Few laptop brands have lasted as long as the ThinkPad, and its success has continued with forays into Ultrabooks and hybrids. Lenovo’s latest laptop, the X1 Carbon, is its new flagship Ultrabook that aims to bring slimness and lightness to serious laptop users.
It’s the third Ultrabook to bear the Carbon name, following the 2012 and 2014 iterations, and it’s a study in evolution. Lenovo has made small changes to improve its design and bring the latest ThinkPad in line with top-tier rivals from Dell and Apple. It also packs in key business oriented extras like vPro, TPM and an extended warranty.
There’s no denying this laptop’s pedigree – with its matte black finish, diagonal retro logo and red trackpoint, it’s clearly a ThinkPad.
Smaller touches indicate that the Carbon follows the sensible ThinkPad philosophy. This machine prizes practicality above glitz and gimmicks; the trackpoint is augmented with dedicated buttons that weren’t present on the second generation of this machine, and the capacitive function keys of the older system have been binned and replaced with more practical physical keys.
Moreover, even though Lenovo has deployed high-end materials to build this machine, the design isn't focussed on showing them off to the detriment of practicality – aluminium is pretty but it is slippery and scratches easily. Here, the base is made from magnesium and aluminium, the panel on the rear of the display is spun from carbon-fibre, and many of the gaps elsewhere are filled with fibre-reinforced plastic but from the outside it's uniform black soft-touch plastic.
Lenovo says these materials deliver good strength while keeping the weight down, and we’ve got got no quibbles about the Carbon’s construction. For instance, although unlike some metal-lidded laptops the screen does twist, there's no distortion in the display as a result and there’s only a tiny amount of movement in the base. There’s also reassurance from a host of passes in MIL-STD-810G tests for high and low temperatures, humidity, shock and sand ingress - something that the consumer-focussed Dell and Apple machines don't offer.
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It’s worth noting that the multiple materials and businesslike design means the Carbon can’t match the latest Macbook Pro or even the Dell XPS 13 for looks. Both those machines are decidely sleeker, and ultimately more desirable, looking, but then the ThinkPad has never been about design for design's sake.
The Carbon looks and feels like a ThinkPad, but its dimensions plant it firmly in the Ultrabook category – and a million miles away from frumpy business notebooks. The X1 Carbon starts slim and tapers to a thinner front edge. At its maximum it’s 18mm from top to bottom including its rubber feet. That matches the 2015 13-inch Macbook Pro, and the Lenovo’s 1.31kg heft is a couple of hundred grams lighter than Apple’s rival machine. Impressively, that's also a little less than the 13in Macbook Air - and Lenovo's businesslike machine is only one millimetre thicker than the Air, too.
That’s good, but it’s worth remembering that a handful of consumer machines are smaller still: the brand-new Macbook is 13mm thin and weighs 923g, and Dell’s revised XPS 13 is 15mm thin and weighs 1.17kg.
These are slim margins, but they mean the Carbon will be more noticeable when it’s carried on a daily basis – a little more pull on your shoulder, and a little more width in a bag.
A potentially huge blow to the appeal of this laptop is that this extra little bit of bulk hasn't been used to provide a generous port selection. Two USB 3.0 connectors, an HDMI port and a mini-DisplayPort output is a decent start, but there's no SD card slot and the Ethernet facility is via an external dongle. An inbuilt Ethernet port is of course rare on this size of machine, but would've been a boon for a business oriented model like this, meanwhile the lack of an SD card is almost unforgivable.
The internals are better. There’s dual-band 802.11ac wireless and a 4G-ready SIM card slot while vPro and TPM are also included for secure business applications – the latter is something you won't get on the MacBook or Dell.
Upgrade potential is decent, too. The base panel lifts away to give access to the M.2 SSD, wireless card and other components. The memory is soldered down, so that can’t be changed, but it’s more access than most Ultrabooks offer.
Lenovo has kitted the Carbon out with a 14-inch, 2,560 x 1,440 IPS panel. That’s a few vertical pixels short of the Macbook Pro’s Retina display, and it gives a density level of 210ppi – excellent, and not far enough behind the Apple’s 227ppi to cause any discernible dearth of sharpness.
The high density means text, icons and images are pin-sharp, but the high resolution means Lenovo uses Windows’ most intensive scaling options to make the Carbon’s screen easier to read. We can see why – opting for native resolution makes the OS so small it’s unusable.
The scaling options in Windows have improved dramatically, and Windows itself isn’t saddled with problems – but third-party tools often still struggle, with tiny page furniture, pixelation or other problems. It’s better, sure, but Apple’s OS X is still vastly superior when it comes to handling high resolutions on small panels.
Quality levels are good – but, like several other aspects of this machine, the Carbon can’t quite match rivals. The 6,584K colour temperature is fantastic, but the XPS 13 is even closer to the 6,500K ideal, and the Lenovo’s Delta E of 3.92 is decent – but, again, it’s a tad poorer than the Dell laptop.
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The Lenovo’s brightness level of 243 nits is better than the XPS’ 205 nit result, but the Carbon’s black point of 0.24 nits can’t compete with the Dell’s 0.14 figure, though both are excellent. That means the Lenovo’s decent contrast ratio of 1,013:1 is bested by the Dell’s 1,505:1 – and so this is another area where the X1’s good performance is bettered elsewhere.
Lenovo’s panel comes with one other niggle: a grainy semi-matte layer. It’s not a big issue and it does help to dull the impact of bright lights, but it undoubtedly takes some of the sheen of this high-resolution display.
The Carbon’s screen is better than most laptop panels, and it’s got the sharpness and quality to handle work and photo-editing, but it’s bettered elsewhere – the Dell regularly trumps it in benchmarks, and Apple’s laptop has top-notch contrast, faultless viewing angles and better scaling.
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The speakers are dominated by the mid-range, which has plenty of volume, but treble sounds don’t have enough clarity and depth to really stand out – songs with deeper-voiced male vocalists found their voices swamped and lost, while higher-pitched female voices were more discernable but still too tinny.
There’s a surprising amount of thumping bass for such a small laptop, but even that is still a little buried beneath the dominate higher noises. The Macbook’s speakers have similar volume, but more nuance and better balance.