Not a Review of the Lenovo X1C7

Aaron Poffenberger
akp@hypernote.com

A couple of weeks ago I accidentally bought a Lenovo X1 Carbon 7th gen. I returned it.

I write "accidentally" because my intention was to buy the 6th generation X1 Carbon. I walked into Costco, found the X1 display, grabbed the card, went to checkout, paid, took the computer home and left it sitting under my desk for a few days.

When I finally opened the X1, I noticed the packaging was not the X1 6th gen, rather it was for the 7th gen. Apparently Costco had just switched out their stock for the latest model. "Great!", I thought.

Following is the tale of how I realized how great my T450s is.

Ultra Thin

Like the previous model, the 7th generation is thin, light, sleek, and minimal. Thin sounds nice, but at least on the X1C7 I got, it was hot. Really hot.

After I installed OpenBSD I set to restoring my data from my latest backup to a an external, encrypted drive. During restore temperatures on the computer got above 70c. That's way too hot. The keyboard was too hot to comfortably type on. The bracket around the keyboard just above the function keys was even hotter. And the fan was maxed out.

That alone was enough to ruin my interest. I want a laptop, not a desktop that requires a cooler.

In contrast, my T450s never gets very hot. It typically stays around 47c. When idle, the X1C7 would drop to the low 50s, which is usable. But still, this is a laptop with an 8th gen Intel CPU, compared to my 5th gen. I expect improvements in both speed and thermal management.

It could be that the OpenBSD ACPI implementation needs more work in managing the X1C7. But apm(8) showed the CPU speed at an acceptable 500 MHz.

Nearly Portless

When I got my T450s 4 years ago I was a bit disappointed in the relative lack of ports compared to my X61s, notably no serial port on the docking station. Compared to the X1C7, the T450s has a veritable cornucopia of ports.

The X1C7 has 8:

Of those 7 ports, the last two are nearly worthless, as their located in a "drawer" on the back of the computer which requires a cell-phone SIM ejector or similar tool to use.

The T450s, by comparison, has 10:

8 vs 10 doesn't sound bad. And to be fair, the USB-C port functions very much like a Display Port when it comes to monitors, and is also a USB port, and a Thunderbolt 3 port. All in all sounds like the X1C7 has more connectivity options.

Yes and no. Connectivity is in the eye of the beholder. My camera uses SD Card, not Mini, and there's no shortage of SD Card sized adapters available, but not many to go the other way. Having wired ethernet is also important to me.

Sure. You can buy lots of dongles for USB Type A and C that will resolve the problem, and in fact there are combination devices that will give you all of the above. But not in one form factor.

That's the difference between the two. The X1 Carbon has a lot of general-purpose ports that require adapters to be useful.1 The T450s has the variety that matters.

Excursus: USB-C -- It's Not All That

On paper USB-C sounds like the technology we've been waiting for. It handles power and connectivity, and it's fast. It's fast enough to handle audio, video, networking, and almost anything else you throw at it. The cables have the same connector on both ends, and are rotationally symmetrical.

If the USB Implementers Forum had stopped at just data and a reasonable amount of power, say 20 watts, with just one cable type, I might find USB-C interesting. But they didn't. USB-C goes all the way up to 100 watts, and there are a plethora of cables to choose from to match the intended use.

And as the intended power use goes up, so does the thickness of the cable. I want my USB cables flexible. My power cables can have a bit more sturdiness.

Of QA and Keyboards

Lenovo also have build-quality issues, especially with screens since the X1C6. There are enough reports online about light bleed around the edges of their monitors to make me believe it's a QA issue. In fact, I've experienced it. In addition to the heating issues of the X1C7 I took back, the edges of the screen when displaying a no image had numerous halos.

There have also been complaints about differences in keyboards based on sub-contracting manufacturer, and other QA issues. Some are mushy, others are just right. I've run into some X1C6s with mush keyboards. ThinkPad keyboards are legendary. There can be no misses in this area.

Docking

The quality issues are resolvable. Whether Lenovo will sort them out remains to be seen. There's another area that sets the T450s head and shoulders above the X1 Carbon and the T480s for me: the docking station.

I use the docking station every day. I have two. In times past I kept one at work and one at home. Now I have them on two different desks so I can move around. Just as with the promise of USB-C, I can leave everything needed at that workstation plugged in and ready to go. I drop the laptop into the docking station, everything connects and I'm ready to work.

All the dockable ThinkPads before until the generation beginning with the X1C6 and T480 series docked from the bottom of the computer. The docking port on the bottom allows the user to snap the computer into the docking station by setting it on the station and pressing down.

Starting with the last generation Lenovo switched to a side port. The user sets the computer on the station and pushes from the right side to engage two ports on the left side of the computer: one of the USB-C ports and the proprietary pass through connector. Ostensibly there's no difference, but in practice, according to reviewers, it's much harder to line up the two up and successfully connect them.

In both cases the docking stations from Lenovo are superior to the USB-C-only approach many companies are taking. The USB-C port makes it easy to attach various ad-hoc devices like mice and keyboards. The proprietary connector converts the docking station into a port replicator.

The port replicator allows the docking station to pass through connections to the motherboard. The docking station has an ethernet jack, but the chipset is on the motherboard. Same for the headphone jack and other ports. Port replication provides a more seamless approach to docking, especially for operating systems like OpenBSD where I've spent the time vetting the machine to make sure the devices I'm interested in are supported.

Leading Edge vs Tried and True

It should be obvious by now I'm not the target demographic for the X1 series. Trying one has made me realize how much I still like my T450s, and how capable it is.

It has all the ports I need on a daily basis, except serial for which I have a dongle. I've never had video connection problems while traveling.

It has a 512GB SATA SSD, and 8GB of RAM which is enough. If I need more, it's expandable to 20GB.2

After 4 years it was time to replace the batteries. I probably should've done that last year. OpenBSD now shows ~5 hours of runtime when fully charged. Yes, a far cry from the X1C7s reported 15 hours, but that's running under Windows, with brightness turned down, and mostly browsing. I never turn the brightness down below 100%.

I considered buying the T480s, or the workhorse T480. On paper the T480s sounds fantastic. It has the complement of USB-C and Type A ports, but it has a real SD Card slot, ethernet, and 8GB soldered to the motherboard which gives 16GB of dual-channel, or 24 of mismatched RAM. But, and it's a big one, the screen has been uniformly panned as being too dim and at least the 1080p version of the screen has terrible sRGB color space coverage, even worse for Adobe RGB.3

My T450s has a stellar screen. Compared to the X1 Carbon's I've tried, there's no comparison in terms of quality. In terms of brightness and color, however, the X1 is better.

Compared to the T480s, the reviews and my experience with the T450s show it to be a sharp, bright and usable screen with better color space coverage, though not as good as the X1 Carbon.4

Quo Vadis, Lenovo?

I like the ThinkPad line of computers. They're durable, historically have been expandable and upgradeable, and portable. I really wanted to like the X1 series, but they're not for me. There's definitely a place in the market for laptops like the X1 carbon.

But there's also a place for users like me who want something smaller than the W series, but more full-featured than the X1 series. That's where the T series fits.

But that's not where Lenovo seem to be going. They seem to have joined Apple in the race to the bottom of removing hardware features and leaving users to buy dongles to get them back.

The T490s dropped the ethernet port and SD Card slot (in favor of a Mini SD Card slot). Gone also is Power Bridge and the external battery. The advent of USB-C power banks probably spells the end of that technology, but ethernet ports and SD Cards won't go away quite so quickly.

My T450s has a few years of life left in, maybe more. Here's hoping Lenovo remember.


  1. It's a funny turn of events that in 2008 when Lenovo launched the X300, they made a great video poking fun at Apple for the lack of ports in the MacBook. Now the X series is no better.↩︎

  2. A very strange number indeed. Lenovo shipped the T450s with 4GB soldered to the motherboard, leaving one slot for up to a 16GB stick. This, of course, means that all RAM above the matched 8GB would not run in dual-channel mode.↩︎

  3. If those things matter to you. See the review at Notebook Review↩︎

  4. Color space does matter to me for photo work.↩︎