Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon ultraportable laptop review

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon

The ThinkPad X1 Carbon, Lenovo's entry for the ultraportable laptop category, was launched in 2012 as a development of the previous year's ThinkPad X1 laptop but this time sporting carbon-fibre parts in its chassis. (See also: best laptops of 2015.)

It was updated last year in 2013, and again this year to form the Lenovo ThinkPad New X1 Carbon for 2014. Various configurations are available, currently starting at £1110 for a basic model that includes a 1600 x 900 TN display and the consumer version of Windows 8.1.

We were loaned the flagship configuration of the ThinkPad X1 Carbon series for review, which Lenovo has given an IPS technology touchscreen display with a very high resolution of 2560 x 1440 pixels. On its 14.0-inch screen this gives a high pixel density of 210 ppi. In order to make the screen legible, Lenovo sets up the ThinkPad with 200-percent scaling in Windows, with the usual mixed usability results.

Powering the laptop is a 1.5 GHz Intel Core i7-4550U processor, a dual-core design with Hyper Threading Technology, and Turbo up to 3.0 GHz for one core. This also takes care of the ThinkPad's graphics, using the chip's built-in Intel HD Graphics 5000 processor.

For storage, this X1 Carbon has a physically small 256 GB Samsung SSD, not mSATA but using the emerging M.2 standard. Unlike the latest MacBooks that exploit the native PCIe bus, this flash drive is still attached to a slower SATA interface.

For memory, the 2014 revision now includes 8 GB as standard on the Core i7 models (while those with Core i5 stay at 4 GB). The 8 GB quota will be plenty for most users of this class of lightweight laptop, although if you did require more, note that there's no increased memory option at time of purchase; and since Lenovo has copied Apple's trick of soldering the RAM to the motherboard, nor can you upgrade it yourself later. (See also: Should I buy a Windows laptop or a Chromebook? Office apps on Chromebook explained.)

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon review: Laptop layout

The chassis has the same layout as the previous generation, with a front that tapers down to a thin edge. The display lid back and chassis top are made from a dark grey composite material, although it doesn't bear the usual cross-woven texture of traditional carbon-fibre panels. Meanwhile the base plate is made of a lightweight and particularly thin metal plate, possibly magnesium-aluminium alloy.

The New X1 Carbon has the same keyboard layout that will be familiar to inveterate users of Lenovo business laptops, with oversized badge-shaped and concave-topped shiny keys. Following the IBM design, it also keeps the red Trackpoint steerer embedded between G, H and B keys. But now that Lenovo has followed the idea of the buttonless trackpad, it has reconfigured the floating pad so that it can be clicked on the back edge as well as the front. This allows Trackpoint users to keep clicking, even without the addtional three buttons that would usually be sited between keyboard and touchpad.

The keyboard's action is unlike many others, with relatively long-travel keys, near-silent operation and a slightly spongey feel. Once you've used it for a while though, we can imagine the experience of typing on this keyboard could become quite moreish.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon

The same cannot be said for the trackpad, which has a slightly rattley feel and sound as you operate it. It also suffers control issues when you try to press-click, as the cursor's movement is not disabled at its corners, leaving the cursor free to wander off course just as you try to click something on-screen.

Overall the lightweight chassis feels vaguely flimsy, with plenty of flex evident when you hold it by opposing corners and gently twist. There's also more ‘give' in the top plate under heavier fingered typing than we find comfortable. (See also: MacBook Pro vs MacBook Air comparison.)

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon review: Ports

On the left of the ThinkPad X1 Carbon are five ports, starting near the back with the special Lenovo charging port (which resembles a rectangular USB port, but trimmed in yellow); HDMI and Mini DisplayPort for piping out video to a monitor or projector; one USB 3.0; and a 3.5 mm headset jack.

To the right is a second USB 3.0 port, and exhaust outlet for hot air extracted by the single cooling fan inside. During our use, the fan was never especially whiny, although it was plainly audible at all times, even with the laptops sat just idle on the desk.

A small proprietary port, resembling a half-height Mini DisplayPort, is to connect Lenovo's ethernet adaptor. Given the 19.3-mm thick case, a real gigabit ethernet port – the compact kind with sprung door – would have been more welcome here than the need for a dongle that will inevitable get forgotten or lost exactly when required.

Additionally to join a network, the X1 Carbon now has 11ac-capable dual-band Wi-Fi, and a two-stream (2x2 MIMO) solution at that for improved range and throughput. (See also: Surface Pro 3 vs MacBook Air comparison review.)

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon review: Lab Report

Intel has done well to provide a level of performance from its latest 1.5 GHz processor that surpass that measured from a mini PC from 2011 with dual-core 2.5 GHz Intel Core i5.

In the Geekbench 3 test of combined CPU and memory speed, single- and multi-core scores were 3075 and 5783 points respectively. That puts the ThinkPad 23 percent faster in single-core mode, and 13 percent faster in multi-core mode, than the reference PC of three years vintage. Not bad for an ultraportable weighing little over 1.4 kg.

Futuremark's PCMark benchmark tests scored the overall performance of the X1 Carbon middlingly well, with the highlight of a respectable 5184 points in version 7 of the test.

PCMark 8 Home returned numbers of 2216 (conventional) and 2301 (accelerated). These scores at around the mid-2000s of point scores are in line with a good budget or midrange full-size laptop.

In the Work module of PCMark 8, it earned 2639 and 3244 points respectively for standard and GPU-accelerated rounds. The notably higher latter score demonstrates how the HD Graphics 5000 can be put to good use to assist some Windows programs.

Graphics performance from the HD Graphics 5000 were found to be satisfactory for some casual light gaming. Using the Batman: Arkham City benchmark test, the ThinkPad could play at one-quarter of its native resolution (1280 x 720) at greater-than-30 frames per second. To wit, at Low and Medium detail it averaged 35 fps (with a minimum at 18 fps); and High detail still allowed an average of 32 fps.

Turned up to 1366 x 768 pixels, framerates of 32 fps were still returned for both Low and Medium details settings.

In Tomb Raider 2013, our lowest setting of 1280 x 720 and Low detail played at an average framerate of 39 fps, but then dropped to just 26 fps with detail nudged up to level Normal.

Setting resolution slightly higher to 1366 x 768, framerates of 36 and 24 fps respectively were possible with Low and Normal detail. Lowest minimum in the latter run was a reasonable 18 fps, although given these results we'd suggest keeping to Low detail at either resolution.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon review: Flash Storage

Lenovo was one of the first Microsoft partners to sell laptop hardware with solid-state drives, and for the X1 Carbon we see a new type of flash drive using M.2 connector. In this case, the storage is still using the Serial ATA bus though, which hinders the technology's potential.

In our measurements of this 256 GB SSD, it could reach maximum sequential read speeds of 504 MB/s, but write speeds of just 257 MB/s. Turning to 4 kB random IO, the tables turned somewhat as reads were recorded at 26 MB/s while writes fell only to 81 MB/s.

Looking at maximum random throughput performance, the SSD could hit 99,000 IOPS reads and 64,000 IOPS writes. These input/output per second results are sterling figures which indicate an agile multitask-capable storage solution.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon review: Display

Lenovo has taken the questionable decision to fit a touchscreen to this executive laptop. In use we found it suffered the typical usability problems of wobbling display when tapped, and erratic operation thereafter; windows sometimes required several taps to minimise and maximise correctly, for example.

Due to the high 200-percent level of screen magnification, the size of icons and screen furniture made them marginally easier targets to hit with a fingertip than, for example, with a 1920 x 1080 14-inch panel running at 100 percent scaling. But here set at 200 percent, the Windows 8 interface also looks even more child-like than is usual with its oversized windows elements – imagine looking at a 14-inch monitor with 1280 x 720 native resolution.

One party trick for the X1 Carbon is being able to open the screen entirely until it lays back flat on the desk. This may be useful for a impromptu meeting, to share what's on screen around a table, although we struggled to find any useful applications for a supine laptop beyond that.

The finish on the screen surface is unusual – a semi-matt film has been applied that goes some way to reducing the annoying reflections of a gloss screen, and which doesn't show up your fingerprints as badly after some touch interaction.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon

Display image quality was mostly good, thanks to IPS technology that here provided wide viewing angles and decent colour reproduction.

However, tested with a Datacolor colorimeter, the ThinkPad's screen was only found to cover 81 percent of the sRGB gamut, and only 60 percent of the Adobe RGB colour space. We would normally expect at least 90 percent sRGB coverage from any high-grade IPS display.

Colour accuracy as measured by 48 spot tones was very good with Delta E average of only 0.84. Contrast ratio was also more in line with a superior IPS panel, peaking at 590:1 at highest brightness settings. Lenovo specifies a maximum brightness at 260 cd/m^2, for the touchscreen edition, although in our tests the ThinkPad couldn't exceed 213 cd/m^2.

But Lenovo also specifies the ThinkPad X1 Carbon as having a battery life of 9 hours. The fine print continues that it's only the company's estimate, based on its interpretation of a seven-year old MobileMark test.

In our real-world testing, given the light load of playing an MPEG-4 HD video on repeat, streamed over Wi-Fi and with screen set to 120 cd/m^2, the ThinkPad New X1 Carbon survived just 5 hour 45 minutes. (See also: 20 best budget laptops.)

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon (2015): Specs

  • 14.0-inch (2560 x 1440, 210 ppi) semi-matt IPS touchscreen display
  • Windows 8.1 Pro
  • 1.5 GHz Intel Core i7-4550U (2C/4T), 3.0 GHz Turbo
  • Intel HD Graphics 5000
  • 8 GB 1600 MHz DDR3L soldered RAM
  • 256 GB M.2 SATA SSD
  • dual-band 802.11ac 2x2 MIMO
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • LTE cellular modem
  • 2x USB 3.0
  • Mini DisplayPort, HDMI
  • 3.5 mm headset jack
  • 1.3 Mp webcam
  • Trackpoint and buttonless touchpad
  • fingerprint reader
  • 45 W mains charger
  • 45 Wh non-removable lithium-polymer battery
  • 330 x 225 x 19.3 mm
  • 1412 g
  • 14.0-inch (2560 x 1440, 210 ppi) semi-matt IPS touchscreen display
  • Windows 8.1 Pro
  • 1.5 GHz Intel Core i7-4550U (2C/4T), 3.0 GHz Turbo
  • Intel HD Graphics 5000
  • 8 GB 1600 MHz DDR3L soldered RAM
  • 256 GB M.2 SATA SSD
  • dual-band 802.11ac 2x2 MIMO
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • LTE cellular modem
  • 2x USB 3.0
  • Mini DisplayPort, HDMI
  • 3.5 mm headset jack
  • 1.3 Mp webcam
  • Trackpoint and buttonless touchpad
  • fingerprint reader
  • 45 W mains charger
  • 45 Wh non-removable lithium-polymer battery
  • 330 x 225 x 19.3 mm
  • 1412 g

OUR VERDICT

There's no denying the portable nature of this thin 'n' light laptop, even if it is undercut in both metrics by a 13.3-inch MacBook Air. The ThinkPad's processor performance is fractionally faster thanks to its 0.1 GHz advantage over the latter, but the overall choice of CPU, operating system and display together compromise the X1 Carbon's battery life to provide less than half that of what's possible. In its favour, the X1 Carbon has better screen image quality and a characterful keyboard that can command a loyal following. Ultimately, the X1 Carbon looks overpriced and more cheaply constructed than the MacBook Air, and moreover loses out against the more affordable MacBook Pro with Retina display.

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