It's not always easy reviewing a third generation product. What's left to say of substance the third time around? In the case of the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, it's surprisingly easy because the third model finally achieves the vision that the first model teased. The second generation model was almost there, but the poorly received adaptive Fn row up top and the MIA TrackPoint buttons sank it for some ThinkPad fans. This time we get a machine that's slimmer and lighter with more ports than the first gen model plus a completely lovable and standard ThinkPad keyboard. The TrackPoint buttons have even made a return along the top of the trackpad, and the Ultrabook runs even cooler and quieter thanks to the power-frugal 5th generation Intel Broadwell CPU.
The ThinkPad X1 Carbon 3rd generation model (2015) is a 14" Ultrabook with an impeccable backlit keyboard, a slim design and the usual ThinkPad durability. It's encased in carbon fiber polymer and has a magnesium alloy roll cage, yet it weighs just 2.9 pounds. It's available with your choice of three anti-glare display options: 1080p non-touch TN, WQHD 2560 x 1440 IPS non-touch and WQHD 2560 x 1440 touch. Though I find 1920 x 1080 an ideal resolution for a 14" laptop since it looks sharp and avoids scaling issues with Windows programs that don't respect Windows 8.1's high DPI scaling, in this case I'd recommend the WQHD models since they're IPS and have much better viewing angles without the color shift and dullness of the 1080p TN offering. The WQHD adds $150 to the $1,079 base price ($1,199 list price), while the WQHS touch panel adds $350 to the base price.
Pricing and Configurations
The ThinkPad X1 Carbon has never been an inexpensive machine, and this is the lowest base price we can recall for a newly released model thanks to Lenovo's near constant website discounts. It has the 2.2 GHz Intel Core i5-5200U CPU, 4 gigs of RAM, a 128 gig SSD, a fingerprint scanner, backlit keyboard and Intel 7265 dual band WiFi 802.11ac with Bluetooth 4.0. Our 2.3 GHz Core i5-5300U (a Lenovo-required small CPU bump if you want 8 gigs of RAM) with a 256 gig SSD, 8 gigs of RAM and the WQHD touch screen sells for $1,709 on Lenovo's website as of this writing. It's not a cheap machine in terms of price and quality. Business-oriented laptops don't come cheap, though the price is nearly $200 higher than Dell's excellent 2015 XPS 13 that competes with the X1 Carbon. The ThinkPad is compatible with Lenovo's OneLink and OneLink Pro docking solutions and it's available with a Core i7 CPU for those who want a bit more processing power.
Design and Ergonomics
While the competing Dell XPS 13 goes for a small footprint--so small it's a match for 11.6" models, the Lenovo's width and length are pretty much standard for a 13.3" laptop despite its 14" display. It's slimmer than Lenovo's ThinkPad X250 and ThinkPad T440s models, and it even manages to be as slim as competing Ultrabooks (Lenovo's strongpoint often isn't ultra-slim designs when it comes to ThinkPads). The machine is incredibly rigid and sturdy and the matte black finish resists damage. If I dropped it on my foot, I'd be worried about my foot, not the machine--it can take some hard knocks. Despite the slim design, Lenovo managed to fit a full size HDMI 1.4 port, a mini DisplayPort, two USB 3.0 ports (one on each side), 3.5mm combo audio and a proprietary tiny port for the included Ethernet adapter. We'd love to see Ethernet built-in without requiring an easily lost dongle, and an SD card slot would have been nice, but given the pressure for thin Ultrabook designs, those two often fall by the wayside. At least we get that Ethernet adapter in the box and it doesn't use up a precious USB port. The lid is rigid and resists torsion, and pressing it doesn't cause light pooling in the display. There are no creaks and the trackpad's click isn't annoyingly loud as with some other ThinkPad models. The fingerprint scanner sits to the right of the keyboard.
The ThinkPad X1 Carbon third gen does not get hot and the fan is generally near silent; we're impressed. The laptop has bottom ventilation as with the previous generation, and fan exhausts from the rear edge. When streaming 1080p video, calculating Excel spreadsheets and editing photos in Photoshop CC, the fan didn't come on and the bottom was barely warm. The Chrome web browser is a memory and CPU hog, so we fired it up with 10 tabs and that would kick the fan up a little here and there. When playing Civ V, the fan is quite audible and the bottom gets warm, which is par for the course when gaming on an Ultrabook.
Keyboard and Trackpad
The keyboard is simply superb with the usual AccuType smile-shaped keys, gently concave key tops and excellent travel for a thin machine. I've typed many thousand words on it, including this review, and I will hate to say goodbye to it. The key travel puts it ahead of the 2015 Dell XPS, and that's a great compliment because the Dell has a very good keyboard. My fingers bottom out on the Dell's keyboard and that sometimes causes a double keystroke, something I haven't adjusted completely to after more than a month of use. No such problem with the X1 Carbon; its ThinkPad keyboard is perfection. The Fn row is back to normal now, and the Fn keys do double-duty as the multimedia control keys. The backspace, enter and dual shift keys are oversized as are the delete and escape keys. If you're a writer on the go, this machine is heavenly.
Lenovo's Synaptics trackpads are nearly always very good with predictable cursor control and a full featured control panel to tweak settings. The X1 Carbon is no exception and the trackpad works very well. We noted some unintentional cursor drift when click-dragging files to move them and when highlighting sections of text, but that's our only complaint. The trackpad isn't overly clicky or loud and the three physical buttons up top for the TrackPoint make the pointer much easier to use. Unlike the TrackPoint red eraser stick pointer embedded in the keyboard, the trackpad doesn't get discrete buttons, and instead the whole glass trackpad moves and clicks as is the case with most laptops.
We have the 2560 x 1440 touch model with an anti-glare covering that's permanently installed. That matte finish is more pleasing than last year's model that made the display look a little milky and grainy. You can still see grain on the third gen, but it's not horrid, and colors shine through. As with last year's model, our Spyder 4 Pro colorimeter measured display brightness to be significantly lower than Lenovo's claimed 270 nits (the non-touch WQHD is marketed as 300 nits). We measured it at 210 nits, which is the same as the 2nd gen model, and that's not a surprise since it's the same LG PS panel. Color gamut is a bit of a disappointment given that other $900 and higher Ultrabooks average 95% to 98% of sRGB and 75% of Adobe RGB. The X1 Carbon WQHD panel can represent 84% of sRGB and 65% of Adobe RGB. It looks perfectly fine when viewing web pages and watching movies, but it's not ideal for image and video processing work where color accuracy and full representation of sRGB are key. The factory colors are too warm (toward the yellow), which is unusual since most laptops ship with their displays calibrated too cool (bluish whites). Calibration can bring the display in line so you can get whiter whites. Contrast is good at 660:1 despite the matte coating. It's by no means a poor display, in fact it's quite pleasant. It's simply not a stand out display or as good as the competition in this price range. The 1080p TN panel on the other hand isn't the sort of top notch TN panel that you might find on a high end gaming laptop or the even the MacBook Air; colors and brightness shift significantly when you move the display just a little forward or back and thus viewing angles aren't good. A $1,079 Ultrabook should ship with a better looking display.
Deals and Shopping:
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon 3rd Gen Video Review
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon 3rd Gen vs. 2015 Dell XPS 13 Comparison Video
The 2015 ThinkPad X1 Carbon is available with 5th generation Intel Core i5 and i7 U series Ultrabook CPUs. All are dual core with Turbo Boost and though some of you might jump on the Core i7, the performance difference isn't that great, but we can easily understand opting for 8 gigs or RAM or a more spacious SSD than the base 128 gig. The laptop is available with 4 or 8 gigs of RAM and it's soldered on board so you won't be able to upgrade it later. I know some of you wish that RAM didn't max out at 8 gigs. Honestly, Ultrabooks aren't meant for workstation tasks, and I think 8 gigs is more than adequate for most ideal uses of an Ultrabook, but for those who run multiple concurrent VMs, it might feel tight.
The X1 Carbon has an M.2 slot for an 80mm gumstick-shaped SSD drive. Lenovo uses SATA interface SSDs for all options except the 512 gig PCIe SSD that's a $700 (ouch!) upgrade. Honestly, the SATA SSD is already very fast, and I can't recommend paying that much for a PCIe SSD. You could upgrade the machine at a later date, and in the coming months I expect more PCIe M.2 laptop SSDs to hit the upgrade parts market. The laptop has three M.2 slots total: one for the SSD, one for the optional 4G LTE module (42mm) and one for the WiFi module. The last gen X1 Carbon didn't support installing a second SSD in the WWAN slot, and we're guessing the third gen doesn't either.
All models use Intel HD5500 integrated graphics, and it shows a small but significant performance improvement over HD4400 graphics in the 4th generation Haswell U series family. It's not going to challenge dedicated graphics, but the 7 to 10 percent improvement is enough to gain you a few frames in games. Like all 11"-14" Ultrabooks with integrated graphics (which means all except the Asus Zenbook UX303LN and Lenovo's own ThinkPad 14 as of this writing), this isn't a gaming machine, but it can handle Minecraft, Civ V, older 3D titles and casual games perfectly well. In everyday use the X1 Carbon feels responsive and is strong enough to be a main machine unless your demands are heavy (Ultrabooks aren't ideal for CAD, 1080p video editing for hours per day or software development with large projects that contain hundreds of thousands of lines of code). It's a great fit for full HD video streaming, driving an external higher than 1080p monitor, Photoshop, MS Office and web development.
Intel's Broadwell CPU was supposed to bring noticeably better battery life, and in a few cases it has, as with the non-touch Dell XPS 13. Broadwell is particularly good at conserving power when the computer isn't doing much--those periods of time when you pause between writing sentences, for example. So battery life with Broadwell is more variable--it depends on how busy you keep the computer and how many background applications and processes are keeping the CPU from taking a micro-nap. In our tests that mimic a mix of productivity and entertainment tasks including word processing, browsing the web using Internet Explorer, email, social networking, editing 5 RAW images in Photoshop, streaming 1080p video via Netflix for 55 minutes (1 episode of House of Cards) and playing 3 short YouTube videos, the X1 Carbon with the WQHD touch screen averaged 7 to 7.8 hours. We set brightness to 50% (I found that the lowest acceptable brightness for my comfort) and had WiFi turned on and active. That's respectable battery life for a 14" high resolution Ultrabook. In the last generation, we didn't note a significant divide between touch and non-touch models in terms of battery life (certainly not as huge with the 2015 Dell XPS 13), and I wouldn't expect miraculously longer battery life from the 1080p X1 Carbon.
Lenovo's Rapid Charge really is impressive, and our machine charged 50% in a half hour with the included 65 watt charger. Lenovo states that it can charge up to 80% in an hour. That's much faster than most laptops including the Dell XPS 13, and it can be a lifesaver when you're on the road and only have access to a power outlet for a short layover between flights. The charger is Lenovo's usual compact model with a rectangular connector.
Lenovo ThinkPads have relatively little bloatware compared to consumer-oriented laptops. But there are a few programs that you might want to uninstall such as Maxthon browser and naggy Norton, while you may find the pre-installed Evernote handy and you'll definitely want to keep Lenovo's own utilities that keep drivers up to date and do periodic hardware tests. Have no fear, Lenovo never pre-installed the now dreaded Superfish adware on the ThinkPad line, and they discontinued the software's inclusion on consumer (non-ThinkPad) models in January 2015.
There are few 14" Ultrabooks on the market, and even fewer that are as slim, light and bulletproof as the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon. The keyboard is sublime and the trackpad is good--- especially good for those who love the TrackPoint. Though the display's color gamut and brightness won't win any awards, the 2560 x 1440 display is easy on the eyes with clear text, little glare and it's attractive enough. I certainly wouldn't mind owning one given the machine's ruggedness, grand keyboard and slightly larger than usual display. On the downside, the X1 Carbon is by no means cheap and I know some of you wish that RAM didn't max out at 8 gigs. The WQHD display, though pleasing to look at, isn't ideal for photographers and videographers who need a wider color gamut.