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Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Ultrabook Review
Date: Aug 17, 2012
Author: Dave Altavilla
Introduction and Specs
Ultrabooks continue to be the hot trend in the Windows notebook arena. With the recent introduction of Intel's new, low power 3rd generation Ivy Bridge Core series processors, designs are becoming thinner with every iteration, while paradoxically it seems, performance continues to scale higher.  We've seen Ultrabook machines from virtually all the majors here at HotHardware and many of them are targeted at consumers on the go where thin is in, and not so much the business user, where practical usability, durability and performance are critical.  Lenovo however, is stepping outside the box with the latest addition to their ThinkPad lineup for road warriors and cubical commandos alike.

The venerable Lenovo ThinkPad, with its little red TrackPoint nub has gone the way of the Ultrabook.  If there's one small dig ThinkPads have taken with regularity over the years, it's that though there's a ton of quality and substance built into these machines, style was not a hallmark of the brand.  The all new ThinkPad X1 Carbon could very well change the utilitarian stereotype of the Lenovo's business-backed line-up, however.  It's very well-made like a ThinkPad should be but it's thin, sleek and dare we say sexy?  Go-on little ThinkPad, back that a... oh never mind.  Let's run down the specs and stick with the program.
ThinkPad X1 Carbon Edge

Lenovo ThinkPad Carbon X1 Ultrabook
Specifications & Features
Let's start by covering some detail that you can't glean from the above spec list. The SSD on board the ThinkPad X1 Carbon that we tested is a 128GB SandDisk mSATA model that has a fair bit of punch, especially on the read side of things.  Other notables are the machine's 14-inch panel with a native resolution of 1600X900.  It might not be the brightest LCD in the lab at 300 nits but it's bright enough and its native resolution seems like a perfect fit for 14 inches of real estate.  More on this later. For its on-board power source, we've got a 45Whr battery strapped in for good (it's not user serviceable, which is common for Ultrabooks these days), capable of providing over 6 hours of uptime backed up by Lenovo's RapidCharge technology that'll re-juice the machine up to 80% (5+Hrs) in only 35 minutes.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon
Ahh but here's where the rubber meets the proverbial road.  The above table was provided by the folks in Lenovo Product Marketing.  As you can see, they're quick to point out that the ThinkPad X1 Carbon is one of the thinnest, lightest machines on the market currently and it weighs in at a mere 3 pounds soaking wet. For a 14-inch machine that's almost ridiculously light.  What isn't so light, however, is the X1 Carbon's price point. Starting at $1399 ($1499 as tested), though this ThinkPad excels beyond Intel's Ultrabook spec in many areas, it falls short of Intel's $799 - $999 Ultrabook pricing goal in exchange for higher-end components and build quality.  Regardless, let's journey on for a closer look around this sliver of technological wonderment.

Design, Layout and Build Quality
The ThinkPad X1 Carbon's exterior and even its internal "roll-cage" is built from durable, light weight carbon fiber material, as its model naming suggests.  The look and feel of the machine from top to bottom, wrist rest to lid, typifies high quality throughout. The machine looks great, feels great in the hand and resists fingerprints nicely.  It's shell is rigid and there is very little flex anywhere in the machine, including the keyboard area; though the X1 Carbon somehow remains wafer thin.

ThinkPad X1 Carbon TrackPad

The all glass trackpad is very spacious and feels perfectly smooth to the touch.  Multi-gesture support is offered and works rather well, with pinch/zoom functionality, as well as two finger scrolling, exhibiting refreshing responsiveness; not something always said about most Windows-based notebooks that support these features.

Did we mention how thin this thing is?  The ThinkPad X1 Carbon is so thin actually, that a standard RJ45 port couldn't be squeezed into its side edge, so Lenovo includes a USB Ethernet dongle with the machine.  Side note: performance over the dongle proved significantly faster than a standard 802.11n WiFi connection but it's not quite as robust as a direct physical layer standard Ethernet connection.  Honestly, it's a minor variable to concern yourself with, worst case.  Beyond that you get one USB 2.0 port and a USB 3.0 port, along with a mini DisplayPort, combo audio jack, 4-in1 SD card reader and a wireless radio on/off switch. Incidentally, 802.11n connectivity is offered via an Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6205S radio and Bluetooth 4.0 capability is on board as well.  Finally, interestingly enough, the small AC power adapter that comes with the system plugs into what looks like a large yellow color-coded USB port (top right image) next to the side chassis vents.

The keyboard area of the ThinkPad X1 Carbon is probably one of its nicest features.  Typing on this machine is very comfortable and though it's an ultralight, in use it never feels even remotely cramped.  Lenovo has improved on their contoured key cap design over the years and it cradles your fingertips nicely, self-centering your finger (Lenovo claims) for speed and accuracy.  In practice, Lenovo's keyboard design engineering paid off in spades. Simply put, we love it and it's backlit too. Big love for the backlight, Lenovo.  Big love.

Lenovo X1 Carbon LCD

Though the ThinkPad X1 Carbon's keyboard area is like midnight with Barry White piping through a candle-lit room, the display may or may not get you as hot and bothered.  Personally we found the 14-inch flat matte LCD to offer reasonably good viewing angles, perfectly acceptable brightness, good contrast and color reproduction.  There is, however, a slightly observable dot pitch issue going on here that may catch your eye and take away from what otherwise is really nice image quality.  With a solid white background going on, you can see pixel edges ever so slightly. Personally for us, it wasn't a biggie and 99.99% of the time we were coasting along completely unaware. What we were aware of however was how much more screen area we had to work with at its native 1600X900 resolution.  Too many Ultrabooks have rolled off the line with 13 - 14-inch panels at 1366X768.  The ThinkPad X1 Carbon is a premium machine at a premium price point, so we're glad Lenovo took panel resolution up a notch too.

First Boot, Software and Utilities
Lenovo's setup for the ThinkPad X1 Carbon is pretty standard issue.  Fortunately there isn't a lot of bloat, only a pesky trial installation of Norton Internet Security, as well as the latest updates on a few useful Lenovo home-baked ThinkVantage utilities.

Lenovo Simple Tap

Hang on a second here, that's not completely all Lenovo pre-loaded. Lenovo Simple Tap is here and it offers a quick icon-driven interface for fast access to various software, either of which is installed on the machine or available for download with a few pokes and swipes.  But that's where we were left scratching our collective heads. Simple Tap isn't really all that useful unless it's driven by a touch panel display, which of course the ThinkPad X1 Carbon doesn't offer.  We could see this utility much more useful on the upcoming IdeaPad Yoga convertible but not so much on this ThinkPad standard machine.

Lenovo's ThinkVantage Technologies suite of utilities is some of the best in the business. Here you can see the fine grained control and intuitive user interface Lenovo has designed for the Power Manager control panel.  You can choose from a few predefined configurations to maximize battery life and performance under specific usage models, or you can tweak the knobs and timers to your heart's content.

SiSoftware SANDRA and ATTO
We began our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA 2011, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests that partially comprise the SANDRA  suite (CPU Arithmetic, Multimedia, Memory Bandwidth and Physical Disk Performance). All of the scores reported below were taken with the ThinkPad X1 Carbon running at its default settings with full performance mode enabled and the notebook plugged into the AC adapter.

Synthetic General Performance Mertrics

SANDRA CPU Arithmetic and Multimedia Performance

SANDRA Memory and Physical Disk Performance

Lenovo's new ThinkPad Ultrabook chalks up respectable performance for the key metrics measured here with the slight exception of memory bandwidth.  The average Ivy Bridge and dual channel DDR3 setup we've seen usually drops in somewhere around 18 - 20GB/sec for memory bandwidth and has been based on DDR3 1600MHz memory.  At around 16GB/sec it seems the X1 Carbon could have been dialed up a bit more in this area but since the machine is configured with 1333MHz memory it's a tad slower. SANDRA's Physical Disk test however showed snappy throughput so we thought it made sense to look a bit deeper at the performance of the ThinkPad X1 Carbon's SSD.

ATTO Storage Benchmark{Title}
Storage Subsystem Transfer Tests

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon and Asus Zenbook SSD Performance Comparison with ATTO
We were so impressed with the SSD performance numbers with our first round of ultrabooks that hit the lab, that we've added ATTO as a quick sanity check for many of our notebook reviews lately, especially SSD-powered machines.

Asus Zenbook UX21

The Asus Zenbook UX21 series of machines is sort of our in-house watermark for Ultrabook SSD performance.  To date we haven't seen another Ultrabook model on the market surpass the UX21's ADATA SATA 3 SSD that is powered by a Sandforce controller.  Let's see how the SanDisk SSD in the X1 Carbon stacked up.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon

The X1 Carbon's SSD actually scored around the second best set of read/write ATTO numbers we've pulled from an Ultrabook. The write side of the X1 Carbon's equation couldn't keep pace with the Zenbook but still at over 300MB/sec it's no slouch.  And at very small transfer sizes up to 2K, the SanDisk SSD on board the machine actually slipped past the Zenbook's ADATA SSD slightly.  For read performance, at 460 - 480MB/sec, this SSD is nothing to sneeze at either.  Score a point or two for Lenovo in the selection of their storage subsystem here.

Cinebench and PCMark 7
Maxon's Cinebench R11.5 benchmark is based on the company's Cinema 4D software used for 3D content creation and tests both the CPU and GPU in separate benchmark runs.

Cinebench R11.5 64-bit
3D Rendering Performance on CPU and GPU
On the CPU side, Cinebench renders a photorealistic 3D scene by tapping into up to 64 processing threads to process more than 300,000 total polygons, while the GPU benchmark measures graphics performance by manipulating nearly 1 million polygons and huge amounts of textures.

Here the Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 Carbon scales nicely with its Ivy Bridge brethren.  The Intel whitebook (reference platform) demonstrated here offers what could be considered as Intel's "best foot forward" in performance for this specific model of Core i5-3427U Ivy Bridge dual-core ultra low voltage processors.  The X1 Carbon, as you can see, closely kept pace.

Futuremark PCMark 7
General Application and Multimedia Performance
Futuremark's PCMark 7 is the latest version of the PCMark suite, recently released last spring. It has updated application performance measurements targeted for a Windows 7 environment. The benchmark combines 25 individual workloads covering storage, computation, image and video manipulation, Web browsing, and gaming.

This specific test is primarily affected by processor and storage subsystem performance.  Here again, the X1 Carbon clocks in about where expected, right on the heels of the Intel Core i5 Ivy Bridge whitebook.  Notice though the Zenbook UX21E's SSD may have offered better performance on our previous page of storage performance testing, the model tested here is based on the previous generation of Sandy Bridge dual-core technology and as such the Ivy Bridge-driven ThinkPad Carbon X1 holds a sizable edge over it in the benchmarks.  We'll be taking a look at Asus' latest Ivy Bridge-based Zenbooks soon but for now Lenovo holds the limelight.
Light Duty Gaming Performance
Next, just as a quick sanity check, we fired up a couple of quick gaming metrics to see how things fared for the ThinkPad X1 Carbon.  Recall that this is a business targeted machine, so we're not expecting anything exceptional in this area, to be perfectly candid.

FarCry 2
DX10 Gaming Benchmark

FarCry 2

Like the original, FarCry 2 is one of the more visually impressive games to be released on the PC to date. Courtesy of the Dunia game engine developed by Ubisoft, FarCry 2's game-play is enhanced by advanced environment physics, destructible terrain, high resolution textures, complex shaders, realistic dynamic lighting, and motion-captured animations. We benchmarked the test systems in this article with the FarCry 2 benchmark tool using one of the built-in demo runs recorded in the "Ranch" map.

The ThinkPad X1 Carbon, drops into the middle of the pack of Ultrabooks and notebooks we tested here.  This is likely because the X1 Carbon we tested was configured with 1333MHz memory versus the Intel whitebook, for example, which sports the same CPU and integrated graphics combination.

Furturemark 3DMark 11
Synthetic DX11 Gaming Benchmark

Futuremark 3DMark11

The latest version of Futuremark's synthetic 3D gaming benchmark, 3DMark11, is specifically bound to Windows Vista and WIndows 7-based systems due to its DirectX 11 requirement, which isn't available on previous versions of Windows. 3DMark11 isn't simply a port of 3DMark Vantage to DirectX 11, though. With this latest version of the benchmark, Futuremark has incorporated four new graphics tests, a physics tests, and a new combined test. We the two machines here in the Performance preset of the benchmark.

Intel Core i5-3427U Whitebook Performance

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Performance

The disparity in gaming performance is a bit more obvious here in 3DMark 11 but again, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon's build configuration certainly isn't a gaming-centric, so we'll move on.  Frankly, there's not a lot to see here.  This is a business class machine and if you want a bit more gaming horsepower in an Ultrabook, you're going to be disappointed. There are a few larger models on the market, like Dell's XPS 14z for example, that have discrete graphics and they'd serve your needs better.  That said, for general multimedia and a bit of light duty gaming purposes, you should be plenty pleased with the ThinkPad X1 Carbon.  Twitch trigger, first person shooter fans need not apply here.
Battery Life Testing
If you're shopping an Ultrabook, you're likely less concerned with gaming performance and more interested in what kind of battery life you can squeeze out of these featherweight systems. This is perhaps one of the most important metrics for many of you.  What we have below is an example of a worst case scenario and close to the best case performance under light duty web browsing workloads.

Battery Life Test
Heavy and Light Workloads

With the brightness set at 50 percent, we fired up BatteryEater Pro and let this brutal benchmark do its thing.  With the dual-core Intel processor working up a sweat, along with system memory and disk access, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon couldn't quite squeeze out 2 hours of untethered performance.  Remember, the carbon also has a slightly larger display than most 13 and 12-inch Ultrabooks out there.  Conversely, turn down the workload and kick back with a little bit of easy-going web browsing and things improved dramatically.  The ThinkPad X1 Carbon managed just under 6 hours (5.9 to be exact) of active use on a full charge, which is pretty darn solid considering Lenovo claims 6.3 hours max.

A Note on System Acoustics -

We'd like to highlight the fact that the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon is one of the quietest ultralight machines we've ever tested.  Though this Ultrabook is just a mere .71 inches thick at its thickest point, .31 inches thin at its thinnest dimension and just 3lbs, we never experienced the all too common audible whine that is exhibited in this type of machine.  Lenovo figured out a way to keep the ThinkPad X1 Carbon not only cool but also calm and quiet under pressure.  Once again, high marks scored with Lenovo's first ThinkPad they've labled an Ultrabook.

Performance Summary & Conclusion
Performance Summary:   Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 Carbon put up very respectable performance figures across a myriad of workloads.  With the exception of gaming, where this ThinkPad's lower memory bandwidth holds back performance, the X1 Carbon competes well with the latest crop of Intel 3rd generation Core series powered ultra-light notebooks. In our light duty gaming benchmarks the ThinkPad X1 Carbon offered performance somewhat below other machines we've tested in this class, although gaming is not what this machine was designed for. Are you going to miss a bit of gaming performance in a feather-weight notebook usage model?  Likely not, but it's worth noting, especially if you tend toward heavier multimedia usage.  Beyond that, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon's combination of Intel's Ivy Bridge-based Core i5-3427U processor and its nimble SSD, add up to responsive, power-efficient performance that will satisfy virtually anyone interested in a machine in this weight class.

We have to hand it to Lenovo for designing what is darn near close to the perfect Ultrabook, at least in terms of our personal wish list.  There are but two shortcomings that stand out beyond the machine's heftier-than-most price tag; and at this price range ($1399 - $1899 MSRP) there should be few compromises.  In our testing, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon pulled up behind most other similarly configured Ultrabooks in gaming tests, due to slightly lower available memory bandwidth offered by its DDR3-1333MHz memory, versus some Ultrabooks that are sporting 1600MHz memory under the hood. We should also point out that this memory is actually soldered to the system's motherboard.  So whatever configuration you get from the factory, be it 4GB or 8GB, that's what you've got for good, period.

The other smaller request would be at least one more USB 3.0 port tucked away on one edge of the machine somewhere or in place of the legacy USB 2.0 port.  With only two USB ports at your disposal, we could see scenarios where someone might run out of needed expansion or connectivity options.  These are small quibbles to be sure but again, at a premium price point like this, splitting hairs doesn't seem completely unreasonable.

Finally, while some folks might take issue with Lenovo's choice of display on the ThinkPad X1 Carbon, we feel its high 1600x900 native resolution, good contrast ratio and matte finish offer a pleasing window on the world of computing.  Under heavy use, the display was almost as comfortable and easy on the eyes, as the X1 Carbon's keyboard areas is on your hands.  You'll love the keyboard on this machine, trust us.  Couple that backlit beauty with Lenovo's rigid, light-weight, sleek, and understated carbon fiber chassis and you get what amounts to Lenovo's classic ThinkPad heritage reincarnated in an Ultrabook experience, a place where form does not always follow function.  With the ThinkPad X1 Carbon, style and substance aren't mutually exclusive but rather complementary.  Good stuff, Lenovo.

  • Thin, light, strong and ThinkPad tough with Carbon Fiber shell
  • Most stylish ThinkPad yet
  • Favorite Ultrabook keyboard, period and it's backlit!
  • Nimble in SSD
  • High res display
  • Large glass touchpad
  • DDR3 1333MHz system memory versus 1600MHz on other machines.
  • Pricey

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