Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon ultrabook review: Strong, lightweight and elite

Lenovo's latest ultrabook offers fast performance in a stylish carbon-fiber case.

There's no shortage of ultrabooks that offer a 13.3-inch screen, but what if you want a 14-in. display? Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 Carbon pushes the state of the art to create a notebook that provides a lot of mobile power per pound, but its price of $1,349 makes it a bit more expensive than some of its rivals. (As of this writing, the X1 Carbon was due to ship August 24.)

As its name implies, the X1 Carbon's case is made of lightweight carbon fiber, a material usually used in equipment where cost is not a consideration, like fighter jets and Formula One racing cars. It's the perfect material for a laptop, though, because it's as strong as aluminum while weighing one-third as much.

As a result, the 3-lb. X1 Carbon may be the lightest 14-inch ultrabook on the market. It not only matches the weight of the 13-in. Dell XPS 13, but is 2 oz. lighter than the 14-in. Fujitsu Lifebook U772.

One thing I noticed: Although the system is light, its AC adapter is anything but. The X1 Carbon's power pack weighs a hefty 12 oz., nearly double the weight of the Lifebook U772's AC adapter. It adds up to a travel weight of 3.7 lb. -- 3 oz. heavier than the Lifebook.

The X1 Carbon measures 0.7 in. thick in front (matching the Lifebook), but moves up to 0.9 in. at the rear, making for a distinctive wedge-shaped profile. Overall, the system measures 13.0 x 8.9 in.

Inside is Intel's third-generation Core i5 3427U processor along with 4GB RAM and a 128GB solid state drive (SSD); Lenovo sells the same configuration with 8GB RAM for $1,599. A model with a slower Core i5 processor is available for $1,249, while if you want a Core i7 3667U processor with 4GB RAM and Windows 7 Professional instead of Windows 7 Home Premium, a model is available for $1,579.

This being Lenovo, of course, keep in mind that these four base configurations are tweakable. For example, you can increase storage capacity to 256GB for an additional $280, and upgrade from Windows 7 Home Premium to Windows 7 Professional for $50.

Above the screen is an HD webcam for everything from shooting mini-movies to videoconferencing. As with other ultrabooks, there's no room for a DVD drive. While the X1 Carbon doesn't have its own docking station (a few ultrabooks, such as the HP EliteBook Folio 9470m, do), Lenovo is planning to sell a universal docking station sometime this month for $179 that will have five USB 3.0 slots, a pair of DVI outputs for monitors.

A great display

The display uses in-plane switching (IPS) technology and is one of the brightest and richest screens I've seen. It shows 1600 x 900 resolution, a step up from the Lifebook's 1366 x 768 resolution. As with several other ThinkPads, the screen can be folded back so that the entire system is flat; this lets you stow it under a monitor stand with the keyboard sticking out.

The system comes with Intel's HD Graphics 4000 video engine. With 64MB of dedicated video memory, the X1 Carbon can also use up to 1.63GB of the X1 Carbon's system memory, providing access to nearly 1.7GB of video memory.

While the screen looks great, it might be a hassle connecting it on the road to a monitor or projector because the X1 Carbon has neither VGA nor HDMI ports. Instead, it relies exclusively on a Mini DisplayPort connection; Lenovo sells a $35 adapter for VGA work.

Its other ports include one USB 2.0 and one USB 3.0 port, an audio jack and a flash card reader. Like many other ultrabooks, it requires a USB-based adapter to connect with a wired LAN; the dongle comes with the system. Along with Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11n Wi-Fi, the X1 Carbon has Intel's WiDi technology for wirelessly sending video and audio to a compatible projector, TV or monitor.

In the back is a phone network SIM card slot that connects up with the system's integrated 3G mobile data card, which works with AT&T's HSPA+ network. There's no 4G LTE data option available.

The X1 Carbon has a black keyboard with deeply scalloped keys. The 19.4mm keys are comfortable and responsive with 1.6mm of depth. The system's backlit keyboard should appeal to night owls, but the X1 Carbon doesn't have the overhead light that's on the ThinkPad X230.

The system has both a TrackPoint nub in the middle of the keyboard and a large glass touchpad at the bottom that can work with multi-finger gestures. It's security conscious as well, with a fingerprint scanner, Trusted Platform Module (TPM) and BIOS encryption.

Testing performance

This is a screamer that should satisfy even the most power-hungry travelers. When tested with PassMark Software's PerformanceTest 7.0, it rated a score of 1,618.7 -- 15% higher than the Lifebook U772 (which has the same CPU). On Maxon's CineBench performance test suite, the X1 Carbon scored a 2.58 on the processor test, slightly behind the Lifebook; however, it bettered the Lifebook on the graphics test, scoring 14.49 frames per second. During its performance testing, its case never heated up beyond being warm.

With the system set not to dim the screen, the X1 Carbon's 2,800mAh battery played six videos continuously in sequence from a USB drive for 4 hours and 5 minutes -- 38 minutes shorter than the run time of the Lifebook. This should, however, translate into a full workday of stop-and-go computing. As with many ultrabooks, you can't swap the X1 Carbon's battery for a fresh one.

At a Glance

ThinkPad X1 Carbon

LenovoPrice: $1,349Pros: Lightweight, thin, excellent performance, backlit keyboard, fast charge, 3-year warranty availableCons: Expensive, wired LAN requires USB adapter, no VGA or HDMI ports, can't swap battery

The X1 Carbon has a secret weapon for those who never seem to have enough time to charge their computers. Lenovo's new Rapid Charge technology was, with the system turned off, able get the battery to a 50% charge in 22 minutes, an 84% charge in 35 minutes and a full charge in 50 minutes. When I turned the system on, the X1 Carbon required 62 minutes to get to a full charge.

With a pair of speakers underneath and Dolby Home Theater 4 software, the X1 Carbon sounds surprisingly rich and loud for such a small system. It has a rocker switch for adjusting the volume and mute buttons for the speakers, along with a dual-microphone array.

The X1 Carbon comes with 5GB of free cloud storage and a slew of ThinkPad utilities. Lenovo includes the standard one-year warranty; a three-year warranty is available for $150 more.

Bottom line

At $1,349, Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 Carbon is one of the lightest, most powerful and road-ready laptops available today -- as long as you don't mind a slightly higher price tag.

Brian Nadel is a frequent contributor to Computerworld and the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.

Read more about ultrabooks in Computerworld's Ultrabooks Topic Center.

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