Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon vs. Apple MacBook Pro 13

The ThinkPad X1 Carbon and MacBook Pro are iconic. But which is worth the money?

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon (2018) review
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Lenovo’s ThinkPad line is one of the most iconic notebook families around. From the ThinkPad logo with the red dot on the lid, to the red TrackPoint nubbin, to the typical ThinkPad keyboard layout, you’d have no problem picking one out of a lineup. And they remain just as well-built as always, as evidenced by the latest clamshell member, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon.

Apple’s MacBook Pro is also a recognizable notebook line that’s maintained a consistent design aesthetic over the years. Today’s model has the same understated elegance as always and confirms Apple’s reputation for rock-solid build quality.

So, which one of these premium and highly familiar notebooks is worth your investment? We pit the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon against the MacBook Pro 13 to find out.

Specifications compared

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon

lenovo thinkpad x1 carbon vs apple macbook pro 13 gen6 200 x 150

MacBook Pro 13

macbook-pro-tb
Dimensions 12.73 × 8.54 × 0.62 (in) 11.97 × 8.36 × 0.59 (in)
Weight Starting at 2.49 pounds 3.02 pounds
Processor Up to 8th-generation Intel i7 Up to 7th-generation Intel Core i7
RAM Up to 16GB RAM Up to 16GB RAM
Display 14-inch IPS display
Optional Dolby Vision HDR
13.3-inch IPS display
Resolution Full HD (1,920 x 1080 or 157 PPI)
WQHD (2,560 x 1440 or 210 PPI)
2,560 × 1,600 or 227 PPI
Storage Up to 1TB PCIe SSD Up to 1TB PCIe SSD
Touch Optional touch display Touch Bar
Ports 2 x USB Type-A 3.1, 2 x USB-C with Thunderbolt 3, 1 x HDMI, microSD card reader, 3.5mm combo headset Touch Bar: 4 x USB-C (Thunderbolt 3)
Non-Touch Bar: 2 x USB-C with Thunderbolt 3
3.5mm combo headset
Webcam 720p HD with optional infrared camera for Windows Hello support, ThinkShutter privacy screen 720p FaceTime HD
Operating System Windows 10 MacOS Sierra
Battery 57 watt-hour Touch Bar: 49.2 watt-hour
Non-Touch Bar: 54 watt-hour
Price $1,520+ $1,199+
Review 3.5 out of 5 stars 3 out of 5 stars

Design

Apple updated the MacBook Pro line in late 2016, utilizing essentially the same silver aluminum chassis and elegant but conservative design. It’s  thinner than ever and its display is more modern with smaller bezels. Thus, the MacBook Pro still looks good in any environment, and you’ll be happy with Apple’s usual attention to detail, overall fit and finish, and granite-like solidity.

The sixth-generation ThinkPad X1 Carbon has also undergone some relatively subtle design changes. It’s still rock-solid in hand, with a carbon material finish that provides a soft touch and with zero flex throughout the chassis. It’s also the usual black ThinkPad aesthetic that’s aggressively businesslike, with updated branding that’s subtler but still recognizable.

Both notebooks have iconic designs, and both sport build qualities that are worthy of their premium pricing. The ThinkPad gets some extra points, though, for fitting a 14-inch display into a chassis that’s nearly the same size and thickness as the MacBook Pro 13’s while being almost half a pound lighter. Ultimately though, this one’s going to come down to pure aesthetic taste because when it comes to the design essentials, they’re evenly matched.

Winner: Tie

Performance

The MacBook Pro 13 received its last update in 2017, gaining 7th-gen dual-core Intel Core processors with stepped-up Iris Plus GPUs for slightly better graphics performance. The ThinkPad X1 Carbon, however, enjoys the latest and greatest eighth-generation quad-core Intel Core processors that are significantly faster when working hard and more efficient when running less demanding tasks.

Both manufacturers utilize very fast PCIe NVME solid-state drives (SSDs) in their premium notebooks, and so they both enjoy speedy storage performance. You won’t find large files and demanding database applications to slow them down.

The ThinkPad X1 Carbon doesn’t sport the slightly faster Intel Iris graphics, but its processor performance is much better than the MacBook Pro’s last generation CPUs can attain. Lenovo wins this round as well.

Winner: Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon

Keyboard, Mouse, and Pen

When it comes to input options, people tend to either love or hate what Apple has done with the MacBook Pro in deference to ultimate thinness. There was a time, for example, when MacBook keyboards were considered exemplars of typing perfection. Today, Apple has opted for a more modern “Butterfly” key mechanism that’s very clicky (and loud) but also suffers from very short travel. The touchpad is huge, which is a plus, and famously has the best touchpad you’ll find on a laptop.

Finally, you can get two versions of the MacBook Pro 13. There’s one with the OLED Touch Bar strip that runs along the top of the keyboard and adds some task-specific touch input, and then there’s one without it. If you opt for the Touch Bar version, you’ll also gain a Touch ID fingerprint scanner that lets you log in without typing a password.

Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Carbon, on the other hand, enjoys the always-excellent ThinkPad keyboard with superior travel, a precise tactile feel, and an overall experience that welcomes fast, accurate typing. It also offers the TrackPoint nubbin sitting in the middle of the keyboard for an old-school input option that longtime users will appreciate.

The extra TrackPoint buttons do encroach on the standard touchpad’s space, however, providing a smaller space for swiping and gestures than we like. Nevertheless, it’s still precise and enjoys Microsoft Precision touchpad support. You can also opt for a touch display for some added convenience, and Windows 10 Hello password-less login is supported by an optional infrared camera and a fingerprint scanner. There’s even a physical privacy cover for the webcam if you want to ensure your notebook isn’t spying on you.

As we said in the beginning of this category, you’ll likely either love or hate Apple’s input options. We think most people will appreciate Lenovo’s more traditional approach, though, and so we’re assigning the win to the ThinkPad.

Winner: Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon

macbook pro 13 inch non touch bar vs 15 2016 keyboard 1200x9999

Connectivity

Apple’s latest MacBook design drops any pretense at supporting legacy peripherals, offering USB-C ports with Thunderbolt 3 support as the only option. On the MacBook Pro 13 with Touch Bar, you’ll get four ports, and on the version without the Touch Bar you’ll get two. Add in a 3.5mm combo audio port and the usual 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios, and that’s the extent of the MacBook Pro’s connectivity.

The ThinkPad X1 Carbon is an entirely different beast when it comes to hooking up. It comes with two USB-A 3.1 ports for legacy add-ons, two USB-C ports with Thunderbolt 3, a full-size HDMI port, and a microSD card reader. Whew, that’s a lot of ports. The 3.5mm combo audio jack joins 802.11ac and Bluetooth to round out a very well-connected notebook indeed.

We really, really appreciate machines that combine legacy and futuristic support, and the ThinkPad X1 Carbon offers that in spades. Good for Lenovo, and it wins this category handily.

Winner: Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon

Display

Apple’s MacBook Pro line is renowned for offering some of the best displays around. The MacBook Pro 13 is no different, offering a 13.3-inch display with 2,560 x 1,600 resolution (227 PPI) that’s extremely bright, has a wide color gamut with excellent accuracy, and strong contrast. It’s not a 4K display, but it’s sharp enough and makes a great platform for anyone who works with photos and video.

Lenovo offers a few display options with the ThinkPad X1 Carbon. The entry-level model is a Full HD (1,920 x 1,080 or 157 PPI) panel that offers better-than-average color gamut and accuracy and good contrast. Only its relatively low brightness holds it back, although its anti-glare coating helps it overcome bright ambient lighting. There’s also a WQHD (2,560 x 1,440 or 210 PPI) display option for some increased sharpness, and at the high end, you can opt for an extremely bright (500 nit) panel that supports Dolby Vision high-dynamic range (HDR).

We like the sound of that HDR-enabled WQHD display, given its promise of incredibly bright and dynamic colors, and we appreciate Lenovo’s wide range of options. However, the MacBook Pro 13 out of the box offers a superior display that’s proven to be the best option for creative types. We’ll give Apple the win here, with some props to the ThinkPad’s greater display diversity.

Winner: MacBook Pro 13

Portability and Battery Life

Regarding weight and thickness, the MacBook Pro 13 is no longer particularly special at just over three pounds and 0.59 inches. And its bezels are small, but not the smallest all around, resulting in a chassis that’s diminutive but not especially so. It’s a comfortable machine for tossing in a backpack, but it’s no longer an industry leader.

Also, Apple actually decreased battery life to make the machine as thin as possible — an unfortunate compromise. The Touch Bar version has the smallest battery capacity at 49.2 watt-hours, in spite of adding in an OLED strip that needs some power. The non-Touch Bar version has a more impressive 54 watt-hours. The MacBook Pro 13 offers good but no longer superior battery life.

While the ThinkPad X1 Carbon has a larger display, it’s only slightly larger overall than the MacBook Pro 13. It’s just slightly thicker at 0.62 inches. However, it’s also a half-pound lighter, meaning that it’s going to weigh you down less as you’re trekking from place to place.

The Lenovo also sports a 57 watt-hour battery, which when combined with the 14-inch Full HD display and efficient eighth-generation Intel Core processors promises solid battery life. And in fact, it was decent enough in our testing, running our more intensive tests at a competitive rate. Oddly, it fell behind in our video looping test, which is unusual for the latest class of machines.

Overall, both of these machines are well-equipped to be taken on the road. They aren’t the lightest or thinnest laptops, nor ones with the best battery life. However, when you pit the two of them up against each other, the different pros and cons equal out pretty squarely.

Winner: Tie

Availability and Price

The MacBook Pro 13 is a distinctly premium notebook. The Touch Bar version starts at $1,800 and comes with a Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD. Pricing goes all the way up to $2,900, which nets you a Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, and a 1TB SSD. The non-Touch Bar version is a less expensive option (and the one we prefer), starting at $1,300 for a Core i5, 8GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD.

The ThinkPad X1 Carbon is also priced at a premium, starting at $1,520 for a Core i5, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD, and Full HD display. That runs all the way up to $2,580 for a Core i7, 16GB of RAM, a 1TB SSD, and that lust-worthy WQHD display with Dolby Vision HDR.

Neither of these machines is easy on the wallet. The MacBook Pro 13 starts out at a lower price, but that’s if you give up the Touch Bar and go with less storage. When you compare identical configurations between the two, the MacBook Pro 13 comes out to be $20 cheaper, with one significant difference: CPU. The current MacBook Pro 13 features a 7th-gen processor, while the new ThinkPad has an 8th-gen processor, which results in some significant performance differences.

On the high-end side of things, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon still wins with the option for that vivid HDR display. Lenovo gets the nod here.

Winner: Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon

The ThinkPad X1 Carbon wins this premium notebook battle

Apple will likely update the MacBook Pro line sometime in 2018, at least adding in the latest generation of processors. In the meantime, the current non-Touch Bar MacBook Pro 13 is a great machine for MacOS users and those who’ve bought into the Apple ecosystem.

Unlike some Windows laptops, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon fares well in the places where the MacBook traditionally excels, such as in durability, design, and battery life. The ThinkPad X1 Carbon probably won’t win over a lot of Mac fans, but overall, Lenovo has made upgrades in all the best places, without wasting energy with something like a Touch Bar. We think you’ll find your money better spent on Lenovo than Apple in this comparison.

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