If you haven’t seen the interview I did with Rob Herman, I will link in directly below.

If you’d like to just listen to the interview, here is an mp3 of our talk.

 

It was really great to speak with Rob and learn about his unique perspective in the creative process. Every person that makes up the team that gives us a machine has a part to play and it was very interesting to hear his thoughts on some of the classic and upcoming ThinkPads that have been released. It has certainly brought a newfound appreciation for the process and all the steps involved.

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

One of the longest-running metrics for keyboard quality, especially on laptops has been key travel. While key travel plays an incredibly important part, I’ve had a hard time believing it was the only one. I know for example that there are many fans of what is considered the classic IBM/ThinkPad 7-row keyboard before it was changed to the design we have today. When that design changed occurred, strong opinions emerged and that didn’t result in any significant change to key travel. If you want an in-depth look at the differences between these two keyboards, I strongly recommend this article from Laptopmag.com: https://www.laptopmag.com/articles/thinkpad-type-off-is-lenovos-new-island-style-keyboard-better-or-worse

Lenovo at the time also published a 5-pager which you can read here: Lenovo-Keyboard_Change-Is-Hard-Why-You-Should-Give-In-to-the-New-ThinkPad-Keyboard They outline the work that went into the redesign of the keyboard if you have never read it.

In the article above they examined several different metrics and came to the conclusion that the newer keyboard was not a step backward. In fact, the key travel between the two keyboards is identical, but the strong opinions remain for some, thus another factor must be at work. Now, getting back to our article from the Journal of Applied Biomechanics.

The present results suggest that key travel alone does not predict biomechanical outcomes and that key mechanism and activation force are also important factors in key switch design.

The results from the study were very interesting considering the common trend among reviewers and I suspect the industry as a whole is to discuss key travel as the main metric to measure the quality of the keyboard. Many companies like Dell have come up with some interesting ideas such as the use of magnets on their keyboards to maintain a good tactile feel while reducing travel. Others like Apple have ended up being in the news over their butterfly switches and their failure rate.

Specifically, the 2 devices with the same short travel (0.55 mm) had the largest differences across most muscles, though this difference was relatively small (<1.0% MVC). These 2 devices differed in activation force and mechanism: Tablet S had a dome switch mechanism and a higher activation force than Notebook S, which had a butterfly switch mechanism. Similarly, this study found that key travel distance was not strictly associated with typing force, typing performance, or perceived experience, as Tablet S was associated with the worst results across these measures compared with the other 3 devices.

In short, other factors such as the switch mechanism and how it relates to activation force potentially play a larger role than just key travel alone. Some might wish to equate a longer key travel with a greater activation force but that isn’t how spring mechanisms work.

Cherry MX Brown Switch Components. Note the spring included that makes up the core of the force required. Daniel beardsmore / http://deskthority.net/wiki/User:Daniel_beardsmore, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Let us consider the classic example of a keyboard with an actual spring in the switch for sake of simplicity. If we look at Hooke’s Law which is used to calculate spring constants, F = -kΔx where F= force in Newtons, -k= Spring Constant and Δx= the change in spring length, we can see from this relationship that depending on the spring, we can change how much force is required for a specific change in distance. Now for further math-related content regarding keyboards and force, I strongly suggest you spend some time looking at the work done by Javier De Leon at the University of Alaska.

http://ffden-2.phys.uaf.edu/webproj/211_fall_2018/Javi_De_Leon/javier_deleon/Title_Page.html

If seeing classic  keyboard switches gutted are your thing, you might want to check out this article that shows the switch designs of several classic ThinkPad keyboards including the 701C

https://deskthority.net/viewtopic.php?t=15457

Turning out attention to the ThinkPad X1 Nano, which has key travel of 1.35mm, the mechanism gives it a positive typing experience. One of the “key” criticisms of the newer ThinkPads is the reduced key travel on the thinner models. While thinning a laptop down objectively leaves less room for key travel and some traditional activation mechanisms, we shouldn’t count out innovation to find solutions to these problems.

Lenovo, who has partnered with Energysquare has started announcing wireless charging products for your existing laptops. I’ve talked about this technology in an earlier post that I will link below.

Jan
16

Wireless Charging for Laptops and Beyond

One announcement at CES 2021 that in my opinion, didn’t get the discussion it deserves, comes from Energysquare which is a small start-up that wants to make wireless charging in laptops mainstream. Wireless charging is growing more and more common with smaller electronics but in terms of larger ones, the pros and cons are still […]

Just announced is the kit to make just about any 13-14″ laptop be able to charge wirelessly. It will just cost you a USB-C port and only work with laptops that need up to 65W (maximum output of 20V, 3.25A, and 65W to be exact) power delivery. It is a simple accessory that rides on a rail, presumably for fast removal if needed. It comes into contact with the charging panel and makes the connection. This setup adds 3.2mm of thickness to your laptop, which might be a steep trade-off for some.

The kit, part of Lenovo’s new Go line is scheduled to launch in October with a cost of $139.99 USD.

This article has been updated on 27 June 2021 to include new information.

It appears last year Lenovo filed a new Butterfly-style keyboard patent and it was recently approved earlier this month by the US Patent Office. You can look it up on your own using the #11,029,723 and unsurprisingly it references John Karidis’ existing patents for the original. I have also linked it below.

New Butterfly Patent

One of the original Patent drawings of the John Karidis design.

The gear design present in the newer patent looks similar to the original meaning it would possibly still be driven by the opening and closing of the machine. It has been made even more complex with the use of magnets and a more compact design. The patent appears to be specifically for some kind of wireless keyboard that would be intended for use with tablets, like the X1 Fold, which certainly has a small keyboard and even then, no TrackPoint.

It could also be possible that this patent is being filed is to possibly safeguard this iconic design on a modern keyboard so somebody else doesn’t lay claim to it. This is the first step of many into the realm of speculation.

While the patent may be intended for a wireless keyboard, the creation of this could lead to it being included on a dedicated machine. Who knows, maybe even a 30th Anniversary Special Edition. There are few ThinkPads that are more iconic. It wouldn’t surprise me if this is also a trial run to see how difficult it would be to manufacture as the original was incredibly difficult to build and had many problems to overcome. But that is a story for another day.

Whether this means we will see a new Butterfly ThinkPad from Lenovo is yet to be seen. This could lead to a final product or end up on the cutting room floor of the Yamato Labs.

With pre-orders open to most countries for the Framework Laptop, I’ve been reading some criticism (some serious, some not) on the module design that Framework has created.

Some have stated that the creation of these “pockets” in the body of the laptop is a gimmick and does not truly add meaningful functionality, but I am tempted to disagree. While the concept is simple to execute, it has large implications on how these machines can be configured.

One way to look at this is to peer back into history when, not at computers, but military load-bearing equipment or LBE for short. It wasn’t until recently that this equipment adopted a similar idea to the Framework Laptop known as modularity. Many armies traditionally have had bags or satchels and at best, sewn on pockets to a vest or harness, but these pockets could not be moved or swapped out, so every soldier had the same equipment, but not the same mission.

Over time this got better, but the position and availability of the pockets were often limited to proprietary systems that offered no interchangeability.

Diagram of the Canadian ’82 Pattern web gear. While somewhat configurable, you were limited to the pockets that were created for it and placement on the belt only.
The Canadian Forces “Tac Vest” that was issued after the ’82 Pattern was not a large improvement. All pouches were sewn on with the exception of the bayonet carrier and two large side pouches. There was no compatibility with other systems.

The standard practice of MOLLE and other systems brought about huge change in how a soldier could configure their gear. Using a “basket-weaving” style method, you could now swap pouches and pockets to change up the load of equipment you carried without too much difficulty. To me, this is what Framework is trying to do with their laptop.

The MODULAR FIGHTING ORDER CARRIER RIG (MOFOCR) from CP Gear. This can be configured and reconfigured in any way the user requires. Only limited to the pouches they have on hand. Compatible with multiple systems.

In short, I am hoping more people are willing to give this concept a chance. It has a lot of merit to be able to configure the machine to perform in a variety of different situations and tasks where ports truly matter. It could also impact how businesses would deploy a fleet of machines and be able to swap ports between them. Not to mention if a module is used frequently, it could also reduce wear on the USB-C port that would otherwise be used with a dongle on a frequent basis.

Since I first posted about the Framework Laptop, many details have been released. Here is everything we know so far about this laptop. Currently, Framework is preparing for pre-orders. You can find out more information in their article here.

Feb
25

The Framework Laptop, a modular laptop in 2021

Modularity is something we haven’t truly seen in laptops since Intel decided to stop offering socketed mobile CPUs. Manufacturers often shoulder the blame on that, unfairly in my mind, but that is a topic for another article. Many users miss the days of taking apart every component of their laptop and replacing or upgrading components […]

1. 1080 Webcam

The Framework Laptop will have a 1080P 60fps camera. Produced by Partron  in South Korea, it will have the following  specifications:

  • 1/6″ OmniVision OV2740 sensor
  • 80° diagonal f/2.0 four-element lens, using a blue glass IR filter for improved colour performance
  • Realtek RTS5853 camera controller
  • Hardware privacy switch for the camera and microphone array
The camera and microphone array. Image from Framework Blog.

2. The Motherboard

The motherboard planned is designed to be removed and replaced with other motherboards of the same form factor. It also sports:

  • Removable memory modules
  • Tiger Lake CPUs at launch (i5-1135G7, i7-1165G7, i7-1185G7)
  • Thermal system designed for 28W continuous load
  • 65mm x 5.5mm cooling fan
The motherboard from the Framework laptop. Note the larger cooling fan and dual memory modules on the same side of the board. Image from Framework Blog.

In terms of other items such as SSDs, WiFi cards and more, see the summary below:

  • You can buy  the Framework Laptop without RAM, SSD or WiFi so you can use your own parts
  • M.2 2280 PCIe Gen 4 NVMe (up to 7,000MB/s and write speeds of up to 5,300MB/s)
  • Prebuilt models will ship with Western Digital’s SN730
  • 2 SO-DIMM sockets supporting DDR4 DRAM at up to DDR4-3200. Maximum of 64GB of RAM over 32GB modules
  • Prebuilt models will ship with Samsung, SK Hynix, and Micron
  • WiFi is handled by support for 2×2 WiFi 6 and WiFi 6E modules through an M.2 2230 socket

3. The Keyboard

The keyboard of any laptop is an essential component as you spend more time touching it than any other part of the machine. Here is what we know about the keyboard on the Framework laptop:

  • 1.5mm key travel
  • Backlit
  • Keyboard and top decks will be available for purchase
  • US English, UK English, International English, French, French Canadian, Korean, Chinese Pinyin, Chinese Traditional, Japanese, German, Italian, Spanish, Latin American, and Dutch Belgian variants are being planned
  • Completely black and clear keyboards will also be available
The keyboard of the Framework laptop. Image from Framework Blog.

4. Storage Expansion Cards

One of the eye-catching design choices of the Framework Laptop is the expansion modules. These allow for functionality and ports to be swapped on the fly through the use of the USB-C form-factor. Several modules like USB-C, USB-A, HDMI, DisplayPort, MicroSD are already planned and now they have added storage to this list. 250GB and 1TB are the current sizes being tested.

  • Cards being made by BizLink and Phison
  • U17 Flash Controller, N28 NAND
  • 1TB card exceeds 1000MB/s read and write
  • 250GB clocks in at  1000MB/s read and 375 MB/s write
Storage card about to be inserted into one of the slots on the Framework Laptop. Image from Framework Blog.

5. 3:2 Display

Let’s get right to the point. This display looks amazing. To remove it, simply remove a magnetic bezel and four fasteners.

  • BOE’s 13.5” 2256×1504 LCD
  • 1500:1 contrast
  • 100% coverage of sRGB
  • Lay flat design (180-degree hinge)
  • Ambient light sensor
  • DC mode backlight controller to avoid flicker
  • 400 nit 
  • Bezel colour options available
The Framework Laptop flat on a table with its 180-degree hinge. Image from Framework Blog.

6. The Power Adapter

Power adapters are important, for without them, you have a paperweight. Here is what we know about the adapter that will be bundled with the Framework Laptop:

  • 60W 20V/3A USB-C (USB-PD 3.0 and PPS)
  • Developed in partnership with Phihong
  • 58mm x 58mm x 27mm
  • Modular cable options for different regions and is replaceable from both ends or the brick itself
The inside of the Framework charger. Image from Framework Blog.

I first encountered the name Steve Hamm when I was doing research on a ThinkPad to track down and cover for the channel. I had consulted several lists to see what would be some fun and unique models to try and acquire that weren’t overly expensive. There are some really cool ThinkPads out there, but some are simply not being sold online or if they are, go for significant amounts of money, ready for museums.

I settled on learning more about the ThinkPad X300 and quickly, after a few searches in a variety of places, one of them being YouTube, I found there was little in the way of recent coverage and discussion about the X300 and its underappreciated role in laptop design. However, one of the items I did find was a talk that Steve Hamm gave on the Microsoft Research channel. You can find the full video below.

After watching the first hour of Steve’s talk, I was intrigued. Steve had been a technology journalist for over 20 years at the point to wrote “The Race for Perfect: Inside the Quest to Design the Ultimate Portable Computer.” Then I saw the cover of the book and found a digital copy of the dust jacket. The book was primarily focused on the X300, I thought I couldn’t have asked for a better resource. At the end of the project, it was a tie between the treasure-trove of the book and talking to David Hill (who was the head of design at the time for IBM/Lenovo) about the X300.

The front cover of the book featuring the Lenovo ThinkPad X300.

One thing you need to understand is the book is more than just about the X300. If you want to understand the history of portable computing or ThinkPad development, you need to read this book. The stories and people that he interviewed for the book at first might not seem interconnected but it helps you build an understanding and appreciation for what Lenovo was able to accomplish in the X300. Going all the way back to the early days of portable computing up to what was the present day at the time of publishing gives a crystal clear picture of the significance of computers like the X300. This isn’t just about one laptop, it is a history of mobile computing.

Steve had exclusive access to multiple key people on the X300 project, David Hill included. Originally he was at Lenovo to interview the chairman who just recently completed the purchase of IBM’s PC division. His schedule was packed, but he had a few minutes where he was taken down to the design lab, this is where he and David would meet for the first time. When I spoke to David Hill, he told me about how far Steve’s access went.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They brought him down to the design lab and said, “Hey, this is Steve Hamm, he is from BusinessWeek Magazine, he’s got like, 20 minutes, can you show him something?”

I’m like, okay. So I said, “So what can I show him?”

“Well he’s on a Non-Disclosure-Agreement so you can show him anything.”

So I showed him what were were doing and he was so fascinated with it, he said, “I want to write a book about it.”

So we gave him a complete, insider view of exactly what was happening. He went to Japan and he went to Italy and he met with Richard Sapper, he met with Naihtoh-son. It was kind of funny, I had an interlock call with Naihtoh-son we had a regular kind of call when meeting about various kinds of topics and he said, “Hey do you know this guy Steve Hamm?” and I said “Yeah I do.”

“I met him in Japan, he knows everything.”

I said, “Yeah, he does. We’ve been talking to him and showing him all this stuff. What did you do?”

“Well I figured it must be okay, so I showed him everything.”

David Hill would go on to say that this was completely counter to anything that IBM would have ever allowed. If you haven’t seen my video review of this book, please consider watching it below.

Steve mentions this in the Microsoft Research video above when he talks about the book, but one of the great things about “The Race for Perfect” is he was able to interview and get these accounts first hand from the people that were there with very few exceptions. I will leave the final word with Steve Hamm as it personifies how I felt when I sat down with David Hill to talk to him regarding his role in the X300.

These people are incredible inventors and they need to be remembered. 

-Steve Hamm

I hope you enjoy the interview, it was a lot of fun talking to Steve and I am infinitely grateful for the generous gift of his time and sharing. For those looking for an audio version of the interview, you can find it below or click here for the mp3.

It isn’t a secret that most claims of laptop battery life need to be taken with a grain of salt. From my experience, the average consumer doesn’t realize how much exactly battery life can vary based on 

  • Machine specifications (Display size and resolution, CPU/GPU configurations)
  • Battery size (WHr)
  • Battery technology (Most are Lithium-based but battery technology is constantly improving)
  • Power Draw (How many Watts each component is drawing at any given time and for how long)
  • Usage (The processes the end-user is running, their intensity and duration)

Claims listed on manufacturer websites occasionally will not include the specific conditions or tests that result in the numbers that they post. I’ve also read several posts of some very suspect claims of older machines getting very high hour counts for battery life. The one exception to this might be the individual that put actual Tesla Model 3 cells into their ThinkPad T420S to give them 129.7Wh with 0.2V under a 60W load.

T420S battery upgraded with Tesla model 3 21700 cells.

Assuming that this modification might not be for you, there are a few things to think about when looking at battery life statistics.

Get multiple sources of data.

While the manufacturer “should” be a reliable source of information on the product that they have created, battery statistics are often theoretical maximums and not “regular usage.” You will note that nearly every brand will list their battery life with the words: “Up to X.X hours” because they know as well as I do that you can drain any battery to flat under the right conditions in record time (Notebook Check drained the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Nano under maximum load under two hours). This isn’t entirely their fault or even misleading. Since how computers are used is varied so much, it would be exceedingly difficult to come up with a number that could be agreed upon as “normal use” that would apply to every user.

“After fully recharging the laptop, we set up the machine in power-save mode (as opposed to balanced or high-performance mode) where available and make a few other battery-conserving tweaks in preparation for our unplugged video rundown test. (We also turn Wi-Fi off, putting the laptop into airplane mode.) In this test, we loop a video—a locally stored 720p file of the Blender Foundation short film Tears of Steel—with screen brightness set at 50 percent and volume at 100 percent until the system quits.” –PC Mag Review

By using a theoretical maximum it gives the consumer an idea of what the machine can be stretched to do in terms of energy conservation. If a laptop functioning at its leanest cannot produce the battery life you desire, you know it isn’t in the running. At the same time, knowing those lean conditions and deciding if they are acceptable for you are also a key part of the decisions. Some battery tests are far more theoretical than others. This is where reading and watching multiple detailed reviews to get an average is the most reliable method.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Nano battery statistics. Note how their results and test conditions differ from PC Mag.
Battery information for the Dell XPS 13. Due to the different screens available on this model, they list both expected maximums as well as testing conditions. Note the lower system specifications and screen brightness.

Try to find use cases and configurations similar to your own.

When looking for those reviews or videos, try to find similar configurations to the machine you are looking to purchase and similar use cases if possible. For example, the difference between a 1080p panel, 2K panel and 4K panel is quite significant when it comes to battery life. This can actually be the difference of up to 50% of your battery life. In 2017 Joshua Goldman published an article for CNET.com that showed this issue. It is also illustrated in the screenshot of the 9310 XPS 13.

For example, Dell’s XPS 13 outfitted with its QHD touchscreen lasts for just about 8 hours in our tests. Get the full HD display instead, though, and you’re able to get more than 10.5 hours of battery life. It’s the same for the HP Spectre x360, which is rated at 8 hours for the 4K version, but 16 hours with a full HD screen.

Set realistic expectations.

Battery technology has come a long way, but some of the claims of 19 -20+ hours haven’t reached realistic use cases in my opinion. Those numbers are often achieved with WiFi off, the machine on but idling or running a simple task and with screen brightness set to a very low level to reduce power consumption. Take a look at the PC Mag statistics and test data above to see that while impressive, how realistic is this situation for all users?

Understand it is a balance of finite resources.

When it comes to laptops, it is ALWAYS a compromise. It is a tug-of-war between weight, size, performance, affordability, durability, endurance and more. Resist the urge to believe what you know you shouldn’t to avoid disappointment and returns. Focus on what you really and truly need and how it fits within your budget. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box.

Consider the power of Rapid Charge technology. 

Many higher-end laptops are now coming with some kind of Rapid Charge technology that gets you to full battery in record time. Rapid Charge often gets you the major of your battery back in 30 minutes to an hour, or your average lunch break. This is a significant factor to consider because if you have this technology at your fingertips, you might just need to consider how long your battery lasts for half the day, not the full day. My new ThinkPad X1 Nano has about half of the battery capacity of the Surface Book 2, but it is gentler on power consumption and the ability to Rapid Charge means I haven’t missed it at all. 

Are there other topics relating to laptop design that you’d like me to write about? Feel free to send me an email with your idea using the Contact form on this website or hit me up on Twitter. Thanks for reading.

Modularity is something we haven’t truly seen in laptops since Intel decided to stop offering socketed mobile CPUs. Manufacturers often shoulder the blame on that, unfairly in my mind, but that is a topic for another article. Many users miss the days of taking apart every component of their laptop and replacing or upgrading components inside without having high levels of training in soldering and electrical engineering.

Enter the Framework Laptop announced today by a company of the same name. To see their press release, you can visit the link here. This small, but the growing team has revealed their plan to make a modular laptop available for purchase and plans to make it available in the summer of 2021. You will be able to buy the laptop pre-assembled or as a kit you put together yourself, which, I’m not going to lie, sounds like a blast.

One of the items that make the Framework Laptop unique instantly is its use of Expansion Cards. These appear to be USB-C connections that are recessed into the machine and allow the laptop to be configured with whatever ports you want, when you want. This reminds me of when the MOLLE system was introduced to the military and law enforcement community.

The Expansion Card. Available in a variety of configurations like USB-C pictured here, USB-A, HDMI, DisplayPort, MicroSD and more are planned.

This is a very exciting machine with a lot of potential. Framework has plans to set up a module marketplace where different components could be built and used with this machine to increase the longevity of the machine. It is certainly an ambitious project that I will be watching closely.

Running benchmarks and tests of this nature aren’t my normal thing since these tests are somewhat theoretical when it comes to real-world usage, but I can appreciate that people like to compare the numbers. For me, the main purpose of these tests was to push the laptop from a thermal standpoint to see how well it did under load.

PassMark Rating

PassMark Software – Display Baseline ID# 1373050

As shown in the Day 12 video update, thermals remained very acceptable, not climbing higher than 35.0C at the CPU underneath the laptop or at the vent exhaust port.

For more information on the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Nano, if you haven’t seen the first videos in the series, please consider checking them out below. If you’d like to buy one for yourself, please consider visiting Lenovo’s website through the links on my Affiliates page as I can earn a small commission that goes back to supporting the channel.