Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon (2018) Review

Posted on April 22, 2018 by Paul Thurrott in Hardware, Windows 10 with 19 Comments

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon (2018) Review

The 6th generation Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon offers up no surprises, and that’s mostly a good thing: This business-class Ultrabook is on a very short list of truly excellent portable PCs.

That I am a fan of the ThinkPad lineup, and of the X1 Carbon in particular, is no secret: These no-nonsense products have long set the standard in the premium business-class category and for good reason. They are durable and well-made, elegant and professional-looking, and feature modern components and parts. What’s not to love?

Design

Depending on how you feel about such things, the design of the ThinkPad X1 Carbon is either a timeless classic or a tired retread in desperate need of an overhaul. I’m in the former camp—I love it—but I do understand the complaints. In this era of flash over substance, the X1 Carbon stays doggedly true to its stately lineage.

Which is a cute way of saying that there just isn’t that much to say about the design: The 2018 ThinkPad X1 Carbon looks, feels, and works a lot like its predecessor. It retains the durable and award-winning composite carbon fiber and super magnesium alloy construction of its predecessors and arrives dressed for work in business black.

Lenovo has made some mostly-subtle concessions to the fashion-conscious, however.

In recent years, it has offered a few ThinkPad products, including the X1 Carbon, in a new silver color. I don’t like it: It looks dull gray to me, and I find the look to be plain-looking and down-market. I very much prefer the classic ThinkPad black, which I find to be more attractive and premium- and professional-looking.

For 2018, Lenovo has spiced up the ThinkPad and X1 branding on the device a bit too. The ThinkPad logo still appears at its traditional 45 degree angle on the right side of the keyboard deck and on the outside display lid, and the red “i” in the “ThinkPad” still serves as a power light. But the logo is now blacked-out, as if the PC were at war, and it blends better into the overall design.

There is also a new “X1” logo on the outside display lid that acts like the “M” badging on high-end BMWs, subtly announcing the superiority of the hardware to those in the know.

Lenovo has likewise blacked out the display hinges—well, on the black X1s, anyway; they remain silver on the silver versions—in another subtle change that improves the look in a surprisingly obvious way.

The overall look, then, is refined but not dramatically different than before. I feel this is the right approach for this product line, and that there is no reason to make dramatic changes when the overall design is already so wonderfully optimized for its audience. You shouldn’t mess with success.

Display

The display represents my only major ding for this device. The review unit ships with a lackluster 14-inch display that fails on two counts: It offers a paltry Full HD (1920 x 1080) resolution, and it does so in a 16:9 aspect ratio that is ill-suited for the productivity work in which an X1 Carbon owner will engage. This display has no business—ahem—in a device of this price and pedigree.

Yes, Lenovo offers other options, including a higher-resolution WQHD (2560 x 1440) unit that I feel should be the base offering. And an HDR/Dolby Vision upgrade that is truly stunning.

As it stands, the display on my review unit is adequate, but nothing more. And while it’s not really a matte display, which I’d also prefer, the IPS unit does offer some anti-glare capabilities and is reasonably bright at 300 nits. It is also multi-touch capable, a nice turnaround from last year’s model, which eschewed this modern—and, I think, necessary—functionality. (That said, touch is still an option: The base X1 Carbon can be had without it.)

But a 16:9 display, despite being common, is not a good choice for a productivity workhorse; it is optimized instead for entertainment. I spoke with Lenovo earlier this year about the need for square, 3:2 aspect ratio displays, and they agreed. The issue, I was told, was that the market had moved inexorably towards 16:9 widescreen displays years ago and there are no suppliers that can meet its unit volume needs. To Lenovo’s credit, it held out as long as it could with square displays, moving first to 16:10 before giving in to the sweeping market trends. But Lenovo is big enough to demand better, and it should. And that starts with Lenovo’s customers demanding better. And a 3:2 display would be better. It’s indisputable.

(The final insult here is that the lid of the X1 Carbon could easily accommodate a square 3:2 display without requiring any other changes to the design: There is a huge, one inch bezel below the display. That area should be all display.)

Put simply, being adequate isn’t at all adequate for a premium PC like this. And the review unit’s display is only adequate.

Components and ports

Lenovo gets the rest of the ThinkPad X1 Carbon right: This PC is bristling with exactly the right mix of modern components and connectivity, and modern and legacy ports.

Inside, you’ll find 8th-generation Intel Core processors, which provide an automatic performance boost sans any battery life hit courtesy of their efficient quad-core designs. The review unit features a mid-level Core i5-8250U running at 1.6 GHz, which I found to be perfect for the productivity tasks for which the PC is designed.

From a performance perspective, the X1 Carbon is pretty much middle of the pack, and it was able to encode the 4K video “Tears of Steel” to 1080p/30 fps in a bit over 1:20. By comparison, other recent PCs with 8th generation Intel Core processors performed a bit better: Surface Book 2 with a Core i7 processor finished this encoding in almost exactly one hour and the HP Spectre 13, also with a Core i7, hit the mark in 1:09.

I find this performance to be perfectly acceptable. But those with unusual performance needs can max this system out with a 3.9 GHz Core i7-7600U processor too. In either case, graphics are handled by the integrated Intel HD Graphics 620 chipset which, again, is ideal for this PC.

The X1 Carbon can be configured with up to 16 GB of LPDDR3 RAM running at 2133 MHz. The review unit came with just 8 GB, which is probably the corporate standard here in 2018.

There are likewise multiple storage options, all of them excellent: The review unit shipped with a speedy 512 GB NVMe 1.1 SSD, but you can upgrade to an otherworldly 1 TB PCIe-based OPAL 2.0 SSD too. Either make a mockery of the more pedestrian storage choices you’ll find in lesser PCs.

Expansion is excellent. Lenovo provides two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports for both power and expansion, 2 full-sized USB 3.0 ports, a full-sized HDMI port for video-out, and microSD.

New to 2018, Lenovo has created an ingenious docking solution that combines the USB-C port on the left with a second USB-C port to create a mechanical connection that will work with any modern ThinkPad dock. The way it works is that the left-most USB-C port sits in an adjustable-height sleeve that enables it to connect with docks of various heights. So Lenovo no longer has to worry about model-specific docks. (I didn’t test this feature, but I saw it in action at CES in January.)

Connectivity is modern and thorough: You get Intel dual-band Wireless-AC 8265, Bluetooth 4.2, a proprietary Ethernet jack that requires a dongle, and even a micro-SIM card slot for cellular connectivity.

This year’s X1 Carbon also includes a simple mechanical shutter that you can use to block the front-facing webcam. That this little slider has a name—ThinkShutter, naturally—is amusing, but it’s a nice touch for the privacy-focused.

What that webcam doesn’t offer, however, is Windows Hello compatibility. For that, you must turn to the X1 Carbon’s excellent fingerprint reader. According to Lenovo, the Match-in-Sensor on-chip fingerprint is more secure than before because it no longer needs to communicate with other system components: Fingerprint enrollment, pattern storage, and biometric matching are all stored and encrypted right in the sensor. In use, it is lightning-quick and accurate, and a fingerprint reader remains my favorite way to sign-in to Windows.

Finally, the 2018 X1 Carbon now includes two far-field microphones so that you can interact with the Cortana digital personal assistant from up to 10 feet away or so, and even when the PC is locked (and plugged into power). This has to be enabled first, and since doing so impacts battery life, I only tested it briefly. But sure enough, you can ask Cortana questions from across a medium-sized room, and basically use it as if it were a smart speaker. I could see some being excited by that.

Keyboard and touchpad

The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon retains the well-regarded keyboard from previous versions, with 6 rows of LED-backlit and scalloped keys. I like the keyboard quite a bit, always have. But it has a lot of good competition now, too, and the keyboards on Surface Book 2, Surface Laptop, and various HPs—especially the EliteBook—are just as good, if not better in the same ways. Worse, the retro ThinkPad 25 Anniversary provided a timely reminder that Lenovo’s keyboards used to be quite a bit better.

There are smaller issues with the keyboard as well. Lenovo continues to inexplicably place the Fn (function) and Ctrl keys in the wrong positions—they’re swapped—in defiance of virtually the entire PC industry. This might not be an issue for those who just continue to use ThinkPads and, yes, Lenovo does provide a software-based way to swap the keys virtually. But it makes no sense, much like the way Samsung reverses the order of the buttons in Android’s navigation bar on its phones.

Also, the X1 Carbon lacks the disappearing keys trick that is present on the X1 Yoga. Instead, the keys are permanently mounted at the same height above the keyboard deck whether the display lid is open or closed. This may not seem to be an issue since they’re obviously positioned such that the display shouldn’t touch the keys when the lid is closed. But the lid has some flex to it and the display could easily become marred by coming in contact with the keys.

Put simply, yes, the keyboard is great and, yes, ThinkPad aficionados will appreciate the familiarity. But I am starting to prefer the non-scalloped chiclet-style keyboards on those Surface and HP PCs. And I think it’s time for Lenovo to start considering a change. This is no longer the differentiator it used to be. It may be a blocker for many.

The X1 Carbon’s dual-pointing system is a good example of how embracing the modern can work: It consists of a TrackPoint “nubbin” for ThinkPad purists and a buttonless glass touchpad that conforms to Microsoft’s Precision Touchpad specifications and integrates perfectly with Windows 10. Both are top-notch and provide the performance and precision needed for any use.

Portability

The ThinkPad’s thin, elegant design translates into a near-ideal travel companion. It weighs just under 2.5 pounds and just .63-inches thin at its thickest point. From a versatility perspective, the PC can also lay flat. I’ve found this to be useful in cramped coach seats on planes, when I’m forced to just give up on working and want to watch a video.

From a battery perspective, Lenovo promises up to 15.5 hours of life courtesy of the X1 Carbon’s 4-cell 57 watt-hour battery. I saw 10:34 in my HD streaming video test, which is excellent and probably a bit more indicative of real-world battery life. Last year’s X1 Carbon delivered just 8:14 on the same test, so that’s a nice improvement.

Helping matters, the X1 Carbon also provides rapid charge capabilities, which Lenovo says let you charge the PC to 80 percent capacity in just 60 minutes. Testing this, I actually averaged about 65-70 percent charge in one hour. (This feature debuted in the previous model and has not changed since then.) And anti-fry technology means that you can use third-party USB-C chargers without any worries.

Software

While no PC maker can escape the nightmare that is the crapware with which Microsoft burdens Windows 10, Lenovo does an exemplary job of not piling on its own useless crap.

Windows 10 provides crapware. But Lenovo does not.

The review unit shipped with Windows 10 Pro and not much else: A single ThinkPad utility called Lenovo Vantage plays the role of several apps from other PC makers and provides a way to download device-specific drivers, troubleshoot hardware problems, get support from Lenovo, and more. Folks, this is how it should be done.

Pricing and configurations

As a premium, business-class portable PC, the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon doesn’t come cheap: A base model X1 Carbon with a Core i5 processor, 8 GB of RAM, 256 GB of PCIe-based NVME OPAL 2.0 M.2 solid state storage, a non-touch display, and Windows 10 Home costs, on paper, about $1500. But thanks to Lenovo’s ongoing sale prices, it’s really about $1350. And that price includes some niceties, like the fingerprint reader.

You can push past $2000 by upgrading the processor, RAM, storage, display, and OS, but you can choose the upgrades that matter most to you and keep the cost down. I think the sweet spot here is pretty close to the base model: I’d just add touch and the stunning HDR/Dolby Vision WQHD (2560 x 1440 display I saw at CES, arriving at a street price of about $1500. This a very competitive PC at that price, and while you can’t change the aspect ratio of the display, that HDR/Dolby Vision display will blow your socks off.

Recommendations and conclusions

The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon has always been a favorite, and the 2018 model doesn’t disappoint. Its 8th-generation Intel processor choices amp up the performance without harming battery life, and the components are thoroughly modern throughout. No, there are no major changes this year, but Lenovo is right not to mess with (near) perfection. And while you can’t correct the inefficient 16:9 aspect ratio of the display, you can at least upgrade past the average 1080p display in my review unit, and do so at a reasonable cost.

The ThinkPad X1 Carbon is highly recommended. There are very few PCs that can effectively compete with this device, and it remains one of my favorite overall portable PCs.

At-a-glance

Pros

  • State of the art components
  • Business-class style
  • Excellent performance
  • Great battery life
  • Clean software image (aside from Windows 10’s crapware)

Cons

  • Low-resolution display on the review unit
  • 16:9 display is not ideal for productivity work
  • Unfamiliar keyboard
  • Windows 10 is full of crapware

 

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