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Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Review

Pros

  • Durable and rugged
  • Gorilla glass screen protection
  • Spillproof, backlit keyboard
  • Excellent connectivity

Cons

  • Not the slimmest or lightest
  • Weak battery life
  • No IPS screen option
  • Reflective screen

Key Specifications

  • Review Price: £1170.92
  • Slim (16mm-21mm) and light (1.7kg)
  • 13.3in screen with Gorilla glass
  • Up to Sandy Bridge Core i7 and 8GB RAM
  • USB 3.0, eSATA, DisplayPort, HDMI 1.4
  • Shockproof, dustproof, spill-proof

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There has been a massive increase in the number of thin and
light 13.3in ultraportables coming onto the market recently. We’ve seen the
likes of the VAIO Z and S, the Samsung Series 9 and of course the 13in MacBook Air to name but a few, not to mention all the new models we saw
at IFA. But these have been completely consumer-focused machines, and the Dell Vostro 3350 we looked at was too thick and heavy to truly fit the
ultraportable moniker. So what about those who want rugged, classy and thin,
with possibly some TPM or other business features thrown in? Well, Lenovo has a
solution in the form of its ThinkPad X1.




The snazzily-named X1 comes with the classic soft-touch yet
hard-wearing ThinkPad finish, a carbon-fibre rollcage, Gorilla Glass screen
protection and more, adding up to military spec ruggedness! Then there’s oodles
of connectivity (including eSATA, USB 3.0, HDMI 1.4 and DisplayPort), plenty of
power under the hood with up to Core i7 CPUs, a backlit and spill-resistant
keyboard, rapid-charge 30-minute-to-80-percent battery, and more. Does this
make it the ultimate laptop? Join us as we find out.




First, let’s talk design and build. Though it’s relatively sleek
and the thinnest ThinkPad ever, the X1 doesn’t look or feel particularly thin, despite
its 17mm front tapering to a still svelte 21mm at the rear. Perhaps it’s the
lack of curved edges or the overbearing, top heavy shape where its sides slope
to a narrower base. It’s not as light as many rivals either, though its 1.75kg
weight (1.71kg with an SSD rather than the hard drive in our review sample) is
light enough to carry it around all day without significant strain.




To be honest we don’t really see the somewhat industrial
design appealing to the fashion-conscious, though for ThinkPad adherents and
those into executive styling, this is just the ticket. Where the X1 also wins
hearts is in its feel. Though not quite as nice in the hand as the Lenovo IdeaPad U260, its rounded edges, lack of exposed connectors at its
sides and soft-touch finish make this laptop a delight to carry around, and
there’s no risk of unsightly fingerprints. The ThinkPad coating is also very
scratch-resistant, ensuring this machine should look as good a few months down
the line as when you bought it.




Build quality is another area where the ThinkPad name is
legendary, and deservedly so. Every single part of the X1 feels like it can
survive the abuse of the most fanatic road-warrior. Plastics are strong and
solid, panels are beautifully fitted with no gaps for dirt to get into, and of
course the Gorilla Glass protecting the screen means this is one of the few
laptops on which you can poke at the display with a biro without any unfortunate
consequences.




Last, but not least, the hinge, which allows the screen to
fold all the way back till it’s as flat as the laptop’s base (a handy feature
unique to ThinkPads), is sturdy enough that its stays in the exact position you
put it in without any wobble. Basically, it’s not hard to see how the X1 earned
its MILSPEC (US
military ruggedness) qualifications.


Connectivity on the X1 is unsurpassed by business standards,
and even for a consumer laptop only its lack of LightPeak/Thunderbolt (as found
on the Air and Z) prevents it from leading the pack. For starters, on the wireless front you
get Bluetooth 3.0, Wi-Fi N and, for an extra £91, optional 3G (mobile
broadband).




Unusually, most of this ThinkPad’s physical connections are
found around the rear, with the few ports at the left side protected by a
rubber flap, which also helps to maintain its streamlined looks. Under this
you’ll find a microphone/headphone combi jack and single USB 2.0 port. The
right houses a wireless switch and SDXC card reader, as well as a removable
panel for easy hard drive access.




At the rear we have Gigabit Ethernet, a SIM card slot, USB
3.0 port, combi eSATA and USB 2.0 port that also offers sleep-and-charge, and
both HDMI 1.4 and mini DisplayPort for video. That’s a great selection that
covers almost every base. Our only complaint is that the X1’s inward-sloping
slides make the USB 2.0 port mounted there difficult to get at, and we’re not
sure how necessary the rubber flap is, for while it offers great protection
against dirt and dust, the ports at the rear aren’t protected at all.




The good news continues when it comes to usability. The
ThinkPad brand’s reputation with keyboards is of such a consistent standard
that we could safely predict that the experience in this regard was going to be
pretty good. What we couldn’t predict is that the example found on the X1 is
not only the best keyboard on any ultraportable we’ve ever used, but one of the
best keyboards on a laptop, period.




Though its styling suggests chiclet, the keys offer all the
size and feel of a regular keyboard. Their matt finish and slightly concave
shape means fingers rest in them naturally and you never hit a nearby key by
mistake. Apart from Lenovo’s signature quirk of placing the Fn key to the left of Ctrl (though you can switch this around in the BIOS), layout is close
to perfect. In a nod to maintaining its looks the traditional blue Enter key is
now standard black.  




The best thing about this keyboard though is its flawless
feedback. Each key offers far more travel than we’re used to from a slim
laptop, just the right amount of resistance, and a click that’s defined without
being noisy. There’s also absolutely zero flex. It’s simply the next best thing
to typing on a desktop keyboard, and superior even to previous Lenovo efforts
like that of the X220 Tablet.




And the good keyboard news doesn’t end with its ergonomics.
White backlighting can be turned on or off using the space-bar, a system we
prefer over the light sensors used in most rivals. Also, in a demonstration we
attended earlier this year, Lenovo spilled a glass of water all over the
spill-resistant keyboard and the laptop still worked fine afterwards, so most
spills certainly shouldn’t be an issue.




While the button-integrated, multi-touch touchpad (which
Lenovo calls a ‘clickpad’) isn’t bad by any means, it just doesn’t match up to
the superlative keyboard. Its large, textured surface is not unpleasant, and
– unlike earlier non-Apple examples of touchpads that integrate their buttons –
it’s quite usable. However, compared to the frosted-glass masterpiece found on
the Samsung Series 9 and Series 7 laptops, it isn’t as responsive, pleasant or as usable, with clicks
being stiffer and easier to get wrong, and its dimpled surface more wearing.




Of course, with ThinkPads the touch- or trackpad isn’t your
only choice for moving your cursor about, as you also get a TrackPoint. This
red, rubber-topped mini joystick is located in the centre of the keyboard and operates
with the tip of a finger. While it does take a little getting used to, after a
while it’s quite easy to operate. It comes with three responsive buttons, one
of which is exclusively used for scrolling.



To the right of the keyboard is a selection of volume
controls. A dedicated mute button can be found below a responsive volume
rocker, while above it is the rather nifty rarity of a microphone mute
button too, with accompanying orange LED. Much like Asus’ physical webcam
shutter on the likes of its N73Jn, this isn’t essential but very handy all the same, especially for video
chatting and conferencing. Speaking of webcams, the X1 not only gives you a 720p HD
webcam, but also a noise-cancelling microphone array that’s specifically tuned
to ‘tune out’ keyboard noise, which is a nice touch.




Along with the volume controls you’ll also find the signature
ThinkPad blue ThinkVantage button, which gives access to various
context-sensitive functions. This includes rescue and recovery while booting,
or Lenovo’s comprehensive ThinkVantage ToolBox (a great collection of software apps
for everything from system health and security to support). In use, it’s one of
the most comprehensive and easy-to-use collections of its kind we’ve come
across. Of course TPM (Trusted Platform Module) for business users is also on
board, as is a fingerprint scanner for those who hate remembering passwords.




Getting to the 13.3in display, this is the first ThinkPad we
can remember that suffers from reflections. Of course, barring whatever magic
Wacom uses on its Cintiq line, it’s pretty difficult to get a glass display to ignore them. At
least here, the seamless bezel offered by the glass front serves a practical
purpose, as Gorilla Glass will protect the panel from scratches and a certain
amount of impacts. As peripheral benefits, a glossy finish also helps to
improve perceived colour vividness and contrast.




Unfortunately, though we seem to recall being told there
would be an IPS screen option (just like on Lenovo’s ThinkPad X220 range), there actually isn’t, so we’re dealing with good old TN
here. Consequently, viewing angles aren’t exactly perfect. They hold up
reasonably well horizontally, with only a little contrast shift, but vertically
things are as poor as ever, negating some of the advantage of being able to
tilt the screen flat on your desk thanks to its superb hinge.




Contrast is decent rather than great, with the X1’s screen
able to distinguish between all but the darkest two of our grey shades. At 350
nits it gets quite bright, but blacks are far from the deepest we’ve seen. There
are no significant backlight issues, nor did we notice banding or other
unwanted visual blemishes. Its resolution of 1,366 x 768 is par for the course,
as are most of its characteristics. Overall it works well for productivity and
does a slightly above-average job for entertainment, but frankly we can’t
fathom why Lenovo isn’t offering an IPS option on what is in every other
respect one of its highest-end laptops.


To be honest we weren’t expecting much from the audio, and
were thus pleasantly surprised to find it rather good by ultraportable
standards. Though lacking in the bass department, the X1’s speakers otherwise
produce a sound that’s relatively rich and detailed with plenty of depth. That
they manage it at decent volume levels is even more impressive, and this is
definitely one of the better-sounding slim 13.3in laptops around, with no
external audio solution required. 


When it comes to performance, it’s pretty much what you
would expect from the latest-gen Intel processors paired with adequate RAM,
which means it will handle an average daily workload with consummate ease. Though
you can upgrade to Core i7 for £167, for most users the 2.5GHz, dual-core Core i5-2520M
should be more than adequate, especially since it includes both Turbo-clocking
and hyper-threading for up to four virtual cores. Lenovo ThinkPad X1

(centre)Keep in mind that the lack of SSD in our review
samples has a significant impact on performance, and in its SSD config
the X1 will perform on a level with other high-end ultraportables like the VAIO Z.(/centre)




As with most machines, 4GB of RAM is standard, with the
option to upgrade to 8GB for a frankly ridiculous £190. Unfortunately, our
review sample uses a regular 320GB hard drive rather than the standard 128GB SSD.
Usually we would recommend going solid state every time, as not only will your
laptop be noticeably faster, but also quieter, lighter, and it’ll consume less
power to boot. Unfortunately, when buying from Lenovo direct there’s a £200
premium to pay for the SSD version, which is a tad steep. Still, if you have
the money, you’re not left wanting here. The OS of choice, meanwhile, is the
64-bit version of Windows 7 Professional.




Only graphics in the guise of Intel’s integrated HD3000 are
a bit of a weak point, though that’s hardly surprising for a business-oriented
machine. Lenovo ThinkPad X1

Light gaming shouldn’t present a problem – as evidenced by this
ThinkPad’s 50 frames per second average in TrackMania Nations Forever at
medium detail and 720p – but most GPU-accelerated applications and remotely demanding
games won’t be too happy, as demonstrated by the unplayable 14.35fps average in
Stalker: Call of Pripyat at the same settings.



Unfortunately, unlike the VAIO Z, the X1 doesn’t have a
removable battery. Also unfortunately, it doesn’t hold up nearly as well. We
were very disappointed by its score of only just over three hours in our
non-intensive battery test, with the screen at 40 percent brightness and
wireless radios disabled. Though this might increase by a little if you opt for
the SSD, either way it really isn’t enough, especially since this will decrease
further when using Wi-Fi or 3G. Lenovo ThinkPad X1




On the bright side, Lenovo’s rapid charging claims hold up,
with the battery easily charging to near full capacity in just over half an
hour. However, if you plan to be away from a socket for more than four hours at
a time, the optional slice battery becomes an essential rather than optional addition.
With it, you should get around double the battery life (which played out in our
battery test), giving you a full day’s worth on the go.




Unlike the hideously complicated attachment procedure for
the Z‘s external battery, with the X1’s it’s simply a case of clicking the slice
in and you’re good to go. Releasing it again is equally effortless. However, it
does add considerable bulk and ups the weight to 2.13kg, which hardly jams with
the X1’s ultraportable ambitions. Still, you can just leave it off for the
daily commute and short stints, and only take it with when you know you’ll be
going on lengthy trips without access to a power grid. 




When it comes to value, the ThinkPad X1 is difficult to
assess. On the one hand, it’s priced higher than many lighter ultraportable
rivals, and based purely on specs, weight or battery life it’s not the best of
buys. However, unmatched keyboard ergonomics and excellent connectivity make up
for a lot, while its mix of ruggedness (especially the Gorilla Glass-protected
screen) and business features aren’t offered by any equally light 13.3in laptop
barring perhaps Panasonic’s elusive (in the UK) and far more expensive
ToughBook range. Basically, with the hard drive version of the X1 starting at
£1054, it’s certainly not as expensive as we might have expected considering
its target audience.




If you’re just looking for the lightest 13in business
machine going, the Sony VAIO Z starts at ‘just’ £400 more (without its dock) and, aside from its
lack of optical drive in that configuration, is just as flexible. But then its
keyboard isn’t half as good and its build quality markedly inferior, nor can
Sony’s business support structure or software begin to match that of Lenovo.




Verdict




Lenovo’s thinnest and lightest ThinkPad laptop yet is a
dramatic mix of ups and downs. Its build quality is even more impressive than
usual thanks to the addition of a Gorilla Glass-protected screen, its backlit
and spill-resistant keyboard is by far the best to be found on any
ultraportable, it offers great connectivity, good specs and plenty of features. However, the X1 is a tad large for an ultraportable, its average screen doesn’t jive with its premium positioning, and its battery life trails 13in rivals by quite some margin. If these issues aren’t deal-breakers for you, it’s
a great machine, but many will be better off looking elsewhere – even at other
ThinkPads like the IPS-sporting X220.


We continually check thousands of prices to show you the best deals. If you buy a product through our site we will earn a small commission from the retailer – a sort of automated referral fee – but our reviewers are always kept separate from this process. You can read more about how we make money in our Ethics Policy.

Trusted Score


Score in detail

  • Performance 7
  • Design 8
  • Value 7
  • Features 9
  • Battery Life 5

Software

Operating System Windows 7

Other

Type Other Laptop

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