When IBM sold their PC division to Lenovo, not all was well with the iconic ThinkPad brand. IBM was losing money and wanted to get rid of the PC arm of the business for several years. ThinkPad was one of the many components that made the purchase of IBM’s PC Division desirable. Towards the end of IBM’s ownership, corners and costs were being cut to try and save money where they could and that was starting to hurt what they could do with the newer generations of ThinkPad. It would seem if IBM kept ThinkPad, things were going to get worse, not better.

To learn more about this part of the history of these two companies and a great deal about the topic of this article, the ThinkPad X300, you need to learn more about Steve Hamm’s book, “The Race for Perfect.”

David Churbuk (VP of Global Digital Marketing at Lenovo from 2005 through 2010) recalls the atmosphere in a blog post he wrote for the 25th anniversary of ThinkPad. We are fortunate that David Churbuk wrote about these experiences so we can look back at them as part of a historical record:

Lenovo was a complete unknown when it was formed in 2005. Today it is number one in the market, ahead of Dell and HP. The name “Lenovo” was coined by an expensive brand consultant and always evoked an image of a French anti-cellulite lotion in my word-warped mind. The company was a partially state-owned enterprise that dominated the Chinese market for computers but was utterly unknown in the rest of the world. Lenovo launched in the hope of becoming one of China’s first true global brands and do for the country’s reputation what Sony and Toyota had done for Japan in the late 1960s, and Samsung, LG and Hyundai had done for South Korea in the 1980s — become a premier status brand associated with innovation and high-concept design and dispel the image of China being a low-cost, low-quality producer of dreck.

The negative sentiment expressed by the ThinkPad faithful towards Lenovo was intense, verging on racism. As I read the comments on the gadget blogs like Gizmodo and the independent ThinkPad forums, I discovered a cult of over-weening, obsessive, compulsive and paranoid cultists who knew down to the penny the precise bill of materials that comprised a ThinkPad almost as well as David [Hill]’s own staff. Each and every new ThinkPad released by Lenovo in 2006 was scrutinized by the horde for signs of cost-cutting or diminished quality. The rubber feet under the case. The feel of the rubberized paint on the lid. The fit and finish. The decals….The faithful were skeptical and on high alert.

In terms of timelines and based on the reading, research and interviews I’ve done over the years, the cost-cutting and outsourcing of manufacturing were happening often during the last of the IBM years. Examples of this can be seen through the changes in materials, designs and even the cost-saving decision for the ThinkLight to be amber since those LEDs were cheaper. Several models were being produced by Acer, LG and Lenovo rather than in-house by IBM. When the transition occurred, Lenovo understandably had a lot to learn about being a large designer and manufacturer of PCs in a global market. That is a significant jump for a company to make. It wasn’t perfect and neither was what they were handed.

So when it came time for Lenovo to build their own ThinkPad from the ground up without IBM, they needed to get it right. They had to prove to the world that they knew what they were doing and could do just as good or better than IBM. For this next part of the story, I recommend if you haven’t already viewed the Project Kodachi video series on my YouTube channel to get a better understanding of the context that brought about the ThinkPad X300. 

Laptop Mag in 2008 named David Hill, the chief designer of the ThinkPad X300, #19 on their 25 Most Influential People in Mobile Technology for his work on the ThinkPad X300 and compared it favourably against the rival of the time, the MacBook Air. Contrary to popular belief, the X300 was well into development by the time the Air was announced and was not created in response to the efforts of Apple. That myth came about as a result of the direct comparisons drawn at the time.

From David Hill’s archives, a photograph of the Lenovo ThinkPad X300 fitting inside of an inter-office envelope.

This comparison and rivalry would extend to the ThinkPad X301 and the sleek black box did well when compared to other machines of the day:

Apple came out with the MacBook Air — an incredibly thin, sexy and largely impractical notebook, while Lenovo brought out the ThinkPad X300, which shared the Air’s size but otherwise was almost the polar opposite. The X300 wasn’t anywhere near as attractive but was a product you could truly live on, being vastly more practical. The X301 improves on the X300, having more performance and the option of an amazingly fast 128-GB hard drive. I’m a huge fan of these solid state drives; they are dead quiet, use little power and have blindingly fast read rates. Unfortunately, they are also very expensive, but darned if they aren’t worth it.

The MacBook Air is arguably the most attractive notebook in the market, while the X301 is the closest to overall perfection. The market tends to favor appearance over practicality at the moment, but the true perfect laptop would be one that was as good looking as the Air and as practical as the X301. We’ll see if Apple or Lenovo gets there first.

Lenovo’s X301 is arguably the closest thing to notebook perfection, but if sales volumes are to reflect this, it will need to improve its appearance and find an economically more attractive entry price. In the end, however, this is all about choice — and Apple, Dell and Lenovo are providing ever-more-interesting ones. Being a fan of choice, that has to be a good thing.

Apple vs. Dell vs. Lenovo: Got to Love Choices by Rob Enderle December 8, 2008

A Lenovo ThinkPad T430s and X1 Carbon Gen 3. Both owe some of their design language to the X300.

The ThinkPad X300 launched a new era of ThinkPads. It would lead to the creation of the ThinkPad X1 and the first ThinkPad X1 Carbon which is the industry standard for a business laptop. The DNA and design of the ThinkPad X300 would be transformed in the X1 series but would continue with a few changes in the emergence of the ThinkPad T400s and subsequent T410s, T420s and T430s models. The location of the ports and features of the device would harken back to the layout first configured on the ThinkPad X300. David Churbuk seems to agree:

Ah ….. This thing took all the glory of our X300 — the notebook Businessweek called the Perfect PC — and puts it into a serious heatseeker of a laptop. You can, if you are inclined to spend the big dollars, make this thing behave like a serious workstation. Configure it with a big SSD drive, max the RAM and you’re talking one of the most powerful laptops ever conceived. Super thin, and loaded. I could see toting this around for the next two years with never a regret.

Google Translate:
How can you make a great notebook PC even better?
・Further improve the functions of the T series
・Equipped with new technology developed for X300
・The thinnest and lightest in the series
・Inherits the features of the excellent T series
・Reduction of system price
14-inch 1440×900 WXGA+ LED-backlit LCD with wide display area
Optical drive with a height of 9.5mm
・Blu-ray, DVD super multi-drive
Uses a standard voltage processor with excellent performance (25W)
Extensibility with new docking station Mini Dock Ⅲ
Original Image: Marasu Kamikura

Without the creation of the ThinkPad X300, it is uncertain if Lenovo would have the success it has enjoyed with the ThinkPad brand. While the X1 Carbon and T series often steal the show in terms of most popular choices for a quality business laptop, neither would be where they are today without the ThinkPad X300.

A quick way to start a debate

One thing that will get long-term ThinkPad users talking is the differences between all of the ThinkPad keyboards and which version is best. This can be a hotly debated topic with a lot of feelings, nostalgia, personal preference and use cases but there are some things I’d like to start with and that is, you are allowed to like them both for different reasons and both have their strengths. When I say “both” what I mean is what most people will talk about and that is the difference between the six-row and seven-row keyboards. There are many that will state that the “classic” or seven-row keyboard remains superior to the six-row or “island” style modernized version. Specific groups will target different models of the seven-row keyboard all the way back to the buckling sleeve M6 and M6-1 variants and if you are getting lost already, you may want to visit Sharktastica’s excellent website on keyboards. This article isn’t designed to make you change your opinion one way or the other, but to provide some information that I have found is often left out of the conversation. Hopefully, you will learn at least one new thing reading this information to either bolster or steel your existing argument or perhaps make you ask some questions.

The “classic” seven-row keyboard is a much-loved keyboard for several reasons, some of which are:

  • The number of rows of keys,
  • The dedicated keys that are removed or repurposed,
  • The switch type,
  • The key shape,
  • The key travel.
The “classic” seven-row ThinkPad keyboard as seen on the ThinkPad T420s. Note the square-shaped keys, additional row and blue-coloured enter button.

Some of the above are objective preferences and others will be more subjective in nature but before we dive far into the weeds, I’ll mention this isn’t even the first time I’ve written about ThinkPad keyboards. I strongly suggest you read my first article which looks at a scientific study on key travel that is related to this conversation as it helps shed some light on why we favour certain keyboards over others using ThinkPad keyboards as a test case.

Jul
13

It isn’t all about Key Travel

This article was made possible by the excellent and very interesting study linked below. Coppola, Sarah M., Philippe C. Dixon, Boyi Hu, Michael Y.C. Lin, and Jack T. Dennerlein. 2019. “Going Short: The Effects of Short-Travel Key Switches on Typing Performance, Typing Force, Forearm Muscle Activity, and User Experience.” Journal of Applied Biomechanics 35 (2): 149–56. https://journals.humankinetics.com/view/journals/jab/35/2/article-p149.xml […]

IBM did it before Lenovo

While working on this article, Admiral Shark of Sharkastica, the excellent keyboard website I mentioned at the start of the article, pointed out that IBM was releasing several ThinkPads with six-row keyboard designs before the modern version was even released on the X1. ThinkPads like the IBM ThinkPad 500 and 300C keyboards for example featured six rows. In that regard, the six-row configuration has been around since the beginning. It was certainly not as common as the seven-row design that was found on the flagship models, but there is an undeniable history of six rows present essentially from the beginning.

Christopher Ross Hind, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The Reception and Development of the Modern Six-Row

The more modern six-row ThinkPad keyboard as shipped on the T430s. Note the removal of the ‘IBM’ blue and ThinkVantage text. The island-style keys have spaces between them, but the key shape on the top remains largely unchanged. More modern versions see the removal of the physical buttons above the keyboard with the exception of the power button.

When the new island-style keyboard launched on the ThinkPad X1 in May 2011, it caused quite a stir, so much so that it was addressed in a blog post in July of 2012 trying to explain all of the hard work that went into the design and function of the keyboard. One particular Question and Answer stands out for the level of testing that went into developing the new keyboard:

“We often conduct different evaluations and user tests to maintain or improve the ThinkPad keyboard. However, to determine if and how we would make the changes to our keyboard in 2012, we embarked on one of the most in-depth keyboard studies ever conducted for ThinkPad. We did 350 hours of user testing with people in four countries. With each participant, we conducted 90- to 120-minute one-on-one interviews with hands-on use of different keyboard conditions to understand the latest about keyboard use and design preferences.”

Change Is Hard: Why You Should Give In to the New ThinkPad Keyboard by Gavin O’Hara

As an aside, the X1 is the spiritual successor to the X301/X300 line of ultrabooks and would evolve into the extremely popular X1 Carbon lineup. In 2019, I got to take a look at an X1 in the video below.

Thanks to Marasu Kamikura, we have some insights as to why the change was made to the six-row keyboard. It turns out that the dedicated keys were being used less and less so they wanted to consolidate the spaces to reduce the overall footprint of the keyboard to make room for other components. Other details about how the laptop closed, TrackPoint height, screen bezels and other design decisions are detailed in the images below. You can click on each image to see a Google Translate version of the text from this briefing on the X1 and the new keyboard. If any readers can provide a better translation, please reach out. I’ve also included a quote from the article above that mentioned the movement of these keys to their new home and how long it takes on average to adjust. All this to say; as users evolved and software changed, so too must the devices we use.

“We have seen end-users comfortably adjust to these changes in less than an hour. Depending on personal use of these functions, other users may require a bit more time for the change to feel natural. However, this reset has occurred for every end-user in our extensive testing, typically with an ultimate preference for the new layout over the old. Legacy functions like Pause, Break and Scroll Lock are no longer overtly labelled on key tops, but remain accessible via key combinations using the Fn key (e.g., Fn+P = Pause).”

Change Is Hard: Why You Should Give In to the New ThinkPad Keyboard by Gavin O’Hara

A further connection to ThinkPad heritage

A promotional photo of the Lenovo Skylight showing off the keyboard.

But there exists a connection to the origins of the ThinkPad brand and this newer design that most fans are not aware of and for that, we need to talk about Skylight. Skylight deserves its own deeper dive so I won’t summarize it all here but for the purposes of this article, one should know that device was where this new keyboard was first tested and it makes perfect sense. Both the original ThinkPad and Skylight were designed by Richard Sapper.

Skylight at CES 2010 Photo by Masaru Kamikura. Note the “D” shaped keys on the keyboard.

The keyboard present on the Skylight prototypes and demo models was close to the original wooden prototype ThinkPad that was constructed by Richard Sapper in the early 90s. He referred to these as “D” shaped keys. David Hill discussed this in his blog back in October 2013 which can be found on the Wayback Machine, pictures included.

What I would like to call attention to in this blog is something embodied in Sapper’s work that never quite made it to market on the original ThinkPad 700c. Richard imagined a new key shape that would have a unique contour and profile. He described it as a “D” shape. The intent was to cradle the finger and create a human-oriented soft form that would contrast the strict rectilinear geometry of ThinkPad.

The latest ThinkPad keyboard we introduced on products such as the X1 Carbon actually has a key shape reminiscent of this 20+-year-old concept. I made a push to simplify and purify the visual expression of ThinkPad, and I thought the time was right to finally dust off the “D”-shaped key. It took months of hard work, experimentation and analysis to develop and tune the final key shape and relevant force curves. I feel confident that we finally harnessed Sapper’s original intent for our latest ThinkPad designs.

While Skylight would not make it to market, being cancelled six months later its announcement at CES, the keyboard lives on and was introduced on the ThinkPad X1. Taken all together, the six-row modern keyboard has just as much right to be called a ThinkPad keyboard as the seven-row, possibly even more given the connections to its past.

Playing favourites and Retro resurrection

So getting back to the heart of our discussion around ThinkPad keyboards, there is history in every keyboard that has graced the ThinkPad design and they all have good pedigree and merit to their design. As for which is ultimately superior will always be a  question riddled with subjectivity right down to the manufacturer of each iteration. Yes, one model or version of a keyboard is often made by several different companies and sometimes small variances end up existing enough though they are supposed to be all built to the same specifications. Some users will even report a different feeling of key presses between backlit and non-backlit variants. 

The classic seven-row keyboard did have one last triumph that should be mentioned and that of course is the ThinkPad T25.

The retro-style keyboard that was included on the ThinkPad T25 anniversary model. This keyboard can also be retrofitted to a T480 with modifications.

When David Hill was working on designing the T25, the 25th anniversary ThinkPad, a poll was conducted on the type of keyboard that people wanted to see in that model and unsurprisingly, a retro keyboard was preferred for a retro-styled machine. Considering this machine was being built to harken back to the past, it was appropriate that this specialized keyboard was commissioned for the T25. One should be careful though not to read the data below as an overall preference between the two designs as this device was targeted at a specific group of people and not a wide-scale product. That data would look very different. Needless to say, it is well-loved by many people. As time moves on, fewer and fewer will make this comparison as the older keyboard becomes rarer.

“Preference for a 7 row keyboard was a strong winner. This is clear in both the survey responses and the comments. I’ve included a bar chart on this topic for everyone’s reference.”
https://web.archive.org/web/20151112171550/http://blog.lenovo.com/en/blog/retro-thinkpad-survey-2-displays-keyboard

ThinkPad knows everything about making a keyboard

One thing is certain in my mind and that is ThinkPads have the best keyboards when compared to any other laptop brand on the market and that is not a surprise to me. When you have spent over 30 years making laptop keyboards, you are going to know a lot about how to do it correctly. That isn’t even counting the years of research IBM did on typewriters and how that research would have bled over to the typing experience in the early days of notebooks. So whether you prefer six or seven rows, backlight or not, picking a ThinkPad keyboard is always a winning move. As for me, I enjoy both keyboards and use them frequently. While this article will likely not change anyone’s mind on such a longstanding and polarizing issue, I hope that it might help inform the conversation better and potentially change some of the language used in those conversations.

Few ThinkPads have such a strange line-up as what made up the T430 family. It contained several machines that prior to it and after that were unique. Out of all of the modern T400 series, there are more unique models in this era than any other. It seems like a lot of experimentation was happening during this time and that seems to line up with all of the different features, and chassis variants that we see in the T430 lineup.

Let’s unpack what is on the table. The following models make up the line:

  • T430
  • T430s
  • T431s
  • T430u
  • T530 (Honourable mention as it is the same generation)

As you can see, some normal contenders like the T430 and T530 make up the 14″ and 15″ models respectively. The T430s was also a common sight since the T400 introduced the “s” suffix to the T series. However, the T431s and T430u are exceptionally unique, both in how common they are and what they brought in terms of design to ThinkPad.

The T430

Possibly one of the most loved ThinkPads of the 2010s, this ThinkPad was one of the last ones that allowed you to upgrade the CPU and other key components. It would inherit most of its design elements from the T420 with the exception of the newer style keyboard replacing the classic seven-row. The x30 series also came equipped with both the ThinkLight and the new backlit keyboard option, being the only generation to feature both on one machine. The T430 was the only of the family with the exception of the T530 to be socketed for the CPU allowing for easier upgrades. This caused quite a ruckus among some fans of the 7-row, but ultimately it prevailed. To learn more, check out this article and the video below:

Jul
13

It isn’t all about Key Travel

This article was made possible by the excellent and very interesting study linked below. Coppola, Sarah M., Philippe C. Dixon, Boyi Hu, Michael Y.C. Lin, and Jack T. Dennerlein. 2019. “Going Short: The Effects of Short-Travel Key Switches on Typing Performance, Typing Force, Forearm Muscle Activity, and User Experience.” Journal of Applied Biomechanics 35 (2): 149–56. https://journals.humankinetics.com/view/journals/jab/35/2/article-p149.xml […]

 

The T430s

The T430s is a lighter and slimmer version of the standard T430. It had less in common with its bigger, more modular brother. Battery life was a bit of a challenge since it maxed out at 44Wh. The machine thankfully can take an UltraBay Slim battery to help with the battery life. It also featured a carbon-fibre-hybrid lid with a magnesium base and roll cage to help with durability. As I mentioned above, the  “s” suffix all started with the T400s which has a lot in common visually with the X300 and X301 right down to the battery construction and placement and port selection. While I have featured the X300 and X301 in Project Kodachi, I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing a T400s.

The T431s

Probably the most controversial model in the T430 family, this machine introduced several changes that would be loved by some and vilified by others. The complete redesign reportedly took about nine months to complete. It was released after the T430u and was the thinnest in the T series lineup to that point. It removed the ThinkLight, introduced a new keyboard layout, introduced the ClickPad with the integrated TrackPoint buttons, only one RAM slot and overall had the beginnings of the design that the T440 and onward would take. With one RAM slot, 12GB is the maximum RAM possible on these machines. Web cameras, fingerprint readers and backlit keyboards were also optional. It is worth noting that the T431s and T430u listed below are the only two machines that do not have support for the 1vyrain BIOS mod. Like the T430u, it also sports an internal battery pack and no Optical Drive Bay.

The T430u

If the T431s was a leap into the unknown the T430u was the frontier before it. While it had many new features, it maintained just as many but with slight tweaks and variations. For example, it still has a ThinkLight, but one, unlike any other ThinkPad. It has no backlit keyboard option at all. Like the T431s it had no display hooks. It also had no docking port, optical drive or traditional roll cage found on the T430. One of my favourite features has to be the removable base plate. It is also the first T series that featured an aluminum display lid. It had a larger ClickPad than the other T series devices of the era.

The T530

Of course, the T530 is the 15-inch version of the same era, but it has more in common with the W530 than the T430 series. It even shares the same Hardware Maintenance Manual with the W530 and T530i.

Which is your favourite?

There are lots of different and interesting models in this line-up, which is your favourite and why? Feel free to reach out and chat about this article on Twitter or Mastodon if you prefer.

2022 has been a very busy year for the channel with nearly 100 videos published. This year saw the beginning of many new projects, some that I have yet to announce and the continuation and expansion of others. To help celebrate, here are my Top Picks for each month of 2022.

January 2022

The year started strong and it was a tough race between an interview I did with David Hill regarding the TrackPoint cap and the ThinkMods NVMe to Express Card Adapter. Since it is my list, I refuse to choose and give you both of those fantastic videos.

February 2022

February saw the one-year anniversary of my Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Nano ownership which was a milestone to be sure. SaotoTech did steal the show a bit with their 3D-printed TrackPoint caps. See the video below to learn more about how to get a modern version of a classic TrackPoint cap.

March 2022

This month was especially busy with lots of laptops and Think Design Stories. My favourite has to be David Hill’s story about the Hardened ThinkPad Concept. Special thanks to Brian Leonard for the best photos that exist of this important concept.

April 2022

I finally looked at the IBM ThinkPad 600 which was a very important model for the ThinkPad lineup as it laid the groundwork for the T series that would shortly follow. Lots of design choices that are still with the ThinkPad brand started with this model. Special thanks to Tommy for getting this model to me.

May 2022

This was a quieter month in terms of easily stand-out machines but it did see me tear down the ThinkPad E580 which went to show that good value still exists in series outside the T series.

June 2022

June soldiered on and several machines came and went but one that couldn’t quite go fast enough is one of the least repairable laptops ever made, the Surface Laptop 2. It is impossible to over this device without destroying several components.

July 2022

July was insane with 17 videos released. Two of my favourites from this time were my review of the Keychron K8 and Q0 keyboard and number pad. I did particularly enjoy the IBM ThinkPad A20m video as it gave me the chance to highlight Rob Herman’s work again as I finally got the chance to look at the first A Series on the channel.

August  2022

This was easily the quietest month of the year since I was already hard at work on my celebratory planning for ThinkPad 30th’s birthday. A lot of work was going on behind the scene so the fewest videos were produced during this time. I did manage to squeeze in a few videos and the Lenovo ThinkPad E14 Gen 1 was one of the good ones..

September 2022

September began the rolling release of the videos that celebrated ThinkPad’s 30th anniversary. I collaborated with not only David Hill, but Tom Hardy who shared some amazing stories about their time with ThinkPad and Design. Here are some of the many videos that were produced:

October 2022

With the ThinkPad 30’s celebrations in full swing, there was a lot to talk about. I strongly recommend you check out the playlist of Interviews for all the goodies that were happening at that time.

November 2022

This year seemed to have been dominated by ThinkPads. November saw the examination of the X390 which was the last three-digit X model before they went to the X13 variants. It is a strange evolution that I got the pleasure of unpacking for the channel.

December 2022

December and much of November were very busy months for me, unfortunately not channel related so there were many projects that I didn’t get started, or finished. I hope to start the next year strong and wanted to get two wonderful donations filmed. The Lenovo ThinkPad X61s and the Lenovo ThinkPad T430u. Thanks to Justin and Kemish for making that possible.

Looking Ahead

Looking into 2023 I feel like there is much left undone. I’ve been generously provided several donations I still need to film. I have several collaborations in the works that need to be continued that ideally, would be further along and I am definitely the slow factor. As I mentioned earlier in the article, things got busy outside of the channel and I never was able to claw that time back.

I’m excited and optimistic about the opportunities that are new that have also come my way that I cannot wait to share them with everyone. All of it, every success the channel has had this year and years previously has been a direct result of your kindness and support of what I do. Laptop Retrospective remains a wonderful hobby that I’m excited to work on every time I sit down to write notes for a video or edit together the next episode. I hope you will join me in the year ahead, we have so much to explore together.

Update: This article was updated on March 18, 2023 thanks to the help of Dan Basterfield who worked for IBM UK PC Company. His knowledge has helped increase the overall accuracy of this article.

ThinkPad enthusiasts will likely know that at the very beginning of the history of ThinkPad, black was not the only colour used for these iconic machines. As hard as it might be to believe there do exist Beige/Pebble Gray ThinkPads, it is a strange sight to behold. You can tell by looking at it that the hard work and consideration that Richard Sapper and Kazuhiko Yamazaki put into the design is impacted when the machine isn’t the colour it was designed to be. The Pebble Gray colour choice was available on several models, not just the 700C.

Early ThinkPad Models
Back row: N33sx, ThinkPad 300, ThinkPad 350
Front row: ThinkPad 700c beige, ThinkPad 700C, ThinkPad 720C beige
Photo by Dan Basterfield

According to the IBM Mobile Systems Hardware Maintenance Manual Volume 2: ThinkPad Computers April 1995the following models had “gray” part options that were designated “For Germany.” They are listed below:

  • IBM ThinkPad 700 and 700C (Cream in colour)
  • IBM ThinkPad 720 and 720C (Cream in colour)
  • IBM ThinkPad 750, 750P, 750Cs, 750Ce (Grey)
  • IBM ThinkPad Dock I
  • IBM ThinkPad 300 Monochrome (See PSREF below)

There was also a Japan-exclusive ThinkPad 330C (5523-JVB) that was beige. This was released on May 16, 1994 and did not feature a TrackPoint and other more recognizable ThinkPad features. We will talk more about that shortly.

It is worth noting that the different colour parts are shared between some models. For example, the 700 and 720 share the same housing components.

So where and why do these machines exist? Let me try and offer as complete of an answer as I can using the information I have collected, some of it recently.

The “Why?” question was partially answered by Arimasa Naitoh during the 20th Anniversary of ThinkPad.

The ThinkPad models in the 1990’s had documentation stating that they are to be made in black cases, in accordance with Richard Sapper’s guidelines set in his collaboration with the Boca Raton Team. Why were there variations from this, where, for instance, the 700/ C, 720C and 300 are in grey?

Naitoh-San: In the 1990’s, we had the retail models of ThinkPad painted in grey to be distinguished from the original enterprise models.

Happy 20th birthday, ThinkPad! Lenovo Forums Post

Naitoh-San is likely referring to the Japanese-exclusive ThinkPad 330C (5523-JVB) I mentioned earlier. You can see a gallery of photos of this device that were taken by ThinkPads.com Forum member Bondi.

Official IBM documentation of the Beige/Pebble Gray ThinkPad is spotty at best. In the Personal Systems Reference IBM ThinkPad Notebooks 1992 to 2001 – withdrawn January 2001 – Version 214, the only model not listed as being offered in black was the ThinkPad 300 monochrome model and it was listed as “Charcoal grey” (page 4) as opposed to black. We know from the Hardware Maintenance Manuals from above that there was a more comprehensive offering of ThinkPad in Beige/Gray. This is likely to do with the markets they were sold—more on that in just a moment.

To answer the “Where?” part of the question, we can look at the keyboards and see that nearly all of the photographed examples have one item in common and that is a QWERTZ keyboard layout. I found one example sporting a French European keyboard layout. Both of these keyboard layouts are exclusive to Western/Central Europe and the QWERTZ layout is often simply referred to as the German keyboard layout. Now, this raises an interesting and somewhat plausible connection to the interview I did with Tom Hardy where he discusses the challenges he had with German DIN standards and IBM Germany at the time. See the video below for that whole story.

It is impossible to know how many of these machines were produced but it is highly likely the German DIN standards of the time had an impact on their creation. If we assume Naitoh-san is correct in the above statement at least as it pertains to the Japanese market, where the retail models were designated that colour, Dan Basterfield, a former IBM UK PC Company employee and ThinkPad collector who contacted me also shed some light on how all these histories can co-exist.

“Naitoh-san’s comments about the retail models being grey and business models being black were clearly true for the Japanese market, which saw a proliferation of ‘PS/Note’ branded models for both markets (many of which never made it to the US or EMEA), but not in the context of the non-black 700/720/750/755 models. Yes, the PS/Note 182 was grey, as was the ThinkPad 300, both of which were marketed outside Japan, both were entry-level machines. I acquired a 300 about eight years ago. It is nowhere near as sharp or as iconic as the 700/720, and side-by-side they are clearly different machines. I’d never seen one even in my time at IBM, and it feels disappointingly like a generic laptop dressed up with IBM badges and design cues; IIRC it was manufactured by a 3rd party. The odd texture and the fact that it wasn’t black only emphasised the ‘wrongness’ when I finally got hold of one.

The retail/commercial divide had nothing to do with the cream 700/720 and grey 750/755. These were all due, as you correctly surmised, to the German DIN regulations regarding contrast of visual display units which effectively precluded black (or white) screen surrounds. Not a problem for any of the desktop ranges then, as all the PS/1, PS/2, and ValuePoint monitors were acceptably cream, but a problem for the black ThinkPads, hence the non-black German-only variants. The manufacturing and localisation guys at Greenock confirmed this to me – I asked back then because I’d once had a close look at a peculiar beige/black hybrid ThinkPad, left on a desk in PC Co HQ back in Basingstoke in 1994: black keyboard sitting in a white chassis. I never saw another one like it, even with keeping my eyes open and having good access to oddities and curiosities. I thought it had been a prototype or development chassis, but realised then that this must have been a beige German-market 700/720 that had been retrofitted with a black non German keyboard – presumably UK layout for a UK user. I recently picked up a NOS grey 750/755 German keyboard, like you do, and of course it really is grey (not beige).

What I never even thought to ask about was whether the N33/N55 precursors of the 700/720 were ever sold in Germany (if so, what colour?) since the DIN standard you link to dates from 1984. A lot of big German companies and banks were very loyal IBM customers at that time. I do recall that the cream L40sx was sold in Germany, and I’m pretty sure the one I scrounged for the Helpcentre had a German keyboard. Perhaps IBM didn’t market the black pre-ThinkPads into Germany for this reason… but then again the ThinkPad 350 (re-badged Yamato PS/Note 425, successor to the N33/N51 in that same chassis) is listed in the HMM as having a German keyboard option but no grey casing options, so were presumably sold as standard black, in contravention of the DIN regulations. Maybe they didn’t offer the 350 in Germany, and the German keyboard option was for Switzerland, Austria, etc where presumably the DIN regulations did not apply?”

Here is a possibility of how all this comes together by working under the assumption that all the information we have is accurate.

Firstly, as Tom Hardy stated in the interview, the section of the German DIN standards that did not allow computers to be black was revoked sometime after the release of the ThinkPad 700C, this would mean that black could be used for Enterprise machines as Naitoh states in the interview. If the DIN standard was no longer required however then why spend the money to create the gray models for a German market that would no longer require them?

Changing standards takes time and I suspect between Tom Hardy leaving IBM and German businesses slowly moving away from the DIN Standard took just over a year. David Hill also mentioned that recalled some pushback against changing the standards to allow for black machines. If the last ThinkPad that was offered in gray was made in November of 1993 (began manufacture), the standard likely would have been revoked around that time. Some German businesses would be able/willing to overlook the standards and buy the black machine regardless, however, others might have not had that flexibility and the pebble gray was brought in to meet their needs. Perhaps IBM Germany just passed on the cost in the price of the machine. 

I also suspect that Japan may have been stuck in the middle of these standards or perhaps wanted to diffeniate a “professional” machine from a consumer one.

After the product lifecycle was complete, it wouldn’t need to offer the gray/beige machines afterwards, standardizing the line and reducing manufacturing costs. Perhaps any remaining inventory was sold off as retail units as Naitoh stated in the interview above. What we can say for certain is, after 1994, no ThinkPads were made in the pebble gray/beige colour.

David Hill also stated in the book “ThinkPad: A Different Shade of Blue” there were other challenges to making ThinkPad the classic black we know today:

“There were a lot of barriers to getting the original IBM ThinkPad design approved. Many were opposed to using black as the color of the notebook. At the time, black was very radical in personal computing, even though it was accepted in earlier computer products. If you went back and looked at the IBM System 360 mainframe from the 1960s, it was primarily black. It was in the computer room behind glass windows and was supposed to look outstanding. The black color allowed clients to show off their prize possession to visitors.

“But personal computers weren’t black at the time. That’s because we wanted to make PCs fit naturally into the office so they wouldn’t be noticed. So, we made all of them in pearl white, a sort of cream color that no one would notice. But, then along comes the ThinkPad, and we wanted to make a bold statement that was just the opposite. We wanted everyone to notice it, so we adopted black. A lot of people objected to our using black as the color of ThinkPad, thinking it wasn’t like ‘IBM.’ Eventually everyone saw it as something that would really differentiate IBM.

-“ThinkPad: A Different Shade of Blue” by Deborah A. Dell and J. Gerery  Purdy, Ph.D.

What do you think about these ThinkPads? Have you ever seen one in person? Let me know by @ me on Twitter. As always, if any new information is acquired, I will update this article accordingly.

A Sticker

If you are like me, you have spent some time looking through Hardware Maintenance Manuals for ThinkPads. It was actually while looking at the HMM for the T41 to disassemble and remove the WLAN card that I noted some interesting references to LG-IBM branding. Specifically, stickers were to be placed over any replacement parts bearing the ThinkPad branding for the South Korean market.

One of many references to the LG-IBM models in the T40 HMM.
LG-IBM R40.
Photo generously provided by Hidde J.

A friend and avid ThinkPad collector Tasurinchi shared an article with me that mentioned the breakup of the deal. This was clearly the tip of the iceberg of an interesting story. We both knew about the Acer partnership where Acer was contracted out to build several laptops under the ThinkPad brand. However, it would appear that the ThinkPad R40 and R40e (pictured above) were built in South Korea in LG owned factories. The sticker located on the bottom of my R40 confirms this (Made in Korea) and the schematics as discovered by Thinkpads.com forum user Screamer found the manufacturers were “LG Gryphon” and “LG D3 Entry” respectively for these two machines.

Bottom label showcasing the LG-IBM branding.
Photo generously provided by Hidde J.

So where did it all begin?

A Partnership

In 1996, IBM entered into a partnership with LG to break into the Korean market. The arrangement created LG-IBM and saw IBM owning 51% of the company controlling the manufacturing and marketing of PCs while LG’s 49% was focused on other consumer electronics. This allowed IBM to break into the market, shipping their PC solutions and it gave LG an excellent opportunity to learn everything it could from IBM.

The LG-IBM PC LKB 0107 was seen at a thrift store. Photo by moghismv (https://www.reddit.com/r/MechanicalKeyboards/comments/jegu7j/anybody_know_how_much_this_keyboard_is_worth_lg/)
Top case of R40.
Photo generously provided by Hidde J.
The top case of an i-Series ThinkPad with the LG-IBM sticker. From Kbench.com

 

A Scandal

In 2004 the announcement came that the two companies would be splitting off, each essentially retaining their own rights to their respective properties. IBM would retain their rights to all of their trademarked properties like ThinkPad and LG would continue developing their own line of laptops called the Xnote. Interestingly enough, both IBM, LG-IBM and LG were targets of a bribery scandal that both parties claimed was unrelated to the announcement to split.

The two companies said the separation was unrelated to the indictments early this year of three officials of LG IBM and three from IBM’s Korea unit on charges of bribing government officials in order to win contracts to supply computer parts and services.

After the indictments were issued, IBM said that it had dismissed its three officials and that the three from LG IBM were no longer working there. The three former IBM Korea employees were convicted by a Seoul court in February, according to Reuters news agency. – Wall Street Journal September 15, 2004

The company was hit with a bribery scandal early this year. Former executives of IBM Korea have been jailed for bribing government clients and rigging bids, while officials of LG Electronics were fined. – Korea JoongAng Daily August 30, 2004

While these types of scandals weren’t unique to LG or IBM and weren’t likely directly related to the ending of the partnership, the details of these bribery scandals need to be read to be believed.

From 1998 to 2003, over $207,000 USD was paid in cash or gifts to officials by IBM-Korea and LG-IBM. These payments were delivered in large LG-IBM branded envelopes to shopping bags and exchanged in locations including but not limited to parking lots near the managers’ and officials’ places of work or home and on one occasion a parking lot of a local Japanese restaurant. All of these bribes were targeted at individuals making purchase decisions, ensuring that LG-IBM would win the contracts. These contracts were worth tens of millions of dollars leading to an “improper gift” of $9,546USD landing a contract valued at $1.3 million USD. IBM-China also had similar issues with bribery. For more details, see this document which outlines the details of these scandals. 

There is a more likely reason for the end of the partnership beyond these issues.

A Deal

During this time, IBM was in active talks with both Texas Pacific Group and Lenovo to sell off IBM’s PC division. Dell was also a contender for a brief amount of time. IBM CEO Samuel j. Palmisano the summer of 2004 was hammering out a complex deal with Yang Yuanqing (Lenovo) and it isn’t too hard to imagine that part of the preparations for negotiations would have involved complete ownership of control of all the markets IBM was present. This would be especially true for a purchasing company that was already established in that area. This would mean that LG-IBM would need to be renegotiated or simply cease to exist. It isn’t too hard to see which makes more sense to both parties to create a clean and tidy deal.

IBM would sell Lenovo PCs through its sales force and distribution network. IBM also would provide services for Lenovo PCs—and allow Lenovo to use the vaunted IBM brand name for five years. In turn, Lenovo, leveraging its connections with the government’s Chinese Academy of Sciences, would help IBM in the fast-growing China market. – The Race for Perfect: Inside the Quest to Design the Ultimate Portable Computer, Steve Hamm

An Ending

So overall the historic deal between IBM and LG seemed to be mutually beneficial to both parties. IBM gained access to another market (under a different brand) and LG gained access to IBM’s information and experience. When it came time for IBM to sell its PC Division though, it was clear that IBM would need to distance itself from IBM-Korea and LG-IBM as quickly as possible to ensure that the scandals and exclusive access to the South Korean market wouldn’t sour any potential deal with an interested party.

But what about the penalties for the previously mentioned scandals? Who had to take responsibility?

Ultimately that would fall to IBM. While they didn’t own several of the assets that would have been involved, it makes no sense for the new owners to be fined for the mistakes of the previous owners.

On March 18, 2011, without admitting or denying the SEC‘s allegations, IBM consented to the entry of a final judgment that permanently enjoins the company from violating the books and records and internal control provisions of the FCPA. In addition, IBM consented to pay disgorgement of $5,300,000, $2,700,000 in prejudgment interest, and a $2,000,000 civil penalty.

Steps Taken by State Parties to Implement and Enforce the Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in
International Business Transactions
AS OF JUNE 2011 WORKING GROUP ON BRIBERY MEETING

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)

It would appear the LG and ThinkPad story is not over yet. Fast forward to the year 2021 and it seems that LG might have run afoul with Lenovo with LG’s ThinQ branding coming a bit too close to the well-established Think branding they inherited from IBM. To read the case details, including court documents and its status, follow this link. or you can head right to the source at the United States Trademark and Patent Office.

While many people have heard of Moore’s Law, which I’ve discussed in a previous article, fewer might know about the potentially even more important Wirth’s Law.

Wirth’s Law states that software is getting slower more rapidly than hardware is becoming faster. A real-world example of this is illustrated below:

In a 2008 article in InfoWorld, Randall C. Kennedy, formerly of Intel, introduces this term using successive versions of Microsoft Office between the year 2000 and 2007 as his premise. Despite the gains in computational performance during this time period according to Moore’s law, Office 2007 performed the same task at half the speed on a prototypical year 2007 computer as compared to Office 2000 on a year 2000 computer.

Kennedy, Randall C. (2008-04-14).“Fat, fatter, fattest: Microsoft’s kings of bloat”.InfoWorld.

This is one of the reasons that the RAM that got humanity to the Moon wouldn’t even be able to load a single tab in Chrome. The issue of software development is more complex than a direct comparison giving us all the answers and some even go as far as to call modern software ‘fatware.’ Have you ever stopped to think how much of the program that is in front of you, or hidden within the code is actually needed to do the job you are asking that program to do? Wirth pointed to both of these as being contributing issues to the expansion of software that didn’t have a significant increase in function. Did the above example take into account any significant feature changes between those two versions of Office? One point that should be mentioned of course is that some of those additional systems allow the software to be accessible to a greater number and diversity of users. That of course means more people are able to access the benefits of a computer and in a colder sense, you have more consumers for your product as a software developer.

Consider a basic computing task: word processing. The very first very of Microsoft Word came on a 3.5″ or 5.25″ diskette. Microsoft Word 6.0 came on seven diskettes, Word 95, 97 and 2000 on a CD. A modern Microsoft Office 365 install (admittedly containing Word, Excel and PowerPoint) is 4GB. That is a significant evolution of space required for an application to type words onto a computer. Now of course it isn’t quite that simple since the modern word processor has to do a few more things and has more features, but it is hard to imagine that the application truly utilizes all of the space it requires to its fullest potential. As an aside, OpenOffice is a  143.3MB install and LibreOffice that carries its torch is 332MB in size which really makes you wonder what is going on under the hood of both products that these differences are so vast. I doubt SmartArt support makes up the difference. A part of that is likely going towards Microsoft’s efforts to make its software as easy to use for as many different people as possible; that functionality has to come at a cost of resources.

Let’s examine another oddity, the modern web browser. Tom’s Guide did a great little comparison back in 2021 with the following results:

  Google Chrome Microsoft Edge Mozilla Firefox
10 tabs 952 MB 873 MB 995 MB
20 tabs 1.8 GB 1.4 GB 1.6 GB
60 tabs 3.7 GB 2.9 GB 3.9 GB
2 instances / 20 tabs apiece 2.8 GB 2.5 GB 3.0 GB

If we compare that to Netscape Navigator 1.0 in 1994, it required 4MB of RAM. Jumping ahead to 2000, Netscape 6.0 required 64MB of RAM. Internet Explorer 1 required 8MB of RAM in 1995. Internet Explorer 6 in 2001 required 16MB of RAM. This jumped significantly in 2006 when Internet Explorer 7 required 64MB. We would see another significant jump with Internet Explorer 8 with 512MB on Vista and again with Internet Explorer 10 demanding 2GB.

Why is this? The short, oversimplified answer is the internet and the code that runs it is more complicated. In 1997 HTML 4 was brought in with CSS sheets and the rest was downhill with modern web browsers having to support streaming video, WebGL, XML documents and several other standards. In other words, we made the internet do more, so it needs more resources to run. Building all of this functionality in meant it was generally easier to use and provided more functionality but that will of course come at again at the cost of resources.

So how does this all stack up historically? Are we really using that much more resources? Well, the answer wasn’t as clear as I originally thought.

To examine this I picked a laptop from the time period and calculated rough percentages for the software and the demands it placed on the system.

Wikström, Johan, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

IBM ThinkPad 360:
Released in 1994.
Max RAM: 20MB
Max HDD: 540MB

Resources used by Word 6.0: 4MB RAM, 25MB Disk Space or 20% of the RAM capacity and 4% of the HDD
Resources used by Netscape Navigator 1.0: 4MB RAM, 5MB Disk Space or 20% of the RAM capacity and 1% of the HDD

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Nano:
Released 2021.
Max RAM: 16GB
Max SSD: 1TB

Resources used by Office 365: 4GB RAM, 4GB Disk Space or 20% of the RAM capacity and 0.39% of the SSD
Resources used by Google Chrome: 128MB RAM (~per tab averaged), 100MB Disk Space or 0.78% of the RAM capacity per tab* and 0.010% of the SSD
*It is not common for a user however to just have a single tab open in a modern web browser so this percentage is often considerably higher. However, using the worst-case scenario from the chart above, it still doesn’t break the 20% mark on a higher-end system. It would be more significant on a mid-to-low-end system.

What conclusions can we draw from this easily? Not many as there are many factors that these statistics simplify. It would appear however we have programs that respect our advancement in storage media more than our RAM. Or our advancements in storage technology have outpaced our advancements in RAM. Perhaps an argument could be made the computer will show its age the fastest is the one with the least amount of RAM as there are limits on how much can be paired with each chipset. Another point to consider is how much software does the typical user actually actively use at any given time? Granted there are those of us with 40+ tabs, virtual machines, and various document and project editors open but we are not the majority.

Wirth’s Law might not always be true, but there is some merit to the underlying reasons that it was proposed in the first place. We are asking our software to do more than it has ever done before and computing tasks are growing more complex as the end-user demands more complexity in what is possible while at the same time lowering the bar of entry in terms of the knowledge required to do those tasks. The big question of course is, will it be worth it? Are the tradeoffs worth the cost in performance? With the possibility of our CPUs not getting much more complex according to Moore’s Law beyond the year 2025, is there going to be a renewed need for software optimization?  Feel free to reach on to me on Twitter, I’d love you hear what you think.

This post is a short accompanying piece to the recent video I released on the channel

In that video, David Hill shared with me the design concept that Richard Sapper put together to create a rugged or hardened ThinkPad. ThinkPads were already known for being more durable than the competition, but what if that was taken to the next level. Originally, when we were working on the video, there was only one photograph known to exist of the model that Sapper built that David posted on his Instagram years ago. No other images existed.

An AI upscaled version of the photo originally posted by David Hill.

Until now.

Thanks to David, we now have several images of the concept that Sapper built. Brian Leonard, the current VP of Design at Lenovo was kind enough to go into the archives and take some photographs of the model to help tell the story. They appeared in the video, but I have put them below for archival purposes.

The Hardened ThinkPad Concept, closed.
The Hardened ThinkPad Concept, left side.
The Hardened ThinkPad Concept, left side with port door open.
The Hardened ThinkPad Concept, right side with port door open.
The Hardened ThinkPad Concept, right side with port door open.