The Folding Machine
Folding devices, even years after being introduced are somewhat of an oddity. I have been the first person I know to own or handle any and I cannot recall seeing one in public at the end of 2022 and the owners I met in 2023 I could count on one hand. I believe the general population is still trying to figure out where the folding device fits in their world and I completely understand the sentiment. For phones, it seems like an extra step to unfold your device to access it when we have grown accustomed to just pulling it out of our pocket and instantly having our technology ready for us. Thankfully Motorola sorted that out with newer editions of the Razr with a full screen on the exterior. The wearable concept they showed off at Lenovo TechWorld 2023 is also another example of this form factory gaining some legitimacy.
The portable computer of course has tablets that run operating systems that allow for differing levels of productivity but there are often compromises. Applications are centred around consumption, not production. Accessories are not designed with creation or productivity at the centre or if they are, the processing power for serious applications can leave many power users wanting more. There is also the issue of screen size and portability as many tablets prefer to keep a lower profile, perhaps to avoid comparison against their laptop counterparts. But what if a device invited that competition and tried to solve all these problems?
Enter the first-generation Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold. Announced at CES 2019 as the world’s first folding PC, the X1 Fold was a thought experiment that got the entire technology community talking. Understandably there were a lot of questions about how viable this brand-new form factor would be and I will admit to being one of those people who looked at it with curiosity, but also some skepticism especially the CPU configurations the original X1 Fold shipped with being so underpowered. The device was well built as a ThinkPad should be but there were worries about the size and power that the device was equipped with when it launched. The form factor also meant that the keyboard (not to mention the absence of the TrackPoint) that you could get with it was smaller than average which was noted by many reviewers at the time. It was clear that this was a challenging device to build and not many companies had the resources and innovation on hand to make it happen. For additional insights into some of the challenges, you might enjoy this short clip that Lenovo released in January 2020.
In many ways, it reminded me of the Lenovo ThinkPad X300. The X300 was Lenovo showing what it could do to push the laptop forward. It was, for the time, a bleeding-edge device in terms of specifications, design and size. If you want to learn about the importance of the device and what it set out to do, I strongly encourage you to watch my older mini-series, Project Kodachi. It will provide some insight into the conditions under which these devices are made and what the objective of their creation is on a grand scale. If you look at the machines after the X300, many trace their lineage back to that product. It made the Lenovo X1 Carbon line possible, one of the flagship models for the company and the brand. It was a halo product that would help launch many others and I think that is what we saw here with the X1 Fold Gen 1.
While I might have been skeptical of the X1 Fold Gen 1, when rumblings of the X1 Fold Gen 2 were growing, I found myself very curious about what improvements were to be made. It was clear that Lenovo hadn’t given up on the form factor with this announcement but what had they improved? Was it just going to be a specs refresh or were they going to push the boundaries even further? When the teaser trailer dropped, I found myself going through the trailer with a fine-toothed comb along with anything else I could learn about it. If you want to see my efforts, consider viewing the article below.
The X1 Fold Realized
Through my participation with the Lenovo INsiders program, I was sent an early sample model of the ThinkPad X1 Fold 16 Gen 1 and I have to say that in all honesty, it met expectations and after using it for a few days, exceeded them in several areas. The packaging is unassuming and 100% recyclable. Once inside you are immediately greeted by the huge tablet, laying flat. It at first might be too big, but after folding it a few times, you realize the size is very important to its usability. 16″ (2560×2024, OLED Anti-smudge 600nit) unfolded in a 4:3 format means you can do anything you want on it with screen real-estate to spare. Once you fold it, you have a 12″ compact 16:9 format for everything else you need. The included full-sized keyboard with TrackPoint, stand and pen is also a welcome addition to the kit I was sent. There is a base model that is just the tablet and because of the size, you can get away with just using the on-screen keyboard if needed.
Calling the X1 Fold 16 a laptop or a tablet isn’t accurate, it’s a system. That’s how you know this experiment has been successful because it has achieved a device that is everything those devices are at any time it’s required but without any real compromise to the user experience. I cannot say the same for other tablet-style machines that also have a keyboard accessory. The internals in the model I was provided were top shelf with a 12th Gen Intel i7 CPU, 32GB of RAM (LPDDR5) and 1TB of storage; everything you would want in a high-end ultrabook. Two Thunderbolt 4 and one USB-C 3.2 Gen 2 ports let you connect whatever you want with the correct adapter, dongle or hub. The two batteries (48 Whr plus an optional 16 Whr based on configuration) give you all day (10-11hrs) battery life for light and moderate tasks. Of course, you will want to keep the charger nearby for heavy lifting as that will tax the battery.
The hardware is impressive, no question. Hardware can be let down by clunky software if it isn’t up to the task. Thankfully, the experience with Windows 11 feels seamless. Logging in with the Windows Hello camera next to a 1080p web camera is the fastest I’ve ever experienced. The optional keyboard has a built-in fingerprint reader just to the right of the spacebar. Rotating the screen, adding the keyboard on top of the bottom half and having the magnets attach are also trivial and do not interrupt the productivity of the user.
Speaking of that keyboard, the TrackPad features a haptic technology where you can adjust the force feedback you get during its use. Good job from the team over at Sensel for producing this TrackPad while respecting the TrackPoint user experience. The TrackPoint buttons were not enabled by default but can be turned on with a quick click and you can adjust the feedback of the TrackPoint button area and TrackPad area independently to be two different experiences making it easy to tell where you are clicking from feel alone. Rounding out the experience is the introduction of the TrackPoint to the X1 Fold family and it comes with the same double-tap menu on the reintroduced Z series where double tapping the top of this iconic red cap gets you a radial menu you can customize.
To learn about what has changed between this device and the production version, check out this article: https://news.lenovo.com/thinkpad-x1-fold-still-defines-a-category-lenovo-created/
While the device was delayed to make the improvements above, collecting and responding to that feedback was essential for a product that was going to wear the ThinkPad badge. A compromise here would be fatal for the form factor. As you can see from the images below, some of the testing I did seems to be visible in the report linked above. I would like to think in some small, very tiny way, that I was able to help make this device better. Regrettably, I have not had the pleasure of seeing any newer versions of the device so I cannot weigh into all of the changes and improvements that were made.
So the software plays nice with the hardware and the hardware is functional; excellent. What is it like to use?
Coming from my daily driver, my Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Nano, the X1 Fold 16 is heavy and thicker but I’m completely okay with all of that. It looks and feels like a high-end journal that you might buy as a gift for somebody who is constantly writing notes in little books that go with them everywhere. The fabric-like textured surface that covers most of the X1 Fold 16 is excellent and wears nicely; no fingerprints to be seen. The rubberized Lenovo and ThinkPad X1 logos stick up and feel right at home. It doesn’t feel like any other device or even case for a device I’ve ever used and it gives a sense of quality and durability. The keyboard and stand are covered with an Alcantara-like soft touch fabric as well that you know will be kind to all surfaces it rests against.
While opening and closing the X1 Fold 16 takes a bit of getting used to, mainly due to the size and strength of the magnets, I wouldn’t want it any other way. It might have annoyed me at the start but I think that stemmed right from it looking so much like a notebook or journal I wanted it to open up just as easily. You quickly adapt and find different ways to open it when you do not have a surface to put it on first. All of your accessories: stand, keyboard, and pen all attach with magnets to the exterior of the device. The keyboard no longer lives inside so if you want to use it, it is an extra step to detach it and then place it on top of the bottom half of the screen.
The main modes that the X1 Fold 16 is designed to be used are with the tablet on the stand; either portrait or landscape or folded with the keyboard resting on the bottom half. You of course can also use the main device as a book or traditional tablet and leave the accessories packed away. I’ve also learned to enjoy opening the X1 Fold 16 and just using the onscreen keyboard or touch display for quick or casual use, or sometimes I will leave the device folded and use the Bluetooth keyboard beside it while it is folded and leave the stand attached to the keyboard. My eyes don’t seem to mind the crease and in some instances using the stand isn’t ideal.
All this being said, who is the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold 16 for? Is it for tablet users? Early adopters of folding technology? Artists, architects and digital pen enthusiasts? Lovers of ultrabooks?
The answer is all of the above but on different days of the week. If some days you need a laptop but other days you want a tablet and others want something in between, the X1 Fold 16 does exactly what you need it to do when you need to. Earlier I called it a “system” because it didn’t work in those other categories and I stand by that. Other form factors have flirted with the concept and even the original X1 Fold tried to achieve that but to me, this is the first real successful attempt. For many this device will be strange and not fit into their workflow naturally, especially if a standard laptop does everything you need. For those that have a more dynamic work environment that has constantly changing demands on their devices and changes to their workflow might be attracted to what the X1 Fold 16 has to offer. The key is each of these form factors has to be useful to the user or the ability for it to transform into that shape and serve that function will not be seen as value-added and will deter you from the steep entry price of ownership of the device.
When I travelled to TechWorld 2023, one of my fellow INsiders had his own Yoga Book 9i there and while that device impressed me in person, it was clear that they were adding features post-launch to get it up to speed with expectations, which is not an uncommon occurrence. The hardware was ready, but the software is still being rolled out. I felt the experience with the X1 Fold 16 was considerably more complete in comparison even if some of the hardware was dated. In short, both products have their fans and their niches and I do not believe one is a clear winner over the other in terms of functionality and their intended audience.
Everything it sets out to do, it does. Due to the high-end internals and cutting-edge technology, design and engineering of the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold 16 G1, it will command a premium price point and that will mean that it isn’t the device for everyone, yet. Once the technology gets more affordable, I wouldn’t be surprised if this form factor catches on. I would daily drive this form factor, but the version I tested ships currently for approximately $5,000 Canadian without a sale and that keeps it out of my hands for now.
I do hope for price drops in the future and a G2 version with a newer CPU that is perhaps equipped with some AI tools to make this device sing.