Lenovo’s X1 Carbon Touch was an impressive business-class Ultrabook when we looked at it last year, sporting an excellent keyboard and a solid-but-light carbon-fiber frame. However, we just weren’t exactly thrilled with the laptop’s screen or battery life. Lenovo improved on these faults with their newest edition, dubbed the ThinkPad X1 Carbon, which features improved battery life and a high-resolution, matte touchscreen. However, Lenovo made some tweaks that won’t please everyone.
Do the changes result in a better overall notebook, or has Lenovo made some missteps? Read on to learn more about the new Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon.
A new suit, but still basic black
As we’ve seen with other, recent ThinkPads, the 2014 Carbon ditches the rubber-like soft-touch exterior found on older models for a less-grippy matte shell that’s more charcoal-colored than deep black. We do miss the rubber-like feel, but the matte exterior of this model does a good job of repelling fingerprints (but not grease smears). Otherwise, the Carbon still looks every bit a ThinkPad, with its ninja-like aesthetics and the Lenovo and ThinkPad logos adorning the top of the lid.
Port selection still isn’t ideal, but has arguably improved. The new Carbon sports a USB 3.0 port on the right edge, along with a proprietary Ethernet jack that requires an (included) adapter. The proprietary jack isn’t exactly ideal, but it does prevent Lenovo from having to sacrifice a USB port for Ethernet. Plus it technically delivers a true native port, which plays better with IT requirements, such as managing the machine over the network.
The left side houses a headphone/mic jack, a second USB 3.0 port, a Mini DisplayPort, a full-size HDMI port, and the power jack that also accommodates the company’s OneLink dock connector. The $120 dock adds extra ports and video connectors, while also providing its own power. This means you can charge and dock the Carbon via a single cable.
We welcome the Ethernet port as well as the full-size HDMI port. But to make room for them, Lenovo has ditched the SD card reader—a feature that those who need to frequently take and edit photos will surely miss. For those who need connectivity when away from Wi-Fi, though, there is a SIM card slot hidden on the back, near the hinge.
More pixels, but more brightness wanted
The $1,299 entry-level X1 Carbon will ship with a ho-hum 1,600 x 900 resolution display, but the $1,679 review unit Lenovo sent us sports a 2,560 x 1,440 panel. That isn’t as many pixels as you’ll find on some laptops, like the Yoga 2 Pro, but it’s enough to make for a screen that’s appreciably crisp, even when reading tiny text.
The screen also generally looks good, and has good viewing angles. But it isn’t an IPS display, which means there is some shifting in brightness and contrast at extreme angles—particularly on the vertical axis. The 2014 Carbon’s screen also isn’t as bright or as uniform in its back-lighting as most of the other laptop screens we’ve tested recently.
In our Datacolor Spyder tests, the panel was able to produce 84 percent of the Adobe RGB spectrum, and 64 percent of sRGB. That’s below average for a high-end laptop. HP’s Spectre 13t display, for instance, delivered 97 and 74 percent on the same tests, respectively.
The real issue with the Carbon’s display, though, has to do with the back-light. The touchscreen layer has more of a matte finish than most touch laptops we’ve tested, which helps with reflection issues. However, at maximum brightness, we measured the screen at just 154 nits, which is lower than all the laptops we’ve tested recently, save for HP’s EliteBook Revolve, which measured 134 nits. Plenty of recent displays score over 300 nits on this test, like Lenovo’s own X240. With its optional IPS screen, the X240 output 328 nits in our testing.
Still, 2014 Carbon’s screen looks pretty good. While it’s certainly better than many of the low-res and poorly performing displays we’ve seen on Lenovo laptops in the past, it just doesn’t seem like the kind of screen you’d expect in a flagship Ultrabook in 2014.
The major changes to the 2014 Carbon all address input. Basic gesture and voice controls are now built in for those situations where you don’t want to use the keyboard or mouse. The gesture controls, which require switching on the camera via a key on the Adaptive Keyboard, don’t all work well. Waving our hand in front of the screen to skip media tracks or flipping back and forward between pages in a presentation were mostly reliable. Pushing our palm forward to pause also worked for the most part. But holding our finger to our lips to mute audio only worked about half the time, and only when we leaned in close to the camera. You’re supposed to also be able to raise and lower volume by moving your fist up and down, but we were never able to get that to work at all.
Lenovo has thrown in a kitchen sink’s worth of input controls, with voice and gesture controls to go along with the keyboard, mouse, touchscreen and TrackPoint stick.
These gestures and voice controls are features you can use if you like, or ignore if you don’t. But the 2014 Carbon’s biggest changes have to do with the keyboard itself, and here’s where Lenovo swims into troubled waters.
The standard Function keys have been replaced with the Adaptive Keyboard row, a strip of touch controls that change automatically to different (often quite useful) shortcuts, depending on what program is currently active. For instance, there are navigation buttons for browsing the Web, microphone and media controls for Skype, buttons for jumping to the Start screen’s All Programs page and a Snipping Tool button for general desktop purposes. There’s also an option that puts the Function keys back on the strip. The keys work well overall., but since these are touch controls, there’s no tactile feedback. You’ll have to look down at the keyboard to hit the right icon.
So those with years of muscle memory and an affinity for Function-key shortcuts will likely be put off by the Adaptive Keyboard row. Sure, if you opt for the 2014 Carbon, you’ll get used to the Adaptive Keyboard after a while—and may find it quite helpful. But the benefit of learning Fn-key shortcuts is that they work across nearly all keyboards. The same obviously can’t be said for the adaptive keys on the Carbon.
The Adaptive Keyboard row isn’t the only issue touch typists may have with the 2014 Carbon. The Carbon’s keyboard retains an excellent overall feel for an Ultrabook, with well-spaced keys, a fair amount of travel, a multi-level adjustable backlight, and the now-familiar smile-shaped keys. But there’s also been some rather serious key reshuffling to make room for the Adaptive Keyboard row up top.
For starters, there’s no Caps Lock key. Instead, you’ll have to double-tap the left Shift key to enable your Internet shouting. A tiny green LED lets you know when Caps Lock is enabled. In that key’s former space, Lenovo has dropped the Home and End keys, moving them from their normal place in the upper-right corner, to the left center.
The Backspace and Delete keys are mashed up together in the upper corner, where it’s pretty easy to hit the latter, rather than the former. And for those who type in languages other than English (or write code), the Tilde/Grave accent key has been moved from the upper left to the lower-right of the keyboard, landing between the Alt and the Control keys. The PrintScreen button, meanwhile, has gone the way of the dinosaur.
To be fair, many of these layout shifts won’t be a major annoyance for the average user, since they mostly affect keys that aren’t commonly used for writing in English. Personally, we found it quite easy to adapt to double-tapping to turn Caps Lock on and off. For those who frequently use the affected keys, and those who rely on Function key shortcuts, the introduction of the Adaptive Keyboard row represents a pretty big sacrifice, which could push potential buyers elsewhere or result in some returns. Those who still want a ThinkPad and a 14-inch screen can opt instead for the T440S, which also features a removable battery.
While the keyboard changes are a mixed bag at best, we like the touchpad on the 2014 Carbon quite a bit. At four inches wide and three inches high, it’s roomy. Unlike the touchpad on the T440s, the touchpad on the 2014 Carbon is also very smooth and accurate, handling both cursor control and gestures equally well. We do, think the click mechanism under the touchpad is a bit too easy to press though.
As we’ve seen with other recent ThinkPads, Lenovo has removed the dedicated buttons for the TrackPoint stick. However, the stick itself is still there, and the top of the touchpad functions as the missing right and left- mouse buttons. TrackPoint enthusiasts will certainly miss the dedicated buttons, but most users will appreciate the larger touchpad—especially considering that it works well.
Generally good performance, with a battery boost
The Core i5-4200U and 8GB of RAM found in our X1 Carbon doesn’t break any performance records, but if you need more CPU muscle, outfitting it with a Core i7 is also an option. The 128GB SSD Lenovo chose for storage, is fairly speedy, earning a score of 4,913 on the PCMark 8 Storage test. That puts it in line with most recent high-end laptops we’ve tested, like HP’s Spectre 13t, which scored 4,903 on the same test, and well ahead of Asus’ Android-and-Windows-equipped Transformer Book Trio, which only managed to score 2,672 on this test, thanks to its much slower mechanical hard drive.
Bottom line, the X1 Carbon is plenty powerful for most general computing tasks and can handle a bit of heavy lifting.
On PCMark 8’s Creative test, which tasks a laptop’s ability to run entertainment and media tasks, the X1 Carbon’s score of 2,102 lands it in the lower middle among high-end laptops we’ve tested recently. Asus’ Trio scored 1,956 on this test, but the ThinkPad T440s did better at 2,392, and the Acer Travelmate P645 scored 2,870 on the same test.
Bottom line, the X1 Carbon is plenty powerful for most general computing tasks and can handle a bit of heavy lifting. Its Intel integrated graphics can also handle some light gaming at lower resolutions, but the X1 Carbon is not a gaming or performance PC, and you shouldn’t expect it to perform like one.
The 2014 X1 Carbon does run impressively cool and quiet though, which certainly isn’t the case with all thin and light laptops. Pushing the CPU heavily in the 7-Zip benchmark, the Carbon barely edged up over our 40dB baseline to 40.2dB. And when leaning on the graphics chip by running Futuremark, the Carbon still only edged up to 41.5dB. Generally, you probably won’t ever hear the fan unless you’re in a very quiet room.
Likewise, temperatures remained low, especially on the bottom of the laptop, where maxing out the CPU only pushed things up into the comfortable high 80s, or as high as 91 when stressing the integrated graphics. The area above the Adaptive Keyboard strip did get warmer, hitting 97.5 degrees above the 0 key, but that was only when pushing the GPU. When taxing the CPU, the same area topped out at just 92.5 degrees—not much warmer than the temperature of our fingertips at room temperature.
Good battery life… under light loads
On one hand, the 2014 Carbon is equipped with a Haswell processor, which generally means better battery life. But our review model sports a touchscreen and the same amount of pixels found in Apple’s 27-inch iMac, both of which tend to increase battery drain. So we weren’t really sure what to expect before we started our battery tests.
In our first test, the high-drain Battery Eater benchmark, the 2014 Carbon didn’t do all that well, lasting just 1 hour and 58 minutes. That puts it behind most laptops we’ve tested recently, and well behind HP’s Spectre 13t, which lasted 3 hours and 15 minutes on the same test.
But then again, most people who buy a Carbon likely won’t be leaning heavily on the CPU the way the Battery Eater test does. In our lighter Reader’s Test, which scrolls through a document, the 2014 Carbon lasted a much more impressive 10 hours and 10 minutes, which bests the HP Spectre 13t’s time of 9 hours and 38 minutes, and generally outpaces most laptops we’ve tested recently.
Of course, since this is an Ultrabook, the battery isn’t removable. So you can’t swap in a second cell or opt for an extended battery as you can with other ThinkPads. If longevity is your priority, or you frequently perform tasks that max out the CPU, you may instead want to opt for the ThinkPad X240, which still qualifies as an Ultrabook, but has swappable batteries. With the extended battery installed, the X240 lasted 17 hours and 38 minutes on the Reader’s Test.
While the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon feels solidly built and impressively light, with pretty good battery life and a generally very comfortable keyboard, whether or not it’s a good fit for you depends largely on how you weigh the changes Lenovo has made to the laptop’s keyboard, and if you find the Adaptive Keyboard row compelling.
What we can say is that the adaptive keys work well and can be quite handy. We particularly like the shortcut to the Snipping Tool, which allows us to quickly grab screenshots. But we’d really like to see Lenovo add some tactile feedback to these keys. Ideally, we’d like to see actual keys on this row that can change their underlying icons to match different tasks, as we’ve seen with the Switchblade UI on the Razer Blade Pro. That would also allow for the Function row keys to remain tactile for those who frequently use them.
As it stands, Lenovo has moved enough keys around on the 2014 Carbon to confuse and annoy quite a few potential users—likely many of them ThinkPad loyalists with decades of touch typing and shortcut-key muscle memory under their belts. And the screen, while it generally looks good, isn’t very bright and generally doesn’t perform as well as we’d expect for a flagship notebook.
Still, if you aren’t put off by the keyboard changes and like the idea of the Adaptive Keyboard, the 2014 Carbon is a light, well-built business laptop that also runs quite cool and quiet. Our review model certainly isn’t inexpensive at $1,679, but the $1,299 base model retains the same CPU and SSD, as well as the Adaptive Keyboard, while dropping the resolution of the screen down to 1,600×900 and ditching the touchscreen. Those are significant sacrifices to be sure, but that model should also get significantly better battery life.
- Excellent input devices
- High-resolution, matte touchscreen
- Much-improved battery life
- Runs cool and quiet, even under heavy load
- Keyboard changes will irk many touch typists
- Screen should be brighter
- Sealed battery still stinks for many business users