Lenovo’s X1 Carbon Shows Why Linux Is Great on ThinkPads
Linux installed. Thin, light, solidly built. Hardware webcam cover. Great keyboard. The nub. Plenty of ports and still thin.
List price is high. Soldered RAM. Some software quirks. Battery life needs to be optimized.
For most of eternity, if you wanted to run Linux on your laptop you bought a Windows laptop, wiped Windows, and installed Linux. This was known as the “Windows tax,” the extra money you paid for an operating system you didn’t need.
About 15 years ago, pioneering companies like System76 began selling white-label hardware with Linux preinstalled, along with all the necessary drivers to ensure hardware compatibility. Linux worked out of the box.
They were seldom what you’d call svelte laptops, but they were solid machines, and hey, no Windows tax. Today, System76 builds its own Linux-based desktop hardware at a factory in Colorado, and even big brands like Dell sell laptops with Linux.
Lenovo is the latest manufacturer to want in on the fun, releasing its first Linux laptop in the form of an eighth-generation ThinkPad X1 Carbon. There are some quirks, but it’s one of the best laptops around for Linux.
Lenovo’s ThinkPad series laptops are not notable for their cutting-edge design. They’re solid, well-constructed, no-nonsense machines made for day-in, day-out use, and the X1 Carbon is no exception.
All the usual ThinkPad standouts are here, including a great keyboard with the red “nub,” a trackpad with the buttons at the top (where they belong), a fingerprint reader, and a hardware cover for the webcam.
The matte black case is made of a soft plastic material that’s wrapped around a very solid chassis—there’s no flex or bend to it. I prefer it to aluminum laptops, which tend to have sharp edges.
There are plenty of ports. There are two USB-C Thunderbolt 3 ports, two USB-A ports, full-size HDMI, headphone/mic combo, and support for Lenovo docks. It even comes with support for Wi-Fi 6. My only real dislike is how the power button is on the side of the case, which takes some getting used to. The other peculiar thing? There was a Windows sticker on the underside of the case.
I tested the base configuration, which comes with a 10th-generation Intel Core i5 CPU, 8 gigabytes of RAM, a 256-gigabyte SSD, and a 1080p screen. You can upgrade the processor to an i7, max out the RAM to 16 gigabytes, and opt for a 4K screen. The base configuration lists for $2,145, though since its launch last year, Lenovo has run a series of coupons that have meant the base model is effectively around $1,300. Fully maxed out, you’re looking at $3,221, but with Lenovo’s seemly permanent sale price, it’s around $1,932.
I find 8 gigabytes of RAM to be plenty for Linux. The exception is if you’re editing video or compiling software, in which case I’d suggest upgrading to 16 gigabytes of RAM. I mention this because the RAM is soldered to the motherboard, meaning you can’t upgrade it yourself down the road as you can with many Lenovo laptops.
You can upgrade the solid-state drive though—any M.2 type 2280 PCIe drive will work. I have had good luck with this 1-terabyte Samsung drive, which is considerably cheaper than the $536 Lenovo charges to upgrade to a 1-terabyte drive.
The X1 Carbon may be the first Lenovo to be certified to work with Linux, but as any Linux user can tell you, Lenovo hardware has almost always been a great choice for the operating system. Lenovo previously made the extra effort for DIY Linux fans with BIOS utilities that don’t require Windows, hardware drivers for most things, and user-upgradeable hardware. I have been using Linux on Lenovo ThinkPads for more than a decade now (starting with an X220, then X240, now X270), and I have never run into any hardware-related issues.
The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon (Linux). PHOTOGRAPH: LENOVO
It’s worth asking then, what does the X1 Carbon bring to the table? The answer is support. The main advantage of preinstalled Linux is both hardware support and customer support from Lenovo. If you run into an issue, you can take to the forums or even call Lenovo support.
That hardware support shows immediately when you boot up the X1 Carbon—the fingerprint reader works out of the box. This is one thing I’ve never managed to get working when I installed Linux myself, so it’s really nice to have it working immediately. Except, well, we’ll get to the except.
I opted to test the Fedora-based version of the X1 Carbon. There’s also an Ubuntu-based option. If you’re unfamiliar, Fedora and Ubuntu are the names of two Linux “distributions.” A Linux distribution, usually shortened to “distro,” is a collection of software that contains everything you need to run Linux on your PC.
If this is confusing, think of it in terms of Windows or macOS. Apple and Microsoft combine all the little pieces of software that make up macOS and Windows and distribute the result as a single package. Fedora, Ubuntu, and hundreds of others do the same for Linux.
The main shortcomings of software on Linux is that Microsoft Office and Adobe’s design suite won’t run. If your day-to-day work depends on those, then Linux is not a good choice. If you just need an office suite, a photo editor, and so on, free and open-source alternatives like LibreOffice, GIMP, Darktable, and Krita are readily available in the Software Store application that comes with Fedora (and Ubuntu).
The X1 Carbon had no trouble handling the workloads I threw at it, including rendering some 4K video in KDenLive. The only time the fans really spun up was during some benchmark tests.
Ye level Dell has, with repositories full of software optimized for particular hardware. That way the firmware update can arrive alongside the software update, and the fingerprint reader never breaks.
Finally, there’s the price. The list price of the base model is $2,145, which is frankly too much for what you get. The discounted price of $1,287 is a good deal. As long as you can get it for that, I think the X1 Carbon is a great machine, and it gives Linux users a way to vote with their money, letting Lenovo know people want Linux.