Living with the Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon Touch

Since Windows 8 first made its way into my life it’s fair to say that we haven’t always been on the best of terms. My desktop machine, replete with non-touch controllable screen, felt hampered by the OS and took me back to those grand old times when people would swear loudly at their computers with gay abandon. Even after spending time with the Lenovo Yoga 13, a purpose built machine that literally bent over backwards to make Windows 8 work, I was still left cold by the whole experience. Thus, it seemed, I was destined to leave behind the progeny of Redmond and head back to the safer lands of OSX.

But, well, I’m kind of the stubborn sort. You see although Windows 8 does cause me to gouge my eyes and scream out in wild frustration, I do like some of the things that Microsoft are trying. It’s new for starters, which is always interesting, and as we become more attuned to the idea of touch on a laptop, possibly it will actually click into place. I have to admit that these are more idealistic rather than confident ponderings, but maybe it could just came down to a matter of decent hardware in the end.

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The Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon Touch carries on the long tradition of utterly dependable, workhorse Thinkpad machines, albeit with styling that looks more like it came from the thoroughbred stables. From the very first moment you set eyes on the matte, rubber-like coating over the carbon shell you know that this is a serious machine. Not in the stuffy, pink shirts with white collars type serious, rather the ‘let’s stop mucking about and get stuff done’ version instead – and that’s something I like. Opening up the case reveals the glorious keyboard, which in short order became probably the favourite surface to type on that I’ve encountered in ages. The keys are spread apart by more than I’m used to on my old MacBook, but they feel chunky and solid under the fingers, almost old school.

One of the Achilles heels of many Windows machines is the trackpad. All too often they drive users to despair with their unresponsive and somewhat random behaviour. Thankfully the generous and smooth offering here just gets on with it, while displaying a good deal of palm cancelling intelligence. The Windows 8 gestures did become a problem though, as far too often I’d move the cursor only to see the Charms bar appear, or the background app leap to the front. Disabling these features in the settings swiftly cured me of these ills, while still retaining two finger scrolling and general pointy duties.

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This led me into the previously painful territory of actually having to use the touchscreen. Well, I have to report that the implementation of these features on the X1 is excellent. Navigating via touch felt smooth and far more tempting than anything laptop based that I’d used before. The 14″ screen provided decent sized touch targets, responding quickly and accurately to the majority of hits. Glory be! Finally Windows 8 is beginning to make sense, in no small part due to the X1.

It’s not all roses and unicorns though. The touchpad was very hit and miss when I used the tap function to select anything, usually making me resort to the clickable section of the pad to execute commands, and although the screen is good it’s also not full HD (1600×900 instead), which is something of a surprise when you see the price tag that Lenovo have hung upon the X1.

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The model I have here, which boasts an i5 processor, 4GB RAM, and 128GB SSD retails for a wallet trembling £1479 including VAT. That really is quite a price. Compare that with the MacBook Air, which is the dominant player in this part of the market, and for about £100 less you could build a 13″ model to order which would sport an i7 (Haswell chip), 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, and the remarkable 13 hour battery life that has taken the tech world by storm. That’s not an easy comparison to keep.

Maybe the touchscreen does add quite a bit to the cost? Carbon fibre is also certainly an expensive material for construction. At the end of the day though the price is just too much of a hurdle for most of us to get over. The machine itself is absolutely gorgeous, and I think looks far better than the rather boring ‘any colour as long as its grey’ that Apple currently offer. There is a non-touchscreen version of the X1, which retails on the Lenovo site for £1,119, but it would seem a shame to have the machine that finally solved the Windows 8 conundrum revert back to a standard, albeit very lovely, laptop. Of course a Windows 7 version would be a very tempting alternative.

Do I want one? Absolutely. Can I afford one? Absolutely not, at least not the touch version.

Makes sense really. I find the laptop that can make Windows 8 work for me at last, one that has killer styling, a great keyboard, and is a joy to use. Then it gets undercut by Apple. Still, if the Microsoft path is the one you walk then this laptop is about the best there is.

The Chrome-book Pixel : Is this my next?

Regular readers will know that I’m a fan of Chromebooks.

Some may find the idea of a machine which exists primarily on the internet and can’t install software such as iTunes or Photoshop to be a bit of a non-starter. But for users like me who do nearly everything online, Google’s Chrome OS machines are uncomplicated, reliable, and just very pleasant to use.

When I reviewed the Series 3 Chromebook a few months ago I was immediately smitten by its diminutive build, light weight, snappy performance and excellent keyboard. It instantly became my go to laptop and has remained so up until a couple of weeks ago when I was sent a Macbook Air 13″ for a feature I was writing.

Now with the Macbook departing, and my need for a new machine becoming more pressing, I’m left with the decision of what eco-system to buy into, as you don’t simply get a laptop anymore. Apple have built some excellent machines but you can’t fix them yourselves. When you also include the necessary upgrades that mean you can keep them running well for four to five years the price gets pretty hairy. I’ve been reviewing a Windows 8 laptop for the past week, and I’m looking forward to them taking it away. So no sale there.

If there’s one thing that holds me back on the Chromebook itself as a main machine it’s that the screen is a little underwhelming. Not terrible by any means, but not amazing. Plus I know that the mobile grade CPU will probably struggle to keep up with the ever advancing HD net that we now populate. As a second machine of course, or a family laptop, it’s absolutely perfect. Plus it’s very, very cheap. Nice.

Then Google did something crazy. They announced yesterday the Chromebook Pixel.  This new flagship is a £1000+ premium laptop, sporting a better than retina touchscreen display, and beautiful, industrial styling that stands out from the ever increasing sea of Macbooks I see in coffee shops every day. Plastic has been replaced with brushed metal, frosty screens make way for 3:2 aspect ratio HD displays purpose built for the way websites are laid out, and a stonking 1TB of Google Drive storage means your data can be free from the confines of an internal hard disk.

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I’ve long thought that if Google ever made a Macbook Air quality Chromebook and charged a decent price for it that I’d sign up in a heart beat. I like the way Chrome OS functions and have been dithering about committing to a new Mac for several months. So does the new Pixel fit the bill? I’m not so sure.

Having come fresh from my Windows 8 touchscreen experience I’m more convinced than ever that I really don’t want a hybrid device. Maybe Google’s implementation will be different, but when using the Lenovo Yoga 13 recently I found reaching out to select things on a screen to be a rather odd movement. I’d much rather use my iPad or Nexus 7 for such tactile duties. There’s also the annoyance of having to clean your screen constantly, and wiping a laptop up and down on your t-shirt is a bit tricky.

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Then there’s the cost. One of the huge selling points of the series 3 Chromebook was the £229 price tag. For that you got 100 GB of Google Drive storage, a great little machine, and the assurance that if it started to creak after a couple of years you could replace it with a similarly affordable newer model. The Pixel currently retails for £1049, which isn’t crazy for a retina screen laptop, but last week Apple dropped the cost of their 13″ Macbook Pro Retina by a couple of hundred pounds to £1249, queering the pitch somewhat for a prospective Pixel customer. Then there’s the question of whether Chrome OS is really ready to compete in the premium marketplace. The Chrome store is growing very fast, and there are many great apps available – take note Windows 8 – so you can actually do a decent amount of work related tasks. But when you pay north of a grand for hardware you begin to expect to do everything. Photo-editing is achievable through a few decent apps, and basic video editing facilities are available, but they don’t quite match up to the iLife suite that accompanies every new Mac. Audio creation is also a bit of a challenge, so if you’re the creative type then you might find the Chromebook limited in these areas.  Even writers like myself, whose needs are generally undemanding on machines, lack mainstream apps such as Scrivener or Celtx – although the latter does have a web portal.

In the end it comes down to whether you want an ultra high class screen on your laptop, eschew the Apple or Microsoft eco-systems, and spend most of your life online. Are there many of those people around?

Time will tell, but I must admit that even with all these caveats I still find myself sorely tempted by the Pixel.

Google do online so well that you know it will fly. Plus increasingly my computers have become glorified browsers that run Chrome, Google Drive, Gmail, Google Calendar, and a suite of social networking sites. Is it just a natural evolution to use a computer which is designed with this lifestyle in mind? Maybe…just maybe…