I just got a brand new, top-of-the-line, second generation Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon to use as my main development machine. I’m still in the middle of converting over from my old machine, an aging Lenovo ThinkPad T410s, so this review is more about first impressions and initial thoughts than anything else. I’ll update this review after I’ve used the machine for a few weeks. One thing I want to make clear is that I’m going to use this machine differently from most users. I will be using this machine for all forms of software development and really putting it through its paces instead of travelling with it.
Before I get into my initial thoughts, here’s a quick rundown of the new machine:
- Intel Core i7-4600U @ 2.1GHz (Haswell series)
- 8GB of PC3-12800 DDR3L RAM running at 1600MHz
- 256GB Samsung SSD
- 2560 x 1440 resolution touch screen display
Here are the things that I like: the weight, the screen, the performance, the included Ethernet dongle, the battery life, and the power adapter.
The Carbon weighs a whopping 2.8 pounds. That’s not as light as the MacBook Air, but the Carbon offers a “retina” display that you just can’t get with a MacBook Air.
Speaking of displays, the Carbon’s 2560 x 1440 display is gorgeous. It offers so much more screen real estate than a standard HD display. The added space shows much more content for programs like Visual Studio which means more lines of code and less scrolling.
In addition to the great screen real estate, the performance is what you would expect from an i7 with an SSD with SATA III. It appears to have no issues running my normal workflow which includes SQL Server, Visual Studio, and Azure emulators.
Also, it’s nice that the Carbon comes with an Ethernet breakout dongle. There’s a dedicated micro Ethernet port that the dongle plugs in to. This is nice, and it’s not like the laptop is thick enough to support a full-size Ethernet port.
All of this is nice, but the battery life makes it even better. As I type this, I have 81% battery remaining and an estimate of 5.5 hours remaining. That’s a long time and much longer than any laptop I’ve ever owned.
Along with the battery life, the power adapter is comparatively small and flat. The fact that it’s flat could be a bad thing, but it fits both ways into the port so it’s not a problem. Like the Carbon itself, the power adapter is small and light as it should be. Since the Haswell chips are so power efficient.
Unfortunately, the Carbon isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Here’s what I don’t like but will learn to live with:
The fingerprint reader is in a good location but doesn’t seem like it picks up my fingerprint all the time. I’ve already spent several minutes several times trying to login with my fingerprint. The reader is rather recessed so that could be why it doesn’t pick up my finger all the time.
The touchpad is really smooth so it’s hard to know that you’re accidentally touching it. The included software keeps me from accidentally clicking or tapping, so that’s nice. It’s definitely an improvement over the grainy touchpad on the T410s, but now it’s almost too smooth. Also, there are no physical buttons on the touchpad anymore. The whole thing functions as one large button with clicking into the lower right-hand corner causing an alternate click instead of a primary click. I’m not a huge fan of this recent trend in laptops because there’s no indication that you’re in the “zone” for alternate click. Along with the whole thing being a button, it means I’ve accidentally been moving the mouse when I physically click the touch pad. This has caused me to miss what I’ve been clicking on a couple of times.
In addition, there aren’t any indicators for battery status (including charging), so you have to rely on Windows for that information. However, when the laptop is sleeping, the dot in the “I” in ThinkPad on the cover slowly cycles red, which is a clever touch.
Finally, the speakers are on the underside of the case, so you could accidentally muffle them if the machine is on your lap. They also aren’t the greatest speakers in the world, but I don’t intend to use them often enough to notice.
The Ugly are design decisions that I wish Lenovo hadn’t made but will have to deal with.
Before I got this machine, I read several reviews that really harped on the keyboard design. I have to confirm that it’s every bit as jarring as the reviews paint it out to be. The Caps Lock button has been replaced with a split Home/End button. I use Home and End all the time. I don’t use Caps Lock, so that being gone will just mean I don’t accidentally shout at people when I’m trying to find the A key. Also, the paging keys (Page Up and Page Down) are now directly over the left and right arrow keys, respectively. That’s not a bad placement, but the keys are nearly on top of each other. I’ve already reached for the arrows several times and accidentally ended up hitting the paging keys instead.
In that same vein, the adaptive function row has symbols that I’ve never seen before and there’s no label for what they actually do, so I’ve had to discover their use. Most of them have turned out to be useful, but there’s no way to customize the rows to change which keys are in which row or which keys are where. For example, I’d love to have the function keys and volume controls on the same “row” instead of the function keys along with settings-related keys like connecting to a second monitor or toggling wifi. There is a key that’s dedicated to flipping through the rows, which is very useful. In addition, there’s no feedback for when you’ve touched a button on the row like the buzz you get from soft keys in smartphones. That would be very useful since you’re not actually pressing a physical button anymore.
Moving on to the case, there are also several notable things excluded or poorly placed. The Carbon comes with a mini-DisplayPort but no dongle to convert that port to a full-size DisplayPort, VGA, or something else. Since the Ethernet dongle is included, the dongle for the DisplayPort is a notable absence. Also, the full-size HDMI port seems kind of overkill since DisplayPort can convert to HDMI. On the subject of ports, the HDMI port could be replaced with an SD card slot easily.
All of these items are mostly minor in the grand scheme of things, but they do highlight areas for improvement.
I think I’m going to be very happy with this machine once I understand its quirks. Although I’ve harped a lot on the keyboard, I don’t think it’s going to slow me down very much. The function keys not having touch feedback when you touch them will likely be my biggest gripe once my touch typing figures out where Home, End, and Delete are. Other than that, I look forward to using it and seeing how much it increases my productivity. I would say I’m more than cautiously optimistic, but I’m definitely not over the moon yet. Lenovo has made a great laptop, I’ll see how it does for development soon.
I’ve now used the X1 Carbon for a full week as my sole development machine. I have to say that it’s pretty nice. It’s more than capable of handling whatever I throw at it. However, there are some things that I didn’t notice initially that would make it even better.
There are no media function keys (play/pause, fast forward/rewind). This is a huge letdown. There are 4 adaptive row sets and not one of them includes media buttons. I realize this is supposed to be a “business” machine, but I don’t know any business person who doesn’t listen to music or watch videos during downtime. Not being able to interact with a hardware key is frustrating and something I am definitely going to miss. Besides, I have laptops that are ten years old that have dedicated media keys.
The screen causes some scaling issues when using external, low-PPI monitors. This is more of a Windows issue, but because the X1 Carbon’s screen has a high pixel density text is almost impossible to read without using some kind of scaling. Unfortunately, Windows tries to handle scaling by either making everything the same size across multiple screens or making everything the same number of pixels. There’s also no way to set scaling on a per-monitor basis, so I either have to have tiny text on the high density or massive text on the low-density. I wish there were a way to set the scaling on a per-monitor basis. This isn’t Lenovo’s fault, but it’s something to be aware of.