By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc. November 29, 2017
Squeezing extra goodness out of primetime favorites, like Cheers, is chancy, at best. Cases in point; Frasier ran for 11 seasons, winning a then-record 37 Emmys in the process, while the 13 episodes of The Tortellis are barely-remembered by any but the ardent TV trivia buffs.
Technology products are somewhat similar but since the industry and related markets change so rapidly, attempting to find additional gold in a nostalgia mine can be even more fraught. However, every once in a while, someone gets it right.
That’s certainly the case with Lenovo’s recently released 25th anniversary ThinkPad (ThinkPad 25), a product that takes its best attributes and brings one of the industry’s most iconic laptops fully into the 21st century.
An international business machine
First, a bit of background. My first job as an analyst (in 1998) was with a firm that standardized on ThinkPads. Partly that was due to the company’s work with IBM, but at the time, ThinkPads were the only laptops fully suited for office and global business use cases.
I was assigned an older machine (I think it was a 385 model ThinkPad) running Windows NT. It sported both a floppy drive and a pop-out CD/ROM drive in a doorstop-size enclosure that was only nominally portable. That said, it was the first fully luggable notebook I’d ever used, and was also significantly more reliable and resilient than the Apple Macs I’d owned for a decade. After Microsoft released Windows XP in April 2001, our household switched entirely to Wintel products and never looked back.
What was it about ThinkPads that was so appealing? Mainly, they clearly exemplified the “business machines” portion of the IBM acronym in the same way the company’s Selectric typewriters had a generation earlier. In the newer model ThinkPads I used and purchased years later, that remained the central point.
Some other laptops were decent or even good at business tasks, but putting them alongside a ThinkPad was like comparing a homeowner’s toolset you’d buy at CVS to a professional set of Snap-On wrenches and sockets. That unwavering focus on business functionality was key to IBM’s design strategy and remains central to the ThinkPads Lenovo makes today.
Second, ThinkPads were entirely professional in form and demeanor—their all-black design as square-edged and studiously serious as an undertaker. But there were also surprising touches, like a pallbearer with a taste for ruby stickpins.
Consider, for example, the red-tipped TrackPoint for controlling pointer/mouse functions. As Lenovo’s VP and chief design officer David Hill notes in a booklet included with the 25th anniversary ThinkPad, “Using a TrackPoint requires a bit of learning, as anything worthwhile does but once mastered, it’s efficient and highly addictive.”
All true, but the TrackPoint was a revelation in the days before trackpads became common. Just as importantly, the TrackPoint offered an oasis of quiet reliability when early touch devices were buggier than the Great Dismal in mid-July or exhibited the sensitivity you’d expect from Travis Kalanick at a Workers Party picnic.
Plus, the TrackPoint subtly underscored the ThinkPad’s enhancement of task efficiency; it allowed you to easily manipulate the pointer while your hands remained centered on the keyboard. This may seem like a minor point, but small things in aggregate make the difference between a joyful and miserable user experience.
Lenovo’s ThinkPad 25
So what has Lenovo done to make the ThinkPad 25 special? Quite a few things, truth be told. The company essentially repackaged its well-regarded ThinkPad T470 in a matte-black, rubberized ThinkPad skin, including classic features like the 7-row keyboard.
However, Lenovo also upgraded critical system components, such as bumping the Intel Core i5-7200U CPU to a Core i7-7500U, doubling memory capacity from 8 GB DDR4 to 16 GB DDR4 and adding an NVIDIA GeForce 940MX GPU. Those additions all contribute to the ThinkPad 25’s snappy performance, even in graphics-intensive applications and overclocking scenarios, like photo/video editing and gaming.
Keep in mind that this is also the only configuration available for the ThinkPad 25’s limited run. That enables Lenovo to position the ThinkPad 25 as a “collector’s edition” product but also shelters it from uncertain demand. Why is that important? Because despite the new machine’s classic looks and upgraded attributes, it will likely appeal mainly to longstanding ThinkPad fans.
Recognizing the limitations of nostalgia-based sales, yet still reaping those commercial benefits casts light on how Lenovo has been able to climb to the top of global PC sales and remained at or near that position despite often vicious competition with its peers. It also offers insights into how the company continues to address the needs and desires of some of its most dedicated customers.
Does the ThinkPad 25 have any shortcomings? Some may be put off by the new system’s battery life and weight. In the former case, though the new machine uses the same pair of 24W internal/external batteries as the T470, its new components (notably the NVIDIA GPU) suck up more power, meaning users can expect about 7 hours of careful use per charge.
That’s significantly less than the T470, as well as similar class notebooks, like Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Carbon and Apple’s MacBook Pro 13. Then again, unlike most competing systems, users can always pack along an extra external battery for the ThinkPad 25. Weighing in at a mere 4.5 ounces, it will be a reasonable peace of mind investment for dedicated road warriors.
In the latter case, the ThinkPad’s 3.81 pounds curb weight is considerably heavier than competitors, like the MacBook Pro 13, and nearly a third more than the ThinkPad X1 Carbon’s 2.6 pounds. This may frighten off lovers of ultralight laptops but, frankly, they’re not Lenovo’s target demographic. Those who know and love classic ThinkPads understand that essentially bulletproof durability comes at a price, and will be unperturbed by the ThinkPad 25’s few extra ounces.
The new 25th Anniversary ThinkPad demonstrates how Lenovo cherishes ThinkPad customers by enhancing the platform’s traditional looks and capabilities with new components and upgrades. The result is a laptop that carries on the longstanding benefits of the ThinkPad brand while delivering solid performance for both business applications and graphics-intensive workloads.
In essence, Lenovo aimed and succeeded at substantially modernizing a computing classic. But rather than simply retreading what had once been a primetime business platform, the company has demonstrated why the ThinkPad 25’s best and best-known attributes still matter to businesses and business people today.
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