Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon (7th Gen) review: A top-quality 14-inch business ultraportable, with excellent security features

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  • Editors' rating
    9.0 Outstanding

Pros

  • Lightweight and well built (MIL-STD 810G)
  • Eye Care mode
  • Good security features (including for screen)
  • Excellent speakers

Cons

  • 4K screen drains the battery
  • Proprietary Ethernet port requires adapter
  • Can get very expensive

The release of a new Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon is a much-anticipated event in the laptop year. Now on its 7th generation, this machine is, for many, the standard-setter for high-end ultraportable computing. The annual upgrade is a chance for Lenovo to show off its best mobile technology for business users, and this year we have an even lighter laptop, up to a 4K screen, up to 1TB of storage, plus the latest 8th Generation Intel processors. Naturally this isn't a computer for the cash-strapped, with prices starting at £1,429.99 (inc. VAT; £1,191.66 ex. VAT).

Considering the ThinkPad X1 Carbon (7th Gen) packs a 14-inch screen, it's exceptionally light, starting at 1.09kg. Presumably Lenovo's design team just couldn't bring it in under the magic 1kg mark, but it's still an impressive achievement -- last year's model weighed in at 1.13kg.

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The 7th generation ThinkPad X1 Carbon runs on 8th-gen Core i5 or i7 processors with up to 16GB of RAM and 1TB of SSD storage. Screen options run from FHD/300nits to 4K/500nits, with PrivacyGuard available on the FHD/400nits model. 

Images: Lenovo

The chassis doesn't sacrifice any strength in pursuit of low weight. The X1 Carbon (7th Gen) meets MIL-STD 810G, which means it's good for use in extreme cold and heat, as well as able to survive drops and knocks. The build is as solid as we've come to expect from the X1 Carbon series: there's a little flex in the lid, but not enough to cause alarm, while the base is very solid.

SEE: 20 pro tips to make Windows 10 work the way you want (free PDF)    

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The 4K screen model comes with a carbon fibre weave pattern on the top cover.

Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

With a maximum thickness of 14.95mm, the edges can accommodate full-size connectors rather than mini versions, for the most part (see below). The taper to the front is not as great as on some laptops -- maybe that's why the thickness of the front edge is not documented (although at 10mm it's really no cause for embarrassment). The desktop footprint of at 323mm wide by 217mm thick isn't much more than a sheet of A4 paper.

Two finishes are available: both are black, with the option of a carbon fibre weave finish to the top cover on 4K models. My review unit had this finish, which looks smart, although I'm not sure I'd miss it if it were absent.

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This is not a 360-degree convertible laptop. For that you'll have to wait (not very long) until Lenovo releases the ThinkPad X1 Yoga (4th Gen). Here the screen will hinge far enough to sit flat on a desk, but no further.

The 14-inch screen sits in bezels whose depth Lenovo does not care to share -- perhaps because they don't set any records. By my measurements the side bezels to the outer edge are 6mm wide, while the top bezel measures 12mm. 

The screen itself currently comes in three different versions in off-the-shelf configurations. The entry-level model has an FHD (1,920 x 1,080 pixel) IPS panel with maximum brightness of 400nits and an anti-glare finish. The mid-range model has the same panel at 300nits with touch support. The top-end model offers 2,560-by-1,440 resolution and 300nits but no touch support.

There is also the 4K (3840 x 2160) IPS screen with DolbyVision, HDR400 and 10-bit colour, which I was sent. This non-touch screen is nice to work with, being sharp, bright (500nits) and clear. 

Lenovo has implemented an 'eye care' mode which reduces the blue light on the screen. This will be welcome to anyone needing to work into the small hours.

One of the laptop's security features is PrivacyGuard, which reduces the viewing angles of the screen so that others sitting nearby can't look at what you're doing over your shoulders. If this sounds alluring, you should note that it's not available on the 4K screen, which meant I wasn't able to test PrivacyGuard.

If you're keen to use this laptop for multimedia, it's worth noting the quality of the audio subsystem. The Dolby Atmos system relies on stereo speakers whose grilles sit just above the keyboard. These pump out high-quality sound: music is impressively bass-rich, and although fidelity is lost at top volume you don't really need to go there -- I found 80% was plenty, and much of the time I was happy with 60%.

If you're tempted by the 4K screen, you should know that it hammered the 51Wh battery on my review unit. Lenovo quotes battery life of 'up to' 18.3 hours, but the 4K screen won't deliver that: the pre-configured screen brightness of 100% for working on battery power consumed 28% of a full battery in two hours. Dropping to 80% brightness (it wasn't comfortable to go below that mark) reduced the battery to 43% after another two hours. During this period I was doing a mix of mainstream tasks over a wi-fi connection: writing into a web app, streaming music and web browsing.

Fortunately the X1 Carbon (7th Gen) supports Rapid Charge, which replenished my review unit from 56% to 100% in an hour.  

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The keyboard is backlit and spill-resistant, and has a positive, clicky action. The touchpad incorporates an NFC touchpoint, and there's a fingerprint reader to its right.

Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

The spill-resistant backlit keyboard is up to Lenovo's usual high standard. The pot-bellied keys are large enough for full-speed touch typing, and the Enter key is double height and nicely wide. Even the arrow keys are well sized -- they're not the narrow lozenges you get in smaller-format laptops. The keys, which bounce back nicely when pressed, have an audible 'click', which will be particularly noticeable if you're a heavy-handed typist.

If anything suffers from this laptop's relatively small footprint, it's the touchpad. It has to accommodate Lenovo's trademark trio of TrackPoint buttons, for use in conjunction with the iconic red pointing stick that sits between the G, H and B keys. The relatively truncated wrist rest doesn't leave a lot of space for the touchpad itself, which feels wide enough, but could be a little deeper. There's an NFC touchpoint built into it, and a fingerprint reader to the right.

READ MORE: PC market share gain lifts Lenovo's total revenue to $12.5 billion

The PrivacyGuard option and fingerprint sensor are among a range of security features, including discrete TPM (dTPM) and a camera-blocking ThinkShutter slider. Those concerned about people sitting next to them glancing over at their screens might also be concerned about people standing behind them. The IR camera has a feature called PrivacyAlert which will give you a pop-up notification if someone is looking over your shoulder. Note, though, that the hybrid IR camera is a configurable option, and of the three versions on Lenovo's UK website it's only on the most expensive. 

Here are the three off-the-shelf options available in the UK at the time of writing (users can personalise these if they wish): 

  • Intel Core i5-8265U, Windows 10 Home, 14-inch FHD (1920x1080) IPS 400nits anti-glare non-touch display, Intel UHD Graphics 620, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD
    £1,429.99 (inc. VAT; £1,191.66 ex. VAT)
  • Intel Core i7-8565U, Windows 10 Pro, 14-inch FHD (1920x1080) IPS 300nits anti-glare touch display, Intel UHD Graphics 620, 16GB RAM, 512GB SSD
    £1,769.19 (inc. VAT; £1,474.32 ex. VAT)
  • Intel Core i7-8665U, Windows 10 Pro, 14-inch WQHD (2560 x 1440) IPS 300nits anti-glare non-touch display, Intel UHD Graphics 620, 16GB RAM, 1TB SSD, Fibocom L850-GL 4G LTE CAT9 mobile broadband, IR/720p HD camera with microphone
    £2,132.39 (inc. VAT; £1,776.99 ex. VAT)
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Right edge (top): power button; USB 3.1. Left edge (above): USB-C Thunderbolt 3/power in; USB-C Thunderbolt 3; Ethernet/docking (proprietary); USB 3.1; HDMI; 3.5mm audio.

Image: Lenovo

The SIM slot for the integrated mobile broadband (if specified) sits on the back of the chassis. On the right edge there's just a full-size USB 3.1 port, plus the power button. The left edge houses everything else: a USB-C Thunderbolt 3 port doubles up as the power connector, leaving a second USB-C Thunderbolt 3 port free for use. There's also a proprietary Ethernet port that requires a £19.99 (inc. VAT) adapter; this is also where you attach the Lenovo dock if you need more connection options. On-board connectivity is completed by another USB 3.1 port, a full size HDMI port and a 3.5mm headset jack. 

Conclusions

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Image: Lenovo

Lenovo doesn't change the general design of the ThinkPad X1 Carbon year on year, because it doesn't need to: the distinctive look is well-established. But squeezing a 14-inch screen into a chassis that's only a shade over 1kg is a real feat, especially as the 7th generation model adds business-friendly features like Eye Care mode, PrivacyGuard and PrivacyAlert alongside really good speakers. 

The ThinkPad X1 Carbon has always carried a premium price, and obviously the more options you add, the higher the cost. Think carefully about the 4K screen option: it might sound alluring, but you'll sacrifice touch support and PrivacyGuard, and it's a real drain on the battery. Consider brightness when configuring your screen options too -- 300nits might not cut it if you work outdoors a lot.

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