The New X1 Carbon – Less is more (and more is more)

Guest blog by Chris Karaffa, Lenovo Advocate

As a long-time business user of the X1 Carbon, I was very excited to see the new X1 unveiled at CES 2014.  A little background: I was issued an X1C accidentally when everyone else was being issued mainly T-series and the random L-series or X-series other than the X1.  Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I gladly accepted.  Just based on form-factor alone, it looked like the perfect notebook for me.  I spend a decent amount of my time traveling and presenting in front of moderately-sized groups.

However, there were some immediate growing pains that I had to overcome.  In order to shrink a very capable notebook to this size, one must sacrifice certain things:

  1. An optical drive – No big deal.  It’s a dying medium, anyway, right?
  2. VGA/DVI/HDMI outputs – I am constantly using multiple displays or a projector, but I’ll just make do with the miniDP port, I suppose.
  3. Ethernet – Wireless is where it’s at, and well, it did come with a USB-to-Ethernet dongle in case I absolutely must use it (albeit at USB 2.0 speeds).
  4. Smart Card Reader – Well that kind of sucks, but I always use a USB card reader, I guess.

Furthermore, there are only two USB ports on the older X1—one 2.0 and one 3.0.  So with one always occupied with a smart card reader (partially pictured on the left, above), and one occupied with a wireless mouse receiver, I was required to use an unpowered USB hub any time I wanted to use any other USB device, such as Ethernet, a remote control, etc.  Between the USB and video dongles, my X1 Carbon affectionately came to be known as the “DO Spider.”  And the DO Spider still elicits notebook envy at the office (“Wow.  That’s a thin laptop” is the common refrain.)

But when it came to traveling and performing my work, the DO Spider was absolutely incredible.  When flying cross-country on business, there are a few attributes of my DO Spider that are invaluable.  In no particular order:

  1. Solid-state hard drive – Near instant-on means less time waiting to boot when time is limited, and also gives me a little additional piece of mind while my machine is rattling down the conveyor belt at airport security.
  2. Very light, very thin – makes packing it around much easier.
  3. Long battery life – more than enough juice for any domestic flight.
  4. Rapid-Charge – Able to top off my battery in about an hour (which has saved my butt on more than one occasion).

So you can imagine why I was excited to see what the next Generation X1 Carbon had to offer.  I’ve already waxed poetic about the earlier X1 Carbon, so it might be easiest to compare and contrast it with the newest generation.

On the left we have the DO Spider, and on the right we have the new X1 Carbon.

At first blush, these machines are very, very similar: both incredibly light and thin.  In fact, there is a lot that is very similar between the two.  Let’s start by taking a look at the changes to the inputs/outputs.

  • The new X1C introduces native RJ45 support (with a dongle) for those who want a true gigabit connection option (and for those who don’t want to use a USB port for Ethernet).
  • The new X1C features HDMI output (nice for work and pleasure!)
  • Both of the USB ports are 3.0, and one is “always on&rdqrdquo;, which is nice for charging your phone or powering other devices from the new X1C’s bigger battery.
  • The new X1C features a new “Combo OneLink Dock” (part and parcel of the power port) for docking.  I saw this docked to a 4k2k display at CES that looked absolutely INCREDIBLE.

I’d say that this is a pretty nice upgrade from the earlier iteration (for my purposes, at least).  On the downside, however, the new X1C loses its memory card reader.  But I suppose that’s the breaks to get a notebook so light and thin.

Like the earlier X1C, the new X1C also has a beefy battery and rapid charge—but the new X1C boasts up to nine hours of battery life, and three charge modes to charge your battery quickly and keep it healthy.  I tested the battery capacity and charge time myself, and the claims are good so long as you use battery-maximizing settings (dimmer screen, slower CPU).  The new X1C also has a “Deep Sleep Mode” that hardly drains the battery at all for long periods of inactivity.

Now for the major changes…

The first I’ll address is the new display: the “ThinkPad ColorBurst Display” (WQHD, 2560 x 1440).  I’ll be honest here, I haven’t yet displayed anything on the new X1C that could really take advantage of the high-definition, but I plan on it soon!  Kind of makes you wonder why the HDMI output with a screen like that, doesn’t it?

The second major change, which is creating the most buzz, is the new five-row keyboard and touchpad.

I’ve read quite a few opinions on the new keyboard that go both ways.  I’ve heard some people lambast it as (yet another) step in the wrong direction for keyboards.  I’ve heard others tout it as a jump in innovation that was overdue.  I’m somewhere in between.  After the short time that I’ve used the keyboard, my opinion is that this is the best implementation of a full-featured keyboard on limited real estate.  That is, we’re not talking about a W-series workstation replacement weighing in at twice the weight.  We’re talking about a thin, light, ultra-portable notebook.  As with the ports and optical drive, there are certain tradeoffs that need to be made.  I never did like the combination F-keys myself.  I think it was partially because different makers had different implementations and key behavior was frequently unpredictable.  The new adaptive function-row is actually very intuitive and easy to use—and slightly configurable (very slightly).  When a given key or command map is displayed, it’s pretty clear what each soft key is going to do.  It will be a little slower than using a seven-row keyboard, but not enough for me to care with the type of work I do.

Then there’s the new touchpad.  I’m largely ambivalent because I’m first a mouse user, then a TrackPoint second, and lastly TouchPad.  But for the time I was using it, it was generally responsive and responded predictably.

Finally, there are some less obvious features that I’m pretty pleased with—most pertaining to power management, such as “airplane power mode” that optimizes charging when there is limited voltage, like that which is available on an aircraft.  And of course, it’s just plain more powerful in terms of processor, integrated graphics, and other items “under the hood.”

I guess to wrap up, I have to say that the new X1 did not disappoint.  I think that for users who value portability, usability, and reliability, the new X1 Carbon is a no-brainer.  I’m looking at you, professionals, students, and other highly-mobile users.