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5/16/2013
11:18 AM

Lenovo Windows 8 Ultrabook: My First 14 Days

In two weeks, I learned plenty about the pros and cons of Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch, a high-end Windows 8 ultrabook.



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I'm about to return the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch ultrabook that Intel lent me for review purposes, and I'm not eager to do so. It's a fine piece of hardware. Overall, I've enjoyed using it and wouldn't mind hanging on to it.

That said, there are a some downsides that make the parting a little less sorrowful. Read on for a recap of my first two weeks with the X1 Carbon.

The Overview

The first thing I noticed: This Windows 8 machine booted straight to desktop mode. (Start Button devotees, rejoice.) That's because my demo came outfitted with Start8, a paid app that enables you to bypass the touch-oriented Start screen that has caused so much commotion in the early days of Microsoft's so-called Modern UI. (Note: Lenovo is not actually shipping the X1 Carbon with Start8 preinstalled.) Without getting off on a Windows 8 tangent, my Start8 experience confirmed that a system option to boot directly to desktop mode -- and opening the Start screen only if and when you want the live tiles UI -- is a no-brainer addition to Windows 8.1. Doing this would enable the best of both worlds rather than forcing a single experience regardless of hardware or use case.

This 64-bit X1 Carbon ran on Windows 8 Professional. While there's a non-touch version of the X1 Carbon, this is the "multi-touch" device that enables full touchscreen capabilities with Windows 8. It has a 14-inch screen, 4 GB of RAM, and an Intel Core i5 processor (1.80-GHz). It also came with full desktop versions of Office 2013.

[ What's next for Windows 8? Read Windows 8.1: No Cost, Big Pressure. ]

I did not conduct rigorous performance or durability testing. Rather, I put it through my normal paces -- lots of time at the desk, occasional use around the house, and one quick-turnaround plane trip. (The latter helped test an assumption that this would be a good fit for regular business travelers who want a full-blown PC rather than a tablet.) Here's what I found.

The Good

For what it's worth, this a good-looking piece of hardware. It's slim without feeling fragile, and I like the graphite black color. I really liked the keyboard, which is sleek and comfortable without making me feel like I've got hot-dog fingers or otherwise shortchanging the productivity of a traditional keyboard, which is a gripe I have with some of the "ultra" ultrabooks on the market. That speaks to one of my higher compliments of this machine: It strikes a nice balance between modernity and productivity. It lays off the flair in favor of business sense -- a smart choice given the ThinkPad line's historical market. For someone who spends a lot of time typing and reading on-screen, the X1 Carbon delivered a productive work experience.

The X1 Carbon is fast; boot time took just a few seconds, as were shutdowns. Some credit to Windows 8 here: For all of the grumbling about usability, it's speedy. Battery life was strong. I didn't do lab tests but it met expectations based on Lenovo's 8-hour claim.

This is an ultrabook for "PC people" who need to get work done. It paid off on some of the commonly touted benefits of the ultrabook category -- slim hardware, lightweight, fast boot and shutdown times -- without sacrificing screen size, keyboard real estate and other factors. I've found smaller ultrabooks sometimes feel too precious in the sense that they're less comfortable to spend long hours working on, especially if that work involves extensive typing and other kinds of content creation or data entry. There's an 11-inch MacBook Air in my household, for example; it's stylish, fast, and certainly mobile. But the times I've tried using it for extensive work, especially writing work, I grew tired of the keyboard and smaller screen. Not so on the larger X1 Carbon.

The Bad

The touchscreen experience on a relatively traditional laptop grew on me a bit during this test. It never quite moved past "nice-to-have," and I'm still skeptical of its widespread business value on the PC (versus tablets and smartphones). The only times I used touch in Microsoft Word, for instance, was simply for the novelty. Even in touch-friendlier applications like a Web browser, I didn't find tons of additional benefit relative to the keyboard-and-mouse interface. When in Start mode or the Windows Store, however, I actually found touch easier to use than the touchpad.

This revealed a significant problem, though: The X1 Carbon's screen wobbles when using touch unless you're being especially gentle -- and even then, there's some give. This was especially true for any tapping functions. Maybe I'm just clumsy, but this ultimately hindered the touchscreen experience -- and it's an issue that simply doesn't come up on most smartphones and tablets.

The X1 isn't a convertible like some Windows 8 devices in that it doesn't flip or otherwise transform into "tablet mode." Its monitor will fold flat against a desk or table -- which removes the wobbling -- but I didn't find much practical use for this feature in my own day-to-day use.

Another drawback will vary from user to user: This is an expensive machine. It starts at more than $1,349 direct from Lenovo. (For sake of comparison, that tops the $1,199 starting price of the 13-inch MacBook Air.) Budgets vary, of course, and if yours is large or unlimited you might not blink at the price tag. I blinked. Stack this next to a well-built Windows 7 laptop that might run half that cost, and the X1 Carbon would certainly win the "cool" vote. But in the practical categories, budget among them, I'm not sure there's a clear upgrade for most people, especially if the touchscreen is more "nice to have" than "necessary for use." It's a solid machine; I'm just not sure it's a $1,349-plus machine, unless price is no object or your employer will pick up the tab.

The Ideal Users

This PC is well-suited for road warriors and other highly mobile workers. It traveled well while retaining the "real" laptop experience and performance, both in the office and on the go. It was reasonably comfortable to use on an airplane seatback tray, even on a short-hop puddle jumper. The pound-and-a-half or so weight difference from my regular laptop was actually noticeable in the carrying case -- especially when I had to do my best Usain Bolt impression through the terminal to avoid missing my return flight.

As an ultrabook, it's a good fit for people who are, well, unsure about ultrabooks. It's a nice middle ground between the "old" PC and newer form factors. (In a twist, a person next to me on one of my flights began working on an older, heftier ThinkPad. I instantly felt younger and cooler with my X1 Carbon. Alas, the feeling didn't last.) Executives who want a high-end laptop might also make a good fit; the price tag matches that market, too.

The Bottom Line

This is a very good PC that I'd like to have in my arsenal -- if only someone else would foot the bill.

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zman58
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zman58,
User Rank: Strategist
5/28/2013 | 6:22:29 PM
re: Lenovo Windows 8 Ultrabook: My First 14 Days
Like most ultrabooks, you are tossing away ergonomics for mobility--and spending *far* more money. I personally do not like the small form factors of keyboards on these machines. You need to buy a decent keyboard and monitor to make them really useful on your desktop--consider adding another $300-400 or so to achieve good desktop use with a traditional keyboard, mouse, and LCD display. Now we are talking spending easily more than $2000 for a machine that can be used productively on a desktop!

I personally would emphasize less power mobile and far more power desktop. That said, you could easily pull off two systems for less than $2000 and still, afterwards, have a pile of cash in your wallet. A very high end multi-core desktop system and a lower end mobile laptop would cost you far less and you could do far more with both at your disposal. The laptop, in this case could be anything from a $249 Chromebook, to a pad device, or a basic Windows or Linux laptop, or something else that provides only what you need for the road--no big loss if it gets stolen or damaged.
jrehg337
50%
50%
jrehg337,
User Rank: Strategist
5/20/2013 | 5:21:29 PM
re: Lenovo Windows 8 Ultrabook: My First 14 Days
Thanks, Kevin, for the review. It certainly cemented my impression of Windows 8 - it's worthless. If I can get a 7 machine at half the cost, I see no reason to upgrade. Also, many of your 'good' impressions were strictly cosmetic. I know people buy on looks, but for those of us concerned with productivity, looks don't matter. At all. Knowing the keyboard is good is helpful, but when I'm at home, I hook up a regular keyboard and large monitor so I don't have to deal with a laptop's traditional shortcomings.
As far as touch goes, I recall HP coming out with a touchscreen monitor back in the mid-80s. It didn't catch on either. I suspect Win8 won't for the same reason, even considering its childish tile interface. Yes, with the one laptop I bought with Win 8 installed (because I wasn't willing to spend $100 on the previous version - a decision I now regret), I'm constantly looking for ways to get rid of the apps and Metro UI (or whatever they are now calling it). And to think that if I buy another app I can get it to work the way it should out of the box? This is why MS is driving me toward Linux faster than I expected.
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