X1 Carbon or X390? Here’s how these two ThinkPad laptops stack up

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Lenovo’s iconic ThinkPad line is surprisingly diverse. Head the Lenovo’s web site, and you’ll find clamshell laptops both large and small, 2-in-1s, and a variety of powerful and efficient configurations.

The ThinkPad X390 is one of the line’s latest members, and it migrates Lenovo’s presence in the small-laptop space from the 12.5-inch ThinkPad X280 to a new 13.3-inch variant. That puts it up against the more mainstream 14-inch ThinkPad X1 Carbon. Which is the better ThinkPad for you?

Design

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.

What is different is the size. The ThinkPad X390 has a 13.3-inch display and small(ish) 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 12.73 inches by 8.54 inches. Yes, that’s right, the X390 is deeper than 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 0.62 inches and 2.49 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 X390 is slightly smaller, but the ThinkPad X1 Carbon is thinner, lighter, and better-equipped.

Performance

The ThinkPad X390 utilizes 8th-generation Whiskey Lake quad-core CPUs, up to the Core i7-8565U, while the X1 Carbon is still using the slightly older Kaby Lake R versions, up to the Core i7-8650U. That gives the X390 a slight advantage on paper, but both are going to provide similar 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.

The 7th-generation X1 Carbon was announced this year at CES with updated processors, but it isn’t available just yet. According to Lenovo, it should be launching sometime in June.

Regardless of the generation, it’s in the display where the X1 Carbon takes the 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 WQHD (2,560 x 1,440) 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 X390 might be slightly faster, but the ThinkPad X1 Carbon has a much better display available.

Portability

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 57 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 might as well grab the X1 Carbon for its larger display, and you’ll probably want to carry a charger with both laptops.

The ThinkPad X1 390 is slightly smaller, but the X1 Carbon is better

The ThinkPad X390 costs $1,000 ($750 on sale) for a Core i5-8265U, 8GB of RAM, a 128GB SSD, and an HD (1,366 x 768) display. You’ll invest a bit more, $1,659 ($1,237 on sale), to grab a Core i7-8565U, 16GB of RAM, a 512GB SSD, and a Full HD touch display. This puts it in a price range that is a bit harder to justify. ThinkPad enthusiasts will love it regardless, but the lackluster battery life and average screen don’t compare as well against similarly-priced laptops.

The ThinkPad X1 Carbon starts at $1,559 ($1,000 on sales) for a Core i5-8250U, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD, and a Full HD display. It’s a bit pricier at $2,579 ($1,934) with a Core i7-8650U, 16GB of RAM, a 512GB SSD, and a WQHD display. It’s definitely expensive, but the X1 Carbon stands out a bit better, mostly thinks to its incredible display and sleeker design.

The ThinkPad X390 is line’s entry into the small laptop space, but the X1 Carbon is the better ThinkPad option.

Lenovo ThinkPad X390 | Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon