Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Ultrabook review

Lugging around a hefty laptop can feel like a bag full of rocks over the shoulder. Not so with the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, a carbon-fibre chassis laptop with a 14-inch screen that weighs in at 1.4kg.

The Carbon X1’s main audience is the on-the-go business user, but with so much other laptop choice out there - including the Macbook Air and Gigabyte X11 Carbon - is this Lenovo’s feature set as solid as its hardy exterior?

Design

Carbon fibre has a lot going for it. It’s tough - and we’re talking tougher-than-steel kind of tough - and this makes the ThinkPad Carbon X1’s exterior shell super strong. It’s not going to bend, snap or break, short of a getting stuck in a hydraulic press.

Its grey-black colour also looks sublime, yet is minimal enough not to grab too much unwanted attention -though the finish does lend itself to fingerprints, which can be an aesthetic dampener. 

As well as its looks the X1 Carbon is light and super-thin. Its thickest point measures just 18mm, but this comes at the cost of an Ethernet port, which it lacks. There are two USB sockets (one 3.0, the other 2.0), an SD card slot, mini display port and a 3.5mm headphone jack that complete the ins and outs list.

In general we think the X1 Carbon looks like a top laptop, except for the embossed ThinkPad logo that’s on both the front and base interior when the laptop’s open.

Although the logo spells a 20-year-strong heritage it also shows up its 20-year age: perhaps for the 21st birthday there’ll be a refresh? For now it just looks out of date, like someone’s slapped together something in Word art. The Lenovo logo to the X1’s front, and "X1 Carbon" written to the bottom right of the screen are far more subtle and considered design elements. 

Keyboard and Screen

Lift the well-hinged lid and the X1 Carbon reveals a backlight-capable keyboard and trackpad with three mouse-like button controls. There’s even a red-coloured nipple to the centre of the keyboard if that’s more your thing, though after some amounts of tweaking we reverted to the trackpad.

It’s a seriously good trackpad, too. The usual single-finger navigation and two-finger scrolling make getting around the screen extra easy, but it’s the trackpad's wonderful, smooth finish that really makes it.

Typing is equally comfortable, because the keys have just the right amount of give and the backlight - which has a "two stage" brightness activated by using the function key and space bar - means you’ll never struggle to see what’s being typed, whatever the time of day.

So far so good, but it’s the 14-inch, 1600 x 900 resolution screen that lets down the whole X1 Carbon. It’s not so much that the resolution is low - although we’d like to see a 1920 x 1080 HD panel or similarly high density resolution in there - it’s that the individual pixels are visible when looked at closely.

After long periods of use the criss-cross pattern can get a bit brain numbing, a potentially huge problem for some. It’s a shame, as the viewing angle and 15-level brightness aren’t an issue at all, unlike with some competitor laptops. Greedy as we are, we'd like to see all those elements deliver for the cash.

Performance

Ignoring the screen’s letdown and the X1 Carbon that landed at Pocket-lint Towers is a good performer overall. This particular model costs £1,230 and comes with an Intel Core i5-3427U processor that can clock up to 2.8GHz, paired with 8GB of DDR3L RAM and a 128GB Solid State Drive (SSD) for storing all your files.

The X1 does come in a four-part range that starts at £1,040 and extends to £1,330 for different feature sets, or add an extra £96.60 if upgrading to a 256GB SSD. That's as far as upgrading goes however - there's not a lot of scope to add much extra, which is typical of a business-spec Ultrabook.

We’ve been using the X1 Carbon as our work machine for the whole week, which has meant extensive browsing, word processing and some fairly heavy picture cataloguing and manipulation via Photoshop. All coped with without so much as a hiccup.

As so many Steam games aren’t compatible with Apple Macs, having a PC in the office was also a great opportunity to fire up various gaming classics to waste away a few evening hours.

Of course this isn’t a hardened gaming machine, but there’s enough power here to cope, as well as to watch movies, stream content and, importantly, multitask without slow down.

Battery life is dealt with via Lenovo’s power manager system that is, we have to say, awesome. It gives an accurate "time remaining" visual in the bottom Windows 7 bar, or can be opened up to control more-complex settings and balance between longevity and performance.

It’s said to last for  around 6 hours and 20minutes maximum, but we found it to be a couple of hours less than that in real world use, less again when using more-demanding applications or with the brightness right up. Still, three or four hours of use is going to cover a fair chunk of commuting and the X1 Carbon has a rather cool "80 per cent charge in 30minutes" feature to pump the juice back into the battery quickly. Nice.

Verdict

Although it’s fairly pricey considering what’s under the hood, the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon has a lot going for it. It’s tough, thin, light and, ignoring the twice-used ThinkPad logo that mars an otherwise attractive exterior, is an understated good-looker too.

Battery life is reasonable and Lenovo’s power manager system makes longevity vs power even easier to adjust for, while the super-fast "top-up charge" in 30 minutes is excellent too.

After a week of extensive use, we found the X1 Carbon’s trackpad and keyboard very comfortable, but it’s the screen that’s the main letdown. It’s not so much the 1600 x 900 pixel resolution - we’d like Full HD - it’s how visible those pixels are in their gridded formation. It's not so easy on the eyes.

Still, for a casual yet powerful commuter Ultrabook the X1 Carbon has got most things right. It’s attractive without being too showy, its diminutive size makes it the perfect on-the-go companion and, although it's pricey, that carbon fibre exterior should prove rugged and long lasting.