Testing: Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Laptop

By Norman Chan

After using MacBooks and other low-wattage Ultrabooks for years, a nice reminder of what it's like to have a Core i7 laptop.

A few months ago, Lenovo sent me their ThinkPad X1 Carbon laptop to test. While I ran it through our usual suite of benchmarks at the office, I've been waiting for a proper place to test it in the field. That opportunity came during Comic-Con, where I brought the ThinkPad along to complement my 12-inch MacBook. The MacBook, which has been my travel computer for the past few months, has been serviceable for most daily activities--web browsing, writing, and image editing. But I knew its Core-M processor would slog over more intensive tasks like exporting hundreds of photos at once or rendering video clips. The ThinkPad X1 Carbon's Broadwell-U processor--a Core i7-5600U in this loaner unit--was more suited for the job. And what a difference it made. After months of working on low-powered systems like the Core-M MacBook, UX305, and even the Atom-based Surface 3, this laptop reminded me of the joys of computing on a workhorse laptop.

And a workhorse is exactly what a ThinkPad is supposed to be. The ThinkPad X1 line, which we first tested in 2011, has been in a awkward and elongated transitional period where it's straddled the line between Ultrabook and workhorse. What's the difference? A workhorse laptop is designed around performance and battery life, with ports galore and business-friendly features like fingerprint readers. They're no-compromise laptops--essentially the anti-2015 MacBook. Ultrabooks, though, are an Intel classification, denoting the use of a low-wattage Core CPU along with a thin-and-light chassis. The ThinkPad X1 Carbon line, with its tapered unibody design and non-removeable battery, has been more Ultrabook than workhorse--at least in the eyes of some ThinkPad enthusiasts. That was definitely the case with the previous ThinkPad X1 Carbon generation, which had a controversial keyboard redesign and touch function key strip.

This year's generation ThinkPad X1 Carbon is a return to form, at least for the Carbon line (Wirecutter still recommends the ThinkPad T450s for business users). It's still very Ultrabook-y, with no replaceable battery and a intentionally slim 3-pound chassis. And while the laptop is equipped with HDMI and DP video output and two USB 3.0 ports, there's no internet SD card slot. Ports like Ethernet and VGA are reserved for adapters that plug into the wide power+I/O jack. The 14-inch 2560x1440 screen may not be as overkill as the 3200x1800 QHD+ screen found in Lenovo's Yoga Pro line, though I still think 1080p is a sweet spot for a laptop this size. This X1 Carbon also has a fantastic backlit chiclet keyboard with ample travel and a smooth glass trackpad. The trackpoint nub is still around, too, which complements the touchscreen for precision cursor control. Elements of ThinkPad remain, balanced between the design constraints of Ultrabooks. But what tips the X1 Carbon more toward the workhorse category is its performance. This laptop is fast.

In my Comic-Con testing, I used the X1 Carbon for all my Lightroom image editing, and some Premiere Pro work for simple video edits of DSLR-shot footage. I've done big Lightroom imports (Smart Preview creation is the CPU hog) and massive exports on Atom, Core-M, and Core i5 systems like the Surface Pro 3. But none of those systems felt as close to working on my Desktop computer as this X1 Carbon. The Broadwell-U Core i7 made a difference in how smoothly I could browse my Lightroom library, apply edits in the Develop module, and export batches of photos while still being able to work in other windows. I felt that same smoothness in Premiere, when dragging 1080p clips around and dropping in video effects. The difference wasn't just in encoding and exporting, it was in the overall usability and lack of hitching in the applications' interfaces. The super fast 512GB (460GB usable) Samsung PCIe drive helped for sure. With the 2.6GHz Core i7, I experienced no lag in UI, even at native screen resolution.

As mentioned earlier, I still prefer 1080p panels for 13-inch Windows laptops, since Windows 8.1 still doesn't do desktop scaling as well as Mac OS. I get around the inconsistencies in UI scaling by running Windows and Chrome at 125% scaling, but imaging apps back at 100% scaling with an Windows Administrator setting. Lenovo does offer a 1080p model for the X1 Carbon, but that uses a TN panel. If you want IPS, you have to go with 1440p, with options for non-touch of touch (always my preference). The color reproduction and viewing angles on the panel are good, but the 300 nit screen isn't very bright when compared side-by-side with the MacBook or Surface Pro 3. The glare-reducing matte screen reduces the need to amp up brightness when used outdoors, but it also diminishes the vibrancy of photos. I wish Lenovo offered a 1080p glossy IPS touchscreen option for the display.

Where the ThinkPad X1 Carbon is most constrained by its Ultrabook ties is its battery life. The unibody chassis houses a 50Whr battery, which is relatively small, considering that the 13-inch MacBook Pro has a 64Whr battery. The battery life on this laptop isn't bad, but it's not stellar, either. I ran it in the car on the drive back from San Diego, tethered to my phone's Wi-Fi hotspot. With intermittent use playing music and web browsing throughout the 10 hour trip, it lasted all the way until I switched from I-5 to 580--about 8 hours. In a battery rundown at home, the laptop lasted a solid 7.5 hours with Netflix streaming, and 4 hours with a Photoshop script running in a loop.

The ThinkPad X1 Carbon is a desktop alternative. This review unit is one of the fastest laptops I've used in recent memory, but it's also specced out to perform, with its Core i7 CPU and PCIe SSD. This model costs $2600, which is more than most desktop computers. You can configure a Core i5 version with a 256GB SSD for under two grand. For most users, that's still too much to pay for something that's not your primary system. And while $1000-$1500 Ultrabooks may be more appealing from both a price and form-factor standpoint, I was glad to be able to test the X1 Carbon and be reminded of the goodness of a fully-powered Windows laptop with a great keyboard. Living with Ultrabooks for so long, it's easy to forget that you are absolutely compromising some performance for the sake of form factor and battery life. And it's also too easy to rationalize those performance differences when you literally weigh a workhorse next to an ultra-portable. The ThinkPad X1 Carbon is a welcome reminder of the performance potential of a high-end laptop.