The story of how Lenovo’s ThinkPads are redefining what PCs can do, with the help of Intel
Late last year, Lenovo introduced the ThinkPad X1 Nano, its latest entry into the premium X1 family. It seemed like a thinner and lighter version of the ThinkPad X1 Carbon. That felt odd too, since the Carbon was already supposed to be the thin and light member of the family.
Then at CES, the company went even further. The ThinkPad X1 Titanium arrived, alongside the ThinkPad X12 Detachable when there hadn’t been a detachable since 2018’s ThinkPad X1 Tablet. The Titanium seemed like a ThinkPad X1 Yoga that was made out of titanium and had a 3:2 display. No big deal, right?
I was dead wrong. The ThinkPad X1 Nano and the ThinkPad X1 Titanium Yoga ended up becoming two of my favorite PCs on the market. They’re not just modified versions of the Carbon and the Yoga. These are brand-new, solving real pain points, and unlocking new capabilities that we’ve never seen on computers before.
We’d never seen it before because it wasn’t possible. The CPUs in these laptops are from the Tiger Lake UP4 family, the successor to the Y-series. If you’re familiar with Y-series laptops, then you’ll know they weren’t very good. That changed.
After reviewing the ThinkPad X1 Nano, the ThinkPad X1 Titanium, and the ThinkPad X1 Detachable, I was left with one question: why isn’t everyone talking about this? In my opinion, this is one of the greatest innovations in the PC space that we’ve seen in a decade.
That’s when I decided I wanted to talk to Lenovo and Intel about this. When I spoke to Lenovo, I got to sit down with Thomas Butler, David Middleton, and Adam Howes.
Lenovo interview with Thomas Butler, David Middleton, and Adam Howes about the ThinkPad X1 Nano and X1 Titanium Yoga
Rich: I wanted to ask you guys about the X1 Titanium, the X1 Nano, and the X12 Detachable because these all feel like they’re in the same family. And I feel like at some point there might have been some decision where you want to make really cool, thin and light stuff; you did a clamshell, a convertible, and a tablet. Can you tell me the story of when you guys thought to start doing this?
Thomas Butler: I’ll jump in a little bit. We own, basically from conception to end of life, the products. You’re talking to the three of us; David and Adam are the guys. I’m always the front man that blocks you from having access to the real team. We’re going to do that today and give you the down-low access. It’s not unlike what you just described. Basically, the three of us were sitting around over some beers and then decided one day, let’s make a thin, light, and sexy detachable. I’ll give you a little bit of the background and let David fill in with the real story.
Rich: But also, when you talk about ultra-portable, I always felt like the Carbon was supposed to be that, where it weighs, recently, 2.49 pounds. Then, you went and took it a step further, and went under two pounds with the ThinkPad X1 Nano. I’m also going to be talking to Intel later this week, because the chipsets in there are what made this possible, since it wasn’t possible before. I wanted to get both sides of that story though. I want to talk to you guys about the design of the PC and the story behind that, and then I’ll talk to them about the chips.
Thomas: If you just take a step back and look at a little bit of history to lead you up to where we are with these platforms, and if you think about what ThinkPad stands for, we’re constantly looking at how we evolve and innovate. We’ve had various sizes, screen sizes, and different mobility around for decades now. Some of it is, how do we take some of the customers’ needs, the new user experiences, and the drive towards a more mobile platform, and then innovate pretty significantly on these use cases?
I’ll use the X1 Carbon because you brought that one up, and it’s actually a great example. We’re going to be coming in on a decade of this platform and it even started before that with the X300, which ultimately became the X1 Carbon. With that platform, we wanted it to be the expression of ultra-mobile, but then have all of the function and ports around it, having the full-size USB-A’s, the full-size HDMI, etc. It limits it to a degree. By the way, I love it. 2.4 pounds with what I call ‘all the kitchen sink around it’.
Every year, if I’m working on 10 generations of this platform, we’re twisting the dials. We’re getting a little bit thinner, a little bit lighter, a little bit more battery life, a little bit more performance. Every year, it’s an incremental build upon the original concept, which is the full kitchen sink, and then off you go. Then, if you step back and look at this market, and candidly it was pre-COVID, although as we go through this, we’ll talk about how COVID hasn’t hurt this whatsoever, but we looked at how do we further express that mobile statement, and we were lining up with a couple of things.
First there was the coming together with 5G and the platforms, which would be higher bandwidth, always connected devices. Then as you mentioned, and I’ll give credit to Intel, they’ve been humming along on 14-nanometer platforms for multiple generations. They were lining up to this 11th-gen 10-nanometer platform and we were able to get to much smaller motherboards, in much smaller packages that would then allow us to stretch that.
With the ThinkPad X1 Nano, how do we take that Carbon and really express it in an ultra-mobile platform? Those were the two pieces and then the third piece that lined up was the return of the 16:10 display. If you think about that display size and ratio, we, quite a few years ago, very begrudgingly moved across to 16:9. We had been on 4:3 for almost over a decade, then when we went to widescreen, we went to 16:10 because we felt like that was the right screen size, the right height, and the right productivity platform.
And then consumer TVs popped up and everybody wanted widescreen. The general market said, I want widescreen, so there’s this massive pull in the industry to go to widescreen displays, which is great for content consumption. Then, the panel manufacturers ultimately, because of the scale and the manufacturing they had to do on the TVs, begrudgingly moved down to 16:9 for laptops. So, we were one of the last holdouts to move over and so as it’s reopened back up to get to a 16:10 panel, and when I say reopened, with volume because I’m shipping millions of ThinkPads, so I’ve got to make sure I got the scale right.
Rich: And we’re seeing a lot of it across the industry. Why do you think that that’s suddenly making the shift? Think Microsoft has something to do with it because they’ve been pushing 3:2 for a while now?
Thomas: The 16:10 aspect ratio is ultimately what we believe is the right expression for a laptop, and I think part of it is just the market in general driving and demanding user choice. That’s versus saying ‘here’s what you’re going to get, here’s your next one’. That helped to triangulate across the three areas to go to that ultimate expression of 16:10 13-inch, which is basically the height of a 14-inch 16:9. I get the great usable screen in the expression of an ultra-mobile platform. I wanted to give you a backstory of the history to understand. David, Adam, and I are constantly talking with customers, reviewing customer reviews, forums, and have a feedback mechanism where we’re driving to see what can we do better, and what can we work on next.
How do we improve generationally, but also how do we address new use cases? ThinkPad X1 Nano was one of those; Titanium is another one that we’ll talk about in a moment, about how to go after a market and come in with something that we believe really does check the boxes when you’re looking for the use cases that we design for.
Another thing that I was wondering about is why things are so different between the ThinkPad X1 Nano and the ThinkPad X1 Titanium Yoga. These two laptops are clearly from the same family, one clamshell and one convertible. But still, Lenovo used titanium in one and carbon fiber in the other, a haptic touchpad in one and not the other, and so on.
Rich: Now, speaking of designing for different markets and use cases, there are some decisions that were made differently for the two products you mentioned. There’s a 16:10 display on the ThinkPad X1 Nano, a 3:2 screen on the Titanium Yoga, and a 3:2 display on the X12 Detachable. Do you want to talk about that a little bit?
David Middleton: Hi, I’m David. My team and I are responsible for planning the portfolio and the front end, working on the product line. So, I’m thinking one to three years out.
When you look at these, as Tom mentioned, we really want the X1 line to go beyond 16:9 and go back to 16:10. As we looked at particularly X1 Titanium and X12 Detachable, those products are trying to solve for those folks that really like the tablet use case of products, and those narrower and taller screens work a lot better when you’re flipping them between portrait and landscape mode. That 3:2 aspect ratio really fit that use case best for those products. Some users of detachables aren’t using that experience; they say they don’t detach the product. They like the thinness and they like the 3:2 aspect ratio. A lot of them just weren’t detaching the keyboard. So for that product, we made it super-thin, with a more tablet-oriented aspect ratio screen for those users that use it mostly with a keyboard attached to it, and then you flip it around, and you got the tablet use case whether you’re in portrait or in landscape mode.
Rich: That Titanium is so comfortable to use as a tablet, almost more so than a Surface Pro or something. I don’t know why it just feels so natural to hold. It’s a good product.
Thomas: Holding a piece of paper, there’s a reason for that 13.5-inch 3:2, because if you think about a tablet use case, it’s basically an 8.5×11 or an A4 piece of paper. You just pull the pen off and you’ve optimized for the tablet use case. We love the fact that you fold it back on itself – our 360-degree form factors aren’t really designed for long-term use in tablet form factor. They do fold back into a tablet, but they’re not designed for it; so when we built this, we designed it with that tablet use case in mind in the first place.
There’s an interesting bit here about how the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Titanium is positioned. It’s actually meant to be a replacement for the ThinkPad X1 Tablet, a product that hasn’t been refreshed since 2018. I think it was clear that we weren’t getting a new X1 Tablet, and that Lenovo wasn’t planning to refresh it, but the plan ended up being to design the Titanium Yoga as a tablet first. Now, it’s super-comfortable to use as a tablet, but at the same time, it doesn’t have a flimsy attachable keyboard. It’s meant to be the ultimate hybrid machine.
And then, with the ThinkPad X1 Titanium Yoga being the successor to the X1 Tablet, it turned out there were some businesses that did still want the true tablet form factor. That’s why the ThinkPad X12 Detachable was born, and also why it’s not in the X1 lineup as a new ThinkPad X1 Tablet.
Adam Howes: I have to jump in. I’m swooping in over the top of David here. David said he’s one to three years out. I’m one year to end of lifecycle. We position it as if my team makes David’s team’s dreams come true. They conceptualize and work with the teams, and then they say, “Alright. Here’s what we’re making.” The executive team says to go do it, and then my team goes and tries to make sure that what comes out the other end is exactly what they said.
On this one, what’s really interesting is that we felt pretty strongly that the detachable form factor was not really the right form factor for the commercial market. Ultimately, ThinkPad is a commercial product. Microsoft spent so much money on marketing Surface; detachable, the keyboard, it can be a tablet, it can be a laptop, it can be a PC, it can be both. We had an X1 Detachable, or an X1 Tablet as we called it at the time. We left it out there for a long time, but we were not going to replace it.
The X1 Titanium was going to be the follow-on product because it is such a perfect tablet. It can do both. It can be a tablet; it can be a laptop. You can’t remove the keyboard, but it’s so optimized in its thinness and its weight that you don’t have to. Tom and I spent a lot of time talking to customers and they said, we still have to have this detachable type of form factor. There are use cases – whether it’s retail, point of sale, banking, or even just some end users – really like it and said that we have to make another one. You can’t just move to this X1 Titanium. Also, one would argue that titanium is not the most inexpensive material. It was going to cause a little bit of a price shock if we shift all of our business to that type of product, so we added the product back to our portfolio.
Rich: I wanted to ask that also. Why make an X12 Detachable instead of an X1 Detachable, because the last X1 Tablet had a 13-inch screen, but this one is 12.3 inches; it has one Thunderbolt port and a USB-C 3.2 rather than both Thunderbolt 4. So, why make an X12 instead of an X1?
David: One thing we wanted to do is focus on those users, on those that want to leave the keyboard behind whether permanently or part-time, and really optimize the form factor. We really wanted to shrink it back down, so instead of downgrading the X1 Tablet, the X1 Tablet really rolls into the X1 Titanium. This X12 tablet is the re-coming out of the detachable in the ThinkPad space. We brought it out as the X12 Detachable, and then if you’re using the 13-inch X1 Tablet, we push toward the X1 Titanium with the bigger screen, and that cool titanium. For those that are die-hard detachable users, we optimize more around that use case with that product.
Thomas: That’s a good point. With the Detachable and its 12.3-inch size, we wanted to optimize for the smallest tablet that would afford you a full-size keyboard, because we believe that the keyboard is important. When you step back and look at the detachable market, one of the frustrations is, I want a tablet but I’m always going to carry a keyboard with me because at some point I’m going to want to put them together to have a productive form factor. That’s what we went off and solved with the X1 Titanium. We optimized for wanting the keyboard. When we were testing, talking to customers, and talking to different focus groups and markets, they said, “Yeah, we hear you, we love the Titanium, but some of us just want a tablet and we are going to detach it. You know, we’ll leave it in the car or leave it on the desk and just carry the tablet for most of our day. We do want the full-size keyboard, so we’re with you there, but it has that stiff platform and the ThinkPad experience you would expect.” So that’s why we, as David said, reintroduced the Detachable back into our portfolio. It’s quite an interesting time because to your point, we’re circling around these different form factors, these different use cases, and it came about because there’s a viable and solid market for all of them. By the way, we’re also iterating on our X1 Carbon and X1 Yoga, which just now launched into that 16:10 form factor as well, so we have a lot. These past couple of years have been very busy for us.
That was a nice segue to me asking about the keyboards. One of my common complaints about ThinkPads is that the keys often feel like they have a bit too much depth. The modern market uses shallower keys, so while ThinkPads are renowned for having the best keyboards on the market, they also move slowly. The same thing goes for how Lenovo still includes the TrackPoint on every ThinkPad.
But with the ThinkPad X1 Nano, ThinkPad X1 Titanium Yoga, and ThinkPad X12 Detachable, the keys are indeed shallower. They’re 1.35mm now instead of the 1.5mm that we see on the X1 Yoga and the X1 Carbon. When I used the new keyboards, I loved them. All I wanted to ask was when we’ll see these shallower keyboards on the rest of the ThinkPad lineup.
The answer wasn’t quite what I wanted. The shallower keys exist thanks to the thinner devices. We might see them in other products in the future, but not really soon. The team admitted it moves slowly with changes like these; indeed, ThinkPad is known for being a stable product. When you buy one, you know what you’re getting.
One thing I found particularly interesting is that the ThinkPad team put a lot of effort into making the new, shallower keyboard feel the same. It has the same force curve.
Rich: I can tell it’s been very busy. The X1 lineup on its own is double the size. It used to just be the Carbon, the Yoga, and the Tablet, then the Tablet went away; Extreme was added. Now, the Fold, the Nano, and the Titanium have been added to the lineup, and it’s all a lot of very cool stuff. Since you brought up the keyboard, I believe they’re all 1.35 millimeters on all three products.
Thomas: The Carbon and the Yoga are still 1.5.
Rich: So, when’s the entire lineup going to 1.35? Before you tell me that you can’t answer that, it’s really good. I was really impressed by these products and how, when you go to under two pounds on a laptop or eleven and change millimeters on a convertible, you make compromises, but these products don’t feel like they make compromises. Like I said, part of it is the performance that’s enabled by the new Intel chips, but part is that the 1.35-millimeter keyboard feels good. I feel like the market has been trending toward shallower keyboards for a while. Do you do guys ever feel that way? I feel like ThinkPads in general tend to have deeper keys than the rest of the market now.
Jeff: Can you feel the difference, Rich?
Rich: Between like the 1.5mm on the Carbon and the 1.35mm, absolutely. And that’s why I’m saying, I think it’s awesome and I would love to see it on the entire lineup.
Thomas: What you should feel is a familiar curve, because we are maniacally focused on the keyboard experience. If you’re sort of the ‘keyboard whisperer’, you’re seeing the difference between 1.5mm and 1.35mm because you’re concentrating on that. I agree there is a difference. If you blind sample these two, you’ll feel a difference. The force required, the initial travel before you hit, the grams of force required to push it down, the landing. They’re all the same scissor mechanism. The landing zone, the soft-landing zone, the responsiveness and rebound back up to full travel is modeled on the same curve, so we’ve been very careful about moving off of what was traditionally over 2mm, then went to 1.8mm, and then went to 1.5mm.
We are definitely laggards when it comes to messing with keys or going shallower. We went out to user groups or focus groups and did blind testing. They tested 1.0mm, 1.35mm, and 1.5mm. and we found that 1.5mm and 1.35mm, while there is a difference, there’s an air of familiarity when we use that same curve. We like the 1.35mm keyboard, but we’re not ready yet to push it all the way across to the entire portfolio. But you can tell that we’re testing it on some of these halo products and to your point, as we get thinner and thinner and thinner, we’re running out of room. There’s only so much more that we can do.
With the Titanium, the reason we were able to build it so thin is because there’s no stacking. There is the battery, the keyboard, and the motherboard. The motherboard is basically two fingers width. That was part of moving up to the 11th-gen platform, which allowed us to build down to that size, but I can’t go any thinner than that. Historically, there’s some stacking, some overlap of battery or keyboard, and certainly with the motherboard. When we get down to something this thin, I’m kind of tapped out. Then we have to start playing with what we can do with the keyboard, as an example. We don’t want to compromise on the keyboard experience, which is why you still see 1.35mm.
Rich: I don’t think it feels like a compromise. I think it feels like a feature. It feels a little bit more modern, but then again, I’m also a guy that uses tons of laptops. I do sense those.
Thomas: The main thing we want you to do is feel comfortable when you type on it because we’re designing these for all-day use, on-the-go use, and high-productivity. The 1.35mm keyboard, we’re very happy with it, although that’s obvious because we put it on our X1 line, so we’re continuing to try to push that. I think we’re getting to the point where if you go much further than that, you’re going to start limiting yourself and the quality of the feel. You’re compromising that force curve that we talked about.
The next thing I asked about is the haptic touchpad, which is exclusive to the ThinkPad X1 Titanium Yoga. I’ve used haptic touchpads before, and some are good while others aren’t. The one on Apple’s MacBook Pro is phenomenal, although it does take some getting used to with two levels of force. On the other hand, Lenovo’s Yoga 9i didn’t have the best haptic touchpad around. I was skeptical about the one on the Titanium.
Luckily, the one on the ThinkPad X1 Titanium Yoga is quite good, and the team was pretty clear that it set a higher bar for this product than for the consumer ones. For me, the biggest test is if I can easily drag something around the screen, often using two fingers. With a traditional touchpad, I can hold it down with one finger while I start to move with a second finger. Haptic touchpads often don’t recognize that, so I didn’t have that issue here.
And then, of course, I had to ask why this is exclusive to the X1 Titanium, and it’s not in the ThinkPad X1 Nano.
Rich: I was going to mention the haptic touchpad next because you mentioned space. The biggest question I had was, why is this in the Titanium and not the Nano? I actually think it’s quite good, and it’s a lot better than the haptic touchpad that was in the Yoga 9i 14. I don’t know if it should be and if you guys used the same part; maybe I just had a different experience, but it actually felt more natural on the Titanium. It didn’t have some of the issues that I’ve had with haptic touchpads in the past.
David: We wanted to make sure ours was a bit of a step up from that. It definitely helped us get to that thinness with the X1 Titanium. When we looked at the ThinkPad X1 Nano, that’s a little bit thicker than the X1 Titanium, not necessarily due to the trackpad, but it gave us an opportunity to use a traditional one and focus our efforts on the X1 Titanium for the first iteration of that haptic touchpad. We’re really happy with how that one turned out and maybe you’ll see some more in the future.
Thomas: One thing we use X1 for, as our flagship line, is as a test bed. I don’t want you to think of that in a bad way, but we do trial things out. We trial the 1.35mm keyboard and we trial this haptic touchpad; that allows us to get strong market feedback and determine if we need to course correct. Do we need to make further refinements, or are we ready to waterfall this into the rest of our portfolio? It gets back to no stacking. The force pad is under this footprint of battery cells that I’ve got across the bottom. We couldn’t physically fit it to make it this thin. Of course, the compromise would be to put a touchpad with travel there. If I did that, I’d add two millimeters back to the job, which would eliminate that tablet-optimized use case. It’s always a conversation of how do you fit these 12 pounds in a 10-pound bag, so to speak, and we really wanted to drive this. That’s why we define these use cases, like the Titanium being that ultimate expression of a tablet use case and the Nano being an ultimate expression of mobility and weight. That helps us have guideposts as we make these decisions.
Rich: There’s another thing I want to ask, kind of a weird question, but why is the ThinkPad X1 Nano the Nano and why is the Titanium the Titanium? Why not make a titanium clamshell and a carbon fiber convertible? Why is that one the titanium one, and that one looks more like a standard ThinkPad?
Thomas: David can go into more detail but when you talk about the ThinkPad X1 Nano, the lightest weight material we can use is carbon fiber. If we used titanium, we wouldn’t be talking about a sub-two-pound product. The yoga-style form factors have historically been the more progressive and modern, with different materials and finishes, starting with the X1 Carbon and X1 Yoga, using carbon fiber and CNC aluminum. As we extended those ranges into these more mobile platforms, it was more of a logical play. It was a force play with the Nano, as we had to go carbon there. There was no choice to get to sub-two-pounds, and then the Titanium was more of an expression of those metals and being more progressive, if that makes sense.
Rich: I really do just love the look of the Titanium. It looks silver and we have so many silver laptops, but it still looks different and unique. It’s so nice and even just the logo, you could have used the standard black ThinkPad X1.
Thomas: Another good topic internally are logos.
Rich: Oh, I know, because I’ve discussed logos with you guys before. I remember when the X1 logo switched from silver to black, and I remember when the shade of black was made into a slightly darker black. It’s the little things. What made you guys just say the time is now? We’ve always had thin and light stuff, but they’ve never been any good. There have always been huge compromises with performance, or with the keyboard or the touchpad, so what made you guys say now is the time? And when did you decide?
David: Usually we’re two or three years out when we’re really charting brand new things.
Rich: So, this is 2018.
As I wrapped up with Lenovo, we did talk about the CPU a bit. Y-series CPUs were bad, which is why products in this form factor in the past haven’t been very good. Now, Tiger Lake UP4 is unlocking new possibilities, and shrinking down to the 10nm process gives Lenovo the chance to make things smaller. That includes the motherboard, so there’s no stacking in the product.
David: Probably sometime in 2018. We’re always looking at how we can evolve our product line, the X1 line. As Tom said, the X1 Carbon and X1 Yoga, those are smaller iterations. We level them up by going to 16:10 displays but keeping some of the more traditional things, like USB ports, HDMI ports, etc. At the same time, we saw a few other things happening. We’re working with Intel, we looked at the 11th-gen silicon, and we saw that we could scale up the performance on their smaller package size version of the processor. Before, it was the Y-CPU, which we’ve had overall mixed success with.
Rich: Mixed feels optimistic.
David: With this one, they’re giving us the smaller package with the scalability for performance we needed to make it legitimate. We can make the Titanium super-thin because we can make the motherboard super-small. We can make the ThinkPad X1 Nano super lightweight and still keep the thinness with those smaller miniaturization components. Looking at where the market is going in terms of being focused on mobility, it’s about bringing the technology trends together, whether it’s the different aspect ratio panels that we’re driving in the market, or the CPU we’re getting from Intel. It took us a while to iterate on the ThinkPad keyboard to get a great feel with that 1.35mm travel. We didn’t say, just overnight, let’s shrink the travel on the keyboard. We need to design it, iterate, key shapes, iterate the shape of the curve, the force curve, test it with a ton of users, and then systematically say all of these are coming together and we can develop these product lines. It’s super exciting to have the opportunity to add these products to the X1 line and really optimize around these use cases.
Adam: We do these customer advisory councils every year; first of all, our X1 portfolio was doing very well. The Carbon and the Yoga do extremely well, and so does our T14s, which is almost like a trickle down. It’s the X1 Carbon for everybody else, right? Our premium portfolio is being very well received but it was very clear that there was this demand for more personalization, more choice, with millennials and Gen Z coming into the workforce. From a workforce point of view, technology has become a tool of acquisition and retention for human resources and talent acquisition. They’re demanding the best in technology, but it’s not one size fits all. There’s this perfect storm where the technology is starting to make it all possible, but IT used to say, “Here’s what you get.” You know, vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry. Now, there are so many possibilities. It’s really interesting, because now we’ve got five or six different X1s, so how do they do and what do we do from there to branch out and to further expand on this premium space? There’s clearly an appetite for it, especially among Gen Z and the millennials.
Rich: I’m pretty much out of questions so if you guys want to just tell me your favorite bits about these products and if you have anything you want to add before we finish? Do you want to talk about the bezels on the titanium because those are big and I was a bit surprised. The top and bottom bezels. Was it about needing the footprint to be a certain size to fit everything inside of it?
David: It’s kind of a balance because there are some things we had to play around with to get the smaller bezels, particularly on the bottom side of the system. You can take the driver card and flip it around behind the display. If you notice on the ThinkPad X1 Nano, there’s a slight dome shape to it, whereas with the convertible form factor we really wanted that flat shape, so that when it’s flipped around 360, it’s right on top of each other, completely flat. We didn’t try to play that trick with the bottom bezel there. The bottom bezel is a little bit bigger than if you look at the ThinkPad X1 Carbon or the ThinkPad X1 Nano, so that’s one of the optimizations we made to really go for that.
Rich: I don’t know if it’s really big, but with the 3:2 screen, it almost makes it feel square because the screen is already taller.
David: We felt pretty good about the balance of the system, and it’s all about optimizing for that use case where it’s a great laptop but it’s also a great tablet.
Thomas: There is a control board behind this bottom bezel which allows us to build it flat versus rotating it and putting it behind. That’s going back to perfectly lying flat on top. But then as you lay it out with motherboard-keyboard-battery, we wanted to make sure we got great battery life tied to that use case as well, so that small extension actually allows us to have more battery.
Intel interview with Ryan Shrout and Joshua Newman about Tiger Lake UP4
Next up, it was time to talk to Ryan Shrout and Joshua Newman from Intel. There really are two totally different sides to this story, and both are equally exciting. The ThinkPad X1 Nano and ThinkPad X1 Titanium are phenomenal products, and the latter is my favorite laptop on the market right now. It’s just amazing.
But the CPU that’s under the hood is equally amazing, and it expands beyond what Lenovo has done with it. Tiger Lake UP4 is the successor to the Y-series, and the Y-series was bad. We’ve had sub-two-pound laptops before, but they were never worth recommending unless you absolutely needed the thinnest and lightest that existed.
In fact, I was skeptical when I first got a chance to review the ThinkPad X1 Nano, which I received before the Titanium. I’ve noticed a shift in branding over the last year. New laptops seem to say they include 11th-gen Intel processors, but they don’t say which ones anymore. So, when the ThinkPad X1 Nano was announced, I had to dig to find out exactly what CPU was inside, and indeed, it was the first to use UP4.
I couldn’t believe how good it was though. My first impression of the ThinkPad X1 Nano was that I couldn’t believe no one is talking about this. We can finally have sub-two-pound laptops that actually have impressive performance. This is new form factor territory.
Here’s a quick example though. In my testing, the ThinkPad X1 Nano, with a Core i7-1160G7 and 16GB RAM, scored 4,586 on the PCMark 10 test. The score on the Titanium was similar. Scoring 4,541 is the Lenovo Yoga C940 14, which had a Core i7-1065G7, a 10th-gen U-series processor. Scoring higher than a previous-gen U-series processor is a big deal.
For comparison, the HP Spectre Folio, with its Core i7-8500Y, got 2,940 on the same test. The Core i7-7500U in 2017’s HP Spectre x360 13 got 3,117. The Y-series has never been able to keep up, or even provide a level of performance that’s reasonable enough to recommend it.
Geekbench scores demonstrate the issue even more, because those Y-series chips were dual-core. The same Spectre Folio scored 954 and 1,579 on single- and multi-core tests. The ThinkPad X1 Nano scored 1,346 and 4,891. For comparison, an HP Spectre x360 with a Core i7-1065G7 got 1,227 and 3,502.
Rich: The reason that I wanted to ask about this is I feel I feel like no one’s talking about these chips. I guess they’re called UP4 now; this is the successor to the Y-series, right?
Ryan Shrout: Yes, let me try to give some context around that, because it was a shift from what we’ve done in previous generations. When we launched Tiger Lake back in September of last year, we talked about both UP3 and UP4, and these are internal names that we have given to different versions of the same SOC. The UP3 processors, with a 12- to 28-watt TDP, were in the first wave of machines that came through, and then UP4 essentially replaced the equivalent of what was in the Y-series processors. These hit the 7- to 15-watt TDP ranges.
They offer the same architectural performance, the same scalability, Willow Cove architecture, Wi-Fi, Thunderbolt integration, all of that. Because we moved over to the 10-nanometer process with the Tiger Lake product, we were able to get basically the same SoC, the same silicon across these different spectrums. What we did was bend a little bit to get the best power efficiency in these versions, and then we built the board a little bit differently. We built the surrounding power componentry a little bit differently. That allows people like engineers at Lenovo to design the systems that you’re looking at, but from a performance perspective and architecture perspective, it’s the same as what you see in the Core i7-1165G7 or Core i7-1185G7 processors in the 11th-gen space as well.
One of the reasons that Tiger Lake UP4 is such a massive upgrade is because Intel kind of went straight from 8th-gen ‘Amber Lake’ to 11th-gen ‘Tiger Lake’.
Ice Lake Y was supposed to be a big improvement. That was supposed to be the move to quad-core, a higher TDP, and the switch to more powerful Iris Plus Graphics. Ice Lake was also the first 10nm generation. But outside of Apple’s MacBook Air, it really didn’t ship in new PCs.
Instead, we got Amber Lake Refresh. When Intel switched to 10nm with Ice Lake, it was limited, so it had 14nm parts alongside of it. With U-series, it was Comet Lake. With the Y-series, it was pretty much a quad-core version of the 8th-gen chips.
Without Ice Lake Y in the middle, there really is this massive jump in performance for these types of PCs.
Rich: Yes, because it’s very good and that really caught my eye. Just a year ago, we had lots of laptops that were under two pounds like the Acer Swift 7, for example, but there was always a huge performance impact by using something like that because Amber Lake was dual-core. I think the TDP was five watts. Ice Lake was supposed to be nine watts and quad-core but I don’t know if that ever shipped in Windows PCs. Do you guys know if that ever shipped in Windows PCs?
Joshua Newman: It was very limited. There were a couple examples but you’re right on. The original Y-series intention was more of that single-digit TDP point and were aimed at fan-less, maybe tablet designs. What we were able to do is run on set with Tiger Lake because of the process technology and the design architecture, which really stretched the dynamic range to be able to do something in that really high-density package that could actually stand the coverage from seven-watt to 15-watt. That opened up a whole new line of innovation of what we could do with traditional laptops.
Rich: Of course, you have the Iris Xe graphics in there too. Looking back at an HP Spectre Folio, I couldn’t even imagine opening something like Premiere Pro on a PC like that, or even Photoshop. Using those Lenovo products, it really just felt like using a regular laptop except that the ThinkPad X1 Nano is under two pounds and the Titanium is eleven millimeters thick.
Ryan: I’m jealous because I actually haven’t had hands-on time with the products you’re talking about.
Rich: I was actually able to get a pre-production X1 Titanium, so I had that about a month before regular review units went out. It just became my favorite laptop so quickly. I immediately thought about how this wasn’t possible two years ago.
One thing to note here is that while UP4 is the successor to Y-series, it’s considered U-series now, thanks to flexibility with the TDP. It probably also helps to rebrand a product with such a bad reputation. Now, there’s UP3, which is the more traditional U-series chip, and UP4, which is what we’ve been talking about.
One thing I noticed with the ThinkPad X1 Nano and the ThinkPad X1 Titanium Yoga is that they both have fans. The Y-series was originally designed for fanless laptops, so with the big increase in TDP and overall power, I was worried that these required a fan now. They don’t, but as with any PC, better cooling means more sustained performance.
Ryan: You know, we crow about Tiger Lake a lot here, but the way that the architecture and the process merged and melded here, a lot has to do with some of that really cool stuff. The UP3 and UP4 designations, they overlap a little bit. The UP4 goes seven to 15 watts but the UP3 goes 12 to 28 watts, and it really offered a lot of flexibility to the OEMs and the customers to build products like this. It allowed them to do stuff where previously the Y designation scared them off, or they couldn’t get the power scaling that they wanted to use on high performance systems. But I’m with you in terms of getting these incredibly thin and light systems that are quiet but have the ability to burst up when you need to for that responsiveness. That’s part of the Evo program rollout as well. I think the scalability of the architecture lends itself incredibly well to designs like this.
Rich: These are not going in fan-less PCs though, right? Everything I’ve seen so far has a fan.
Joshua: They could, but what you’ve got with the Lenovo ones is also a product of what we’ve done with Intel Evo, which is about verifying your responsiveness consistently no matter whether you’re plugged in or not, with real-world conditions like background apps, Wi-Fi on, all that good stuff. You’ve got your long battery life, at least nine hours in real-world conditions with real-world brightness and instant-on best connectivity, but it’s not just that we’re verifying those things. We’re actually working with Lenovo way early to design those. What we did in the case of the ThinkPad X1 Nano and the three products you’re talking about is that they’re all co-designed from the get-go, where we said let’s take the UP4, let’s make the board as small as possible. We could have gone fan-less but instead we said no, let’s actually do really creative and new thermal designs that try to get more performance, but still have quiet modes and open up more room for the battery. We also shrank the board Z-height so we can actually offer that keyboard travel that the ThinkPad’s famous for, even in that thin design.
I did try asking if we’re going to see a lot of UP4 laptops this year, and I couldn’t really get an answer. Intel is really just sticking to this Intel Evo standard, and the company doesn’t seem to like to differentiate between tiers of products. If you buy a laptop, all Intel wants to say is that it has 11th-generation processors and that it’s Evo-certified.
Aside from the three Lenovo laptops that we’ve been talking about, I’ve only ever seen another Tiger Lake UP4 processor in a Dell laptop. More specifically, it’s in the Latitude 7320 tablet.
Rich: Speaking of that keyboard, because they’re doing 1.35-millimeter on those products and everything else when you get to super-thin, you get a really shallow keyboard. That was really impressive. Usually, they do 1.5-millimeter and I thought that 1.35 was an improvement for them. I told them it just didn’t feel like there was any compromise there, so that was pretty cool. One thing I want to ask you; you talked about working with Lenovo a lot. Do you anticipate seeing a lot of these this year from other companies?
Ryan: UP4 specifically or Evo in general?
Rich: Obviously, we’re seeing lots of Evo, not from Microsoft because they don’t use Thunderbolt, but that’s neither here nor there.
Ryan: Lots of Evo this year. We’ve already got over 60 designs verified and got a few more in the pipeline coming. But UP4 is probably more of a product where you’re really focused on thin and light, especially in that corporate-branded or prosumer space that ThinkPad X1 Titanium, ThinkPad X1 Nano, and ThinkPad X12 Detachable play in. It’s really trying to go for that beautiful and sleek design but not compromise performance. It’s a little more engineering complexity to really make all of that come together, so we’re seeing more of the UP4s, but you’ll still see UP3 in the majority of the Evo designs. That’s where you’ll also see scaling up to even higher thermal performance.
Rich: Yes, for sure. I’m hoping that this becomes somewhat popular. I’m hoping that what Lenovo did isn’t all we see of this because there are products that haven’t been refreshed in a while, and I’m not asking you to announce any of your partners’ products, but for example, that Swift 7 hasn’t been refreshed in probably close to three years now because all this stuff was eighth-gen Amber Lake Y-series. HP Spectre Folio, I think HP did a quiet refresh to Amber Lake Refresh, but like you said, I don’t think I’ve seen Ice Lake Y in any Windows PC, so this is a big refresh for anybody that’s doing that type of machine. I’m also wondering how this positions Intel against Qualcomm and Apple.
Ryan: A couple things; one is you’re asking if there are going to be more systems like this. I don’t keep the count of what’s going to come out with UP3 or UP4. I can tell you for sure that there are. We’re not done with super-thin and light, amazingly sleek devices that’re going to be announced with Tiger Lake processors through this year. There are plenty more to come, and some of them that I’ve been able to have my hands on are super exciting. To your second question about how does this help in the competitive landscape against Qualcomm and Apple? Obviously, it helps. One of the strengths of their architectures is that people see them as more power-efficient and cooler, and what that does for form factor and design.
The bit about competing with Qualcomm and Apple was something that I thought was really important. Take a look at something like the Samsung Galaxy Book S, which originally shipped with a Snapdragon 8cx chipset. It’s 6.2mm to 11.8mm thin, and it weighs 0.96kg. Not only that, but it’s made out of aluminum, one of the heaviest materials that can go into a laptop.
At the time, it was an example of something that you’d absolutely need an ARM chip to pull off. Samsung ended up also releasing one with an Intel Lakefield chip, which uses the same kind of big.LITTLE technology. But Intel Lakefield isn’t very good, just like a Y-series processor. At the time, the best chip for the job was absolutely the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx.
But now, with Tiger Lake UP4, that laptop could likely be made with a proper Intel chip, and it would actually be good. By making the parts smaller while making them better, the company takes away a key value proposition from Qualcomm.
Apple is a different story. The Cupertino giant just released an all-in-one desktop that has the same ARM processor as the 11-inch iPad Pro. Putting that kind of power behind an all-in-one while still offering the thermals to fit in a chassis that size is something that Intel can’t do right now. In fact, that’s why Apple is switching to its own custom silicon. It wants to do things that it can’t do with Intel chips.
Rich: And smaller pieces, right? We’re talking about a smaller motherboard and a more efficient design. When I reviewed the Samsung Galaxy Book S with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx initially, I said that it shows what an ARM processor can do because it’s super thin, it’s super light, and at the time, to do it with Intel you would have had to use Y-series. Then, there ended up being a version with Lakefield. Lakefield in a laptop isn’t really, I don’t want to say it’s bad, but it’s not Tiger Lake UP4, which is actually quite good.
Ryan: I think what you’re seeing with things like the ThinkPad X1 Nano, and some of the designs that will come out, are that you can do thin, light, and sleek with our architectures, with our products that are going to compete with Qualcomm, Apple, or anybody in terms of form factor, design, and innovation. And then you get the performance, the compatibility, and all the things that we’ve talked about previously: device accessories, Thunderbolt, all of that stuff that comes along with it.
You don’t have to worry about Windows on ARM complications, you don’t have to worry about Rosetta complications, and you’re going to be able to get these designs because of the product we’ve built and the work that Josh’s team and other engineering teams inside Intel did to get the perfect systems for Lenovo and others out the door.
Joshua: Just to echo Ryan’s point, this is just the evolving waves of innovation with the OEMS, and taking advantage of this is going to continue. Evo is there to promote that, but the X1 Titanium, one of the things besides making the board really small, opening up new ways of doing thermals, and getting the keyboard so awesome is also to make the screen go edge to edge. We did a new chip on glass technology in a notebook for the first time, which allowed us to put the display drivers on the glass instead of in the bezels, without having to grow the thickness. You could solve all these problems at the same time by bringing new technologies and solving these problems together between Intel and Lenovo. We’re doing a lot more of that; putting the 5G antennas in, where do you fit those in a design like that? We’re doing more of that across our Evo OEM customers, so you’ll see more of this kind of cool stuff coming.
One last thing I wanted to talk about was 5G, which is a key feature in Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Nano and ThinkPad X1 Titanium. Intel isn’t known for its 5G chops, selling off its efforts to Apple. It later made a deal with MediaTek to offer 5G in laptops, but that still hasn’t shipped.
Right now, Intel PCs that have 5G use a Qualcomm modem, and they only support sub-6GHz frequencies. The only 5G PCs that support sub-6GHz and mmWave are Windows on ARM devices, so I wondered if that was a limitation of using the Qualcomm modem with an Intel processor. It turns out that it’s not; it’s just a question of usefulness versus antenna design.
It would be really nice if Intel just started releasing CPUs that come with modems, like Qualcomm does. It’s a bit sad that here in 2021, you’ll still get charged a significant premium for cellular connectivity on a laptop. That was a battle that Qualcomm promised to win for us, that cellular should be standard. But even Qualcomm is losing that battle now, with Windows on ARM PCs like the HP Elite Folio and the Samsung Galaxy Book Go shipping with only Wi-Fi in the base model.
Rich: Very cool. So, let’s talk about 5G a second just because you mentioned it. All of the Intel 5G PCs are sub-6 only right now. Is there a limitation to that because when it comes to ultra-portable, we’re taking it out of the office; when I when I think portable, I think cellular, and I don’t know that everybody thinks the same way but cellular in PCs is something that I care about. Is there a limitation where you can’t do millimeter wave with Intel processors?
Joshua: It’s not a limitation; it’s a use case question. Millimeter-wave does bring some form factor challenges. Those kinds of antennas for the line-of-sight technology get a little more challenging to solve on a form factor, but then the second question is, is the line-of-sight technology really valuable for the laptop use case. I think the first problem we’re solving is, let’s get sub-6. That probably has the most value for the laptop use case now and long term, or I should say in the future, we’re also looking at how we cover the whole spectrum for all of the different 5G usages that may be out there. We know how to do it, but there may be trade-offs that don’t make sense yet for the laptop until we figure some of those out.
Rich: I know antenna design can be tough for millimeter wave because you need that line of sight. Is there anything else you guys want to add?
Ryan: No I don’t think so. I guess it really just comes back down to, this was always in the plan when we launched in September. Obviously, I’m sure we would have loved to have had more of the systems like the ones you’re excited about in your hands a little bit earlier, but they’re here and they’re moving their way through the pipeline and in 2021 has a lot more Tiger Lake yet to come.
Conclusion: Lenovo and Intel are reinventing thin and light laptops with the ThinkPad X1 Nano, the ThinkPad X1 Titanium Yoga, and Tiger Lake UP4
I came here to talk about two things. The first was Lenovo’s new family of ThinkPads: the ThinkPad X1 Nano, ThinkPad X1 Titanium Yoga, and ThinkPad X12 Detachable. These laptops really blew me away. They’re incredibly thin and light, and they’re incredibly good.
They also make some really interesting design choices. As we learned above, the ThinkPad X1 Titanium is meant to be a tablet first. It’s one of very few convertible laptops that are actually designed to be good at being a tablet. But that’s not even everything, because these laptops have really great keyboards too, beating out the already-impressive ThinkPad lineup.
It feels like Lenovo was able to build these devices without making any meaningful compromises, which is really impressive. When it comes to a super thin and light device, I fully expect to end a review saying that the product is fine, as long as you’re willing to deal with a certain compromise. That’s not the case here.
The key reason for that is the second thing I came to talk about, which is Intel’s new 11th-generation UP4 processors. These chips are unlocking possibilities and form factors that weren’t possible before. Previously, to make a PC that was under two pounds, you had to use a material like magnesium, and use a slow processor like Y-series or Lakefield.
With Tiger Lake UP4, you’ve actually got the power for some photo editing or light gaming. You can even edit video in a pinch. It’s wild stuff.
I do hope we see more of it though. I’m only aware of four laptops that use Tiger Lake UP4: the ThinkPad X1 Nano, ThinkPad X1 Titanium Yoga, ThinkPad X12 Detachable, and Dell Latitude 7320 Detachable. But then again, the marketing on a lot of these is confusing these days, so a lot of products only say that they have 11th-gen processors without telling you which ones.