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Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon Ultrabook Review

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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With the advent of Intel’s efficient Ivy Bridge processors, manufacturers have been able to push the Ultrabook design to the next level without sacrificing performance. There’s no better example of this than Lenovo’s new X1 Carbon which is not only incredibly thin but also boasts one of the most rigid, durable chassis on the market.

Unlike other Ultrabooks we have reviewed in the past, with a starting price of over $1,200, the X1 Carbon is considered a “premium” product. With that being said, Lenovo is targeting professionals who want the ultimate in portability but aren’t willing to push aside any other aspects of business computing. Dell tried this with the short-lived, budget friendly but excellent Vostro V131. Its back-to-basics approach made a perfect fit for students and everyday consumers as well. Granted, Lenovo’s entry may be too expensive for anyone on a shoestring credit card limit but it should go above and beyond the expectations for standard mass market products.


While $1249 will currently grant access to the X1’s basic layout, Lenovo allows for configuration options that will quickly run its cost to just below the $1800 mark. In a market that’s struggling to define itself against tablets, that’s a lot of cash but my $1530 sample had slightly less lofty expectations and won’t burn quite so large a hole in your wallet.

The most important addition to this generation of Ultrabooks is Intel’s aforementioned Ivy Bridge processors, which grace every X1 Carbon configuration. All of these come from the Ultra Low Voltage line which means clock speed reductions when compared against their fully enabled siblings but power consumption and heat output remain extremely low. My setup came with an i5-3427U which typically runs at 1.8GHz but has the ability to boost up to 2.8GHz when TDP constraints allow and 4GB of memory. There is an 8GB option but Lenovo has removed this possibility on every lower-end X1 by making it accessible on the upper echelon $1499 model. Go figure.

Storage and battery options are severely constrained as well. All X1 Carbons come with a 128GB SSD while 256GB of storage is available for an eye-watering $280 premium. Due to space constraints, Lenovo seems to have sacrificed in the battery department. The lone option is a 4 cell pack with a mere 44Whr capacity and no, it isn’t user replaceable.

One thing we like about Lenovo is their well positioned warranty upgrades. At the time of writing, the X1 Carbon comes standard with a single year of coverage but two years of onsite warranty support can be purchased for only $70. That’s a great deal for anyone seeking peace of mind. It should also be mentioned that Lenovo does ship Window 8 with all of their notebooks but they allow for a free Windows 7 Pro installation should you wish to avoid a Metro-inspired mess.


Opinions about Lenovo’s styling choices run the gamut from derision to respect but I’ve always reserved a place in my heart for their understated good looks. Instead of heading down the look-at-me styling paths taken by the likes of Apple, ASUS and HP, the X1 Carbon takes a subtle approach with an all-black chassis.

Just because we can’t see brushed aluminum or some other supposedly high end material doesn’t mean competitors have Lenovo beat on the quality front. There isn’t a hint of plastic on this thing. Every surface is made from sculpted carbon fiber that’s been coated in a durable soft-touch finish, preventing scratches while also providing a surprising amount of grip. With the addition of a carbon fiber internal roll cage, the X1 Carbon is able to pass eight of the stringent tests necessary for Mil-Spec certification. This is actually one of the best-built notebooks we’ve ever come across.


The addition of carbon fiber has also allowed Lenovo to drastically cut down on the X1’s overall weight and thickness. Weighing in at just under 3 lbs and about ¾” high, it sets a new benchmark for Ultrabooks without sacrificing construction quality. With that being said, it certainly won't win any beauty contests.


Due to the limited amount of space along the chassis’ outer edges, Lenovo has included a number of well placed LEDs which indicate charging and sleep status.

Meanwhile, on the inner palmrest has fingerprint reader for additional security should the Windows password be insufficient for your line of work. Due to the X1’s diminutive stature, anyone with larger hands will likely engage it by mistake but there is an option to shut down the fingerprint recognition software once the notebook is unlocked. Just be prepared for some frustration if the reader is left engaged.


As with most other Ultrabooks, the connectivity options on Lenovo’s X1 Carbon are somewhat limited in their reach but all of the necessary bases are covered. There certainly isn’t enough space for a disk drive but the left edge receives a USB 2.0 port (which pulls double duty as a LAN jack with the included adapter), a wireless on/off switch and a flat shaped power connector which is used for the unique RapidCharge feature.

By using RapidCharge technology, the X1 can complete a full battery charge in less than 40 minutes while topping up the battery for a mere 15 minutes can allow for an additional 2 hours of running time. For on-the-go professionals that may only get a few minutes of charging access in an airport, this could be invaluable.

A single USB 3.0 port along with a combo headphone / mic jack, 4 in 1 card reader, mini DisplayPort and Kensington lock are all located on the right side.


Say hello to a tease for Canadians. While our neighbors to the south receive mobile broadband (3G) compatibility via a discrete SIM card port, this option isn’t available for us. Ironically, all of the hardware is accounted for but it doesn’t work with Canadian telecom carriers.


There really isn’t much to see on the X1 Carbon’s underside other than plenty of ventilation areas, a quartet of rubberized feet and a continuation of the soft-touch finish. As with most other Ultrabooks, upgrades aren’t possible since it uses a single-piece backplate which ensures maximum rigidity.
 
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SKYMTL

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Keyboard & Touchpad

Keyboard & Touchpad



Over the last few years we’ve seen subtle yet tasteful updates to the chassis of ThinkPad models but the Precision keyboard’s layout, key type and overall design had remained steadfastly the same. People loved it, often stating it was the best around. Now things have changed.

Gone is the old chiclet style layout and in its place is an island style design which uses individually contoured keys with a “smile”-like shape. These keys also have a slightly concave shape which hugs your fingers and completely eliminates slipping. According to Lenovo, the unique, large keys are supposed to cut down on errors and improve accuracy while also maximizing the keyboard’s overall area.

By promising vast improvements over previous –nearly perfect- designs, Lenovo may be making some lofty claims, but the X1 Carbon’s keyboard is –in my opinion at least- simply spectacular. The soft-touch palm rests do help with the typing process but the X1’s newly minted keys are the stars of this particular show. They offer just the right amount of tactile feedback without feeling overly springy and touch typists will be pleased with the generous distances between each “island”. I found the slightly curved bottom edge actually helped with typing speed since it expanded the sweet spot of every key, ensuring the expanded size is being put to good use. Meanwhile, the massive Enter and Shift buttons were a godsend throughout the testing process. Is it better than past attempts to create the perfect notebook keyboard? I’d say so but that’s just a subjective opinion from someone that types more than 20,000 words per week.


While Lenovo’s key engineering may be head and shoulders above the competition, after using the X1 for the better part of three weeks, I feel certain areas still need attention. The fingerprint reader is just horribly placed and will constantly mistake your palm for an attempted access request (it can be disabled easily enough), the left Function and Control buttons’ positioning is reversed and the Page Up and Page Down locations next to the direction keys will be hugely frustrating for casual gamers and professionals alike. In addition, the contoured key surface does take some getting used to as the concave shape self-centers your fingertips, causing an odd sensation for first-time users.


The X1 Carbon’s keyboard is backstopped with a variable backlight which is controlled by pressing the Function key along with the space bar. Unfortunately, even on the lowest setting, it gobbles up power and significantly reduces battery life.


Directly below the X1’s screen bezel lies a small plastic area which houses the audio controls and mute buttons for the mic / headphone jack and integrated speakers. There’s also a center-mounted control that brings up Lenovo’s SimpleTap operating system wrapper which essentially provides a predominantly icon-centric experience that replicates tablet interactions on notebooks without a touchscreen.


Lenovo’s handy TrackPoint makes a comeback on this Ultrabook and we couldn’t be happier for its inclusion. The patented TrackPoint’s primary mission is to provide an alternate form of onscreen pointer input through the use of a center-mounted red “joystick” and a trio of buttons located below the space bar. It excels in granting lightning quick access to cursor movements when typing, has been well integrated and I preferred using it over the buttonless touchpad.

Speaking of the touchpad, while it doesn’t house any physical buttons, the lower portion has two integrated areas which replicate left and right click areas and provide adequate feedback. The size and surface resistance are perfect, ensuring proper gesture controls for both Windows 7 and Windows 8. Unlike other examples, it rarely misstepped during multi touch testing which is a testament to Lenovo’s engineering, though I would have preferred the integration of physical buttons.
 
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SKYMTL

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Screen & Audio Quality

Screen Quality



At first glance, the Carbon X1’s 1600 x900 screen provides everything someone could possibly want from a viewing experience. It uses a matte coating, neatly eliminating the horrible reflections evident on most other Ultrabooks and uses one of the better TN panels we’ve seen. The relatively high resolution also places it on par with other premium notebooks and the additional real estate will come in handy for professionals and home users alike.

Unfortunately, that’s where the fun stops. A matte screen coating may be a godsend for anyone looking for a respite from the headache inducing glossy coatings that permeate the notebook market but lackluster backlight intensity sinks this ship. Even with the screen set to maximum brightness, it is nearly impossible to see outdoors or in other brightly lit environments. Lenovo certainly isn’t making a convincing argument for matte screens with this one.


Click on image to enlarge

The screen also exhibited the dreaded “screen door” effect where adjacent pixels seem too widely spaced, creating dark striations which are mostly evident in lightly colored areas. It becomes a readily apparent when using a word processing or chart creation program, creating a major misstep for a notebook targeting the professional market. According to Lenovo, this is perfectly normal for the X1 but I disagree wholeheartedly. When playing in the same price point as the 13” MacBook Pros, Sony Vaio Zs of this world, you need to bring your best to the table and that certainly isn’t being done here.


Switching over to non-work related tasks like gaming or movie watching allowed the X1 Carbon to flex some of its display muscles. Colors were typically deep and rich with good contrast in even the darkest scenes and the foibles mentioned previous were nearly rendered null and void.


Viewing angles are adequate but on both the horizontal and vertical axis, moving to extremes will cause significant color and contrast degradations. This is to be expected with a TN panel but the effect certainly isn’t as dramatic as other notebooks we’ve reviewed.


Audio Quality


With a Dolby Home Theater v4 backbone, the Lenovo X1 Carbon’s external speaker performance is certainly decent, if not surprisingly good for a notebook this thin. Will it fill a room with crystal clear music? Absolutely not. Even with Dolby’s software helping things along, bass is literally non-existent and the output can become severely distorted at higher octaves. There isn’t any headphone-centric hardware to speak of either, which is disappointing since this Ultrabook is intended to be a portable powerhouse and savvy professionals won’t use the main speakers during their world-trekking travels.
 

SKYMTL

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Included Software

Included Software



On an Ultrabook that comes with a standard 128GB SSD, the X1 Carbon is packed to the gills with pre-installed programs. Some transgressions are minor –Evernote and Lenovo’s many utilities are innocuous enough and will come in handy for professionals- but programs like Nitro 7 Pro and SugarSync Manager have no place here. Norton Internet Security also has an annoying tendency to pop up with its scare tactic reminders and it is nearly impossible to remove completely. It is however great to see that a constantly overlooked registry patch for Windows 7 has been included which drastically improves battery life on some configurations. All told, the Windows installation, the recovery partition and plus these applications eat up a good 50GB, making the 256GB SSD a tempting, albeit expensive option.

Incredibly, with all of these processes running in the background, the Carbon’s idle memory footprint comes to just 1.34GB. With the RAM-hungry Norton replaced with Microsoft’s frugal Security Essentials, this can be lowered to only 950MB.


The ThinkVantage Tools area provides a quick and easy jump-off point for all of Lenovo’s built-in controls. Unfortunately, by defult, there’s no easy way to access this quickly so I’d recommend putting a shortcut on your desktop.


Lenovo’s Power Manager is one of those programs you wish were included on every other notebook. It may be a bit daunting for novices at first but it is quite intuitive and grants class leading control over the integrated battery, charging and power states. Custom profiles can be easily loaded though individual power plans, offline device recharging is available and a myriad of other functions can be controlled. Anyone daunted by the nearly limitless options can switch over to a Basic layout.

My personal favorite is an Airplane Mode that shuts down all non-essential hardware, powers down the USB ports and modulates the display’s backlight in order to enhance battery life on long distance journeys. For those of you wondering, I was able to achieve about 20% longer runtime when using Airplane Mode instead of Windows’ Power Saver settings.


The Internet Connections dialog box is another well thought out application that allows for visual inspection and interaction with available networks, be they wireless or wired. The WiMAX and Mobile Broadband areas will remain inaccessible until a compatible SIM card is installed but all other options will be fully accessible. The Mobile Hotspot even allows the X1 Carbon to broadcast its own WiFi signal but provides limited use if the Mobile Broadband remains disabled. I used it once in a hotel room which was only equipped with wired connections for cell phone VOIP calling and never looked at it again.

Much like with other Lenovo software, this application includes an Advanced tab that unlocks additional options for tech-savvy users.

All in all, Lenovo’s self-branded programs are extremely well designed and will be useful for first time professionals and everyday consumers alike. They couldn’t all be covered in this section but I found myself constantly going back to them in order to improve the X1’s overall computing experience.
 

SKYMTL

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System Benchmarks

System Benchmarks


These system benchmarks will cover the basics of a notebook’s sub-system performance along with Startup and Shutdown times. For PCMark 7 the standard test is used for most notebooks but entry level models are tested using the Lightweight Test. WPrime tests CPU performance and finally, Crystal Diskmark will give us an idea of storage (HDD or SSD) performance.







While the X1’s ultra low voltage Ivy Bridge processor may not be the fastest around, its performance dwarfs the previous generation’s Sandy Bridge alternatives. However, the processor is only a minor part of this testing suite’s focus. The SSD Lenovo has included is a real beast with extremely high read performance and the highest write numbers we’ve seen in a notebook thus far. As a result, the Carbon X1 is able to pull far ahead of the competition in storage-centric tests like PCMark even though quicker data writing capabilities don’t necessarily impact Windows load times or overall system responsiveness.
 

SKYMTL

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Productivity Benchmarks

Productivity Benchmarks


In this section we will be benchmarking programs which many people use on a daily basis. WinRAR will show how well a given system’s CPU, memory and storage subsystem performance work together to compress a large folder with 2.5GB of information contained within. Meanwhile, we use DriverHeaven’s Photoshop Benchmark and CineBench to recreate a professional usage environment of photo manipulation and rendering. MediaCoder x64 is also included in order to show CPU video transcoding performance within a free, vendor agnostic and multi threaded program.






Once again we see the combination of a relatively quick processor and phenomenal write speeds can make a difference in several applications. For example, the X1 has a “slower” processor than Dell’s V131 but in WinRAR and Photoshop, Lenovo’s solution can save the data quicker which leads to additional resources being freed up for the primary processing tasks. Meanwhile, in other tasks, the ULV processor results in a middle of the pack finish.
 

SKYMTL

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Entertainment Benchmarks / WiFi Performance

Entertainment Benchmarks


With a swift propagation of online and disk-based high definition content, testing a notebook’s performance in this area is critical. In order to accomplish this, a 720P YouTube Flash video clip is played through Google Chrome with hardware acceleration enabled.

The Blu Ray tests are conducted through Cyberlink’s PowerDVD 11 Ultra once again with hardware acceleration enabled if the system supports it. The video was run directly from the notebook’s hard drive. If the notebook doesn’t support 1080P input to its screen, we output the video via HDMI or DisplayPort to a 1080P HDTV.




The Ivy Bridge processor’s HD 4000 graphics engine has been updated for better decoding performance and we’re seeing the proof within the charts above. None of these benchmarks presents a challenge for the X1.


Wireless (WiFi) Performance


One of the most important aspects of any portable device is its ability to connect to wireless networks. A weak wireless card, insufficient insulation around the receiver or a badly placed antenna could all lead to connection issues and poor signal reception. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting booted from the ‘net due to insufficient signal.

In this simple test, we set up a wireless router (D-Link DIR-825) in six pre-determined locations within our 3-floor home at a rate of two locations per floor and each connected to a host PC. The notebook is placed upstairs (on the 3rd level), the router is connected to and a 1GB folder of information is transferred over to the host PC over the network. Typically, the transfer takes 5 to 20 minutes depending upon signal strength, etc.

The numbers you see below indicate how many connection points each notebook could recognize and then complete a successful file transfer. Naturally, higher recognized connection rates and successful file transfer numbers indicate better wireless performance.

Note than the floor plate between the basement and first level is concrete, which will prove to be a significant challenge for the penetration of wireless signals. The locations chosen range from 20 feet to approximately 50 feet away from the tested computer.



Somehow Lenovo has managed to fit a decent wireless antenna system into the X1 Carbon’s svelte chassis. As a result, it posts very good wireless reception from a highly varied selection of access points spread across numerous distances.
 

SKYMTL

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Messages
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Gaming Benchmarks

Gaming Benchmarks


The gaming tests seen below are relatively straightforward with a mix of DX11 and DX9 games being used in order to ensure full compatibility with every system. 3DMark06 and 3DMark 11 (for supporting systems) are used as well. They are all run in-game three times over so as to ensure accuracy with all settings as indicated in the charts below.

Synthetic



In-Game





Lenovo’s X1 Carbon certainly won’t be setting any gaming records but it does provide decent entry level performance. More importantly the Intel HD 4000 has shown itself capable of beating AMD’s Trinity in certain areas, provided Intel’s drivers don’t drag things down like they did in Touchlight and 3DMark11.
 

SKYMTL

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Messages
12,857
Location
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Battery Life

Battery Life


Battery longevity is one of (if not THE) most important aspect of any mobile device which is why we are breaking this section down into three distinct tests. The “Standard Workload” represents relatively light usage with a Flash-enabled web page being refreshed every 30 seconds. Our “Heavy Workload” runs a looped 10 minute automatic script that reflects a professional usage pattern of photo manipulation (Photoshop CS5), word processing (Microsoft Word), drafting (AutoCAD 2011) and file compression (WinRAR). Finally, the “Gaming” test runs a timedemo loop of Far Cry 2 DX9.

All tests are run until the battery reaches 5% with the Balanced battery mode enabled and the screen at 75% brightness. Wireless is also turned on but any backlit keyboard functionality is turned off.



With a small 4-cell 45Whr battery, Lenovo has somewhat crippled their Ultrabook’s battery life from the get go. The relatively efficient Ivy Bridge ULV processor helps things along a bit with low idle p-states that allow for a maximum of 4 ½ hours of runtime on a single charge. Luckily, that is backstopped by Lenovo’s RapidCharge technology so it will only take about 15 minutes of charging to achieve yet another two hours of mobile computing. That’s small consolation for anyone on long flight that doesn’t have backrest charting ports but we’ll take it.

Pushing the processor with more intensive applications causes a dramatic battery life drop-off to the point where we can’ recommend the X1 for anyone that wants to watch movies or the like when travelling.
 
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SKYMTL

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Temperatures / Acoustical Testing

Temperatures


Temperature testing is quite straightforward: we load the system with a loop of Far Cry 2 in order to stress the dedicated GPU (if there is one) while the CPU load is handled by a loop of WPrime 32M. Battery power is used during these tests. Temperatures are recorded with HWInfo and GPU-Z. Remember that this is a worst case scenario test so typical usage patterns will result in slightly lower temperatures.

Meanwhile, exterior temperatures are taken with a calibrated Fluke infrared thermometer at various locations on the notebook chassis. For comparison’s sake, we consider exterior readings of under 30°C to be perfectly suitable for on-lap usage while temperatures between 30°C and 40°C will start to feel a bit toasty. Anything above 40°C is uncomfortable and care should be given before placing it on your lap.



Time and again we have seen Ultrabook manufacturers sacrifice thermals in order to achieve the slimmest form factor available but that didn’t happen with the X1 Carbon. Internal temperatures are kept to a minimum (no, 80 degrees isn’t all that much for a mobile processor) which bodes well for longevity and stability.



It seems like a good amount of heat from the internal components is transferred to the external chassis. Luckily, the soft-touch coating tends to disperse the heat and prevent it from concentrating into a single lava-hot area but that doesn’t mean your lap will get off scot free. There’s a relatively large 6” by 4” zone on the Carbon’s underside which obviously houses the vast majority of hot running components and typically features a surface heat of 100 degrees or more. We’d hesitate to call that burn-worthy (unlike the Series 9’s testicle-searing 130 degrees) but be prepared for a bit of discomfort if you are wearing shorts.


Acoustical Testing


No one likes a loud laptop so in order to objectively determine acoustical properties, we use a calibrated decibel meter which is placed 16” away from the keyboard. A loop of WPrime is used to load the system and replicate a high usage scenario.

Any result under 35dB can be considered no louder than general background noise and usually won’t be noticed. Between 35dB and 45dB is still perfectly acceptable for notebooks yet will be much more noticeable than lower frequencies and likely won’t be heard over the noise of typing. Finally, we consider any result above 45dB to be unacceptable for a mobile device.



The Lenovo X1 Carbon is a quiet notebook which doesn’t make all that much noise when pushed to its limits.
 
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