Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold review: An innovative shape-shifting tablet/laptop

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  • Editors' rating
    7.5 Very good

Pros

  • Innovative industrial design
  • Bright, sharp OLED screen
  • Solid screen folding mechanism
  • Robust chassis build
  • Optional 5G mobile broadband

Cons

  • Can’t customise processor or RAM
  • Minimal ports
  • Disappointing mini-keyboard and touchpad
  • Battery life could be better
  • Kickstand only supports landscape mode
  • Seriously expensive

Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 Fold is the world's first foldable PC. Its 13.3-inch OLED screen folds down the middle, allowing you to use it in laptop mode with a mini-keyboard, fully open as a handheld tablet, or as a standalone screen, propped up by its kickstand. This fascinating innovation doesn't come cheap, though. The starting price is £2,301.43 (inc. VAT; £1,917.86 ex. VAT) in the UK, or $2,499 in the US. 

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Lenovo's 13.3-inch ThinkPad X1 Fold can operate in multiple modes.

Images: Lenovo

There's a compelling concept behind the ThinkPad X1 Fold: to deliver excellent tablet and laptop modes, with a work- and leisure-friendly screen, while being portable and making no compromise on usability. That's a big ask, and it's important to note at the outset that despite Lenovo's best efforts, the X1 Fold doesn't provide all the answers.

Fully open, the touch screen measures 13.3 inches across the diagonal, with a resolution of 2,048 x 1,536 pixels (192.5ppi, 4:3 aspect ratio). Although maximum brightness is only 300 nits, the OLED panel delivers clear, sharp images with vibrant colours. It's a pleasure to use in tablet mode, in both landscape and portrait orientation.

There's a kickstand built into the back of the device that holds the ThinkPad X1 Fold at an upright angle in landscape orientation. However, when I tapped anywhere in the upper quarter of the screen, it felt in danger of tipping backwards. You can't prop up the X1 Fold in portrait mode. 

There are speakers on the long edges, which deliver plenty of volume. Bass tones could be stronger, but that's a perennial issue with laptops. However, the positioning of the speaker grilles means that when the kickstand is used for landscape-mode operation, the lower speaker can get muffled. 

You can interact with the screen with a fingertip or by using the Lenovo Mod Pen stylus, the on-screen soft keyboard or a physical Mini Keyboard. The stylus and mini-keyboard are provided with three of the four off-the-shelf iterations of this laptop in the UK, although the entry-level £2,301.43 (inc. VAT) model doesn't include them. The Mode Pen costs £90 (inc. VAT), while the Mini Keyboard adds £200 (inc. VAT) to the price. 

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Images at Lenovo's website show the ThinkPad X1 Fold being held in one hand as if it were a paperback book. That's somewhat disingenuous, given that the device weighs a kilogram (0.99kg to be exact). 

When you start to fold the screen, an applet called the Lenovo Mode Switcher appears. You tap this to either keep the screen in single view mode, or have two vertical pages. Mode Switcher is available whenever you want to use it, so it's easy to flip between different viewing modes. Dragging windows around the screen isn't always as easy or effective as it should be: I found resizing a little jerky, and it's tricky dragging apps across the folded area of the screen. It's also irritating that when you fold the screen for laptop mode use and place the mini-keyboard onto its bottom half, windows don't automatically resize to fit the top half of the screen only. 

To put the ThinkPad X1 Fold away you close it up as you would close a book. The result is something with a desktop footprint little bigger than a paperback book, although it's thicker than many paperbacks. The folded dimensions are: 158.2mm x 236mm x 27.8mm, while unfolded (with the screen entirely flat) it measures 299.4mm x 236mm x 11.5mm. When you're travelling with the ThinkPad X1 Fold, the mini-keyboard will sit inside the fold, and the keyboard has an integrated loop to house the Mod Pen stylus. The body of the ThinkPad X1 Fold is covered in soft and pliable leather at the back, giving it a folio-like appearance when closed. 

As for the X1 Fold's robustness, only long-term use will confirm whether the screen and hinge mechanism withstand being folded multiple times a day. There's a rubbery, bevelled, flexing section on the bezel at the fold point, which has enough of an airgap at its outer edge at certain fold angles to raise concern about dust ingress. But the build includes both carbon fibre and magnesium alloy, and the spec sheet notes that the X1 Fold has passed MIL-STD 810H ruggedness tests. 

Lenovo allays concern that the folding screen might be prone to scratching, noting that it's been tested for the effects of objects getting wedged in the gap that's apparent when the device is folded up like a book. 

You can use the provided mini-keyboard either perched on one half of the screen where it's secured by magnets, with the other half of the screen folded upwards laptop-style, or entirely separately from the fully folded-out screen. I preferred the latter mode, as it offered more screen real estate, and felt a lot less cramped. 

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Left: Screen fully open and supported in landscape orientation by the kickstand, with the Bluetooth Mini-Keyboard and Mod Pen stylus. Right: laptop mode, with the Mini-Keyboard magnetically attached to half of the folded screen.

Images: Sandra Vogel / ZDNet

Unusually for Lenovo, the keyboard is disappointing in use. Thin and light, it feels a little flimsy in the hands, but that's not its main failing. There's very little return to the keys, and it's frustrating that access to some characters -- such as square brackets and '/' -- require the Fn key to be held down; others -- such as curled brackets, '?' and '@' -- require Ctrl as well. It's quite a steep learning curve, and typing speed is likely to suffer until you adjust -- or switch to a better Bluetooth keyboard. 

The touchpad is even more disappointing because, at 2.5 inches wide, it's just too small for its intended function. Lenovo clearly wanted to give as much space as possible to the keyboard, but the touchpad suffers as a result. 

The internal battery for the Mini Keyboard provides up to 40 hours of use, Lenovo says, and can be charged either via USB or wirelessly from the X1 Fold when the keyboard is attached in laptop mode. USB charging is via Micro-USB -- a distinctly legacy solution for such an otherwise forward-looking product. 

The Mod Pen stylus is far better, although it's a shame there's no magnet to hold it to the ThinkPad X1 Fold. Still it's efficient and usable, supporting 4,096 pressure levels. The Mod Pen charges via USB-C, with a single charge lasting for 332 hours, according to Lenovo. 

There is a 5MP hybrid IR webcam on the left side of the top bezel when the screen is fully open and in landscape mode. It works fine for video calls in this orientation, but less so in laptop mode, when the camera is on the right side, close to the hinge. There's no ThinkShutter privacy cover, as seen on many ThinkPads, although the bezel seems big enough to accommodate this. If cost considerations ruled out a ThinkShutter, that's arguably a false economy. 

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Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) and Bluetooth (5.1) are on-board as standard, with 5G mobile broadband a £220 (inc. VAT) optional extra. The entry-level pre-configured model runs Windows 10 Home, while the remainder run Windows 10 Pro. All four UK off-the-shelf configurations are built around Intel's Core i5 L1G67 processor with Hybrid Technology and 8GB of RAM, and neither CPU nor RAM can be customised. You can go beyond the entry-level 256GB of SSD storage, to 512GB (+£120) or 1TB (+£180).  

Lenovo is frugal with ports and connectors, providing just two USB-C ports on the chassis, one of which is needed for charging. One of the USB-C ports is, irritatingly, inaccessible when the kickstand is in use. There's no fingerprint reader, and not even a 3.5mm headset connector, which is standard fare in laptops. 

My review configuration had a 256GB SSD and cost £2,799.99 (inc. VAT; £2.333.32 ex. VAT). A high-end model with a 512GB SSD and mobile broadband costs £3,159.99 (inc. VAT; £2,633.32 ex. VAT). 

Lenovo claims 8.5 hours of life for the ThinkPad X1 Fold's 50Wh battery, which is modest by today's standards. In fairness, there isn't a great deal of chassis space in which to store a battery, but bear this in mind if you're considering the X1 Fold as your main workhorse. To test battery life, I worked in both full-screen and half-screen modes with the mini-keyboard across a three-hour period, during which I wrote into web apps, browsed and streamed music and video. During this period the battery dropped 37% from a full charge, suggesting battery life of just over 8 hours. Lenovo says the battery will recharge to 80% in an hour. 

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Image: Lenovo

Conclusions

The ThinkPad X1 Fold's signature folding screen worked faultlessly throughout the review period, and is a marvel. That said, there are some significant usability issues to contend with, such as the poor mini-keyboard, a dearth of ports and connectors, and moderate battery life. Also, it's not clear why the webcam lacks a ThinkShutter, one of the USB-C ports is inaccessible when the kickstand is in use, and the kickstand only supports landscape mode.

Factor in the price, which is high at the entry level and gets astronomical towards the top end, and it's hard to recommend the ThinkPad X1 Fold. As a proof-of-concept for folding screens, it's exemplary. But as an everyday tablet/laptop it's expensive and under-specified, with too many usability compromises. 

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