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Sunday, September 26, 2021

ThinkPad X1 Yoga Gen 6 review: flexible flagship


Once upon a time, the Thinkpad X1 Yoga was Lenovo’s flagship business convertible, joining the clamshell X1 Carbon at the top of the company’s business hierarchy. These days, it has more company. We now have the paper-thin, titanium-coated X1 Titanium Yoga, the featherweight X1 Nano, and the powerhouse X1 Extreme kicking around, all of which are excellent, pricey, and could reasonably be considered flagships in their own right.

There’s a lot of innovation happening across the ThinkPad line, but the X1 Yoga retains a lot of the hallmark features that have graced old-school ThinkPads over the years. (With a starting tag of $1,493.40$2,315.28 as tested — that includes the premium price.) Of course, there are some minor but significant improvements, such as a 16:10 (finally) touch display, a new grey colour, a wider touchpad, and new security features aimed primarily at business users. It’s not the most affordable Windows convertible on the market, but it has a lot to offer — especially to long-time ThinkPad fans looking for a modern take on an established package.

Starting with what’s new: the 16:10 aspect ratio is here. This is a change that Lenovo has brought to other top ThinkPads this year, including the X1 Nano. I much prefer this to the 16:9 panel we saw on the Gen 5, because it provides noticeably more vertical space without adding much footprint to the chassis.

Another feature to note about this display is its matte texture — matte touchscreens are uncommon. Writing with the stylus on it feels almost identical to writing on a glossy panel, though the sound of the tip dragging along is slightly louder on the matte screen. (I also prefer touching the matte texture, but this is a personal preference.) The matte texture makes colours appear a bit muted when compared to glossy screens, but you’ll also notice significantly less glare, making working in bright settings a much more feasible prospect. The colours were sharp enough that watching videos was still enjoyable, and I could make out the details well enough, so I thought the matte texture was a plus. During my testing, the panel also did not retain any smudges or fingerprints.

The other notable change: the touchpad is bigger. Specifically, it’s 4.33 inches wide, where the Gen 5’s (much maligned by reviewers for its small size) was just four. It’s a lot wider now, but it’s still a little short, and my fingers kept slamming into the plastic frame as I scrolled. If the trackpad is too small for you, the X1 Yoga has a plethora of other ways to click: There are a few discrete buttons at the top of the touchpad (though they don’t have the red accents that are common on ThinkPad clickers), as well as the signature ThinkPad TrackPoint in the centre of the keyboard. The device also includes a tiny stylus, which is housed in a garage on the right side of the chassis.

Then there are a slew of new security features that Lenovo has strewn across the ThinkPad line. There’s an optional IR webcam with human-presence detection that can automatically lock the computer if you’re not nearby (the webcam itself has a physical shutter, as ThinkPads traditionally do, and produces a fairly grainy image), a match-on-chip fingerprint reader in the power button, a dTPM 2.0 security chip (which encrypts user data on the system), and an optional feature called Privacy Guard.

But the most noticeable update is to the look. While the Gen 5’s chassis had some gray on it, the Gen 6 is gray everywhere, including the keyboard, touchpad, and hinge. This means that the Yoga looks a bit different from the sea of other ThinkPads out there, which are traditionally very black. It gives the X1 Yoga more of a futuristic vibe than devices like the X1 Carbon and the X13, though red and gray aren’t nearly as striking as red and black.

Anyway, to each their own when it comes to aesthetics. What was slightly disappointing was how easily the finish could be scratched. I folded my device into a tablet and placed it on an outdoor table for a few minutes of quick drawing and writing, and when I picked it up, the palm rests were scratched. After that, I was terrified of putting the device anywhere near anything remotely sharp. If this was the result of a few minutes of writing, I’m concerned about how scratched up this chassis could become with regular tablet use.

Aside from that, I have no complaints about the build quality. The keyboard deck has some flex, but the display has none, and there was no screen wobble while I was typing or touching the screen. The finish did not show many fingerprints (an issue I sometimes have with black ThinkPads). The hinge is smooth, making folding and unfolding a breeze — with some difficulty, I could pop it open one-handed. It’s also a fairly portable product, weighing three pounds and measuring 0.59 inches thick, though it’s a little heavy to hold as a tablet for long periods of time.

Other than that, the X1 Yoga is excellent. ThinkPad keyboards are legendary, and this one, while flatter than some of its siblings, is still comfortable and has excellent travel. It’s worth noting that, like most ThinkPads, the Yoga has half-sized arrow keys and the Fn and Ctrl keys are reversed from where they are on most other laptops, which takes some getting used to. (While those keys can be remapped, having incorrectly labelled keys can still be an eyesore for some.) The port selection is excellent, with two Thunderbolt 4 ports (new to the X1 Yoga), a USB 3.2 Type-A port, and an HDMI 2.0 port on the left, and a USB 3.2 Type A, a headphone jack, and a lock slot on the right. My voice was picked up well by the four 360-degree microphones. And the Dolby Atmos speaker system is fantastic, with audible bass and crystal-clear vocals.

The X1 Yoga Gen 6 has a million and one configurations, with all kinds of add-ons. One interesting thing: the cheapest listed model (currently $1,493.40) is actually a Linux model. The base specs include a Core i5-1135G7, 8GB of RAM (soldered), and 256GB of storage. My test model (running Windows 10 Pro, not Linux) is listed at $2,315.28 at B&H and includes a quad-core Core i7-1165G7, 512GB of storage, and 16GB of RAM.

Then there are the various extras to consider. Windows 10 Pro is $60 more expensive than Windows 10 Home. With Privacy Guard, you can upgrade to a 3840 x 2400 screen or a 1920 x 1200 screen. Both of these options are only available with the IR camera, which costs an additional $30 over the standard camera. Human Presence Detection, which is only available with the IR camera, costs an additional $15. You can also add 4G and 5G mobile broadband, with prices varying depending on the modem you choose.

The Core i7 utilized here is the same processor found in many of the best laptops on the market and is enough for all kinds of demanding workloads. The Iris Xe graphics card from Intel can help with work tasks and light gaming, but the X1 Yoga isn’t a gaming laptop by any means. Apps launched quickly, and I didn’t notice any stuttering or slowdown during my day of streaming, photo editing, and Slacking while running a dozen Chrome tabs. Performance is more dependent on your battery profile than on other Windows laptops — I had to disable Battery Saver when I was trying to run a Zoom call on top of a slew of tabs and apps because everything started freezing.

In terms of battery life, the X1 Yoga’s isn’t bad, but it’s still adequate for a convertible at this price point. I used the screen at medium brightness for eight hours and seven minutes on average. That’s not a bad result, but I’ve seen better from top ultraportables at this price point.

The final observation — which I am probably overjoyed about — is that there is no bloatware on this device. There was no McAfee, Norton, or other nonsense that I had to uninstall as soon as I turned it on. I generally hope that laptops costing more than $1,000 will not include this, but I regularly see it on high-end consumer laptops from a variety of manufacturers (including Lenovo). I’m glad the ThinkPad isn’t bloated with unnecessary features, but consumers should have the same opportunity.

With so many add-ons and configurations available, as well as prices ranging from $1,500 to over $3,000, the ThinkPad X1 Yoga can truly be whatever you want it to be. It can be a midrange convertible with basic specs, or it can be a premium business laptop with the ThinkPad security emphasis. Among the glut of convertible ThinkPads on the market, it is unquestionably one to consider.

With that said, it’s quite a pricey line for a consumer or self-employed worker. For context, you can get a comparable model of Lenovo’s top consumer convertible, the Yoga 9i, for just $1,529 — which even has the Core i7-1185G7, a step above the chip that came with my test model. Models of the X1 Yoga with that processor start at $1,938. The Yoga 9i, like the X1 Yoga, has a convertible form factor, a physical webcam shutter, a built-in stylus, a one-year warranty, and most of the same Lenovo software.

That begs the question of what all of that extra cash is actually paying for. The 16:10 aspect ratio of the X1 Yoga, as well as the lack of bloatware and the matte display, are unquestionably advantages. The 9i, on the other hand, has a longer battery life (as do many consumer convertibles at this price point), excellent audio, and some truly innovative features such as a haptic touchpad and an ultrasonic fingerprint reader. Buyers of the X1 Yoga are paying a premium for the ThinkPad build at some point. ThinkPads have some distinguishing features — their TrackPoint and unique keyboard arrangement will always have fans — but they also have a sleek, professional appearance and feel. They’re known for their extreme durability (and the X1 Yoga is MIL-spec tested, though the X1 Yoga’s scratch-prone chassis and keyboard flex give me pause). Overall, the ThinkPad logo, like the bitten apple on the MacBook, is a graphic that everyone will recognise. It is associated with high build quality, longevity, and performance — it commands a certain status among both business users and consumers.

That’s fine if that’s what you’re looking for. If you want a modern ThinkPad that can compete with today’s best laptops, and especially if you’re interested in features like Linux and human presence detection, this is probably your dream machine. I just feel obligated to point out that if you’re not a fan of the ThinkPad brand, you can get most of what this offers for a lot less money.


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