Now that the ThinkBook 13x is out of the way, I can focus my attention on the other laptop Lenovo lent me: the 2021 Thinkpad X1 Carbon.
I was very interested in this laptop mainly because of how much I liked the 7th Gen X1 model that I reviewed a few years ago. But to see that they added a 16:10 screen, wider trackpad, and bigger battery, without changing the overall design much – it really caught my attention when it was announced.
I’ll come right out and say it now – it meets all my expectations. After using it exclusively for over a week, I quickly appreciated all of what Lenovo has to offer here. They kept all of the pros that I noted when I reviewed the 7th Gen model and pretty much improved on all of the cons.
Let’s jump into the details of my findings over the past several weeks.
Specs as reviewed – Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon gen 9
||Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon 9th gen
||14.0 inch, 1920×1200, IPS equivalent, 60 Hz, non-touch, matte finish
||Intel Tiger Lake Core i7-1165G7, 4 cores, 8 threads, base clock 2.8Ghz, max turbo 4.7Ghz
||Intel Xe Graphics
||16 GB LPDDR4x-4267 soldered
||512 GB M.2 PCIe
||Intel AX201 Wifi 6 and Bluetooth 5.1
||2x USB-C Thunderbolt 4, 2x USB-A 3.2, HDMI 2.0
||57 Wh, 65W charger
||315 mm or 12.4” (w) x 221 mm or 8.72” (d) x 14.9 mm or .59” (h)
||1.13 kg (2.49 lbs)
||headphone/mic combo, fingerprint reader, HD webcam with shutter, quad speakers, two on the bottom, two flanking the keyboard
Design and construction
At first glance and feel, the design was very familiar to me. The X1 Carbon is known for being extremely lightweight and yet still feels premium. This is no different from what I experienced with the 7th gen model, and that’s a good thing.
The entire laptop has a very consistent feel to it: soft and sturdy. And that’s despite it being made from a mixture of materials. The lid itself is made of carbon fiber composite, while the rest of the laptop is made of a magnesium allow. All have a soft-touch coating on them, which makes the laptop feel more like plastic, but in a nice way.
The laptop is very light, weighing just under 2.5 lbs. Being so thin, it’s very easy to handle and carry around. The overall design is balanced so you can pick it up from pretty much any corner, with very little effort or worry.
Starting at the top, the lid is smooth with the typical Lenovo tag in the lower corner and a larger Thinkpad X1 logo in the upper corner. The I has a red light which I’m not a fan of, mainly because I don’t see the point of it. But other than that, the rest of the lid is pretty clean. I’m happy that they gave up on the carbon fiber coating design.
Lifting the lid is thankfully a one-finger effort. The hinge appears to be redesigned as it’s one large hinge instead of the two smaller ones on the previous models. It’s a strong enough hinge to keep the screen from wobbling, which is more of a worry for the touchscreen models. Above the screen is an HD webcam that has a privacy shutter.
Down below is what looks to be the same keyboard and trackpad as on the previous models. I did learn that the trackpad is 10% wider this year though, which is definitely needed. More on those shortly.
Also, on the palm rest are the cutouts for upward-facing speaker arrays on both sides of the keyboard. And finally, there’s a power button located on the upper right. This button doubles as a fingerprint reader, which worked very well throughout my use. When powering the machine on, it registers your fingerprint to be used when you hit the Windows logon prompt.
For IO, we have a decent selection on this model. There’s a single USB-A port on the right-hand side, with a Kensington lock right next to it. There’s also a headphone/microphone combo jack in the center. Not exactly my favorite spot for headphones considering that’s where my mouse usually goes.
On the left, there are two USB-C ports. Both support Thunderbolt 4, but only one supports charging. Both also support DP 1.4 as well. Right next to it is an HDMI 2.0 port and another USB-A. That’s it for the IO, though. No SD card reader again, which is a bit disappointing considering this is a business/work laptop.
The underside is pretty plain, but there are a lot of stickers on it. There’s a small vent for the dual fan module, which is the intake. The exhaust goes into the hinge area, by the way. There are also two more speaker cutouts down here, bringing the total number of speakers to four.
Overall, an excellent design for a portable business laptop. Lenovo kept what I originally liked about the Carbon X1 series and improved it with a bigger trackpad and a better coating on the lid. It’s also the ideal weight for something this small.
Keyboard and trackpad
As far as laptop keyboards go, this one is probably amongst the best in this class of thin and lightweight devices. It took no effort on my part to get used to typing on it. The key feedback is perfect for such a shallow keystroke and the keys are perfectly spaced apart. On top of that, the keycaps have a slight concavity that makes them easy to strike.
The key layout is pretty normal for the most part. The only oddity is the Fn key which is to the left of the Ctrl key. This is normal for ThinkPads, but not for me. I accidentally hit it instead of Ctrl often, but I eventually got used to it. If it bothers you though, there’s a way to swap the keys in the software and the BIOS.
One thing I appreciate about the layout is the dedicated page up and down keys as well as a full arrow keys layout. Sure, these are smaller than the other keys, but I’d rather see that than have a half up and down arrow key, or worse a cramped shift key.
The keyboard is also backlit. It only has two brightness levels and they are both white. It’s nothing special, but it does the job. You can control the brightness by pressing Fn-Spacebar.
Here’s a complaint, though. The backlighting on this model is not enabled by default. You have to hit Fn-Space every time you boot the device if you want to have backlighting. I checked the BIOS and Vantage and there’s no way to set this up by default. Lenovo needs to fix this as it’s very annoying…
The trackpad on this model works very well. It’s not as big as I’d prefer because there are three gigantic buttons on the top of it. This is normal for ThinkPads though, so it’s certainly acceptable.
The trackpad itself is glass and my fingers glided smoothly. I didn’t have any trouble with accuracy or multitouch gestures – it works perfectly. It’s also a clickpad, so if you want to use the lower corners for right and left clicks, that’ll work too. But you also have those right, left and middle click buttons above it, if needed.
Those buttons are more for the Trackpoint though, which is smack in the middle of the keyboard. It works fine, but I hardly am an expert on these things because I always ignore them. I can see using it for things like clicking and dragging or highlighting multiple items though.
As noted earlier, this trackpad is wider than the previous versions. It’s a good move too because it just makes multi-touch gestures easier to do – especially the four-finger ones.
In the end, I wouldn’t touch a thing on both the keyboard and trackpad. They live up to the ThinkPad vision and meet every expectation I had for them.
The screen is pretty decent on my model. It’s a 14-inch 16:10 panel with 1920 x 1200 px resolution and matte finishing. It’s definitely a step up from the 16:9 panel on the previous models.
Lenovo offers a couple of other panel options as well, though, both matte or touch. The price difference is around $250 between the base FHD+ and the top 4K option.
The base panel is not bad by any means, but it’s just plain when you compare it to the other screens I’ve seen on recent laptops. It’s a standard gamut panel with good enough brightness and a 60Hz refresh rate.
Here are the specifications I measured on my X-rite i1 Display Pro sensor:
- Panel HardwareID: Lenovo LEN403A (Model MNE007JA1-1)
- Coverage: 98.4% sRGB, 69.4% AdobeRGB, 71.5% DCI-P3;
- Max brightness in the middle of the screen: 382 cd/m2 on power;
- Gamma: 2.2;
- Contrast at max brightness: 1592:1
- Native white point: 6400 K;
- Black on max brightness: 0.24 cd/m2.
The nice thing is the bezels are pretty small on all 4 sides. The top bezel is a little larger, but that’s probably because it also supports an IR camera (which isn’t present in my model). Viewing angles on the panel are perfect and I detected no backlight bleed.
More good news is the maximum brightness on this panel is quite high. I measured up to 382 nits, which is OK even for offices with a lot of lighting and glare from the windows. The contrast ratio is also very high, so you’ll enjoy deep blacks across all brightness levels.
The last thing to mention is that this FHD panel has low power consumption. That’s not the case for the 4k panels, so choose wisely; that top choice does offer a higher color gamut at 100% DCI-P3 and 500-nits of brightness, though, so there are certain users that will want to choose it instead.
Hardware and performance
This configuration of the ThinkPad X1 Carbon X1 9th generation comes with an Intel Core i7-1165G7, which is a quad-core processor that boosts up to 4.7Ghz. Paired with 16GB of RAM, this is fast enough to complete the tasks of most programs used in a typical office environment. You can also spec this up with more RAM and faster storage if you you’d need them.
I’ve been using this laptop as my daily driver for at least a week and had no problems getting things done. The Intel Iris Xe graphics is good enough for minor graphicly intensive programs, so even things like CAD will still run decently. If you’re doing more powerful graphic rendering though, you’ll want to consider something with a dedicated GPU.
Considering the size, this laptop does very well doing what I needed it to do. If I didn’t need a dedicated GPU, I could easily enjoy this sort of a computer.
As far as upgradability goes, you’ll want to make sure you choose the specs you want at the start. Being a Thinkpad, the cover comes right off when you take the screws out. It’s a very convenient way to swap out components and upgrade. But there really isn’t much to upgrade. The only thing you can swap out is the SSD. The Wifi module and RAM are soldered. There’s an extra M.2 slot for a short module, but I don’t have a spare drive that size to test it out and see if it’s active.
Another mystery is what looks like a card reader on the motherboard. If you look closely on the left side of my teardown picture, you can see the slot just below the USB port. I couldn’t figure it out at start, but that’s most likely the SIM tray for the cellular-capable versions – there’s no external slot on this model because this is not 4G/LTE ready.
For software, there’s no longer the Vantage control app on ThinkPad laptops, you just select between the available power modes in Windows. The laptop runs quietly and efficiently on Better Battery life, and for our later benchmarks, we used the Max Performance mode.
Let’s dig into the performance of this X1 Carbon.
As far as taxing CPU chores go, this laptop runs at a high power of around 26-30W for a few loops in the Cinebench R15 loop test, on the Max Performance profile, with temperatures in the high-90s Celsius. After a few run, the system stabilizes at around 18-22 W of power, with temperatures in the mid-80s. You’ll find more details in the log down below.
And here’s how this X1 Carbon compares to other ultraportable designs in the Cinebench loop test. It’s on par with similarly powered implementations of the Tiger lake i7-1165G7 hardware, but not match for a higher-power model or for any of the 6C/8C AMD platforms out there.
The multi-core performance is only one side of the coin, though. I then took some synthetic benchmarks to get an idea of how well the CPU performs in other tests. Here’s what I got:
- 3DMark 13 – Fire Strike: 4695 (Graphics – 5110, Physics – 13134);
- 3DMark 13 – Time Spy: 1677 (Graphics – 1508, CPU – 4607);
- 3DMark 13 – CPU Profile: Max-3076, 16T-3052, 8T-3020, 4T-2489, 2T-1504, 1T-863;
- Uniengine Superposition: Medium: 2888
- GeekBench 5: Single-Core: 1530, Multi-core: 5167;
- CineBench R15: OpenGL 102.60 fps, CPU 866 cb, CPU Single Core 218 cb;
- CineBench R23: CPU 5703 pts, CPU Single Core 1502 pts.
These are pretty respectable results, helped by the high-power allocation in shorter duration loads. In most tests, this X1 carbon comes within 10% of the more powerful ZenBook 14X in CPU-multi core and GPU performance, and the single-core CPU scores are also very competitive.
You’ll see a drop with longer duration loads, though, such as Blender, Matlab, CAD or maybe when editing photos/videos. That shouldn’t be a surprise for an ultrabook of this size and weight, though.
Compared to the 7th gen X1 Carbon I reviewed a couple years ago, we’re looking at about a 30% improvement in CPU performance and at least 3x more power with the integrated GPU. Definitely worthy of an upgrade if you’re a couple of generations behind.
I also took some benchmarks with a few games, varying in age. See below for my results:
|Doom Eternal (Low settings)
||26 fps avg, 14 fps low
|Skyrim (Ultra, FHD+)
||31 fps avg, 27 fps low
|The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (FHD+, low Preset, Hairworks Off)
||38 fps avg, 32 fps low
Obviously, these aren’t great results, but it’s about what you can expect from integrated graphics. If you want to, you can play a casual game every now and then on this laptop, but expect to lower the graphics settings and resolution on the latest titles. Indie games play fine though, so if you’re into those, this should work.
Overall, I’m pretty happy with the overall performance of this device. I wouldn’t buy it expecting to run demanding workloads or games, but I think it’s good enough for the average professional working in an office. Too bad there’s still no AMD variant of the X1 Carbon, but you’re getting that with other 14-inch ThinkPad models.
Noise, Heat, Connectivity, speakers, and others
This laptop has a simple cooling system, with a dual-fan module attached to a single large heatpipe. The intake is through the bottom of the laptop and the exhaust is out through the holes in the hinge. This overall design is different from what Lenovo used on their previous ThinkPads and does allow for higher sustained power and performance in demanding loads.
The cooling system works well for what this laptop is designed for. For light use, the CPU stays in the low 40s without much need for the fan to even be on. The fan is able to operate at very low speeds which are inaudible in most circumstances, so the chassis is able to maintain these low temps for long periods.
Heavier internet usage results in CPU spikes around 80C with average temperatures being around 56C. During this testing I measured the fan noise to peak at 29dB(A), averaging 27dB(A).
Under extreme loads such as running a demanding game, the CPU spikes as high as 100C, and then stabilizes at lower temperatures in the 70s C, as it quickly throttles at around 18W of power. The GPU averages around 1 GHz in these longer combined loads, which is about 20% under what the Iris Xe graphics would be capable of in a less constrained design. The CPU and GPU drop quickly for the titles I tried. Witcher 3, for example, had a CPU spike of 100C, but the average temps rested at 72C. The maximum fan noise during this test was 36dB(A).
As for the chassis temperature itself, under normal loads, it stays relatively cool. The quadrant that houses the CPU and heatsink naturally gets 3-4C higher than the rest of the chassis. The most the underside gets is 33C, which isn’t bad.
Under load, expect temps to rise 5C higher across the board. The palmrest stays relatively cool though, so that’s a plus. Nothing out of the ordinary with these temperatures though. I didn’t feel the need for a lap desk throughout my usage.
*Daily Use – streaming Netflix in EDGE for 30 minutes, fans at 0-30 dB
*Gaming – playing Witcher 3 for 30 minutes, fans at 35-36 dB
The Intel AX201 is the Wifi module on this laptop. I reached 520Mbps from a 30 ft distance from my router, which is great. I didn’t have any drops in connection during my usage. Bluetooth signal also worked flawlessly during my usage.
I like the speakers on this model and I think they’re an improvement from last time. This time we have two small .8W speakers on the sides of the keyboard, as well as the two downward-facing 2W speakers underneath. Together they provide full sound that I rather enjoyed. I measured the maximum amplitude to be 82dB(A) in my test, which is good for such a small laptop. Bass was detectable as low as 100Hz, which is also good for this class.
The 9th Gen X1 Carbon webcam is not that great. It’s adequate only in normal lighting, where the image is sharp and the colors are decent. But in very bright environments, the light correction hurts all the colors and the image is pretty washed out – at least in my cases. Low light correction is decent but the images are no longer sharp and look grainy.
The camera itself is 720p, which is standard for most laptops now. There’s no option for a higher-res camera, but there is for an IR blaster to make it Windows Hello. I’d rather have this than the fingerprint reader, but that’s my personal preference.
Another interesting tidbit about the IR camera is it has the ability to detect when you’re gone. When you leave your laptop, it’ll supposedly lock your PC for you and then unlock it when it senses your face again. It’s too bad my model doesn’t have this because I’d really like to test it out.
Last thing to mention with the webcam is the built-in shutter. I expect this on all laptops these days.
The Lenovo X1 Carbon has a 57 Whr battery. It’s fair sized for a portable laptop, and a step up from the last generations. I took a series of battery life tests with the brightness at 50%, which is about 86 nits. Here were my results:
- 2.2 W (~25 h 55 min of use)– idle, Best Battery Mode, screen at 0%, Wi-Fi ON, backlighting off;
- 4.6 W (12 h 23 min of use)– text editing in Word with light internet use, Better Battery Mode, screen at 50%, Wi-Fi ON;
- 6.1 W (~9 h 21 min of use)– 1080p 60Hz Youtube fullscreen in Chrome, Better Battery Mode, screen at 50%, Wi-Fi ON;
- 6.1 W (~9 h 21 min of use)– 1080p Netflix fullscreen video in Chrome, Better Battery Mode, screen at 50%, Wi-Fi ON;
- 12.3 W (~4 h 38 min of use)– heavy browsing in Chrome, Better Performance Mode, screen at 50%, Wi-Fi ON;
- 23.1 W (~2 h 28 min of use)– Gaming – Doom Eternal, Maximum Performance Mode, 60fps cap, screen at 50%, Wi-Fi ON.
Across the board, these are much improved results than that I measured on the 7th Gen X1 Carbon. It’s not just because of the larger battery, though – it’s also because of the more efficient CPU and screen. The laptop is Intel Evo certified, and the results certainly validate the sticker.
The power brick is 65W and pretty small. It’s weird though because it’s not as small as the 65W charger on the ThinkBook I just reviewed. But at least this one has a cable tie.
Price and availability- Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon
The model I reviewed is available at Amazon for $2099. Pretty steep. But like many Lenovo laptops, they eventually go on sale with some pretty significant discounts. Follow this link for updated configurations and prices at the time you’re reading the article.
For example, at the time of this review, you can configure your own on Lenovo’s website, with the exact same specs, for around $1500. I could live with that. If you want to save more, you could go as low as an i5 with 8GB of RAM and only 256GB SSD. Be careful with your RAM and CPU choices though, because they are permanent and cannot be upgraded. The i5 is OK for daily use, but I’d get 16 GB of RAM if I’d plan to keep this for a few years.
Other features you should consider purchasing are a touch screen and maybe even the 4k panel, which is HDR and has a maximum brightness of 500 nits! If it’s anything like my Legion 7 panel, it’s worth the extra money. But you might be sacrificing some battery life if you do it, so be cautious.
Other things to consider are an IR camera, which is only $45 and totally worth it imo. The other thing that is interesting is the LTE module that is an option. That might actually be what that short M.2 slot is for.
Final thoughts- Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon gen 9
I’ll admit, with laptops this small, my expectations drop due to the limited space. But this 2021 X1 Carbon exceeded my expectations. I could easily use this device as a primary computer, especially while on the road.
I could knock this device for being overpriced at MSRP levels, but with the “sales” on Lenovo’s website, I think it’s actually fairly priced. Considering how well it performs, the stellar input devices, all the options, and the battery life, there’s little to complain about.
Some enjoyable improvements for this model are the fingerprint reader integrated into the power button, as well as the wider trackpad. They also got rid of that carbon fiber coating on the lid, which I worried would wear off eventually. Finally, they also improved the hinge design, which looks and feels great, and added a taller 16:10 display instead of the 16:9 panel of the past.
The only cons I can note are the webcam and the missing memory card slot. Both of these I could easily live with, though.
Regardless of the cons, this is a very nice ultrabook to buy. Provided you can find one at a decent price, I’m sure most people would be very pleased with the purchase. As stated before, if battery life is your thing, try to stick with the FHD+ models. And I’d recommend finding the version with the IR blaster.
I have to send this unit back tomorrow, but I’m happy to answer any questions you may have about my experience with it. Please leave me a comment below.
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