Lenovo ThinkPad Carbon X1 review (2014)

4 out of 5
from £1199

For

Practical matte finish screen, supremely well equipped, very portable, tough carbon fibre construction, trackpad and keyboard comfortable for long periods of use, thin and light

Against

Expensive, keyboard and function key changes will polarise opinion, ThinkPad logo might polarise opinion too, far pricier than a MacBook Air

Serious laptops don't have to be dull anymore. Just a few years ago, we'd have avoided those designed for business folk like we would a swaying drunk on the train - but the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon proves that Ultrabooks fit for business are now good enough for everyday folk to use and show off irony-free.

The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon may be expensive, but it's one of the most alluring alternatives to the MacBook Air if you want more features than Apple can offer. And, as its name suggests, large sections are crafted from carbon fibre which, just like race cars and bikes, makes it lightweight and eye-catching. But is it really worth it?

Design & specs

The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon is a very slim and lightweight machine - much like the carbon laptops of the last few years. Unlike so many other Ultrabook-style devices, though, it doesn't want to look as shiny or metallic as possible. As we've mentioned, it's partly made of carbon fibre, and Lenovo talks big about its ability to resist the elements.

Although we can't follow suit as we're not Royal Marines, Lenovo claims it performs eight separate military specification tests under extreme conditions. Although it's not waterproof, so you can't dunk it in the bath, the X1 Carbon is resistive to spills, dust, heat/cold, humidity, even altitude and vibration (not sure these last two matter too much).

In short: the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon feels about as robust as laptops get. Don't be fooled into thinking this is a simple plastic laptop just because it's not glossy and shiny.

It's also lightweight. We weighed it at 1.39kg on our scales and thanks to its material construction and that portable-friendly 14-inch screen not overdoing things, the X1 Carbon is a good workhorse for those who have to always have their laptop at their side. Or up a mountain somewhere.

It may not be as razor-thin as the thinnest part of the MacBook Air, but it's about as portable. The looks don't give this away, though. You get the classic chunky-style ThinkPad keyboard, and the utilitarian ThinkPad design that always seems to polarise. Some love it, others think its logo resembles the beauty of a toilet plunger. We'll give it one thing, though - ThinkPads certainly aren't copycats and have a distinctive look all of their own. And it says "I mean business" without looking suit and tie business exclusive.

But now that super-serious laptops like this don't have to be as bulky as the collected works of Dickens, what exactly is the difference between a standard Ultrabook and something like the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon?

You get an awful lot more options here. There is no such thing as a cheap Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, with prices starting at £1,999. We've been sent one of the top-end models for review, which lands at a terrifyingly expensive £2050. Yep, over two grand.

Connections & controls

As well as a very capable Intel Core i7-4600U processor and 8GB of RAM (less in lower-spec models), there are little hardware extras strewn about the thing that you don't get in the vast majority of laptops.

There's a fingerprint scanner to the right of the keyboard - some IT departments in big companies still like these - alongside a tiny RJ45 network socket (adapter included) and a mini DisplayPort. And these are on top of the usual HDMI and dual USB 3.0 connectors.

On our particular model there's even a SIM slot hidden on the back edge to give you 4G connectivity on the go, should you need to be connected 24/7. You rarely get this level of connectivity elsewhere, not without jamming in a load of accessories. But in today's tether-friendly smartphone world we're not sure it's a total essential for many.

This year's real hardware upgrade - besides the obvious stuff you get with any annual update and processor bump - is a new approach to function keys. There aren't clicky keys in the top row at all, but a touch-sensitive strip with a display that lights-up different functions depending on the application you're using. A bit like a Wacom tablet. Head into the browser or a media player and you'll see functions that correspond to where you are. So in Internet Explorer you'll get back and refresh buttons, and so on.

Pottering about Windows 8.1 and you'll get the usual brightness and volume controls or, at the touch of a button, a much more traditional row of F-keys. We can only comment about our high-end review machine here, as the sub-£2K models come with Windows 7 Pro according to the UK Lenovo website. Which seems like an oddity in today's touch-based world, especially as all the US models are kitted out with Windows 8.1. We've asked Lenovo for further comment regarding this.

It's a very neat idea, but you do lose that immediate tactile feel of actual buttons. At first it feels like a case of change for its own sake, but force yourself to lean on them and these soft-keys do have their benefits. If only minor ones.

Lenovo has also packed a bunch of gesture commands into the ThinkPad X1 Carbon. For example, you can wave at the front camera to flick through pages in the Kindle app. We'll pass, thanks, but you can at least turn these off.

This gesture obsession feels a little bit overdone because the X1 Carbon already has a good touchscreen, one that we found surprisingly useful when matched with the baked-in gestures of Windows 8.1. The screen bezel sits flat with the display, and its top surface is extremely smooth. Just as important, the laptop's hinge has enough strength to avoid it moving following a simple screen prod.

Display

The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon's display is great too. Our review model has a 2,560 x 1,440 pixel resolution screen, providing the kind of sharpness that is still something of a rarity in laptops. There's also a lower-end 1,600 x 900 pixel version, which will be conspicuously blockier in use. It's a shame the lower spec models don't offer proportional Full HD screens given their price point.

Another nod to the business user: the screen has an extremely effective anti-glare layer that gives it a largely matte finish. For outside use this is a great feature, but does make the screen appear a bit less bright in other conditions than, for example, a MacBook Pro with Retina display. But we'll take that - there are too many reflective surfaces on tablets and laptops these days.

The anti-glare layer also has a slight mottling effect on block areas of white, and our model has a slightly warm cast. It's not unpleasant, but it's probably not pro-colour-balance-worker accurate either.

If you're going to spend 50 per cent of your time with the ThinkPad X1 Carbon watching, you probably want to go for a glossy screen Ultrabook instead, one where the bump in apparent contrast will be heightened. The Lenovo lacks speakers as good as a MacBook either.

Keyboard & trackpad

Lenovo's ThinkPad's aren't generally famed for the productivity benefits of their screens, though. The Carbon is pretty great to work on, but it's the keyboard that gains the most plaudits. Once again, Lenovo comes up with the goods here, albeit with a few caveats.

While a bit shallower than some of Lenovo's others, the X1 Carbon's key movement is much deeper and more defined than just about any other Ultrabook. It's also a good deal quieter than many, replacing that tinny clicky clack of a metal Ultrabook with a deeper, less annoying sound. It may sound silly, but is a good thing if you're going to be clacking away on Facebook Messenger in your lounge while your friends or family watch a movie. Operation is next to silent with normal use too, so you needn't sound like you're firing up a jet engine when working on the train.

And as you'd expect from a two grand laptop, the keyboard is also backlit.

So, what of those caveats we allured to? The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon gets rid of the caps lock, replacing it with small Home and End keys, and the delete and backspace keys are squished together. Some of you will hate these tweaks, so be prepared for some initial typos if you're not used to it.

The cursor inputs are a bit unusual too - if not for Lenovo. You get a little cursor nipple that sits in the middle of the keyboard, as well as a decent-size trackpad. The textured glass top layer of the trackpad gives it a lovely smooth and soft finish, but the button action - just like the keyboard - is huge. Pressing down on the pad for left or right mouse click equivalents almost feels like tapping on a space bar. Like the keyboard layout, it takes some getting used to.

For all its modernisation and braggable portability, the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon still has those pinstripe suit elements. A bad thing? That's up to you. It's more Paul Smith than second hand in its delivery.

Battery

We also found that the Carbon is not among the best in its class when it comes to battery life. Lenovo rates the laptop for nine hours use per charge, which while considerably better than the 2012 X1 Carbon we reviewed, still saw us struggle to get a true full day's work out of it.

Having the i7 version loaded with more features than a New Yorker annual probably didn't help, but even in its most power-efficient iteration, it doesn't get close to the stamina of a MacBook Air or the chunkier ThinkPad X240.

The battery isn't removable either, so if you need 10-plus hours of use away from a socket then look elsewhere. However, if you can get to a socket even just for a brief period of time then Lenovo's RapidCharge battery will take on up to 80 per cent charge in just 30 minutes. It's a great feature.

Verdict

The Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon isn't the right laptop for everyone. If you want to look cool in Starbucks, are out to spend as little as possible or want to play games, you're probably in the wrong place (although the X1 Carbon will breeze through any tasks you throw at it).

However, there are few laptops this portable that you can spec out so comprehensively. While you wouldn't think it from first glance, this laptop is as portable as a 13-inch MacBook Air, but as equipped as a Pro, while offering connectivity options you can't get with 95 per cent of ultra-portable laptops.

It's a globe-trotter's workhorse, and one that also works pretty well as a lounging-around laptop thanks to its decent touchscreen and light weight. We do wish its battery lasted a shade longer, but then again it's not embarrassed by its Windows competition on that front and the RapidCharge feature is great to have - so long as you can reach a plug socket.