ThinkPad has been around for 25 years, and the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon is one of the crown-jewels of the ThinkPad family. In 2017, we are looking at the 5th generation of X1 Carbon laptop, which is positioned to compete in the high-end spectrum of the ultra-portable business laptop.
Lenovo’s pitch sounds tempting: the X1 is designed to be extremely compact and light, not sacrifice computing performance, have excellent connectivity (ports) and extraordinary durability. In this review, we take a closer look and put it to the test.
Configuration as tested
- Core i7 7600U
- 16GB RAM
- 512GB SSD
Industrial Design: lean and tough
The Lenovo X1 Carbon 5th Gen (2017) is an extremely compact ThinkPad laptop. This was made possible because Lenovo has sharply reduced the bezel size on the left and right of the screen down to ~5 millimeters (look at the 2016 X1 Carbon to see the difference!). All in all, Lenovo says that it has reduced the overall footprint by 8%. As a result, you can have a 14” laptop, which feels like how 12.5” laptops were not so long ago.
There are other footprint optimization in many places, but the screen bezels have a significant influence on the overall length and width of the computer.
Lenovo uses the traditional soft paint surface treatment on top of the carbon-fiber and magnesium chassis. This kind of soft surface has served Lenovo very well for some time. All Thinkpad surfaces may look the same from a distance, I have noticed that Lenovo has improved the soft touch material over the years: it seems to less prone to fingerprints, and it is tough against wear and tear.
Aluminum chassis are friendly to the eyes and smooth (and slippery) the touch, but they also tend to scratch very easily, which is why clostly protective cases/adhesives sell so well for some models. With the Thinkpad soft surface provides an excellent grip and the laptop looks good even after months or care-free usage at tradeshows and travel."THE THINKPAD X1 CARBON HAS PASSED THE STD-810 MILITARY CERTIFICATION"
Some variants of Carbon Fiber can offer 2X to 5X the rigidity of Aluminum and Steel (for the same weight). In general, Carbon Fiber is used to remove weight while keeping the same level of sturdiness. In general, the exact type of carbon fiber is not revealed by the device manufacturer, so we don’t know the strength ratio in this case. If you are curious, read this Aluminum vs Carbon article.
The Lenovo X1 Carbon is very rigid and won’t twist or bend. The ThinkPad X1 Carbon also passes 12 military MIL-810-G certifications for drops and shocks. These tests are designed to make sure that military hardware can survive the vibrations and shocks during transport in the field. That’s an excellent proxy for civilian travel.
It is a level of endurance that most laptops would not pass. Lenovo has 200 additional durability tests which are part of the quality evaluation. I visited one of Lenovo’s QA labs in China a couple of years ago, and the array of tests was impressive. Unfortunately, we could not take photos, let alone record videos.
Lenovo now has a silver version available, in addition to the traditional black color. The silver one doesn’t look like Aluminum (because it is not), but it offers higher contrast for keyboard keys (I like that, but you may not care), and a different look.
Keyboard, Trackpad, and TrackPointThe ThinkPad keyboard and TrackPoint are iconic ThinkPad elements that keep customers coming back. There have been many variations over time, but the level of comfort and quality is extremely high with this X1 Carbon. By the way, I like how the Power button is placed above the keyboard, and not on the right/left sides."THE LEVEL OF COMFORT AND QUALITY IS EXTREMELY HIGH"
The high-quality user experience of the spill-resistant keyboard is due to several factors. First, the keys are made with a material that doesn’t let the keys become greasy and slippery. I am talking about ordinary finger-sweat here, and not burger joint grease. Secondly, the keys have a slightly curved shape, so even if you don’t press right at the center, the force will be directed towards the middle of the key (“self-centering”).
Finally, the keyboard is backlit, and the key-travel is long (~1.3mm estimated) which makes the tactile feel is excellent. If you can, type on one for a few minutes, and you will see. I always encourage potential laptop buyers to pay particular attention to the keyboard and trackpad since you use them *every time*, and this is very much a matter of personal preferences.
The trackpad is large enough (100x57mm) with a surface area of 8.83 sq-inch. This is not the largest trackpad on the market, but one that is most definitely comfortable enough for the large majority of users.
Windows offers some gestures, and we consider that this trackpad is large enough to perform them with ease. There’s no argument that a more massive trackpad may feel more comfortable, but there is also a diminishing return to increasing the trackpad surface area unless you have setup your cursor to move very slowly to require more finesse and precision.
The presence of left and right trackpad physical buttons can be extremely beneficial for operations of click and drag (or drawing) because it is much more precise than press and drag. Click and drag is less prone to a failed action because you didn’t press strong enough. Also, if you get to the edge of the trackpad, you can keep pushing the physical button, which is not possible with press and drag.
Although TrackPoint has been cloned here and there, it mostly remains a Lenovo ThinkPad feature. The main point is that your hands don’t need to move much from the ideal typing position to move the cursor. In short, it might help achieve a faster and more consistent typing. Of course, it is not as accurate as the trackpad in general, so this depends on what you are doing. TrackPoint and TrackPad are not meant to replace one another. I personally don’t use TrackPoint, but many people I know swear by it. It does not hurt to have one.
For such a small computer, the Lenovo X1 Carbon Gen 5 has a lot of ports. On the right, there is one USB-A (3.1 Gen1) along with the 3.5mm audio connector and anti-theft connector.
On the right, you can find two USB-C ThunderBolt 3 (and USB 3.1 Gen2), one USB-A (3.1 Gen1), one full-size HDMI (4096×2160@24Hz max) and one mini-Ethernet connector. Unfortunately, the ThinkPad Ethernet Extension Cable adapter needs to be purchased separately, but most people don’t need it.
Note that one USB-C also charges the laptop, while the other can be used to charge your phone. The full-size HDMI is excellent if you connect to HDMI projector on a regular basis because forgetting or losing video dongles is very common. Finally, the mini-Ethernet port is a real Ethernet port and not a USB-to-Ethernet one.
In the back, there is a slot/tray for a SIM card and a microSD card. The SIM card connects the optional Qualcomm X7 LTE modem to a cellular network so you can always be connected. Note that you need to decide at order-time if you want LTE.
As for the microSD card, I would consider that it is more for permanent storage, rather than to transfer data from your camera to the laptop. It is possible, but manipulating the tray often is not something that I would enjoy doing.
There is a fingerprint reader if you want to log into the computer with Windows Hello. It works well, and I like the convenience. The fingerprint makes it possible to use a strong password without dealing with the hassle of typing it every time you come back to your computer.
The fingerprint reader has a self-contained security island, which means that the biometric data stays inside and always encrypted. It is hard to believe, but we’ve seen examples of fingerprint readers that would save the fingerprint image in a unsecure location in memory or even on disk. That is why the island is worth mentioning.
The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 5 (2017) is designed to be opened at the bottom side. After removing five sturdy screws, users can access the components inside. The (M.2) SSD is the only part that I consider to be user-replaceable, but the overall setup seems to make repairs easy. The LPDDR3 RAM modules are soldered on the motherboard, so you need to pick order time and stick with it.
The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon has an IPS LCD screen with a matte finish and a brightness of ~300 NITs. The minimum resolution is 1080p (1920×1080 aka FHD), but there is a $100 upgrade for a 2560×1440 resolution.
The 300 NIT brightness is quite typical for laptops. The main concern about brightness here is the ability to work outdoors or near bright lights. ~300 NIT is sufficient, but not comfortable in that scenario. The Matte finish of the screen helps because it will avoid having blinding reflections.
It is not possible to entirely avoid reflections, but minimizing them helps quite a bit. The downside of a matte display is that colors may look a little bit less saturated, and the image may appear a bit less sharp. This is a matter of preferences, so you may want to check one out if you are unsure. I don’t mind either way.
The display doesn’t rotate 360-degree, but it does open to 180-degree. 360-degrees laptops can be very convenient, but for many people, 180-degrees is totally fine.
I found the display image quality to be very good, although the competition at this price range is within the same range and occasionally a bit better perhaps. If you want a noticeably better image quality, the ThinkPad X1 YOGA OLED might be worth considering. There are also more creative-oriented and workstation laptops that may have calibrated displays, but they tend to be larger computers designed to work at a desk.
Learn more: LCD vs. OLED, which is best?
Unlike the X1 Yoga, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon does not have a touch display. Without a doubt, the two models expand the overall X-Series’ reach while being sharply different from one another. Users who need Pen and touch support can opt for the X1 Yoga, while those who want a smaller, non-touch X1 will pick the Carbon. I like having a touch-display, but other people don’t care for them. That is your choice.
There are several flavors of X1 Carbon Gen5, and the CPU options are:
- Core i5-7200U (3.1GHz, 3MB)
- Core i5-7300U (3.5 GHz, 3MB)
- Core i7-7500U (3.5 GHz, 4MB)
- Core i7-7600U (3.9 GHz, 4MB).
All these processors are from the 7th Intel Core generation, and the main difference between them is the maximum frequency and cache size. They are all dual-core processors and have a 15W TDP (Thermal Design Point). The GHz speed above represents the maximum frequency, when in “Turbo Mode.”
I’ve looked at CPU synthetic performance for you, and the bottom-line is this: The i5-7200U is noticeably slower. However, the difference between the Core i5-7300U and the Core i7-7600U isn’t very high (compare i5 7300U vs. i7 7600U, scroll down for benchmarks charts). The difference between i7 7500U vs. i7 7600I is relatively small.
Interestingly, synthetic benchmarks show that the Core i7-7500U is a bit slower than the Core i5-7300U. In the end, the Core i5-7300U version seems like an excellent choice for most people and is substantially less expensive. Lenovo has a lot of upgrade options in this ultralight business laptop category.
"A LOT OF UPGRADE OPTIONS"With the CPU savings I recommend, you can select many interesting upgrades. For example, a $100 extra will push your display resolution from 1920×1080 to 2560×1440. If you care about text sharpness and don’t mind the extra power consumption, it’s nice.
$80 will give you double the RAM, going from 8GB to 16GB. $200 extra pushes internal storage from 256Gb to 512GB, and the 1TB option is $300, coming from the base 256GB of SSD PCIe-NVMe storage. At publishing time, these were the upgrades you could get:
$80: RAM from 8GB to 16GB
$100: Display 1920×1080 to 2560×1440
$200: 256GB to 512GB SDD
$300: 256GB to 1TB SDD (read my SSD notes in the Performance section as well)
If the CPU performance is close enough, we highly recommend getting more RAM or Storage instead of wanting the highest CPU model. This is a general advice, and it depends on what you are trying to do. However, keep in mind that thermal constraints also limit fast mobile CPUs. If they become too hot, they will slow down (in frequency) to reach a sustainable temperature. High-end CPUs are great for bursts of performance. During sustained workload (10mn+), they could be throttled down to the less-performing CPU levels.
The computing system (CPU+GPU+SSD storage) used in this laptop is quite standard for this form-factor and price range. This means that in relative terms, it is competitive with other computers equipped with the same components. In any case, the same “class of computer” should “feel” similar in terms of perceived performance.
There are small differences, but they are typically within normal benchmarking errors or component sampling+sourcing. Keep in mind that PC makers often have multiple sources for memory and storage, so there may be small variations. The overall experience should remains the same."AS FAST AS MASSIVELY LARGER LAPTOPS"
With a score of ~4700 in the PCMark8 Work test (Core i7-7600U), the Lenovo X1 Carbon Gen5 is at the performance level of more massive computers we tested recently, such as the HP Spectre X360 15” (Core i7-7500U).
Clearly, this laptop was not designed to be a gaming laptop. Although the presence of Thunderbolt 3 gives us hope that it might be possible to use an external GPU box, only Lenovo can confirm if that actually works. There are still many compatibility issues for these use cases. That said, if you launch Battlefield 4 at minimum graphics settings, it should be barely playable.
On the storage front, it seems that the 256GB SSD may be a Samsung PM871 with a SATA 6Gbps interface, instead of the PCI-E interface used for the 512GB and 1TB drives. The interface alone would cause a large synthetic performance difference in typical disk benchmarks. In reality, it’s not easy to saturate even the SATA interface, but if you need absolute disk performance, opt for the larger sizes.
Ports and performance
I wanted to highlight the Thunderbolt 3 performance and capabilities here. When you have a laptop, Thunderbolt 3 offers a world of options that even USB 3.1 Gen 2 does not. With has a peak speed of 40 Gbps (vs. 10 Gbps for USB 3.0), Thunderbolt can connect to 4K displays (4096×2304@60Hz) and offer near-internal storage speed with compatible external storage systems. This could radically alter your productivity environment. Finally, Thunderbolt 3 docks offer all sorts of connections, including power and data, with a single cable. Your desktop can look clean and neat.
Transferring files, or working directly from a Thunderbolt 3 external storage can bring large performance gains when compared to USB 3.1 Gen 2 or previous generations.
The Lenovo X1 Carbon comes with a 57 Wh battery capacity, which is excellent for a laptop this size. The best competing laptops hover around ~57 Wh to ~63 Wh of capacity. Although Lenovo claims that it can deliver 15.5 hours of battery life, you should treat this as a “best case scenario” such as watching video from the internal SSD with a dim display setting.
Real-world battery life is impossible to simulate or measure in a way that could reflect your usage. Of course, controlled battery tests can highlight if a PC maker has something horrible (which is very rare), but in general, you should look at a few things: battery capacity, display resolution and brightness and computing platform power consumption (CPU/GPU/storage). In general, most laptops who share those technical characteristics will exhibit similar power draw, and therefore the battery Watt-hour (Wh) capacity becomes the central piece.
Laptops do charge at different speeds, and that could be a worthwhile difference. The Lenovo X1 Carbon charges to 80% capacity in 60 to 70 minutes with the 65W power-supply included in the box. This is very good, and I typically don’t bother charging up all the way to 100% (and wait for 150mn / 2.5 hrs. for that) if I know I can access a wall outlet easily. That is why I urge Lenovo and other PC OEMs to build power-supplies as small as possible, with cable-management if possible.
OEM Power Supplies may not be a problem for long. Not that there’s something wrong with Lenovo’s, but thanks to the USB-C Charging port, it is now possible to use third party chargers that may have a design that fits your lifestyle better. It is also possible to buy and drop a few in places that you go to often: home, office, secondary home, car?
A 1080p display is a good thing from a battery life perspective. Even the higher resolution option doesn’t go overboard with the pixel count.
The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon is an excellent piece of engineering which addresses the business market with core features that have become must-have for many ThinkPad customers: spill-resistance, extreme durability, featherweight and excellent computing power/weight ratio. Lenovo did deliver on its pitch."LENOVO DID DELIVER ON ITS PITCH"
On Lenovo’s site, The ThinkPad X1 starts at ~$1400 and can go to ~$2100 when “fully-loaded” (i7 7600U, 16GB, 1TB SSD). This is not cheap, but if you are looking at a laptop with the capabilities mentioned above, you will quickly realize that there aren’t a lot of competitors around.
If you leave out the durability or the extra light-weight, the competition will increase. There are more affordable laptops that could be much slower (Core M CPU), or feel like plastic (LG gram). However, this is not the user experience the X1 Carbon was designed for. X1 Carbon users are probably not looking to save a bit at purchase time. Instead, they want a care-free high-performance and durable laptop which can easily withstand frequent travel and in-the-field work conditions.
Warranty1: For frequent travelers, it is worth noting that the “X1 Carbon comes with a standard worldwide warranty (1-3 years, selectable at order time). That means that you can get help in 160 countries. We work around the world so your business can too.” (Lenovo official ThinkPad X1 Gen 5 page)