A longtime Mac user’s first impressions of the Thinkpad X1 Carbon

The Thinkpad X1 carbon

Well, as I’d been threatening for a while, I ended my decade plus using a Mac as my main computer this month and jumped to the Windows side, lured by the all-black, super-lightweight Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon. I’ve had the laptop for about three weeks and here are some of my first impressions. Feel free to chime in with questions and comments in the comments, but please keep it polite and informative.

Fantastic hardware – I love the feel of the X1′s carbon fiber body, nicely grippable and an attractive matte black. It reminds me of my all-time favorite Mac laptop, the Powerbook G3 I had in the late 1990s, though it probably weighs less than half as much as that old battleship. The X1′s matte screen is also gorgeous, clear and bright at 14″ diagonally with 1600 by 900 pixels. The keyboard works great and the touchpad is also among the best — love the dedicated page up and down keys. There are other small, brilliant touches like a true security slot for your Kensington lock, a finger print reader and an SD card reader that inhales the whole card, so you don’t have anything sticking out if you want to leave a card in when you pack up (I can’t tell you how many times I closed my Macbook Pro, putting it to sleep, with an SD card sticking out so it would’t fit in my case and I had to wake it up and eject the card just to put it away).

In addition to my trusty 13″ MacBook Pro, I also used a Macbook Air as my main machine when I traveled in Europe this summer and, for comparison, I’d say the Thinkpad has a better screen and keyboard as well as superior battery life. I also much prefer the Thinkpad’s carbon body to the Air’s slippery, sharp aluminum shell. The Air’s trackpad was better and it had fewer of the Thinkpad’s software hiccups, some of which are detailed below.

Windows 8 is intriguing but with annoyances – I spend most of my time on the traditional desktop side running the same kinds of applications I used on my Mac. It’s not that different than prior versions of Windows. The desktop itself is still there as a much needed home base for short cuts and files. I definitely needed some small but critical tweaks. For example, the three click drop which unadulterated Windows 8 forces you into just to choose from among all your installed programs is annoying but easily remedied. I opted for the free Pokki Menu, which creates one button access to a highly customizable start menu with quick access also to shut down options and notifications. And I actually had to spend $15 on a file add-in just so Windows 8 could comprehend the RAW format files from my Sony camera.

Cross-platform software saves the day – I am so glad I went out of my way over the years to find software solutions that worked on multiple operating systems. By resisting Apple lock-in, I can safely say that all of my most important programs were cross-platform. Of course, cloud-based apps like Evernote, WordPress, Spotify and Dropbox work great on Windows. And Microsoft Office is at least as good in its native environs, though I wasn’t excited to buy it all over again. But most programs let me re-use my Mac license for the Windows version, like Adobe Lightroom and Postbox for email. To fill in some small gaps, I’ve been trying out new Windows stuff, like lean, mean text editor Markdown Pad. I also like Azotix Software’s Active Organizer program, a dedicated, stand alone Google contacts and calendar program that works even when you’re offline.

Lenovo! Newman! – I must admit that every time I have to deal with Lenovo, I long for Apple. The online purchasing experience was awful — clunky, buggy and with too few options available. You want an Intel i7 processor and more than 4 GB of RAM? No luck, i5 for you. SSD bigger than 256 GB? Not available. The support site is even worse. Could it at least remember which model I have so I don’t have go through the eight-step selection process all over again every time I visit? And then there’s the god awful pile of crapware, sort-of-helpware and failware that comes pre-installed. So far, every fourth upgrade attempt utterly fails. Blech. I’ll blog later about the process of upgrading the brand new machine from Windows 7 to 8, but suffice it to say that it required following a 4-page, single space typed set of instructions from Lenovo that asked me to manually uninstall a half dozen programs and failed to explain that some needed driver software had to be downloaded separately.

Still keeping up with Mac world – I’m still using Macs and iPads around the house to remain bilingual and retain my ability to complain about the many flaws creeping into Mac OS X. Mountain Lion is just awful for me, from the insane iCloud file scheme to the anorexically thin scroll bars to the finder which needs an complete overhaul that’s about 8 years overdue. But OS X has other strengths and there’s lots of interesting Mac software, so I’ll try to keep up.

(Edited to add a few more examples for clarity. Also see my responses in the comments.)

  • JBrickley

    Considered the X1 Carbon’s for work. But the price is far too high. Went with the X230 instead. Also considering the Surface tablets. So expect EPIC fail as those with the power to decide hate Apple with a passion. Never mind that Apple is still many times better and even price competitive.

    Still don’t understand why you would go from a system that “Just Works” to one you have to seriously struggle with to remove all the crapware, work around GUI issues in the OS, extreme vulnerability risks, disk encryption only available on Enterprise / Ultimate editions of OS, the need to buy and maintain security software. Or the schizophrenic nature of the Win8 GUI.

    Seriously? You dumped the MacBook Air because the SD card sticks out, you always forget to eject it, and the Aluminium case is slippery? That’s like trading in a Mercedes because you don’t like the radio or the placement of the ashtray.

    What’s the real reason?

  • http://gravitationalpull.net/wp/ ampressman

    More like you keep your Toyota Camry while I pass you in my new Jaguar XKR!

  • JBrickley

    Jaguar? Well that explains a lot! ;-)

  • SuperMatt

    I’d be interested in hearing more about your problems with Macs. iCloud is an option, not a necessity… and scrollbars? You do know that you can scroll with 2 fingers, right? I agree that Finder needs an overhaul, but I would still take it over Windows Explorer.

    Also, it sounds like Windows 8 has already cut into your productivity substantially, with a terrible upgrade experience and having to pay extra for RAW camera support. Many of us are required to use Windows at work, but breathe a sigh of relief when we get home and can use a *good* OS, Mac OS X.

    All that being said, if you are adamant about switching to Windows, I agree that the Thinkpads are the 2nd-best laptops around, behind Macbooks Pro and Air.

  • http://gravitationalpull.net/wp/ ampressman

    So I’ll write a whole separate post about my issues with Mountain Lion. Just on the three things mentioned here: Many developers follow Apple’s lead and integrate iCloud as their online back-end. It drove me crazy when I tried to use it for a bit, especially getting files between iPads and the Mac. The thin scroll bars are a big problem navigating long documents and lists, unless you like wearing out your fingers on the track pad. And the Finder’s many flaws and performance issues make it worse than the new “File Explorer” on Windows 8.

    Windows has not cut into my day to day productivity much at all. The upgrade was fine after I followed the directions and I’ve paid for things on Apple that are free on Windows like Tivo file transfer support. All along, I planned to have a learning curve and adjustment phase. My aim is to see whether, in the end, I have a better or worse time as an experienced or, hate the expression but, “power” user. The question for me is not which computer would be best for “Aunt Sue,” there is no doubt Apple is better.

    Windows can run on a Mac laptop. The Thinkpad has superior hardware in my estimation so far.

  • Brian_M_CDN

    It will be interesting to see how the battery holds up over time in the Lenovo. This is one thing that since 2009 has impressed me with the Apple MacBook Pro’s & Air’s (before 2009 was a different matter entirely)

  • pdq3

    To each his own, I guess, but I don’t quite get the “superior hardware” thing. Comparing a $1214 X1 with the $1152 13″ MacBook Air at Amazon, the X1′s screen is 1600×900 (vs 1440×900 for the Air), but the X1′s i5 is 1.7 vs 1.8 for the Air. Same RAM, same SSD, same graphics, SD slot, USB3, glass trackpad. The Air has a LightPeak port, Magsafe power connector, and dual link DVI available. The Carbon has a smaller battery and can only take 8 GB RAM, but yet is thicker and heavier. (not to get into the included software…and MacBooks have had a “dedicated mute” button for years -?!)

    Like I said, to each his own, I guess. Enjoy…

  • http://gravitationalpull.net/wp/ ampressman

    I’d urge you to do more than review the written specs when comparing hardware. The screen on the Thinkpad looks better, sharper and shows more stuff. The MBA weighs officially 2.96 pounds versus 2.99 pounds for the Thinkpad — a nearly imperceptible difference of 1% on the scale. But, as I said, the larger footprint and carbon case materials make the Thinkpad’s weight feel better distributed when you’re actually carrying it. And the keyboard is nicely clicky and responsive, more so than the MBA. I have only one USB 3 port, true, but I’m not really connecting much besides an external hard drive that needs that speed. And I have the better designed Sd slot, the fingerprint reader and the security slot. Not sure how I forgot that mute button on the Mac – old age? To each his own, certainly, but try before you buy!

  • pdq3

    Cool.

    One other thing, tho- regarding “software hiccups”, did you see about this guy trying to upgrade his Lenovo Z580 to Win 8?

    http://tech.fortune.cnn.com/2012/11/20/windows-8-killed-my-pc/?section=money_topstories&utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+rss%2Fmoney_topstories+(Top+Stories)

    My personal experience is that Windows hardware tends to look better on paper than in in actual use. But that’s me.

  • http://twitter.com/SimonRoyal Simon Royal ?

    The ‘annoyances’ of OSX of late will be nothing to the mess that Windows is these days. Microsoft tried an ‘overhaul’ and look where that got them.

    I have been a Mac user for 13 years. I switched a few years ago to Linux and Windows and regretted it. I wanted my ‘just works’ system back. I switched back promptly.

    I would rather use an old G4 and get some of the OSX experience than a spanking new Windows machine.

  • http://gravitationalpull.net/wp/ ampressman

    To each his own, as we’ve been saying in the comments here, I guess Simon. I most certainly would not want to use a G4 to run Adobe Lightroom and a 20K photo library while doing real-time touch ups or lightning fast searches for that elusive message in Postbox with email archives going back 15 years. Bring on the Intel i5, SSD and modern OS.

    I have been regretting changes to OS X for the last two versions. “Save as” just doesn’t work. Scrolling long documents just doesn’t work. iCloud, the Finder, colorless icons, Mission Control, the dock — things are getting worse.

  • ceratophyllum

    Have you tried installing linux yet? I’d seriously consider this laptop if it worked ok with Linux. There is something crude, uncivilized, and patronizing about how OS X and Windows ver. >= XP effectively force the user to boot to a GUI.

    I’m getting pretty sick of OS X in the crashy Lion era and I’m frustrated by Apple’s bizarre design aesthetics: chiclet keyboards (yuck!), glossy screens (double yuck!), MBP screens do not tilt back far enough for a tall person to have a good viewing angle (arrrrgh!!!), and ugly cinema-oriented screen sizes.

    On the more practical side, unibody macbook (pro) laptops have inadequate ventilation and marginal cooling: run ANYTHING even a little CPU/GPU intensive and the loud fans kick in. How I long for the days when the matte, nice keyboard, dead-silent–except if you maybe were compiling KDE 2.X for 3 hours– Pismo ruled.

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