Last year, Lenovo came out with the Lenovo Thinkpad X1, a laptop that was unprecedented in the company’s history. Lenovo is coming back with a follow-up in the the Lenovo X1 Carbon. The new laptop builds upon the strengths of the original X1, but improves upon just about everything, and that includes the screen size (14”), weight (3lbs) and design.
The Lenovo X1 Carbon has been designed to go beyond Intel’s Ultrabook specifications, and Lenovo claims that it is the lightest 14” computer in world. At just 3lbs it has a weight similar to the Macbook Air 13”. On paper, this looks like a terrific laptop and now we’re going to test it in the real world to see if Lenovo has delivered what we hoped when we first saw the Lenovo X1 Carbon in the flesh.
(As tested) 3rd Generation Intel® Core i5-3427U (1.80 GHz, 3MB L3, 1333MHz FSB)
Windows 7 Pro
14” HD+ Anti-glare (1600×900) (300 nits) “Wide Viewing”
Intel HD Integrated graphics
Up to 8 GB DDR 1333 MHz
128 GB SSD SATA 3
Ethernet via USB dongle, Bluetooth 4.0
Optional 3G WWAN (Ericsson H5321gw)
1xMini DP, 1xCombo Audio, 1xUSB 2.0, 1xUSB 3.0, 1×4-in-1 SD card reader
720P HD webcam
45 Watt-hour battery (sealed) with RapidCharge
13.03” x 8.9” x 0.74”, Starting at 2.998 lbs
External design (very good)
As soon as you hold the Lenovo X1 Carbon you will probably realize that it is a laptop that is very well built. It feels The body doesn’t bend one bit and there is nothing that moves around unless it has been designed that way. The use of Carbon fiber for the body is paying off because the computer feels amazingly durable. The Lenovo X1 Carbon passes many Mil-Spec (military specifications). See below:
- Humidity Relative humidity of 91% to 98% at 20
- Low Temperature -20° Celsius for more than 72 hours
- High Temperature 30° to 60° Celsius over seven cycles of 24-hour duration
- Extreme Temperatures -20° to 60° Celsius over three cycles of 2-hour duration
- Sand 140 mesh silica dust exposure for 6-hour cycles
- Altitude Operation at 15,000 feet
- Vibration Multiple tests while running and turned off
- Mechanical Shock High acceleration and repeated shock pulses over 18 times
The display casing does bend a little and is not completely rigid. I’m not sure that it is actually made of carbon (it doesn’t feel like it), but the surface feels the same – that’s probably because it uses the same “soft touch” paint.
The bottom of the chassis seems made of Carbon, and there are a number of openings to vent the hot air out and bring fresh air in. If it wasn’t for the Windows 7 Pro sticker, the back would be almost pristine.
On the left side, one can find the Power plug which uses a new, rectangular shape. The connector itself looks a bit like a USB port from a distance. It seems sturdier than the typical cylindrical connector. However, it is not as elegant (and safe) as Apple’s “MagSafe” magnetic power connector that disconnects if someone trips on the cable.
The same side also has a USB port that can be used to recharge a smartphone or tablet, even if the laptop is OFF (you can disable this functionality). Finally, there is a “wireless” ON/OFF button that toggles WiFi and Bluetooth.
On the right side, there is a Kensington anti-theft port, one USB 3.0 port, one mini-DisplayPort, one standard audio connector (3.5mm jack) and an 4-in-1 media card slot. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not a lot of ports, but it looks like most thin-and-light laptop users have learned to live that way.
Because the X1 Carbon is also designed to be a great video-conference machine, Lenovo has added specific hardware buttons to control the sound. “Sound OFF/ON”, Volume controls and Microphone Mute/Unmute all have dedicated buttons – that’s great.
Overall, I really like the “soft touch” feel of this carbon design. It is warm and when I put it on my bare skin (because we like shorts in CA…) it’s not ice-cold like my aluminum laptops. The surface is also less prone to scratches, and there is no need for a hard shell protection here. Finally, it also provides excellent grip, which is great to avoid accidental slips etc.
Keyboard (excellent): Upon opening the computer, the keyboard is revealed. Lenovo has managed to improve upon the already incredible keyboard of the original X1 laptop. This one feels just as good but in theory, the pressure and key size have been further improved.
This is without question the best laptop keyboard that I have used. It’s better than my Macbook Pro with Retina display, better than my Samsung Series 9, and I actually like it better than my Logitech Illuminated desktop keyboard – except for the lack of numeric pad and full size arrow keys. Lenovo should make full-size desktop keyboards based on this design. I’d pay $70-100 for it.
Trackpad (excellent): the trackpad size has grown by 37% compared to the previous X1 laptop. It is using glass and provides a great tactile feel. It is just as good as the Macbook Pro series, which I often use as reference in terms of trackpad quality. The size has partially grown to make sure that the Windows 8 experience will be good on Oct 26 when the new OS launches.
Like many laptop vendors, Lenovo supports a number of trackpad gestures that include scrolling, application switching, and many more. The final thing that I really like about the trackpad is the physical left and right “mouse” buttons. On modern trackpads it’s pretty easy to miss the Right click, and it is common to miss a “click and drag”. With those buttons – that’s easy and those actions can be done precisely.
Display (could be better)
The Lenovo X1 Cardon display can fold back very far back, almost at 180 degrees (it may be 176, but it’s close!). While I haven’t found an actual usage for *that much* freedom of motion, I can certainly say that I often wished that my other laptops could do a bit more than they can. Usually, it is in the most uncomfortable situations like tight spaces or working “in the field” that any bit of extra comfort really makes a difference.
When watching videos, the image quality is very good. It’s not really a full HD (1920×1080) screen, but our 1080p video tests looked very nice, especially because you can adjust the vertical angle so well (colors are best when looking at the screen perpendicularly).
When dealing with text, icons and rather ordinary “Windows” stuff, the display could be better. I’m not sure that most people would notice this, but I can see the sub-pixel pattern on the screen when looking at it from a bit less than a couple of feet. This means that when I’m looking at a color that should a “flat grey” for example, I’m seeing a bit of the structure that make up each pixel. That’s pretty unusual, and I was hoping for something better here. This reminds me of the pentile pattern that we sometime see on smartphones.
Lenovo also advertises the “wide” viewing angle of this display. Unfortunately, I don’t think that it is very good. The colors tend to distort/fade pretty quickly when looking at an angle especially from below. This is a common problem with laptops, but this display gets an average score for image quality in my book, but gets good grade for the 1600×900 resolution. The display is a rare weak spot in this Lenovo X1 Carbon.
Sound quality (excellent)
Typically, I don’t build a section for the sound, but I’ve been very impressed with the sound quality of the Lenovo X1 Carbon. It’s great for watching movies, and in a quiet room, even less than 50% of the volume provides a great experience, so there’s margin left in case the environment gets noisy.
The computer doesn’t seem to have a particularly beefy speaker setup, but I suspect that the Dolby Home Theater 4 software has a lot to do with the overall volume and sound quality. It works by processing the audio before it gets to the speaker so that the user gets the best of whatever hardware is available. In any case, it’s impressive for a computer this size.
In terms of performance, the Lenovo X1 Carbon does OK when it comes to pure processor speed, and performs great in overall productivity (as measured by PCMark Vantage), but it is by no means a gaming machine or a graphics workstation, simply because it lacks a discrete graphics chip. But that’s probably OK – typically, thin-and-light laptop users aren’t known for playing Battlefield 3 – I think.
As you can see, the Lenovo X1 is a bit slower (as measured by Geekbench 2.1) than the Vaio S 15” and the (cheaper) Lenovo U310, but I am guessing that this has something to do with how much thinner it is relative to those two. In the chart, the Macbook Pro with Retina display shows up as nearly twice as fast, but it also costs nearly twice as much (more on that later) and weighs nearly 50% more.
The storage system performance is remarkable (measured by PCMark Vantage). Thanks to the use of a solid state drive (SSD), the Lenovo X1 Carbon is the king of the hill alongside the Dell XPS 13. That’s the benefit of having the latest SSD technology.
In terms of gaming (polygonal 3D), the Lenovo X1 Carbon doesn’t do too well (playing Just Cause 2). That’s because it has a graphics processor that is very power efficient, but not very fast. I don’t consider that the gaming experience would be good, at least not without limiting the game resolution or rendering properties significantly. If you really want to play, you will have to sacrifice some eye-candy.
Temperature: to heat up a computer, I recommend using something like Prime95. It’s a really CPU intensive application that will push the CPU to its limit. If you also need to give a workout to the graphics processor (GPU), run a recent game like Battlefield 3.
In this case, I saw how hot the Lenovo laptop would get. While the hot air gets really hot, the laptop felt hot on my lap, but not to the point of feeling too uncomfortable. This is much better than my Macbook Pro with Retina, and for sure, the lack of discrete GPU helps to keep the temperature in check.
Very few customers are actually searching for “absolute performance”, and in most instance, people want something that fulfills a need with a great “bang for the buck”, so let’s check those numbers under a new prism: what’s the relative performance compared to the weigh and price of the Lenovo X1 Carbon?
The Geekbench numbers tell us that the X1 Carbon has relatively good performance for its weight. However, that same performance is relatively more expensive, which is typical from computers that are designed to be super-thin/light. The Samsung 90X3A shares the same traits. The graphics performance reflects a similar trend.
The bottom-line is that if you’re seeking pure CPU or graphics performance, those super-light computers are probably not the right play. The main value of a Lenovo X1 Carbon is the design, portability, typing comfort, and how good it is as an overall productivity tool – including the option of having integrated 3G. In these days where carriers are starting to sell data packages for multiple devices, this cannot be underestimated.
Battery (very good)
With a battery of 46.63Wh (Watt-hour), the Lenovo X1 Carbon is close to the 50Wh of the Macbook Air 13”, so this is pretty good.
I our battery tests (WiFi ON, screen at 9/15), watching one hour of MP4 1080p (6Mbps) movie consumed about 22% of the battery life. This is pretty good, and would translate into something like 4h30 of local video playback.
In an idle state (“Energy saver” mode, screen ON at 9/15, WiFi ON, but no apps are running, just the OS), the Lenovo X1 Carbon consumes about 13% of its battery life per hour, which is about 7 hours in that state. This is a very important metric because when you are doing something like typing text or reading a document, chances are that your computer is in idle mode. In fact while typing, the main processor (CPU) goes to “sleep” in between keystrokes. That’s how fast the computer is relative to our human scale.
RapidCharge (excellent): one of the coolest features of the Lenovo X1 is how fast the battery can charge. Lenovo calls this RapidCharge technology. The idea is that you can get 70% if 30mn and 80% in 35mn. Because battery capacity doesn’t evolve rapidly, quick battery recharge is the next best thing that computer makers can do to improve your usage.
We’ve put these theoretical numbers to the test and here’s what we came up with: it took 36mn for the battery to go from 10% to 80% and another 10mn to reach 90% – this is really good! For reference, the Sony Vaio S takes about twice as much time to reach 90%.
Power brick: I would really like to see better designs for the “power bricks”. We have increasingly smaller laptops and sometime it feels a bit weird that the power supply has something like 20% or more of the overall volume of the computer.
Also, the (power) cable management isn’t great. This is something that we use every single day, and it’s a bit sad to see that Apple and Samsung are the only companies that provide relatively small power supplies, with apple is the only one to have built-in cable management. The X1 Carbon deserves better.
Software / Bloatware (needs improvement)
The Lenovo X1 Carbon came with a number of preinstalled applications like Evernote, Absolute Data Protect, Google Chrome, Intel AppUp, SimpleTap, Nitro Pro, SugarSync… Norton Internet Security. That’s in Addition to Lenovo Mobile Access and Lenovo ThinkVantage (backup).
I realize that pre-installed apps are more often a matter of “marketing deals” than a real focus on the user experience, but while I may be (a little) forgiving in the case of a low-end laptop in which every dollar counts, I am not really in the mood for removing a bunch of apps from a brand new $1499 computer. The customer should not have to do that.
By the time the boot sequence is over, there are 105 processes running in the background on this clean/new Lenovo X1 Carbon. For reference, my main PC has 102 processes running, including Zune, SnagIt, Jing, Iomega Storage Manager, Itunes, Crashplan, and many other things that may one day be added to the Lenovo X1 Carbon as well. I think that Lenovo should ship computers with as few pre installed software as possible.
Webcam (good low-light)
I was pleasantly surprised by the low-light quality of the webcam. This is typically difficult point on most laptops, but Lenovo has tweaked the camera so that it works very decently even in very dim lighting conditions. This is good.
This is so much better than a lot of laptop webcam we’ve seen. Lenovo touts the X1 Carbon as being a good video conference machine, and we can see why. It is.
Overall, the Lenovo X1 Carbon is an amazing work laptop. It has a very sturdy design that is also low-maintenance. It has an awesome keyboard that is unrivaled in my opinion – even my desktop keyboard is jealous of it. The ergonomics are really tuned for professional users and I really appreciate the dedicated sound controls for video conferencing or the near-180 degrees reclining capabilities of the screen. Everything is just great when your work is mainly reading/writing documents, web browsing, do email etc… for a lot of professionals, the Lenovo X1 Carbon is the Nirvana, and I’m not even talking about IT-friendly features..
However, I wish that it had a slightly better screen and a smaller power brick with cable management. This is the only crack in the X1 Carbon armor in my opinion, and I hope that Lenovo will take this into account. Both are things that people use every single day, and they should be improved upon.
The Lenovo is great at what it’s been designed for: businesses. On that turf, there are no other 14” ultra-light that can match this Lenovo laptop, especially if you add 3G wireless to the mix. The Lenovo X1 Carbon is unique.
I hope that this review was useful to you. If there is something that I did not cover, please drop a question in the comments below. I’ll try to reply while I still have the computer set up. If not, I’ll do my best to remember. Hopefully other X1 Caron owners can pitch in as well. If you think that this review was useful, please Like it, and spread the word. Thanks!