TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 Carbon

The ultrabook's launch may have been marred by pricing issues. But does the ThinkPad X1 Carbon deliver bang for your buck?

Technology Spectator

Lenovo has launched its new ThinkPad X1 Carbon in Australia with the claim that it is the thinnest and lightest 14” ultrabook on the market. Lenovo is also trying to spruik the laptop’s enterprise potential, with a company spokesman telling that "business needs tools not toys”

Yet, despite all of the X1 Carbon’s promise, the reception by local technology press was hostile because the base model RRP was initially announced as being about $700 more than the US street price. However Lenovo claims that the difference is really $290 when both street prices are compared. 

Taking a closer look both sides are partially correct because while the difference in street prices for the ThinkPad X1 Carbon in Australia vs the US is not as big as $700, it’s more than the $290 claimed by Lenovo because the base model in the USA includes integrated 3G Mobile Broadband and the Australian version does not. Also it should be noted that customising a Lenovo laptop purchase by adding higher specification parts is significantly more expensive for Australian buyers than Americans.

Better in black

When it comes to looks for a corporate Lenovo laptop, always bet on black. The ThinkPad X1 Carbon follows this rule yet because it is so slim and has had all the corners slightly rounded off the matte carbon black finish looks quite sleek. 

The Carbon in the name refers to this laptop’s carbon-fibre roll cage and top cover which protect it while being bumped around during everyday use and keep it lightweight at 1.36kg. The X1 Carbon is also very quiet, too quiet really because if its processor is put under heavy load the fans should ideally dissipate heat build-up faster as the base can get quite hot in some areas.

Lenovo says this protection is why the X1 Carbon can pass 8 military standard tests (humidity, low temperature, high temperature, extreme temperatures, sand, altitude, vibration and mechanical shock).

It's all about connectivity

External connectivity is quite limited with a headphone socket, one each of USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 ports, an SD card reader and Mini Displayport. If you need to access a wired network then a Ethernet via USB dongle is included with all X1 Carbon laptops, while this is useful we wish it was USB 3.0. 

If you’re going to use the X1 Carbon a lot in an office environment the ThinkPad USB 3.0 dock may be of use. It allows easy cable management, five USB 3.0 ports and two monitor output(1 DVI digital, one VGA analog/DVI digital). Optional single adaptor cables can be purchased to convert from mini-displayPort to DVI/VGA/displayPort or USB to DVI/VGA. 

The Carbon X1 also excels in terms of its internet connectivity. We stuck a full size Telstra Sim in the back slot for the built in 3G modem and choose Mobile Broadband in the Lenovo Access Connections. After a few seconds we had a solid 7.2Mbps HSPA connection which was quite handy for use while waiting at Sydney airport for a flight and at our Melbourne hotel. Standard WiFi B/G/N is also available

However, by default all 3 wireless radios were on (WiFi, Bluetooth and 3G), which unnecessarily uses power. Press FN F5 to turn them off and on individually or use the hardware toggle switch on the left side of the X1 Carbon to turn them all off or on at once.

Pesky software prompts

During the initial setup process the user is asked if they want to install Symantec Internet Security without making it clear that it’s a 30 day trial. Symantec popups proceeded to keep nagging us to register and buy it until we got quite annoyed and uninstalled it, then installed the unobtrusive Windows Security Essentials instead. 

Finally when the Windows Desktop is displayed for the first time a popup promotion for Google Chrome appears because Google paid Lenovo for it to be the default browser. In the case of Chrome it’s a great browser but as a rule, it would be great if Windows laptop manufacturers stopped accepting payments from software vendors to load their laptops with 30 day trials and nagware.

Easy on the eye

Impressively Lenovo has managed to fit a 14” 1600x900 resolution screen into the body of a laptop similar in size to leading 13” options like the Macbook Air. Thankfully the screen has a matte non-glare finish which makes it much easier to use outdoors or under bright lighting than laptops with a glossy screen. Also unusually the display is able to lie completely flat.

What about the keyboard you ask, is it as good as Lenovo laptops of the past? We’d have to say yes and no. Positives are that it is spill resistant and can be backlight by pressing FN spacebar - with soft and bright lighting options. This allowed me type with ease in my poorly lit hotel room during a business trip last week. On the other hand the new island style keyboard is good but not as great as the older style which had more depth/travel to each keystroke.

The new large glass clickable touchpad is vastly improved over Lenovo touchpads of the past, with a lack of friction that makes it a pleasure to use, and smooth multi-touch capability such as two-finger scrolling or zooming. The signature ThinkPad Touchpoint and three mouse buttons remain for traditionalists while an integrated fingerprint reader on the right side offers convenient finger swipe Windows login capability. 

Quick charge

Due to its slim body the X1 Carbon has a fixed size 45WH internal battery which claims to last six and a half hours. We found a more realistic expectation was about five hours in real world conditions. On a positive note the rapid charge feature fills the battery from flat to two thirds in about 30 minutes.

On the flipside, the Carbon X1’s audio playback will not win any awards as the stereo speakers sound tinny at medium to high volumes. However the companion 720P webcam with face tracking and microphone handle videoconferencing well.

Storage is handled by a fast 128GB/256GB SATA3 SSD drive. The X1 Carbon we tested was fitted out with a 256Gb drive which had 178GB free for use after taking away space for a recovery partition, Windows 7 and preinstalled software. As with any Ultrabook, if you choose a 128GB SSD it will not have a lot of free space left for your files.

The X1 Carbon’s 3rd generation Intel Core i5/i7 CPU can process any office work, handle web browsing with dozens of open tabs or display a full screen video with ease but don’t bother trying to play any intensive games as the Intel HD 4000 graphics card will struggle. Video performance will be improved if you opt for 8GB RAM rather than the standard 4GB.

Overall the ThinkPad X1 Carbon is a powerful performer, tough yet lightweight and Lenovo has as usual thoughtfully engineered in plenty of little productivity boosts. Though there are some quibbles and pricing is on the premium side most executives should be happy to use it as their work laptop.