Lenovo, Why Are You Designing ThinkPads No One Wants?

On Monday, Lenovo announced the ThinkPad T431s, the first ThinkPad based on its new industrial design, founded upon what the company called "extensive research" with ThinkPad loyalists and other users around the world.

So why does Lenovo appear to have got everything so wrong?

Not Your Father's ThinkPad - Unfortunately

Chiclet keyboards. Removing the buttons from the touchpad. Eliminating the removable battery. And loading Windows 8 without the benefit of an IPS (In-Plane Switching technology) display, let alone a touchscreen. All flaws that show Lenovo is heading in the direction of budget-conscious design decisions, rather than designing the bulletproof, bulldog-lovely black bento boxes that generations of users have used and cherished.

Traditionally, the ThinkPad has been the staple of quality employers everywhere. Nothing against the Mac, but if you worked with Windows, there was nothing better than a ThinkPad for everyday use. ThinkPads offered the basics: extras like the screen and graphics were nothing to write home about, and I found that the Wi-Fi would whimper and cower from Macs during crowded keynote sessions.  But the ThinkPad's keyboards verged on the iconic, and I owned ThinkPads that I dropped - twice - and they survived just fine.

Lenovo may be trying to drag its users kicking and clawing out of the past. I'm willing to concede - grudgingly - that the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga keyboard isn't bad, and it appears to be either close or identical to the T431s. I tend to prefer the keyboards used by the larger Asus models, and my notes tell me that Samsung's keyboards aren't bad, either. But chiclet keys simply lack the travel of a traditional ThinkPad keyboard, let alone the mechanical monsters that shipped with the original IBM PCs.

The glory days of the ThinkPad: the T21. The glory days of the ThinkPad: the T21.

Can I live with a touchpad without buttons? Perhaps. Implementing a touchpad into a single pane of glass also seems to be the wave of the future; if the force needed to actually "click" is too great, however, the experience fails. I'm still not happy.

2 Things That Kill This ThinkPad

In my book, though, the T431s has two fatal flaws:

  1. No removable battery.
  2. No touchscreen.

Apparently, every hardware designer in the industry, save for the team that designed the Droid RAZR Maxx, fails to understand a simple maxim: neither software nor hardware can be truly appreciated when it's powered off.

Design for battery life first - especially with a business-first notebook like the ThinkPad. Without the option of a removable battery - or my favorite, the "barrel battery" - there's always the risk that your laptop will die right when you need it most. Is it likely? Not really,. But business users have always held ThinkPads to a higher standard, and Lenovo should have, too.

As for a touchscreen - yes, we all know the arguments for and against touch on laptops. But the industry collectively has decided that if we're going to use Windows 8, we really do need a touchscreen. Microsoft clearly agrees with this conclusion. And, well, so does the IdeaPad Yoga. Why in the world would Lenovo back off one of the things that the Yoga does right? Just to shave a few bucks off the price?

Fair warning: I haven't laid hands on the new ThinkPad. So there are elements that I can't really address, including the size. Lenovo calls the T431s its slimmest ThinkPad ever, at 0.82 inches and just 3.6 pounds. Carbon fiber and other material may have maintained the traditional rigidity of the T431s, but I somewhat doubt it. And the ThinkPads' famous "rollcage" is a thing of the past, I suppose.

Here's what this Lenovo fan wants: a traditional bento box format with competitive performance, my beloved ThinkPad keyboard, a small SSD-based boot drive with either an additional spinning disk or SSD option, and a multi-touch, IPS display - all powered by a removable battery. And like many business professionals, I'm guessing, I'm willing to pay a few extra dollars and tote a few extra ounces for that, too.

You know what hurts the most? I really thought Lenovo would eventually design the perfect laptop I was hoping for. And this Ultrabook is not it.

Customers Hate It

Look at some of the comments attached to Lenovo's blog post:

"Why does my phone have a higher resolution than this Thinkpad??? I'm actually holding onto my 14" T61 because the resolutions you offer now aren't really an improvement over what I already have - and it was released in 2007!"

"Do you realize that several cheap Android tablets have better display (high resolution / quality / aspect ratio) than your flagship ThinkPad ultrabook (having the same contrast-less 178:1 display like T430) ? Do you realize that several cheap "plastic" notebooks have better connection options (European 4G/LTE) than your flagship ThinkPad ultrabook?"

"In all, I see this as a step back for Lenovo. Dell did something similar, chasing consumers and price points and look how they are doing. Apple did the opposite and look how they have grown."

Lenovo, please don't be afraid of standing out. For every college graduate who views a notebook as the relic of a bygone era, there's a graying IT executive who realizes that the ThinkPad name once stood for dependability. I'm not so reactionary as to suggest that the T431s represents a sharp step down from previous models. But what I fear we're looking it is the ThinkPad gradually sliding into mediocrity, into that midrange notebook market that only pretends to give a shit about the customer.

Who did you talk to, Lenovo, when you were planning the T431s? What did they tell you? Because I'm really afraid you've lost your way with this one.