When writing a review, whether of a computer game, a film, a book, or a piece of hardware, there is always a certain amount of pressure to be “objective,” to write from some kind of non-personal, neutral viewpoint divorced from any kind of emotional response.
I’ve never subscribed to this view myself. Here at Ars, we don’t try to review every piece of hardware that hits the market; our selection of review products is implicitly skewed toward those that we think are likely to be good, or if not good, then in some sense significant due to their profile, their positioning within the market, or whatever other factors we deem to be relevant. As such, someone reading the laptop reviews at Ars will always see a somewhat skewed representation of the market without being exposed to its full breadth. The same goes for laptop reviews virtually anywhere.
The truth is that for most reviews, especially when we look beyond the level of individual components, subjective considerations are equally, if not more, important than objective ones like benchmark scores or SSD storage space. Consider, for example, the keyboard on a laptop. We all have different preferences for keyboards, both in terms of layout and in terms of feel. On my desktop PC, for example, I have a Das Keyboard with Cherry MX Brown switches as a trade-off between tactile feel and sound. Other people prefer the clicky Cherry MX Blue switches. Some prefer laptop-style scissor switches.
Personal preference dominates on this particular detail. And it’s important, especially on a laptop, because a keyboard is often not interchangeable. I would gladly take a laptop that was objectively “worse” (slower, lower battery life) than one that was objectively “better” (faster, longer battery life) if the first laptop had a keyboard that was crisp and well laid out and the second had a keyboard that felt spongy with a poor layout. Something like 20 percent worse performance, say, may make itself felt some of the time, but a bad keyboard will be frustrating every single time I use the device. Subjective experience matters.
I’m a ThinkPad fanboy until the day I die
All this brings me to the second generation Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga. My first ever laptop was a ThinkPad back in the IBM days: an A30p. It was a large, high-end, heavy machine that ran hot and didn’t have much in the way of battery life (but in those days, what did?). In spite of this, it ruined me for other laptops. I fell in love with the TrackPoint, the little red nipple between the G and H keys, that served as its pointing device. Touchpads are much better than they used to be, and some these days are even quite good. But for me, they will always be inferior to the IBM and Lenovo TrackPoints.
I know, though I do not fully understand, that some people find the TrackPoint awkward to use. There is certainly a modest learning curve as one familiarizes oneself with the sensitivity and acceleration curve of the TrackPoint. They’re delicate devices, and ham-fisted brute force is not rewarded. But once a little time investment has been made, the TrackPoint stands head and shoulders above any touchpad. The precision and fine control it offers is far beyond any touchpad, making things like precise text selection and even image editing comfortable and easy. The use of discrete buttons also means that traditional mouse operations, such as drag and drop and right clicking, do not require any new conventions or learning.
Give me a laptop with a good keyboard and a great TrackPoint and I’m probably going to love it, and that’s precisely the case with the X1 Yoga. The ThinkPad heritage is loud and clear with this machine, and it fills me with joy to use it.
If you’re weird and hate the TrackPoint, the touchpad is good, too. It’s a little smaller than it might otherwise be, due to the hardware TrackPoint buttons, but it feels good and supports the Precision Touchpad spec, so it offers all the Windows 10 gestures. I’d be happy to use it if there wasn’t a TrackPoint.
Likewise, the X1 Yoga has a fabulous keyboard. And it’s a keyboard that lets you know it’s a ThinkPad keyboard, right down to features that I know will annoy people: the Fn and Ctrl keys are “backwards” (though as has long been the case, you can swap them around in the system firmware), and if you end up pressing too many keys at the same time, the machine beeps at you in annoyance. The key action is positive and crisp, it’s comfortable, and it’s a keyboard that I can easily put thousands upon thousands of words into.
A highly competent Ultrabook
I know I’m biased about the TrackPoint and keyboard, and it’s possible that my love for the TrackPoint and keyboard have blinded me to the machine’s flaws. But I don’t think the X1 Yoga really has any flaws; a few areas that may have scope for improvement, perhaps, but flaws? Not really. My intense personal biases aside, the X1 Yoga is still a great machine. “X1″ means it’s a premium Ultrabook-type system. It’s about 3 pounds (a hair under for OLED, a little over for LCD), with 7th generation Intel Core processors (which means dual core, Kaby Lake designs).
As a ThinkPad it is, of course, available in black, and black is always in style, but it’s also available with a gray/silver option, which my review system used. I think I’d go for black just for the sake of tradition, but the silver doesn’t look bad.
Even at about 3 pounds, the X1 Yoga packs in a 14-inch screen. The review unit had a 1920×1080 270 nit screen. I would have liked a little more brightness, but it looks decent. I’m intrigued by, but haven’t had a chance to use, the OLED 2560×1440 screen. Although I have concerns about OLED, especially around display longevity, the rich colors and high contrast ratios are very appealing. There’s also an LCD option at that higher resolution.
Whichever screen option you choose, it’ll be a 10-finger touchscreen with pen support. In spite of its slim size, the X1 Yoga manages to include a pen garage to neatly dock the stylus when it’s not in use. The pen is powered, and it recharges whenever it’s docked. Combined with the final element of the system’s name—”Yoga” denotes that it has a 360-degree hinge, so the screen can fold all the way back to convert the system into a chunky tablet—and the result is a device with a ton of versatility.
If I were buying a laptop today, I’d make touch screen support and a 360-degree hinge must-have features. After using Windows 8 and 10 devices for so long, touching the screen to scroll and tap dialog box buttons has become second nature. A laptop without a touch screen just feels broken. And the 360-degree hinge is fantastic on the plane or in the kitchen.
Honestly, I’m probably never going to fold the screen all the way back for tablet mode. I don’t really care for tablets, so it’s just not that useful to me. But “tent” mode, where the system is bent into an inverted V, is great for watching movies on the plane or following recipes in the kitchen. On the plane, it greatly reduces the footprint of the machine—invaluable for watching movies in cattle class where I normally find myself sitting—and in the kitchen it not only shrinks the footprint, it also makes the keyboard a much less inviting target for accidental spills. The touch screen means you can still pause your movie or scroll through the instructions as you’re following them. Frankly, all laptops should work this way in 2017.
With the screen folded back, the keys recess into the keyboard and become disabled, protecting them from damage and ensuring that there are no stray key presses when holding the thing like a tablet.
Listing image by Justin Wolfson