If you’re on the road a lot – or were on the road a lot – and you’ve got to do business work that can’t be handled with a smartphone or tablet, you may want to invest in a seriously good, seriously compact notebook computer. The very lightest weigh in under 3 pounds, sometimes approaching just 1 kilogram, or 2.2 pounds. The best is the Lenovo ThinkPad Carbon X1, with a 14-inch display, priced from $1,400 to $2,400.
Working from home? The small size makes for a great computer-at-home when multiple adults and students are sheltering in place in the age of coronavirus: sitting at a kitchen table, draped across a couch, or lying in bed.
It’s not merely the ThinkPad X1 Carbon’s low weight. It’s the compact size, barely bigger than a sheaf of paper a half-inch thick. It’s the small power adapter and the 10-15 hour battery life. It’s also knowing that the machine is not going to break down when you’re on the road, or when you’re working from home and your company’s nearest IT guy is sheltering 20 miles away. ThinkPads don’t break very often. The price delta over a mainstream five-pound portable is not insignificant, but it’s less important than the fact that you’re remaining productive.
Second Display Extends Main Display
Dropping down from a larger, heavier notebook of 4-5 pounds also reduces how much bulk you have to carry when traveling. I’m on the road 20-plus times a year. (Well, I was until, uh, everybody stopped traveling.) The photo above was shot during a week at an auto show, where I needed to write stories; process photos; work social media to raise my ExtremeTech stories’ visibility on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram; and keep up with friends and family, working not just in the hotel room-with-a-view but on shuttle buses, in downtime between meetings, or at airport departure gates.
For years, I’ve traveled with a thin HDMI cable 10-15 feet long ($15-$50) that I could jack into the hotel’s big TV if I could access the rear jacks, if the TV didn’t lock out access to the HDMI2 jack, and if the TV could be seen from the desk. That let me look at dozens of photos in Adobe Lightroom or stream videos. Now I travel with a second display, the ThinkVision M14 USB C display ($250), that quickly plugs in when I’m in the hotel or working in a convention center press room. Feet on the base let you get the screen bottom level with the base of the computer’s screen.
Whether stepping down to the hotel bar or at home headed to the media room to watch TV, I find that I now tuck the X1 under my arm – instead of my iPad – if I might want to check mail or social media. It’s unobtrusive. I wouldn’t do that with a 15-inch laptop weighing 5 pounds. Even the very nice ThinkPad X1 Extreme Gen 2 is just a little bigger in every respect (table above), enough so that you feel the size and heft going from place to place. And this one’s light compared with most notebooks with 15- to 16-inch screens.
I’ve been a long-time user of laptop and notebook PCs. I wrote a book on using laptops in the early days, and was thrilled to see weights come down from 10 pounds and then slip below 5 pounds. Over time, I’ve valued ruggedness and reliability over low prices or (until now) the absolutely lowest weight. The X1 lets you have it all. Other than a low price: The cheapest X1 is still well over $1,000 and the every-options-box-checked X1 approaches $2,500.
If you go out on the road or commute daily by mass transit, when you lift the lid, you want the machine to come back to life every time, right away. For that, it’s worth a higher initial price point. It absolutely is when the company is paying, but probably is even when you’re paying. (Maybe you don’t need the 4K display upgrade on a screen measuring just 12 inches across.)
Mostly, I do the usual things on the road: deal with email, write documents and stories, chatter on Slack, and check social media. For that, any laptop works. I also handle a lot of photos and videos. For those, the X1 Carbon is more than workable. That said, Adobe is finally pushing its Photoshop and Lightroom tools onto the iPad and they’re certainly usable.
I have a 30-inch desktop monitor at home. Away from home, I compensate with the ThinkVision secondary display or jacking into the hotel TV when it’s accessible.
The X1 Carbon has two USB and two Thunderbolt/USB jacks plus a wired-Ethernet connector that requires an adapter. There is also a microphone array and a 720p front-facing camera with IR illumination for dark locations. You can almost double the price by upgrading:
- 14-inch 1920 x 1080 full-HD display (400 nits) to touchscreen to 2560 x 1440 WQHD to 3840 x 1440 UHD (500 nits)
- CPU from 10th generation Intel Core i5-10210U at 1.6GHz to 8th generation i7-8665U at 1.9GHz
- Solid state drive from 256GB to 512GB to 1TB storage (2TB not offered)
- 8GB to 16GB RAM
- Windows 10 Home to Pro
Not the Only Ultra-Light Notebook
There are at least a half-dozen competing ultraportable laptops, those weighing 3 pounds or less, typically with 13- or 14-inch displays, solid-state hard drives, and battery life over 10 hours. The two that draw the most attraction are the Lenovo ThinkPad Carbon X1 and the Apple MacBook Pro 13-Inch. They’re both premium-priced and score high for reliability. I like them both; my wife has a 13-inch MacBook and she’s an artist, and that (artist) is a near-automatic win for Apple.
If you can live with 512GB not 1TB of storage, one of the best deals on the X1 Carbon is Costco’s take-it-or-leave-it $1,500 single configuration: the more powerful Intel Core i7-8565U processor, the larger 16GB RAM config, a 1920 x 1080 touchscreen with 300 nits brightness (the other X1 displays are 400, 300 and 500 nits), and Windows 10 Home.
Other good choices are the Dell XPS 13 (13-inch LCD, 2.7 pounds) and Inspiron 14 7000 (14-inch LCD, 2.9 pounds), HP Envy 13 (13.3-inch LCD, 2.6 pounds), and LG Gram 14 14Z90N (14-inch LCD, 2.2 pounds). Most offer 8GB or 16GB of RAM (typically soldered down) and 256GB to 2TB of SSD storage (512GB and 1TB are most common). If your company just buys one brand of portable PC, they’re all pretty good. You may want big-screen monitors at your home and office work desks, and 24-inch displays are so inexpensive now.
The Apple MacBook Air (13.3-inch LCD, 2.8 pounds) is even lighter than the MacBook Pro 13, but it’s light on I/O as well: You use the two Thunderbolt/USB-C for external VGA, HDMI, or wired Ethernet.
Of note is the LG Gram 17, a 17-incher with 2560 x 1600 (WQXD) resolution, weighing just 2.9 pounds with a rated 17-hour battery life. So it’s super light, but also may call for a larger backpack or shoulder bag, and you want to be extra careful you don’t torque or stress the case.
Over the years, I’ve used IBM/Lenovo, Compaq, Dell, Gateway, HP, NEC, Panasonic, and Toshiba laptops. All were major productivity enhancers at the time. The most dazzling was a 4-pound NEC UltraLite at a time when only a handful of laptops were under 10 pounds. I still have it as a souvenir, next to an ancestor’s Underwood 5 typewriter. Right now, the go-to notebook for me is the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon because portability matters. Even when the word portable, for now, means only from the den to the living room to the kitchen table.
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