Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 9 Review

Posted on December 14, 2021 by Paul Thurrott in Hardware, Mobile, Windows 10, Windows 11 with 22 Comments

Anyone who expected the 9th-generation Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon to be a minor update over its predecessors is in for a welcome surprise. There are some important updates—on both the inside and outside of this premium, business-class PC—that really elevate the experience.

Design

The design, alas, is not among the changes: here, you’ll find the same tried and true industrial design, the same unique blend of carbon fiber and magnesium, and even the same basic dimensions and weight as before. But that’s a good thing, if you’re a fan of this iconic laptop, as I am. When it ain’t broke, you don’t fix it.

Look a bit more closely, however, and you will see one of the changes to the exterior design: the display lid hinge extends across most of the PC’s width. It looks like it’s really still two discrete and small hinges as before, but this change is also functional as Lenovo moved the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth antennas into the hinge.

As before, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon is durable enough to pass 12 military-grade certification methods and over 20 procedures related to such things as vibration, mechanical shock, sand and dust, and much more.

Display

The most welcome change to the ThinkPad X1 Carbon, in my opinion, is the return of 16:10 aspect ratio displays, a huge improvement over the 16:9 displays of previous several generations. This taller display type provides a superior environment for the productivity applications that its customers use all day, and it really puts the 9th-generation X1 over the top. Plus, it helps keep the bezels smaller.

As always, Lenovo offers multiple IPS display options, including a 400-nit Full HD+ (1920 x 1200) panel with hardware-based low blue light capabilities, a 400-nit Full HD+ (1920 x 1200) multitouch panel with low blue light, a 500-nit Full HD+ (1920 x 1200) panel with ThinkPad Privacy Guard functionality, and a 500-nit UHD+ HDR400 (3840 x 2400) panel with low blue light, Dolby Vision HDR, and 100 percent DCI-P3 color gamut capabilities.

The review unit came with the base display, which is exactly what I would have chosen, as it offers excellent quality and is battery-friendly. And as with previous X1 Carbon, models, the display can lay flat, which I also appreciate.

Internal components

After the new 16:10 display choices, the other major change to the 9th-generation ThinkPad X1 Carbon comes on the inside, as this is the first of its kind to be Intel Evo certified. As a reminder, this means that the X1 should deliver responsive performance even when on battery power, at least 9 hours of real-world battery life, instant wake capabilities, and fast charging, plus provide the latest-generation Wi-Fi 6 and Thunderbolt 4 capabilities.

And on that note, the internal components do not disappoint—or surprise, really—with the X1 offering your choice of 11th-generation Intel Core i5 or i7 processors with Intel Iris Xe graphics, 8, 16, or 32 GB of LPDDRX4 RAM, and 256 GB, 512 GB, or 1 TB of PCIe SSD storage with OPAL security capabilities. The review unit shipped with an Intel Core i7-1165G7 processor, 16 GB of RAM, and 512 GB of storage.

Needless to say, performance was always top-notch in the productivity applications—Microsoft Office, Teams, Google Chrome, Affinity Photo—that I always use. But I was particularly happy with the lack of fan noise and heat, even when in the Balanced power mode, thanks in part to a new ventilation duct in the rear. This is a quiet and efficient laptop.

Connectivity

As expected—it is an Evo PC, after all—the X1 provides modern connectivity capabilities, with Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5.2, and, optionally, 4G LTE (Quectel) or 5G (Qualcomm) cellular data.

Ports and expansion

The ThinkPad X1 Carbon offers the right mix of modern and legacy ports for its audience. On the left side, you will find two Type-C ports with Thunderbolt 4 and USB 4 capabilities, one full-sized USB-A 3.2 Gen 1 port, and one HDMI 2.0 port.

And on the right, you’ll see a Kensington lock port, another full-sized USB-A 3.2 port, a nano-SIM card slot (optional, and not in the review unit), and the combination headphone/microphone port.

I have no major issues with the port selection, but as always, I’d prefer to see some Type-C ports on each side of the machine, as one is used for charging and the cable can get in the way if you use a mouse.

Audio and video

The ThinkPad X1 Carbon features improved stereo speakers that are now located on the sides of the keyboard and feature prominent speaker grills and two downward-firing woofers. The result is improved stereo sound, with better separation, and a terrific Dolby Atmos spatial audio experience that is particularly nice with movies and other video content.

The X1 also comes with 360-degree far-field microphones that work well with digital assistants but are really designed for conference calls: using the laptop’s built-in Dolby Voice capabilities, two or more participants can engage in virtual meetings using the same machine.

As for the webcam, it’s still a middling 720p unit with a fixed focus, but it does at least offer a manually operated privacy shutter. It can also be had with Windows Hello facial recognition capabilities, but the review unit didn’t include this option.

Keyboard and touchpad

Lenovo’s iconic keyboard with integrated TrackPoint moves forward unchanged, which is both good and bad.

The overall keyboard feel is very good, as always, with full-sized, backlit, scalloped, and island-style keys, and I like the unified communication keys in the top row and that the arrow keys are arranged in an inverted-T layout.

But Lenovo continues to inexcusably place the Fn (function) key at the lower-left corner of the keyboard, where the Ctrl key should be. Yes, you can swap the key functions. But you shouldn’t have to, and Lenovo’s other keyboards don’t even use this layout.

For this year’s model, the X1’s touchpad is 10 percent wider than before, though I’m not sure I would have even noticed had Lenovo not pointed it out. (Pardon the pun.) It remains as accurate as ever. And it still includes separate buttons for the TrackPoint, as before; I’m a big fan of the center button, which lets you scroll through documents and webpages using the TrackPoint nubbin.

Unique hardware

Where previous generation X1s featured a small, square fingerprint reader in the right wrist rest, the 9th-generation unit instead integrates this functionality into the small and thin power button found above the right side of the keyboard. This works just as well as before, despite its size and shape, and it’s as secure as ever thanks to its Match-on-Chip technology that isolates your fingerprint data from the rest of the system. It can also sign you in more quickly, as it can handle both power-on and Windows Hello with a single press.

The X1 can also be optionally equipped with an ultra-wideband sensor that enables User Presence, a feature that detects when you step away from, and walk up to, the laptop. When available—if you add this option, you also get an IR-capable webcam—this feature will wake up the display when you approach the laptop and log you in via Windows Hello automatically. The review laptop does not include this feature, however.

Portability

The ThinkPad X1 Carbon is incredibly portable for a 14-inch laptop, as it weighs under 2.5 pounds. I wasn’t able to travel with it, unfortunately, but it features a larger 57 watt-hour battery that promises better battery life than previous versions. And that bore out in my real-world usage, with nearly 9 hours of battery life on average.

The X1 supports Rapid Charge capabilities and can charge to 80 percent in just 60 minutes using the bundled 65-watt USB charger. As before, Lenovo outfits the Thunderbolt ports with its own active anti-fry capabilities, which prevent poorly-designed third-party USB-C chargers from sending the wrong voltage. I feel like we’re mostly past the point where this is a serious issue, and no one will have issues with Lenovo’s charger, of course, but it’s a nice bit of peace of mind.

Software

The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon first shipped with Windows 10 Home or Pro, but I upgraded it during my testing to Windows 11 when it was offered. And it can now be had with Windows 11 Home or Pro at purchase time.

It includes no crapware at all, which is always appreciated. There are just a few Lenovo utilities—Lenovo Vantage for drivers, configuring hardware features, and support, plus a Lenovo Quick Clean app that disables all input so you can clean the laptop—plus one Intel and one Realtek audio app.

The X1 also ships with a Dolby Access app that combines three previously separate apps for Dolby Atmos, Dolby Vision, and Dolby Voice into a single, more convenient location. (Only Dolby Atmos and Dolby Voice are available on the review unit.) After experimenting with different sound settings, I returned Dolby Atmos to the Dynamic option, as always, but Dolby Voice was new to me. This feature tackles some of the obvious problems of this hybrid work era by helping you configure spatial audio capture (which is useful if two or more people are using the X1’s microphones), dynamic audio leveling, noise suppression, and other related features.

I wish every laptop I reviewed was this clean.

Pricing and configurations

As a premium business-class PC, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon is suitably expensive. And as a Lenovo PC, the X1 is a bit hard to pin down, price-wise, because this firm’s computers are pretty much always on sale. I’m not even sure that it’s possible to pay full list price for one of them.

On that note, the X1 starts at just over $1400 ($2336 list) for a version with a Core i5-1135G7 processor, 8 GB of RAM, 256 GB of storage, the base display, and your choice of three Linux distributions. This same model with Windows starts at about $1427.

Prices increase fairly rapidly, of course. The review unit, with its Core i7 processor, 16 GB of RAM, 512 GB of storage, the base display, and Windows 10 Pro, runs about $1830 ($3050 list). A maxed-out X1, with the highest-end Core i7 processor, 32 GB of RAM, 1 TB of storage, the UHD+ display, IR webcam, and a 5G modem, would set you back over $2750 ($4,589) today.

You can get the ThinkPad X1 Carbon in any color as long as that color is black.

Recommendations and conclusions

The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon is that rarest of PCs, a near-perfect example of how to address your target market correctly in every way imaginable. And with this 9th-generation update, Lenovo somehow improves on the formula with two key additions: a great selection of 16:10 display options that should meet just about any need and the Intel Evo platform with its more efficient 11th-generation Core processors and battery life. The ThinkPad X1 Carbon isn’t just highly recommended, it’s obvious.

At-a-glance

Pros

  • Iconic design
  • Superior 16:10 display options
  • Intel Evo innards with Thunderbolt 4 expandability
  • Modern and powerful connectivity
  • Dolby capabilities for work and play
  • Excellent Windows Hello fingerprint reader, optional facial recognition
  • Classic ThinkPad typing and pointing experiences
  • Highly portable with terrific battery life
  • Clean software image with no crapware

Cons

  • Fn and Ctrl keys are reversed

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Comments (22)

22 responses to “Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 9 Review”

  1. mattbg

    Nice review. It's odd that they made the screen taller while making the touchpad wider.


    I'm still on the X1 5th gen and it is starting to feel a bit long in the tooth.

  2. brettscoast

    Excellent comprehensive write-up thanks Paul. This PC is just about perfect, although I find the func\control keys positioning inexplicable. This system has all the Lenovo goodness and now is the perfect 16:10 aspect ratio. Big thumbs up.

  3. ianbetteridge

    I’ve had this ThinkPad for a couple of months now and it’s easily my favourite laptop to work on. I bought it to replace a Surface Book 3, prompted by being able to get a ridiculous education discount - an i7 model with 32Gb RAM and 1Tb SSD ended up costing me less than an 8-core MacBook Air, which was my other option.


    It’s great. Performance is good, battery life is good, the screen is excellent (all hail 16:10!) and of course the keyboard is superb. There are ports, which makes me happy, plus Thunderbolt 4 which means it works with the existing TB dock I use with my Mac. Yes, the list prices are crazy, but no one pay list price and if you can get a further discount they can end up as absolute bargains.

  4. jeremyweisser

    When are manufacturers going to offer 64 GB of RAM in an ultrabook? It's ridiculous that these top out at 32 GB.

    • ianbetteridge

      I'm not sure what the use case would be for 64GB in an ultrabook - surely if you really need that much RAM you should be looking at something a little more performant anyway?

  5. ken_loewen

    I changed employers (and changed work laptops) 6 months ago and am now on a Lenovo T15. The transition also meant a change to full-time WFH so I kitted out my home office with twin 28" 4K monitors *then* discovered that my newly-ordered T15 and a Lenovo docking station would support them - but not every laptop and/or docking station would. My next laptop will definitely be conditioned on supporting my multiple 4K monitors. Is that information available and consistent enough for inclusion in your reviews?

  6. thewarragulman

    So glad Lenovo are now offering 16:10 displays on ThinkPads now, I was a ThinkPad fan for so many years, the last ThinkPad I owned was a ThinkPad T420 which I owned for many years and it served me well. but recent models in the last 5 years or so haven't really done it for me and have felt lackluster compared to Dell and HP's offerings.


    I'm definitely going to consider this as my next laptop, I'm due for an upgrade from my 2016 MacBook Pro and I'm really craving a nice PC again. I have been considering a 15" Surface Laptop or a Dell XPS 15 but I may go this route instead.

  7. bschnatt

    I'd like to see vendors standardize on laptop keyboard / monitor connections, so you could buy the upper half you want (the monitor, webcam, speakers, ports) and buy the lower half you want (keyboard, fingerprint scanner, ports) to match to it.


    Want more ports? Buy a top half that has a couple ports and a bottom half that has several ports = more ports! Want a keyboard with that little stick pointer stub thing (which I despise)? Buy one.


    Want a 16:10 monitor instead of 2:3? Buy a "top" that has that.


    Obviously, they'd have to agree on standards about where to put batteries, chips and such, so class A "tops" wouldn't work with class B "bottoms", etc.


    I think this could work. It would probably give users more choice, although maybe lead to more confusion for the consumer. Stupid idea?

    • bschnatt

      To minimize confusion, maybe the user could only order these parts separately on-line (stores would only sell parts matched together already), and they'd have to tell the website what top or bottom part they already have (model number), so the site can reject unworking pairs. But call me crazy ;)

  8. clutem1987

    Looks nice. I have the option of swapping the control and fn buttons in the bios on my T14. Maybe it’s the same on the X1 Carbon.

  9. IanYates82

    I know every review of Lenovo laptops talks about Fn & Ctrl, but if it's your only laptop you find it second nature after a couple of days making it a non-issue. I say this as someone who has moved between Asus, HP and then a few Lenovo laptops in a row who uses the laptop keyboards and Microsoft 4000 keyboards interchangeably.

    Bigger issues are keyboard crimes like hiding the delete key, making a user do contortions for page up/down home/end, and half-height arrow keys. These will bite you every day, especially if you do any form of word processing or coding.

    • VMax

      Absolutely. All my work and personal machines are ThinkPads, but I regularly use other laptops for short periods. I've run into exactly zero issues with the Fn/Ctrl reversal on those other machines, but must have spent a cumulative total of several hours searching for Insert, Home, Delete etc. It feels like some manufacturers just drop a QWERTY layout on the deck and then tip a bucket of the remaining keys over the top and solder them into position wherever they land.

    • mattbg

      Agree. I know it’s “wrong” but I just don’t have an issue with it. However, I have used Thinkpads exclusively for almost 2 decades on the laptop side of things.

  10. JH_Radio

    I have the 6th Gen and I like it plenty. I have no reason to get a new one until Windows 10 runs out of support..


  11. will

    Lenovo Thinkpad's have been solid devices for years. I do wish they would move to something that is less of a fingerprint magnet with the soft touch coating they use for the case.


    With the 10th get X1 just around the corner, I am guessing it will be more of a chip refresh and hopefully move to a 1080p webcam, maybe a new case option for the 10th gen?

  12. bluvg

    16:10 is finally a thing. 🎉


    The next push should be for webcams with considerably better video quality (optics, sensors, not pointlessly increasing pixel count). Paul, please use your influence here; start listing this as a con.

    • sgbassett

      I agree that laptop webcams need to improve. And mics too. It would be nice not to have to use separate devices just to make a passable Zoom call.

  13. skborders

    I don't get the gripe with 720p cameras. They are perfectly fine for video conferencing. In fact, I would prefer not to have a wide ratio camera at all. I would rather some square ratio in with a decent resolution and color balance. I don't want people to see my whole house.

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