For nearly a decade, the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon has been the company’s most iconic thin & light, and we’re reviewing the 9th generation 2021 version this time. The new features that caught my attention include the 16:10 UHD display, the improved Dolby Atmos speaker system, and the 11th Gen Intel Core computing platform.
As tested, our laptop unit has this configuration: Intel Core i7-1165G7 (+ Iris Xe integrated graphics), 16GB of RAM, 512GB SSD (OPAL), and a 4K UHD non-touch display. We’ll go over other configuration options below, but “as tested”, this configuration costs $1865 on Lenovo.com.
However, you can get the same benchmark performance with the 8GB RAM and 256 GB SSD configuration worth $1540, and that’s the baseline price we will use for performance/price ratios.
The ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen9’s design offers core technologies that are attractive to many users as it has a 2.49Lbs weight (only 14.9mm thick), superior durability, and an excellent performance-to-weight ratio.
These traits are desirable to road warriors and executives who can’t afford to experience failure or downtime during business travels.I had laptop failures a couple of times while abroad, and it is miserable when you don’t even have the option of buying a laptop with a QWERTY US keyboard.
The ThinkPad X1 Carbon’s durability is built across several layers. First, the chassis/outer shell is made of very tough carbon fiber and magnesium material, hence the name. The chassis makes it very rigid and protects the internal components.
However, the rigid chassis might still carry shockwaves generated by a drop or rough transportation. That’s why the design also considers vibrations and is certified to pass the military transport MIL-STD-810G certification."CERTIFIED TO PASS THE MILITARY TRANSPORT MIL-STD810G CERTIFICATION"
Finally, the keyboard is spill-proof, and that’s a massive advantage over other laptops that don’t offer the same protection. Spills are one of the most common laptop killers, and this feature is the first line of defense.
The new single-hinge design might help with the overall robustness of the display/chassis, but we don’t have data or tests that can prove it. It does look neat, for sure.
Keyboard and Trackpad
The 9th gen X1 Carbon keyboard has all the hallmarks of a ThinkPad keyboard and is exceptionally comfortable to type on. The curved keys, ample spacing, and long key travel make long working hours more tolerable.
The keys surface coating has the right amount of friction so that your fingertips won’t slip, but it’s not abrasive either. I recently typed on a slightly slippery keyboard, and it was not a great sensation.
The glass trackpad has grown in size and is 10% larger than last year’s model. The ThinkPad physical trackpad buttons are my favorite (trackpad) feature as they are much more precise and accurate than a trackpad “tap.” If you do a lot of click & drag, you will love them too.
For a 2.49 Lbs thin & light, the ports assortment is exceptional. People are used to just having a couple of USB-C ports, but here Lenovo means business, check the port selection:
|2x USB Type C, Thunderbolt 4|
|2x USB Type A, 3.2 Gen1|
|1x Standard HDMI 2.0|
|1x Anti-theft slot (Kensington)|
|1x nano-SIM tray for 5G (optional)|
|1x 3.5mm audio connector|
The USB-A and full-size USB are fantastic options as you are less likely to require a dongle that won’t be there when you need it the most. Thunderbolt 4 is a significant upgrade for people who want multiple 4K monitors, and of course, the full-size HDMI video output is super-convenient for boardroom projectors.
The anti-theft lock will let you attack the laptop to a desk or coffee table. Given the alarming increase in laptop theft in some cities, this simple (but rare) security option could save you quite a bit of money."FOR A 2.49 LBS THIN AND LIGHT, THE PORTS ASSORTMENT IS EXCEPTIONAL"
The secure webcam unlock is my first option, but if your company asks to keep the camera lens closed, the fingerprint sensor is a great backup and doubles as the power button. I preferred the large and round button found in other Lenovo laptops, but there’s probably not enough room on in chassis.
Note that it’s possible to set up the computer to use fingerprint authentication to happen pre-BIOS, not just for Windows authentification. That’s yet another layer of security that competitors might not have.
The quad-speaker sound system works very well, and it’s great to see Lenovo continuously improve the sound quality of the X1 Carbon. Just a few years ago, the ThinkPad audio wasn’t nearly as good, and the ThinkPad design teams delivered audible results from the user (and reviewers) feedback.
The sound is clear and distortion-free. Although not as powerful as Lenovo’s soundbar designs, the speakers are loud enough to comfortably watch a movie or even music clips in a hotel room.
The switch to a 16:10 aspect ratio gives a slight boost in productivity, and we’ll soon review the ThinkPad X1 Titanium, which has a 3:2 aspect ratio (my favorite for work).
Our unit has the UHD (3840×2400) resolution, 500 NITs of brightness, and excellent color reproduction. Lenovo has four display options, including one with the “ThinkPad Privacy Guard” feature that prevents people from glancing at your display’s content from the side.
Lenovo also has a webcam feature to detect if someone is looking at your screen from behind you. According to computer security experts, it is a common way for information to leak out."OVERALL, THAT'S A GREAT ARRAY OF DISPLAY OPTIONS"
Most people will have to choose based on two things: touch (or not) and FHD+ vs. UHD+. FHD+ laptops will have better battery endurance, and that’s the main reason to consider that choice.
Visually, the UHD+ display is better, and we would recommend that one if your work requires very accurate colors. That said, the FHD colors are largely accurate enough for web development, for example. Overall, that’s a great array of display options.
|FHD+ 400-nit, low blue light|
|FHD+ 400-nit multi-touch, low blue light (75% DCI-P3)|
|FHD+ 500-nit with ThinkPad Privacy Guard|
|UHD+ 500-nit, low blue light, and Dolby Vision (100% DCI-P3)|
The webcam is relatively standard and on par with other laptops within this price range. Most mid-range smartphones’ selfie cameras would do better, but a mobile screen isn’t great for conference calls in which you share screens, etc.
Performance-wise, the Intel 11th Gen Core i7-1165G7 brings a very nice boost for single-thread and graphics performance over the 10th generation. As a result, the new Carbon X1 Gen9 sees an appreciable increase in “speed for the price” and “performance per Lbs” compared with previous generations.
In the real world, it means that upgrading from a two years old laptop of the same class will yield noticeable computing improvements and responsiveness. For office applications, you can keep your 2020 laptop and wait it out a bit longer until an upgrade is worth it.
Although the X1 Carbon is not designed to be a “Creative” laptop, its PCMark 10 Creative score is quite good, especially compared to a 2020 hardware platform like the Dell XPS 13 9300, another iconic laptop in the thin & light segment.
In fact, the X1 Carbon’s Creative score isn’t far from the 2020 ThinkPad P1, which is a full-on mobile workstation. It’s possible to configure this computer with 32GB of RAM and 1TB of SSD storage: so much power in a 2.4 Lbs chassis.
The new Intel integrated graphics yields a near 100% graphics performance increase and is acceptable for casual gaming, but this is no “Gaming laptop.” That said the Core i7-1185G7 version of this laptop showed significantly higher graphics speed in the 3DMark TimeSpy test, so keep that in mind (see chart below).
In 2021, Lenovo is getting serious with GPU performance, and the new ThinkPad P1 and X1 Extreme laptops are good examples of that. Stay tuned for these reviews.
If you look at the performance through the lens of weight (portability), the X1 Carbon with the i7-1185G7 brings a significant graphics improvement upon the other SKU we originally tested. For some users, it will be a worthwhile upgrade.
Thanks to the larger 57 Wh battery (vs. 51 Wh previously), the Lenovo X1 Carbon’s battery life can range from 10 hours if you have an FHD display to slightly below 6 hours (estimated) for the 4K UHD version. In our test, the Core i7-1185G7 version scored 10h36mn under continuous office productivity usage (110 NITs brightness).
As usual, we recommend that road warriors opt for an FHD display because that’s a very significant difference in battery life. On the other hand, if you primarily work from an office or hotel room, the higher visual quality of the UHD display is worth it, especially with small text.
The X1 Carbon comes with Lenovo’s small 65W power adapter, which is appreciable since it takes about half the space of older models.
As usual, the X1 Carbon features fast charging, and the speed is in line with other Lenovo laptops. This unit can reach 80% of charge in 60mn, which is decent but not exceptional.
The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen9 remains a reference in the business thin & light market segment. It remains nearly unchallenged in critical aspects such as durability, security, and connectivity (ports) in the 2.5 Lbs category.
These facets of the X1 Carbon design make it a must-have for many business users, and the user-input quality alone might be a “killer” sway factor too.
The new X1 Carbon is extremely attractive by many objective metrics and it isn’t merely defending its corner of the market. With much improved audio and great visual quality, the X1 Carbon can easily attract customers considering other 13” or 14” options within the same price range.