Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Review: Beats MacBook Air – On Paper

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Welcome to the latest (and possibly greatest) attempt by PC makers to unseat the MacBook Air. The ‘ThinkPad X1 Carbon’ 2014 edition is the third generation of Lenovo’s top of the range ultraportable laptop and, on paper at least, it takes Apple’s laptop apart. But what about in practice?

ThinkPad’s have never been known for their looks, but the X1 Carbon is a knock-out. Granted this opinion requires you to accept Lenovo’s respect for the Henry Ford-inspired “any colour as long as it’s black” design, but few laptops are as elegant or tough as the new X1.

Its elegance partly stems from the dimensions. At 13.03-inches long, 8.94-inches wide and 0.79-inches thick (tapering to 0.55-inches) it has virtually the same wafer thin form factor as the Air. It is also lighter at 2.8 lbs (1.27 Kg) compared to the Air’s 2.96 lbs (1.35 Kg).

On top of this the X1 is as tough as old boots. It carries the same rugged matt finish as many ThinkPad’s before it and Lenovo boasts of it passing “US-grade Military tests” including dust, vibration, heat, cold, altitude, water, and humidity.

Don’t confuse this with a truly rugged laptop such as the brick-like Panasonic ToughBook range, but in my month with the X1 it had no problem withstanding drops and splashes that would have finished many ultraportables off.

And yet where the X1 Carbon most catches the eye is its display.

The most remarkable aspect is Lenovo has managed to cram a 14-inch touchscreen display inside the footprint of a 13-inch machine and still keep it as portable as a MacBook Air. Furthermore it is some display with a 2560 x 1440 native resolution (also available in 1600 x 900 pixels) which easily bests the ageing 1440 x 900 in the Air – at least until Apple upgrades it to a Retina Display.

Admittedly the Samsung Activ Book Pro sports an even higher quality screen (3200 x 1800 pixels) but that is almost more of a hindrance than a help with Windows (more of later).

Lenovo has also given the X1 a wide array of spec options. Processors scale up to an Intel Core i7-4600U as well as potentially 8GB RAM, but graphics raise concern using just Intel’s HD Graphics 4400 chip which is a potential weak point.

That aside the rest of the X1 again excels on paper 8.6 hours of battery life won’t top the 13 hours offered by the 13-inch Air, but it still promises a lot. Especially since Lenovo claims the X1 can recover 80% of its battery with just a one hour charge.

Storage options also scale up to a 512GB SSD (double the Air’s 256GB top option) and there’s 802.11ac WiFi backed up by HDMI, two USB 3.0 ports, a mini DisplayPort and mini Ethernet plus Bluetooth 4.0. The ThinkPad’s famous touchpad/trackpoint combo also remains alongside a backlit keyboard and fingerprint scanner.

Next Lenovo pulls out the party tricks. The row of Function keys is ‘adaptive’ allowing them to automatically switch between F keys, common commands (volume/brightness control, cut, paste, etc) and common browser keys (back, refresh, new tab and more).

The 1.3 megapixel webcam also has motion sensors enabling configurable gesture support in programs like PowerPoint for hands-free navigation.

So how does this combination of looks, power and innovation / gimmickry stand up? Unfortunately it is a mixed bag.

Build Quality – I’ve touched upon this already, but the X1 is wonderfully constructed. In fact I’d go as far as saying it is the best built Ultrabook on the market. The 180 degree swivel hinge is rock solid with no hint of movement, there’s no flex in the keyboard, it doesn’t pick up scratches or finger prints easily (though some oil shows up) and it is splash proof.

Display – While pixels aren’t the only measure of panel quality, the X1 has a first rate screen. Being IPS (the same technology used in the iPhone range, Nexus 5 and others) it is incredibly sharp with wide viewing angles and deep blacks making it ideal for watching video, prosumer photography editing and presentations. It also has a matt finish which is very welcome and there’s virtually no reflection which even makes it useable outdoors in bright sunlight.

Processor – My review unit came with a top of the range Intel Core i7-4600U CPU and it breezes through tasks. Granted this is no desktop killer but in combination with its SSD and 8GB RAM, Windows 8 will boot in roughly 10 seconds and you’ll breeze through day-to-day tasks – even with the circa 30 tabs open I usually have in a web browser.

Touchpad / Trackpad – The continued inclusion of the Trackpad will delight long time ThinkPad fans and Lenovo has also come up with a great Touchpad for the X1. It is responsive, accurate and there is a good distinction between left and right button presses. One frustration is pressing the touchpad is noisy and Lenovo would do well to reduce both the range of travel and the intensity of its spring back, but overall it is remains one of the best trackpads on a Windows laptop.

Noise – Lenovo boasts of “re-engineered patented fan blades” and the X1 is one of the coolest and quietest laptops I’ve ever used. Even under significant strain noise from the fan is low and it is silent for the vast majority of use. If noisy laptops bother you then you’ll love the X1.

Keyboard – Lenovo and ThinkPad in particular has long been a gold standard for typing and this remains true here. In fact the action of the X1’s keyboard puts many desktop keyboards to shame and it is a genuine pleasure to type on – excluding one big caveat (more below).

Keyboard Layout – Having aced the keyboard Lenovo has also thrown a big spanner in the works by attempting to be too clever. This has seen it ditch the Caps Lock key for Home/End buttons and it has pushed the backspace/delete keys together. As go to buttons this leads to a lot of frustration and while in my month with the X1 I did adapt, it came only at the expense of damaging my desktop typing.

Adaptive Keys – The concept may be clever, but in reality I found the adaptive keys to be frustrating. Primarily this is because I use a lot of keyboard shortcuts though it often chose the wrong layout for me in different applications and even then misses some obvious layouts such as media controls. You can lock the selection but then I found myself accidentally activating the touch sensitive buttons with the slightest brush – something that would never happen with standard buttons.

Graphics – While the X1’s processor is more than up to the task, Intel’s HD 4400 graphics chip is no powerhouse. Editing large photos is noticeably sluggish and gaming is not on the menu. HD video playback is not a problem, but there is a good reason why the current MacBook Air uses an HD 5000 GPU and Lenovo lags behind here.

Battery Life – This is a biggie: the X1 doesn’t last long. Despite claims of a nine hour battery life my month with the X1 found it rarely, if ever, lasting longer than 5 hours. During heavy usage this fell to little over 4 hours. Compared to the 12-13 hours a 13-inch MacBook Air gets this is woeful and we’ve found most Ultrabooks capable of topping the 6 hour mark. Whether it is the bigger screen, touchscreen or something else to blame this will be a deal breaker for many. Lenovo does promote its ‘Rapid Charge’ functionality which restores 80% of the battery in just an hour’s charging but that’s not much good if you’re on the road.

Gesture Control – much as Lenovo likes to claim this is a useful feature we found it nothing more than a gimmick. Responsiveness to gestures is erratic and everything can be done with either the touchpad or keyboard faster.

Windows 8 – This isn’t a cheap stab at Microsoft as since Windows 8.1 Update 1 the OS scales well to higher resolutions, but the problem is many third party apps don’t. Headliners include the Chrome web browser, Spotify, Photoshop and Dropbox (its menu UI above) which are either shrunk to eye wateringly small size or overblown and blocky. Microsoft needs to find a way to address this in Windows 9 or it will hurt the take-up of high resolution displays.

Value – Given the build quality, durability and high end components (graphics aside) no-one would expect the X1 to be cheap but even then Lenovo’s asking price is jaw dropping.

With an entry level price of $1249 it is $250 more than the entry level 13-inch MacBook Air and with top spec it passes $2,400 – far more than Samsung’s most expensive Activ Book Plus. In fact this makes the X1 more expensive than both MacBook Pro 13-inch and 15-inch models with Retina Displays. And if you want additional ports you’ll need to pay $179 for the ‘One Link’ dock which is an optional extra.

What has caused such a weighty price tag is up for debate. My concern is unhelpful elements like the custom keyboard layout, adaptive function keys and gesture control play a significant part and the laptop would actually be better off without them. $999 to $1,499 is where this laptop should be positioned.

There’s much to love about the ThinkPad X1 Carbon, but there is the distinct feeling Lenovo has gilded the lily. Having virtually perfected the recipe for ThinkPads the company has tried to be clever with the keyboard and webcam and they are arguably backwards steps. Meanwhile core elements like the battery life have seen little improvement while the asking price is astronomical.

In some ways Lenovo has made the best laptop on the market, but what frustrates is in chasing gimmicks the company also seems to have lost focus on more fundamental aspects. This makes the X1 is more of a sideways step from its predecessors than a real step forward.

I am an experienced freelance technology journalist. I have written for Wired, The Next Web, TrustedReviews, The Guardian and the BBC in addition to Forbes. I began in

I am an experienced freelance technology journalist. I have written for Wired, The Next Web, TrustedReviews, The Guardian and the BBC in addition to Forbes. I began in b2b print journalism covering tech companies at the height of the dot com boom and switched to covering consumer technology as the iPod began to take off.

A career highlight for me was being a founding member of TrustedReviews. It started in 2003 and we were repeatedly told websites could not compete with print! Within four years we were purchased by IPC Media (Time Warner’s publishing division) to become its flagship tech title.

What fascinates me are the machinations of technology’s biggest companies. Got a pitch, tip or leak? Contact me on my professional Facebook page. I don’t bite.