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.

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.

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.

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.

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.