Lenovo's ThinkPad T440s is our favorite overall business notebook, combining quality hardware with great performance. But if you're willing to sacrifice a few ports for something a bit smaller, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon might actually be the better choice. Weighing more than a half-pound lighter with a slightly thinner design, the X1 Carbon is certainly the more portable of the two, if not the more versatile.
In addition to a sleek profile, you get a top-notch keyboard and excellent security features like a fingerprint scanner, all for around $1,200. You also get the trademark durability of the ThinkPad brand, making the X1 Carbon a good pick for road warriors who need a notebook that can take a beating.
With a tapered design that has a slimmer, sleeker profile than its bigger brothers, the X1 Carbon isn't the boxy ThinkPad you're used to. But the device still sports an understated, matte-black lid, with the ThinkPad logo adding the only splash of color (as usual, the dot of the "i" is a glowing red LED). It's not exactly an eye-catching design, but since the X1 Carbon is intended to be used for work, that's fine.
As the name implies, the X1 Carbon is made from carbon fiber-reinforced plastic that gives it extra toughness without much added weight. Lenovo says the notebook passes a variety of durability tests, including eight MIL-SPEC tests, so it's resistant to extreme temperatures, humidity, sand and short drops and dings. That's good news for commuters and frequent business travelers who need a notebook that can withstand some abuse.
Fourteen-inch notebooks don't get lighter than this. The X1 Carbon is a featherweight at just 3.07 lbs., and would be even lighter without a touch screen. Compare that with 3.4 lbs. for the EliteBook Folio 1040 and 3.8 lbs. for the ThinkPad T450s. The smaller Dell XPS 13 is a lot lighter, though, weighing just 2.8 lbs.
At 0.73 inches thick, however, it's a bit chunkier than the EliteBook 1040 (0.63 inches) and XPS 13 (0.68 inches).
The X1 Carbon's excellent keyboard is one of its best assets. The machine offers large, well-spaced keys, with Lenovo's trademark sculpted shape that makes the layout easy to navigate by touch.
The individual keys offer relatively deep travel compared with the average keyboard, which is a good thing; higher key travel usually translates to a more desktoplike feel and a more comfortable typing experience overall. The ThinkPad T450s has a slightly better keyboard, though, offering slightly deeper travel and more feedback on each keystroke.
Like all ThinkPad notebooks, I like that the "Fn" function keys on the X1 Carbon default to shortcuts like adjusting volume, brightness and more.
Unfortunately, the X1's keyboard lacks the water-resistant design of the T450s, which includes a protective layer beneath the keys that funnels spilled water out of the bottom of the machine. The directional arrow keys are also shrunk down on the X1 Carbon, while the T450s offers full-size arrow keys that are easier to press.
Touchpad and TrackPoint
In the ThinkPad tradition, the X1 Carbon includes two ways to point the mouse: a standard touchpad, and the red TrackPoint stick, positioned between the G, H and B keys.
The touchpad is predictably excellent. Mousing around on my test unit feels buttery smooth, and the touchpad is sensitive and accurate enough to respond accurately to the lightest touches. Multifinger gestures like two-finger scrolling also work well.
There are no dedicated left and right buttons positioned beneath the touchpad; instead, they're incorporated into the pad itself. Some people prefer discrete buttons, since they allow for more precise clicks; you might occasionally left click when you meant to right click, for example. Personally, I consider that a fair trade-off for a roomier touchpad.
However, there are buttons above the touchpad, which are intended to be used with the TrackPoint pointing stick. It's not for everyone, but I like the TrackPoint because it lets me precisely maneuver the on-screen cursor without moving my fingers from the keyboard — a real perk for business users who do a lot of typing.
The X1 Carbon's 14-inch screen comes with a resolution of either 1920 x 1080 (full HD) or 2560 x 1440 (quad HD) for an extra $150; my review unit came with the latter. Optionally, you can get the higher-res version with touch-screen capabilities, though it will cost you an additional $200, for a total of $350 extra over the baseline screen. Personally, I would opt for nontouch screen, since the touch panel is pricey and adds a bit of weight to the device.
Quad-HD resolution is nice, but full HD is more than adequate for a screen this size if you can't afford it. Regardless, my review unit displayed sharp images, with accurate colors.
It could be a bit brighter, though, topping out at 243 nits of brightness, a bit under the category average of 252 nits. That's still quite usable outdoors, though, and absolutely fine for office use.
I liked that the X1 Carbon can open far enough to lay flat on a table, which could potentially be useful if you want to collaborate around a conference tablet.
The X1 Carbon has a healthy number of ports, including two USB 3.0 ports, as well as an HDMI port and a Mini DisplayPort for linking the computer to a monitor (when you're working at a desk) or a projector (when you want to share a presentation). You also get a OneLink connector port, which will let you link the X1 Carbon up to Lenovo's desktop dock.
There's no SD card slot, nor is there a standard Ethernet port. Instead, you get an Ethernet extender port, which will let you connect the notebook to a wired network, but only with the right adapter.
So which ports will you be giving up by opting for the thinner X1 Carbon over the ThinkPad T450s? In addition to all the Carbon's ports, the T450s includes an extra USB 3.0 port, a VGA-out port (for connecting to older monitors and projectors), a 4-in-1 card reader (which is compatible with SD cards), and a regular Ethernet port, in addition to a Kensington lock slot for extra security at your desk.
Specs and performance
The ThinkPad X1 Carbon can be configured with a wide array of hardware options, with the top-end model including an Intel Core i7-5600U processor with 8GB of RAM and 512GB of solid-state drive (SSD) storage, as well as a quad-HD touch screen, for around $2,200. My review unit, meanwhile, costs about $1,750, with the following hardware.
- Core i5-5300U processor
- 8GB of RAM
- 256GB SSD
- 2560 x 1440 touch screen
- Intel HD Graphics 5500
A more affordable sweet spot for business users would include a smaller 128GB hard drive and a nontouch display for about $1,200.
On the GeekBench 3 test, which measures overall performance, the X1 Carbon scored an impressive 6,110. That trounces the ultraportable average of 4,082, as well as the Core M-powered Yoga 3 Pro, which scored 4,571. It also beat out the Dell XPS 13 running a Core i5-5200U processor, which scored 5,653.
In our OpenOffice test, which measures real-world performance by tasking each system to match 20,000 names and addresses in a spreadsheet, the X1 Carbon finished in an impressive 4 minutes and 47 seconds. That's faster than the XPS 13 (5:34), though the Core i5 MacBook Air was quicker (3:46).
The X1 Carbon will easily last through a long business flight. It ran for an impressive 8 hours in our battery life test, which simulates continuous Web browsing via Wi-Fi with the screen set at 100 nits of brightness. That's longer than the Ultraportable average (7:27), as well as the XPS 13 (7:24) and HP's EliteBook Folio 1040 (7:41).
The X1 Carbon’s front-facing, 720p camera did a fine job of capturing video in my brightly lit office. When I snapped a selfie, I noticed a fair amount of visual noise in the image, but that’s typical for laptop webcams. The notebook also produces fairly loud audio, topping out at 94 decibels, which is 10 dB higher than the average for ultraportable computers. That means you should have no trouble hearing a client or colleague on the other side of a call.
Like any good business notebook, the X1 Carbon offers more security options than a typical laptop. It starts with a fingerprint reader that's positioned conveniently just to the right of the keyboard. I registered all five fingers on my right hand using a preloaded application, then tested the scanner by using it to unlock the notebook. It proved extremely reliable, failing only when I slid my finger too fast. It's a nice perk for business users who want to keep their work machine locked down without constantly typing in a secure password.
The ThinkPad X1 Carbon also comes with Windows 8.1 Pro installed, which offers some extra security features over basic Windows 8.1, including support for BitLocker, which encrypts your hard drive.
The HP EliteBook Folio 1040 offers slightly better battery life than the X1 Carbon, but it's also heavier (3.4 lbs. compared with 3.07 lbs.).
Dell's XPS 13 is thinner and lighter than the X1 Carbon, but has a smaller 13-inch display compared with Lenovo's 14 incher. The XPS 13 also has a shallower keyboard.
Apple's MacBook Air is a 13-inch laptop with a premium design and much longer battery life than the X1 Carbon, but its low-res screen holds it back somewhat.
The Asus ZenBook UX305 isn't a direct competitor to these premium notebooks, with a more modest Core M processor, but it matches up surprisingly well at a bargain price of just $699.
The ThinkPad X1 Carbon strikes a happy medium between ultraportable machines like the XPS 13 and thin-and-light 14 inchers like the ThinkPad T450s; it's bigger than the former, but slimmer than the latter. In other words, it's a good option for business users who want a little extra screen space without sacrificing too much portability.
For mobile pros in the market for a high-end Ultrabook, Lenovo's laptop is a very compelling device, and it's my personal favorite for a 14-inch business notebook. But if you don't plan to travel with your notebook very often, I'd choose the T450s instead. It's a bit thicker and heavier, but a bit more versatile, with more ports and a slightly more comfortable, water-resistant keyboard.