Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon (2018) review

The ThinkPad X1 Carbon is business casual at a full-suit price

The X1 Carbon is a slick refinement of the classic ThinkPad formula.
The X1 Carbon is a slick refinement of the classic ThinkPad formula.
The X1 Carbon is a slick refinement of the classic ThinkPad formula.

Highs

  • Refined keyboard and touchpad experience
  • Soft-touch carbon materials feel great
  • Perfect use of Thunderbolt 3
  • Speedy processor and storage
  • Robust build quality

Lows

  • Touchscreen isn’t responsive
  • Expensive compared to competitors
  • Mediocre battery life under some loads

DT Editors' Rating

There are certain laptop brands that people will pay more for. MacBook is the first that comes to mind, but ThinkPad isn’t far behind. Laptops in this line have established firm footing in the hearts and minds of their users.

Lenovo is now on the sixth generation of the ThinkPad X1 Carbon series, a line of premium laptops that has made small, iterative changes to modernize the ThinkPad formula for its professional audience. Our review unit was the X1 Carbon, which contains the most recent 8th-gen Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, and 512GB of SSD storage.

ThinkPad laptops come at a premium — and that hasn’t changed here. At a starting price of $1,790, you’re going to be paying more for this laptop than for many competitors with similar components. ThinkPad has its fans, but has Lenovo has made enough changes to win over newcomers?

The ThinkPad gets fresh branding

The sixth generation X1 Carbon is slick enough in the right areas to compete with other modern computers, while retaining the recognizable ThinkPad design. Lenovo hasn’t ditched the iconic red TrackPoint, the upper-left alignment print on the keys, or the chunky, old-school mouse click. A splash of branding updates refines just about every logo, including the subtler ThinkPad on the palm rest. Even the small “X1” logo on the back of the lid helps spice up the overall look.

But Lenovo’s ThinkPad is no longer alone in cultivating a strong PC brand. The XPS 13 comes to mind first, as it’s marked by its interesting choice of materials, tiny bezels, and small footprint. It’s a bit more luxurious, but Dell has established a reputation and design language while offering the XPS 13 at a much lower base price. HP has also firmed up its design language, and the Spectre models – though they look much different –compete with ThinkPad in perceived quality.

It’s an understated laptop, but that’s always been part of the ThinkPad charm.

Still, the X1 Carbon feels rock-solid when handled. Every surface of the device is covered in carbon material, giving a soft-touch feel. It’s welcoming compared to the hard plastic that some other ThinkPads use. It also feels durable and solid, with almost no flex or give in the keyboard deck or lid. As expected, every panel of the X1 Carbon feels carefully constructed. If you’re coming from a MacBook Pro or Surface Book, you won’t be impressed, but it’s a small step up from the Dell XPS 13 or HP Spectre 13.

It’s not the thinnest and lightest laptop we’ve ever used, but the X1’s size is impressive. At just under 2.5 pounds, it’s half a pound lighter than the 13-inch MacBook Pro, and 0.17 pounds lighter than the Dell XPS 13. It’s a tad heavier than the HP Spectre 13, but not by much. At its thinnest, it’s smaller than the MacBook Pro and Surface Book 2, though not as thin as the XPS 13, Spectre 13, or ZenBook 3 Deluxe.

As a laptop intended for getting serious work done, the X1 Carbon has everything you’ll need in terms of port coverage. The legacy ports like a full-size HDMI and two USB-A should please businesspeople, ensuring that connecting to displays and accessories of all sorts is possible. It also has two Thunderbolt 3 ports, matching what you’ll find in laptops like the HP Spectre 13 and Dell XPS 13.

The master of keyboards, touchpads, and pointing sticks

ThinkPad truly excels at the fundamentals, and ThinkPad’s keyboard is famous — not just for its look, but also feel. ThinkPads offer great tactile feel, so key presses encourage quick, accurate typing. We may never warm up to the weird placement of the arrow keys and Function keys (and really unfortunate placement of the Page Up key), but none of that will surprise experienced ThinkPad users.

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

Lenovo’s famous TrackPoint is dead center in the middle of the keyboard, just as fans will expect.  These used to adorn every laptop you could buy, but now they’re found only on ThinkPads, and a few workstation models for Dell and HP. Lenovo has traditionally been the standard-bearer for this type of cursor because its version feels better than its peers, and that remains true today. The TrackPoint is quick, responsive, and doesn’t require much effort to use – if you’re into it. If you’re not, we have good news.

The click of the trackpad is nearly perfect. It’s precise and satisfying, yet not loud or stiff. The problem is the size.

The X1’s touchpad available on a Windows device, only falling behind the Surface Book 2 and XPS 13. Navigating is fluid, and the touchpad almost never mistakes a resting thumb for two fingers. The click of the trackpad is nearly perfect. It’s precise and satisfying, yet not loud or stiff. The problem is the size. Because of the placement of the left and right click buttons above (for the comfort of TrackPoint users), the touchpad surface is small. It’s one of the downfalls of the TrackPoint, and unfortunate for those who’d rather use the laptop’s touchpad.

Lenovo has also included many helpful add-on features, such as a cover for your webcam, advanced fingerprint-scanning technology, and a touchscreen. While the fingerprint scanner will be an important addition for IT professionals, the touchscreen is a bit of a letdown. It’s a new addition to the sixth generation X1 Carbon, but it’s not all that responsive, which lead to frustration as we tapped multiple times to open a window or close a dialog box.

Keep it indoors and have those headphones on hand

The X1 Carbon we tested had a 14-inch IPS non-gloss display, coming in at a pixel resolution of 1920 x 1080. It’s larger than the average 13-inch laptop, but it’s a comfortable size for a work laptop, thanks to the additional screen real estate at your disposal.

The X1 Carbon fares well in color accuracy, nailing a low average color error, and showing a decent 78 percent of the Adobe RGB scale. Most impressive was contrast, where it’s bested by the Surface Book 2. The only real problem — and this was noticeable right away — was brightness. A score of 297 nits was a ding on an otherwise great display, compared to the Surface Book 2 and MacBook Pro’s 400+ nits of brightness. However, the matte display coat makes the screen’s mediocre brightness less of an issue because glare from ambient light isn’t visible.

It should be noted that Lenovo does offer a 4K HDR model, available only in the high-end configuration. While it claims to go up to 400 nits and display some vivid colors, we haven’t gotten to test it out yet.

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

The down-firing speakers on the X1 Carbon are nothing to write home about. You’d better plan on bringing headphones with you to work — although you should do that anyways. Along with the speakers, Lenovo has thrown in a couple of 360 degree far-field microphones that enable the Cortana voice assistant. Although it’s not something we used much (especially at work), the mics picked up voices well, even with significant background noise.

Excellent performance, at a price

Our review unit came with the 8th-gen Core i5-8250U, which is a quick, mid-range processor to have as its base configuration. It also starts with 8GB of RAM and an impressive 512GB of NVMe SSD storage. That’s twice as much storage as you’d expect to see in an average base-level configuration, which is where some of the increase in price comes from.

We found the Core i5-8250U handled our benchmark and stress tests well, as expected. It showed significant gains over the previous-generation CPU in the 2017 X1 Carbon. We saw a 44 percent increase in multi-core performance in our GeekBench test. If you are running multiple instances of Photoshop, Excel, and Google Chrome you’ll start to notice heat and noise, but it’s not excessive. The Core i5 configuration of the X1 Carbon should be a good choice for most professionals.

There’s no question that Lenovo is charging a premium for the processor.

Meanwhile, if you stick with the Core i5, same Core i5 processor comes in configurations of the Dell XPS 13 and HP Spectre 13 for only $1,200. The $1,790 X1 Carbon comes with twice as more storage, but there’s no question that Lenovo is charging more for the processor you get here. You can take the X1 Carbon up to a Core i7-8650U if you’re willing to pay, though it’s not going to be cheap.

Speaking of storage, Lenovo has included some speedy components on the X1 Carbon. With 512GB of NVMe SSD storage, you’ll never run out of space, and you’ll never have to wait long to write or read files. As you can see from the results above, The X1 Carbon blows away competitors in hard drive write performance, where it saw the best results outside of the Surface Book 2. People don’t often purchase laptops based on storage performance, but if they did, the X1 Carbon would be an instant buy.

Not for games, usually

You won’t be surprised to learn that the ThinkPad X1 Carbon isn’t made for playing games. It’s an enterprise-focused laptop with productivity work at its heart. Despite the recent appearance of affordable 13-inch laptops with discrete graphics (like the ZenBook 13), you won’t find one here.

We ran it through 3DMark to see how the integrated Intel UHD 620 graphics could hold up to the pressure. With scores dipping below half of what you get on the MX150-powered ZenBook 13, set your expectations low for what you can do with graphic-intensive software or games.

But not all games require complicated 3D graphics if you reduce the graphics settings a bit. We tried out Rocket League in 1080p and saw decent framerates in “Performance” and a barely-playable 24 FPS on “High Quality.” You’ll can get by in some games with lowered settings, but your mileage may vary.

Battery life

The battery life of the X1 Carbon was a bit confusing. It came with a 57 watt-hour battery, which is common for a laptop of this size. Lenovo cites 15 hours of battery, though in our experience, you won’t enjoy anywhere close to that much.

The X1 Carbon fared well in our more web browsing benchmark, where it lasted over 6 and a half hours, though it’s still a bit behind XPS 13. It scored better than expected in the Basemark web browsing test, which is the most intensive benchmark we run, where it surpassed its competitors.

The real problem was in our video looping test, where we play a 1080p video on loop until the battery dies. Lasting just around 8 hours, it’s well behind the 13 and a half hours of the XPS 13 or even the 9 hours of the HP Spectre 13. In daily usage, you’ll probably be able to stay away from a wall plug for around 7 or 8 hours, which is a bit behind the competition, and even a step back from the previous generation of X1 Carbon.

Our Take

The ThinkPad X1 Carbon is well-rounded. It nails the fundamentals, from its keyboard to its performance. However, there’s no question the bang-for-your-buck value just isn’t up to snuff.

Are there other alternatives?

The most significant alternative to the ThinkPad X1 Carbon is the Dell XPS 13, which is a more modern laptop in every way. The $1,200 configuration uses the same CPU and RAM, but only comes with 256GB of SSD storage. An identical configuration is offered by Lenovo, but it’ll cost you $1,520 in comparison.

If you’re more about looks and design than value, the MacBook Pro or the Surface Book 2 are always good options. You can buy the non-Touch Bar version of the MacBook Pro (which is the one we’d recommend) with hardware similar to the X1 for $1,700. You can’t configure a Surface Book 2 to match the X1 Carbon, but you’ll be able to easily add on a discrete GPU or more storage.

How long will it last?

The ThinkPad X1 Carbon comes with a standard 1-year warranty.. Outside of that, the varied port selection and excellent construction should make the X1 Carbon last for many, many years.

Should you buy it?

For most people, no. ThinkPad lovers will find a lot to appreciate here, but the price tag is a problem. The X1 Carbon is a laptop you’ll love to own – if your company pays for it.

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