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Lenovo ThinkPad X1 review: Lenovo ThinkPad X1

The revamped Lenovo X1 ultrabook is painfully expensive, but if you're willing to make a sizable investment, it's the ultrathin 14-incher to beat.

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
Dan Ackerman
10 min read

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 ThinkPad X1

The Good

Incredibly light for a 14-inch laptop, the <b>Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon</b> is ruggedly built, and has a better keyboard than any ultrabook-style laptop, even Apple's MacBook Air.

The Bad

For such an expensive laptop, battery life is just so-so. Consumer-friendly options such as HDMI are missing.

The Bottom Line

The business-oriented Lenovo ThinkPad X1 has a few quirks, but is otherwise a very impressive business-oriented ultrabook with strong crossover potential.

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
Chipset Intel HM77
Graphics Intel HD4000
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium (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 3.0/TK pounds
Category Midsize

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.

There are four X1 Carbon configurations available from Lenovo. The least expensive, at $1,399, includes an Intel Core i5-3317U and 128GB SSD. The $1,499 model we reviewed has a slight processor bump to a Core i5-3427U, and adds a 3G mobile broadband antenna. For $1,649, the same model adds a 256GB SSD, and the most high-end model, at $1,849, pairs that 256GB SSD with a Core i7-3667U CPU.

These are all on the expensive side, especially considering that all use Intel's integrated HD 4000 graphics. Another point worth noting, on our review model with its 128GB SSD, the system only had about 50GB of free space left, after accounting for the operating system, Lenovo's custom apps, and a backup partition.

Matched up against other 13- and 14-inch ultrabooks with low-voltage Intel processors, the X1 Carbon performed as expected, falling behind slim systems with slightly faster Core i7 CPUs. Acer's Core i5 M5 14-inch ultrabook was a close comparison, although that system costs significantly less. ThinkPads sometimes take a small performance hit from having Lenovo's custom setup and security apps running the background, but 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, but I have seen a couple of ultrabooks that offer that, including the Asus Zenbook UX32VD (but it's still the exception to the rule). 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.

Juice box
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Average watts per hour
Off (60 percent) 0.27
Sleep (10 percent) 0.55
Idle (25 percent) 5.27
Load (5 percent) 27.84
Raw kWh 25.64
Annual energy cost $2.91

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 9 minutes on our video playback battery drain test. That's not exactly unacceptable, but it's not quite enough for all-day computing. Lenovo includes its own battery and power management app that can help extend that time by tweaking various internal settings. But, the ultrathin bar has been set very high by Apple and others, so I expected more from the out-of-the-box experience. 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.

At first glance, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon looks a lot like other ThinkPads, but in the hand it stands out as very light and portable. The excellent keyboard shows up other ultrabooks, and the rugged build quality is reassuring. With a slightly boosted battery and maybe a lower starting price, this could be a serious contender for my all-around favorite thin laptop.

Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Annual energy consumption cost

System configurations

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon
Windows 7 Professional (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.8GHz Intel Core i5-3427U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 128GB SanDisk SSD

Apple MacBook Air 13.3-inch (Summer 2012)
OS X 10.7.4 Lion; 1.8GHz Intel Core i5; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 384MB (Shared) Intel HD 4000; 128GB Apple SSD

Dell XPS 14
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.9GHz Intel Core i7-3517U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 1GB Nvidia GeForce GT 630M / 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 500GB Hitachi 5400rpm

Vizio Thin and Light CT14-A2
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.9GHz Intel Core i7-3517U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 256GB Toshiba SSD

Acer Aspire TimelineU M5-481TG-6814
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 1GB Nvidia GeForce GT 640M LE / 128MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 500GB Western Digital 5400rpm


Lenovo ThinkPad X1

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 8Battery 7Support 8