Twenty years ago the first ThinkPad laptop was released. It was 2.2 inches thick, weighed 6.5 pounds, had a red nub smack in the middle of the keyboard so people didn't have to plug in a mouse on an airplane, and cost $4,350. It was the be-all, end-all business laptop of its time.
The ThinkPad X1 Carbon ultrabook, which starts at $1,399, has just been released to celebrate the brand's 20th birthday. One the one hand, it has very little in common with the original -- it weighs only about half as much as the first ThinkPad and costs one third as much. (Hey, 20 years have passed!) On the other, it still has that red pointing stick and it might be the be-all, end-all business laptop of its time.
Lenovo has been careful not to abandon the minimalist look of the ThinkPads over the years, and the X1 Carbon keeps up the tradition. The laptop is all black and is also one of the toughest ThinkPads ever made. Per its name, it's crafted entirely of carbon fiber, which Lenovo claims is as strong as aluminum. (The laptop itself passed eight of the military's durability spec tests.)
Yet it still only weighs three pounds and measures 0.31 to 0.71 inches (from its thinnest point to its thickest). Lenovo claims it is the thinnest and lightest 14-inch laptop, and from a look at the competition that seems to be true. Using a thinner screen frame, it was able to fit a 14-inch screen in a chassis that's the size of an average 13-inch laptop . Either way, the result is a trim, lightweight laptop that was easy to pull from my bag at airport security with one hand. The flared edges make it easier to grasp and give it a more modern look than boxier ThinkPads. Those edges also accommodate two USB ports, a DisplayPort, headphone jack, and an SD card reader. Unfortunately, there isn't an Ethernet port or adapter included.
Under the lid, Lenovo has done a remodeling job that even the hosts of "This Old House" would be proud of. The keyboard, which is still home to the signature red pointing stick, has been redesigned with a chiclet-style layout, meaning there is space between each of the keys. But even better is the design of the keys themselves: they have rounded bottoms to be more forgiving as you type and they are curved to feel as though they have been molded to your fingertips. The keyboard is also backlit and it will adjust the brightness based on the lighting of the room. If you spend your day typing, this is just the type of keyboard you want to be typing on.
In addition to the red pointing sitck, there is a large glass trackpad centered below the keyboard. And Lenovo is the first ultrabook maker to include a trackpad with integrated buttons that doesn't require an entire paragraph so one can describe its frustrations.
The smooth, trackpad is what many other pads on Windows laptops aren't: responsive and quite accurate. Unlike the trackpads on the Vizio 14-inch Thin + Light and the Dell XPS 13 ultrabook, I had no problems keeping by thumb over the left mouse button area and navigating the desktop with an index finger. It's also responsive to gestures: swiping four fingers up brings up Windows 3D Flip and you can swipe through your open apps. Two-finger scrolling was also smooth, at least in Chrome. (It was jittery in the laptop's PDF viewer.) It's still not as silky as the experience on an Apple laptop, but it is the best trackpad I've tested on a Windows laptop in the last couple of years.
The 14-inch, 1600 x 900-resolution screen also impresses. The matte anti-glare panel isn't glossy and has great viewing angles. When I tilted the display back in my airplane seat I didn't have to readjust it to make out the words or the video on the screen. And because of the matte coating I was able to work outside with the laptop without having to squint.
Performance on the laptop matched other Windows ultrabooks I've tested. My $1,849 unit's Core i7 processor, 4GB of RAM, and 256GB solid state drive added up to a very snappy experience. Programs launched quickly in Windows 7, the system booted up in just 30 seconds, and resumed from sleep in four seconds. Watching a 720p TV episode while simultaneously running Google Chrome with over 10 tabs open, MetroTwit (a Twitter client), and Microsoft Word was no hurdle for the machine. It stayed relatively cool and quiet during heavier use, though the back left side did get a bit warm.
The base $1,399 model has a Core i5 processor, a 128GB drive, and 4GB of RAM. All the configurations are more expensive than most other ultrabooks out there. Dell, Asus, HP, etc. offer the same configuration with their respective ultrabooks for a $999 starting price. (Note: Lenovo says the X1 is Windows 8 ready. Those who buy this laptop now will be able to upgrade to Windows 8 on Oct. 26 for just $20.)
Battery life on the laptop is quite good, though not as good as some others on the market. In typical usage I got close to about five hours of nonstop computing (yes, I spend a lot of time at the laptop without ever leaving). On a video rundown test, which loops the same HD clip with the brightness set at 65 percent, the battery lasted four hours and 28 minutes. That's shorter than the MacBook Air's six and a half hours and the Samsung Series 9's five hours and 34 minutes.
But where the X1 Carbon does top those machines is in battery recharge time. It took 30 minutes to get a totally dead battery up to 80 percent. That's much faster than other laptops out there. However, like Apple's new MacBook with Retina Display, the new X1 Carbon uses a different charging port than previous ThinkPads, so you'll have to invest in all-new chargers.
The X1 Carbon leaves very little to complain about. That is, until you get to its price tag. The $1,399 starting price is more than most ultrabooks out there, but the laptop is also better than most (if not all) the ultrabooks out there.
It has a durable, clean design, one of the best keyboards ever made, a high quality screen, a trackpad that doesn't frustrate, and strong performance. And with that, not only is the X1 Carbon one of the best business laptops of its time, but it's also got mass appeal, which isn't something that first ThinkPad could claim back in 1992.