Thinkpad X1 Carbon Gen5


Since February 2018 I have been using a Thinkpad X1 Carbon Gen1 [1] as my main laptop. Generally I’ve been very happy with it, it’s small and light, has good performance for web browsing etc, and with my transition to doing all compiles etc on servers it works well. When I wrote my original review I was unhappy with the keyboard, but I got used to that and found it to be reasonably good.

The things that I have found as limits on it are the display resolution as 1600*900 isn’t that great by modern standards (most phones are a lot higher resolution), the size (slightly too large for the pocket of my Scott e Vest [2] jacket), and the lack of USB-C. Modern laptops can charge via USB-C/Thunderbolt while also doing USB and DisplayPort video over the same cable. USB-C monitors which support charging a laptop over the same cable as used for video input are becoming common (last time I checked the Dell web site for many models of monitor there was a USB-C one that cost about $100 more). I work at a company with lots of USB-C monitors and docks so being able to use my personal laptop with the same displays when on breaks is really handy.

A final problem with the Gen1 is that it has a proprietary and unusual connector for the SSD which means that a replacement SSD costs about what I paid for the entire laptop. Ever since the SSD gave a BTRFS checksum error I’ve been thinking of replacing it.

Choosing a Replacement

The Gen5 is the first Thinkpad X1 Carbon to have USB-C. For work I had used a Gen6 which was quite nice [3]. But it didn’t seem to offer much over the Gen5.

So I started looking for cheap Thinkpad X1 Carbons of Gen5+.

A Cheap? Gen5

In July I saw an ebay advert for a Gen5 with FullHD display for $370 or nearest offer, with the downside being that the BIOS password had been lost. I offered $330 and the seller accepted, in retrospect that was unusually cheap and should have been a clue that I needed to do further investigation. It turned out that resetting the BIOS password is unusually difficult as it’s in the TPM so the system would only boot Windows. When I learned that I should have sold the laptop to someone who wanted to run Windows and bought another. Instead I followed some instructions on the Internet about entering a wrong password multiple times to get to a password recovery screen, instead the machine locked up entirely and became unusable for windows (so don’t do that).

Then I looked for ways of fixing the motherboard. The cheapest was $75.25 for a replacement BIOS flash chip that had a BIOS that didn’t check the validity of passwords. The aim was to solder that on, set a new password (with any random text being accepted as the old password), then solder the old one back on for normal functionality. It turned out that I’m not good at fine soldering, after I had hacked at it a friend diagnosed the chip and motherboard to probably both be damaged (he couldn’t get it going).

The end solution was that my friend found a replacement motherboard for $170 from China. This gave a total cost of $575.25 for the laptop which is more than the usual price of a Gen6 and more than I expected to pay. In the past when advocating buying second hand or refurbished laptops people would say “what happens if you get one that doesn’t work properly”, the answer to that question is that I paid a lot less than the new cost of $2700+ for a Thinkpad X1 Carbon and got a computer that does everything I need. One of the advantages of getting a cheap laptop is that I won’t be so unhappy if I happen to drop it.

A Cheap Gen6

After the failed experiment with a replacement BIOS on the Gen5 I was considering selling it for scrap. So I bought a Gen6 from Australian Computer Traders via Amazon for $390 in August. The advert clearly stated that it was for a laptop with USB-C and Thunderbolt (Gen5+ features) but they shipped me a Gen4 that didn’t even have USB-C. They eventually refunded me but I will try to avoid buying from them again.

Finally Working

The laptop I now have has a i5-6300U CPU that rates 3242 on My Gen1 thinkpad has a i7-3667U CPU that rates 2378 on, note that the people have rescaled their benchmark since my review of the Gen1 in 2018. So according to the benchmarks my latest laptop is about 36% faster for CPU operations. Not much of a difference when comparing systems manufactured in 2012 and 2017! According to the benchmarks a medium to high end recent CPU will be more than 10* faster than the one in my Gen5 laptop, but such a CPU would cost more than my laptop cost.

The storage is a 256G NVMe device that can do sustained reads at 900MB/s, that’s not even twice as fast as the SSD in my Gen1 laptop although NVMe is designed to perform better for small IO.

It has 2*USB-C ports both of which can be used for charging, which is a significant benefit over the Gen6 I had for work in 2018 which only had one. I don’t know why Lenovo made Gen6 machines that were lesser than Gen5 in such an important way.

It can power my Desklab portable 4K monitor [4] but won’t send a DisplayPort signal over the same USB-C cable. I don’t know if this is a USB-C cable issue or some problem with the laptop recognising displays. It works nicely with Dell USB-C monitors and docks that power the laptop over the same cable as used for DisplayPort. Also the HDMI port works with 4K monitors, so at worst I could connect my Desklab monitor via a USB-C cable for power and HDMI for data.

The inability to change the battery without disassembly is still a problem, but hopefully USB-C connected batteries capable of charging such a laptop will become affordable in the near future and I have had some practice at disassembling this laptop.

It still has the Ethernet dongle annoyance, and of course the seller didn’t include that. But USB ethernet devices are quite good and I have a few of them.

In conclusion it’s worth the $575.25 I paid for it and would have been even better value for money if I had been a bit smarter when buying. It meets the initial criteria of USB-C power and display and of fitting in my jacket pocket as well as being slightly better than my old laptop in every other way.

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