The Lenovo ThinkPad line is much larger than a single laptop. It’s so large, in fact, that Lenovo has multiple different product lines under the ThinkPad brand, from inexpensive Chromebooks to premium mobile workstations. The line also includes multiple 2-in-1 machines, like the ThinkPad X390.
We threw the ThinkPad X390 into the ring with the more traditional ThinkPad X1 Carbon to see how it would hold up. Although both are excellent laptops in their own right, one has a significant advantage in 2021.
Pricing and configurations
Lenovo’s latest ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 8 starts at $949.99 for a quad-core Intel i5-10210U paired with 8GB of low-profile DDR3 memory, integrated Intel UHD graphics, and a 256GB PCIe SSD. For a maxed-out configuration, you’ll spend $2,343 as of early 2021 (the exact price may vary based on sales). For that price, you get an i7-10610U processor, 16GB of DDR3 memory, a 1TB SSD, and, most importantly, a 4K HDR display. The base model comes with a 1080p, non-HDR display.
The ThinkPad X390 starts $1 cheaper at $948.99. You’re getting a much different configuration for the price, however. The X390 starts with an eighth-gen i5-8365U with 8GB of DDR4 memory and a 256GB SSD. A tricked-out configuration won’t run you much more. The most expensive option available at the time of writing runs $1,108.99. It features an i7-8665U, 16GB of DDR4 memory, and a 512GB SSD. Both configurations use the same 1080p screen.
We’ll talk more about how the components compare in the “performance” section below. However, you don’t need to look far to see that the ThinkPad X1 Carbon is a better value. Although much more expensive for a high-end configuration, the X1 comes with more recent components. It uses DDR3 memory, but it’s only slightly slower than the DDR4 memory featured in the X390.
View these two laptops from a distance, and you’d be hard-pressed to tell them apart. They both enjoy the same black and red aesthetic that is so consistent and recognizable, and even holding them in hand feels similar thanks to soft-touch materials. Both laptops also pass through the same MIL-STD-810g military certification process and sport excellent durability. The ThinkPad X390 is made of aluminum and magnesium alloys while the ThinkPad X1 Carbon mixes magnesium alloy and carbon fiber, but both will take the same kind of beating and keep on running.
Their aesthetic is also essentially the same. Both chassis are black, both have the same ThinkPad logo (lit with an LED on the lid), the same red TrackPoint in the middle of the keyboard, and the same dual buttons on top of the touchpad. You won’t choose between the two based on looks alone. The X1 Carbon with the 4K display stands out a bit, though, thanks to a carbon fiber weave on the lid that’s quite attractive.
What is different is the size. The ThinkPad X390 has a 13.3-inch display and relatively small bezels, and so comes in at 12.28 inches wide by 8.55 inches deep. That compares to the ThinkPad X1 Carbon with its 14-inch display at 12.71 inches by 8.54 inches. Yes, that’s right, the X390 is as deep as the X1 Carbon, but it’s not as wide. Also, and maybe also surprising, the X390 is 0.67 inches thick and weighs 2.84 pounds compared to the X1 Carbon at 0.58 inches and 2.40 pounds. That makes the X390 smaller in only one dimension.
Both ThinkPads use similar keyboards that provide lots of travel and a precise feel. Their touchpads and TrackPoints are also roughly equivalent, although the X1 Carbon’s touchpad is slightly larger. You probably won’t choose between these two based on their input.
Finally, connectivity is another area that’s almost — but not entirely — identical. The X390 offers two USB-C ports, one with Thunderbolt 3, an Ethernet connection (that requires an adapter), a USB-A 3.1 Gen 1 port, and a full-size HDMI port. The X1 Carbon has an additional USB-A 3.1 Gen 1 port, and both of its USB-C ports are Thunderbolt 3-enabled. The ThinkPad X1 also comes with a headphone/microphone combo jack.
The ThinkPad X390 is slightly smaller, but the ThinkPad X1 Carbon is thinner, lighter, and better equipped.
The ThinkPad X390 utilizes 8th-generation Whiskey Lake quad-core CPUs, up to the Core i7-8565U, while the X1 Carbon can be configured with up to a quad-core 10th-gen Intel Comet Lake Core i7 CPU. That gives the X1 Carbon a significant advantage, but both are going to provide good productivity performance and both are limited to integrated Intel graphics. Neither will be very good at gaming and they won’t accelerate creative applications. Their PCIe solid-state drives (SSDs) are equally quick, however.
It’s in the display where the X1 Carbon takes the most commanding lead. While the X390 is limited to 13.3-inch HD (1,366 x 768) and Full HD (1,920 x 1,080) touch or non-touch displays, the X1 Carbon offers a more attractive 14-inch 4K UHD (3,840 x 2,160) option with Dolby Vision high dynamic range (HDR) and 500 nits of brightness. That’s a nice option that many people would miss on the smaller ThinkPad.
The ThinkPad X1 Carbon has a much better display available and it’s available in a much faster configuration. That said, the X390 is a few years old at this point, while the X1 Carbon has continued to receive updates.
Lenovo’s more recent 2-in-1s, such as the ThinkBook 14s Yoga, are much more comparable in terms of performance. The ThinkBook 14s is actually slightly better as of February 2021, sporting Intel’s 11th-gen mobile processors and integrated Iris Xe graphics.
You’ll find that the X1 Carbon takes up just a little more vertical space in your backpack, but it’s surprisingly thinner and lighter than the X390. Neither will weigh you down, though.
The X390 has a 48-watt-hour battery compared to the X1 Carbon’s 51-watt-hour battery. At the same time, the smaller ThinkPad has a smaller display (natch), and the larger ThinkPad can step up to a much higher-resolution and more power-hungry option. Neither of these laptops impressed us in our suite of battery tests, and so we’re going to call this one a (disappointing) draw. You’ll probably want to carry a charger with both laptops.
The ThinkPad X390 is slightly smaller, but the X1 Carbon is better
In 2021, the X1 Carbon Gen 8 is a clearly superior option. It’s a little bigger than the ThinkPad X390, but that’s easy to overlook considering the X1 Carbon comes packed with newer hardware. The X1 Carbon also has more configuration options, the most important of which is the 4K HDR display.
The X390 isn’t a great option, but other Lenovo 2-in-1s give the X1 Carbon a run for its money. The aforementioned ThinkBook 14s, as well as the Yoga 7i, are both similar to the X390 in terms of price and size, and they come with the latest 11th-gen Intel processors.
We wouldn’t recommend either as of February 2021, however. Lenovo is gearing up to release its ninth-generation ThinkPad X1 Carbon, which features a 16:10 display, a larger touchpad, and 11th-gen Intel processors.