LAS VEGAS — We're all familiar with touchscreen keyboards on phones and tablets that have virtual keys that change according to what's on the display. But the keys on laptop keyboards remain the same, right?
Wrong! At least on the new X1 Carbon ThinkPad Ultrabook that Lenovo just unveiled at CES, the big annual consumer electronics show here. It's the successor to Lenovo's popular thin and light notebook for the business traveler.
This latest flagship sports the best-of-breed physical Qwerty keyboard for which ThinkPads are well known. But Lenovo replaced the standard top row of keys with a liquid crystal panel of shortcut keys that relate to the application you happen to be using. If you're browsing the Web in Internet Explorer, say, the Adaptive Keyboard shows, among other shortcuts, options for refreshing the page, opening a new tab, and going back to the previous page. In Skype, the virtual row shows shortcut controls for the microphone and camera. The standard "function keys" can also appear on this Adaptive Keyboard row. Lenovo says there are 40 shortcuts in all; you can manually display other shortcuts.
Though the Adaptive Keyboard may initially strike you as a gimmick, the idea here is to provide the flexibility of virtual keys without adding extra buttons or sacrificing the utility of a really good physical keyboard. Still, it remains to be seen whether this catches on.
As with other ThinkPads, you'll also find the eraser-head like Trackpoint nub nudged in the middle of the physical keyboard, as well as a spacious trackpad.
Lenovo is modernizing the laptop in other ways. The Chinese company, now the world's largest PC maker, is introducing a series of voice and motion gestures. (Your motion gestures are captured by the camera.) In media apps such as Xbox Music or iTunes, you can mute music by placing a finger on your lips as if you were a librarian shushing noisy kids.
If you push your hand toward the display, you can pause a track. You can also wave your hand in front of the screen to advance to the next track or revert to the previous one. And you can use this waving gesture to change slides in PowerPoint, pore through pictures, or flip pages in the Kindle app.
Some gestures required a little trial and error; the experience should improve over time.
The machine also includes a version of Nuance's Dragon voice recognition software. For instance, you might use your voice to bark out instructions to check email, launch apps or search the Web.
Apart from such fancy stunts, this is a handsome and sturdy Windows 8 laptop with a very nice high-resolution 14-inch touchscreen display. The computer is appealingly thin and, at 2.8 pounds, light. It runs state of the art Intel processors. According to Lenovo, it is made from the same Carbon Fiber material as aircraft and racing cars use, which the company says weighs less than magnesium and aluminum but is stronger than both. It is a pleasure to hold (and type on).
Lenovo claims about 9 hours of battery life, which is over a 70% improvement from its predecessor—I did not conduct a formal test. You can nearly fully charge the machine in less than an hour.
The complement of ports includes a single HDMI connector and a pair of USB ports, but no SD card slot.
The X1 Carbon is due out by the end of January starting at $1,299. A Dock option is $449. 4G cellular will also be available.
I did run into a few snags during my tests with a model Lenovo supplied ahead of launch. A few times I had to reboot before the touchscreen worked. I had intermittent issues with Wi-Fi dropping out.
But this is a computer I like. How do you innovate on a form factor that hasn't changed much in 20 years? On first impression, Lenovo has come up with some very impressive answers.