Meditations on First ThinkPad: How Lenovo adapts to changes in the PC industry

ThinkPad users are some of the most vociferously opinionated PC users out there, and Lenovo has the challenge of trying to please all of them.

Lenovo announces more than 20 new products at CES 2018 At CES 2018, Lenovo focused on new PC and smart devices for consumer and business customers. This includes the Smart Hub product family.

From a modality perspective, writers and programmers do the same thing, day after day. Both careers involve spending the bulk of their work day using a computer, though the tools marketed to and preferred by either industry are often diametrically opposed. While MacBooks are often the system of choice for digital creatives, ThinkPads are often seen in the hands of IT professionals. Users of either system are among the most vocal and opinionated, among laptop brands.

While Apple users have been increasingly seen grousing about the butterfly-switch keyboard, ThinkPad users, likewise, have complained about changes that have come to newer models, bringing them more in-line with standard, consumer-focused systems. Some criticize Lenovo's stewardship of the ThinkPad brand—after acquiring IBM's PC OEM division in 2005—though the company has worked to balance ThinkPad's visual design with the changing PC market.

How display ratios impact productivity

As with practically every other notebook computer introduced in the early 1990s, the original ThinkPad systems, like the ThinkPad 701 on display in MoMA, used 4:3 display panels. With the rest of the PC OEM market, ThinkPads migrated to 16:9 as the display market catered toward media consumption.

This was done "begrudgingly," according to Jerry Paradise, Lenovo's vice president of global commercial portfolio and product management. "Trying to stay with 4:3 when all the manufacturers were getting out of that business, the cost just skyrocketed and.. the economics pushed us into 16:9," Paradise said.

SEE: Working remotely: A professional's guide to the essential tools (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

While MacBooks have utilized 16:10 displays since their introduction in 2006, other vendors have also explored unique form factors as of late. Microsoft's Surface line of devices adopted 3:2 screens in 2014, similar to Google's Pixelbook and Pixel Slate systems. The ThinkPad X1 Tablet has followed this trend, using a 13", 3:2 display. "We're actually looking at 16:10 panels for potential use, because it gives you a little more of that vertical space," Paradise said. "For somebody that does a lot of work in office documents and reading out web pages etc, you need more of that vertical screen real estate, so things like 16:10 and 3:2 become attractive."

"We get a lot of feedback from our customers—particularly enterprise customers, and our counsels, with which we spend a lot of time—that 16:10 is a very attractive ratio and that we should consider it," he added.

Balancing soldered components and upgradability

Lenovo's 2019 ThinkPad models have received criticism for losing some of their upgradability, as components—particularly RAM—are being soldered to the mainboard. The ThinkPad T490 and T590 both retain one SO-DIMM socket, coming equipped with 8 or 16 GB RAM from the factory. The silimmer T490s, and the X390—the spiritual successor of the X280, with a 13.3" display—only includes factory-soldered RAM.

This is difficult to accept, particularly as the T490 and T590 dropped the 2.5" SATA bay, which theoretically frees up space inside the case (granted, sticking a SATA port at the edge of the mainboard and finding board space for a SO-DIMM socket is not an equitable comparison.)

SEE: Beyond the PC: Lenovo's ambitious plan for the future of computing (cover story PDF) (TechRepublic)

Paradise points to the L-series as "where we want to keep sockets around," but also notes the difficulty of these decisions. "Our job is made up of a series of trade-offs, it's never one perfect answer," noting that professionals who often travel in airports "are a big segment of our customers... they want less weight, and they want something that slides down their bag and doesn't take a lot of space."

From a manufacturing standpoint, Paradise notes, "it's not ideal, because you can imagine the complexities of every memory configuration multiplied by all the other configurable options on the board. When you start doing the math, you end up with a very big number... it's not something that we like either, but we know that it's a requirement to get thinner and lighter in some of the series."

Engineering 5G support is an engineering challenge

As 5G mobile networks are being deployed in earnest by network operators, Lenovo is working on adding 5G mobile broadband to future ThinkPad models, in much the same way previous models have had WWAN modem options, such as 3G or 4G LTE. Because of 5G's reliance on MIMO to deliver faster data speeds, more antennas are needed to enable this functionality.

"We're starting to really do a lot more work in 5G now. We're doing a lot of work in antenna technology... to make the antenna smaller. ThinkPad has a long history of [using] materials like carbon fiber. That's going to be a big advantage for us, as you compare it to full metal designs," Paradise said. "We are getting very creative in terms of where do you put those antennas."

"We're innovating again—in terms of how you get creative on antenna design and materials to fit those in—and I would tell you that thin bezels doesn't help that, you've got to look at other creative ways to get the antennas in."

Linux and ThinkPads go together, but not at the factory

ThinkPads are often the laptop of choice for Linux users, as Lenovo does certify some ThinkPad models for Linux use. Unfortunately, buyers are typically subject to the Windows Tax, resulting in purchased, though unused, licenses.

The question of getting Linux installed from the factory "comes up over and over with some of our very important customers, and it is taken very seriously," Paradise noted, adding that Lenovo "provides drivers and a BIOS that is compatible," reiterating that "we get that request a lot."

A glimmer of hope for the return of the butterfly keyboard

The aforementioned ThinkPad 701, displayed in MoMA, is notable for Lenovo's own "butterfly keyboard," which expands outward when the screen is opened, providing a full-size keyboard on a compact laptop that used a 4:3 display. The concept—which is, truthfully, niche—was a product of its time, as wider displays made the functionality unnecessary."I'm looking for a reason to bring that back," Paradise said. "Who knows, down the road, as we look at these 3:2 [displays]... we had a lot of fun with that keyboard, but it was purely from an aspect ratio that caused to have to do that keyboard."

For more, learn how to use your OEM Windows license when installing Windows 10 in a VM on Linux, or check out "With ThinkBook laptops, Lenovo hopes to catch eye of millennial workforce" or "How Lenovo plans to become the world's largest hyperscale infrastructure provider" at ZDNet.

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Image: Lenovo