Did Lenovo just create the ultimate laptop?September 4, 2012: 1:28 PM ET
The company's ThinkPad X1 Carbon uses materials more commonly found in supercars to drive down its weight.
FORTUNE -- So-called Ultrabooks risk overexposure. The selection of these thin, lightweight notebooks is so varied now, the moniker used so loosely, it's hard to muster much excitement. So when an Ultrabook like Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 Carbon comes along and generates real buzz, it's probably for good reason…right?
The Chinese PC giant, for one, has made a big deal out of this particular laptop. it's the only Ultrabook that uses carbon fiber -- a material more commonly found in Ferraris than plebeian gizmos -- instead of heavier aluminum. Up close result is understated, but impressive: a laptop with a 14-inch screen that comes in at a hair under 3 lbs., similar to Apple (AAPL) 13-inch MacBook Air. (The entire category of Ultrabooks was created in part by Intel (INTC) to counter the popularity of the Air line of products.)
In the same way a Lincoln Town Car might cut an innocuous profile whizzing across the streets of Midtown Manhattan, previous ThinkPad notebooks have made a virtue of playing it safe looks-wise. The X1 Carbon is somewhat more appealing, however, with rounded edges and a much thinner profile than its predecessors. It carries many ThinkPad hallmarks -- the stark black case and subtle red and light blue accents. It's not exactly a head-turner, but certainly more refined than ThinkPads past.
Picking up the X1 really exhibits the difference. This laptop is lighter than it should be. Most ultrabooks stick with a 13-inch screen and a 1,366 by 768 resolution, but the X1 packs a 14-inch display with a higher 1,600 x 900 resolution. That is a welcome feature that pays off when multiple applications and windows compete for limited real estate. And although the screen could have been brighter, its matte finished reduces glare even when working outside at a local café.
Like many recent laptops, the X1 packs one Intel's latest Ivy Bridge chips. Ours was the standard base $1,329 model with a 1.7 GHz i5 processor, 4 GB of RAM, a 128 GB solid state drive, and Microsoft (MSFT) Windows 8 Premium. We put the laptop through its paces over several days -- use cases the average business traveler might go through -- with multiple apps open, tens of windows going, music and video streaming, and the machine zipped along unfazed. The only giveaway was a fan that quietly hummed when watching Netflix (NFLX) or Hulu. Even then, the keyboard and its surrounding area was never hot to the touch, something that can't be said of many other laptops.
This ThinkPad may have one of the most comfortable keyboards ever made. The X1's keyboard is spacious, with keys gently contoured to conform to your fingers and just the right amount of "travel," so keys press down with a soft, satisfying click. As for the trackpad, it's probably the most responsive multitouch trackpad we've ever tried on a PC. PC makers have struggled over the years to design a trackpad that rivals the ones Apple includes in its laptops. The results have often fallen short. But scrolling, zooming, and pinching worked just fine on the X1 with no delay. (ThinkPad veterans can, of course, revert to using the red nub if they prefer.)
The X1 isn't perfect. Battery life, which the company claims is just over 8 hours, often clocked in closer to four. That just won't hack it on cross-country flights. And while the trackpad is plenty responsive, the one on our unit felt a little loose, like it wasn't 100% attached to the rest of the laptop -- a shame given the X1 Carbon's otherwise sturdy construction. Then of course, there's the price. Starting at $1,329, it's significantly more than most Ultrabooks, which have started to drop dramatically in price, not to mention the starting price of the 13-inch MacBook Air. Few of those options will net you a laptop quite as rugged or as premium feeling as Lenovo's, but again, users will be paying for that difference.
Bottom line: Is Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 Carbon the ultimate business laptop? It's certainly one of the best options out there, despite disappointing battery life and a steep price tag.