When IBM created the ThinkPad line in the 90s, they set the gold standard for quality in notebook computers. In 2005, IBM exited the PC business and sold off its desktop and laptop lines to Lenovo. Is the ThinkPad still the standard or has it gone downhill?


When IBM first introduced the portable PC, it was little more than a luggable unit like the Osbourne 1. It then went on to create some laptop PCs, but it wasn’t until they created the ThinkPad line in 1992 that IBM became a force to be reckoned with. IBM ThinkPads pretty much set the standard for laptops in the 90s and into the early twenty-first century.

Even though IBM was mired in third place behind Dell and HP for market share for years, the ThinkPad line continued to shine, especially in the business place. Ultimately, however, IBM decided to exit the desktop and laptop market, selling its business to Lenovo in 2005. Lenovo got the rights to the ThinkPad name and was even allowed to use the IBM logo.

The question is, however, even though the ThinkPad name remains, are they STILL the same solid ThinkPads that had such a reputation? I’m not sure.

The long and winding road to Lenovo

IBM shipped the first ThinkPad 700s back in 1992. They were all 486-based laptops running Windows 3.1. Among the innovations in the ThinkPad line were the first TFT (thin film transistor) LCD screen and the TrackPoint pointing device. ThinkPads were also famous for their sleek black cases and near-perfect keyboards. The first ThinkPad weighed 6.5 pounds and cost $4,350, which is over $6,350 in today’s money.

While IBM was creating the ThinkPad, there was a little company in China called Legend that was manufacturing PCs of its own. According to the Lenovo company history, Legend began as a company creating Chinese character cards and launched its first PC in 1990. By 1998, Legend had sold over a million PCs. Legend would go on to become Lenovo.

When the twenty-first century started, IBM was in a bit of a financial malaise. To help boost the bottom line, IBM decided to outsource production of the NetVista line of desktop in 2002. It did so to a company called Sanmina-SCI under a three-year, $5-billion agreement. In 2003, IBM followed up by signing a deal to outsource production of its server line to the same company. As you can see in both articles, IBM said that they would not outsource production of the ThinkPad, but rather keep them in-house.

That didn’t last very long however. In 2004, IBM agreed to sell part of its laptop arm to Chinese manufacturer Hon Hai Precsion. Hon Hai was already the second-largest OEM of laptops in the world, manufacturing laptops to several companies including Lenovo.

Finally, in 2005, IBM had enough and decided to sell its entire PC line, including the ThinkPad, to Lenovo. Just this year, Lenovo bought Sanmina-SCI, completely solidifying its purchase of the former IBM PC line.

Along with the business, Lenovo purchased the right to use IBM’s name for five years after the deal. Lenovo jettisoned the IBM name as soon as it could and stuck with the Think brand as the flagship product. It continues to sell the ThinkPad, ThinkCentre, and now the ThinkServer.

See the difference

You can see the difference in production over time by checking the stickers on the back of the 1995 ThinkPad 701C, which we just did a Cracking Open Photo gallery, compared to a 2004 ThinkPad T42 used by TechRepublic Editor Bill Detwiler.

The 701C clearly shows that the unit is made in Mexico BY IBM:

Alternatively, the T42 is made in China FOR IBM:

The semantic difference shows over time how IBM was slowly moving away from production of its own machines.

The downward spiral of the ThinkPad

The original ThinkPads seemed to be very solid machines. I always loved the keyboard in particular and the speed of the machine. But even as early as 2006, I started to notice a problem when we first reviewed the Lenovo Thinkpad Tablet PC:

If there are any areas I could complain about there would be two: One

is around the vaunted ThinkPad keyboard and the other is around the

infamous TrackPoint. ThinkPad keyboards are still in a league by

themselves, but my poor Lenovo has a mushy spot around the arrow keys. Maybe it’s broken underneath, but it just doesn’t feel the same as the rest of the keys.

As for the TrackPoint, it seems to have fits whenever the hard drive is

running a lot. If you try to load several programs at the same time,

the TrackPoint jumps randomly and sometimes starts additional programs. I’ve seen on Usenet where this appears to be a common occurrence, but noone seems to have suggestion that works to fix it.

Subsequent ThinkPads I’ve seen don’t seem to have the same fit and finish on the case, and the keyboards don’t have the same feel. TechRepublic members in the past have had issues with Lenovo products as well, including shoddy service and support.

What do you think?

When people used to ask me what kind of a laptop to buy, I always used to recommend IBM ThinkPads hands down, if they could afford them. When I recently bought my own laptop, I went with an HP Pavillion. The ThinkPads just seem to have lost some luster to me.

Has Lenovo destroyed the ThinkPad line? Take the poll below and sound off in the Comment section.