As the current editor-in-chief of Tom's Hardware and former editorial director of Laptop Mag (through April), I've tried hundreds, perhaps thousands of different notebooks in the past decade. But believe it or not, I operate on a budget like everyone else so it has been a full four years since my last laptop purchase. This week, I decided it was time to upgrade my personal device and there was a good memorial day sale that was difficult to resist.
Update (11/19/2018): I some quality control problems with the first three units of the X1 Carbon I bought. The screens on a couple of them were way dimmer than expected and the keyboards not as snappy as on the review unit. However, in the end, I bought a unit from Costco ($1,399 for Core i7 / 16GB / 512GB and 1080p) and have been very happy with it.
So what does a person who writes or edits hundreds of laptop reviews a year buy for himself? I went with Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 Carbon, a super-light 14-inch ultraportable that, on sale, cost me $1,367. People are as different as the their laptops so my choice isn't right for everyone, but here's why I went with the Carbon.
Knowing it's time to upgrade
These days, people are holding onto their computers longer than ever before. If you play the latest games, design your own 3D animations or work in engineering, you always need more performance and will upgrade more frequently if you can afford it. However, for the kind of tasks I perform -- editing documents, writing code for small apps and browser extensions and using web tools -- you can get by with the same system for many years.
Intel and AMD would love it if you got a new system (or at least a new CPU) every year or two, but the reality is that you can run the latest build of Windows 10, the current version of Office and the web browser of your choice very well on computers that are old enough to remember the year when you used it to watch Rebecca Black's *new* Friday video over and over again (that was 2011).
As with a human relationship, you know it's time to dump your computer when either you're no longer getting what you need or your needs have changed. If your PC isn't fast enough for the apps you want to run today or you have a laptop that doesn't last long enough on a charge anymore, those are good reasons to upgrade.
"I'd rather gouge my eyes out with the business end of a DIMM, than buy a laptop with a 1366 x 768 display. "
I decided it was time to replace my old laptop, a ThinkPad T440s with Core i5 CPU, because it has slowed down dramatically, particularly when I connect it to my docking station and work across multiple monitors. Perhaps it's the Spectre / Meltdown patches I applied or the fact that I have even more apps and tabs open recently, but I experience a lot of lag when docked (it's better when detached). When I go to switch tabs and the computer pauses, I start tearing out what's left of my hair.
Why I chose the X1 Carbon
When I review and recommend PCs for work, I look at how they serve their target audiences' requirements. I know that, even if a computer isn't one I would buy for myself, it can be a great choice for others. When the audience is me, here's what I look for:
- Portability: As a Tom's Hardware editor, I'll always have a place in my heart and in my life for desktop PCs, but I need to be able to work in many different places: my home, the train, my office and on trips. Even within my house, I end up working in five different rooms.
The X1 Carbon weighs just 2.49 pounds when other 14-inch laptops are between three and four pounds. I can take it anywhere without even feeling its mass in my bag. It fits easily on my lap and on coach-class airline tray tables.
- Long battery life: I don't want to suffer from battery anxiety when I'm trying to get things done. Even if I have access to a power outlet as I do at home, I don't want to be tethered to the wall when I'm trying to work in bed or sitting on the couch. My laptop needs to last at least 10 hours on a charge, preferably more.
The ThinkPad endured for more than 11 hours on Laptop Mag's web surfing battery test, which is 2.5 hours above average for premium laptops.
- Great keyboard: I'm a touch typist and key feel is extremely important to me. I need snappy feedback so I can work faster and keep my fingers from getting sore.
ThinkPad keyboards have a well-deserved reputation for offering the best typing experience, but even among Lenovo's laptops, the X1 Carbon stands out for its springy keys and deep travel. The keyboards on other ThinkPads I tested this year -- the ThinkPad T480, X280 and T480s -- were not quite as responsive. The soft-touch deck on the X1 Carbon adds to the comfort as it feels like a gel rest under my wrists.
- Pointing stick: Call me a weirdo or an old-timer, but I love using a nub to navigate around the desktop, because I never have to move my hands off of the home row. Today's touchpads are good, but I can work faster and target small objects better with the stick.
If you want a laptop with a pointing stick in 2018, you have a few choices, all of them business laptops. Some commercial laptops from Dell, HP and Toshiba have nubs, but Lenovo's red TrackPoint pointing sticks are the industry standard for comfort and accuracy.
- Mix of ports: I still need USB Type-A ports to accommodate all the USB flash drives I get handed as press kits, but I want Thunderbolt 3 ports so I can charge the laptop and connect to external monitors over a single cable.
Unlike some other super thin and light laptops (cough cough XPS 13), the X1 Carbon has ports for both new and old technology, with dual Thunderbolt 3 connections, two USB type-A ports and HDMI out.
- Sharp, colorful screen: I'd rather gouge my eyes out with the business end of a DIMM, than buy a laptop with a low-res, 1366 x 768 display. In order to fit two windows side-by-side for multitasking, my screen has to be at least 1920 x 1080 resolution. Good color and brightness helps too.
The X1 Carbon's base model screen is 1080p with a healthy 300 nits of brightness and good color reproduction. You can also get it with an eye-popping 2560 x 1440 display that supports HDR and reproduces 200 percent of the sRGB color gamut.
- Strong performance: This almost goes without saying, but my new laptop has to have a CPU with four physical cores, a speedy SSD and at least 16GB of RAM.
The 2018 version of the X1 Carbon (marked as 6th Gen) has Intel's latest quad-core Kaby Lake-R CPUs and is only available with speedy M.2 PCIe SSDs. You can't buy it with a hard drive, even if you wanted to.
Features I don't need
There are several features that many other people would put on their priority lists, but just don't matter to me. I don't need a 2-in-1 because, after I played with it in tablet mode a few times, I would inevitably revert to using my laptop exclusively as a clamshell. I'd love to be able to write and edit articles with a pen, but the handwriting recognition in Windows 10 just isn't good enough to let me compose articles in Google docs or edit pieces in our web-based CMS.
I don't intend to play PC games or do serious video editing on my laptop so discrete graphics would be wasted on me. I don't intend to use my laptop as a stereo so I don't need great speakers (the X1 Carbon's tinny speakers are its biggest flaw).
"The laptop is not only fast on its own, but it also makes me faster."
How much I paid
The X1 Carbon checks all of my requirement boxes in a big way, but it's also a fairly expensive laptop, with a starting price that normally hovers around $1,350 for a configuration with a Core i5-8250U CPU, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. But because of Lenovo.com's 2018 Memorial Day sale, which is still active as I write this, I was able to get the X1 Carbon with 16GB of RAM, a 512GB SSD and a Core i5-8350U CPU for just $1,367.
The base model was available for just $1,069. If the sale is still active when you read this and you want to buy, be sure to use coupon code THINKMEMORIAL at checkout so you can get the maximum discount.
Configuring the X1 Carbon: A screen dilemma
I had a hard time deciding whether to pay about $150 extra to get the laptop with its gorgeous 2560 x 1440, HDR screen. I tested a model with that screen and the found that it is the richest and most colorful notebook display I've seen. However, it consumes more energy than the non-touch, 1080p panel and it has an extremely reflective surface which doesn't fare well when you're next to a window on a sunny day.
In our battery test, which surfs the web continuously at a fixed 150 nits of brightness, an X1 Carbon with the HDR screen lasted 10 and a half hours, only 30 minutes less than another configuration with the 1080p touch screen option. However, given how glossy the screen is, the best way to avoid glare is to pump that brightness up all the way to 400 or 500 nits. Lenovo's official estimate is that the HDR screen will last 90 minutes less than the 1080p, non-touch panel I chose.
In the end, I decided to go with the 1080p, non-touch screen so I have the best chance at getting long endurance. I have mixed feelings about passing on the beautiful reds, blues and greens from the HDR panel, but if I were at a press event and my battery died, I'd have some very strong feelings indeed.
I hope to find a desktop monitor with this kind of color saturation so I can enjoy the picture quality when I'm sitting at home. If you have any recommendations for an extremely vibrant monitor, please share them in the comments below.
X1 Carbon alternatives
If you're not as picky about keyboards and don't care about pointing sticks, but want a lightweight laptop with a beautiful screen and awesome battery life, the XPS 13 9370 is a great choice and starts at only $999. And if you don't have a full $1,000 to spend, the HP Envy 13 is a fantastic choice with a keyboard that's almost as good as the Carbon's. Asus's ZenBook UX330UA isn't quite as premium as the Envy, but it costs only $749.
I went with the ThinkPad X1 Carbon because it's a tool that suits the way I work and helps me function at a higher level. The laptop is not only fast on its own, but it also makes me faster, thanks to a durable chassis that balances perfectly on my lap and a best-in-class keyboard.
Just as a professional baseball player needs just the right glove to help him make the most of his natural fielding ability or a musician needs the perfect guitar to make her best music, I need the right computer to help me do my best writing, editing and coding. For me, that system is the ThinkPad X1 Carbon.