Lenovo developed a new line of small laptop computers that fill a specific need: Windows 8 “convertible” laptops that are portable and easier to work with than tablets yet still have competitive power.
I have never been keen on little laptops whose only saving grace was portability. For this reason, I was pleasantly surprised by Lenovo’s new ThinkPad Carbon X1 Touch portable computer. While I didn’t throw a fluid dynamics study at it, I did run applications I felt would help me determine how this lithe unit handles daily work.
What is a ThinkPad Carbon X1 Touch?
The ThinkPad Carbon X1 Touch from Lenovo is a business class laptop computer built with a carbon fiber (graphite) cover and roll cage. The combination makes the unit strong and surprisingly lightweight. The first reaction everyone had to seeing my unit was, “Wow, that is one thin laptop!”
As tested, the computer’s specifications were as follows:
|Processor:||Intel 1.80GHz dual-core Core i5-3427U (Three other options, including a 3.2GHz Core i7-3667U)|
|Memory:||4GB RAM (8GB maximum)|
|Storage:||180 GB Intel SSD|
|Graphics Card:||Intel HD Graphics 4000 M|
|Screen:||14.0″ 1600×900 with anti-glare, 300 NITS brightness, and touch screen|
|Battery:||45.8WHr RapidCharge battery rated for 8.2 hours running time|
|Ports:||One USB 2.0 always on and powered, one USB 3.0 SuperSpeed, mini DisplayPort with audio, 4-in-1 card reader for SD, SDHC, SDXC, and MMC|
|Communications:||WiFi 802.11a/g/n, 2×2, dual band, 3G WWAN module (optional)|
|Dimensions:||331mm x 226mm x 19mm (13.03 in. x 8.9 in. x 0.74 in.)|
|Power supply:||125mm x 48mm x 29mm (4.9 in. x 1.9 in. x 1.1 in.)|
|Weight:||1.36 kgs (2.99 lbs)|
|As-tested price:||$1,499 in USA|
Using the Carbon X1
I used the ThinkPad to perform a variety of tasks to try to put it through a broad spectrum of daily use. This is what I experienced.
Feel and Appearance
I found the Carbon X1 an attractive unit, with functions well laid out. All exterior surfaces are matte black, and coated with the smooth and barely rubberized texture. This gave me a good grip, yet left no substantial fingerprints.
The case or shell of this unit feels wonderful, rigid and solid with no noticeable keyboard flex under my hard typing fingers. It was very nice to bring along for a trip I made, being so lightweight and easy to pack.
I never noticed any heat until the benchmarks I ran pushed the CPU. The case vents up through the bottom and then out through a side vent. I always favor side vents, and somehow Lenovo fit one into this thin unit.
The keyboard was very fast to react and comfortable to use. In fact, I would gladly swap it for the desktop keyboard I use. The only thing I missed was the numeric key pad, for which there is not enough room.
Some reordering of extra keys was needed to make them all fit (see figure 2). Comparing it with the arrangement found on full size keyboards, the ‘Backspace’, ‘Delete’, ‘Function,’ and ‘Print Screen’ keys are in non-typical places. This is a small price to pay for the speed and comfort of this keyboard. If you like a crisp, short stroke keyboard with just the right amount of spring, this one is for you.
The unit has the best resume properties that I have ever experienced, short of an iPad. Lenovo’s ‘InstantResume’ functionality brings the unit back to life in a couple of seconds. In every case when I was engaged in a design, Web research, or writing this document, I simply closed the lid. Upon returning, everything fired up like I had never left (see figure 3).
Adding to that is a splendid RapidCharge battery. I have left everything on standby for as long as two days, and upon returning found no apparent battery drain. Lenovo states the unit will charge to five hours of life in less than 35 minutes, and that the touch screen version of this computer has a better battery life than the non-touch version (8 hours vs 6.2). I can say that a full charge that lets the computer run for eight hours was reached in around an hour.
When using applications like Word and Excel, or using the unit sporadically, the battery seemed last indefinitely. Working the unit hard with designs, rendering, and some mild game play drained the battery in just two hours.
Touching the Screen
One of the most notable features of this unit is its touch screen, for being Windows 8 it begs to be touched. Needless to say, I started playing with it immediately. (While it runs Windows 8, I don’t want to dwell on the operating system as it is not the focus of this article.) While the touch screen performed well, I felt some awkwardness in getting used to the touch interface, which seemed to be overly sensitive. I can’t imagine using Windows 8 without a touch interface. Applications that fully support touch work as expected; those not designed to be used that way, however, were frustrating.
While I’ll discuss these issues in greater detail below, I’ll say that the most difficult factor with touch is the need to double-click tools located near the top of the display. When double-clicking with my finger, the display flexed slightly and sprang back, making the double-click action a challenge. Over time, this improved as I learned to apply the appropriate force. Additionally, when the display was supported by my knees or unfolded flat, then I found touch navigation as fluid as a tablet.
The hinge holding the display to the base is firm. It did not permit me to move the display until I applied sufficient force; it would lift the base, unless I held it still. In my opinion, it was just the right amount of resistance. The material flex (spring-back) involved when pressing on the display was about 0.25 inches, with a deflection of 1.5°. The case is quite rigid and so 1.5 degrees is not much.
The WiFi had no problem connecting to networks, and swapped automatically to in-range networks to which I had previously logged in. Moving from office to home went seamlessly without notification. At times the connection speed seemed a tad slower than I am used to. I was able to download a 269MB file of an RC car model from my Dropbox account in about two minutes.
Benchmarks and References
The easiest benchmark to run is the Windows Experience Index. It helps pinpoint the fastest and slowest components of computers running Visa, 7, and 8. (Maximum score for Windows 8 was increased from 7.9 to 9.9.) The results show the speed advantage from the solid state drive (see figure 4).
To compare other benchmarks, I am using a mobile workstation that has performed well for me across many roles for approximately four years. it is a stable Dell M6400 mobile workstation with 2.67GHz dual-core CPU, 4GB of 1333 MHz DDR3 SDRAM, and an NVIDIA Quadro FX2700M with 512MB DDR3 VRAM.
I ran a number of popular benchmark, and recorded the following scores. (The scores are mean indexes, and are compared to the reference workstation when possible.)
|· Mean Performance||1849.2||1274|
|· CPU Mark||2402||2052|
|· 2D Graphics||509||414.7|
|· 3D Graphics||460.6||543|
|PCMark 7 Basic||3878||1803|
|· OpenGL||9.8 fps||—|
|· Processor||1.62 pts||—|
The scores are very good for a computer that is not meant to be a workstation. Part of this is due to the superior speed of the solid state drive (SSD) over a regular hard drive. It helped the XI rank well among with similar computing devices. The processor is classed among the top tier CPUs, and so also did very well, as did the 2D graphics handled by DirectX. Hardware-dependent graphics however, did not perform well, as 3D renderings were powered by the Intel chipset, which could not keep up. The lack of workstation graphics was obvious.
I suspect the weaker Intel graphics chipset was needed to keep down the cost; after all, no one will try to use this laptop as a rendering platform; however, most graphically-intense games will also be out of the question.
I decided to keep things simple and not treat the machine as an engineering platform; instead, I tested it in a role more realistic for it: as a designer’s mobile laptop. In this respect, the Carbon X1 outperformed all expectations I had for it.
Autodesk Fusion 360
I loved the idea of getting Autodesk Inventor Fusion 360 on a touch screen. Fusion performed well within my bounds of expectation. I experienced no lags or performance issues, and the graphics are sharp.
I rebuilt one of my electric vehicle hub carriers using both forms of navigation, touch and mouse. The touch interface did not work as well as I hoped. The primary drawback was that my fingers are too large with which to do fine work (see figure 5). In any case, shifting my hand to see context menus caused the touch location to shift. I finally gave up to trying to model using the touch interface.
Once I put the mouse into play, everything went smoothly.
I loved the freedom of being able to design with a truly portable package, from anywhere I could get WiFi. Did I mention the ThinkPad X1 gets 3G service, too?
Autodesk Inventor 2013
Autodesk Inventor was a surprise across the board. The overall performance was marvelous, and the touch navigation was slightly better than most application. Parts behavior was flawless during modeling and assembly, and the graphics were sharp. I experienced no problems whatsoever with small assemblies (see figure 6).
The large component count of my RC car model slowed the reaction time slightly: there was only a hint of hesitation during panning and orbiting. Cross-sections behaved well, however, and highlighting was responsive and visually crisp. Only when I turned on full shadowing and reflections did hesitation became evident. Nevertheless, even then I found the working environment comfortable and productive.
The lack of a high-end graphics board showed up with the rendering performance in Inventor Studio. It was particularly slow: a four-part assembly with basic textures and high-contrast lighting took eight minutes to render.
Running Inventor Stress Analysis was a better experience. I navigated and performed a basic simulation 100% by touch – I just wanted to be able to say I could do that! The analysis performance was shockingly good. Figure 7 depicts a tablet docking tray twisted by more than average force. I did the first run using the default 0.1 mesh size; it was completed in under six seconds. Even when I did subsequent runs with a significantly smaller mesh (0.03), the results returned in less than 12 seconds. This is rather remarkable for a 14-inch laptop that’s less than ¾ inches thick.
Autodesk Sketch Book Designer 2013
I also tried running Autodesk Sketch Book Designer 2013, but I am no graphic artist and so I won’t show you my embarrassing image. As I expected, the tablet environment was ideal for this software, and it performed flawlessly on the Carbon X1 in every aspect. It was quite fun.
I was concerned that Lenovo’s ThinkPad Carbon X1 Touch would be little more than a convenient Web browser, but I could not have been more wrong. With the exception of rendering, every aspect of using the product was a pleasure.
If the Carbon X1 touch version were available with all 8GB RAM installed, I’d make the jump. Then I’d really have the field covered with a powerful desktop (16-core Lenovo ThinkStation D30 for renderings, simulations, and other near-impossible tasks) with this dual-core Lenovo Carbon X1 Touch to take care of everything else, just about anywhere else. A perfect combination!
The Dell M6400 reference laptop, while outdated and bulky, is still a strong performer for my needs. The Carbon X1 outperformed it in almost every aspect of my daily use, and so I would definitely consider trading my mobile engineering workstation for it. A smoking fast SSD, high-resolution touch screen, and snappy processor packed into a very portable case is hard to pass up.