,400rpm

Sony Vaio T13
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U; 6GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 32MB (Shared) Intel HD 4000; 500GB Hitachi 5,400rpm

Acer Aspire M5-481PT
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U; 6GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 128MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 500GB Hitachi 5,400rpm + 20GB SSD Hybrid

HP Envy 4-1102
Windows 8 Pro (64-bit); 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (Shared) Intel HD 4000; 500GB Hitachi 5,400rpm

Lenovo_ThinkPad_X1_Carbon_Touch_Ultrabook_35558178_02.jpg
8.0

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 8Battery 8Support 8
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