If you have a soft spot in your heart for the iconic ThinkPad design, the X1 will probably strike your fancy while it’s in laptop mode. It has a minimalist black metal case, a fairly spacious keyboard and heck, there’s even the love-it-or-hate-it bright red TrackPoint. It’s a subdued design that reminds me of a classic, business-oriented Windows laptop.
But of course, it’s much more than that: Its keyboard is ultrathin and completely removable. There’s also a kickstand on the back of the tablet. And, lest you forget, it’s as much a tablet as it is a laptop. It doesn’t look as ultramodern as the Surface devices, but it’s no less impressive. Toeing the line between respecting ThinkPad tradition and pushing entirely new form factors is tough, but the X1 Tablet manages it well.
Thanks to its 12-inch screen, it’s fairly hefty for a tablet, clocking in at 1.7 pounds. Together with the keyboard case, it weighs 2.35 pounds. That’s almost exactly the same as the Surface Pro 4 (a part of me wonders if Lenovo is trying to prove it can go toe-to-toe with Microsoft). It’s significantly heavier than standalone 10-inch tablets like the iPad Air, but it’s only around 0.1 pounds heavier than the 12.9-inch iPad Pro. In a way, the X1 is the antithesis than the iPad Pro: It can be a tablet when you need it, but most people would be buying it as an ultraportable laptop.
The actual tablet portion of the X1 isn’t much to look at. Its chassis is mostly made of magnesium (with a bit of plastic thrown in), and it measures an impressive 8.6 millimeters thin. It feels just as sturdy as other metal ThinkPad cases, which PC users have long praised for their ability to take a licking. Lenovo says the X1 passes 10 military certification tests, which are a big deal for government clients, and it’s capable of running between -20 degrees Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit) and 60 degrees Celsius (140 Fahrenheit).
From the front, there’s a significant amount of bezel around the display, a 2-megapixel webcam up top and a fingerprint reader on the right side. From the back, it’s a bit more interesting: A small latch opens up the kickstand, which folds out from the bottom of the tablet (the Surface’s stand comes out from the top). While that orientation seems a bit odd at first, it makes the X1 far easier to hold on your lap than the Surface tablets, since there’s more than just a single edge of the stand digging into you.
There’s an 8-megapixel camera on the back of the X1, and around the sides you’ll find a USB 3.0 port, a USB-C connector, a single Mini DisplayPort and a combination headphone/microphone jack. The USB-C port is also used to charge the X1, something that’s quickly becoming the norm for thin tablets and laptops these days. In addition, there’s a microSD card slot under the kickstand for extra storage.
The X1’s keyboard comes bundled with the tablet (something I’ve long argued that needs to happen with the Surface) and it’s pretty thin, measuring at just 4.6 millimeters thick. It has a full-size array of chiclet keys, and as I mentioned above, there’s the standard ThinkPad TrackPoint nub. Below that, there are two physical mouse buttons, a scrolling button and a large multitouch Mylar trackpad. It snaps onto the X1 easily via a magnet, and — like the Surface — that connection is strong enough to hold up the entire tablet by the keyboard (just don’t shake it too much).
One intriguing aspect of the X1 is its expandability, thanks to a few optional modules that plug into the bottom of the tablet. Lenovo’s $150 productivity module, for example, adds an HDMI and a few more USB ports, along with five extra hours of battery life. There are also modules for taking 3D images and projecting images onto walls. Lenovo didn’t have any of these expansion offerings available to test at the time of this review, but we’ll update once we get some hands-on time with them.
Display and pen input
The ThinkPad X1’s 12-inch screen packs in a 2,160-by-1,440-pixel resolution, which is decent for its size, but not quite as sharp as the Surface Pro 4’s 2,736-by-1,824 pixel display. Still, it looks good, with accurate colors and more than enough brightness (I typically kept it around 50 percent indoors). Outdoors, the X1 was usable in direct sunlight; it’s far easier to see than my 2014-era MacBook Air, even while wearing sunglasses. But as with every device with a glass-covered screen, you should expect a bit of glare.
As a tablet, the X1’s screen is at its best when you’re viewing videos and digital comics. It’s a 3:2 aspect ratio panel, so you’ll get black bars with widescreen videos, but it made movies and TV shows look great. Those proportions were also well-suited to comics, because they could fill up the screen easily without needing to zoom in. I still feel a bit cramped working on a 12-inch display, especially after growing used to the 13-inch MacBook Air and my 24-inch desktop monitors. It’s also a bit too heavy to hold with one hand for extended periods, but it’s fine for the occasional comic or news article.
Lenovo also packs in a stylus, called the ThinkPad Pen Pro. It uses Wacom’s active electrostatic (AES) technology to deliver 2,048 levels of pressure sensitivity — twice as much as the latest Surface Pen. The Pen Pro is powered by a single AAAA battery, which thankfully comes in the box. Unfortunately, though, there’s no place to stow the pen on the X1 itself. Lenovo includes a plastic holster that plugs into a USB port, but that’s not really useful if you need to use the tablet’s only USB connection. (It also just looks weird having the stylus hang off the side.)
In Lenovo’s WriteIt app, which comes preloaded on the X1, the Pen Pro felt surprisingly accurate. The pen had no trouble determining different levels of pressure, and it captured my scribbles without any big delays. Unfortunately, it’s a bit too slippery on the screen for taking notes or for extended use. Microsoft mostly avoided that issue with the Surface Pro 4, which feels more like putting pen to paper (and you can customize it further with replaceable stylus tips).
The ThinkPad X1 is a bit deceptive on the keyboard front. It looks like a typical full-size ThinkPad keyboard, but its buttons don’t have the same amount of depth as Lenovo’s traditional laptops. I was still able to type fairly quickly, but the actual act of pressing down on keys felt mushy and not very satisfying. Perhaps I’m just too demanding as a heavy typer (I make a lot of noise!), but I expected a bit more from Lenovo, especially since Microsoft was able to deliver a truly great keyboard with the latest Surface Type Cover.
With the kickstand folding down from the bottom of the X1, I had no problem balancing it on my lap, bed and in a variety of other scenarios. It’s a smart change from Microsoft’s Surface hinge: In typical laptop mode, it creates a flat surface that makes the X1 feel more like a laptop and not a tablet being held precariously. It’s also more comfortable on bare legs, which is a good thing if you’re wearing shorts.
While I got used to the feel of the X1’s keyboard eventually, I never quite got the hang of its Mylar trackpad. It always felt a bit too stiff and jerky; it’s nowhere near as smooth as glass trackpads like we see on the MacBooks and the Surface Type Cover. It ended up being a problem navigating menus and options in our ancient CMS and Windows apps like Evernote, which have way too many small buttons to click on.
I’ve never been a big fan of the ThinkPad TrackPoint nub, but I learned to appreciate it on the X1, as I was stuck on a flight next to a particularly inconsiderate seat neighbor. Since I didn’t have enough elbow room to use the trackpad, I was forced to get the hang of the TrackPoint, which requires only gently moving a finger around. It took me longer than usual, but I was able to deal with my email backlog and write a few posts without constantly elbowing the person next to me. This is all to say: I finally get it, ThinkPad nerds!
Performance and battery life
I tested the highest-spec X1 tablet (which comes with a Core M7 CPU, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD) for more than a week with my normal workflow. That usually consists of having several programs and windows open at once, including Slack to chat with co-workers, multiple browsers and dozens of tabs open for research and writing, Evernote for note-taking and Spotify for some tunes. Despite being a lower-powered Core M CPU, the X1 had no problem keeping up with my demanding routine.
It was also my only computer on an intense work trip to Austin, which involved covering a major NVIDIA press event. I wasn’t initially planning to use the X1 in such a high-stress environment, but I managed to get a lengthy article out and a few pictures while balancing it on my lap in a crowded auditorium.
As you can see from the benchmarks above, the X1 I tested lands somewhere between the Surface Pro 3 with a Core i5 4300U processor and the Surface Pro 4 with a Core i5 6300U chip. That’s respectable, given that Lenovo’s tablet was running at a paltry 1.2GHz clock speed, while the Surface Pros were running between 1.9GHz and 2.4GHz. It also managed to stream 4K videos from YouTube without skipping, and it kept up with my workflow even when I had to start image editing and moving large photos around. No, it won’t smash any speed records, but it’s enough to be productive while barely breaking a sweat.
The X1’s biggest problem is battery life. In my typical usage, it lasted for mere four-and-a-half hours. Our battery test, which involves viewing an HD video on repeat until it runs down, was a bit more promising, yielding around seven hours of runtime. It could just be that it’s very efficient at playing video (I tried to turn off all the power optimizations I could), but the X1’s subpar performance in other scenarios is worrisome. On the bright side, the X1 took only around an hour to charge over USB-C. If you’re considering it, I’d seriously recommend the optional $150 productivity module for additional battery life. (But keep in mind that’ll make the X1 heavier.)
Configuration options and the competition
When the X1 was initially announced at CES, Lenovo said it would start at $899 with its keyboard. But it seems the price has been bumped up over the past few months. The entry-level X1, which comes with a Core M3-6Y30 processor, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD, now starts at $1,029. Coincidentally (or perhaps not so much), that’s the same price as the cheapest Surface Pro 4 ($899) plus the $130 Type Cover. Lenovo probably thinks it can justify the higher price because Microsoft is doing the same thing, but that also undercuts one of its initial advantages over the Surface.
For $1,349, you can snag the X1 with a Core M5-6Y57 processor, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. And at the top end, there’s the $1,649 model I’m testing, which adds the Core M7-6Y75 processor. That’s a surprisingly wide pricing spread, but for the most part, I think most consumers would be better off with the $1,349 model. That’s if you can get over the X1’s mushy keyboard and short battery life, though.
If you’re looking for a modern hybrid tablet/laptop, the Surface Pro 4 is still a better option, even though you have to shell out extra money for its keyboard. It has faster hardware, a better keyboard (and trackpad), as well as far more reliable battery life.
Still, I recognize that some businesses are committed to the ThinkPad brand, and most corporate workers don’t have a choice when it comes to choosing what type of computer they can use. If that’s your situation and portability is your main concern, then the X1 remains a solid option.
We’ve seen Lenovo dabble with hybrid ThinkPad designs with its Helix series over the past few years, but the X1 Tablet is its first truly successful hybrid. No, it’s not perfect: I’d love to see better battery life and an improved keyboard. But it does a decent job of bringing some of the most intriguing elements of Microsoft’s Surface lineup to business users.
All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.
Devindra has been obsessed with technology for as long as he can remember — starting with the first time he ever glimpsed an NES. He spent several years fixing other people’s computers before he started down the treacherous path of writing about technology. Mission accomplished?