Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 9 (2021) Review
We won't try to keep you in suspense: When we reviewed last year's model, we called the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon the best laptop in the world—though we later decided it shared that title with the Dell XPS 13 OLED—and it hasn't done anything in its latest revision to change that state of affairs. The X1 Carbon Gen 9 (starts at $1,475; $2,197 as tested) catches up with the Dell and other elite ultraportables by moving to an 11th Generation Intel "Tiger Lake" Core processor and a slightly taller 16:10 rather than 16:9 screen aspect ratio. Its premium price and lack of an SD card slot still knock half a star off what would else be a perfect five-star rating, but it effortlessly collects yet another Editors' Choice award as the most desirable executive notebook on Earth.
A Matte-Black Classic
Corporations that buy in bulk get discounts, but single-purchase pricing for the ThinkPad X1 Carbon is all over the map. Lenovo lists a base Core i5 model at $1,475. Meanwhile, $2,197 is the second-lowest price we found online for our test unit (model 20XW004DUS) with a Core i7-1165G7 processor, 16GB of RAM, and a 512GB NVMe solid-state drive, but other retailers have it for $2,500 and up, and when we tried configuring one like it at Lenovo.com it came to $3,169 with a temporary coupon cutting it to $1,901. When you look, the situation will likely be different still.Our Experts Have Tested 147 Products in the Laptops Category This YearSince 1982, PCMag has tested and rated thousands of products to help you make better buying decisions. (See how we test.)(Photo: Molly Flores)
Lenovo gives you four screen choices, all with IPS instead of exotic OLED technology and backed by Intel's Iris Xe integrated graphics. Three have 1,920-by-1,200-pixel resolution: our review unit's 400-nit non-touch panel, a touch screen with the same brightness, and a 500-nit touch display with a PrivacyGuard filter (meant to keep airline seatmates from snooping). The fourth is a 500-nit glossy panel with 3,840-by-2,400-pixel resolution. Lenovo says all but the PrivacyGuard screen feature reduced blue-light emission to ease eyestrain.
A slightly bigger battery makes the Gen 9 Carbon an ounce or two heavier than its predecessor at 2.49 pounds. Its matte-black carbon-fiber and magnesium-alloy chassis (the high-res screen has a carbon-fiber weave lid) has passed MIL-STD 810G torture tests for shock, vibration, and environmental extremes and measures 0.59 by 12.4 by 8.7 inches. That is quite trim for a 14-inch laptop. The Dell Latitude 7420 is 0.68 by 12.7 by 8.2 inches and 2.7 pounds, though it's possible to get trimmer at this screen size; the Asus ExpertBook B9450CEA is lighter at 0.59 by 12.6 by 8 inches and 2.2 pounds.
Dell XPS 13 OLED (9310)$1,587.59See Itat DellRead Our Dell XPS 13 OLED (9310) Review 4.5Outstanding
Razer Book 13$1,299.99See Itat AmazonRead Our Razer Book 13 Review 4.0Excellent
Dell Latitude 7420$1,619.00See Itat Dell TechnologiesRead Our Dell Latitude 7420 Review 3.5Good
Asus ExpertBook B9450CEA$1,599.99See Itat AsusRead Our Asus ExpertBook B9450CEA Review (Photo: Molly Flores)
Some ultraportables like the XPS 13 and Apple MacBook Air M1 have only Thunderbolt 3 or 4 ports, obliging you to use an adapter or dongle to plug in an external monitor or USB Type-A drive. The ThinkPad puts them to shame: There are two Thunderbolt 4 ports on the left side, but HDMI and USB-A 3.2 ports as well, and a second USB-A port joins an audio jack and security lock slot on the right. Also unlike the XPS 13, the Carbon offers optional 4G ($164) or 5G ($462) LTE for connectivity when there's no hotspot for its Wi-Fi 6.(Photo: Molly Flores)
Display and Keyboard: Treats for Eyes and Fingers
The latest X1 Carbon keeps its justly famous backlit keyboard, with convenient Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down keys and top-row command keys, including two to place and end calls in Microsoft Teams and Skype for Business. The Fn and Control keys are in each other's place at bottom left, but if you can't adjust you can swap them with the provided Lenovo Vantage software. (Dubbed "Commercial Vantage" in business systems, it centralizes various hardware settings, system updates, and Wi-Fi security.)(Photo: Molly Flores)
The keyboard has a snappy, slightly noisy typing feel. Cursor jockeys can use either the TrackPoint mini joystick at the intersection of the G, H, and B keys or the touchpad (a bit wider than Gen 8's), which has three comfortable buttons south of the space bar.
Is the 1,920-by-1,200-pixel screen the greatest we've laid eyes on? No, because we've seen high-resolution OLED laptop displays and HP DreamColor workstations, but it's very good. Brightness is ample, and contrast is high; white backgrounds are Clorox-fresh, and colors are vivid and well saturated. Fine details and the edges of letters are pleasingly sharp, and viewing angles are wide. The 16:10 aspect ratio fits a bit more content without letterboxing videos as 3:2 displays do. An antiglare coating does a good job of fighting reflections.(Photo: Molly Flores)
The 720p webcam captures reasonably well-lit and colorful images with slightly soft focus but almost no noise or static. Our test unit lacked the optional face-recognition webcam, which offers zero-touch logins via a proximity sensor, but there's a Windows Hello fingerprint reader integrated with the power button above the keyboard.
Lenovo says the new Carbon has better sound thanks to speakers flanking the keyboard plus two down-firing woofers and Dolby Access software that combines audio (with dynamic, music, movie, and game presets), display, and voice enhancements. It's loud enough to fill a conference room, with a bit of boom or echo when turned up. Bass is subdued but noticeable, and you can make out overlapping tracks. The Windows 10 Pro system is free of bloatware; the only add-on I haven't mentioned is Lenovo Quick Clean, which temporarily locks the keyboard and touchpad while you apply a sanitizing wipe.
Testing the Gen 9 Carbon: Clash of the Core i7s
For our benchmark charts, I compared the ThinkPad X1 Carbon to two abovementioned 14-inch business laptops (the Asus ExpertBook B9450CEA and the Dell Latitude 7420), plus two 13.4-inch ultraportables, the Dell XPS 13 and the Razer Blade 13. All except the Asus are Editors' Choice award winners, and all have Intel's freshest "Tiger Lake" Core i7 CPUs. You can see their basic specs in the table below.
Productivity and Media Tests
PCMark 10 and 8 are holistic performance suites developed by the PC benchmark specialists at UL (formerly Futuremark). The PCMark 10 test we run simulates different real-world productivity and content-creation workflows. We use it to assess overall system performance for office-centric tasks such as word processing, spreadsheeting, web browsing, and videoconferencing. PCMark 8, meanwhile, has a storage subtest that we use to assess the speed of the system's boot drive. Both yield a proprietary numeric score; higher numbers are better. (See more about how we test laptops.)
All five laptops easily cleared the 4,000 points that show excellent productivity in PCMark 10, but the Carbon led the way; it's a superb Microsoft Office or Google Workspace partner. The Lenovo was narrowly last in PCMark 8's storage measurement, but you can ignore that—the benchmark predates today's speedy SSDs.
Next is Maxon's CPU-crunching Cinebench R15 test, which is fully threaded to make use of all available processor cores and threads. Cinebench stresses the CPU rather than the GPU to render a complex image. The result is a proprietary score indicating a PC's suitability for processor-intensive workloads.
Cinebench is often a good predictor of our Handbrake video editing benchmark, in which we put a stopwatch on systems as they transcode a brief movie from 4K resolution down to 1080p. It, too, is a tough test for multi-core, multi-threaded CPUs; lower times are better.
Despite having a nominally slower processor than the Dells and Asus, the ThinkPad was the class of the field. It's no Core i9 or Xeon CAD or 3D rendering powerhouse, but it's got more than enough number-crunching cred for your toughest spreadsheets.
We also run a custom Adobe Photoshop image-editing benchmark. Using an early 2018 release of the Creative Cloud version of Photoshop, we apply a series of 10 complex filters and effects to a standard JPEG test image. We time each operation and add up the total (lower times are better). The Photoshop test stresses the CPU, storage subsystem, and RAM, but it can also take advantage of most GPUs to speed up the process of applying filters.
Photoshop yielded a photo finish—a five-way tie. Imaging professionals would probably pick the XPS 13's 3.5K OLED screen, but any of these systems can capably manage a photo collection.
3DMark measures relative graphics muscle by rendering sequences of highly detailed, gaming-style 3D graphics that emphasize particles and lighting. We run two different 3DMark subtests, Sky Diver and Fire Strike. Both are DirectX 11 benchmarks, but Sky Diver is more suited to laptops and midrange PCs, while Fire Strike is more demanding and lets high-end PCs and gaming rigs strut their stuff.
Next up is another synthetic graphics test, this time from Unigine Corp. Like 3DMark, the Superposition test renders and pans through a detailed 3D scene, this one rendered in the eponymous Unigine engine for a second opinion on the machine's graphical prowess. We present two Superposition results, run at the 720p Low and 1080p High presets and reported in frames per second (fps), indicating how smooth the scene looks in motion. For lower-end systems, maintaining at least 30fps is the realistic target, while more powerful computers should ideally attain at least 60fps at the test resolution.
The Razer was barely quicker than the others, but none of these integrated-graphics slimlines is in the same ZIP code as a true gaming laptop with a discrete GPU. They're productivity machines, suitable for casual gaming and streaming media rather than fast-twitch shooters and esports titles. (See much more about gaming performance with integrated CPU graphics in our deep-dive testing feature.)
Battery Rundown Test
After fully recharging the laptop, we set up the machine in power-save mode (as opposed to balanced or high-performance mode) where available and make a few other battery-conserving tweaks in preparation for our unplugged video rundown test. (We also turn Wi-Fi off, putting the laptop into airplane mode.) In this test, we loop a video—a locally stored 720p file of the Blender Foundation short film Tears of Steel—with screen brightness set at 50% and volume at 100% until the system quits.
The Dell ultraportable's high-res OLED display takes a toll on its battery life, though it still shows respectable stamina. The others are better yet, with the Lenovo outlasting the Latitude by two hours to claim the crown. You won't need to reach for its USB-C power adapter even after a long day at work or a transcontinental plane ride.(Photo: Molly Flores)
Verdict: Nice (for) Work, If You Can Get It
If the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 9 had an OLED screen, we'd be tempted to shut down PCMag.com's laptop-review efforts for a while and say laptop technology had hit an unsurpassable peak. It's that good, a superlative aspirational system for anyone who can afford it. It leaves room for gaming notebooks and content-creation workstations to outperform it, but it virtually defines what a productivity PC or business ultraportable should be. This must be our least surprising Editors' Choice pick ever.
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 9 (2021)4.5Editors' ChoiceSee It$1,813.34 at AmazonBase Configuration Price $1,475.00ProsView MoreConsThe Bottom Line
There's one ultraportable we admire as much (the Dell XPS 13 OLED), but there's no business laptop we admire more than Lenovo's latest ThinkPad X1 Carbon.Like What You're Reading?
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