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.
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.
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.
The Reception and Development of the Modern Six-Row
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
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.
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.
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.
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.