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Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold review: A foldable screen fever dream

lenovo thinkpad x1 fold review center
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold
MSRP $2,499.00
Pros
  • Innovative design
  • Feels robust
  • Beautiful OLED screen
  • Highly portable
Cons
  • Cramped keyboard and touchpad
  • Clunky performance
  • Accessories cost extra

This was supposed to be the year of the dual-screen, foldable laptop. With Microsoft’s Surface Neo in the pipeline and a version of Windows made specifically for it, it felt like we were entering a new era of PC design innovation.

Then 2020 happened. Like many things we were looking forward to, all of that has been either delayed or canceled altogether. Microsoft itself seems to be bowing out of the race.

Lenovo’s own take on the design, the ThinkPad X1 Fold, remains the sole laptop to launch with a bendable screen. It’s one of the most unique PCs ever made, enabling some new experiences that feel genuinely fresh. But as a first-generation product, now without even competitors, is the ThinkPad X1 Fold too weird for its own good?

Design

All folded up, the ThinkPad X1 Fold resembles a folio notebook. With its faux-leather casing and small footprint, you’d never guess that it folds into a full PC — including a keyboard and 13.3-inch screen. The professional aesthetic fits right into the ThinkPad X1 line, designed with a sophisticated and modern businessperson in mind.

All the elements of the X1 Fold hold tightly together, and it just might be the most impressive design feature. The screen closes shut just as well with the keyboard as it does without. That’s important, because the $2499 base model doesn’t include it.

You won’t have to worry about space either. At half the size of a standard 13-inch laptop, the ThinkPad X1 Fold fits into a purse or small bag with ease. That’s the first benefit of having a laptop with a bendable screen, of which there are many that Lenovo takes advantage of.

As a problem with many foldable devices, the ThinkPad X1 Fold can’t be as thin as other tablets or laptops when folded up. It’s 1.09 inches thick closed and 0.45 inches open. Portability is this device’s primary selling point, and it only weighs 2.2 pounds. That makes it one of the lightest laptops you can buy.

The real magic, of course, is when you bend back the screen see the design in all its glory. The X1 Fold uses a silicon hinge and many layers of plastic to ensure the screen can “fold” without damaging the glass. Using leather to cover up the unsightly hinge on the back is ingenious. The Galaxy Z Fold 2’s aluminum hinge looks classy, but the ThinkPad X1 Fold tricks you into forgetting it’s even there.

The foldable screen enables a number of different “modes” for using the ThinkPad X1 Fold. The first is just as a Windows tablet. You can open it flat and use it as one big screen, or folded slightly as a book. This is probably the mode I preferred the least. Windows just isn’t a great platform for touch-only, app-driven experiences. A bendable screen isn’t going to change that. We’ll have to wait for Windows 10X to support a more robust tablet experience.

The device features a built-in leather kickstand that lets the screen stand on its own and provides some helpful angles for things like Zoom and YouTube. I found myself using it not unlike a Surface Pro or iPad, except that the ThinkPad X1 Fold can fold right in half. The kickstand does still feel a little flimsy, though, and the 720p webcam up top isn’t as good as the 1080p options found on many tablets.

All in all, if tablet usage was all the ThinkPad X1 Fold was good for, the software limitations of Windows would be a deal killer. But there’s more to the story, thanks to the innovative keyboard implementation.

Keyboard, touchpad, and stylus

The keyboard is essential to making the ThinkPad X1 Fold a functioning product. The implementation itself is quite clever. First off, it can magnetize to fit the bottom half of the foldable screen to mimic a mini laptop. The magnets feel strong enough to hold the keyboard in place but loose enough to easily remove it. With just half a 13-inch screen, it’s as close to a netbook as any laptop that’s come out in the past 10 years.

The wireless keyboard connects easily over Bluetooth and also charges the keyboard while in place on top of the screen. Once the keyboard is in place, the system automatically blacks out the half of the screen below and resizes the screen to the top half. It’s a pretty fluid transitioning, switching between the different modes and orientations. Lenovo has also created a manual mode switch within Windows, but if everything’s working right, you shouldn’t need to use it.

The keyboard layout is downright odd.

When designing the keyboard, it’s clear Lenovo was set on keeping the QWERTY spacing familiar. My hands fell naturally right onto the size and shape of the keycaps, unlike some smaller layouts like the Surface Go 2 Type Cover. For that, I am happy. But there’s a major trade-off in the layout.

For example, your right pinkie will land on the Enter key instead of the semicolon. The colon, semicolon, apostrophe, and quotation mark are all jammed up by the P key, requiring lots of Function key presses. It was a lot to get used to, and I would have preferred a shortened Enter key instead. It’s a similar story with the hyphen and plus keys.

The biggest offender is the question mark key. It no longer has its own dedicated key, which is very inconvenient and hard to get used to. Again, I’d be happier with a shorter Shift key instead.

Beyond the layout, the keyboard is surprisingly easy to type on as well. The travel is very shallow, but it’s about what I’d expect on a device like this. After all, keeping it as thin as possible is of paramount importance. It already feels a bit thick to type on as a laptop since the palm rests are almost nonexistent. That also means the touchpad is itty bitty. That’s unfortunate. It tracks well enough, but it feels cramped.

Fortunately, the problem with the thickness of the device is remedied once you pull the keyboard away from the screen, which is easily my favorite way of using the ThinkPad X1 Fold. With the screen fully open and propped up by the kickstand, you can sit back with the keyboard and use it at your leisure. That’s a posture even the Surface Pro can’t replicate. I found it to be ideal for getting work done, thanks to the 4:3 13-inch screen.

Of course, you’re still stuck with the limitations of the keyboard, but the freedom of movement is excellent. If only the ThinkPad X1 Fold could double as a secondary monitor! You can, of course, use one of the USB-C ports can be used to connect to an external display, while the other is used for charging.

The secondary issue with both the keyboard and stylus, though, is that neither comes bundled. Like other Windows 2-in-1s, I’d be very disappointed to buy only the ThinkPad X1 Fold without the keyboard. That’s a bummer, especially when the keyboard feels like such an essential aspect of the device.

It’ll cost you an extra $250 to add on both peripherals, which is more than what Microsoft charges for its Surface Pen and Type Cover.

Display and speakers

The folding OLED display is the star of the show. It’s a 13.3-inch screen with a 2048 x 1536 resolution. That’s a 4:3 aspect ratio, and what makes the screen feel so different from your standard 16:9 or 16:10 laptop. The squarish shape makes for a better tablet, and for a gloriously large workspace. Lots of room to spread out apps and see the full length of webpages.

The display screen has a pleasant warm tint to it, and color accuracy isn’t this laptop’s strength. Thanks to the performance limitations, you shouldn’t be doing much beyond very basic photo editing here anyway. But with the wide color spaces (100% sRGB and 97% AdobeRGB) and OLED’s eye-popping contrast, the ThinkPad X1 Fold is a great device for watching videos and movies on the go.

The folding aspect of the screen isn’t pulled off as seamlessly as on the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2. Unlike the single crease of that device, the ThinkPad X1 Fold has a double crease. It’s particularly noticeable when the brightness is turned down or when using the touchscreen, not unlike the Motorola Razr folding phone in that respect. Lenovo is off to a good start with this technology, but the creases and the obvious layer of plastic over the screen do feel a bit cheap under your fingers. Samsung’s implementation still feels more premium. The ridges along the bezels of the ThinkPad X1 Fold along the hinge don’t help, and it’s all accentuated by some of the thickest bezels you’ll ever find on a product released in 2020.

But none of that takes away the ThinkPad X1 Fold’s cool factor. It feels futuristic every time you unfold that screen, and it’ll no doubt wow your friends. Do I wish Lenovo had trimmed some of the fat and cleaned up the bezels? Of course. If we ever get a second generation of this, there is certainly room for improvement.

The speakers suck. They’re branded with Dolby Atmos, but that doesn’t mean much these days.

Many tablets have fantastic audio, such as the iPad or the Pixel Slate. These benefit from having speakers placed on the front next to the display. The ThinkPad X1 Fold’s speakers are located along the sides, which isn’t ideal. More than that, they sound awfully tinny. You’ll get richer audio out of an iPhone, sad to say.

Performance

The ThinkPad X1 Fold is unique beyond just its form factor. The processor inside is also a bit of an experiment. It’s one of the first devices to be powered by Intel’s Lakefield chips, which are hybrid processors that combine elements from both mobile and desktop architecture. One “big” core for laptop-like performance, and five “small” cores for tablet-like efficiency. The ThinkPad X1 Fold sort of accomplishes that, but in the end feels more like an underpowered laptop.

Using PCMark 10 as a benchmark, the ThinkPad X1 Fold is around 25% slower than a standard laptop in basic tasks like web browsing and word processing. This was tested against laptops like the HP Spectre x360 and Dell XPS 13, which are your standard breed of Intel U-series ultrabooks.

In Geekbench 5, it even loses to Core m3 laptops like the Microsoft Surface Go 2 or Windows on ARM laptops like the Lenovo Flex 5G. That’s in both single-core and multi-core processing. For a $2,499 device, that’s not too promising.

The clunky performance was definitely noticeable as I used the ThinkPad X1 Fold for my daily workload of web apps, multitasking, and productivity. Heavier tasks like 3D gaming or content creation are off-limits, as this Lakefield chip doesn’t benefit from Intel’s improved Iris Xe graphics found in 11th-gen Tiger Lake.

The performance limitations feel appropriate when using the X1 Fold as a netbook or a basic tablet. You probably don’t want to do more than one task at a time with that small of a screen. But when working unfolded with the keyboard, I found myself wishing for a zippier processor.

My review unit came with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of SSD storage, though you can bump that up to 1TB for a whopping $3,099.

Battery life

The ThinkPad X1 Fold doesn’t have great battery life. Thanks to Android tablets and iPads, I always expect devices like the X1 Fold to have long-lasting batteries. They always disappoint.

It pales in comparison to an iPad, but also to your average laptop. In very light web browsing, the ThinkPad X1 Fold lasted six hours and 13 minutes on a single charge — but that’s with the full display on without the keyboard. In “laptop” mode, you get an extra hour and a half. That’s better, but still not quite up to par with what similar laptops or tablets can do.

The most you’ll get out of the X1 Fold is over nine hours, which the device lasted in local video playback.

Our take

The ThinkPad X1 Fold is the kind of laptop I want to love. There were moments in using the device where I experienced the spark of innovation that makes it so unique. It remains one of the most exciting PCs to launch in 2020.

But in between those exciting experiences are moments of frustration, confusion, and disappointment. Too many to make this a product that can be recommended to anyone but the most adventurous early adopters.

Are there any alternatives?

The ThinkPad X1 Fold is the first of its kind. However, the experience of using it resembles most a 2-in-1 like the Surface Pro 7, Surface Go, or even an iPad Pro. The ThinkPad X1 Fold is far and away the most expensive of all those devices — and the slowest.

But once you include its foldable screen, it stands alone. On the smartphone side of things, though, devices like the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 or Motorola Razr might scratch that same bendable screen itch.

How long will it last?

Durability is an open question on the ThinkPad X1 Fold, and not one I can currently answer. You’ll be folding it open and closed a lot less than on a smartphone, that’s for sure. For what it’s worth, the hinge feels sufficiently robust for many years of use.

The bigger problem is performance and software. The X1 Fold already feels clunky, and that’s not going to improve over time. Also, with Microsoft’s lighter Windows 10X operating system coming out next year, you may be wishing

Should you buy it?

No. It’s expensive, first-gen hardware that doesn’t have the software support to make it succeed.

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