What an agency ultrabook should be: Tough and light
- By John Breeden II
- Oct 12, 2012
The trend in notebooks is toward what is known as an ultrabook, which although a hazy term, generally means the same as what we used to call an ultraportable. In other words, ultrabooks are very thin and light notebooks, under 5 pounds in weight and small enough to be easily portable.
Government has rightly been a little hesitant to join that trend, however, because performance, ruggedness and security features have been lacking in most models. And those concerns tend to trump the value offered by the lightweight computers.
So it was a bit of a surprise to find the ThinkPad X1 Carbon Ultrabook from Lenovo in for review. We thought the X1 would be more of the same, but it’s not. Not only is this a sleek-looking notebook, but it’s been designed from the ground up to address those very issues that government and other public-sector agencies are most worried about in the new form factor.
Let’s start with its street cred as an ultrabook. Whereas the cutoff is generally at the 5-pound mark, which allows devices such as the 4.6-pound Dell XPS and the 4-pound Samsung Series 5 into the category, the X1 weighs in at a paltry 3 pounds.
The reason it’s so light is also the reason the X1 is so much more rugged than most others in the category. As the name might suggest, it’s made up of a woven carbon fiber that is as strong as aluminum but only a third of the weight. Most notebooks have top covers and roll cages made of magnesium, which is double the weight of the unique carbon fiber material. The carbon fiber is also more rugged than magnesium.
The ThinkPad X1 has been tested to the Mil-Spec standard for vibration and mechanical shock. In the lab, we carefully dropped it on all its surfaces. It fell onto our landing pad of two inches of plywood over concrete from heights of up to four feet. Not only was no damage recorded, but the carbon fibers didn’t even allow the X1 to get lightly scratched. It also survived inside our GCN Rainforest environment with high temperatures and 95 percent humidity for over four hours. Although we didn’t test for this, Lenovo certifies the X1 will work at altitudes up to 15,000 feet and survive in environments with lots of blowing sand.
The X1 is also thin. At its thickest point, near the back of the device, it’s .71 inches. It tapers down a bit to a point at the front. That’s impressive given that the primary display is a full 14-inch viewing screen. In general, Intel says ultrabooks with a 14-inch display can be up to .82 inches high and 13-inch displays can be .71-inches. So the X1 has a 14-inch screen in a 13-inch frame.
In terms of performance, our review unit came with an Intel Core i5-3427U processor, which performed exactly as expected in our testing, which is to say, very well. It easily handled the 64-bit version of Windows 7 as its operating system. And the Intel HD 4000 graphics made everything look great, from PowerPoint displays to movies to video conferences recorded on the X1’s 720p HD camera.
The screen can fold down so that it’s in a perfect line with the keyboard, sitting at a 180-degree angle. We aren’t sure what applications might use this, but we wanted to mention it. For us, it kind of made us wish that the X1 had a touchscreen, since it would make a fine tablet if it had one.
The X1 did surprise us with its rapid boot times, and its quick-charging batteries. The X1 has a technology called Lenovo RapidBoot that uses RAM as a cache for boot files, which allows for quicker loading of essential files. The X1 also will monitor system resources during the boot process and halt non-essential programs from loading until the unit is fired fully up and ready.
Even coming out of sleep, the X1 is fast. It smartly scans for wireless connections every so often, even in hibernation mode, so that when you wake it up, it can reconnect to your wireless LAN within two seconds.
The batteries also charge very quickly up to a nearly full level. In just 35 minutes, the X1 was able to go from an almost exhausted state to an 80 percent charge, enough to last for about five hours of normal usage. You do have to wait about 90 minutes to get up to 100 percent and a full seven hours of normal runtime, but it’s nice that the X1 can store a lot of power very quickly if needed.
In terms of security, the X1 follows other ThinkPad models. Specifically, there is a fingerprint scanner under the keyboard. It’s easy to use and provides two-factor authentication, along with a password, almost right out of the box.
The X1 has a surprising number of ports for such a thin ultrabook. Sitting beside the power button is a USB 2.0 port and a hard switch to disable wireless if needed. Around the other side is a USB 3.0 port, so rapid transfer of data or cutting-edge peripherals are supported. The X1 also has a miniDP port, the standard headphone and microphone jacks, and surprisingly, a full 4 in 1 media card reader.
For input, the keyboard is backlit for use in all lighting conditions. You can cycle three levels of brightness or disable the backlight by pressing Function and Spacebar at the same time. And we have to say that typing on the X1 is a real joy. The keys are big enough for most people’s hands, and provide good tactile feedback when a key is pressed.
However, we were a little less impressed with the touchpad although that might be a matter of personal preference. We liked that the two click buttons above the touchpad were oversized and easy to hit. But we had a little trouble working with the touchpad itself. It’s made of glass, is much larger than a normal touchpad and highly responsive. It also supports multi-gesture computing if you know how to do that, so you can use two fingers to scroll, three to navigate the Web, four to switch applications and so on.
Our problem is that we kept running programs when we didn’t want to because the touchpad itself acts as a button if pressed. We were just pushing too hard and could probably get used to it, but it seemed a little strange at first, with almost too many features packed into that small space. You can activate or deactivate its functions if they really bother you. Eventually we came to like it, but it took some time.
The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon is an ultrabook that does right by government. It’s portable and thin to be sure, almost unexpectedly so, but doesn’t compromise in the areas of performance, security or survivability, traits that most public-sector workers require. It’s being sold for $1,619 as configured for our testing, which is well worth it for the performance and features it can offer to a busy, peripatetic government user.
In fact, this is one of the few ultrabooks that we would actually recommend for use in government. As such, it earns our Reviewer’s Choice designation.
John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.