The Lenovo X1 Carbon 2014 follows the step of the previous X1 Carbon (2012) and the original Thinkpad X1. It is thinner, gets much better battery life and incorporates a high-DPI display. Its Carbon construction allows it to be the only 14” laptop that weighs between 2.85Lbs and 3Lbs depending on the version you pick. Nearly all other competitors in this weight range have a smaller 13.3” display, so this is an important difference.
Designed to be effective and robust, the X1 Carbon is supposed to be a low-maintenance / high-productivity laptop, but is that really the case in the real world? I took a unit to many trade shows across a few continents to see how it was to use the Lenovo X1 Carbon 2014 in the real world. Here’s the complete review that lay out my findings.
X1 Carbon Configuration as tested
Display size: 14”
Resolution: 2560 x 1440 (WQHD), 220 PPI
Integrated cellular modem: Yes
OS: Windows 8 x64
Processor: Intel Core i5-4200U 1.6GHz – 2.30GHz
Storage: 128GB SSD
Dimensions: 13 x 8.9 x 0.74”
Weight: 3lbs (from 2.83lbs, depending on versions)
Price: $1479 as tested
The Lenovo X1 Carbon comes with a number of new or interesting features that you may want to pay close attention to:
The Adaptive keyboard makes the design slick and the keyboard more readable and convenient, Lenovo has removed the physical Function buttons at the top row and replaced them with a touch-sensitive strip called Adaptive keyboard. It is a programmable electronic screen that can be changed depending on the context, to fit the most likely used buttons. For instance, while playing movies, it will display media buttons, and while web-surfing, it will display browser navigation buttons. More on that in a bit.
The Carbon construction, as its name indicates, the carbon construction allows it to be the lightest 14” laptop, and its external surface treatment makes it very durable and low-maintenance.
Rapid-charging can replenish the battery from 0 to 80% battery charge much faster than most other laptops. If you can’t hang around a power outlet, this is a big deal.
Before we dig deeper into the review, let me tell you how I use my computers: first, I typically use a very powerful desktop machine when at the office. By far, this is the one that I use the most. However, I do travel quite a bit, so when I’m out I absolutely need a laptop that can get the job done. This doesn’t mean that it needs to be “super-fast”, but rather that it needs to make me as productive as possible: great display, keyboard and trackpad are in the forefront, then storage speed is critical.
If I go for more than one week, I need a machine that is web-development capable, meaning the bigger the screen, the better. For a few days or the occasional local press briefings, a smaller system works great.
The design of the Lenovo X1 Carbon means business, and from the Spartan look to the rugged design, I think that it conveys robustness. It’s not the laptop that you will buy to look pretty at the local cafe. Instead, it is a laptop that is extremely durable and low-maintenance.
I have used it in several continents, and traveled with it quite a bit in a bag full of other gadgets and devices where scratches can happen very easily. In the past, I had to buy plastic cases to protect the aluminum surface of other laptops. With the X1 Carbon, I didn’t even bother and so far, the “soft” paint looks very much like new. In fact the photos in this review have been shot after a couple of months of intense use.
As you handle the X1 Carbon, you will feel that is it very rigid. You won’t be able to twist it, but as you put pressure, there is a little bit of motion happening, so in a sense, it’s not 100% as rigid as the MacBook or the Samsung Series 9. That said, it is well within range and its skin won’t scratch as easily as its metallic competitors.
The display hinges look rock-solid, and let you tilt the display all the way to 180 degrees to lay it flat if you need to share images, or use it collectively on a table. It’s pretty neat to write with your fingers too.
We’re not in the habit of test-torturing gadgets, but some of the specs caught our attention. While this computer did not pass ALL the Mil-Specs tests, Lenovo says that the X1 Carbon has passed a number of them:
- Humidity from 91% to 98%
- -20 degrees Celsius for 72 hours
- 30 to 60 degrees Celsius for 24 hrs (7 cycles)
- -20 to +60 degrees Celsius for 3 cycles of 2 hours
- Mineral dust exposure for 6-hour cycles
- Operation at 15,000 feet
- Vibrations and various mechanical shocks
In addition to those tests, the X1 Carbon has a keyboard and body that are designed to survive a 2 FL Oz liquid spill directly on it. This works because the water is drained away from the keyboard and expelled. This does NOT make it waterproof! I suspect that water poured into the ports would be bad as well. Don’t try it.
The X1 Carbon comes with one USB and one Peripheral (mainly used for Ethernet) port on the right side. The left side features the Power and Dock connector, a full-size HDMI port, a Display Port, another USB connector and finally the 3.5mm audio jack.
Lenovo OneLink Dock
If the X1 Carbon is your main computer, you may want to check out the Lenovo OneLink Dock. I have seen it a couple of times, but I haven’t used it in the real world. The main thing that I like is that there is one connector for Power and ports, which is absolutely great. It is very small too, so that’s a good change from other docks I have seen over the years.
3G Connectivity built-in
Certain models also have a SIM tray to add 3G/4G connectivity built-in. In general, you can always tether your laptop to a cell phone, but if you have the budget for it, having a built-in connection always works better, especially when the wireless situation is a little spotty. Anyone who has been to a busy event like CES Press Day can tell you that the internal modems tend to work better than a tether.
In general, most people can get by without it, but if you want the best/most productive cellular connection possible, this is the way to go. The setup was super-simple, and upon adding the SIM card, I was up and running.
Lenovo is well-known for the quality of their keyboards. We’ve said it for the previous X1, and we’re happy to report that the X1 Carbon 2014 edition also gets a great keyboard with large keys, a chiclet layout and ample space in-between keys to avoid typos of all kinds. If you look closely, you will see that the keys have a slight curvature, which help limit accidental slips.
In the dark, the keyboard is backlit and you can pick a few settings for how intense you want the lighting to be. Typically, I use this option when I’m in a totally dark environment (plane, bed…) versus a dimly lit environment (living room while watching TV).
I did notice that the feel of the keyboard is a bit different from the original Lenovo X1, and from the Thinkpad Yoga Pro (which has the absolute best keyboard @ Lenovo, btw).
Adaptive keyboard: hot or not?
The Adaptive keyboard idea sounds great on paper, but in reality, you have to be mindful of your own use case. Basically, this is great if you do NOT regularly use the Function keys and want a more “visually clean” keyboard.
If you do use the F-keys regularly because you are a developer or because your apps do require them, the adaptive keyboard can become a source of frustration because of the inherent lack of tactile response and the lag between the tap and the action. I do my share of development on the laptop, and I would not recommend it if you are a heavy F-key user.
Overall, the Lenovo X1 Carbon keyboard remains one of the best in the industry, although Lenovo’s own Thinkpad Yoga has the best feel of all. That said, my own “best keyboard chart” would look like this:
- Lenovo Thinkpad Pro
- Lenovo X1 Carbon
- MacBook Pro
After years of keyboard consistency, Lenovo is now heading into new territories and trying new keyboard styles with the Yoga Pro and other laptops. Also, 360-degree foldables have a different set of issues to solve since their keyboards can also become a resting area. Although Lenovo offers good keyboard experience across the board, you have to be more mindful that the user experience of the Yoga 2 Pro keyboard and the X1 Carbon are radically different.
Display (mixed, good++)
The X1 Carbon 2014 comes with several display options. If you’re looking for something conventional, the 1600×900 resolution is a great start. However, if you want to jump on the recent high DPI trend that was started on tablets and phones, we have tested this 2560 x 1440 (WQHD) version of the X1 Carbon.
"THE HIGH RESOLUTION MAKES THINGS MUCH MORE READABLE" This particular screen comes with a matte finish, which is great when working in very bright areas like outdoors or near a window. However, it doesn’t look as sharp and the colors won’t “pop” as much. It uses an IPS panel, so the view angles and colors are generally very good. The maximum brightness of this display is around 300 Nit at the brightest point.
The high resolution is great and makes things much more readable. If you want to learn more about high DPI, I recommend reading my PPI article that explains what the Pixel Per Inch metric is about and how it can make your experience better.
If you want the sharpest display, the Lenovo Yoga Pro 2 or the Samsung Series 9+ are effectively the best options that I have tested thus far. They are both impressive, and the Yoga Pro 2 is unbelievably affordable for this level of quality.
One of the things that make a screen great is the consistency of color rendering and brightness across the surface of the display. On TVs the best way to achieve this is to make the light come from the back, which makes the TV thicker.
"BRIGHTNESS DISTRIBUTION IS NOT WHAT I HAD HOPED" On thin displays, the light tends to come from the sides and it’s hard to maintain the brightness as you get further away from the light source. OLED displays don’t have this challenge because each pixel emits its own light.
In this test, I’m displaying a white image at a brightness of 300 Nit brightness which will show the brightness differences between 9 different zones on the screen (a regular 3×3 grid). 300 is nice and very bright, which makes the differences easier to spot.
From that data, I’m able to visualize the absolute variations, and show you where the brightness fluctuates on the screen. The Lenovo X1 Carbon’s numbers confirm my visual suspicions: the brightness is not as well distributed as I had hoped:
I think that a 30% difference from the top and bottom is more than what I would like to see. At the same time, the overall perceived experience remains surprisingly OK, so it’s not as bad as the numbers would suggest, but this is something that should be improved in the future, and graphic designers may have a problem with something like this.
Is it really possible to have a much better brightness distribution on a laptop? It is! The Surface Pro 3 and the Yoga Pro 2 are two examples of better display brightness distribution. Here’s what their data looks like:
In the same way, we can measure the black levels by displaying a black image at 150 Nit, which is the typical brightness at which I watch my movies. The lower the value, the more “black” the image is. Ideally, it should be zero, but no LCD can achieve that kind of black levels, so “black” is always “gray” — how dark of a gray is the real question.
Image preservation at different angles
Here’s a photo that will show you how brightness and color rendering behaves under different view angles. This is something that is much easier to show than describe, so we’ll be adding these in reviews whenever possible.
Display, wrap up (“good+”)
Overall, I would say that the Lenovo X1 Carbon 2014 display is quite good, but comes with mixed results. Most of its goodness comes from the high DPI resolution, which makes thing very sharp and brings great reading comfort.
At the same time, I wish that the light distribution was better. I don’t think that most users will be very bothered by it, but the Lenovo Yoga Pro 2 is cheaper and has a much more consistent display (although it is not as bright). I would like to see the Yoga 2 Pro screen on the Lenovo X1 Carbon.
The touchpad offers plenty of room to swipe around. I’m not completely sure about what it’s made of, but it is much smoother than it looks and is just as good as a glass trackpad in my opinion. When you press on it, the trackpad has a very distinct mechanical “click” that many people will like very much. It is not too stiff and feels good on day one.
The only piece of feedback that I would give to Lenovo is that the click travel length is probably too long. It is nearly 1mm deep, which is a bit shorter than a keyboard key travel, but for a trackpad, that’s quite a bit. In any case, it doesn’t prevent me from using it well, but I feel like half of that distance with the same “clicky” feel would be perfect. The Yoga 2 Pro takes the opposite approach and features a stiff and short touchpad click.
Performance-wise, the X1 Carbon is well within range of other laptops in its hardware class, which is not surprising. It is a good productivity system which gets good scores in a test like PCMark 7. I’ve seen quite a few score variations while doing some research, and I think that this mostly happens because PC vendors use different brands and types of SSD and memory depending on their suppliers. Although the difference tends to be small, it is possible that they induce some noticeable differences within the same model.
That said, with a 3DMark 11 score of nearly 900, I wouldn’t consider it to be “Gaming” capable, unless you only play casual games, or older games. If you try to load something like Battlefield 3, the frame rate can dip below 25FPS, which many people would not consider to be a good gaming experience.
Our 60mn 1080p MP4 local video test took away 12% of the battery life*, which brings us to a theoretical 8.3 hrs of video playback under those conditions. This is pretty close to the 9hrs that Lenovo claims for the laptop.
I usually like the video test because it’s a pretty decent proxy for general usage: the screen is ON and quite readable, and the CPU works, but isn’t overwhelmed since the decompression is not done in hardware. Also, there is some disk activity, so as a whole you may see this type of battery life for many of your regular productivity or entertainment tasks.
*The test was done with the display set to 150 Nit, WiFi ON, no cellular connectivity, BT OFF.
In theory, the Lenovo X1 Carbon can go from 0% to 80% charge in 1 hour. We’ve put this to the test using the small 20V – 2.25A Lenovo charger (model ADLX45NDC2A). In our case, it took 1 hour and 10 minutes to go from 7% to 87%. Keep in mind that going from 0% to 7% is faster than going from 80% to 87%, so all in all, this is close enough.
This can make a big difference if you have one hour before boarding a plane or heading to an important meeting/event. In fact, we would love it if all laptops could do that.
Conclusion (very good)
The Lenovo X1 Carbon is a great computer for those who seek a laptop that is very durable, productive and comfortable at the same time. I have used it for months during trade shows in many parts of the world, and this computer still looks brand new without visible scratches on the soft skin. I haven’t spilled any liquid on it, but even if I did, it should have survived just fine.
The X1 Carbon proves that toughness does not mean “bulky”. In fact, this is the lightest 14” computer that I know of, and this is a very good thing when I need a larger monitor for development because each additional inch provide precious additional visual comfort.
With an even better display, the X1 would have been nearly perfect. In fact, the display will cost the X1 a possible “excellent” rating, but I still give it a “Very good” rating. Fortunately for Lenovo, a close competitor is the Yoga Pro 2, and if you absolutely want a metal build, the Samsung Series 9+ may be a great alternative.
I hope that this review gave you a good overview of what it is to use the X1 Carbon in the real world. If there’s something specific that you want to know, please leave a comment and I will address it as soon as possible.