ThinkPad X1 Carbon 7th-gen mini-review: Minor updates made to a stellar machine

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ThinkPad X1 Carbon 7th-gen mini-review: Minor updates made to a stellar machine
Valentina Palladino

There are some people who would never buy a ThinkPad, and there are others who flock to Lenovo's flagship business family every time the company makes an update. The latest release will be no exception, even if the updates it brings are relatively small. The seventh-generation ThinkPad X1 Carbon will look familiar to ThinkPad fans, and in this case, familiarity is a good thing.

Most of the improvements and updates come in optional add-ons or internal changes that make the laptop even better than it was before. We spent about a week using it to get a feel for the updates and see which (if any) are worth spending at least $1,400 to get this upgrade.

What’s new

Lenovo has typically gone against the grain with the design of the ThinkPad X1 Carbon. The X1 Carbon doesn't look like any other premium Windows notebook, much less any of the flagship laptops that are vying for your attention and dollars with fancy, ultra-slim profiles. The fundamentals of the X1 haven't changed, but Lenovo did make it nearly one millimeter thinner, which is a feat considering the previous model was already a svelte 15.95mm. It's also still a MIL-SPEC tested machine, so it will take up less space in your bag, but it won't crack or bend easily if that bag has an accident.

Only small cosmetic changes dot the rest of the X1 Carbon if you get the black version. Lenovo now offers a “carbon fiber weave” model with a textured pattern on the lid. That style is currently only offered on an otherwise specced-out model of the X1 Carbon, however, so you'll pay over $2,000 for it.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon 7th Gen product image

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon 7th Gen

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The X1 Carbon still has two USB 3.1 ports, two Thunderbolt ports, an HDMI port, a microSD card reader, a headphone/mic combo jack, and a lock slot. But the headphone jack now sits on the left edge instead of the right. The right edge also now holds the power button next to one of its USB-A ports, a change from the previous model's power button, which sat just above the top row of keys.

One of the Thunderbolt 3 ports is built into Lenovo's proprietary dock connector, which also works as the only Ethernet connectivity on the X1 Carbon. Instead of a full-sized Ethernet port, this laptop requires you to buy a proprietary adapter if you want to use hardwired Internet. While that's likely more reliable than the drop-jaw Ethernet ports found on many ultra-thin laptops, it will frustrate users who want nothing less than to buy yet another adapter for their PC.

The webcam looks slightly different as well, now with its physical shutter totally separate from the camera itself. The mechanism works the same, though, allowing you to cover the webcam at any time—or if you're like me, at all times when you're not actively video chatting. The biggest bummer about this is that if you choose an X1 Carbon with a webcam shutter, you can't also get an IR camera for Windows Hello. Every X1 Carbon model has a fingerprint reader right next to the trackpad, so you'll have one method of biometric authentication regardless. But Lenovo continues to make users choose between privacy and login convenience, and it's disappointing considering other manufacturers have found ways to incorporate both features into laptops.

Lenovo already offered a number of display-panel choices for the X1 Carbon, but it recently added a 4K IPS panel option that supports Dolby Vision and HDR400. This panel will be ideal for those in creative fields or those who plan on frequently consuming photo and video content with the X1 Carbon. But with a powerful screen comes sacrifices in battery life, so you'll have to be comfortable with that trade-off.

Our review unit came with a more conservative panel: a 14-inch, FHD, non-touch, low-power panel that reaches up to 400 nits of brightness. You can get an FHD touchscreen panel or a non-touch panel with PrivacyGuard, which is Lenovo's privacy screen technology that helps prevent strangers from spying on the information on your screen. There's a QHD panel option as well, which makes a total of five displays that you can choose from.

I was happy with the low-power panel for my daily use—a 4K panel, while lovely, is overkill for a writer like myself, and I rarely use touchscreens when working on a standard laptop. I would have liked to try PrivacyGuard to see how it compares to HP's SureView, and in general I find privacy-screen technology very handy because I often work from various non-secure locations.

However, the low-power display truly shows off the X1 Carbon's battery chops. Lenovo claims this updated laptop will last up to 18.5 hours on a single charge, and my review unit lasted an average of 1,045 minutes (17.5 hours) on our default test and 677 minutes (or about 11.3 hours) on our graphics-intensive test.

That's quite an improvement over the last X1 Carbon model we tested in 2018, which lasted about 12 hours and six hours on our default and WebGL tests, respectively. For someone like me who spends most of her working time online writing, researching, and doing light photo editing, this could be the best new feature of the updated X1 Carbon. It means I won't have to bring a power cord or charger with me when I work from my local coffee shop or bookstore.

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Don’t mess with what works

Lenovo knows that fundamentally changing the ThinkPad X1 Carbon's design would aggravate many of its fans, so the company only improved what it could and left the rest untouched. Even with the new, slimming chassis improvements, the X1 Carbon continues to have great build quality while being surprisingly light at 2.4 pounds. Its matte finish still collects fingerprints, but it's a small price to pay for a laptop that's arguably as attractive in an unassuming way as it is durable.

As expected, Lenovo kept the fan-favorite backlit keyboard the same as it has been for the past few iterations of the X1 Carbon. Key travel is comfortable, and actuation force is neither too much nor too little—you'll get satisfying feedback when pressing the sculpted caps, but the typing experience is neither loud nor cumbersome. When I'm at home in my office, I'm usually typing on a wireless keyboard in front of a large monitor at my desk. However, I miss the X1 Carbon's keyboard every time I take my MacBook Pro out to a meeting or a coffee shop to work. While I don't mind Apple's butterfly keys, they just aren't nearly as comfortable to type on as the keys on the X1 Carbon.

I do, however, love Apple's gigantic trackpads, and the X1 Carbon cannot compete in that area. The X1 Carbon's trackpad is much smaller in comparison, but some will appreciate the three physical click buttons that sit on its top edge. This laptop also has the TrackPoint ball at the corner intersection of the G, H, and B keys, which diehard users will appreciate. Admittedly, it's a feature that I don't use a lot when I'm on ThinkPad machines, but I have warmed up to it as a trackpad alternative after testing it out so many times. I like that it's quite sensitive (the slightest touch and pressure on the TrackPoint will make the cursor move) and that it doesn't take up much space in the keyboard area.

As mentioned before, the X1 Carbon has a match-on-chip fingerprint sensor on the right side of its trackpad. Not only does this provide a standard biometric authentication option, but the match-on-chip technology makes the sensor more secure than those that store fingerprint data on the PC itself. Instead, all biometric data storage, matching, and execution is performed on the fingerprint sensor alone, without input or interference from the host operating system.

Essentially, if your X1 Carbon becomes compromised, your fingerprint data is less likely to be compromised, as all that data is stored separately from the rest of the data on the laptop. This—combined with FIDO authentication capabilities, TPM 2.0, the webcam shutter, and a host of optional security features—makes the X1 Carbon a great option for business users and the most security-focused customers.

The seventh-generation X1 Carbon also has solid performance and provides a good upgrade from previous models. Our model, with a Core i5-8265U CPU (non-vPro), 8GB of RAM, and 256GB of storage, scored high on almost all of our benchmark tests, and in many cases, it produced scores that were nearly identical to that of its convertible counterpart, the fourth-generation ThinkPad X1 Yoga.

Keep in mind, though, that our review unit is not the newest X1 Carbon with Intel's Comet Lake chips—we tested the model that came out right before those models were announced, and the Comet Lake devices aren't even available until later this month. Lenovo hasn't said exactly which chips will be in the newest X1 Carbons, but those models will be able to be configured with up to six cores and support significant speed gains.

Still one of the best business notebooks

Another thing that has remained the same in the new X1 Carbon is the hefty price tag. Starting at $1,462.30, the X1 Carbon is not a cheap machine, but you get what you pay for. While the machine doesn't look like a lot of flagship laptops that carry a similar starting price, it has its own unique style that's arguably just as attractive, more durable, and easier to use in different situations than those competing flagships.

I admire the design changes Lenovo made to the X1 Carbon—I particularly like how thin and light the device is despite having a 14-inch display. But aside from the additional display options, those improvements are mostly cosmetic. Nevertheless, they certainly make the temptation greater for those who have been waiting a while to buy an X1 Carbon.

Those who want the fastest and most up-to-date X1 Carbon should wait for the models with 10th-generation Intel CPUs to come out in the next few weeks. Just keep in mind that those new models only differ from the seventh-gen in CPU—the same hardware improvements exist on both models. If you can live with an older (yet still speedy) processor, the seventh-generation X1 Carbon is just as solid of a laptop as its predecessors, and it's made better by an updated design, good performance, and a killer battery life.

The Good

  • Thinner, lighter design with MIL-SPEC durability
  • 4K, touch, and privacy-filter display options
  • Great keyboard
  • Match-on-chip fingerprint reader
  • Good performance
  • Great battery life

The Bad

  • IR camera is optional and cannot be paired with shuttered webcam
  • Small trackpad
  • Gets very expensive very quickly

The Ugly

  • No standard Ethernet port
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