What happens when you take a classic ThinkPad business notebook, mix it with an Ultrabook and add a generous helping of carbon fiber? You get the all new ThinkPad X1 Carbon: a 14-inch business-class Ultrabook that promises to be a corporate executive's best friend.
When Lenovo announced the thin and light ThinkPad X1 last year many people were critical of the "consumerization" of the business-focused ThinkPad line of notebooks. Now, in the latter half of 2012 the notebook PC industry is overflowing with Ultrabooks designed to meet the serious performance needs of business while keeping notebooks as thin and light (and stylish) as possible. How the PC industry has changed in just one year.
Lenovo's new and improved ThinkPad X1 Carbon promises to deliver on the same ideas of a thin and light business notebook with a stylish appearance but it also answers some of the biggest criticisms about the original X1.
Build and Design
Lenovo took the 13-inch ThinkPad X1 and turned it into a 14-inch Ultrabook in the form of the ThinkPad X1 Carbon. While the old X1 wasn't wildly popular for Lenovo, an increasing percentage of business customers are looking for a 13-inch to 14-inch business laptop with a thin and light design that still delivers serious performance.
The ThinkPad X1 Carbon has a 14-inch screen, but it fits into the footprint of a 13-inch Ultrabook. It comes in at only three pounds and no more than 0.71 inches in height/thickness. Intel's official Ultrabook height requirements are that Ultrabooks with 13-inch displays cannot exceed 18mm (0.71 inches) in height and Ultrabooks with 14-inch and larger displays cannot exceed 21 mm (or 0.82 inches) in height.
In terms of build quality and durability, the X1 Carbon delivers the same classic ThinkPad roll-cage design but using carbon fiber rather than magnesium. Previous ThinkPad designs used a magnesium alloy roll-cage but the X1 Carbon incorporates carbon fiber both in the roll-cage construction as well as the top cover. Carbon fiber can be made as strong as aluminum but with only a third of the weight. Not only that, Lenovo claims the roll-cage inside the X1 Carbon is fifty-percent stronger than magnesium and almost fifty-percent lighter. As a result, the X1 Carbon passes eight separate MIL spec tests (humidity, low temperature, high temperature, extreme temperatures, sand, altitude, vibration and mechanical shock).
One interesting quirk of the design of the X1 Carbon (like the original X1) is that the hinge, although very durable, allows the screen to open until the notebook is perfectly flat. In theory this puts less stress on the hinge in the event of a drop. However, every time I see the X1 Carbon open flat I want to hold it over my head John Cusack style and play a the movie Say Anything on the screen.
A quick look at the bottom of the ThinkPad X1 Carbon reveals little in the way of expansion possibilities. You can unscrew the entire lower half on the chassis and separate it from the rest of the Ultrabook, but it's not as simple as the hard drive or RAM access doors on other ThinkPads. If you want to upgrade the RAM or swap out the wireless card you'll need to be comfortable with taking apart laptops.
Ports and Features
The ThinkPad X1 Carbon features all of its major ports on the left and right sides of the chassis. You get fewer ports than last year's X1 but the X1 Carbon is thinner and lighter. You'll see a 4-in-1 media card reader, headset jack mini DisplayPort and USB 3.0 port on one side of the X1 Carbon, and a power jack, USB 2.0 port and Wi-Fi switch on the other side. This isn't a massive number of ports but it's as good as or better than most 13-inch and 14-inch Ultrabooks. All the port descriptions below are listed from left to right.
Left: AC power jack, powered USB 2.0 and Wi-Fi switch
Right: Media card reader, headset jack, mini-DisplayPort, USB 3.0 port and Kensington lock slot
One convenient port is hidden behind a rubber door on the back edge of the X1 Carbon: the SIM card slot. Now you (or your company's IT manager) can easily connect the X1 Carbon to your wireless data provider of choice (Verizon, AT&T, whatever works best for you and your business). There are no other ports on the back edge of the X1 Carbon because the screen hinge swings down and covers the back of the chassis when the screen lid is in the open position. It's also worth mentioning that the X1 Carbon lacks any dedicated port for a docking station so you're stuck with USB if you want to connect another device to this notebook.
Screen and Speakers
The 14-inch screen on the ThinkPad X1 Carbon is a HD+ (1600 x 900 resolution) matte screen with a backlight rated at 300 nits. The major items of note here are the improved resolution (the old X1 was limited to 1366 x 768) and the matte screen surface.
I cannot thank the team at Lenovo enough for recognizing that working professionals like the option of having a matte screen rather than a glossy screen. Matte screens are easier to read under bright lights or direct sunlight without reflections hurting your eyes. The Corning Gorilla Glass used on the old X1 certainly helped make the display more durable but that glossy surface isn't so useful when you're having trouble reading what's on the screen.
Speaking of reading what is on the screen, the viewing angles on the X1 Carbon's display are good for a standard TN panel but we'd be even happier if this Ultrabook was available with an IPS display (preferably one with a 1080p resolution) so the screen colors don't distort when you tilt the screen forward or back.
Speaker quality is good for a thin business notebook and the maximum volume output is loud enough to fill a large meeting room with clear sound. The audio performance is more than good enough for a basic video conference or webcast and also works fine for watching a Netflix Watch Instantly movie. Lenovo once again teamed up with Dolby to include Dolby Home Theater v4 audio (tuned stereo speakers, headphone output and audio processing software) to deliver a better multimedia experience.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The ThinkPad X1 Carbon comes with the new precision keyboard similar to the keyboard on the old X1 with a few changes. The updated six-row keyboard design was developed and validated using extensive enduser research. Lenovo's goal was to maintain comfort, accuracy, and tactile feedback in a modern island-style keyboard design. The layout provides ample space between each key and the unique key shapes (more rounded on the bottom edges) are patent-pending. The keybaord also features LED backlighting for typing in dark environments. Our only complaint is that the "Home" and "End" keys aren't located near the "Page Up" and "Page Down" keys ... but that's not the end of the world.
We didn't have many pleasant things to say about the buttonless trackpad on the old X1 so we were happy to learn that Lenovo's engineers developed a completely new touchpad for the X1 Carbon. One of the first things you'll notice about the new touchpad is that it's larger than the old one (37% larger than the touchpad on the original X1). It's actually a "clickpad" (a buttonless touchpad surface that lets you click anywhere) with multi-gesture support. Also, the performance of this touchpad is more accurate than the old X1 with 10 times the data throughput from the touchpad to the PC (meaning more accurate tracking of your fingertips). The big secret, however, is the amazing new glass touchpad surface.
Officially, the new touchpad surface was the result of an empirical "hunt" for the ideal touchpad characteristics like feel, sound, and even smudge resistance. Lenovo's solution is a proprietary multi-step formula based on those findings. Unofficially, we'd have to say the new touchpad surface feels like a second skin that has been pre-lubricated for your finger-gliding pleasure.
Sure, that sounds like horrible marketing language from an advertisement for somekind of "marital aid" device ... but it's the best way I can describe how this touchpad surface feels. This touchpad surface is so wonderful that I will actually be "angry" if Lenovo doesn't use it on every notebook going forward. This is as close to perfection as a touchpad surface gets.
Of course, there's also the good old red TrackPoint in the middle of the keyboard with dedicated left, right and middle mouse buttons ... but even diehard TrackPoint users will probably fall in love with the X1 Carbon's touchpad if they just give it a try.
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