This is not so much a general statement about product development practices as it is a review of Lenovo’s Thinkpad X1 Carbon. But maybe that’s just an excuse to give Lenovo some tips on how to evolve from a good computer manufacturer to a serious Apple competitor. And it is also a product review.
I started into the laptop computer world with a Thinkpad, then got another one, and after that one died again, I tried Lenovo’s budget Thinkpad Edge line. Nice idea, nice price, but it also died. All of them died mechanical deaths. Power supply, heat/vent or corrosion eventually killed them, add to that the declining performance of old-school hard-drives. I recently said goodbye to a first generation MacBook Air that was company-supplied and I had worked with for an entire year. It was relatively lightweight, decent performance and quite reliable. I am a fan of Apple as a hardware producer, but I was super-relieved the day I could finally leave the world of OS X again, the world’s most unproductive operating system right after Windows.
I ordered Lenovo’s new X1 Carbon Ultrabook for two reasons: a) I knew about Thinkpads’ good compatibility with Linux, b) it promised to be good material at minimal weight. Reviews had already pointed out some of the main weak spots, but I was willing to trade those for weight, robust quality and Linux compatibility. Let me quickly illustrate the pros and cons of this machine, and then point out what Lenovo is doing wrong – and how they can improve.
Pros: The machine is very light. It is a 14 inch screen in a frame for 13 inch screens, it might even be a millimeter or so smaller than comparable MacBook Air or Toshiba machines. The carbon-enforced frame is matte and feels solid and smooth, which I prefer over the shiny aluminum or cheap plastic with the competition. It sports a good SSD of sufficient size (the more expensive model comes with twice the GB plus a 3G broadband chip) and mine came with a whopping 8 gigabytes of RAM, which I don’t want to miss. Ubuntu boots in under 7 seconds. No joke. The keyboard is a bit sturdy and less smooth than that used by Apple, but it is among the best the industry has to offer. The touchpad feels smooth, but see Cons. Ubuntu 12.10 runs out of the box, no additional drivers or tweaking needed, but see Cons. What’s really great is the background light on the keyboard, the built-in webcam, a USB 3 port, and a really slim design. The display is non-glare, which I think is a must for a business environment.
Cons: I have no idea who assembled this, but as a reviewer warned, the first thing to notice is how sloppy the touchpad is attached. Touching it creates a loud noise and it is not seamlessly integrated, so who knows how much dirt will assemble in the cracks over the months to come. I also have no idea why anyone needs a touchpad in the first place, after all the core selling point of the Thinkpad, is the Thinkpoint! The display’s main disadvantage is also the high pixel spacing, which is very noticeable. I am not sure if the color profile is a problem on the software end. Another huge problem that is Lenovo-typical is fan noise, and the fact that it is almost constantly on, especially when attached to a power source. For no apparent reason, other than maybe because on the bottom side, the machine gets very warm. Also for no apparent reason. Apple is years ahead here, the Macbook Air creates temperature in spots of the machine that have little human contact. The Lenovo also has ventilation openings on the bottom (what the hell, this is a LAP top, there should be no openings on the bottom ever), and the main grill on the left. Let me make this clear: The Macbook Air has ZERO openings or grills, and creates less heat (more noise though). The battery time on a default Ubuntu installation is also horrible. And last but not least, Lenovo is shipping this with a huge brick of an A/C adapter, which makes me wonder why I bought a slim ultrabook, if I need an extra bag just for the power supply.
- I am now done complaining. It is great to work with this machine. The screen resolution and pixel spacing makes it a bit hard on the eyes in sub-optimal light conditions, but otherwise this is pretty much the best Thinkpad they have built so far. But the flaws I have outlined above let me make the following conclusions:
- This model entered mass-production approximately six months before being ready to actually compete with a knock-out punch, and whoever is in charge of quality assurance at Lenovo should have his sloppy ass fired.
- Lenovo needs to do away with fan vents/grills and find ways to cool the machine that is not susceptible to dust or suffocation. Heat should generate where no palms or thighs/laps touch the machine, see apple
- The Thinkpad Edge had a fairly space-saving power supply AC adapter, the one for an Ultrabook should be even smaller. It is unacceptable that the latest machine is shipping with stuff that was small 10 years ago
- Battery time needs to be improved greatly. This might be an Ubuntu issue, but if so, Lenovo should have some people contribute to the appropriate Linux code to improve power management there
- Either get rid of the touchpad, or smoothly integrate it properly. The machine I received I am afraid to even touch the damn thing
- The display just isn’t good enough, neither the colors, nor the pixel space, nor the equal background lighting.
- Lenovo needs to ship more innovative BIOS, that is easier to upgrade. Upgrading the BIOS (the machines never ship with the latest version, but with v 1.0) is a pain in the neck, and works just as bad as back in the 90s.
What is Lenovo doing wrong? I think they produce too many models and don’t properly do internal testing (“eat your own dogfood”, i.e. let the company employees use prototypes for a few weeks to get further feedback from actual users before shipping the products), this leads to products that are good, but not great, and have easily preventable flaws, such as the ones outlined above. If Lenovo is serious about delivering high-end hardware to business and power users, they need to step up their game. Products need to stop having annoying basic flaws that bug the user in their daily work. The most clever new features, weight or internal values do not matter as much as ergonomics, noise, heat and engineering. As a power user, I would much rather have less CPU power or smaller screen resolution, than a huge AC adapter, low battery stamina or a sloppy touchpad. These are flaws that anyone will notice after a few minutes of using it, so only a few weeks of internal testing would go a long way.
What can Lenovo do to make it right? Lenovo must decide whether to go for quantity or quality. Their low-budget segment is huge, I believe they can de-clutter their range of products, and free up some capacity to make the high-end models even better. If there’s such a thing as the X2, it should come with flaws dealt with, and minor improvements all around to make this entry into the Ultrabook world a serious competition to Apple’s Air series. Quality Assurance has nothing to do with complying with ISO standards or doing free-fall tests. I don’t care whether my laptop survives when being thrown out of the window. That is not a real-life use case. What I care about is whether the adapters will fit in my slim bag, how much noise the fan makes and whether my eyes will hurt working with it. Lenovo needs to start using its own products in order to make better ones.