Not every portable laptop secretly wants to be a MacBook. No other series quite nails the "not a MacBook" angle like the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, while still providing you with almost all the benefits of a slim and light Apple computer. This is one for the Apple haters out there.
The X1 is smart, more than just a little nerdy, and has some businessy features you just won't find in most other ultra-slim laptops. The moody black look, which seems destined for meetings rather than coffee shop gossip sessions, has its own appeal.
The only real sticking point is the price. At just over £1,400 for the version we're reviewing - and upwards of £2,100 for the version with 4G and 16GB RAM - the X1 is a bona fide wallet-drainer. Is it worth it?
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon review: Design
- Carbon fibre shell, 1.13kgs
- Dimensions: 324 x 217 x 16mm
- Full-size HDMI, 2x USB 3.0, 2x USB-C, 1x microSD
- 1x mini Ethernet port (adaptor included), 4G model available
The design manual for stylish and slim laptops was written years ago and has become a bit of a bible from which only the bold stray. It says: maketh your laptops slim, maketh them out of aluminium and maketh sure everyone's going to know it's aluminium when they look at or touch it.
The Lenovo ThinkPad response is "yeah, whatever". This laptop is made using a carbon fibre reinforced magnesium alloy.
Despite a slightly plasticky appearance, this mix of materials is light, stiff and less prone to obvious scratches than some kinds of metal. In other words: the Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon is a road warrior.
It weighs jus 1.13kg despite having a 14-inch screen. And in this year's model the display surround has been trimmed down to just a few millimetres for even greater portability. It's a real joy to use when out and about.
Those used to more conventional style laptops won't necessarily love how it's made, though. The X1 Carbon has a relatively boxy shape, the lid is as plain as they come bar a little LED on the ThinkPad logo, and the underside doesn't try to hide the seams between the plates that make up the chassis. The join on the underside is even slightly different on one side, which in a lesser laptop might make you think a jolt could make the Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon fall apart. We'll give Lenovo the benefit of the doubt here, though, because this design point seems due to the increasingly unfashionable inclusion of full-size connectors.
While Apple and Asus continue to pare down the plugs you get in their top-end models, the Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon has not only the couple of USB-Cs of rival models but plenty besides too. There's a full-size HDMI, two full-size USBs and a mini Ethernet port (an RJ45 adapter is included).
On the rear there's a tray that holds a microSD card and a nanoSIM too (the latter for the 4G model only). As people who take photos with DSLR and mirrorless cameras all the time, we'd prefer a full-size SD card slot, but it's rare to see a laptop this slim and light pack in such comprehensive connectors.
The Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon means business, and not just in the sense that it's ready to take on a load of boring business meetings.
Lenovo ThinkPad Carbon X1 review: Keyboard and touchpad
- Full-size backlit keyboard with deep key depression
- Built-in fingerprint scanner
- "Nipple" mouse
The other trend-bucking top feature of the Thinkpad X1 Carbon is its keyboard. A deliberate antidote to the continued slimming-down of keyboards elsewhere, the key action here is chunky, well-defined and about as deep as is physically possible in a laptop this thin.
Not everyone seems to understand why people get miffed at companies like Apple and Asus making keyboards with keys that barely depress when you tap them. But it makes a difference if you type thousands of words a day.
Lenovo has kept another ThinkPad staple in the Thinkpad X1 Carbon: a "nipple" mouse. It's the tiny joystick found between the G, H and B keys. Some find this as embarrassing as it sounds, and while it's a bit of a relic, it does let you control the mouse cursor while barely changing your hands from their normal typing position.
It's also why the mouse buttons are above the trackpad rather than below it: they're for the nipple, not the pad. And if there's a part of the Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon that doesn't look that great no matter how you try to sell it, it's this. However, they do work and have a high-quality click just like the keyboard.
The middle button acts as a scroll wheel, if you're wondering.
For those not game for nipple-flicking, there's a standard touchpad below, one with its own physical click, letting you ignore the buttons above. While relatively small, its surface is lovely, with an ultra-smooth textured glass finish that's so fine it feels soft.
Next to the pad there's a fingerprint scanner. These were found in business laptops years and years ago, but they are much more in fashion these days. You just have to place a finger on the recessed pad to get it working. It's not the fastest finger scanner around, but is fairly reliable.
The Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon doesn't, however, have login via the camera. This requires an Intel RealSense camera with IR depth perception, where this laptop just has the one tiny standard webcam above the screen.
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon review: Screen
- 14-inch IPS LCD panel
- Matte finish to avoid reflections
- Full HD resolution (1920 x 1080)
- WQHD IPS (2560 x 1440) 300 nits panel available summer 2017
This raises the question, should the Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon have pretty much everything given its price? This pops up again with the screen.
The X1 Carbon has a very pleasant 14-inch IPS LCD screen, but it's just Full HD. Apple's MacBook Pro 13, the Asus UX330 and higher-end Dell XPS 13 all offer much sharper screens.
You can notice the difference quite easily too. Pixellation on the X1 Carbon is visible from the sort of distances you'll be working from. There is a WQHD 1440p option if you buy direct from Lenovo, but that version isn't available in the UK yet: it's due soon.
Colour is only good rather than super-deeply saturated, too, but in part that's because the Thinkpad X1 Carbon has an ultra-practical matte screen finish rather than the glossy kind. Once again, Lenovo plays the game a little differently, and it makes using the laptop outside a lot easier.
Lenovo ThinkPad Carbon X1 review: Peformance
- Intel Core i5 and i7 processor options (up to 3.5Ghz)
- 8GB DDR3 RAM as standard (to to 16GB available)
- No discrete graphics; Intel HD Graphics 620 as standard
One area where the Thinkpad X1 Carbon is more-or-less totally standard is real-world performance, because there really aren't that many options in a laptop like this. Virtually all high-end style laptops use Intel processors, of either the standard Core series or the lower-power Y-series kind.
The Thinkpad X1 Carbon, thankfully, uses full dual-core Intel Core i-series CPUs. Our review model uses an Intel Core i7-7500U CPU. Some variants also have vPro CPUs, which have extra chops for business users, allowing easy remote access.
It's not hard to imagine old ThinkPad workstation fans scoffing at the idea of using a dual-core CPU like this rather than a far more powerful quad-core one. However, they'd better be prepared for something a lot thicker and heavier than the ThinkPad X1 Carbon.
For light and moderate tasks the X1 Carbon is responsive, fast and powerful enough, in part thanks to its use of all-SSD storage and a reasonable 8GB RAM minimum. It's the 16GB RAM and SSD upgrades that push the X1 Carbon price up closer to £2,000.
No surprise for a laptop that looks as serious as an Excel spreadsheet, the Thinkpad X1 Carbon does not have any particular gaming skills. You get the Intel HD 620 graphics chipset, which is just basic integrated graphics. These days that's enough to make some games a few years old run acceptably at 720p with all the bonus visual effects turned off. However, the latest and greatest games run like a Powerpoint presentation when delivered as they should be played, with the graphics maxed and resolution at 1080p.
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon review: Battery life
- 57Wh battery, lasts over 12hrs per charge
- USB-C recharging for quick top-ups
Core to any laptop with a business focus is longevity. And the X1 Carbon is great in this regard. Charge the laptop using one of the USB-C ports and it quickly tops-up a hefty chunk of charge in just 30 minutes.
Lenovo's bold claim is that the battery lasts for 15.5 hours, which just seems unrealistic in a laptop this thin. Sure enough, we didn't quite get it lasting that long - but it's still a trooper. With light tasks, keeping the display at the sort of level you might use indoors, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon lasts a mammoth 12 hours 30 minutes.
That'll drop down a bit if you tend to open loads of browser windows or start doing more than replying to emails and watching video. However, it's all-day stamina and then some.
The ThinkPad X1 Carbon is a suited and booted style laptop with everything a classy globe-trotter needs. It's slim, tough, ultra-light, powerful and lasts an age between charges.
There's bundles of old-school charm here too, with an excellent firm-action keyboard and proper connections rather than just one connector that many people aren't even using yet.
The price will put some off, though, no doubt about that. It's an intensely expensive laptop in some configs, and one that doesn't go for an overtly immaculate build, disruptive features or greater power than the competition.
But it's still good. Very, very good indeed.
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Alternatives to consider
MacBook Pro 13
If you fancy going with the crowd instead, the MacBook Pro 13 is an undeniably great laptop. However, its approach is the opposite to Lenovo's in several respects. The keyboard is much shallower, the touchpad much larger and high-end models have a touch OLED display above the keyboard. Some people like it, others find it an expensive waste of money. Its higher-resolution screen is more colourful than the ThinkPad X1 Carbon's, but as it is glossy reflections are likely to be more of an issue if you want to use it outdoors.
Read the full article: MacBook Pro review
Dell XPS 13
Few other laptops balance style and substance as well as the XPS 13, and it's a great choice if you want something with more visual pizzazz than the Lenovo. It's also cheaper than the X1 Carbon, although the screen is smaller too.
Both laptops have epic stamina when performing light tasks, but the XPS 13 tends to hold out for up to an hour longer in tests.
Read the full article: Dell XPS 13 review
Microsoft Surface Book
This is another top-end laptop, but one with a different, more varied aims. It's heavier and thicker than the Lenovo, but has a detachable screen, a stylus, and packs-in a dedicated graphics chipset for better gaming performance.
The Surfacebook Pro is even more expensive too, though, and currently uses last-generation Intel CPUs rather than the latest breed.
Read the full article: Microsoft Surface Book review