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Traveling with the ThinkPad X1 Carbon: The Good and the Bad

There's no better time to visit my parents in Germany than during the country's famous drinking festival. This year I booked tickets with my fiance to see them at the end of September so we could go hiking in the Alps, wander Prague and maybe enjoy a few beverages at Oktoberfest. 

Before I stepped aboard the plane, I ran down my checklist of things to bring. Passport? Not expired yet. Leather pants? Can't go without them. Then the most important thing for any tech journalist: which gadgets to bring. 

For me, what mattered most was bringing the right laptop. My Dell XPS 15 was a strong candidate. It has been a reliable workhorse for the past two years and its relatively compact size means it doesn't take up valuable space in my backpack. But this year I was hoping to travel light, which, at 4.5 pounds, the XPS 15 isn't. 

Luckily, I had just finished reviewing the 2.1-pound Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon and given it a fair heaping of praise (and a darn good 4.5-star rating). Confident that the X1 Carbon was the right laptop for the job, I left my XPS 15 at home and flew to Europe with the ThinkPad. 

Over the next week, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon proved why it's the best ultraportable business laptop on the market. Having said that, I came across a few frustrating shortcomings that could turn some prospective buyers away from the ThinkPad X1 Carbon. 

On the airplane 

I scored some cheap roundtrip tickets with Aer Lingus to go from Newark to Frankfurt with the caveat that I would have a connection in Dublin then take a train from Frankfurt to the town where my family lives (about 2 hours north of Munich). 

As I suspected, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon traveled well. Its slim chassis slipped into the laptop slot in my backpack and took up hardly any of the space I needed for toiletries and fresh pair of clothes after my overnight flight. I hardly felt any weight difference after putting the ThinkPad in my Osprey bag, and the laptop's slender chassis made it easy to quickly slip out of my backpack before I passed through those obtrusive airport security scanners. 

Unfortunately, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon struggled as much as I did with the cramped Airbus A330 that transported us across the Atlantic. The seatback in front of me was so close that I couldn't open the X1 Carbon's large, 14-inch lid more than 90 degrees with it sitting on the tray table.

Unless you have the extra space offered by a cush business-class seat, you're better off taking a tablet to your seat and leaving a laptop in the overhead storage space. In fact, I recently brought Samsung's Galaxy Tab S6 on a domestic flight and enjoyed watching Hot Ones videos I had downloaded from YouTube. 

I ultimately kept the X1 Carbon in my bag and instead used the seat-back entertainment system to watch movies and get owned by my fiance in Tetris.

An excellent work machine (with a few limitations)

Once on solid ground, I was able to use the ThinkPad X1 Carbon to check emails, watch YouTube videos and stream music. 

The ThinkPad X1 Carbon I brought was the base model --- with a Core i5-8265 and 8GB of RAM. Regardless, it performed all of these tasks admirably, without any hint of lag. That much was more or less expected. What caught me off guard was just how convenient the X1 Carbon's Modern Standby feature was in everyday use. 

For those who aren't familiar, Modern Standby is a new sleep feature for Windows 10 that makes a laptop feel more like a mobile phone. So instead of powering down when you close its lid, the laptop will go into a light sleep and stay connected to Wi-Fi. In the case of the X1 Carbon, the screen turned on before I fully opened the lid, and since I never had to reconnect to Wi-Fi, I could go right back to what I had been working on without delay.

I didn't use the X1 Carbon's fantastic keyboard on my trip as much as I did during my review, but it's worth emphasizing just how good it is. I'm baffled by how much key travel Lenovo achieved in a laptop with such a thin chassis.

The ThinkPad X1 Carbon's 14-inch, 1080p display is also great, if unexceptional. I never felt like videos I watched on YouTube were lacking color, nor did I stop to admire them (like I did on the ThinkPad X1 Carbon's optional 4K panel).   

I took the week off to enjoy the unusually temperate September week so I didn't use the X1 Carbon to write any article. My brother, a writer for auto news site Jalopnik, worked remotely for several days and need to use the ThinkPad X1 Carbon to write a 4,500-word review of the 2020 Porsche Taycan after the screen on his old MacBook Air failed. 

"Because my Macbook Air decided to break just when I needed it, I used Phillip's Lenovo X1 Carbon review unit, and thought it was awesome," Dave wrote. "It's incredibly lightweight, but really feels substantial, which is great, because I wrote some of my review while on the go. The laptop also seems responsive and its battery lasts seemingly forever."

Unfortunately, one of the few shortcomings I noted in my X1 Carbon review --- the lack of an SD card reader --- was a deal-breaker for him. Dave frequently travels to car shows and events where he takes photos with his Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ200. Carrying around a USB-to-SD card adapter isn't a compromise he's willing to make. 

He also had some problems going from the trackpad on the MacBook Air to the small touchpad on the X1 Carbon, although it's not clear what exactly was going on with the laptop.  

"My biggest qualms were its lack of an SD card slot (I had to upload my photos to my story  using my mom's laptop), and some issues with—I think—the touchpad," Dave said. "Every now and then, my cursor would move, and I'd find myself typing a few sentences above where I wanted to type. I'm not sure what caused that, but it was annoying."

Final thoughts 

The X1 Carbon earned its stripes during my vacation to Europe, proving that it is indeed the best business laptop around and one of the best ultraportable devices for everyday users. The X1 Carbon offers strong performance, an impressive 1080p display and a world-class keyboard, but the best reason to buy this machine is still for its lightweight yet durable chassis. 

The lack of an SD card slot will rule the ThinkPad X1 Carbon out for content creators who frequently upload photos and videos and aren't about the dongle life. And the X1 Carbon's touchpad is relatively small, especially if you're coming from a Mac.

Regardless, the X1 Carbon is an impressive business laptop and an excellent travel companion. Prost, Lenovo! 

Phillip Tracy is a senior writer at Tom's Guide and Laptop Mag, where he reviews laptops and covers the latest industry news. After graduating with a journalism degree from the University of Texas at Austin, Phillip became a tech reporter at the Daily Dot. There, he wrote reviews for a range of gadgets and covered everything from social media trends to cybersecurity. Prior to that, he wrote for RCR Wireless News and NewBay Media. When he's not tinkering with devices, you can find Phillip playing video games, reading, listening to indie music or watching soccer.