Wednesday

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Review

Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 Carbon Ultrabook gets official: on sale August 21st for $1,399 and up
Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 Carbon has been a known entity since May, when the company gave us a look at the 14-inch, Ivy Bridge-packing Ultrabook. Up until now, though, the successor to the ThinkPad X1remained somewhat shrouded in mystery, with no pricing or specific availability information to its name. But no more -- Lenovo's just raised the official curtain on the Carbon, announcing a pricing scheme of $1,399 and up and targeting an on-sale date of August 21st at Lenovo.com. The entry-level model will run a 1.7GHz Core i5-3317U CPU with 4GB, and it includes a 128GB SSD and Intel's HD integrated graphics. Like on the ThinkPad X1, 3G connectivity will be an optional feature. Head past the break for more info on the business-centric Ultrabook.


Design
 
Lenovo took the 13-inch ThinkPad X1 and turned it into a 14-inch Ultrabook in the form of the ThinkPad X1 Carbon. While the old X1 wasn't wildly popular for Lenovo, an increasing percentage of business customers are looking for a 13-inch to 14-inch business laptop with a thin and light design that still delivers serious performance.
The ThinkPad X1 Carbon has a 14-inch screen, but it fits into the footprint of a 13-inch Ultrabook. It comes in at only three pounds and no more than 0.71 inches in height/thickness. Intel's official Ultrabook height requirements are that Ultrabooks with 13-inch displays cannot exceed 18mm (0.71 inches) in height and Ultrabooks with 14-inch and larger displays cannot exceed 21 mm (or 0.82 inches) in height.
In terms of build quality and durability, the X1 Carbon delivers the same classic ThinkPad roll-cage design but using carbon fiber rather than magnesium. Previous ThinkPad designs used a magnesium alloy roll-cage but the X1 Carbon incorporates carbon fiber both in the roll-cage construction as well as the top cover. Carbon fiber can be made as strong as aluminum but with only a third of the weight. Not only that, Lenovo claims the roll-cage inside the X1 Carbon is fifty-percent stronger than magnesium and almost fifty-percent lighter. As a result, the X1 Carbon passes eight separate MIL spec tests (humidity, low temperature, high temperature, extreme temperatures, sand, altitude, vibration and mechanical shock).
One interesting quirk of the design of the X1 Carbon (like the original X1) is that the hinge, although very durable, allows the screen to open until the notebook is perfectly flat. In theory this puts less stress on the hinge in the event of a drop. However, every time I see the X1 Carbon open flat I want to hold it over my head John Cusack style and play a the movie Say Anythingon the screen.
A quick look at the bottom of the ThinkPad X1 Carbon reveals little in the way of expansion possibilities. You can unscrew the entire lower half on the chassis and separate it from the rest of the Ultrabook, but it's not as simple as the hard drive or RAM access doors on other ThinkPads. If you want to upgrade the RAM or swap out the wireless card you'll need to be comfortable with taking apart laptops.

Display
 

The 14-inch screen on the ThinkPad X1 Carbon is a HD+ (1600 x 900 resolution) matte screen with a backlight rated at 300 nits. The major items of note here are the improved resolution (the old X1 was limited to 1366 x 768) and the matte screen surface.
I cannot thank the team at Lenovo enough for recognizing that working professionals like the option of having a matte screen rather than a glossy screen. Matte screens are easier to read under bright lights or direct sunlight without reflections hurting your eyes. The Corning Gorilla Glass used on the old X1 certainly helped make the display more durable but that glossy surface isn't so useful when you're having trouble reading what's on the screen.
Speaking of reading what is on the screen, the viewing angles on the X1 Carbon's display are good for a standard TN panel but we'd be even happier if this Ultrabook was available with an IPS display (preferably one with a 1080p resolution) so the screen colors don't distort when you tilt the screen forward or back.
Keyboard and Touchpad
 
The ThinkPad X1 Carbon comes with the new precision keyboard similar to the keyboard on the old X1 with a few changes. The updated six-row keyboard design was developed and validated using extensive enduser research. Lenovo's goal was to maintain comfort, accuracy, and tactile feedback in a modern island-style keyboard design. The layout provides ample space between each key and the unique key shapes (more rounded on the bottom edges) are patent-pending. The keybaord also features LED backlighting for typing in dark environments. Our only complaint is that the "Home" and "End" keys aren't located near the "Page Up" and "Page Down" keys ... but that's not the end of the world.
We didn't have many pleasant things to say about the buttonless trackpad on the old X1 so we were happy to learn that Lenovo's engineers developed a completely new touchpad for the X1 Carbon. One of the first things you'll notice about the new touchpad is that it's larger than the old one (37% larger than the touchpad on the original X1). It's actually a "clickpad" (a buttonless touchpad surface that lets you click anywhere) with multi-gesture support. Also, the performance of this touchpad is more accurate than the old X1 with 10 times the data throughput from the touchpad to the PC (meaning more accurate tracking of your fingertips). The big secret, however, is the amazing new glass touchpad surface.
Officially, the new touchpad surface was the result of an empirical "hunt" for the ideal touchpad characteristics like feel, sound, and even smudge resistance. Lenovo's solution is a proprietary multi-step formula based on those findings. Unofficially, we'd have to say the new touchpad surface feels like a second skin that has been pre-lubricated for your finger-gliding pleasure.
Sure, that sounds like horrible marketing language from an advertisement for somekind of "marital aid" device ... but it's the best way I can describe how this touchpad surface feels. This touchpad surface is so wonderful that I will actually be "angry" if Lenovo doesn't use it on every notebook going forward. This is as close to perfection as a touchpad surface gets.
Of course, there's also the good old red TrackPoint in the middle of the keyboard with dedicated left, right and middle mouse buttons ... but even diehard TrackPoint users will probably fall in love with the X1 Carbon's touchpad if they just give it a try.



Ports and Features
The ThinkPad X1 Carbon features all of its major ports on the left and right sides of the chassis. You get fewer ports than last year's X1 but the X1 Carbon is thinner and lighter. You'll see a 4-in-1 media card reader, headset jack mini DisplayPort and USB 3.0 port on one side of the X1 Carbon, and a power jack, USB 2.0 port and Wi-Fi switch on the other side. This isn't a massive number of ports but it's as good as or better than most 13-inch and 14-inch Ultrabooks. All the port descriptions below are listed from left to right.
One convenient port is hidden behind a rubber door on the back edge of the X1 Carbon: the SIM card slot. Now you (or your company's IT manager) can easily connect the X1 Carbon to your wireless data provider of choice (Verizon, AT&T, whatever works best for you and your business). There are no other ports on the back edge of the X1 Carbon because the screen hinge swings down and covers the back of the chassis when the screen lid is in the open position. It's also worth mentioning that the X1 Carbon lacks any dedicated port for a docking station so you're stuck with USB if you want to connect another device to this notebook.
Speakers
peaker quality is good for a thin business notebook and the maximum volume output is loud enough to fill a large meeting room with clear sound. The audio performance is more than good enough for a basic video conference or webcast and also works fine for watching a Netflix Watch Instantly movie. Lenovo once again teamed up with Dolby to include Dolby Home Theater v4 audio (tuned stereo speakers, headphone output and audio processing software) to deliver a better multimedia experience.
Specifications
  • 14-inch HD+ anti-glare display (1600 x 900 and 300 nits)
  • Intel Core i5-3427U dual-core low-voltage processor with vPro (1.8GHz, up to 2.8GHz Turbo Boost, 3MB cache, 17W TDP)
  • Integrated Intel HD graphics 4000
  • 4GB DDR3-1600 RAM (1x 4GB; non-upgradeable; max supported)
  • 128GB SSD (SanDisk SD5SG2128G1052E)
  • 802.11n wireless network adapter (Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6205s)
  • Internal Bluetooth v4.0
  • 3G WWAN (Ericsson H5321gw)
  • Integrated 720p webcam
  • No internal optical drive
  • 3-year limited warranty
  • 45WHr polymer battery
  • Weight: 3.0 lbs.
  • Dimensions: 13.03 x 8.9 x 0.74 inches
  • Price: $1,499
Performance and Benchmarks
Lenovo will offer the X1 Carbon with three different Ivy Bridge processor options at the time of launch (Intel Core i7-3667U with vPro, Intel Core i5-3427U with vPro, and Intel Core i5-3317U). The Core i5-3427U in our review sample is the "mid range" offering but it packs plenty of performance ... not just by Ultrabook standards but by any typical business notebook standards.
In fact, the performance of the X1 Carbon even exceeds the ThinkPad X230 with a faster processor ... if the X230 is equipped with a standard hard drive compared to the standard SSD in the X1 Carbon. Whatever limitations the X1 Carbon suffers as a result of using a low-voltage (17W TDP) dual-core processor are largely negated by the performance gains that come from the fast SanDisk SSD.
While the integrated Intel HD graphics 4000 won't win many friends among gaming enthusiasts, this graphics hardware is more than enough for most business-related visual tasks (streaming HD video, editing high-resolution images, editing video presentations, etc.).
wPrime processor comparison results (lower scores mean better performance):
PCMark Vantage measures overall system performance (higher scores mean better performance):
PCMark 7 is a newer benchmark that measures overall system performance in Windows 7(higher scores mean better performance):
3DMark06 measures overall graphics performance for gaming (higher scores mean better performance):
CrystalDiskMark and ATTO storage drive performance tests:

Heat and Noise
Noise levels were essentially a non-issue with the X1 Carbon as the fan noise was virtually silent both during idle activity like casual web browsing and serious activity like HD video editing. Unfortunately, the exterior temperatures we recorded were not so pleasant. During the 3DMark and PCMark benchmark tests we noticed the bottom of the chassis developed a rather nasty hot spot in the center of the notebook and near the fan air intake. We recorded a maximum exterior temperature of 113 degrees Fahrenheit (45 degrees Celsius) on the bottom of the X1 Carbon. While this temperature isn't the hottest we've ever recorded in our lab it is hot enough to be uncomfortable for even a short time if you're using the X1 Carbon as a "laptop." Fortunately, these higher temperatures only presented themselves during intense CPU activity and the temperatures during idle web browsing barely exceeded room temperature. All exterior surface temperatures shown below are listed in degrees Fahrenheit:
Battery Life
The ThinkPad X1 Carbon with Intel Core i5-3427U processor delivered 5 hours and 56 minutes of battery life with the built-in battery. This is virtually the same battery life that we recorded from the old ThinkPad X1 with Intel Core i5-2520M processor last year. Our standard battery life test sets the screen to 70% brightness, wireless active and continuously refreshing a website on a 60-second interval, and Windows 7 set to the "balanced" power profile. Approximately six hours of battery life is likely more than enough for the typical corporate exec using the X1 Carbon but it is less battery life than what the ThinkPad X230 delivers with its 6-cell battery.
One other item to mention regarding the battery is that the X1 Carbon loses the optional external slice battery of the old X1. This was done to make the X1 Carbon thinner, lighter, and more stylish, but it does limit the potential battery life. Last year we tested the old X1 with integrated battery and optional external slice and it kept running for 11 hours and 18 minutes. You won't be able to get that type on continuous run time out of the new X1 Carbon. 
Conclusion
The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon takes almost everything that was great about last year's ThinkPad X1 and combines it with the latest Ultrabook technology to deliver an outstanding business Ultrabook. While most professionals looking for a thin and light laptop will probably be happier with the ThinkPad X230, the X1 Carbon softens those rough ThinkPad edges and provides a more refined, stylish PC for salespeople and executives who don't want a boxy business laptop.
If you only pay attention to one thing in this review then make sure it's the section about the new touchpad. The glass touchpad surface on the X1 Carbon is better than anything else on the market. We're saying it's better than the touchpad on a MacBook Pro and better than every notebook PC touchpad we've used to date.
Battery life is good but the X1 Carbon loses the optional slice battery from the old X1 so there's no way to extend your battery run time on long trips. Also, while the X1 Carbon is thin and light we found the bottom of this Ultrabook gets pretty hot if you're doing serious work like video editing.
Despite a few minor complaints the ThinkPad X1 Carbon is the best business-oriented Ultrabook we've seen to date. If you want a sexy laptop that is built to business standards then the X1 Carbon is probably your best option.
Pros
  • Oh my! Best touchpad surface ... ever!
  • Matte display!
  • Solid construction
  • Good overall performance

Cons
  • Gets pretty hot
  • No more slice battery option
  • 1600x900 is good ... 1080p would be better