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Premium notebook knockout: ThinkPad X1 Carbon versus the Surface Laptop

Lenovo and Microsoft offer a selection of relatively high-priced notebooks in their ThinkPad and Surface lines, respectively. Both companies focus on providing excellent designs and quality builds. Yet there are some differences in their approaches, with Lenovo’s ThinkPads catering to conservative business tastes, and Microsoft’s Surfaces appealing to the modern creative mindset. Both have their strengths, so we pitted the ThinkPad X1 Carbon versus the Surface Laptop to see which traditional notebook was more deserving of its premium price.

Specifications compared

Surface Laptop

ThinkPad X1 Carbon (2017)

thinkpad x1 carbon versus the surface laptop lenovo 220 x 150

Dimensions  12.13 × 8.79 × 0.57 (in) 12.07 × 8.5 × 0.6 (in)
Weight  2.76 pounds Core m3, i5; 2.83 pounds Core i7 2.89 pounds
Processor 7th-generation Intel Core i5 or i7 7th-generation Intel Core i5 or i7
RAM  4, 8, or 16GB RAM 8 or 16GB RAM
Display  13.5-inch IPS PixelSense display 14-inch IPS display
Resolution  2,256 × 1,504 Full HD (1,920 x 1,080)
QHD+ (3,200 x 1,800)
Storage  128GB, 256GB, 512GB, or 1TB (coming) PCIe SSD 128GB SATA or 256GB, 512GB or 1TB PCIe SSD
Touch 10-point touch display No touch display option
Ports USB Type-A 3.0, mini-DisplayPort, SurfaceConnect, 3.5mm headset 2x USB 3.0 Type-A, 2x USB 3.1 Type C with Thunderbolt 3, HDMI, microSD card reader, microSIM slot, 3.5mm headset
Webcam  720p HD with infrared camera for Windows Hello support 720p HD
Operating System Windows 10 S (upgradable to Windows 10 Pro) Windows 10 Home or Pro
Battery  47 watt-hours 57 watt-hours
Price $1000+ $1,170+
Review 3 out of 5 stars 3.5 out of 5 stars

Design

Lenovo kept the ThinkPad X1 Carbon‘s basic design and build roughly the same for 2017. That means it’s the usual ThinkPad black with some iconic red trimming and the same purposeful build quality that favors durability over flair. The ThinkPad X1 Carbon remains one of the thinnest and lightest business-class notebooks with a 14-inch display, at 0.57 inches thin, and weighing 2.76 pounds.

Microsoft took almost the opposite approach in designing its first traditional notebook. The Surface Laptop is sleek, modern, and colorful, with Alcantara fabric making the keyboard deck extra comfortable, and adding some color coordination with the notebook’s all-metal chassis. The notebook is very thin and light in its own right at 0.6 inches and 2.89 pounds, while being within a few fractions of an inch of the ThinkPad X1 Carbon in each dimension thanks, to its 13.5-inch 3:2 aspect ratio display.

Selecting a winner in this category is a bit of a challenge. There’s plenty to be said about a robust build like the ThinkPad X1 Carbon’s that can withstand some serious hard knocks, and yet we can’t discount a machine that just looks as good as the Surface Laptop. In the end, we give the Lenovo the win for sticking with a winning combination of materials that promises a long lifespan, and avoids some of the uncertainties around using a fabric-covered keyboard deck that could suffer from long-term abuse.

Winner: Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon

Performance

The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon can be equipped with either a seventh-generation Intel Core i5 or i7 CPU, topping out as one of the fastest dual-core processors available in a notebook, the Core i7-7600U. Coupled with integrated Intel HD 620 graphics and a very fast Samsung PCIe solid-state drive (SSD), and you have a recipe for solid productivity performance.

The Surface Laptop also offers seventh-generation Intel Core i5 and i7 CPU options and integrated Intel graphics, although it tops out at the Core i7-7660U CPU, and the faster Intel Iris Plus 640 GPU. That, too, promises fast productivity performance, although Microsoft’s implementation of its chosen PCIe SSD storage solution is a bit slower.

Ultimately, both machines are likely to provide similar performance when getting your work done, and both are equally limited for anyone looking for anything more than the most casual gaming. The ThinkPad X1 Carbon has a faster SSD, but the Surface Laptop has slightly faster graphics. In the end, its Microsoft’s notebook that eeks out a win in this category.

Winner: Microsoft Surface Laptop

Keyboard, Mouse, and Pen

The ThinkPad X1 Carbon isn’t just old-school in its looks and design. It also utilizes the excellent ThinkPad typing experience and the red ThinkPad Trackpoint located in between the G and H keys, along with a touchpad that’s a bit smaller than the typical modern notebook, in order to make room for the Trackpoint buttons.

Another nod to the past is the lack of a touch display option, which offers some battery life and weight benefits, but definitely sets the ThinkPad X1 Carbon into an increasingly isolated class of machines. Windows 10 Hello password-less login is supported, with a fingerprint scanner located to the right of the touchpad.

The Surface Laptop, on the other hand, is chock-full of modern input options. The keyboard has good travel and a precise feel, although it might be just a step behind the ThinkPad’s, and the touchpad is large, smooth, and offers full Microsoft Precision gesture support.

In addition, there’s a super-responsive touch display and support for the excellent Surface Pen, although using the pen on the display requires some stabilizing with the free hand. Windows Hello support is provided by an infrared camera, and facial recognition and works reliably.

This is one area where holding onto the past is a detriment, and the ThinkPad X1 Carbon takes a backseat to the Surface Laptop. More input options are a good thing, and most people would likely trade the iconic ThinkPad Trackpoint for a touch display and active pen support.

Winner: Microsoft Surface Laptop

Connectivity

The ThinkPad X1 Carbon is a thin and light notebook, which often results in limited connectivity. Lenovo took a different tack, making good use of limited space to squeeze in a full complement of ports.

You’ll find two USB 3.0 Type-A ports for legacy support, two USB Type-C ports with Thunderbolt 3 support for full-performance support of future peripherals, an HDMI connection, and a 3.5mm headset jack. Plus, there’s a microSD card reader and a micro-SIM slot for cellular connectivity. Along with the obligatory 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0, all of that describes a seriously well-connected machine.

Microsoft has maintained its minimalist stance when it came to equipping the Surface Laptop, including its usual stance of eschewing USB Type-C. There’s a USB 3.0 Type-A port, DisplayPort, and the proprietary SurfaceConnect port. That’s it, other than a 3.5mm headset jack, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth 4.0. Overall, limited connectivity is a big weakness of the Surface Laptop.

Winner: Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon

Display Quality

Lenovo offers two 14-inch IPS panels on the ThinkPad X1 Carbon, a Full HD (1,920 x 1,080, 157 PPI) and a QHD (2,560 x 1,440, 210 PPI) option. In our testing of the Full HD display, we found it to offer excellent contrast and solid color accuracy. Even when compared to most modern notebooks, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon provides a solid viewing experience.

The Surface Laptop, however, offers the typical high contrast, brightness, and solid color support that you’ll find with all Surface displays. In addition, the 13.5-inch 2,256 x 1,504, 201 PPI) display is in the 3:2 aspect ratio that Microsoft has championed, meaning that it offers some extra vertical space for productivity work (with some letterboxing when watching videos).

We’re still waiting for another notebook — other than a MacBook — to offer a better display than a Surface. Since the ThinkPad X1 Carbon doesn’t quality, the Surface Laptop takes this round.

Winner: Microsoft Surface Laptop

Portability and battery life

Lenovo packed a 57 watt-hour battery into the ThinkPad X1 Carbon, which isn’t a terribly large capacity for a 14-inch notebook. However, the company squeezed out some serious battery life, likely due to the relatively low-resolution 14-inch display. The ThinkPad X1 Carbon managed over eight and a half hours on the aggressive Peacekeeper web benchmark and fourteen and a half hours looping a local video. Those are some of the best results we’ve seen, and mean the Thinkpad X1 Carbon is virtually guaranteed to last a complete working day — with some overtime tossed in.

The Surface Laptop has a smaller battery at 47 watt-hours and a much higher resolution display. Even so, Microsoft did some magic and squeezed some good battery life out of the machine, specifically six and a half hours in Peacekeeper and 12 and a half hours looping our local test video. Those, too, are excellent results and promise all-day battery life.

As noted earlier, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon and Surface Laptop are almost exactly the same sizes, and both can be easily tossed into a backpack and carried around. Both offer great battery life, but Lenovo’s choice to fit a larger battery into that similarly sized frame made a real difference here.

Winner: Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon

Availability and price

The ThinkPad X1 Carbon is a premium notebook that starts out at a retail price of $1,560 for a configuration with a Core i7-7200U CPU, 8GB of RAM, a 128GB SATA SSD, and a Full HD display. It tops out at $2,340 for a Core i7-7600U, 16GB of RAM, a 1TB PCIe SSD, and a QHD display. However, Lenovo regularly provides steep discounts. For example, right now the entry-level machine is priced at $1,170 and the high-end model at $1,755 — which are much more reasonable prices for a very good business-class notebook.

The Surface Laptop is also a premium machine. It starts out at $1,000 when configured with a Core i7-7200U, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD, but it ramps up quickly from there to a staggering $2,700 for a Core i7-7660U, a 16GB of RAM, and a 1TB SSD. Don’t expect many discounts, either.

You can purchase a Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon for a bit less than the Surface Laptop, but overall value is in Lenovo’s favor.

Winner: Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon

Conclusion

The ThinkPad X1 Carbon and Surface Laptop are equally thin, light, and well-built notebooks that offer similar performance. Microsoft’s machine offers up a superior display, and Lenovo has packed in far more connectivity. Both last a long time away from a power adapter, but the ThinkPad X1 Carbon manages a couple more hours of useful battery life.

Calling a winner here is a challenge, but for its extra durability, better longevity, and more impressive portion of ports, we’re giving the slightest nod to the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon.

Winner: Lenovo ThnkPad X1 Carbon


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