Listening for the win

Why Lenovo’s ThinkPad button U-turn is a sign of strength

Lenovo has refreshed much of its ThinkPad range, including ultrabooks such as the X1 Carbon and the X250 (replacing the X240), with two significant changes: the addition of Intel’s Broadwell fifth-generation Core-series processors, and the reintroduction of real buttons for the trackpoint system.

Both make it likely that I will be buying another ThinkPad this year, and the button move in particular is something I see as being indicative of [company]Lenovo[/company]’s current strength in the laptop market — and its willingness to listen.

Let’s get Broadwell out the way first, before moving onto the main course. Broadwell marks [company]Intel[/company]’s shift to the 14-nanometer manufacturing process, which means much better power efficiency and slightly better performance than could be found in the Haswell-toting X240 and the 2014 version of the X1 Carbon. A more significant performance boost should come with the sixth-gen Skylake processors that are scheduled to appear later this year — Broadwell was heavily delayed – but Intel is likely to introduce the beefier desktop variants of Skylake first, so as not to dissuade people from buying Broadwell-equipped notebooks now. Either way, as someone who hates hunting for power sockets at airports and conferences, battery life is more important to me than future performance gains.

But it’s the trackpoint buttons that are the real selling point here. The trackpoint system is integral to any ThinkPad and, while it may appear archaic to those who haven’t spent time with one, it really is a joy to use once you’ve gotten used to it (variations on the theme can also be found in certain business laptops from [company]HP[/company], [company]Fujitsu[/company], [company]Toshiba[/company], [company]Samsung[/company] and [company]Dell[/company].) The little red pointing stick is a hugely ergonomic way to move the cursor over extended periods of time, particularly in combination with the three thumb buttons below, which lie above the trackpad and perform the same functions as the left and right mouse button and (in combination with the pointing stick) the mouse’s scrolling wheel.

However, the X240 and the last version of the X1 Carbon integrated these buttons into the top of the touchpad itself, just as the touchpad’s other left/right-click buttons are integrated into the bottom. When Lenovo did that, the ThinkPad faithful went ballistic – check out the whining in this forum thread and the tinge of sadness in just about every otherwise-positive review of the X240 and 2014 X1 Carbon. The new-style buttons did not have the tactile feedback of their traditional predecessors, and some just found the new touchpad buggy in practice.

Trackpoint buttons on the 2014 version of the ThinkPad X1 Carbon (above) and the 2015 version (below)
Trackpoint buttons on the 2014 version of the ThinkPad X1 Carbon (above) and the 2015 version (below)

I suspect that Lenovo’s decision to do a U-turn on its button design comes down to two things. Firstly, ThinkPads are popular in the enterprise, and having businesses reject a model in bulk (as some posts in that forum thread suggest happened) just won’t do. Volume customers have loud voices. Secondly, though, Lenovo is the top PC manufacturer in the world and, with its IdeaPad Yoga range, the strongest manufacturer in the world of PC-tablet hybrids – a largely consumer proposition, with features such as “tent mode” being geared toward media consumption and taking full advantage of the touchscreen UI redesign introduced in Windows 8.

ThinkPads are devices for production. They’re made for typists whose hands are constantly on the keyboard – and let’s face it, apart from the need to run certain relatively specialized kinds of software, the reason people still turn to laptops rather than tablets is the keyboard. So Lenovo is winning in the sometimes-tablet-sometimes-laptop market, and it has the strongest brand and most die-hard following in the hardcore-typist market.

If last year’s ThinkPads were an attempt to make the venerable line look less geeky and more consumer-friendly, it turned out there was no need to do so. The company can afford to let ThinkPads be ThinkPads, and let deep-pocketed customers turned off by the ThinkPad geek factor buy IdeaPad Yoga Pros instead. And if anyone really needs a ThinkPad Yoga, well, that exists too – though it hasn’t seen a Broadwell refresh yet.

In short, Lenovo is in the position to usefully service a variety of larger and smaller niches, and that’s a good place to be. My trusty 2011 ThinkPad E420s, on which I am typing right now, is starting to show its age. Depending on whether [company]Apple[/company] does something outrageously special this year with the MacBook range (and assuming that Windows 10 represents a improvement over the thoroughly irritating Windows 8, which it surely must), this professional typist is rather grateful to Lenovo for thinking of his ilk.

5 Responses to “Why Lenovo’s ThinkPad button U-turn is a sign of strength”

  1. This is absolutely glorious news. Kudos to Lenovo for listening and “standing down” on the wacky button-less trackpoint system of 2014. Along with the usually superb keyboards, the trackpoint remains the top reason I stay loyal to the Thinkpad brand.

  2. Like you, I love the TrackPoint and was worried that my Corporate refresh this year would lead to the loss of mechanicals, so nice to see them returning.