Not since the ThinkPad X300 has there been a ThinkPad that’s garnered as much attention as the new ThinkPad X1 Carbon has before it’s release. Internet forum users have been dissecting the minute details of the X1 Carbon for months in anticipation of its release. The X1 Carbon is a new 14” Ultrabook from Lenovo’s ThinkPad line, the company’s first business class Ultrabook. It’s easy to why ThinkPadders are excited. The X1 Carbon is extremely thin, under 3/4” at its thickest point. It’s light too, coming in just below three pounds. Those should imbue the X1 with the portability that few other notebooks can match. Being this is a ThinkPad you should get durability, top-notch service and a good keyboard, right? The X1 is shaping up to be perhaps the first bona-fide contender to seriously challenge the MacBook Air, the reigning top-dog of the Ultrabook segment. Admit it, we know you’ve been lusting for the MacBook Air, but need a Windows machine. Does the X1 have what it takes to take on the Air or other Ultrabooks? Read on to find out…
Here are the specifications of the X1 Carbon model under review:
- Model: 3444-23U
- Operating System: Windows Seven Professional x64
- CPU: Intel 1.8GHz i5-3427U(2.3GHz w/Turbo Boost) 17w
- Memory: 4GB(Soldered)
- Hard Drives: Sandisk 128GB SD55G2128G1052E
- Screen: 14.0” LG 1600×900 Matte LED TN LCD
- Graphics: Intel HD 4000 Integrated
- Network: Intel 6205 WiFi Card, Bluetooth, WWAN Upgradeable
- Inputs: Six Row 84 Key Island Style Keyboard, Pointstick with Buttons and Clickpad
- Buttons: Power, ThinkVantage, Volume Up and Down, Mute, Microphone Off and WiFi On/Off
- Ports: Two USB – One USB 3.0 and One USB 2.0 (Powered), Mini DisplayPort, Combo Headphone/Microphone Jack
- Slots: SD Card Reader
- Battery: 45.8Whr Four-Cell
- Dimensions: Width 13.0”, Depth 8.9” and Height .31”(Front)/.74”(Rear)
- Weight: 2.99 Pounds
- Warranty: One Year
Price and Competition
The ThinkPad X1 Carbon probably doesn’t have a direct competitor in the form of a business class Ultrabook from Dell or HP, at least not yet, but as the lines between business and consumer class notebooks continue to blur, other Ultrabooks will be competing with the X1 for your dollars. The Apple Macbook Air, Asus Zenbook UX31A and 13” Samsung Series 9 are the Ultrabooks that are the closest to the X1 in design. The X1 was released with a MSRP of $1,399 for the base model with the i5 and 128GB SSD, but as is often the case when purchasing a new ThinkPad from Lenovo, those willing and able to wait for coupons, can do significantly better price wise. Lenovo was selling the base X1 for $999 with coupons the day it was released. At that price point, the X1 offers considerable value as it costs less considerably than the MacBook Air or the Samsung and beats the Asus on price too, though not by as much.
Design and Build
If Lenovo pegged the MacBook Air as the target for what the size of the X1 should be, they came pretty darned close. The X1 is slightly wider, due to the larger screen, but the depth and height are just about the same. Lenovo managed to keep the X1 narrow by using very slim LCD bezels, which is more attractive. The X1 is a little fatter at the front, but it’s not very noticeable unless you’re looking for it. The rest of the X1 design is ThinkPad through and through. It’s black, it’s a ThinkPad after all, with a simple and uncluttered look. You get a couple of small logos on the lid, but it is otherwise undecorated. It’s classy look is aimed at professionals types that would look at home in the boardroom or the basement. The X1 also matches the MacBook Air in weight as well, which is impressive because the X1 uses a larger screen. Both tip the scales just under three pounds. The X1 is in fact, the lightest 14” notebook you can buy.
The aptly named X1 feels very stout. The X1 top lid is actually made from carbon fiber while magnesium alloy is used to make the bottom casing. The X1 is very rigid and there’s little give to it anywhere. It’s so thin, where would it give anyway? You can hold it on the sides and try to twist it, but it doesn’t bend. Pushing on the lid can produce ripples on the screen, but the screen seems well protected. The screen uses a latchless design, but the screen is very stiff. I think it’s unlikely that it would ever open unexpectedly. When using the screen, it does not move at all. Necessitated by the need to get slim, the X1 uses a different hinge design. It’s looks like underneath, the hinges are metal, but are covered in plastic. After having used so many ThinkPads over the years with steel hinges, it’s odd not to see them on the X1. I don’t think it effects the quality of the hinges, but it’s strange not to have them there. Fit and finish on the X1 is tiptop. Nothing is out of place.
The ThinkPad X1 Carbon has a 14” LED LCD. It’s an LG manufactured TN panel. The screen is matte, which means there are no annoying reflections. It has 16 brightness levels, which range from very dim to you’d better wear shades. One of the biggest letdowns of buying a ThinkPad over the years, with a few exceptions, has been the screens. This has been particularly true of the 14” ThinkPads. You spend your money on a new ThinkPad and get an exquisitely engineered notebook, but get the pleasure of staring at a mediocre screen. The reasons behind it aren’t difficult to figure out. The large institutional buyers, who purchase ThinkPads by the 1,000s and drive the design behind them, don’t care much about screen quality. Knowing why doesn’t make it any easier to accept because the result is dim, low contrast screens. I’m happy to report the X1 takes a big step in the right direction where screen quality is concerned. The panel is plenty bright at 300 nits and it offers a high contrast ratio of 400:1. The ThinkPad T430 we reviewed last month doesn’t look that much worse on paper with its 200 nits of brightness and 300:1 contrast ratio, but in person, the difference is quite apparent. Colors on the X1 are vivid and rich. There’s a bit of a bluish caste to the screen, but that’s easily toned down with calibration. Movies and photos are pleasing to view. While you won’t get IPS like angles on the X1, it offers a pretty big sweet spot. You have to be at an angle that people do not usually use their notebooks before colors begin to shift. The X1 also bumps up the resolution up 1600×900, which makes it convenient to view documents side by side, and you get more vertical resolution. More vertical resolution means less scrolling. It’s not a huge bump, only 132 pixels, but we’ll take it and are ecstatic to finally have a decent screen on a 14” ThinkPad.
To get an idea of how the screen compares to the IPS screen of the ThinkPad X230 we have some pictures below of the X1 Carbon on the left and X230 on the right with the screens tilted at various viewing angles:
Straight on view
Screens tilted back view
Screens tilted forward view
Horizontal angle view
The X1 Carbon has two speakers. You don’t get anything fancy like a subwoofer, but where would you put it anyway? The speakers are located on the bottom of the X1, but are on the sides with small slits for openings. The X1 doesn’t sound as good as the Dell XPS 13, the best smaller notebook I’ve heard of late, but it was better than I had expected going in. The sound is clear and loud, if a bit distorted at higher volume levels. There’s not much bass and it’s a bit tinny, but it works fine for music and/or videos.
CPU, Performance and Storage
The emphasis for the ThinkPad Carbon X1, like all Ultrabooks, is battery life before performance. Because of this you get an Ultra Low Voltage (ULV) processor. ULV CPUs drain the battery at a slower rate. Our unit had the Intel Core i5 ULV, but a Core i7 is an option if you’re willing to open your wallet a little wider. The ULV CPUs are fine for typical usage, but anything where processing power is essential, it’ll lag behind. This is not the notebook to encode your Blu-ray collection on. Our review unit has 4GB of memory, but you can upgrade to 8GB if necessary. It’s an expensive upgrade since only the top model offers 8GB right now. You can’t do it later either as the memory is not upgradeable. Consider that before spending your money. Despite the slower CPU, the X1 is an adept performer for most uses. I managed to surf, run some benchmarks and listen to music without any problems. The SSD helps keep the X1 peppy. To see how the X1 stacks up against other Ultrabooks, we ran PCMark Vantage on it. As you can see from the numbers, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon holds up well against the competition. The X1 is mostly going to be a portable web and media notebook. For those uses, the ULV CPU is not a deal breaker, but if you need more processing power, a notebook with a full voltage CPU like the X230 might merit consideration.
PCMark Vantage Benchmark Results – Higher scores indicate better performance
|Laptop||PCMark Vantage Score|
|Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon – Intel Core i5-3427 2.3GHz, Intel HD 4000, 4GB RAM, 128GB SSD||11,696 PCMarks|
|Dell XPS 13 (Intel Core i5-2476M 1.60GHz, Intel HD 3000, 4GB RAM, 128GB SSD)||9,826 PCMarks|
|HP Folio 13 (Intel Core i5-2467M 1.60GHz, Intel HD3000, 4GB RAM, 128GB SSD)||9,026 PCMarks|
|Lenovo IdeaPad U310 – Intel Core i5-3317U ULV 1.7GHz, 4GB RAM, Intel HD 4000, 540RPM HD||6,433 PCMarks|
|Lenovo ThinkPad X230 – Intel Core i5-3320M 2.60GHz, 4GB RAM, 7200RPM HD||7,603 PCMarks|
|Lenovo ThinkPad X220 – Intel Core i5-2410M 2.30GHz, 4GB RAM, 7200RPM HD||5,764 PCMarks|
|SONY VAIO SA – Intel Core i5-2430M, AMD 6750M, 6GB RAM, 7200RPM HD||7,007 PCMarks|
|Lenovo ThinkPad Edge E420 – Intel Core i5-2410m 2.30GHz, 4GB RAM||6,056 PCMarks|
|Lenovo ThinkPad T420 – Intel Core i3-2310m 2.1GHz, 2GB RAM||3,204 PCMarks|
For those concerned about 3D graphics performance, the X1 Carbon isn’t exactly a gaming machine so you don’t expect much, but with the Intel HD 4000 graphics on board it can still be used to play some modern games on low to medium settings.
3DMark Vantage – Measures 3D graphics performance, higher scores are better
|Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon – Intel Core i5-3427 2.3GHz, Intel HD 4000, 4GB RAM, 128GB SSD||2,755 3DMarks|
|HP ENVY 4t-1000 – Intel Core i3-2367M 1.4GHz, 4GB RAM, 500GB 5400RPM HD, Intel HD 3000||1,320|
|Lenovo ThinkPad X230 – Intel Core i5-3320M 2.60GHz, 4GB RAM, 7200RPM HD||3,165|
|Lenovo ThinkPad X220 – Intel Core i5-2410M 2.30GHz, 4GB RAM, 7200RPM HD||1,611|
|Dell XPS 15 (Intel Core i7-2670QM, Nvidia GT 525M 1GB RAM, 8GB RAM, 7200RPM HD)||4,211|
|HP Envy 17-3000, Intel Core i7-2670QM, AMD 7690M, 6GB RAM, 7200RPM HD||6,970|
|Dell XPS 17 (Core i5-2410m 2.30GHz, Nvidia 550m, 6GB RAM, HD 7200RPM)||4,747|
|HP Pavilion dv6t Select Edition – Intel Core i5-2410m, Intel HD 3000 Graphics, 6GB RAM||1,845|
The X1 uses a SSD for storage which helps to keep the X1 slim and trim. The base option has 128GB of capacity, but there’s a 256GB option for those who need more space. Like the memory, the SSD is not upgradeable after purchase. Boot times on the X1 were surprisingly slow, coming in just under a minute. I suspect this is due to all ThinkVantage software and other bloatware that is installed on the X1. Once logged into Windows, the X1 SSD seems pretty normal with quick application launches. My biggest gripe about storage on the X1 is that the factory install is huge. The recovery partition takes up about 20GB of space on the drive, which leaves you with 100GB of space. The factory install was 62GB. 38GB of usable space is left for everything else. That’s a wee bit small for most users. If this were my notebook, I’d be taking a Windows disc to it in short order to free up space. A clean install of Windows should be less than 20GB.
The X1 has the Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics card. The HD 4000 is a big step up from last years HD 3000, offering twice the performance, but it’s still an integrated graphics solution. The HD 4000 should allow for some newer games, depending on the game, at lower settings and FPS. Older games should fair a bit better, but if gaming is your thing, there are better solutions out there.
Keyboard, Pointing Stick and TouchPad
The Carbon X1 like all new ThinkPads has switched to using an island style keyboard. The keyboard remains spill-resistant. The keyboard is fused to the case on the X1, which means it is not replaceable. The X1 presents Lenovo with a unique challenge. ThinkPads have long been known for their good keyboards. How do you make a notebook this thin, but leave enough space to allow for some key depth, which is an important element of what makes for a good keyboard? It’s a case of an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. The short answer is, you can’t. I can say it’s the best Ultrabook keyboard I’ve used to date. Lenovo does do a pretty good job of making it the best they can within the given limitations, but the X1 keyboard just isn’t up to the standard set by ThinkPad X230 and T430 we reviewed earlier this year. The keyboard is firm given there’s little underneath it and the X1 gives you a couple of big palm rests to place your hands on, that makes for a comfortable typing position. When typing on the X1 and you strike a key, the bottom comes up sooner than it does on the T430 or X230. The X230 and T430 have a near perfect depth. On those machines your finger naturally starts to retreat as your finger hits the bottom of the stroke, but the bottom comes up much more abruptly on the X1. The X1 keyboard is still pretty good. It’s just not quite up to the high standards set by preceding ThinkPads.
Compared to the X230 or even the T430, the touch pad on the X1 is huge, measuring 4” across and 2.5” top to bottom. It’s a clickpad and does not have separate mouse buttons for the touch pad. Anywhere you push on the touch pad will register as a left click, except the lower right corner, which is the right click. Like most clickpads I’ve sampled, the top third or so is stiffer than the rest of the clickpad. You have to push harder to make the click register. The touch pad has a glass surface and it makes the touch pad on the X1 one of the smoothest I’ve ever used. Using the touch pad is effortless. There’s no hesitation or lag between what your finger does and what happens on the screen. The touch pad has all the gestures notebook users have come to expect like pinch to zoom, tap to click and two finger scrolling. They all worked smoothly and I had no trouble getting any of them to work the first time. It’s the best PC touch pad I’ve used.
In some ways I’m probably not the best person to review a touch pad as I’m a pointing stick user all the way and rarely use touch pads or their gestures. Give me the stick or give me death! OK, not death, but you get the idea. While the Carbon X1 is very thin, thankfully, Lenovo left enough room to include the stick. The pointstick is the best notebook mousing tool in my opinion, though certainly a large contingent will disagree. Your hands never stray far from the keyboard and you never hit an edge using the stick. The best part is Lenovo included both a good touch pad and pointstick, which means everyone can be happy.
The X1 has a 45w four-cell battery. It’s not a traditional ThinkPad battery. The battery is not swappable. It’s locked up inside the case. That means when you run out of battery power, you have to plug in or shut down. You’ll also have to send the X1 to Lenovo to get the battery replaced. While Lenovo is usually pretty good about getting repairs turned around, you will be without your X1 for at least a few days when it’s time for a battery replacement. To test the battery on the X1 I charged it fully, set the CPU to low power and the screen to half brightness, and turned WiFi on. I just did every day stuff like work on the review, listened to music, a few hands of solitaire and surfed the web. Using those settings, I was able to get 5:46 minutes of battery life. That’s a few minutes short of the MacBook Air, but the X1 has a bigger screen too. It’s also close to the X230 in battery life, which uses a much larger wattage battery. Given the smaller battery and larger screen, the battery life is impressive and most users won’t hit six hours anyway.
The X1 uses a 90w AC adapter and can’t use any of the other ThinkPad adapters because they’ve changed the connector on the adapter. The adapter is a bit larger and heavier than the 65w adapter found on most other ThinkPads. The X1 plus charger is only about an ounce lighter than the X230 plus charger. Lenovo uses the new adapter to enable quick charge. Quick charge, as the name implies, allows users to charge the battery quickly. Lenovo claims you can charge the battery from 0% to 80% in 30 minutes. When I was using the X1, I did watch the battery go from a 15% charge to 95% charge in about 30 minutes. It was pretty amazing, but it’s a disappointment you can’t use the old adapters. Reusing old adapters on new ThinkPads has always been an advantage to getting a new ThinkPad. That’s the price of progress I guess.
Heat & Noise
The ThinkPad Carbon X1 has vents on the side and bottom to help it cool. For the most part when you’re not pushing the CPU, it’s very quiet. From time to time the fan becomes audible for a minute or a few, but then goes back to being quiet. The X1 does get warm when just doing normal stuff, but that’s normal for most notebooks I’ve used. When you’re pushing the CPU the temps do climb up the thermometer. I wouldn’t describe it as uncomfortable, but you definitely feel it when it’s in your lap. When the heat rises so does the fan noise level. It can get fairly loud. It’s not as bad as the MacBook Air, but there’s no getting around it since you can hear the fan over music at times. I think for most users who won’t push the CPU much, the X1 will be a cool customer, but if you’re going to stress the CPU, the heat and noise levels will ramp up.
Ports and Networking
Being that the ThinkPad X1 is so thin, port selection is as a result limited. You’ll get the most used ports, but nothing extra. The left side of the X1 has a powered USB port, which is nice for charging the phone or MP3 player, a WiFi on/switch and the power connector.
The right side of the X1 has a card reader, combo headphone/microphone jack, mini-Displayport and a USB 3.0 port.
The rear of X1 has a SIM card holder that sits behind a flap.
One noticeable omission, at least for a ThinkPad, is the lack of docking port. Lenovo does have a USB 3.0 dock coming for the X1, but it remains to be seen if that is as useful as the traditional docks.
The X1 comes with an Intel 6205 b/g/n WiFi card. Like every other card I’ve seen of late, it worked fine wherever I took it, which included work and home. The X1 comes with a USB dongle for Ethernet, which is not as nice as having it built-in because they’re easily left behind. Bluetooth 4.0 is included on all X1 models. I was able to quickly pair my phone and mouse via Bluetooth with no trouble on the X1. The biggest news for networking on the X1 is the option to equip all it with WWAN, which is a first for an Ultrabook. You’ll of course have to bring your own data plan and SIM card, but the ability to add WWAN should make corporate customers happy.
Ultimately, the X1 Carbon has left me a bit conflicted. Don’t get me wrong, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon is a terrific Ultrabook. It’s a worthy challenger to the Apple MacBook Air, which has been the Prince of the Ultrabook realm until now. It’s incredibly thin and light which makes it a good companion for those who need portability. It’s well built and durable. It offers an above average LCD that I’m sure ThinkPad T430 users would cut off a finger to get, has plenty of performance for most users, a good expansive touch pad, a keyboard that’s as good as an Ultrabook can be and long battery life. There are a few minor niggles about the X1 like the shallow keyboard, over-sized factory install, and noise and heat when it’s pushed, but Lenovo gets the important things right.
If the X1 is so great, then what’s the rub you ask? The X1 Carbon wears a ThinkPad badge. ThinkPads have long been synonymous with innovation in the notebook industry. I ask where’s the innovation? Apple came out with this notebook almost two years ago. You would think in two years time they could have come up with something, anything to put the X1 a notch above other Ultrabooks, but I don’t see anything like that. A docking port, a swappable battery, upgradeable SSD or memory, would have shown Lenovo customers they’re pushing the envelope. While WWAN in an Ultrabook is nifty, it’s not particularly exciting. If you just want to compare the X1 against the competition, it’s as good as any other and if you can get one for the $999 price, it offers tremendous value, but for us long time ThinkPadders, something to make the X1 stand out would have a sign that the X1 continues the tradition of ThinkPad innovation.
- Best Ultrabook Keyboard
- Very Portable
- Classy Look
- Good Screen
- Well Built
- Long Battery Life
- First-rate Touch Pad
- Keyboard Too Shallow relative to other ThinkPads
- Noisy Fan and Gets Warm When Pushed
- No Upgrades for Battery, Memory or Hard Drive
- Oversized Factory Install
- USB Ethernet Dongle
- Nothing Particularly Original
ThinkPad X1 Carbon Product Page