Hands On with the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold

Lenovo wades into the folding display space with a craftily-engineered laptop

Somewhere in my basement is an ancient and iconic piece of mobile technology, IBM’s ThinkPad 701c, featuring the one-of-a kind butterfly keyboard that literally reconfigured as you opened the tiny laptop to become a full-sized one. I couldn’t help but think of that engineering marvel as I held Lenovo’s fascinating new ThinkPad X1 Fold, the company’s first folding-screen laptop.

Lenovo is now a Chinese company, but it still has the DNA of the company that helped bring personal computing to the masses and that developed that memorable butterfly keyboard.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold
The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold is not just a folding screen. It's a laptop.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

What is This?

The ThinkPad X1 Fold looks in repose like a thick, 13-inch tablet wrapped in a significant bezel. The 4:3 display ratio is unremarkable, and I would be hard pressed to call the 2.2-pound design sleek. Still, the touch screen is bright and unblemished. There was no discernible film covering the display and certainly nothing I would think about peeling away. In fact, looking at the X1 Fold for the first time, I wouldn’t have guessed that the display could bend at all.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold looks like an unremarkable 13-inch tablet.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

However, as soon as I started to fold the laptop, I could see and feel the care of its construction. Grabbing each side, I slowly bent the X1 Fold in half. The X1 Fold joins a raft of new folding screen devices and like virtually all of them it folds but does not crease the plastic OLED screen. There’s a small gap at the fold, which allows space for the open loop of display material at the bend.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold
The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold design and construction could best be described as rigorous and a bit rugged. Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

I also noticed how, as I closed the laptop, the leather backing, which is part of the X1 Fold, slid smoothly back from one edge of the frame. Everything about the process felt solid, tight, and repeatable.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold
The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold has a USB-C post and a 5G-ready SIM slot.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

A Lenovo executive explained how the company spent four years developing the laptop, figuring out how to make every part of the X1 Fold work. Arrayed before me earlier this week at CES 2020 in Las Vegas were all the components, the underpinnings of X1 Fold.

Under the Flexible Hood

The screen itself is paper thin and almost just as fragile.

For the screen backing, Lenovo wanted something strong and light, but with some flexibility. They settled on carbon fiber. I held a piece of the backing, noted its light weight and gave it a little twist. It flexed but did not bend.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold backing
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold's screen is backed by these carbon fiber plates.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

To accommodate and protect the bend, Lenovo built a combination plastic and carbon fiber spine. It’s hidden from view under the black silicon covering and leather back.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold spine
The spine of the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold is well-protected.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

The hinges are an intricate piece of work. They’re made of thin pieces of metal, tightly bunched and all meshed in such a way that they move smoothly, but do not swing freely. Outside of the device and without the torque of the screen, it takes some force to move them. To further protect that fragile screen bend, the hinge shifts up in its body as it closes to keep the metal away from the OLED screen material.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold
The hardware Lenovo uses to move ThinkPad X1 Fold's leather back.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Finally, for that nifty leather binding move, Lenovo employed a series of springs attached to movable metal plates. They’re what allows the leather binding to slide back from one edge of the ThinkPad X1 Fold. The leather cover also includes a loop for a future stylus and a built-in kick stand if you want the X1 Fold to sit upright on your desk for video conferencing or maybe streaming a little Netflix.

Making Windows Ready

Even though Microsoft is working on its own dual-screen systems, the current version of Windows 10 does not support folding displays. Windows 10X should. In the meantime, Lenovo built a piece of custom software that lives in the task bar. To split the ThinkPad X1 Fold screen into two, I simply selected a screen mode and it separated the display right down the middle into two tasks. There’s also an option to make one half a software keyboard. As the screen separated, I noticed that Microsoft Word ended up traversing part of the bend before ending at the top of the software keyboard. My guess is that’s because Microsoft Windows still doesn’t recognize that it’s on a folding screen laptop.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold
It's a non-traditional laptop, to be sure.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Software keyboards are good in a pinch, but the lack of physical feedback makes fast, accurate typing almost impossible. That’s why Lenovo is also offering an optional Bluetooth keyboard that magnetically attaches to and covers half the OLED screen. Initially, I placed the keyboard on the wrong half of the screen. It’s not my fault; there’s no visual cue to guide you. Still the magnets didn’t line up and the keyboard sat askew on the X1 Fold, but as soon as I flipped the laptop over and put the keyboard on the other, correct side, it snapped smartly into place.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold
The Bluetooth keyboard is not full-sized, but the typing experience is still good.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

If I want to keep the keyboard with the laptop, I can fold the X1 Fold with the keyboard inside it and it will sit there and grab a fresh charge directly from the X1 Fold.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold keyboard
The rechargeable keyboard can travel inside the X1 Fold. Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff 

It’s also possible to use the Bluetooth keyboard separated from the laptop. In this case, I unfolded the laptop, put it in landscape mode and propped it up with the kickstand. The keyboard sat a few inches away in front of it. Versatility won’t be a problem for this device.

There aren’t a lot of ports on the ThinkPad X1 Fold. I noticed a USB-C port, which can be used to connect to a full-sized keyboard or more screens, and a SIM slot for, you guessed it, 5G.

Why do You Need This?

It’s early days in the world of folding-screen devices, which means they still must prove their right to exist. For some it’ll be the joy of a new form factor. For others, the ability to have a 13-inch laptop in, essentially, a 7-inch form factor is reason enough.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold
The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold, all folded up.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

A flexible screen has its challenges, like ruggedness and that almost imperceptible, but still there, ripple in the middle of the screen. But for those who want to live in the vanguard of laptop technology and have a certain appreciation for ThinkPad innovation of yore, this $2,499 laptop could be a compelling option.

Check out my video of the new Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold.