The World of Jay Little
Lenovo X1 Carbon: My New Ultrabook
3/12/2015 11:18 AM
So as some of you know, I tend to get a new laptop every 12 to 18 months. Over the years my preferences for laptops have changed drastically however and this has been reflected by my latest purchase, a third generation Lenovo X1 Carbon ultrabook. Long gone are the days where power is king and I'd tolerate any inconvenience to get it. There are a number of reasons for this, the most prominent of which I hope to address as part of this post.

For starters, I've recently come to the conclusion that a tablet has no place in my computing routine. There are many reasons for this, but the biggest one is that my smartphone already does everything that I need a tablet to do and it's far more portable. Outside of taking phone calls, texting, web browsing and GPS related functionality the touch paradigm of computing is something that I'm just not that interested in. A smartphone by itself excels at all of these tasks (more notably, a cheap smartphone ala my first generation Moto G LTE) which renders a tablet useless from my perspective.

However, there is one aspect of tablet usage that has made me insanely jealous over the years. The battery life is awesome when compared to traditional laptops. Right up until this purchase every laptop I have ever owned got between 2 hours and 3 hours of battery life without any exceptions. That gives me enough time to sit at the dining room table each morning while I cruise the web and catch up on world events using my laptop but it doesn't give me much time for anything else. What if I needed to go see a client right after breakfast? Well I went and toted along a laptop with a nearly spent battery along with its AC Adapter. Because if there is one unbreakable rule of dealing with clients it is this: You never know what you are walking into when you make an onsite visit. Thankfully they almost always had working electricity when I arrived ;)

That having been said, my preferences in laptops have changed drastically over the years as well. Gone are the days when I was content and willing to carry around a 17 inch ten pound monstrosity capable of playing high end AAA games while frying eggs for breakfast (yes these things ran that damn hot at times). Gone are the days where I was willing to tolerate three hours of battery life on a good day. Gone are the days in which I was actually interested in playing AAA games on my laptops. Nowadays I'm all about indie and retro gaming. In any event, I was clearly in the market for an ultrabook. I wanted something that ran cool, quiet, long but could still allow me to get the job done in a pinch. However there was another part to this that made life more difficult: I wanted something that was Linux compatible as well.

So yeah finding a decent Windows ultrabook isn't really a challenge. There are a number of models out there to choose from, most of which are decent. However finding one that could run Linux competently was a real challenge. As some of you may know, my last three laptops all came from Linux hardware vendor System 76, but they don't really offer an acceptable ultrabook option. Their so-called ultrabook has been plagued by a number of issues and didn't really live up to some of the battery life claims. In addition, I wanted to buy something with one of the new Intel Broadwell processors as they would only result in even longer battery life due to Intel's new found love of power efficient computing. In any event, I was wary of buying something from another vendor that wasn't focused on Linux compatibility as buying a piece of hardware like that essentially constitutes rolling the dice. So I bided my time.

One day however I stumbled upon this article on Phoronix and suddenly there was a path forward. The third generation Lenovo X1 Carbon had all the makings of a great Linux ultrabook. Lenovo is a brand that is well regarded amongst the PC geek elite though to be honest, I never have cared much for them one way or the other. I've certainly used my fair share of Lenovo hardware at various employers and I had never been that impressed. My biggest issue is that I generally found the hardware to be bulky and relatively unattractive. This was true when I worked at GE, Ameco, Flour Government Group and most recently Erwin Penland. Nevertheless, this review on Phoronix got me thinking. More importantly it got me started researching.

During my research I became aware of one major issue with the new X1 Carbon and Linux: The trackpoint buttons don't work quite right in Linux yet. That's good to know, but not that important as I initially planned on spending my time getting acquainted with the trackpad as I've always been a big fan of decent trackpads (which are few and far between in the PC world, let me tell you). Nevertheless because Lenovo units are so well represented within the geek community, the trackpoint button issue is now in the process of being addressed. Beyond that, things looked really good. I was surprised. I was excited. I had never purchased a Lenovo before. But things weren't quite that simple. I had some other issues to eek out before pulling the trigger on this thing.

My existing laptop was a System 76 Gazelle Professional 9. It had a quad core Haswell I7 processor, 16 gigabytes of RAM, an Intel 4600HD GPU and 1.5 terabytes of SSD storage (I removed the optical drive in favor of a secondary drive bay for additional storage as MSATA cards in this laptop ran too hot for prolonged use). Needless to say considering the X1 Carbon required that I be willing to compromise. For starters all of the new Broadwell processors for the X1 Carbon were dual core processors and there was no quad core option available. Frankly this was an easy compromise to make as I very rarely used all four cores. In addition the X1 Carbon has a maximum of 8 gigabytes of RAM. This compromise was a bit harder to stomach until I realized that the 16 gigs of RAM on the GazP9 only came in handy when I ran multiple virtual machines at the same time. This was something I rarely did and when I did it, I did it so that I could apply Windows Updates to multiple client virtual machines at the same time.

The final compromise involved the amount of storage. Now when most people hear that I had 1.5 terabytes of SSD storage, they balk. That's a lot I know. But I love SSDs because they are so freaking fast. I wasn't about to go back to a mechanical drive. But I also wanted as much storage as I could get my hands on. When the infamous Crucial M500 drive hit the market (the worlds first terabyte SSD) I got in line to buy one because I was extremely interested in having as much quick SSD storage as I could get my hands on. Nevertheless, the X1 Carbon could at most provide me with 512 gigabytes of onboard SSD storage. It had space for a single storage PCIe/SATA 80mm M.2 chip. I opted for SATA as I was able to save about $500 dollars by buying the M.2 card for $200 on Amazon rather than paying Lenovo's ridiculous $700 upgrade fee to get 512 gigabytes of PCIe storage (for reference that M.2 card costs about $500 on Amazon). Yes PCIe is faster, but since I actually have one of those in my new desktop/server that I built last year I knew from experience that while it was fast, it doesn't provide much day to day benefit except for allowing Windows to boot in less than ten seconds.

So what did I do? Well for starters I decided to do some spring cleaning. For years I've been lugging around a variety of client related virtual machines and documents, even for clients that I have largely stopped doing business with. You just never know. In any event I finally decided to archive all of this information on my server and stop carrying it around all the time. That freed up a few hundred gigabytes. Next I decided to stop carrying around 140 gigs of music everywhere I went. Now that I'm using Subsonic at home, all I need is a web browser to access my entire music collection from anywhere in the world. Carrying around 140 gigs of it "just in case" had become redundant. Finally I examined some of my personal habits in regards to storage. The one habit I decided to change was my tendency to keep a couple decades of retro games on hand for legacy console and computer system emulation purposes. So I cut my MAME collection along with various other somewhat more modern retro systems to save another 60 gigabytes. Lastly I have a tendency to keep a lot of Steam games installed even though I might only be playing one or two of them at any given time. So I cleaned that up and saved another 50 gigabytes.

Now I didn't get rid of all of this stuff. Some of it was just moved to this device. For instance that's where my offline music collection now resides. That's where some of my client virtual machines now reside (the ones for active clients). There is no need to keep all this stuff on the internal drive when I don't need it that often. By using the latest in portable SSD technology (and yes this Samsung unit lives up to every expectation and then some) I can now have access to additional SSD capacity when I require it.

Needless to say after many hours of rearranging, copying and consideration I have resolved the storage issue. That was the final roadblock preventing me from pulling the trigger on the X1 Carbon. A few weeks later I received my new laptop, upgraded the SSD as my first act and transferred my existing Linux installation using Clonezilla as my second act. Four days later, I couldn't be more pleased. Bottom line: If you are interested in a great ultrabook that runs fast, quiet and cool and gets great battery life (six hours in Linux without any real tweaking though it will get more in Windows) then I highly recommend the third generation Lenovo X1 Carbon.
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