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Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Ultrabook Review

The Lenovo X1 Carbon 3rd Gen is a beautiful machine. Much like the Dell XPS 13 took the initiative to cram a 13-inch screen into an 11-inch form factor, the X1 Carbon sports dimensions that are more comparable to a typical 13-inch machine—and that includes its weight and thinness, both of which are indisputably manageable. It’s also practically designed; the matte black surfaces that comprise the majority of the case are minimalist and attractive, but they’re simultaneously haptically comfortable, with an unmistakably cool metal feel and a comfortable fit for use on both lap and desk. The case also feels fairly solid, though the incidence of flex and relative lack of torsion resistance in some regards gave us pause.

Perhaps more exciting, however, is what has improved over the X1 Carbon 2nd Gen. Criticism of the 2nd Gen’s radical (and arguably illogical) keyboard design and polarizing full-depression clickpad scared away many prospective buyers—as such fearlessly progressive and experimental design decisions generally don’t fit well with the business market, where practicality rules supreme. The Gen 3 wholeheartedly acknowledges these complaints and implements a complete reversal of those decisions. As a result, the keyboard—immediately familiar and accessible—is one of the absolute best we have ever used on an Ultrabook. Meanwhile, the three classic top-mounted physical buttons for use with the Trackpoint have returned, and the touchpad itself ditches the controversial full-click design in favor of a far more comfortable (and, in our judgment, reliable) clickpad approach. The end result is that the X1 Carbon Gen 3 features some of the best input devices we’ve tested on an Ultrabook.

What about performance? CPU performance differences between the 2nd Gen and 3rd Gen X1 Carbon models were essentially nil in our testing—for all intents and purposes, the machines are identical in this regard. However in GPU testing, we witnessed a notable speed boost—in some cases up to 19% better. As compared with other modern notebooks of its class, apart from some multi-core synthetic performance hiccups, the X1 Carbon 3rd Gen holds its own, both in terms of CPU/GPU and general system performance. The only final niggle here is the Samsung PM851 SSD, whose write speeds are conspicuously capped at around 250 MB/s.

While the leap to a Broadwell chipset and slightly larger battery seemed sure to promise improved battery runtimes, we were surprised to find throughout our testing that there wasn’t much of a difference at all. Our classic Wi-Fi Surfing Test produced a result only slightly better than that of the 2nd Gen, and the revised Wi-Fi test we just recently implemented—which is more broad and aggressive and arguably closer to actual real-world usage patterns—recorded under five hours before the machine shut down. That’s hardly an impressive number on one hand given the 50 Wh battery and supposed enhanced efficiency, though it’s still likely to get most users through a typical trip unplugged, especially if more restrictive power savings options are employed. If longer battery life is a priority, we’d suggest taking a look instead at the Dell XPS 13-9343 or the MacBook Air 13.

Rounding out the list of considerations is an underwhelming screen, at least in terms of brightness, contrast, and color saturation—though we do most certainly appreciate the anti-glare display filter for both its diffusion of reflections and relative ease of cleaning. The X1 Carbon Gen 3 is also invariably cool and quiet, clearly favoring comfort over top-end performance (as we discovered during our stress testing of the device).

Summing up, the X1 Carbon Gen 3 is indisputably superior to its predecessor. Although some of these improvements come in the form of better GPU performance, cooler temperatures, and lower average system noise levels, the vast majority of them center on the thankful retreat from the experimental (and finicky) input devices of the Gen 2 design and back to sanity. This isn’t just a return to form, either; to reiterate, by our judgment, they are some of the best input devices on any Ultrabook we’ve tested to date. But in spite of this self-improvement, how does the X1 Carbon compare with its modern competitors? In truth, though it’s a compelling option, it’s lost some ground since our last encounter. While notebooks such as the MacBook Air 13 and (especially) the Dell XPS 13-9343 have sprinted forward with such massive improvements in portability, battery life, and LCD quality, the X1 Carbon 3rd Gen has only marginally improved, mostly regaining footing it’s lost elsewhere. It’s still a strong contender, and it’s certainly the best Carbon to date, but especially at a pricey $1,574, we fear that its inability to innovate further may relegate it to the shadows of these more aggressive contenders.

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