A neat product that is not ready
The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold is awesome… as a concept.
Come on, it’s a display that folds in half. You can carry it around like a tablet. You can prop it up and use it like a Surface Pro. You can fold it halfway and use it like a clamshell laptop. You can fold it slightly and hold it like a hardcover book. And everyone who sees you whip it out of your briefcase will ask “Wow, what’s that?” And you can tell them “Oh, nothing. Just the world’s first foldable PC.” Picture it. There’s no way you won’t feel like the coolest person in your meeting.
So should you buy it?
I mean, no. Before we get into this: definitely not. It’s a whopping $2,499, not including the stylus and keyboard. (Bundles with both accessories start at $2,749 on Lenovo’s website.) That’s more than anyone needs to spend even to get a very good laptop — and there are a few too many problems with the X1 Fold for me to put it in that category.
But! I do like the idea. The folding form factor certainly makes life easier, and I have no doubt that we’ll see more devices like this in the future — assuming manufacturers can work out some of the kinks.
Here’s how a day with the X1 Fold went for me. In the morning, before signing on for work, I lay on the couch and used the Fold as a mini clamshell (that is, folded at 90 degrees with the keyboard on the bottom half of the screen) to catch up on emails. Someone had sent me an interesting YouTube video overnight. I unfolded the laptop into a 13.3-inch tablet, setting the keyboard aside, and watched it fullscreen.
Then, work time. I popped out the built-in kickstand and propped the unfolded ThinkPad up on my kitchen table, laying the keyboard out in front of it. I used multiple windows in split-screen, with Slack and Spotify over top, the way I’d use any standard 13-inch laptop. In the early afternoon, I had an hour-long Zoom meeting, so I headed back over to the couch and folded the thing into a book shape, with Zoom on one side and Slack on the other. After that, back to work — but I didn’t feel like going back to the table, so I folded the ThinkPad back into mini-clamshell mode and used it that way on the couch for the rest of the day.
This is all just to illustrate how many different uses there are for this form factor. I can’t say that a folding screen has ever been at the top of my “Laptop Features I Need” list — but after using the X1 Fold for a week, I would love to own one of these.
There’s no laptop I’d rather bring on a business trip than the X1 Fold, and that’s due to a couple of design choices in addition to the versatile form factor. For one: it’s really, really nice. The device is clad in an authentic black leather cover with a sturdy kickstand integrated into it. The ThinkPad logo adds a sleek splash of red. It all looked very out of place in my drab apartment. The only parts that look a tiny bit cheap are the bezels, which are large and rubber. Those are necessary to protect the sides of the display from clinking against each other, and they also give you something to hold while you’re using the Fold as a tablet.
A folding display also makes for a great travel companion. Folded in half, this ThinkPad is about the size of a hardcover book: 9.3 x 6.23 x 1.09 inches and 2.2 pounds (299.4 x 236 x 11.5 mm and 999g). The keyboard fits inside the folded device (magnets keep it secure), and it has a snug sleeve for the stylus on its side. I easily slipped the whole affair into my purse and would have loved carrying it around a trade show or conference under my arm. Any time I brought this somewhere, I thought, “Man, I wish I’d had this in college.”
And with the leather cover, I was never worried about bumping or scratching the Fold — something that can be stressful with devices this expensive. (Lenovo says its product underwent MIL-STD 810H testing and is resistant to conditions including humidity, dust, sand, extreme temperatures, and mechanical shock. This certainly promises a much higher level of durability than we’ve seen from folding phones thus far.)
With foldable devices, there’s always one big question. The answer to that question is no: you can’t see the crease while you’re using the Fold (though it’s visible when the device is turned off). The exception is when it’s partially folded like a book. The lighting in the middle and the lighting on the sides is a bit uneven in that case. But credit where credit is due: when you’re using the Fold flat, there is no crease to be seen.
The hinge itself, which Lenovo says it spent years developing, is quite sturdy and didn’t give me any problems. The ThinkPad requires two hands and a bit of a firm tug to open. But on the plus side, it always stayed exactly in the position I put it in without any slips or wobbles.
Flat, the display is a 13.3-inch OLED with 2048 x 1536 resolution. That’s a 4:3 aspect ratio, which is unusual for a laptop but feels quite roomy compared to a traditional 16:9. I could easily stack two or even three Chrome windows side by side, often with Slack, Zoom, or another app over top, without having to zoom out. And I didn’t notice any jelly scroll (where one side of the screen is able to change pixels faster than the other side), which was a problem with some early foldable phones.
The viewing experience is a luxury. The panel reproduces 100 percent of the sRGB color gamut, 100 percent of Adobe RGB, and 95 percent of DCI-P3. It’s great for watching videos and movies; even the dock icons pop with color.
On the downside, good luck using this thing outside. Not only is it quite glossy, but it only reached 289 nits at maximum brightness. That’s not a problem for indoor work, but it’s still a bit of a letdown for the price since some premium business laptops offer 1,000-nit options for less.
Lenovo has come up with some neat software tricks to improve the Fold experience. There’s an app called Pen Settings where you can map the buttons on Lenovo’s stylus: they can do everything from copy / pasting to erasing, toggling music and volume, and pulling up various applications.
You can also use Lenovo’s Mode Switcher (which pops up whenever you fold or unfold the device) to split the screen in half, essentially creating two separate displays on either side of the crease. This is most useful in the mini-clamshell form if you want to have one application running up top and one on the bottom. But you can also use it when the Fold is flat, the same way you’d use the Windows split-screen feature. And if you split the screen in Mode Switcher, the Fold preserves that layout when you move between portrait and landscape orientations, whereas elaborate arrangements of tabs and apps sometimes get scattered everywhere otherwise.
These are nice touches, and they show that Lenovo has really thought through the potential this form factor has, rather than just slapping a hinge onto a Surface Pro. But when it comes to performance, there are signs that this product is still in an early stage.
There’s a lot to commend Lenovo for here. I get stressed out just thinking about the tasks this computer has. Not only does it need to know whether it’s in portrait or landscape mode (like any regular tablet), but it also has to detect whether it’s folded, how much it’s folded, and where the keyboard is — and then resize its interface accordingly. Given all that, I’m quite impressed that this thing (mostly) works.
Mostly. But it’s not seamless, and there are some areas where the Fold and Windows 10 aren’t quite seeing eye to eye yet.
For example: every so often when I had the Mini Keyboard connected, the Fold forgot it was there and sent up the on-screen keyboard anyway when I selected a textbox with the stylus. You can turn the on-screen keyboard off in Settings if this annoys you, but it’s still a glitch that’s disappointing to see. On the other hand, occasionally, the on-screen keyboard didn’t come up immediately when I wanted it to, and I’d have to prod the text box a few times before the Fold got the hint. And the little writing box, which is supposed to pop up whenever you tap a text field with the stylus, seemed to come somewhat randomly: it didn’t appear at some times when I wanted it, and it did pop up at some times when I didn’t (like if I had just highlighted something in a Google Doc).
There were two occasions, both after a restart, where the Fold didn’t realize it was in mini-laptop mode and tried to expand across the whole screen. I had to remove and replace the keyboard before the Fold detected it. (Lenovo is aware of that issue and says it’s working on a fix.)
Most annoyingly, I wasn’t able to video chat in Zoom or WebEx using mini-laptop mode because my video feed (like the tablet’s camera) was sideways. That’s not a Lenovo-specific problem — some other Windows convertibles also don’t properly rotate their cameras if you flip them around during video calls. But it’s still something I hope Zoom and WebEx are able to fix. Were it not for this issue, mini-laptop mode would be the ideal form factor for remote meetings (WebEx on the top half, notes on the bottom).
I have faith that Lenovo will iron out these kinks as time goes on. But at present, they are here.
The X1 Fold doesn’t have as heavy-duty of a processor as you’ll find in some other ThinkPads. It’s powered by the Intel Core i5-L16G7, one of Intel’s “Lakefield” CPUs. These are “hybrid” processors, efficient chips designed for small and light devices. They’re Intel’s answer to the Arm chips in phones, tablets, and now MacBooks. (Microsoft’s dual-screen Surface Neo is supposed to be getting one, too.)
Occasional glitches aside, I was pleasantly surprised by the performance here. Multitasking in a dozen apps and Chrome tabs was no problem, and I could do some scrolling and browsing during a long Zoom call without anything freezing up. Of course, that’s also true for plenty of devices you can get for a few hundred bucks.
And the Fold also dragged its feet on some tasks where other premium business laptops (not to mention high-end consumer laptops that are half this price) do better. It takes a good few seconds to boot up, for example, and I sometimes got impatient waiting for it to find things in File Explorer and send windows to fullscreen. Webpages were a bit slower than I’m used to. The ThinkPad also takes a few seconds to rearrange itself between modes — and mini-clamshell mode, in particular — but I’m willing to forgive that since it’s a brand-new use case for Windows 10.
Battery life, though, was quite disappointing. Running the X1 Fold through my sustained workload (around 12 Chrome tabs and apps, occasional Spotify and YouTube streaming and Zoom calls, 200 nits of brightness), I averaged four hours and 50 minutes on the Better Battery profile and five hours and 35 minutes on the Battery Saver profile (with Intel’s battery-saving features enabled). That’s not necessarily unexpected for a laptop with an OLED display and only a 50Whr battery. But it’s not good for a $2,500 device, especially one that’s meant to be used on the go. The Surface Pro 7, which has a higher-resolution screen, got seven to eight hours in our testing.
The final thing worth mentioning here is that Windows 10 is still a “meh” operating system for tablets. If you’ve never used a Windows tablet before, it’s quite different from using an iPad. Gesture controls are still fairly basic, especially compared to Apple’s shortcut offerings. Moreover, most Microsoft apps aren’t designed to be used on a tablet the way that iPad apps are, so you’ll be doing a lot of struggling to tap boxes and icons that are much smaller than your fingertip. And actions like rearranging tabs and dragging / dropping windows that are second-nature with a touchpad are difficult to do with your fingers.
Switching to Windows Tablet Mode helps with this a bit, but you have to dig into the Action Center to turn that on manually. The Fold doesn’t swap to it automatically when you disconnect the keyboard the way Surface Books do. (Again, it’s not a Fold-specific problem — in general, disconnecting Bluetooth keyboards from Windows convertibles doesn’t trigger Tablet Mode — but it’s inconvenient nonetheless.) And of course, Windows 10 doesn’t have any unique features that take advantage of the dual-screen setup; Microsoft is working on an operating system optimized for dual-screen hardware (including its own Surface Neo), but we don’t expect that to arrive until next spring.
The running theme here is that most of these issues are Microsoft’s fault, not Lenovo’s. The convertible laptops Microsoft makes use the same operating system. But the lack of tablet functionality makes more sense on Surface Books and Surface Pros, which can serve as tablets where needed but are still meant to function primarily as computers. The problem with the Fold is that it’s at its best as a tablet. The ideal X1 Fold customer will be using it as a tablet most of the time. Because there are two major reasons I don’t recommend this device as a primary laptop. Those reasons are...
The X1 Fold is beautiful to look at and, as a tablet, a marvel to use. But I still dreaded having to drive it for my actual work every day. That’s because the keyboard and touchpad are tiny.
Now, I understand why they’re tiny. Lenovo wanted to make a keyboard small enough to fit inside the folded device so it wouldn’t be an extra thing to carry around. And it certainly succeeded in making a keyboard that fits perfectly into the folded-up tablet. I was never concerned that it would fall out.
But I hate typing on it. The keys actually feel quite sturdy and have a satisfying click to them, but Lenovo essentially had to combine a number of keys to achieve its desired size. For example: the apostrophe / quotation key, usually to the left of Enter on a US keyboard, has been moved to the far right side of the keyboard above Enter. (It’s a half key, sharing a slot with colon / semicolon). Every time I needed to type an apostrophe, I had to consciously stretch my hand far to the right. Approximately 50 percent of my apostrophe attempts resulted in instinctively slamming Enter instead (as my colleagues who received numerous incomplete Slack messages can attest). I assume you’ll adjust to this after a while of using the Fold, but boy is there a learning curve.
It gets worse: Lenovo had to cram some keys that were already dual-purpose together, meaning that some buttons accommodate as many as four different symbols. Question mark / forward slash has been combined with period / greater than, so typing a question mark requires hitting all three of Shift, Fn, and period at the same time. Dash has been relegated to Fn+9, which also tripped me up. I had to go through this review and delete a bunch of accidental 9s I’d typed before I filed it. And backslash requires Fn+8, which would make the X1 Fold a huge pain for people in STEM fields who needs to use LaTeX and some other programming languages.
Again, I understand why the keyboard needed to be small. But I would rather carry the keyboard separately than have to press three keys to make a question mark. Lenovo could make a nice carrying case that fits the Fold, the keyboard, and the stylus, and I would be totally fine with that. The company could also create some more space by removing the touchpad — which it might as well because the touchpad is basically useless.
To put in context how tiny this thing is: if I place two fingers on it (and my fingers are quite small) there is almost no room above or below them. So as you can probably imagine, scrolling is a pain (you hit the plastic frame immediately) as is clicking / dragging, highlighting, and anything else that requires two moving fingers. (There’s nowhere close to enough room.) Laying out a big article, which involves copy-pasting text and moving a bunch of images around, was quite a struggle.
The touchpad also didn’t do what I needed it to as often as I wanted. It sometimes thought I was holding it down when I had let go, meaning I’d unintentionally move tabs around. And highlighting a segment of text or getting my cursor to land in an exact spot was often a trial-and-error process. Even with the touchpad on its lowest sensitivity, I rarely got the right location on the first go.
I don’t use third-party peripherals with laptops I review, but this touchpad pushed that principle to its limit: I have never been closer to saying “Screw it” and plugging in a mouse to give myself a break. I ended up using the stylus for most of my navigation, but that’s suboptimal for some actions (rearranging tabs, doing anything in Google Docs).
Overall, the X1 Fold is a spectacular device in a lot of ways. It’s good at the one thing it’s advertised for (folding). It’s beautiful, both to look at and to use. It’s sturdy. And the form factor is useful. It’s not a gimmick. I would love to own a tablet like this.
The key word there is “tablet.” The X1 Fold isn’t a tablet. It has a laptop operating system and — more importantly — it’s priced like a laptop. It’s priced like a very expensive laptop.
And it’s not ready to fill that role yet. The battery life isn’t there yet. The keyboard and touchpad aren’t there yet. The software integration, while commendable, isn’t there yet.
The key word there is “yet.” Because with all that being said, I can’t wait for the second generation. Samsung’s first foldable phones were riddled with issues — but just over a year and several iterations later, the company is selling a folding device that’s very usable (albeit pretty expensive). I’m sure that’s going to be the case with foldable laptops as well. Lenovo has a groundbreaking idea, with a strong foundation to build on. I really hope it’s able to patch the Fold’s glitches without compromising on the components that are already exceptional. That would be a breathtaking device, one that would earn my unambiguous recommendation.