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Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold (Mini) Review

Posted June 3, 2021 | Hardware | Lenovo | Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold | Mobile | Windows | Windows 10


The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold is the world’s first foldable PC, and its display is suitably impressive. But there are issues that undermine the experience, key among them performance and cost.

Design

Perhaps not surprisingly, the ThinkPad X1 Fold has a unique design, even in the world of transforming PCs. When folded for carrying, it’s a bit thick but small and light, and the curved hinge area is vaguely reminiscent of Microsoft’s Surface Book, but without the exposed hinge system.

And if you leave the optional (but very necessary) Lenovo Fold Mini Keyboard attached, it closes flat with no obvious holes or other entry points for dust or other objects.

The outside of the X1 Fold is covered in a nice leather material that’s pleasant to hold in transit. Unlike with some 2-in-1 tablet PCs—like various HP Envys—that outer material isn’t removable. Instead, it’s integrated into the device and slides down on one side, as needed, as you unfold the PC.

Overall, it’s an attractive and unique PC. But it’s just not practical, and as you open the Fold, you’re faced with a choice of usage modes, none of which are ideal.

If you unfold it all the way, so that the entire display is flat, you can use the integrated kickstand to keep it upright and then use the tiny Lenovo Fold Mini Keyboard for typing and pointing.

It can be bought with an optional smartpen called the Mod Pen, so you could use the X1 Fold like a tablet in this mode as well, without the kickstand open. This doesn’t seem ideal to me for a few reasons, however. First, the screen is a bit big for that. And second, it folds, so you’ll need to be careful of that as you hold it. (And I have concerns about folding displays in general, let alone those you might poke at daily with a smartpen.)

Alternatively, you can fold the X1 Fold to a 45-degree (or similar) angle and use it like a tiny clamshell laptop, with the Lenovo Fold Mini Keyboard magnetically attached to the bottom half, leaving just 50 percent of the display available for use. Again, the small size of the keyboard gets in the way: Even the undersized ThinkPad X1 Nano keyboard is about 1.5 inches wider.

You could also use the X1 Fold in that folded mode, but rotated so that it’s like a book. That’s perhaps the silliest use case since the device is too heavy to hold in one hand and there aren’t many good reading apps for Windows, let alone those that know about folding displays.

And therein lies one problem.

Other types of transforming PCs, like Tablet PCs and convertible PCs, have obvious primary and secondary use cases and that’s what makes them work so well. For example, I’m particularly fond of convertible PCs like those in the HP Spectre x360 and Lenovo Yoga families because they’re optimized for the most typical use case—as a traditional laptop—but still offer diverse use cases as a slightly heavy and thick tablet with both multitouch and smartpen compatibility for those that need it.

But with the X1 Fold, I feel like none of the usage modes makes sense as a primary use case. There’s no need, no workload, that this thing meets better than is the case with other types of PCs. The folding display is technologically fascinating. But that doesn’t make it useful.

There’s another problem, sadly. While other PCs, including several Surface models, have used Windows 10’s Continuum feature to switch between usage modes as the PC is rotated or transformed, and have done so for years, the X1 Fold and its unique usage modes require special software. That software, called Lenovo Mode Switcher, is buggy and slow, and I often found myself waiting for the display to flip around, or whatever, to match the way I had starting using it.

Display

For the problems with the ThinkPad X1 Fold, the display is amazing. It looks great, with rich HDR colors, it works really well, and its folding functionality is almost magical, with no hinge seam, bubbling, or other problems. It’s the only aspect of the X1 Fold experience that is an unadulterated pleasure.

From a technical perspective, the X1 Fold’s display is a 13.3-inch 2K display with a 4:3 aspect ratio and a resolution of 2048 x 1536, and it gives off 300 nits of brightness. That’s a bit dimmer than many premium PC displays, but I never had any issues with the brightness.

That this display folds so well is a triumph for Lenovo’s engineering team. The firm explained to me the work that went into this system, which includes an internal hinge system with precisely calibrated tension for opening and closing, plus a layer under the display that’s broken into pieces to accommodate the different form factor possibilities. It seems impressive, but long-term reliability is, of course, a mystery right now.

Internal components

The ThinkPad X1 Fold is built on Intel Hybrid Technology, a new rendition of its Core chipset lineup that uses a 3D packaging process and an ARM-like architecture with one “Sunny Cove” performance core and four “Tremont” efficiency cores. The resulting chipset is tiny, even by mobile PC standards, and it was designed specifically to enable innovative new mobile PC form factors that require long battery life.

But if the Intel Core i5-L16G7 processor that powers the Fold was intended to scare Qualcomm and other ARM hardware makers, Intel has miscalculated. The Fold delivers even worse performance than recent ARM-based PCs like the HP Elite Folio, and it makes everyday tasks like updating Windows painfully slow. It’s one of the most lackluster performance experiences I’ve ever had on a modern PC, and that’s inexcusable for a premium and expensive PC like the X1 Fold.

Worse, the X1 Fold can get hot and there’s even some fan noise at load. I noticed this during software installs and updates, but also while playing a video. Ah boy.

Beyond the single processor choice, the X1 Fold also provides 8 GB of RAM, which is not upgradeable at any time, and 256 GB, 512 GB, or 1 TB of PCIe-based SSD storage. Graphics are provided by previous-generation integrated Intel UHD Graphics.

What’s missing is any form of Windows Hello compatibility: There’s only a single, low-quality 5 MP webcam, which is odd for a transforming PC, and it’s in a weird spot on the bezel so that it’s on the top of the display when used as a tablet, but on the lower right side when used in clamshell mode. There’s no fingerprint reader either.

Connectivity

Connectivity is modern, with Intel Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5.1, and there’s a Qualcomm Snapdragon X55 5G modem option for 4G/LTE/5G connectivity.

Ports and expansion

Expansion is minimal, which makes sense for this form factor. Lenovo provides two USB-C 3.2 Gen 2 ports, but there’s no Thunderbolt capability of any kind here. And there’s a single micro-SIM card slot if you opt for the cellular data option (as is the case with the review unit).

Audio and video

The X1 Fold offers stereo sound and Dolby Atmos immersive audio capabilities in any configuration, but the quality can vary. With the Fold opened like a large tablet and using its integrated kickstand, the audio/video experience is quite nice, though I found that I needed to use the bundled Dolby Access app to manually specify which type of content I was using. But I found myself getting lost in a space battle scene in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, so that’s a good sign. In clamshell mode, the video is obviously much smaller and less cinematic, but the video quality is still great, and the sound is about the same, from what I can tell. You could do worse in a cramped airplane coach seat.

Keyboard, touchpad, and pen

The Lenovo Fold Mini Keyboard is optional, and this keyboard/touchpad combo peripheral does offer some fun innovations: It can be attached magnetically to the X1 Fold while its display is folded into an L shape, creating a mini clamshell-type PC, or it can be used wirelessly thanks to its Bluetooth connectivity. And it charges while attached to the Fold’s display while the Fold is closed; or, if needed, via micro-USB.

But that’s where the fun ends. The Fold Mini Keyboard is, well, tiny. Too tiny. So tiny that it is borderline unusable. As noted, it’s much smaller than the keyboard on the ThinkPad X1 Nano, which is almost full-sized, or any other premium portable PC keyboard. It reminds me of the keyboard on a Netbook from 15 years ago.

There’s also no TrackPoint pointing system. Instead, Fold owners who opt for the Mini Keyboard have to make do with a very small touchpad. At least it’s a precision touchpad, meaning that it natively supports the full range of Windows 10 multitouch gestures.

As for the Mod Pen, this is the one piece of the puzzle that is full-sized: It’s about the size of a Surface Pen, but in black and with tapered sides so it doesn’t roll on a table. There’s even a pen loop for keeping it secure in transit, two barrel buttons, and a removable cap so you can charge it with USB-C. (You plug a USB-C cable into the cap-less pen to do this.)

Portability

The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold is unlike any portable PC I’ve ever used, but its unusual, leather-clad body is enjoyable to carry. It weighs just 2.2 pounds by itself, but add the very necessary Fold Mini Keyboard and the weight hits 2.5 pounds. That’s light compared to 13.3-inch Ultrabooks, but it’s heavier than an iPad Pro or a Surface Pro with a keyboard cover.

It is perhaps pointless to report on my battery life results, as I wasn’t able to use the X1 Fold as much as I typically do with other review PCs. But I saw roughly 4.5 hours on average. That’s terrible, but probably inaccurate.

Software

The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold ships with Windows 10 Home or Pro, your choice, and a very light collection of useful utilities that includes Commercial Vantage (drivers), Dolby Access, Glance by Mirametrix, Lenovo Camera Settings, Lenovo Display Optimizer, Lenovo Pen Settings, and Lenovo Voice. Nothing obnoxious.

Pricing and configurations

The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold starts at $2500 for a configuration with an Intel Core i5-L16G7 processor and Intel UHD graphics, 8 GB of RAM, and 256 GB of PCIe-based SSD storage. But that doesn’t include the Lenovo Fold Mini Keyboard, which is arguably necessary (though a full-sized Bluetooth mobile keyboard might be the better choice), or a Lenovo Mod Pen. You could easily spend almost $3000 on a Fold, though there are no processor or RAM upgrades available. The Fold supports up to a 1 TB PCIe-based SSD, and you can get 4G or 5G mobile broadband if you like.

Recommendations and conclusions

Despite its gorgeous and innovative display, it’s hard to recommend the Lenovo X1 Fold to most people. The performance is terrible, and the bundled keyboard and touchpad peripheral is almost unusable. It’s also extremely expensive—even a decked-out iPad Pro costs less—and offers no clear use case or advantages over other portable PC form factors.

And yet. There is something here, some hint of a possible future of more diverse and versatile types of PCs. Today, the Fold is more tech demo than product, however, and that makes the decision easy for now. Whether that changes with some future revision remains to be seen.

At-a-glance

Pros

  • Gorgeous, innovative folding display
  • Luxurious leather cover
  • Very portable

Cons

  • Terrible performance
  • Tiny keyboard and touchpad
  • No clear use case for this form factor
  • Far too expensive

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