Lenovo's 13-inch ultraportable notebooks have a rich history, dating back to 2008's ThinkPad X300, which broke new ground as the thinnest and lightest 13-inch business notebook of its time. Now, the company has entered the business Ultrabook market with the ThinkPad X1 Carbon (starting at $1,249, $1,349 as configured), a 3-pound ultraportable that promises long battery life and boasts a bright 14-inch screen with a high resolution of 1600 x 900 pixels. Is this business-class Ultrabook the best choice yet for road warriors?
If you love the classic ThinkPad aesthetic like we do, you'll like the look of the X1 Carbon. If you're sick of the understated, raven black chassis we've seen on Lenovo's business notebooks for the past 20 years, you may not be impressed. Still, at just 0.74 inches at its thickest point and a mere 3 pounds, this is the thinnest and lightest ThinkPad we've ever used. This Ultrabook is 0.4 pounds lighter than the 12.5-inch ThinkPad X230 and on a par with the 0.68-inch thick, 3-pound MacBook Air.
Lenovo achieves this light weight by using carbon fiber on both the lid and the roll cage, which sits on the side. The deck and bottom are made from magnesium alloy.
Like the ThinkPad X1 before it, the X1 Carbon is built for durability as it has passed eight different MIL-SPEC tests, including those that measure the ability to operate at extreme temperatures, altitudes and when being hit by sand. However, unlike last year's X1, the X1 Carbon's screen is not made from scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass. The notebook certainly felt durable in our testing, and its soft-touch finish allowed us to hold it by the deck with one hand without feeling like the notebook would slip.
MORE: Top 10 Ultrabooks
Display and Audio
The X1 Carbon's 1600 x 900, 14-inch matte display is truly stunning. Using our light meter, this ThinkPad's screen registered 290 lux, which is brighter than the 1400 x 900 MacBook Air's 268 lux mark and the ultraportable average of 226. However, the ASUS ZenBook Prime and its 1920 x 1080 display returned a stronger measurement of 423 lux.
When we watched a 1080p QuickTime Trailer for "SkyFall," images were sharp and detailed while colors were vibrant, though not quite as rich as on some other notebooks we've tested. Viewing angles were excellent; colors didn't wash out at all, even at 90 degrees to the left or right.
The bottom-mounted speakers provided clean audio that was just loud enough to fill a small room at maximum volume. When we listened to both the bass-heavy "Forget Me Nots" and the guitar-laden "Basketcase," sound was good quality was good enough to substitute for a low-grade stereo. Certainly, the Dolby v. 4 Home Theater software helped, particularly when we switched it into music mode. However, when we tried using the notebook on our lap, the speakers became a bit muffled.
Keyboard and Pointing Stick
The X1 Carbon's island-style, backlit keyboard looks just like those on the recent ThinkPad T430 and W530. Because the chassis is so much thinner, however, Lenovo sacrificed some vertical key travel. Compared to other Ultrabooks, though, we enjoyed typing on the X1 Carbon and loved the feel of the comfortable, soft-touch palmrest under our wrists. On the Ten Thumbs Typing Tutor test, we scored 86 words per minute with a 2 percent error rate, lower than the 92 wpm, 1 percent rate we got on the T430.
The keyboard's backlight has three settings: off, low brightness and high brightness. In our tests, the low-brightness setting was more than adequate and the high-brightness was extremely bright.
As with other ThinkPads, the X1 Carbon has two different pointing devices. The TrackPoint pointing stick is incredibly accurate and comfortable, just as it is on every other recent ThinkPad. We highly recommend the stick because it provides the most accurate means of navigating around the desktop and allows you to move your pointer without taking your fingers off of the homerow.
Those who prefer a touchpad will like the large 4 x 2.4-inch glass touchpad on the ThinkPad X1 Carbon. Unlike Lenovo's other touchpads, which recently have had a textured surface, this pad is completely smooth, and feels so smooth that sometimes we sometimes found our finger slipping too far. However, the pad was incredibly accurate and, despite having integrated buttons, it displayed none of the jumpiness we've seen on some other clickpads. Multitouch gestures such as pinch-to-zoom and three-finger swipe were smooth, but two-finger rotate only worked some of the time.
The Thinkpad X1 Carbon stayed pleasantly cool throughout our tests. After streaming a video for 15 minutes, we measured the touchpad at 77 degrees, the keyboard at 85 degrees and the underside at 92 degrees Fahrenheit. We consider temperatures below 95 degrees comfortable.
In order to make the X1 Carbon so thin, Lenovo had to jettison a few ports. In particular, the lack of an Ethernet connector will irk some business users. In many locations, wired Internet is much more reliable than wireless. Fortunately, Lenovo includes a USB-to-Ethernet dongle, provided you remember to bring it along.
The notebook is equipped with a mini DisplayPort for video out, a 4-in-1 card reader and an audio jack, but just two USB ports, only one of which is USB 3.0 compatible. Business users with older projectors will definitely miss having a VGA port. Despite the limited space, Lenovo made room for a hardware Wi-Fi on/off switch, which just duplicates functionality that's available in Windows already.
Our review unit also had a back-facing SIM card slot, for its integrated 3G WWAN radio. The optional Ericsson H5321gw radio supports service from GSM providers such as T-Mobile.
The X1 Carbon's 1.3-megapixel webcam provided incredibly sharp, bright images even in low light. When we took a picture of our face in a dark area of our living room, our features remained bright and well-defined. The bundled Lenovo Web conferencing software allows you to exert fine control over the dual-array microphones. You can configure them for single or multiple voices and enabling keyboard noise suppression.
With a 1.8-GHz Intel Core i5-3427U processor under the hood and integrated graphics, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon is has all the power you need for productivity tasks such as crunching spreadsheets and transcoding videos. On PCMark07, a benchmark that measures overall performance, the X1 Carbon scored a solid 5,297, well above the 2,854 ultraportable average. This score also beats the 13-inch MacBook Air (4,380), which has the same CPU, and the ZenBook Prime UX31A (4,989).
The 128GB SanDisk SSD booted into Windows 7 in about 30 seconds, 12 seconds faster than the category average, but slower than other Ultrabooks such as the ZenBook Prime (23 seconds) and the Fujitsu LifeBook U772 (27 seconds). It woke from sleep in 2-3 seconds, which is typical for Ultrabooks.
The drive took a modest 1 minute to complete the LAPTOP File Transfer test, which involves copying 4.97GB of mixed-media files. That's a rate of 84.8 MBps, which is about 50 percent faster than the 56 MBps category average, but slow compared to some other SSDs. The MacBook Air completed the test at a rate of 159 MBps, while the Fujitsu LifeBook U772 managed a rate of 121.2 MBps.
When it comes to performing productivity tasks, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon is no slouch. It took a mere 5 minutes and 37 seconds to complete the LAPTOP Spreadsheet Macro test, which involves matching 20,000 names with their addresses in OpenOffice calc. That time is significantly faster than the 8:08 category average, but behind the 2.6-GHz Core i5-3320M-powered ThinkPad X230 (4:29) and the 1.9-GHz Core i7-powered ASUS ZenBook Prime (4:59).
The ThinkPad X1 Carbon can transcode video in the blink of an eye. It took the system just 12 seconds to transcode a 5-minute HD video into iPod touch format using Cyberlink Media Espresso. That's nearly 10 times faster than the 1:57 category average and 18 seconds faster than the ASUS ZenBook Prime UX31A.
With its integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics, the X1 Carbon can handle HD video and casual games just fine. Just don't expect more than that. Lenovo's business Ultrabook scored 517 on 3DMark11, a synthetic graphics benchmark. That's below the 750 category average and the 624 offered by the MacBook Air, as well as the IdeaPad U410 (655) and Toshiba Satellite U845W (614).
When we tried playing "World of Warcraft" on the X1 Carbon, it managed a barely playable 29 frames per second on autodetect settings and an unplayable 14 fps with the special effects turned up. Those rates are worse than the 46/23 fps category averages.
Despite its thin form factor, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon's sealed-in battery provided a strong 7 hours and 45 minutes of endurance on the LAPTOP Battery test. The test involves continuous surfing over Wi-Fi on 40 percent brightness. That's an hour longer than the category average (6:45) and significantly more than the ASUS ZenBook Prime UX31A (6:28) and the ThinkPad X230 with 6-cell battery (6:56).
Unfortunately, Lenovo uses a proprietary power connector on the X1 Carbon that it does not use on any other ThinkPads. This means that universal AC adapters and external batteries such as the Veho Pebble cannot connect to it.
The notebook also features RapidCharge technology, which allows it reach 70 percent charge in just 30 minutes and 100 percent charge in just 90 minutes. In our anecdotal testing, these numbers seemed accurate. We were up to 70 percent roughly half an hour after plugging in.
Software and Warranty
The ThinkPad X1 Carbon comes with the standard set of ThinkVantage utilities you'll find on Lenovo's other business notebooks, including Lenovo Enhanced Recovery and Restore and Lenovo Power Controls. Lenovo Web conferencing allows you to control the dual-array microphones and the webcam to optimize them for video calls.
The Lenovo Fingerprint software allowed us to easily enroll our finger for power-on authentication. Better still, with power-on authentication enabled, the fingerprint reader stays on even when the notebook is off. We were able to cold boot and log into Windows 7 with just one swipe.
Though it provides more benefit for notebooks with touch screens, Lenovo includes its SimpleTap UI. SimpleTap provides three screens of mini-apps that launch popular websites such as Facebook, Paypal and Wikipedia. Though some of the tiles do nothing more than launch their associated sites in a browser window, others, such as the Facebook widget, have their own small windows.
Lenovo backs the ThinkPad X1 Carbon with a standard one-year warranty that includes parts and labor. The company also sells a variety of extended warranties, upgrades to on-site service and accidental damage protection. Upgrading to a three-year depot warranty, for example, costs $119. See how Lenovo fared in our Best & Worst Brands report.
Our review unit of the ThinkPad X1 currently costs $1,349. For that price, you get a 1.8-GHz Core i5-3427U CPU, a 128GB SSD, a 3G radio and 4GB of RAM. For the starting price of $1,249, you get the same configuration, but with a slightly slower 1.7-GHz Core i5-3317U CPU. Spending $1,599 gets you 8GB of RAM with the same CPU as our unit, while $1,579 nets a 2.0-GHz Core i7-3667U CPU.Any configuration can be upgraded to a 256GB SSD for $280, but only the $1,599 configuration has 8GB of RAM.
With its lightweight, durable design, fantastic display and long battery life, Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 Carbon sets a new standard for business ultraportables. A few sacrifices--namely Ethernet and VGA--had to be made in the name of thinness, but we think it's worth the tradeoff. If you want the best business Ultrabook around, the ThinkPad X1 is worth the premium.