Let there be no doubt: the latest rendition of the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon is the best Ultrabook I’ve ever used, a sleek, thin and light wonder with a gorgeous screen, a stellar keyboard, and good battery life. This is the second time this year I’ve been able to describe a PC as nearly perfect. Because it is.
Nearly. There are a few things I don’t quite get, like the absence of a microSD (or SD) card slot, or the inability to at least choose a low-resolution option. But I’m being picky here. This new X1 is amazing.
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And I’ve traveled with it quite a bit. I generally try to get in a trip or two with any portable computer, but the ThinkPad X1 Carbon was my faithful companion over a full month of travel, including a road trip to Pennsylvania, a week in San Francisco for Build, a few days in Chicago for Ignite, and then my four-day cross-country road trip. During this time, the X1 was my PC. It was all I used.
There are so many positives to discuss. But let me start with one that some will find odd: the TrackPoint pointing device, that little red nubbin that adorns so many ThinkPads.
As you may know, I travel with a rather large mouse, the Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Mouse, the same mouse I use at home. It’s the size and (almost) shape of a baseball, and people routinely comment on it as they take out their non-ergonomic disaster mice. But I use this mouse because it works great, and it helps keeps my hand free of repetitive stress injury. And no matter how good the trackpad or pointing device is on whatever portable computer I’m using, I invariably use this mouse instead. (It’s why I find the Surface Pro 3 somewhat frustrating, as the mouse requires a dongle that fills the tablet’s one USB port.)
Not so with the X1 Carbon. For perhaps the first time ever—certainly the first time since I started using the Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Mouse—I just used the built-in pointing device, the TrackPoint. Sure, I pulled out the mouse the first several times, even plugged in the dongle. But I never used it, never needed it. The TrackPoint is quick, accurate, and highly-usable, and it saves me from needing an external mouse. I love it.
But then I love virtually everything about this Ultrabook.
It’s a beautiful machine, with an athletic stance, and an industrial wedge-shaped design that immediately signals the X1 is all business, no fluff. The materials are first rate and, according to Lenovo, extremely durable despite the thin frame. The top panel surrounding the screen is carbon fiber—hence the X1 Carbon naming—and the bottom is magnesium and aluminum. The two are connected with rock-solid hinges that let you easily move the screen angle to any position you like and then keep it there. I experienced a minimum of screen wiggle in bumpy conditions only.
The carbon fiber helps the X1 keep down the heft. It weighs just over 3 pounds, but there’s something about the device’s thin, wedge-like shape that makes it seem lighter. It’s quite portable, and a joy to travel with.
The X1’s screen is 14-inches, which I find to be an acceptable trade-off between the Ultrabook-norm 13-inches and the 15-inch screen I really want. Lenovo offers two resolution options—1080p (1920 x 1080) and Quad HD (2560 x 1440), with the review unit being the latter. The usual display scaling issues are still issues, but it seems that Windows 10 handles things a bit more elegantly. Overall, the screen is gorgeous, if not overly bright, and certainly not as vibrant as that on the HP Spectre x360. But the size is fantastic, and the multi-touch capabilities are of course excellent, is less frequently-used on a traditional laptop form factor like this.
I love the silky smooth and best-in-class keyboard, which is almost a revelation and gives that Spectre x360 a run for its money. If you’re familiar with ThinkPad, you may recall that the previous generation X1 Carbon featured a hokey and touch-based adaptive function row in lieu of a row of real keys. This version drops that feature like the bad idea it was, returns the real keys to the function row, and reapplies the traditional keyboard layout we have a right to expect. My only miscue with this keyboard was a strange tendency to tap the Caps Lock key inadvertently on a number of occasions, but I’m a sloppy typist, and I suspect that moving between different keyboards, as I do, doesn’t help matters.
The X1 Carbon comes with a wonderful fingerprint reader, which by the way works just quickly and accurately, and natively, with the Windows Hello feature in Windows 10. The speed at which you can sign-in to Windows this way—8.1 or 10—is wonderful, and it makes going back to a PIN on other devices almost painful.
Expansion is good, and perhaps all one might expect considering the thinness of the machine. On the left side, you will find Lenovo’s excellent combination power/USB/docking port, full-sized HDMI-out, miniDisplayPort, USB 3.0, and headphone/mic. On the right, another USB 3.0 port and a tiny Ethernet adapter port for a dongle. But as noted there’s no SD/microSD slot, which I don’t understand as there appears to be plenty of room for either.
If you’re familiar with my portable PC experiences, you know I’m no fan, ahem, of fan noise. The X1 does pretty well for itself. Like any other Windows-based portable, the fan will kick on when doing something strenuous, and like any other Windows-based portable, it will sometimes do so when the PC isn’t doing anything at all. But it’s not overly-loud, and not as loud or frequent as the constantly-revving fan in the Surface Pro 3.
Driving that noise is a very high-end chip, for a portable PC, Intel’s Core i7-5600U, which is clocked at 2.6 GHz. Coupled with 8 GB of RAM and a PCIe-based 512 GB SSD, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon is a screamer in action if not in sound, and while I can’t say I played any games on this device, it powered through all of the productivity tasks—including Photoshop, Hyper-V virtualization and Visual Studio 2015—that I threw at it.
As for battery life, the X1 was a capable performer, logging about 8 hours of life on my video playback test. Real world, I was happy with its uptime on cross-country flights, which is typically the longest I’d use such a device untethered. But the battery life was well below the 12-ish hours I experienced with HP’s Spectre x360 (which is heavier and thicker, but also offers transforming capabilities).
Lenovo doesn’t bog down its ThinkPads with crapware as it does with IdeaPad and other products, but it does have a bad habit of overwhelming the user with Lenovo-branded utilities that can be admittedly useful. There’s a Lenovo Solution Center, Lenovo Settings, Lenovo User Guide, Lenovo QuickControl, Lenovo PC Experience, Lenovo Messenger, Lenovo Fingerprint Manager Pro, and some others like SHAREit, System Update, and Warranty Information that lack the Lenovo name. My goodness, Lenovo. We get it. How about just making a single front-end for all this stuff? I believe the X1 Carbon came with some kind of time-bombed antivirus solution, but I nuked it on day one.
As configured, this X1 Carbon would set you back a breathtaking $2100. But if you scrimp a little, you could spend as little as $1088. I would personally opt for a version with a Core i5-5300U processor, a 1080p display (though you’d lose multi-touch), and a 256 GB SSD (non-PCIe), which is a more reasonable $1376. That’s still very expensive, yes. But the X1 Carbon certainly justifies this pricing structure, and of course Lenovo offers more pedestrian—heavy, thicker—ThinkPads at lower prices as well.
It’s reasonable to compare the X1 with HP’s Spectre x360, though the latter is transforming laptop, not a traditional Ultrabook. The x360 is, for starters, much less expensive, and you could save almost $400 by choosing the HP. The x360 offers better expansion than the X1 in some ways, with an extra USB 3.0 port and an SD card slot, but it lacks a real docking port for those who prefer such a thing. The screen is smaller, but brighter. The x360 gets significantly better battery life, and while it is thicker and heavier than the X1, it also transforms into various shapes, including a tablet, which some will find useful. And you can get an active stylus for the HP if you prefer such a thing. The HP ships in a cleaner state than the X1, with fewer bundled app.
But as for which is “better,” I’m a bit torn. I find both to be of tremendously high quality, though they are both quite differently looking. Both have excellent keyboards and pointing solutions, and screens. I will only use either device as a traditional laptop, so the transforming capabilities of the HP are of little to no use for me, personally. Honestly, I love ’em both.
The ThinkPad X1 Carbon is the best Ultrabook I’ve ever used and is highly recommended. Yes, it’s expensive. But, yes, it’s worth every penny.