For several laptop generations, Lenovo’s ThinkPad line has been the go-to for professionals and office workers. ThinkPads have been remarkably consistent in quality since the beginning, with every iteration improving performance and functionality without removing features ThinkPad owners have come to love.
The ThinkPad X1 Carbon is a perfect example of this. Lenovo’s signature business ultraportable is now in its 5th generation, adding new Intel Kaby Lake processors and a larger battery without sacrificing the portability of this 14-inch device. And after using this laptop for a few weeks now, it’s clear that Lenovo’s minor year-on-year improvements have led to a stunning device that’s the best ThinkPad ultraportable yet.
Like previous versions of the ThinkPad X1 Carbon, the 5th generation model is remarkably compact for a 14-inch laptop. At just 1.13kg heavy, the X1 Carbon is lighter than most standard 13-inch ultraportables, and this has been achieved without sacrificing battery life. Lenovo hasn’t tried to make the X1 Carbon particularly slim, at 15.95mm thick, however its footprint is similar to 13-inch devices thanks to slim bezels around the display.
Lenovo has achieved such a light laptop thanks to their choice of materials for its construction. Rather than opting for a dense metal exterior, like many premium laptops on the market today, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon’s body is almost entirely soft touch plastic. Generally I prefer metal bodies from a visual and textural perspective, but as far as plastic bodies go, the X1 Carbon’s is excellent. Its pleasing texture makes the laptop a joy to carry, and its minimalist design looks great. Understated designs tend to work well in business environments; this is exactly what the X1 Carbon provides.
For a laptop that’s mostly black plastic, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon is surprisingly resistant to fingerprints and grime. After a few weeks of use you will notice a few marks around the place, but it’s far less prone to fingerprint accumulation than some other laptops I’ve tried. Plus, the X1 Carbon doesn’t have a touchscreen, so you won’t have to obsessively clean the display either. The matte finish to the screen is certainly welcome.
The X1 Carbon includes a 180-degree hinge, allowing the display to fold flat in the event you need a wide angle between keyboard and screen. I wish more laptop manufacturers would strive to make the hinge as flexible as possible, as there are times where the angle limit on some laptops isn’t enough.
One of my favorite aspects to the X1 Carbon is its outstanding array of ports. You get two Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports, both of which can be used for charging, along with two USB 3.0 Type-A ports. Lenovo is providing users with a fantastic mix of both future and current USB technology, rather than prematurely forcing users into a USB-C only life. There’s also a full-sized HDMI port, which will come in handy for connecting to meeting room projectors, and a 3.5mm audio jack.
Perhaps the strangest port on the X1 Carbon is the proprietary connector that’s dedicated to Ethernet. As this ultraportable is way too slim to include an Ethernet port on the device itself, Lenovo has included a dedicated port that attaches to an included Ethernet dongle. It’s a neat way of dealing with Ethernet on a modern laptop and still gives you access to four USB ports when Ethernet is in use.
While not new to the 5th-generation X1 Carbon, I love the inclusion of a fingerprint reader here. More and more laptops are including fingerprint security through smartphone-like touch sensors, and it works well to secure your device while providing quick and easy access to the right user. Lenovo’s implementation here is particularly snappy.
One of the best aspects to any ThinkPad laptop is its keyboard. The implementation on the X1 Carbon is largely fantastic, with excellent tactile feedback and travel distance providing a great typing experience for a thin-and-light laptop. Large modifier keys and dedicated buttons for home, insert, delete and even print screen improve the experience.
My only real complaint about the keyboard is the terrible position of the Fn key. In every keyboard ever made except for the ThinkPad keyboard, the control key is found in the bottom left corner. However, on the ThinkPad X1 Carbon and other ThinkPad laptops, the Fn key is in the bottom left corner. This makes it pretty hard to pick up this laptop and start performing basic commands like copy and paste without rewiring your brain to the new position of the control key.
Luckily you can switch the function of the Fn and Ctrl keys in the BIOS of this laptop, which basically solves this issue. This should be the default configuration.
The trackpad included with this laptop is excellent. It’s highly responsive, tracks your finger accurately, and includes a very pleasant click mechanism. There’s also ThinkPad's signature red trackpoint you can use as a pointer, which isn’t a favorite of mine, but I know some people swear by this navigation option. Both solutions are well implemented, as you’d expect.
Included with my ThinkPad X1 Carbon review unit is a 14-inch IPS LCD 1080p display, although a 1440p option will be available later this year. 1080p is a decent resolution for a laptop of this size, and it works well at 125% scaling. The anti-glare matte coating combined with peak brightness of 310 nits makes this screen easy to view in most lighting conditions, while viewing angles are solid.
Surprisingly, Lenovo only rates this display as having a contrast ratio of 700:1. I’m not sure whether this is an extremely conservative estimate, because I measured an actual contrast ratio of nearly 1400:1 at peak brightness. Color accuracy across the board is average, though this is mostly due to an incorrect color temperature of 7340K, which gives the display a ‘cold’ blue tone in general. Slight calibration can easily fix issues with the temperature and gamma (2.0 not 2.2) to provide a decent though not outstanding color experience.
The 1440p option could be good for those that want increased sharpness from their display, although the sharpness provided by the 1080p display is still excellent. Upgrading to 1440p will introduce a minor hit to performance and a moderate hit to battery life in most situations.
Hardware Overview and System Performance
Like many ultraportables, there are several hardware configuration options available through Lenovo’s website. There’s a wide range of processor choices including both Intel Core i5 and i7 CPUs, as well as 8 or 16GB of RAM, and SSDs from 128GB to 1TB. The two pre-configured options are as follows:
- Intel Core i5-7200U, 8GB RAM, 128GB SSD, 1080p display - $1,329
- Intel Core i7-7600U, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, 1080p display - $1,899
My review unit was the base model, but with an upgrade to a 256GB SSD. The X1 Carbon is quite expensive in the United States, so this model costs $1,569.
A well-configured ThinkPad X1 Carbon, with a Core i7-7600U, 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD, costs a whopping $2,489. I know this laptop is business oriented, but that’s extraordinarily expensive for the hardware inside. Some of the configuration options are exorbitantly priced: it costs $290 to get 16GB of RAM, and a 512GB SSD costs a massive $540. I guess you’ve got to pay for the best.
This is the first laptop I’ve reviewed with the Intel Core i5-7200U inside, which is Intel’s entry-level 15W Kaby Lake processor. This CPU is clocked at 2.5 GHz across two cores and four threads, with a boost clock of 3.1 GHz. Compared to last year’s Skylake Core i5-6200U, you’re getting a 200/300 MHz base/boost clock increase, placing the i5-7200U more closely in line with the i7-6500U (but with 3MB L3 cache rather than 4MB).
Those opting for the i7-7600U model get a significant clock speed increase to 2.8 GHz base and 3.9 GHz boost. On clock speed, that’s a 12 to 29 percent performance improvement. Other Kaby Lake laptops I’ve reviewed so far have used the Core i7-7500U, which is a 2.7/3.5 GHz part.
The ThinkPad X1 Carbon with its Core i5 CPU is around 3 percent slower than the Core i7-equipped Razer Blade Stealth in our CPU benchmarks. Considering the clock speed differences between the CPUs, this is a decent result for the X1 Carbon.
If you’re upgrading from an older laptop, the X1 Carbon outperforms the HP Spectre with its Core i5-6200U processor by 18 percent in CPU-limited workloads. It’s also four percent faster than the Dell XPS 13 with the Core i7-6500U, which is a surprise considering both CPUs have the same clock speed and largely the same architecture.
Graphics and Storage Performance
The performance of the X1 Carbon here is not surprising. As most Skylake and Kaby Lake U-series processors include the same GPU, the Core i5-7200U performs roughly the same as other Core i5 and Core i7 CPUs in GPU-limited workloads. The HD Graphics 620 GPU is suitable for rendering apps and basic 3D items at 1080p, though it’s not powerful enough for much else.
Gaming, for example, is largely not possible on the ThinkPad X1 Carbon. Tomb Raider can be played at above 60 FPS, but only on 720 low settings, and I doubt many gamers will really want to game at below the display’s native resolution. Civilization VI on its lowest settings at 1080p can’t be played at reasonable frame rates, and struggles to hit 20 FPS.
The 256GB Samsung MZVLW256 NVMe PCIe solid state drive, which is essentially an OEM version of the Samsung 960 Evo, provides excellent performance in the ThinkPad X1 Carbon. Sequential read and write speeds were fantastic, both exceeding 1 GB/s, while random performance was also very solid.
The ThinkPad X1 Carbon includes a 57 Wh battery, which is around the mark of most other 13-inch laptops. Of course the X1 Carbon includes a 14-inch display, though this should make only a minor difference to battery life. Improvements to the efficiency of Kaby Lake also play a part here.
Across our suite of battery benchmarks, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon performs extremely well. Topping the charts in our Wi-Fi test is a particularly impressive feat, and illustrates just how well suited this laptop is to typical work use cases. 7 hours of life in the Wi-Fi browsing benchmark equates to well over 10 hours of normal use, which is a fantastic result.
Lenovo does state the X1 Carbon is good for 15.5 hours of life, though I suspect this is only possible with low brightness and less intensive use cases.
A superb ultraportable
The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon is an excellent laptop, and I wish Lenovo gave me more than two weeks with it. It’s nearly the complete package, with excellent hardware and performance, fantastic battery life, a great design with a near-perfect array of ports, a solid keyboard and trackpad, plus a decent display.
My review unit came with just an Intel Core i5-7200U inside, but it surprisingly held its own against faster laptops with the i7-7500U, falling just 3 percent slower in system benchmarks. The Samsung 960 Evo SSD inside was extremely fast, and I love the array of hardware options available through Lenovo’s website.
Great performance is backed up with excellent battery life. The X1 Carbon topped the charts in our Wi-Fi web browsing benchmark, and performed very well in our video playback test. Even during general use I felt as though the X1 Carbon had enough juice to last a full day of intensive work, and that’s exactly what I expect from a business oriented laptop.
The design of the X1 Carbon is great from a number of perspectives. The use of soft touch plastic instead of metal allows the laptop to be lighter-than-average for its size. Despite the inclusion of a 14-inch display, slim bezels makes it not significantly larger than some 13-inch devices. The 180-degree hinge is flexible, and I like the inclusion of a fingerprint reader.
Even better is the array of ports on this laptop. Two Thunderbolt 3 ports plus two USB 3.0 ports allows you to use this laptop with a range of older and modern peripherals, and it’s complemented by full-sized HDMI, a SIM card slot for LTE, and a dedicated port for an Ethernet adapter. You couldn’t wish for much more in a business-oriented laptop.
Aside from dumb placement of the Fn key, the ThinkPad keyboard found here is excellent. Fantastic travel distance and a generally good layout provide a decent typing experience. The trackpad is also superb, plus you get the signature ThinkPad joystick as an alternate mouse option.
The display perhaps doesn’t have the best color accuracy, though brightness and contrast are serviceable. At 14 inches, it does give you a bit of extra screen real estate compared to typical 13-inch panels you’ll find in ultraportables. Plus its 1080p resolution is decent at this size, with a 1440p option coming in the next few months.
The main issue with the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon is its price. The entry level model – which includes a Core i5-7200U, 8GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD – costs $1,329, which is quite expensive for the hardware you get. Competing consumer-oriented laptops include this sort of hardware for closer to $1,000. Configuring the ThinkPad X1 with more beefy hardware can quickly send the cost skyrocketing, with a Core i7 CPU, 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD costing nearly $2,500.
But if you have the cash to spend and want an excellent laptop that succeeds in nearly every area, the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon is what you’ll want. It’s a superb ultraportable.
Pros: Fantastic performance with class-leading battery life. Perfect selection of ports. Light and compact for a 14-inch laptop. Great keyboard and trackpad.
Cons: Expensive across entire hardware range.