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Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon review

The brainy professor goes on a diet

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Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon coffeeshop (1024px)
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon coffeeshop (1024px)

Lenovo's made the most of the time since Intel defined the "ultrabook" last fall, releasing a number of different models designed for different users. By and large, the company's done good work, too: we called the ThinkPad U300s the best ultrabook on the market back in November, and the IdeaPad U310 delivers pretty solid value for $799.

But Lenovo saved its best for its latest, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon. The Carbon is the successor to last year's X1, and ticks all the ultrabook boxes, but it tries to go even further and outdo everyone: it's a 14-inch laptop that's barely bigger than a typical 13-inch model, and its carbon fiber body is less than three quarters of an inch thick and weighs all of three pounds. There's no shortage of power inside, either, thanks to a Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD in the base model. Solid specs and excellent design add up to Lenovo's most premium ultrabook to date and also its most expensive: it starts at $1,399 and you can easily pay $500 more.

Lenovo's laid all its cards on the table, and put everything it's got into one machine. Is it enough? Read on.


Video Review

Video Review

Hardware / design

Hardware / design

Who says professional can't be beautiful?

It's been a while since I reviewed a laptop that had people crowding around me, everyone wanting to touch and hold the device. That happened constantly with the X1 Carbon — I spent an inordinate amount of time hunting down the computer hours after someone took it "just to look at it." That's as good a testament as any to how impressive an achievement the Carbon's design really is.

On the one hand, the Carbon is undeniably a ThinkPad — Lenovo's understated black look with a few red accents isn't particularly exciting, but it's handsome in a very professional way. And when it's matched with the matte carbon fiber build of the X1 Carbon, it gets even better. The X1's wedge-shaped body is styled a lot like the MacBook Air, but Lenovo actually improves on the execution: every corner is rounded ever so slightly, and every edge tapers a bit toward the bottom. It gives the X1 a look that's still sharp and modern, but it doesn't dig into your palms and forearms like the Air does.

Dimensions (in.) Thickness Weight (lb.)
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon 13.03 x 8.9 0.74 3.0
Vizio 14-inch Thin + Light (CT-14) 13.3 x 9.2 0.67 3.39
Samsung Series 9 (15-inch, 2012) 12.3 x 8.6 0.5 2.55
HP Envy 14 Spectre 12.88 x 8.7 0.79 3.79
Lenovo IdeaPad U310 13.1 x 8.8 0.7 3.8
Dell XPS 14 (2012) 13.2 x 9.2 0.81 4.6
MacBook Air (2012, 13-inch) 12.8 x 8.94 0.11 - 0.68 2.96
Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A 12.8 x 8.8 0.11 - 0.71 2.86
HP Folio 13 12.54 x 8.67 0.71 3.3

The carbon fiber itself is comfortable and almost rubbery, but it's incredibly sturdy too. Lenovo says it picked the material because it's lighter than aluminum but still as strong, and both claims seem to be true — the X1 Carbon weighs exactly three pounds and is only 0.74 inches thick at its fattest point, but it still feels extremely well-made. Lenovo even boasts that it passes eight different Mil-SPEC tests, which stress-test a laptop in extreme temperatures and situations.

Since everything is black, it can actually be hard to locate the ports on the side of the X1, but there's a decent selection to be found. The right side houses an SD card slot, a Mini DisplayPort, a USB 3.0 port, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. There's a USB 2.0 port on the left, next to a wireless switch and the slot for the power adapter. The rectangular power plug looks a bit like Apple's MagSafe plugs, but sadly it's not magnetic. In a nod to the traveling professional, there's a switch on the left side that shuts off all the device's radios in an Airplane Mode of sorts. Notably absent are an Ethernet port (though there's a USB adapter in the box) and an HDMI port — but the DisplayPort helps to offset that. On the back of all but the base model, there's a SIM card slot that you can use to add 3G data access to your ThinkPad; it worked seamlessly with my AT&T SIM, which is awesome.

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Display / speakers

Display / speakers

For $1,400 I expect 1080p, but at least you can see it outdoors
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One of the features I'd expect from a $1,399 laptop is a 1080p display — most of the Carbon's similarly priced competitors have one, from the Vizio Thin + Light to the Asus Zenbook Prime. The Carbon's resolution is a firm step below, at 1600 x 900 — but as it turns out the spec sheet is really my only complaint. The screen is a matte display, which has pros and cons: you can see the screen outdoors, but colors tend to be ever so slightly dulled. The X1 Carbon's screen doesn't get particularly bright, but since it's matte you don't need blinding brightness to combat reflections and glare. As with most laptop screens, horizontal viewing angles are excellent but if you try to look at the screen from below or above, colors become almost inverted. You'll definitely do some adjusting of the screen's angle before you find a comfortable spot. For my needs, I'll take a matte screen over a glossy one in a heartbeat, but I'd urge you to look at the screen before you buy it.

The display is paired with a sturdy, reliable hinge that stays put at almost any angle — the laptop can even fold completely flat if you're so inclined, though I don't know why you'd be so inclined. You'll need both hands to open the computer, as the base is too light to stay in place while you pry open the screen.

It took me a while to locate the speakers on the X1 Carbon, because they're tiny little slits on the bottom of the device that really don't look anything like speakers. They output pretty good sound, though, and even use the surface the laptop is on to diffuse audio. The two output fairly clear sound with a reasonable stereo effect, and though they won't replace a good set of headphones or external speakers, they're certainly a notch above my MacBook Air's tinny speakers.

Keyboard / touchpad

Keyboard and touchpad

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Death. Taxes. Awesome ThinkPad keyboards. Just as RIM never made a BlackBerry keyboard I didn't like, Lenovo has a history of making excellent laptop keyboards, and the X1 Carbon doesn't disappoint. It uses the same "smile" design as the U310, which spaces out the keys slightly more without placing them any further apart so that they're easier to feel and press. Backlights make the keys easier to see in the dark, and the light can be toggled using the Fn key and the space bar. The keys themselves look a little odd, and I don't love the font for the letters, but neither changes the fact that the X1's keyboard has the perfect amount of travel, the keys feel great, and I can't think of another laptop I've gotten used to typing on so quickly.

Well, save for one thing — I never got used to the fact that the Control and Fn buttons are switched, so that the Fn button is the leftmost key and the Control key is one to the right (it's the same as a MacBook Air, but Control is a much less important key on a Mac). It's different from the U310, and I much prefer it the other way — my pinky always wants to hit the outermost key. The function buttons on the X1 Carbon are also secondary to the F1 or F2 keys, so you have to hit two buttons to change brightness or playback; the U310 does this the other way as well, and I wish the company had left it the same. You can change a lot of this in the BIOS, but it's a bit of work.

Lenovo's keyboard prowess is well-documented, but the company is also starting to figure out how to make a trackpad, which is astonishingly rare among PC manufacturers. The X1 Carbon's glass touchpad is large and smooth, responsive and fast without any of the nasty textures or oddities of most. It's a clickpad, and as a Mac user I appreciated the two-finger right-click capabilities too. Gestures worked well, though there's the tiniest bit of lag on zooming in and out; I suspect that's much more a driver problem than a trackpad problem, though. My biggest problem with nearly every Windows PC I've tested has been the trackpad, and having one that I didn't have to think about made the X1 Carbon all the more appealing. Of course, if you're not into the trackpad at all, Lenovo's telltale TrackPoint nub is present as well — I've never gotten used to it, but I know a lot of people who swear by it.

Lenovo's known for its keyboards, and touchpads might be next
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Software / performance

Software and performance

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The X1 Carbon runs Windows 7, but Lenovo's left its mark all over the operating system — it's not quite a phone-style UI skin, but it's not that far off. There are a number of preloaded Lenovo apps, some of which are inconspicuous and thus forgivable; others are much worse.

Take SimpleTap, a square red icon that lives on the right side of your taskbar. When you click the icon, it opens up a strange touch-optimized interface (strange because the X1 Carbon doesn't have a touchscreen) that gives you access to a bunch of app and website shortcuts, plus redesigned menus for every setting you can think of. Even the power management has been changed completely. Hell, the default background is a picture of the X1 Carbon. I don't mind some of the changes, but Lenovo is way too aggressive with putting its apps and services (and logos and icons) in your face.

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It almost counts as a UI skin

The software appears to affect the X1 Carbon's performance, too. A few times when I was playing a game or watching a movie, whatever I was doing would be forced out of full-screen mode because the Lenovo Solution Center had a message for me — things like "you need to scan for viruses" and "you should do a hardware scan." It took me a dozen tries to run one of our benchmark tests because Lenovo's "helpful" tools kept interrupting it. If you're feeling enterprising, I'd recommend a fresh install of Windows as soon as you get the X1 Carbon out of its box — Lenovo's additions (a nice SugarSync-powered cloud storage app, or a good-looking video conferencing tool) aren't worth the hassle or the clutter.

When you're not being troubled by the software, the X1 Carbon's performance is solid, as good or better than most ultrabooks I've reviewed. I tested the device one step up from its base configuration — my machine had a 1.8GHz Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD. You can get a Core i7 processor and a 256GB SSD, but it'll run you $1,849 and virtually none of the other specs change. And in my experience, the lower-end specs work just fine.

PCMarkVantage 3DMarkVantage
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon 10,913 P2,820
Vizio 15.6-inch Thin + Light (CT15-A2) 11,087 P3,221
Samsung Series 9 (13-inch, NP900X3C) 9,173 P3,071
Acer Aspire S5 12,379 P3,407
Lenovo ThinkPad X230 8,269 P3,159
Dell XPS 14 (2012) 10,227 P4,373
Lenovo IdeaPad U310 6,916 P2,402
Samsung Series 9 (15-inch, NP900X4B) 10,404 P1,693
HP Envy 14 Spectre (early 2012) 9,121 P1,526
Dell XPS 13 10,242 P1,697

When I'm using a computer I'm typically doing some combination of reading, writing, browsing the web, listening to music in Rdio, watching movies in Netflix and Hulu, and of course refreshing The Verge like mad every five seconds. The X1 Carbon handled every combination of those tasks with aplomb, with nary a stutter or slowdown unless I tried to do every single one at the same time — and even then it only slowed a bit. I do wish there were an option to add more than 4GB of RAM because things like Photoshop or video editing are going to trip up the machine a bit more, but as a basic productivity and entertainment workhorse the X1 Carbon's performance doesn't leave much to be desired.

Except for gaming, that is. Let's just make a deal: when I call something an "ultrabook," you should just assume it's terrible for gaming. The X1 Carbon played Just Cause 2 at about 11 frames per second, which feels a lot more like a stop-motion movie than fluid gaming. Older games like Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X fare slightly better, but still fall well short of even a decent experience. If you're a gamer, Intel Integrated HD 4000 graphics should send you fleeing in the other direction.

The Carbon boots in 27 seconds, which doesn't qualify as exceptionally fast but is still a good number. Resume time, on the other hand, is basically zero — by the time I got the lid open (which takes both hands, since it's so light and there's nothing to keep the base steady) there was already something on the screen and my music had started playing again. It felt almost like an iPad in that sense, instantly on when I wanted it.

Battery, noise, heat

Battery life, noise, and heat

I've never wished for a louder computer before
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I discovered the X1 Carbon's biggest flaw about eight hours after taking it out of its box. The first night I had the computer I was sitting on my couch playing video games and watching TV, with the Carbon sitting beside me running benchmark tests. An hour and a few tests later, I went to pick up the laptop to set in on my lap for some more testing and browsing. I dropped it immediately, like I'd grabbed a hot pan off the stove. The X1 Carbon gets really, really hot when it's working hard, to the point where it becomes a problem. It's hottest on the bottom near the back, but even the keys and the palm rest can get hot — and sweaty hands aren't fun while you're on a computer. When the X1 Carbon isn't under serious duress, it's not hot at all, but fire up Photoshop or a game and the temperature spikes.

Excessive heat is often due to overly conservative fans, as the manufacturer tries to curb the machine's noise output. Indeed the X1 Carbon is relatively quiet even as it heats up, but the fans seem to still be purring along; you can actually feel them through the chassis at points, and when the computer is really chugging the whole machine feels like it's vibrating.

There's not much room for a battery inside a 14-inch, three-pound, 0.74-inch laptop, so I can't say I was shocked to find the X1 Carbon's battery life a bit lacking. It lasted 4 hours, 44 minutes on the Verge Battery test, which cycles through a series of websites and high-res images with brightness set at 65 percent. That's not very good for an ultrabook, but there's a silver lining: Lenovo's Rapid Charge technology means the X1 Carbon charges in a serious hurry. I charged from dead to 60 percent in 30 minutes, while I was using the computer. It charged fully in an hour, and would do both faster if I hadn't been using the computer at the time.

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Battery Life
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon 4:44
Vizio 15.6-inch Thin + Light 3:24
Lenovo ThinkPad X230 7:10
Dell XPS 14 (2012) 6:59
Samsung Series 9 (15-inch, early 2012) 6:01
Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A 5:46
MacBook Air (13-inch, mid-2012) 5:34
Lenovo IdeaPad U300s 5:33
Sony VAIO Z (2011) 5:27
Samsung Series 9 (13-inch, mid-2012) 5:19
HP Envy 14 Spectre (early 2012) 5:14
Dell XPS 13 4:55
Lenovo IdeaPad U310 4:32
Acer Aspire S5 4:24

$1,399 is a steep price, even for such beauty

The ThinkPad X1 Carbon is aimed at professionals (and primarily deep-pocketed ones), but this ultrabook definitely has broader appeal. It's one of the most attractive laptops I've ever used, and the combination of light, thin, and excellent materials makes for a device sure to get some jealous looks. Keyboard and trackpad make or break a laptop for me, and the X1 Carbon's combination is among the best I've ever tested on a Windows machine. In general, its performance is also really solid as long as you keep your expectations in check and don't try to play The Witcher 2 while streaming Netflix movies. The most frustrating problem is the software bloat, which is particularly odd for a supposedly business-aimed laptop, but that can be largely undone with some effort.

In a vacuum, the X1 Carbon is my favorite Windows ultrabook yet, at least once you turn off some of Lenovo's crapware and learn to keep the device off your lap. But thanks to a $1,399 price tag, the X1 Carbon has to be viewed in a class with very good (and also good-looking) laptops like the Asus Zenbook Prime, the MacBook Air, or the Samsung Series 9. Competition in that class is fierce, and without a 1080p display or a longer-lasting battery the X1 Carbon has a hard time really standing out.

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