The sixth-generation Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon (starts at $1,519; $1,789 as tested) is more of a status symbol than the workhorse ThinkPad that business users know and love. But incredible battery life and a pleasingly premium soft-touch chassis, among other features, mean that this ultraportable laptop is far from a gimmick. It even brings back a few things that were removed in last year’s model. All told, the X1 Carbon delivers most of what we love about the ThinkPad T470 in a much smaller package, which makes it the best high-end laptop you can buy for your business.
The consumer ultraportable laptop market is flooded with head-turning designs (see, for instance, the vanishingly thin bezels on the Dell XPS 13 or the snow white expanses that adorn the HP Spectre 13), but ultraportables meant for business can be far more stodgy. Lenovo is somewhat responsible for this trend, since its chunky black ThinkPad notebooks have been the gold standard in enterprise mobile computing for years.
With the latest X1 Carbon, however, the Chinese tech giant fuses a traditional black aesthetic—complete with a slightly soft exterior of carbon fiber and magnesium alloy that makes it feel so premium—with a thin screen bezel and a light weight. The result is an ultraportable that weighs just 2.49 pounds, measures 0.63 by 12.74 by 8.55 inches (HWD), and still manages to fit in legendary ThinkPad characteristics like a comfortable keyboard, long battery life, and a semi-rugged enclosure. The ThinkPad T470, by contrast, is 0.79 by 13.25 by 9.15 inches and weighs 3.74 pounds.
And yes, in case you’re wondering, Lenovo throws in a red pointing stick to please the most discerning ThinkPad purists. Why you’d still use one is a bit of a mystery, especially since Lenovo has also brought back a touch display, which was missing from the last generation of the X1 Carbon.
You can also upgrade to either a glossy or matte QHD (2,560-by-1440) display that lacks touch capability. This high-end screen is targeted at well-heeled enthusiasts rather than corporate IT departments, Lenovo said at CES this year when it unveiled the new X1 Carbon. The glossy version promises to be the first HDR laptop screen once an update is rolled out this spring to unlock the Dolby Vision functionality on the software side. You’l likely take a battery life hit by choosing this configuration, however.
The 14-inch full HD (1,920-by-1,080) touch screen on our base model Carbon X1 is still unique, in both good and bad ways. Instead of adding weight and complexity to the screen by enabling touch the old-fashioned way, with a protective layer on top of the display, Lenovo engineers instead added capacitors directly into the screen. The result is a matte, anti-glare touch display that is perfect for bright office environments and easy on the battery, but that also includes touch for when you need it.
Ideally you won’t need it too often, though, because the unconventional integrated capacitors are much less precise than you might expect if you’re used to tapping on a glossy screen like the one that comes with the HP Spectre 13. The X1 Carbon’s screen isn’t very responsive, but whether that’s a worthy sacrifice for an anti-glare screen is a matter of personal preference. Note also that the touch capabilities of the competing MacBook Pro are relegated to the TouchBar.
Along with the screen, you can also upgrade the memory, storage, and hard drive (which will increase the price to more than $2,000). You can also choose a silver version that ThinkPad purists will likely scoff at. This entry-level model is equipped with an eighth-generation Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, a 512GB SSD. The processor and memory might initially seem a bit anemic for a laptop that costs more than $1,700, but they can handle most common computing tasks with aplomb, as you’ll see in the performance section below.
When you’re not tapping, you’ll likely be luxuriating in the X1 Carbon’s backlit island-style keyboard, which boasts excellent travel and supremely sturdy, sculpted keys. This is largely the same board we loved on the ThinkPad T470, and the fact that Lenovo manages to stuff it into a much thinner chassis is impressive. I appreciate that the Fn and Control keys are swappable using the Lenovo settings app, which means you can decide if you’d like the outermost key to perform the Control function as it would on a standalone keyboard.
The clickable touchpad is better than you’d expect for a Windows laptop, but it’s rather small and can’t match the excellent Force Touch capabilities nor the gargantuan size of the one on the MacBook Pro. Next to the pad is a fingerprint reader complete with its own processing chip, so that it verifies your prints on the chip without Windows having access to them, a security enhancement that’s new on this year’s X1 Carbon and sure to please wary corporate security managers. Other corporate-friendly features include Intel’s vPro management and an integrated cover for the webcam when you’re not using it, but there’s no keycard functionality like you’ll find on a business workstation.
The port selection is excellent for such a thin machine. Unlike Apple, which equips the MacBook Pro solely with USB-C ports, Lenovo gives business users several more options. There are two USB-C ports with Thunderbolt 3 support that are also used for charging, as well two USB 3.0 ports and an HDMI-out port. The left edge also features a dock connector for the new ThinkPad dock (old ones that connect to the bottom of the laptop won’t work), while there’s a Kensington lock slot on the right. There’s even a microSD card slot located at the back of the laptop, in the same enclosure that houses the SIM card for cellular-equipped models.
Your only disappointment will be if, like us, you expect to find an Ethernet port on your business laptop, which can make your life much easier if you’re faced with poor Wi-Fi in a hotel or crowded banquet hall, but manage to find a wired connection. At least there’s 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.2 to help you stay connected.
Impressive audio isn’t expected on an ultraportable, and the X1 Carbon didn’t surprise us. It offers present if not startling bass and treble, but the downward-firing speakers aim directly at your desk or lap, resulting in an anemic sound.
Lenovo includes a one-year warranty with mail-in hardware support for the X1 Carbon.
Power on the Go
Let’s face it: You’re not buying ultraportables for the multimedia content creators, programmers, and data scientists in your company. You’re buying them for workers whose jobs entail word processing, email checking, and maybe some light Excel work. The Intel Core i5-8250U processor running at 1.6GHz with integrated graphics should be more than adequate for these tasks, even though you can find more powerful processors for less money in consumer ultraportables.
As proof, the X1 Carbon turned in a respectable score of 3,363 on the proprietary PCMark 8 benchmark test, which is within a few hundred points of its competitors—even within striking distance of the HP EliteBook 1040 G4 and its more powerful Intel Core i7. Any PCMark 8 score above 3,000 indicates more than enough juice for basic computing tasks. On a more anecdotal level, app loading was snappy and startup times were lightning fast—less than 10 seconds—over several days of heavy use.
Tasks such as rendering video footage and editing photos are better suited to laptops with discrete graphics cards and CPUs with more processing cores. Still, if you had to do it in a pinch, note that X1 Carbon was faster than the MacBook Pro on our Handbrake video-encoding test, our Cinebench 3D-rendering benchmark, and our series of Photoshop editing tasks.
Gaming performance is predictably subpar, with neither the X1 Carbon nor any of its Windows competitors turning in frame rates higher than 30 frames per second, which we consider to be the absolute minimum threshold for enjoyable gaming. Thanks to its superior Intel Iris Plus graphics card, the MacBook Pro offers slightly better frame rates, but it’s still not a substitute for a machine with a dedicated graphics card.
The X1 Carbon’s fans spooled up during the benchmark tests, producing audible exhaust noise, but they were silent during a weekend of mixed regular use, including web browsing and watching Netflix. That’s a huge benefit that this laptop shares with the MacBook Pro over similar consumer ultraportables like the Asus ZenBook UX430U, which produces audible fan noise even during casual tasks like web browsing.
See How We Test Laptops
Battery life is excellent, as you’d expect from a Lenovo laptop. I was on the edge of my seat during our battery rundown test, wondering if the X1 Carbon would outlast the ThinkPad T470’s excellent result of 17 hours and 36 minutes. Alas, it did not, coming in just a few minutes short at 17:26. That is still very impressive, even more so when you consider that the T470 requires two batteries to last that long. No other business ultraportable comes close.
When it comes time to charge, you can fill up the battery from empty in less than an hour and a half, thanks to Lenovo’s quick-charging technology.
Everything Excellent in a Smaller Package
For road warriors who value portability and are blessed with generous IT budgets, it doesn’t get much better than the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon. This ultraportable takes nearly everything there is to love about full-size ThinkPads and puts it in a much smaller, but just as good-looking, package. From all-day battery life to a wonderfully comfortable keyboard, the X1 Carbon’s feature list is made for business, and will even please enthusiasts with cutting-edge options like an HDR display. For all these reasons, it’s our Editors’ Choice for business ultraportables.
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon (2018)
Bottom Line: The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon offers premium features in a slim and attractive package that business users will love—just be prepared to open your wallet wide for this top-notch ultraportable laptop.