Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon (2017) Review

Posted on July 27, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Hardware, Mobile, Windows 10 with 19 Comments

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon (2017) Review

While I’ve tested my share of premium laptops, I’ve rarely seen it come together in a package as compelling as that of the 2017 ThinkPad X1 Carbon. There’s just one major problem that keeps this device from being utterly perfect.

Design

Dell may have pioneered the thin bezel designs that we see so often on modern portable PCs, but Lenovo has perfected it: This machine is as beautiful to look at as it is wonderful to travel with and use. What the firm has done here is familiar—wrap a smaller-than-usual body around a given display size—but it’s also unique: Where we typically see a 13-inch display in a 12-inch body in this class, Lenovo offer a 14-inch display in a 13-inch body. The result is form factor perfection, a new sweet spot for this type of device.

That is, 13-inch portable PCs that have shrunk down with smaller bezels can feel a bit cramped, especially if you have larger hands, as I do. And on the flip side, 15-inch devices with smaller bezels, like the 15-inch HP Spectre x360 and Dell XPS 15, are still too big and bulky. The ThinkPad X1 Carbon, with its 14-inch display, is the Goldilocks of modern portable PCs. It’s right-sized from a form factor perspective. Perfect, one might say.

Compared to its also-excellent predecessor, the 2017 ThinkPad X1 Carbon is lighter, dropping from about 2.6 pounds to 2.49 pounds. It’s thinner, too, dropping from 0.65 inches thick to just 0.6. And it is, of course, smaller overall, and is smaller than the MacBook Air that defines this basic form factor. It’s considerably lighter too: the MacBook Air weighs in at a comparatively hefty 2.96 pounds.

I’ve always loved ThinkPad’s classic design, and the X1 Carbon carries on nicely, much as modern BMW sedans have utilized the same basic design for several years now. You just don’t mess with success, and the X1’s sleek black body remains among the most professional and attractive in the market. And while the keyboard deck can get a bit smudgy, it’s not as bad as on Dell’s XPS laptops. And the grippy surface is a joy to wrest your wrists on.

It should be durable as well: The X1 Carbon retains the carbon fiber and magnesium alloy construction of previous X1s, making for a rigid, bobble-free experience. And it’s rated for 12 different Mil-Spec certifications related to durability in punishing conditions. This PC offers both beauty and brawn.

Display

This is where the one bit of bad news creeps into this story. Lenovo, inexplicably, does not offer multi-touch capabilities in the display of the ThinkPad X1 Carbon. Not even as an option. And that makes no sense, especially when you consider how thoughtful the design of this device is otherwise.

You may disagree about multi-touch, and feel that this functionality is superfluous on a traditional, productivity-focused portable PC. But as I noted in Multi-Touch is the New Minimum (Premium), that view isn’t just outdated, it’s wrong: The presence of multi-touch doesn’t hurt those who claim to not want it, but it is immeasurably useful, and for everyone. Because you will, in fact, just use this capability when it’s present. And you will grow to expect it.

So I can only wonder when it comes to Lenovo’s thinking on this. But I know that the firm will point you to its equally-compelling ThinkPad X1 Yoga, with its 360-degree hinge, as an alternative. It’s a wonderful choice, but the X1 Yoga comes with a $300 premium over the X1 Carbon. And, again, there is no valid reason for multi-touch to not be at least an option on this premium device.

You were so close, Lenovo. So close.

Though bereft of multi-touch capabilities, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon’s IPS display is still great for productivity thanks to its anti-glare coating. It doesn’t stack up well against some entertainment-based glossy displays, like that on the Dell XPS 15, when viewing photos or videos. But I found it perfectly suited for my uses. Also, the display lays flat, which adds some versatility.

That said, the resolution could be higher—the review unit was outfitted with a 1080p (1920 x 1080) display, but I’d opt for the optional 2560 x 1440 version if possible—and it could be brighter.

Components and ports

Inside the X1 Carbon, you’ll find a modern, if standard set of Ultrabook components: A new generation Intel Core i5 or i7 U-series processor with Intel HD Graphics 620, 8 or 16 GB of LPDDR3 1866 RAM, a 128 GB SATA3-based SSD or 256 GB to 1 TB of much faster PCIe-NVMe SS storage, Intel dual-based Wi-Fi AC, and Bluetooth 4.1. (The review unit is a high-end model with an Intel Core i7-7600U processor, 16 GB of RAM, and 512 GB of PCIe-NVMe SSD storage.)

Externally, Lenovo does the right thing in offering an excellent selection of ports that will meet your needs today and in the future.

On the left side of the device, you’ll find two USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports, either of which can be used to power the device, a full-sized USB 3.0 port, full-sized HDMI, and a micro-Ethernet port for wired networking. (Lenovo supplies an Ethernet dongle in the box, too.)

On the right side, there’s a second full-sized USB 3.0 port with always-on power for device charging even when the X1 is sleeping or off, and a combo headphone/mic jack. A microSD card slot is found on the rear of the device.

Let’s step back for a moment and consider Lenovo’s implementation of USB-C/Thunderbolt 3. Previous generation X1-series PCs utilized a proprietary OneLink connection for power, and while this port did double-duty as USB 3.0, it was still fairly limited from performance and expansion perspectives. Thanks to the move to USB-C/Thunderbolt 3, however, the new X1 gains faster charging capabilities and amazing expansion possibilities with dual-4K display support. And the device includes “anti-fry” protection to ensure that poorly-made USB cables don’t do any damage. See Microsoft? It’s possible to be both modern and awesome.

Above the screen, you will find an unimpressive 720p front-facing webcam, limited, I suspect, by the thinness of the device. You can optionally add a Windows Hello-compatible IR camera as well, but all X1s already include a fingerprint reader (described below). There are stereo speakers which appear to be coming through the keyboard. They are crisp and clear but don’t get very loud. Again, it’s a productivity device.

Thanks to its standard Ultrabook components, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon didn’t surprise on my real-world performance test, which involves using the Handrake utility to encode the 4K video Tears of Steel to 1080p. The X1 accomplished this task in 1:40:21, about the same as the similarly-configured HP Spectre x360 15 (1:39:33) As expected.

As unsurprising, the X1’s performance in day-to-day productivity usage—Chrome, Microsoft Office, Photoshop Elements, and the like—was excellent. Like other thin and light PCs, the X1 emits a bit of fan noise from time to time, but it’s not objectionable. But do be careful of the where you use the device, as it pulls cool air in from its bottom. It never got overly hot on a normal desk or table surface.

Keyboard, TrackPoint, ClickPad, and fingerprint reader

ThinkPads have long been renowned for their keyboards, and the X1 Carbon doesn’t disappoint. This is one of the very best PC keyboards I’ve ever used, and it’s on par with, if not better than, the keyboards in the Microsoft Surface Book and HP Spectre x360. It offers near-perfect key feel and pitch, with great feedback and an error-free typing experience.

A couple of comments about the keyboard layout. The PrtSc (“Printscreen”) key is in an odd location to the right of the SPACE and (right) ALT keys, but at least it’s there and doesn’t require a multi-key shortcut to use. The X1 includes dedicated Home, End, PgUp, and PgDown keys, too, which I love: Not all portable PCs offer these.

One oddity: Lenovo reverses the positions of the Fn (Function) and CTRL keys so that the Fn key, and not CTRL, is in the lower right of the keyboard. Most will simply get used to this, but you can also switch their positions virtually using a bundled software utility which I took advantage of.

As with previous X1 devices, the 2107 X1 Carbon includes both a TrackPoint nubbin-style pointer and a glass ClickPad, and both are excellent. I’ve long preferred the TrackPoint to all other pointing devices. And the ClickPad utilizes Microsoft’s excellent precision touchpad technology, meaning, among other things, that no hokey third-party utilities are required for configuration. ThinkPad fans will note that Lenovo has updated the design of the ClickPad this year, too, with a better button layout and crisper and quieter operation.

(And yes, if you don’t like the TrackPoint, you heathen, you can disable it. Please don’t.)

All 2017 ThinkPad X1 Carbon models ship with an integrated fingerprint reader, which is located to the top right of the ClickPad. This fingerprint reader is fast and accurate, and is my favorite method of signing in to Windows 10, via Windows Hello.

Battery

The ThinkPad X1 Carbon delivered about 8 hours and 14 minutes of battery life in my 1080p video streaming test over Wi-Fi, putting it about dead even with the HP EliteBook x360 (8:18), which makes senses due to their internal and display similarities. I suspect the optional 2560 x 1440 display option, which I did not test, would cut into this life a bit.

In real world terms, what this means is that the X1 Carbon, with its 57Wh battery, has enough juice to get you through a typical day of productivity work. And thanks to its rapid-charge capabilities, you can get back up and running more quickly than before: The X1 Carbon can achieve 80 percent capacity in just 60 minutes.

Software

Rejoice, Clean PC fans: Lenovo offers a crapware-free Microsoft Signature software image, meaning it comes without any third-party antivirus or other unnecessary software utilities, and it is certified to meet Microsoft’s demanding standards for boot time and performance. The review X1 came with Windows 10 Pro, but that’s an optional extra: Windows 10 Home is standard.

Lenovo offers only two primary applications on the device, and they’re both excellent. And that, folks, is something I don’t get to write very often about PC maker preinstalled software.

Lenovo Companion is a dashboard, of sorts, for the PC, and it helps you find system updates, monitor the system health, and get suppport when needed. I’ve seen every measure of PC maker software like this, and this is my favorite, by far, with a clean and obvious UI and no superfluous functions.

The Lenovo Settings app, meanwhile, helps you configure features that are unique to this device. For example, there are numerous keyboard-related options, and you can toggle the TrackPoint pointer and swap the Fn and CTRL keys.

I wish every PC maker followed Lenovo’s lead here. These are great apps, and the only crapware on this device is the crapware that come with Windows 10 itself. Shame, Microsoft. Shame.

Pricing and configurations

The ThinkPad X1 series is the most premium of Lenovo’s premium family of products, so you’ll pay for the privilege. A base X1 Carbon with a Core i5 processor, 8 GB of RAM, 128 GB of SATA3-based SSD storage, and Windows 10 Home will set you back a hefty $1469. But my recommended configuration—with a faster 256 GB PCIe-NVMe SSD—is $1669. The review box, with its Core i7 processor, 16 GB of RAM, 512 GB of SSD storage, and Windows 10 Pro would set you back an mind-boggling $2519.

That said, Lenovo never sells anything for those list prices, and you will routinely see savings of at least $150 on the web, and there are regular sales as well. And know, too, that those prices include a three-year warranty with free shipping for service.

There are also some interesting options. For the first time, the 2017 ThinkPad X1 Carbon is available in a silver color if you find the standard black body to be too buttoned-down. (I think the gray looks bland.) And you can upgrade to a higher-resolution—but still IPS/anti-glare—display with a resolution of 2560 x 1440 for an additional $100. Lenovo also offers a WWAN upgrade, and some software choices at purchase time.

Recommendations and conclusions

While there are many premium portable PCs vying for your attention these days, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon is something special. If you can live without multi-touch, it is the perfect companion for any traveling professional or power user with a productivity focus. And it offers what I consider to be the perfect portable PC form factor, with an ideal combination of size, weight, thinness, screen size, battery life, and performance.

The ThinkPad X1 Carbon is highly recommended. This is one of the best PCs I’ve ever used, and it’s the best Ultrabook on the market today, period.

At-a-glance

Pros

  • Portability
  • Premium and professional design
  • Perfect keyboard, TrackPoint, and ClickPad
  • USB 3/Thunderbolt 3 expansion and power
  • Clean Signature software image

Cons

  • No multitouch support, even as an option
  • Expensive

 

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