Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Ultrabook (2014 model)
The standout feature of Lenovo's latest iteration of the ThinkPad X1 Carbon Ultrabook is a 1440p touchscreen that tilts all the way back.
- 1440p IPS screen
- Strong and mobile
- Overall comfortable to use
- Fast Wi-Fi
- No built-in SD card slot
- New features could require a user adjustment period
- SSD not as quick as we expected
The new version of Lenovo's X1 Carbon Ultrabook offers some physical changes that can take a while to get used to. And while it's a strong and well performing notebook overall, with a useful 1440p, IPS screen, we can't help but feel like it might alienate some ThinkPad loyalists.
Lenovo has continued tweaking the design of its ThinkPad X1 Carbon in a bid to streamline its features and include more of what the company’s users want. Most of these tweaks can be seen in the keyboard layout, and in a new touch panel across the top of the keyboard that dynamically changes its icons. The chassis also borrows some design tricks from the ThinkPad T440s. But one thing that really stands out about this laptop is its 14in screen: it’s a 1440p touchscreen that tilts right back.
As with all ThinkPad laptops, there are various configurations that you can purchase to suit your needs. The X1 Carbon is no different; there are three models available starting from about $1750 in Australia and $2349 in New Zealand (at the time of writing), and then a ‘build your own’ model. That’s the model we are looking at here. It came to us kitted out with a fourth generation Intel Core i5-4300U CPU, 8GB of DDR3 SDRAM, a 180GB solid state drive (SSD), and a 2560x1440-pixel touchscreen. We also got Windows 8.1 Pro, an integrated mobile broadband module, 802.11ac networking, and a backlit keyboard.
All of this good stuff ran up a bill of $2444 ($2873 in New Zealand) when we used Lenovo’s price configuration utility, making this a pricey laptop, but one that many business users should appreciate. In addition to the good configuration, you get a body that’s designed to be tougher than a standard notebook. It’s built out of carbon fibre, and Lenovo claims it has passed tests for dust, vibration, heat, cold, altitude, humidity, and water spillage.
It feels very solid when you hold it in your hands, and at 1.4kg it's not overly heavy. This is much the same fare as the previous ThinkPad Carbon X1 models we’ve reviewed. However, we were able to bend the lid a little too much for our liking, with puddles appearing on the screen, open windows beginning to shake, and some clicking being heard between the front and back pieces of the lid on the right side. That said, if you’re a normal user, you probably won’t sit there bending the lid to see how far it can go; we do it just to give you an anecdote about the unit’s sturdiness.
The chassis is about 19mm thick at its thickest point with the lid closed, and this includes the rubber feet at the bottom. It has a cooling fan in the corner that vents out through the right side, and there are vent holes underneath, too. The bottom panel is removable as long as you have a Phillips-head screwdriver handy. We noticed some slight creaking in the bottom panel when we held the unit with one hand from the corners, owing to some flexing.
There are no drainage points on this unit, which means you have to switch off the unit and tip it forward a bit to remove water from accidental spills. There are intrusion points that could possibly lead to water getting inside the unit, so we recommend being careful around liquids, just as you would be with any other laptop.
New features: 1440p screen and drop hinges
If you’re into video and image editing or design work, and even if you just want to be more effective with your multitasking, you will appreciate the 2560x1440-pixel screen, which offers a huge amount of desktop real estate on the 14in screen. For some of you, it might be a screen resolution that is too small to read in a conventional seating position. In this instance, you can either switch the resolution to something lower, say 1920x1080, or you can increase the size of icons and windows using the setting in Windows 8.1 to make text bigger. Both of these have the effect of making the screen look muddy.
As for the screen’s quality, it is crisp at its native resolution, produces good colours, and offers wide viewing angles (it’s an IPS panel). Its touch panel, which doesn’t add much to the bulk of the unit overall, offers the best way to get around the Windows 8.1 Modern UI as long as you’re used to pointing and swiping at the screen, and it’s a smooth and responsive screen for touch interaction.
A change in the hinge design compared to the previous X1 Carbon that we saw allows the screen to tilt all the way back and lie flat on a desk. It’s the drop type of hinge design that we first saw in the ThinkPad T440s, and it means you can put the screen all the way down if you don’t want it getting in the way while talking during a meeting or presentation, and it’s also a good way to use the touchscreen if you have the desk space. There is no accelerometer, so you’ll have to rotate the screen manually through Windows 8.1’s settings if you want to turn it upside down or sideways. The viewing angles of the 1440p screen are wide, and they facilitate the lie-back angle nicely.
There is one annoyance we’ll point out: the screen on our test model actually didn’t sit exactly flat on a desk. This meant that every time we touched it, it wobbled. We don’t know if many of you have the intention to put the screen back all the way to use the touch features for drawing or writing, but if you do, you might not like the way it feels.
Lenovo claims that the ThinkPad's touchscreen coating is immune to smudging, but this was not the case during our review period. We could often see areas of the screen that were affected by smudges where we had touched it. Like all touch devices, you’ll have to clean the screen well before working on photos or video, or even before working on documents. We found the brightness level of the screen to be a little low for an office environment, but reflections were not a problem for us. The touchscreen is more dull than glossy.
A non-touch screen is available, and that is reported to be brighter. If you don’t want a 1440p screen, you have to drop down to a 900p resolution. There is no 1080p offering, which is disappointing.
New features: Adaptive Keyboard
In front of the screen is one of the ThinkPad Carbon X1’s innovations. Rather than having traditional Function keys, Lenovo has installed an icon-filled panel called the Adaptive Keyboard, and it changes icons dynamically according to what’s on the screen. There are four rows of icons available: the Home row, Web browser row, Web conference row, and Function row. If you’re in a Web browser such as Firefox, you will see icons for page navigation. If you’re in a folder or on the Desktop, you’ll see icons for bringing up apps and switching apps (these are the Home row icons).
It can be a little frustrating to see all the icons change, especially if you aren’t used to them, but you can cycle through all the available icons by pressing the Fn button on the left. Luckily, the dynamic feature can be switched off. The default row of icons can be changed, and some of the icons can be customised in terms of the action they perform.
The Adaptive Keyboard contains all of the functions you might be used to performing by using the Fn modifier and an F-number key, as well as a few more. You can toggle the keyboard backlight, change brightness and volume, as well as bring up Lenovo-specific settings. You can still use the Function keys regularly, too, by toggling the appropriate icons.
New features: Gesture and voice control
When you bring up the Adaptive Keyboard settings, you can see that there is a camera feature that allows you to use gestures to control media players, Power Point, picture viewers, and e-book readers. All of the gestures that are supported are shown so you can learn them. We think this is a gimmick; it didn’t work well during our attempts to control video playback. Playing and pausing gestures didn’t always work, and skipping to different parts of a video by moving our right hand side to side seemed to always land on the same spots.
There is also a voice control feature, but it reported that it didn’t support the Australian language setting of our system, and when we changed it to US English, it then told us that we had to download Dragon Assistant and offered a generic support link. We went hunting for it, but couldn’t locate it on Lenovo’s Aussie Web site.
Keyboard and touchpad
The keyboard on this laptop has a few changes that can take some getting used to. It’s a somewhat radical departure from a traditional PC keyboard, primarily because Lenovo has removed keys and reorganised others in order to maximise space and convenience. The main difference you will notice straight away is the lack of a Caps Lock button. This has been replaced by the Home and End keys, and you have to double-tap the Shift key to get your Caps Lock on. A little indicator light is present to let you know that you’ve enabled it.
Backspace and Delete now reside right next to each other at the top-right corner of the keyboard, there is no Print Screen key. This is replaced by a shortcut to the Snipping Tool in the Adaptive Keyboard. Overall, the keyboard is very good for long periods of typing, with the keys feeling crisp, but they do feel a little too shallow.
The touchpad is a large one (100x70mm), and it’s the same design as the one on the ThinkPad T440s. It feels smooth, it’s accurate, and it supports multi-finger gestures. Our only gripe is that three-finger swipes were reversed and we couldn’t find a way to change it in the driver.
If you are used to a TrackPoint, you can use that instead, but its buttons are now zones on the touchpad itself, which can take some getting used to.
Performance and battery life
Put simply, we didn’t experience any issues with this laptop’s performance. It remained enjoyable to use throughout our test period, and it returned expected results in the Blender 3D rendering test (46sec) and HandBrake transcoding test (20min 14sec to turn a vob file into an mp4).
In the latest 3DMark, the Intel HD graphics recorded 4536 in the Cloud Gate portion of the test, and 631 in Fire Strike. The solid state drive, which is an Intel Pro 1500 model, recorded a read rate of 417.4 megabytes per second in CrystalDiskMark, and a write rate of 170MBps. These results aren’t as fast as the ThinkPad T440s, or even the ThinkPad X240, both of which recorded better than 500MBps for reading and over 250MBps for writing.
The 45 Watt-hour battery inside the chassis gives the X1 Carbon a decent, but not spectacular life away from a power outlet. In our rundown test, in which we disable power management, enable Wi-Fi, maximise screen brightness, and loop a video file, the battery ran for 4hr 35min. It’s almost the same as the time the T440s recorded in the same test with its dual battery configuration.
The screen is the major culprit in the power-sucking stakes, and if you want more life, be sure to use a balanced power profile, lower brightness, and don’t tax the CPU too much. There is a fast-charging feature that allows the battery to get up to about 80 per cent of capacity in one hour, and this is very convenient.
Other features; final thoughts
We’re not sure what to think about the new ThinkPad X1 Carbon overall. Generally, we love ThinkPads for the way they feel and the way they run, but the extra features on this model are a bit of a curve ball because they change the way the unit feels a little too much.
We’re not altogether keen on the Adaptive Keyboard, nor do we think the extras, such as gesture control, are needed. Furthermore, the SD card slot has been removed from this model, which we think is odd given the 1440p screen; we think a photographer would love to be able to dump photos on this unit quickly just by inserting their card.
That said, connectivity includes two USB 3.0 ports, so you could always plug in an SD card adapter, and other ports include full-sized HDMI, headset, Mini DisplayPort, a breakout for Gigabit Ethernet, and a docking connector. An optional dock adds more USB ports (four USB 3.0 and two USB 2.0), as well as DVI, DisplayPort, and Gigabit Ethernet. It passes power through to the laptop, so you can have the dock permanently connected to a power adapter.
Speaker chambers are located underneath (they fire downwards), and they are quite powerful considering the thin chassis. Their power can be felt noticeably through the palm rest if you listen to music at a loud level while typing. If you don’t want to use the speakers, you can always hook in to a Bluetooth speaker or stereo system. The Carbon worked fine with our Rotel amplifier for streaming content from Google Play Music.
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